When Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe formed their electronic pop band in 1981, they didn’t imagine they’d still be on the road some 36 years later.
Yet the Pet Shop Boys are enjoying a continued renaissance following the release of last year’s album Super, which was a No3 hit and also grazed the top 50 in the USA. It was the follow-up to their similarly successful 2013 record, Electric.
Super continued a remarkable career for the three-time BRIT Award-winning, six-time Grammy-nominated band, who have sold more than 50 million records worldwide and are the most successful duo in UK music history.
They have released era-defining songs, including West End Girls, It’s A Sin, Always On My Mind, Heart, Go West and What Have I Done To Deserve This, and are now back on the road with a major tour that calls in at Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena tonight.
Their contribution to music has been recognised by all quarters – earlier this year the NME bestowed its 2017 Godlike Genius Award on the duo.
Back at the beginning, they made an instant impression by recording West End Girls after blagging a meeting with pop producer Bobby Orlando.
It came about after former pop writer Tenant had been in New York on an assignment to interview the police.
He remembers: “Bobby said, ‘hey, let’s make a record!’. I said, ‘you haven’t even heard anything yet!’ Three weeks later we were back in New York in a studio off Times Square. The first song we played was an instrumental we’d written.
“I’d subsequently realised you could speak a rap over it, and that was West End Girls. When the first version came out, Charles Shaar Murray in the NME gave it this incredible review, saying, ‘as an evocation of glamour and danger it is almost perfect’.”
The record became an international hit and paved the way for dance-pop records with intelligent lyrics.
Tenant adds: “Our second album Actually was meant to be a picture of Britain in 1987. Shopping was inspired by selling off all the nationalised industries, and it ends with King’s Cross, which in those days was a very run-down, dangerous area.
“We were using that as a metaphor for people that got left out of the new, bright Thatcherite Britain.”
But though Pet Shop Boys rapidly became enormously successful, they found themselves under enormous pressure. Tenant adds: “There was so much promotion. We were pop stars with a No1 hit in America. You could do interviews 24 hours a day and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
The band wanted to take themselves to the edge of the pop world and reinvented Pet Shop Boys endlessly.
They hit the ground running in the 90s with an extravagant tour called Performance. Tenant remembers: “It was produced to look like an opera. We didn’t acknowledge the audience between the songs. We all come on dressed as schoolboys, Chris sits down and all he does in the first song is hold up an apple. It’s a very beautiful moment.”
The band reacted to the music of those times, including grunge. “The grunge thing was, ‘hey man’, letting it all hang out, which was very much not what we are. There’d been an explosion in video game technology and we thought it’d be good to look like we were part of a video game.”
“We always wanted to be like a cartoon, to create our own world, a universe of our own that doesn’t necessarily apply to everything else that’s going on outside. We sort of achieved that with Can You Forgive Her, and with Go West we went even further. In the final video, Yesterday, When I Was Mad, Chris was just a lamp.
“My favourite performance in a video. I didn’t even have to turn up.
“I never know whether Go West didn’t establish such a strong idea of us in the public eye that it became an albatross. It’s such a strong thing, it’s difficult to escape from – assuming you want to.”
The band have continued to experiment and rip up creative boundaries as they’ve released consistently good records. They’ve mixed pop with art and Tenant is proud of what they’ve achieved.
And it’s not just in the pop world the band have made a mark. In 2014, the trailblazers took an opera to the Proms that celebrated the life of Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker persecuted for his homosexuality. Tenant says: “Someone pointed out to me our songs are a bit like a social history of Britain during that period. When the last song is written, whenever that is, I think that will be quite an impressive catalogue of songs that will say something about life in Britain, and indeed the world, in the era.”
The secret of their success has been the combination of Tenant and Lowe, two markedly different men. Lowe says: “We are quite different people. Neil is always on the go, he’s always got something in the diary, whereas I’m content to just cook something simple and watch television.
“But musically we are…I don’t know, we just gel. It’s not as if I only like uptempo music and Neil only likes folk-inspired ballads. There’s never any tension, or me saying, ‘this isn’t banging enough’. We both like a bit of everything.”
That partnership has kept the duo strong – and enabled them to release cutting edge works like Super. Lowe adds: “The feel of Super is purely down to the songs we chose. We wrote some quite dark techno tracks and some much more pop things at the same time, but we wanted this one to be basically Electric, only more so. There’s going to be a third one and that’s when the melancholia will kick in again.”
“We tend to work in a vacuum now more so than we ever did. We know we’re not going to get played on much radio so you’re free to do what you want. It’s very liberating.”
By Andy RichardsonSubscribe to our Newsletter