Monday, May 20, 2024

The Pet Shop Boys Are Having a Renaissance. What Have They Done To Deserve This?

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This is a great moment to be the Pet Shop Boys. The ultimate Eighties synth-pop duo are having a renaissance right now, just in time for the 40th anniversary of their classic hit “West End Girls.” They have a brilliant new album, Nonetheless, their zippiest of this century and one of their best ever. New fans are discovering them in films like Saltburn and All of Us Strangers. They even scored the ultimate 2024 status symbol: a beef with Drake, after Aubrey Graham used “West End Girls” without permission for “All The Parties.”

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been musical partners for over 40 years, without hating each other or breaking up or going stale. The London duo blew up in the 1980s, writing deeply weird hits about sex and money, from “Rent” to “Opportunities” to “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” Neil was the chatty singer, Chris the deadpan synth boy. The Petties brought divas like Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield back to pop radio. They made their electro-sleaze trilogy of Please, Actually, and Introspective. Yet they topped it with their 1993 coming-out album Very, a queer pop landmark. Cardi B has been a proud superfan her entire life. 

Their Eighties classics are having a resurgence—who can forget the moment in Saltburn when Barry Keoghan sings “Rent” at karaoke? So the Pet Shop Boys picked the perfect time to come back strong with Nonetheless, the album they wrote long-distance during the pandemic, with bangers like “Loneliness” and “Dancing Star.”

Both of the Boys are absurdly great at conversation—constantly howling with laughter, bantering, theorizing, quipping about pop stars they like, cackling about ones they don’t. Neil and Chris have the dry wit of a classic English comedy duo. They spoke to Rolling Stone about their new album, artistic longevity, their Drake controversy, why “cheap music” is the best, making “West End Girls,” Oscar Wilde, Cardi B, hearing their songs in films, enjoying Harry Styles, not enjoying Taylor Swift, Eighties sleaze, John Mulaney, and why albums shouldn’t go on longer than 45 minutes.

Congratulations on the new album. How have you kept your inspiration going so long?

Neil: It’s something we don’t think about very much, in case it goes away, but songwriting is the thing we do, really. It’s always something we do for pleasure—not always to write for an album. Chris didn’t even know we’d written an album.

Chris: We were in lockdown and for something to do, you’d just write something. It was just purely for pleasure. I wasn’t aware that we’d even started writing an album actually until Neil one day sent a playlist of everything we’d done in a running order, and said, ‘Well, that’s it. We’ve got the next album.’ I was actually quite surprised.

Neil: You are quite good at just churning out music. We’ve never lost touch with this childish sense of playfulness. In lockdown, there was literally nothing else to do, apart from go for a walk in the afternoon, or make your dinner, or whatever. So we wrote songs. It was exciting—you get an email from Chris and it’s got a new track on it.

Did you ever expect to have this kind of staying power? Back in the Eighties, you used to mock rock stars who thought in terms of longevity.

Neil:We would still mock longevity. 

Chris: Or aiming for longevity.

Neil: We’ve never been about longevity. We’ve just seemed to have achieved it.

Chris: We’ve always thought that throwaway pop is actually what lasts. 

Neil: We’ve said that since the Eighties. But that’s true of throwaway pop from the Sixties. It tends to be the important stuff that doesn’t necessarily date very well. The stuff that’s self-consciously seeking to make an important statement. The throwaway stuff is what orchestrates people’s lives and what they remember. 

Chris: What’s that Neil Coward quote? 

Neil: “Strange how potent cheap music is.” He knew something about cheap music. And his tunes are still being played.

People thought “West End Girls” was cheap, and it’s still a classic after 40 years.

Neil: When we started this album, we realized that it’s 40 years since “West End Girls” came out, which is really a coincidence. We made that record in New York. When we first started recording, there were people who thought of us as part of the New York dance scene, and we sort of felt that ourselves. We were in Unique Studios, with [disco producer] Bobby O. Arthur Baker was in the studio next door, recording Planet Patrol. I was in New York that summer launching the American Smash Hits [the U.K. pop magazine that Tennant used to edit]. I interviewed Madonna, who used to perform every week at the Roxy roller-rink on Friday nights. Breakdancing in the streets. Going out to New Jersey for Sugar Hill Studios, where we recorded “One More Chance.” It was all New York to us, our starting point.

How do you put an album together?

Neil: We tend to be quite prolific, so we always have quite a lot of B-sides. We do think very carefully of the songs that fit on the albums, so they’re part of the same sound-world. The song’s got to earn its place on an album, or even a B-side.

Chris: Also, we don’t like the albums to be too long, do we? We don’t like these long unwieldy albums with 20 tracks. We like an album that you can put on and get to the end of it, in one go. We like films to be 90 minutes, records to be 45. 

Nonetheless is 43 minutes. You don’t really do albums with filler.

Neil: I think it’s just the attention span. There was that thing in the Nineties where albums became 65 minutes long. Did anyone ever play [Madonna’s] Erotica all the way through? I mean, there’s some good stuff in the end, but I mean, did you get there? It would’ve been a much better 43-minute album. Harry Styles, I’ve got his album in my car. You can get to the end, so you’ve got the whole arc of the album there.  If you get to the end and think “what WAS that?” and you want to play the album again, that’s a real result.

It’s funny how the album was meant to be dead though, isn’t it? Do you remember when the album was dead? Chris, you didn’t even know the album was dead.

Chris: I don’t keep up with these things.

Neil: You don’t keep up with what rock critics are saying?

Chris: I just really listen to singles. That’s how I listen to music, the latest singles. But I’ve always thought of our albums as being a collection of singles.

I saw you in New York in 2022, on your tour with New Order. How did it feel finally headlining at Madison Square Garden?

Chris: Just to get that in perspective, Billy Joel’s done it a hundred times. A hundred Madison Square Gardens! Harry Styles had just done 16. And we managed to scrape together one. Eventually.

Is it ever weird for you that you have so many young fans?

Neil: Yeah, that is weird. You can see that from the stage. When you’re on tour around the world, you see that, because you get a different audience in different places. In Germany, our audience is at its most mainstream. In Latin America, it’s a bit younger. In San Francisco, it’s incredibly gay. It does change from place to place.

Cardi B is one of your biggest fans. She grew up loving the Pet Shop Boys.

Neil: Oh, we like Cardi B. It’s because of her mother, isn’t it? There was a great moment—she turned around to some guy, an American comedian, on one of those chat shows. [John Mulaney on The Tonight Show, in 2018] She said, ‘You look like the Pet Shop Boys.’ And he did look a bit like me on the cover of Discography. He had a shirt and tie on, and her mother probably had Discography. It was a great moment, but we still haven’t done the collaboration with him.

That was John Mulaney. He really does look like one of the Pet Shop Boys.

Neil: Yeah, I AM one of them and I thought that.

You and Cardi—that’s a collaboration the world is waiting for.

Neil: I think it is. But I think the ball’s in her court.

These days new fans hear your music in films.

Neil: Yeah, we’ve had songs in these two films recently, Saltburn and All of Us Strangers, and that’s given us a bit of attention. In Saltburn, they sing “Rent” and it’s a karaoke scene, but it’s actually part of the plot. That’s very rare. The song makes such a sardonic point about his relationship, with the guy in the house. In All of Us Strangers, it’s about memory, and they use “Always On My Mind,” a song about memory. Normally our songs are used in a film to indicate that you are in a gay club in the late Eighties. I’m so sick of that. We don’t license them anymore for that, because it’s just lazy. But they’re both very beautiful uses of the song that are involved in the plot.  I think they’re really intelligently made.

The Saltburn scene is such a startling moment, when he gets to the chorus, “I love you, you pay my rent.”  It’s a song that most Americans haven’t heard before, because it was never a hit here.

Neil: No—although we did do it on Club MTV with Downtown Julie Brown.

Chris: We loved her! She was English, wasn’t she?

What was it like hearing your music in All of Us Strangers?

Neil: Firstly, for this dance track in the gay club, they played “I Want a Dog,” from Introspective. It sounded great! But [legendary house DJ] Frankie Knuckles produced that, so we always thought it sounded great. We went down to New Jersey and came back in the car with this cassette of this incredibly deep-sounding club track that Frankie Knuckles had done. It sounded so authentic. The film is set in Christmas 1987, so we’re at Number One with “Always on My Mind.” They start singing it, and we’re on the television. It was a thrill anyway to be in the film, but it’s a very beautiful, moving use of the music.

You had some beef with Drake. How did you find out he used “West End Girls”?

Neil: I was driving in my car back from the supermarket, and my brother phoned me to say his son, my nephew who’s a Drake fan, said, ‘Oh, does Neil know ‘West End Girls’ is on Drake’s new album?” So I stopped the car and played it on Spotify. We get a lot of requests, so I thought, maybe we agreed to this? But this, I thought we’d remember it. 

I emailed our manager and she said, no, we haven’t agreed to this. So we put up a social media post, because we thought it was the best way to bring it to everyone’s attention. Within 15 minutes, our representatives got a call from Drake’s people, and they were very apologetic—in fact, they said Drake wants to speak to them. In the end, we didn’t speak to him, but the whole publishing thing was sorted out. But I like the way he sings it, though! I really like the track.

Chris: I would like to know how Drake gets that vocal sound, because I would quite like to hear you singing like that.

Neil: Yeah, we can never seem to get it. We need to know his trick. What is it—how does he do it? It’s a bit AutoTune, isn’t it? 

Chris: Yes, but it has a real pathos to it.

Another duet the world is waiting for.

Neil: Well, not sure about that. 

Taylor Swift has some songs that sound like you, on 1989.

Neil: During lockdown, I had a real go with Taylor Swift. I bought three of her albums in a row, actually. I bought the album with the song “The Archer,” which I really like. [Lover] That’s the song I really like by her—I’ve played it a million times. I bought the one she made with The National, and I found I didn’t get that much out of it.

I get more out of Harry Styles’ album. On Harry’s House, you’re aware of his references. You’re very aware that he wants to be a bit weird, even though he’s a mainstream pop star. Like what’s it called, “Japanese Restaurant Theme” or something? [“Music for a Sushi Restaurant”] It’s great for that, because when pop is trying, I always think it’s at its best.

Taylor, I sort of don’t totally a hundred percent get it, really. But she’s obviously fantastically prolific, and I love the fact she’s re-recorded her early albums, to piss off whoever they got sold to. I think that’s great. Weirdly, that’s the sort of thing we would do in that situation.

Your new album has a big finale, with “Love Is The Law.” You’ve always been kings of last songs, on all your albums. How do you choose them?

Neil: We like a last song. Normally we have a song that suggests we’re never going to make an album again, or we’re breaking up. That would be a great compilation: The Last Songs on Pet Shop Boys Albums. I was reading this massive biography about Oscar Wilde that came out just before lockdown. Oscar Wilde, after he comes out of prison, ends up in Nice, in the south of France, and he’s sitting beside the Promenade des Anglais, watching all the sexual transactions taking place. 

Chris: Probably participating.

Neil: Without money, that might be a problem for him. So that’s what the song was inspired by. But it still sounds like a last song.

It reminds me of “King’s Cross,” the last song on Actually

Neil: One of our best songs. We made the “Rent” video in [London neighborhood] King’s Cross, with [legendary director] Derek Jarman. But King’s Cross is no longer the place in that song. Google is there, all the tech is there. Not the sleazy hellhole it used to be.

Chris: Which we used to love. [Both laugh a suspiciously long time]

Neil: We bumped into Andrew Ridgeley there a few weeks ago. I met him at a concert once, but Chris had never met him. He was very nice, actually. He was going to Sony Records at Kings Cross, for a meeting about Wham! We took a picture and it’s the most popular picture of us ever on Instagram, by miles.

There’s a deep cut that’s one of my favorites, “The End of the World,” from Behavior in 1990. I always think that song is still waiting for its moment.

Neil: Maybe it will, at some point, in a film. But you know who used to like that song as well? George Michael. Funnily enough, I never thought it was that great. I was aware that I’d re-used the rhyme “girl” and “world,” which of course is “West End Girls.” I thought it was a bit lazy of me. But, you know, it’s a song about a teenage tantrum. We’ve all had them. We’ve all been there.

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Chris: Still am.

Neil: Yes. I’m having them still.

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