Saturday 20 October 2018

Talking Shop: Pet Shop Boys

IT'S HARD to know what Neil Tennant has done to deserve this, but what started out as a Warholian project has turned him into one of pop's elder statesmen.

The Pet Shop Boys were all about proving that pop wasn't only made by teenagers, and it wasn't only made for teenagers either.

Now, 21 years after West End Girls became a global hit, Tennant and Chris Lowe are, for those who like their dance music to have a little wry English humour, something of an institution.

They're also on something of a high, with their sell-out world tour rolling into Dublin on Saturday for the Irish Museum of Modern Art's Some Days Never End festival.

And then there's the group's latest album, Fundamental, which came out last year to almost universally rave reviews. Lyrically it touches on regime change, the introduction of ID cards in Britain and the War on Terrorism.

"I can't vote for Labour anymore and I won't even get into Iraq. It's a civil rights issue," Tennant explains. "They can now use technology and phone records to monitor us, and share that information with various agencies.

"It's not different from opening someone's mail, which they do in fascist states. It's the ultimate Big Brother nightmare and the argument that 'if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear' is no argument at all."

There's a sense that Tennant knows the importance of rendering convictions into digestible sound bites. No surprise, perhaps, given that he got his first foothold in show business as a journalist.

His first scoop was with Marc Bolan ("He had to show me how to use the dictaphone. It was mortifying") and he went on to become the editor of the pop bible Smash Hits. When Madonna posed for the famous photo of her sucking lasciviously on a lollipop, she was talking to Tennant off camera.

"I interviewed her in 1983, before she was famous. She was chunkier in those days and looked more Italian, with those big eyebrows she had. We went for a pizza afterwards. I mean, can you imagine that happening with her today?"

Tennant's frank at times, talking of the "sadistic nuns" who educated him -- who inspired It's A Sin -- and he has a mordant sense of humour, dropping sly little asides about his fellow pop stars.

It's shown in his music. The Pet Shop Boys came along at the end of the 1980s and were sandwiched in between "Eighties music proper" -- Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham, and so on -- and the syncopated dance revolution to come.

"We were less shiny and happy than the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stuff," Tennant remembers. "We were a bit more deadpan."

He escaped a lot of the "who was out and who wasn't" sniping of the mid-Eighties, which went on between Jimmy Somerville, Boy George and George Michael, but eventually came out in 1994.

"We had quite a teenage girl following and it was more interesting not to comment on sexuality. Another reason was that I balked at what I saw as 'gay'. I'd go to [London gay nightclub] Heaven and I'd see these muscle clones and just not really feel a part of it. It seemed just another kind of conformity."

In the Smash Hits days he would hang around nightclubs in London, gossiping with Bananarama and George Michael, but not everyone was thrilled with the arrival of a journalist into the ranks of the stars.

"I wrote a bad review of a Culture Club record and I was afraid they were going to beat me up. Boy George still goes on about it. I was saying to Chris the other day that we should have a party for 25 years of bitterness about that review!"

Pet Shop Boys play IMMA, on Saturday. Click on

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