In a drowsy private members’ club in London’s Soho, Pet Shop Boys are doing something they don’t ordinarily relish: reminiscing. But, as they’re here to discuss the reissue of their first three albums, they don’t have much choice.
They can’t, then, wholly shirk questions about the first time they met Dusty Springfield, with whom the electronic duo collaborated on their glorious 1987 hit, What Have I Done to Deserve This?
“We were sitting at the entrance of Advision Studios [in central London],” begins lead vocalist Neil Tennant, “and suddenly the door swung open and in came Dusty wearing high heel boots and black leather.”
“I thought it was a pink shell suit,” murmurs keyboard player Chris Lowe, frowning.
“We felt slightly terrified,” continues the singer, now a dapper 63-year-old with a warm, professorial air. At that time, he remembers, the then-reclusive Sixties legend “had turned into this figure of almost mythical problems. Dusty was assumed to be a nightmare on a personal level. Couldn’t sing any more. Probably some sort of drug addict. Whispers of sexuality, which was regarded as a problem. But the minute she walked in she was really sweet. And it was immediately evident she could sing as well as ever.”
What Have I Done to Deserve This?, a verifiable Eighties classic, appears on the band’s second album, 1987’s Actually. Next month, the album will be re-released in a lavish, multiple bonus tracks reissue, alongside their 1986 debut Please, and 1988’s Introspective. These three albums, three hits in three years, were what established the duo – Tennant the frontman, Lowe his never-knowingly-animated sidekick – as a double-act without peer in British pop music. In that first flush of success, Pet Shop Boys had hit after hit. These encompassed 22 Top 10 singles, four of them number ones: West End Girls, It’s a Sin, Always on My Mind and Heart.
Not that a discussion of the duo’s beginnings will persuade them to abandon firmly policed, career-long interview parameters. When I ask Lowe for his first impressions of Tennant when they met in August 1981, he replies: “Well, we don’t really answer personal questions like that. We’ve learned over the years not to.” But then the deadpan 58-year-old relents. “I remember Neil’s walk. His gait. Head held high and marching down the street at a rapid pace. And I’ve always scurried along behind, trying to keep up.”
“If you’ve seen the video for West End Girls, that’s exactly how it is – and is to this day,” agrees Tennant.
Pithy, witty, wry, self-deprecating, these forward-facing, pop-loving northerners (Tennant from Tyneside, Lowe from Blackpool, both their accents gently present) don’t “do” nostalgia. They prefer to focus their efforts on still-vital albums (they released their 13th, Super, in 2016), and on music and projects that deftly pivot between the boldly commercial and the unashamedly arty and experimental.
Their CV includes pointedly thought-provoking pieces such as a BBC Prom about computer pioneer Alan Turing, hounded to suicide for his homosexuality; bold collaborations, ranging from a ballet at Sadlers Wells (The Most Incredible Thing) to a musical, Closer to Heaven, with playwright Jonathan Harvey and avant-garde detours – a soundtrack to the silent movie classic Battleship Potemkin – alongside reliably theatrical tours. Their current production, inspired by the Super album, has been on the road, on and off, since debuting at London’s Royal Opera House in July 2016.
Yet they remain instinctively and authentically populist too, and discuss with genuine consternation the changing nature of pop music. Former music journalist Tennant (pre-PSBs he was a senior editor at Smash Hits in its early-Eighties heyday) remains an undying champion and student of the form, and clearly keeps a weather eye on the Top 40, bemoaning the demise of Top of the Pops.
“I still think it’s weird the BBC doesn’t have a weekly pop programme, because the chart now is pretty interesting.” In the streaming era, he says, the movement of records up and down the rankings “is more volatile, [but also] records hang around for ages like they did in the Sixties. And also a generation has now missed out on the archival thing of a Top of the Pops performance from Arctic Monkeys or One Direction or Justin Bieber. And that’s a shame.”
Equally, they will admit to missing the sense of creative competitiveness that existed between themselves and fellow chart travellers they rated: acts like Wham! and The Human League.
“Chris used to always dream that he’d heard George Michael’s new single on the radio,” says Tennant, “and I’d be really annoyed. Nowadays the way to feel creative competition with people is [being] on Pharrell’s album or on Eminem’s album,” he adds. “I feel disappointed looking at the poster for Eminem’s new album, and seeing that he’s got Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé. It looks to me like he’s sold out.”
“It’s a checklist,” murmurs Lowe in agreement.
On the other hand, they don’t miss the closeted, knee-jerk aspect of the Eighties, even if Tennant insists that there wasn’t any overt or covert pressure for the pair to keep their sexuality secret. “The subject was never mentioned,” he says – although that’s surely a pressure all of its own. (Lowe to this day has never publicly discussed his orientation.)
“When I came out in a magazine interview in 1994 or whenever it was, one of the reasons I’d never done it before is because I always thought we’d then be characterised as ‘outrageous gay singer Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys’. And of course that did then happen.”
But now, “there’s never been a better time to be gay. Now, if you’re Sam Smith, it’s not such a big issue. That’s obviously a good thing, as I always thought it was. I’m not saying it doesn’t not matter any more. But it doesn’t matter anything like the way it used to.”
For all the artful confessionals contained in their songs, Pet Shop Boys have only recorded one wholly political album, 2006’s Fundamental. It was dedicated to two gay Iranian teenagers executed by the regime in 2005, and the first single, I’m With Stupid, satirised the Bush/Blair Special Relationship. The album was a critical hit, and entered the UK album chart at number five – might the times demand another forthright blast from these intellectual and engaged elder statesmen?
“It’s very difficult to make an overt political message in a gorgeous pop record,” offers Tennant. “It’s not impossible – Ghost Town by The Specials, or Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello. But they’re almost the only two examples! You’d have to construct something.” One might, he ventures, do this by writing something “that gives an impression without [directly] saying ‘I’m against Brexit’ – but of course that’s hard, because it takes artistry.”
It’s that love of artistry that makes Pet Shop Boys keep on keeping on. More than three decades since they embarked on one of the greatest journeys in British popular music, they’re about to begin writing again, still in search of that perfect pop song.
Recalling once again the early days (albeit only at my nudging), Chris Lowe remembers the frustration of not being able to find their flop debut single, the original 1984 release of West End Girls, in any record shops. Neil Tennant’s memory is even more acute, alighting on the song’s sole Radio 1 play, and how the DJ “took the p--- out of it”.
“You have to remember, when you haven’t had a hit, you think it most unlikely that you will have a hit. But we were prepared to pursue the fantasy. I could have gone back to journalism, Chris could have become an architect – he did finish the exams.”
“But being us,” says Lowe, a smile dancing on his lips, “we just carried on regardless.”
The Please, Actually and Introspective reissues are out on March 2