It might be an undisputed, albeit under-rated, world beating, cultural staple of British society, but pop music is often dictated by the fickle nature of the music industry, making independent voices in pop few and far between. But the Pet Shop Boys are one of those voices, and one endorsed by The British Phonographic Industry recognizing their outstanding contribution to music with a gong of the same name at this years Brits, echoing an Ivor Novello, nine years earlier, of nearly the same name.
“We’re running out of these awards to get now” laughs Chris “It’s nice to be recognized for still being around more than anything, the music industry is one of fast turn over and to still be around is an achievement. But hopefully we’re being recognized for the songs we’ve consistently managed to write over the years. Twenty-five years in pop terms is actually quite a long time."
Although recognition in the form of awards is, for the best part a positive, when being rewarded for what essentially amounts to job satisfaction, means that accepting them isn’t always straightforward as Chris famously illustrated in 1987 when he watched the Brits on TV as Neil accepted Best Single for ‘West End Girls’ as Chris explains:
“They remind me a bit too much of prize giving at school, I’ve always thought that the music itself was the reward. But it was nice that they gave it to a pop band, it doesn’t happen very often and we definitely accepted it on those terms. Pop music I think sometimes is undervalued, people might think that writing a great pop song is easy for some reason, but actually to write three minutes of sublime music, which is uplifting, escapist for the listener and can define that moment in someone’s life is actually quite an achievement. I always think that if you look at any period, the music that you tend to remember is the great pop music rather than the sort of introspective rock of the time, but ironically the music that takes itself less importantly seems to be the more important of the musical forms”
With music the reson d'etre of a group capable of courting nonchalant indifference and iconic reverence in equal measure, ‘Yes’, their tenth studio album and first for three years, is the real prize and one that leaves the politics of ‘Fundamental’ behind for a return to pop opulence reflecting the current optimism of the group.
“We didn’t really have any strong idea what we were going to do with this album” says Chris “We went into the studio with no preconceptions and when we realized that we were writing more poppy sort of songs we thought that the best people to work with would be Xenomania because we loved the records they made with Girls Aloud, the Sugarbabes etc. and we thought that they’d really bring out the best in the songs we’d been writing.”
Work with Brian Higgins’ production team Xenomania yielded four co-written tracks; three, including album forerunner ‘Love etc.’ were deemed good enough for the track-listing of ‘Yes’, the fourth, ‘The Loving Kind’ was sequestered by Girls Aloud for their album ‘Out Of Control’ and the experience was an enjoyable one.
“The process of writing with them was fantastic. They have lots of backing tracks lying around and basically we would take some of those and then write top lines and lyrics and stuff on top of those, so that was the co-writing aspect of it. But when they worked as production team on the songs that we’d written, it’s a fantastic operation Brian’s put together, a really great team of people who are so into pop music and really enthusiastic about what they do. All the time we were working there, Girls Aloud would be popping down and Alesha and it felt great to be connected with contemporary British pop”
The Pet Shop Boys have long been recognized as a pop group with art pretensions and influences. Previous collaborators and projects have included Derek Jarman, Es Devlin, Sam Taylor-Wood, re-scoring Einsenstein’s 1925 classic silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and their own musical ‘Closer to Heaven’ and this presentation as a visual context has now extended to a Hans Christian Andersen inspired ballet as Chris goes on to explain:
“One of the great things is when you have some success, people phone you up and ask if you’re interested in doing things so these opportunities arise. In the case of the ballet, a friend of ours, a principle dancer at the Royal Ballet, phoned up Neil and said would we be interested in writing some music for him to perform at Sadler’s Wells. I didn’t know about this, but I’d recently bought a copy of a new translation of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and I was reading one before I went to bed and I thought, wow, that’d make a really good ballet. So I phoned Neil the next day and said I’ve read a book lets make it a ballet and he said well that’s incredible because Ivan Putrov asked us if we’d write some music for a ballet, so it just seemed like it was meant to happen.”
With Ivan Putrov expected to dance a leading role, choreography by Javier de Frutos, and the duo composing an original score featuring electronics and strings alongside touring commitments, describing the as yet unnamed ballet as a big project would be an understatement.
“We’ve currently written about a third of the music, we’ve done a workshop of it and it’s got the go-ahead from Sadler’s Wells so it’s a very exciting project and hopefully it will come about and be realized in 2011. We don’t really want to say which one it is just yet because its two years before it’s going to be out there so we want to launch it properly” laughs Chris.
Celebrated also for a diverse Curriculum Vita of musical collaborations listing Killers, Robbie Williams, Tina Turner, Liza Minnelli, Dusty Springfield and David Bowie among their many referees, future projects include a song written for Dame Shirley Bassey’s new album and an on paper unlikely billing at this year's Oxegen festival.
“We never really sat down and thought we’ll play festivals” says Chris “The reason it came about was because we did several weeks of shows at the Savoy Theatre in London and they were actually loosing money every night and in order to cover the costs we headlined Roskilde in Denmark. So our first festival and actually the first festival Neil ever went to was headlining Roskilde and we really enjoyed it. We never imagined we’d be a festival act but its part of what the Pet Shop Boys is now.”
A quarter of a century in pop reinvention is a hell of a long time, so how do Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant remain culturally relevant, successfully independent and does being a Pet Shop Boy become easier with age.
“Its not so much about being easy, it’s a case of is it enjoyable or not” Chris explains “We’ve never left our interest and enthusiasm for contemporary pop music or dance music or what’s happening in art and architecture and we feel that we can bring any of those elements into what we do. And also we’ve never retired, we’ve never took two years off and lived in the country, we’ve always been in the thick of it and we still care about what’s going on. It’s not an effort to write music, we don’t struggle to do that”
A statement that supported by twenty-five years, ten albums, fifty-six singles and sales of over fifty-million records, cant be disputed easily.