AS REGENCY drawing rooms go, this one is on the largish side but, at first sight, perfectly ordinary. Only two things distinguish it in any significant way from my friend Rebecca's handsome Brighton flat. Firstly, one of the longer walls is missing, allowing passers-by to goggle at the occupants at will. And secondly, it is sat smack in the middle of a field, not far from Liverpool airport, shielded from the elements by a huge, fairy-tale tent.
The room is furnished sparsely but elegantly, with pair of baroque wooden chairs and a chaise longue in tasteful pale upholstery. As you join us, we find the chaise longue en route to the far corner, gripped at either end by a shock-headed white man dressed as a Venusian diplomat and a smooth-headed black man clad only in a pair of rumpled silver lamé cycle shorts. They look like the world's oddest removal firm.
“I don't think we should have the sofa on this bit,” says Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boy, to Les Child, choreographer. Across the stage set, Tennant's double - identical bleached spiky barnet and sci-fi schmutter - watches impassively from behind what, to my untrained eye, resembles a Louis Quatorze escritoire. This, it transpires, is Chris Lowe's keyboard stand, its disguise betrayed by the solitary cable which snakes down its legs and off into the floorboards. By tomorrow night's performance, Lowe will have thought better of this conceit, and his keyboard will appear naked as the day it was assembled.
That performance will be the band's first British festival appearance. Wooed over the years by Glastonbury, Reading and other long-established jamborees, they plumped at last for Creamfields, a DJ-oriented bash slung by the Liverpool club, Cream. “Our aim,” as Tennant puts it, “was to do a completely different kind of festival, as a one-day event, so it wasn't about bathing in mud. They've actually got a swimming pool,” he marvels. And so they have. Ballyhooed as a paradise lagoon brimming with pure mineral water, it proves to be the size of a large kiddies' paddler, and chock-full of hairy, sunburned ravers. But the point has been made. Creamfields is about techno and Evian and daffodils, not indie and cider and silage. A clean, modern festival. The sort of festival Pet Shop Boys would be proud to lend their name to.
This Pet Shop Boys show serves as a staging post before a world tour, their first in five years, on the heels of their seventh album, Nightlife. And it has another, more mundane purpose; to bring in some money and offset the losses incurred during the duo's two-week residency at the Savoy Theatre in 1997. Creamfields is the last in a profitable series of al fresco appearances around Europe; an unusually pastoral summer schedule for this most metropolitan of bands.
“I haven't been a great one for outdoor events,” admits Neil Tennant, post-rehearsal. “I never went to a pop festival, and I never went to raves.”
“I used to love going to raves,” says Chris Lowe. De-wigged and reclothed in sensible grey, he is all but unrecognisable. It takes me a few seconds to realise who he is. “I think festivals got bigger because of the dance culture anyway; clubbers got used to standing in fields. I used to enjoy the fact that it was like some sort of mystery tour, like when you're little and your parents take you off somewhere. Before then, your nightlife was more predictable. You went with certain people and left with certain people. This way you never knew what was going to happen. I had the look, bought into it completely. I had the Timberland boots, the Chevignon jeans, the puffa coat, the silly hat. . .”
“The first gig I ever played was outside,” Tennant suddenly remembers. “It was either '70 or '71. At the Newcastle arts festival. I was in Dust, the folk group. We were very much influenced by The Incredible String Band.”
Lowe is intrigued. “I didn't know Dust had performed publicly.”
“We entered a talent competition,” Tennant says. “I played guitar, and we had someone on bongos. Chris - a different Chris - played a range of instruments, including a zither.” Tennant is softly spoken, with a mild Tyneside accent, and certain words are drawn out with pointed emphasis. “Zither” is delivered in a tone pitched mid-way between Blackadder and Julian Clary, making it clear that however preposterous the word might sound, it's nothing compared to actually sharing a stage with such an instrument. “We played three songs and got through the first heat. But in the second heat, where we'd have got through to the semi-final, Christopher's. . . zither was tuned a semitone lower than my guitar.”
Lowe: “And he didn't realise?”
“I realised,” glowers Tennant. “He blithely carried on. I was playing the guitar, trying to kick him. We had this epic called The Love Song. It was unbelievably pretentious and it went on interminably. And this wasn't a middle-class, chardonnay-quaffing arts crowd. It was more an after-school crowd, and old women coming back from the shops. We felt,” he deadpans, “that it wasn't quite our audience. Anyway, we were beaten by The Soda Pops from Cranlington. I think they did dancing. And played kazoos.
“After that, Dust broke up. Due” - dry as a bone, this - “to musical differences. Christopher wanted the group to be folk and I wanted to be rock. I formed a group based on T Rex, and he formed a folk group. We were very much intense rivals. We used to practice in a friend's house on Saturday, in different rooms. I'd come in, I'd have written some masterpiece, and sneer at his folk songs. Then a friend-of-our's father wrote a play, for the People's Theatre in Newcastle. A miserable drama about some fishing disaster in the North East. All that Bonny Lads stuff. And I was asked to write the music for it.”
Sadly, this victory swiftly turned to ashes.
“Christopher wangled it so he was asked to write the music for it as well. It was,” he concludes, “really annoying.”
Ignominy. Neil Tennant effectively gave up being in bands for the best part of a decade. It took him even longer to consider live performance again.
CHRIS Lowe and Neil Tennant met in 1981. Tennant was a 27-year-old publisher, soon to become a music journalist. Lowe was 22 and a student of architecture. They quickly became musical partners, although not, contrary to longstanding rumour, lovers. They released their first record, West End Girls, in 1984. It was not a hit. A year later, a re-recorded version went to number one, after which they have seldom been long absent from the charts. It would be another three years until their first live appearance, a benefit concert at London's Piccadilly theatre where they played two songs. They finally set off on the road in 1989, along with a large entourage of singers, dancers and musicians, in a show directed by Derek Jarman. Occasional gigs, the Savoy residency and a brief trip to Russia aside, they have only toured twice since; once with their grandiose Performance show in 1991, and again in 1994 with the more modest Discovery.
“We would never have toured if it hadn't been for Bros,” says Lowe. Pet Shop Boys used to share management with the long-gone teen sensations. “We didn't know how you did it. All we knew is that we didn't want to get a band. So it just seemed like, oh, forget it.”
They did it, in the end, by luring away Bros's amiable and efficient tour manager, Ivan Kushlick. Even so, they found the scale of their first attempt daunting.
“Performance was a little bit of a chore,” Tennant says, “in that there were so many people. Twelve dancers and two musicians and three singers and two people who just did wigs.”
“We tried to reinvent the rock performance,” says Lowe.
“Which,” Tennant allows, “is quite a big thing to take on,”
The central idea for the new tour lies in the stage design. “In 1986,” says Tennant, “when Please [PSB's first album] had been a big success, all these rock designers came in and did little models of their own suggestions. We couldn't believe how corny every single idea was. It was always things like, at the end, the lights spell out ‘Pet Shop Boys’ behind you and flash. So we never ended up doing anything, and when we decided to tour, we worked with Derek Jarman.”
This time around, Pet Shop Boys have called on architect Zaha Hadid, best known for her fiercely modern plan for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Hadid's winning design was scuppered by Welsh politicos in collusion with the Millennium Commission, with the result that yet another potentially outstanding building has failed to go up in Britain. The Regency drawing room in the festival tent is not Hadid's idea of an ironic statement or witty quotation. It is not, in fact, her idea at all, but a one-off set by Ian MacNeil, based on the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (“This,” Lowe says proudly, “is the lengths we go to for a one-off.”) The touring show, however, will be dominated by Hadid's jagged angles, looming curves and fractured planes - as anything would be that falls within gawping distance of them.
“It's always our strategy with a rock show to bring someone from a different medium into it,” Tennant says, “because they think of things in a completely different way. There's always this amazing tension between the rock people and the people from outside, and that tension's normally resolved by the end, and in a way it's quite a creative thing. Like on Performance, the lighting designer wanted five weeks' lighting rehearsals. And actually she was going to get three days. So for the first half of the tour, you couldn't really see anything.
“I think with bringing Zaha's team into this, you know, I don't think many of them have even been to a rock show. Also, we had the more practical idea, as sometimes we play in small theatres and sometimes in big arenas, to have a set which adapts to the different sizes of venue. So we thought, let's treat that as an architectural problem and bring in an architect. Janet Street-Porter recommended Zaha, and I found myself in a bookshop looking through the book of Zaha's designs.” Tennant's pop-star eye, trained by fifteen years of big-budget videos and dramatic lighting, latched on to the potential. “You could see them as stage sets, particularly for a rock show, because they're very dynamic. I can just imagine standing on the edge of one with the wind machine on and a big coat fluttering in the breeze.”
Lowe, meanwhile, had an even simpler take on the matter. “What appealed to me about it, because we're playing Cardiff, I like the idea that we'll be responsible for Zaha getting an . . . an erection in Cardiff.”
The thought of sticking one up to the philistine burghers of that city must certainly be appealing, but Cardiff couldn't have poleaxed Hadid's scheme without the complicity of people in London who should also know better. Architecture differs from other art forms - and pop music in particular - in that it can hardly ever be original and popular at the same time. Buildings which eventually become cherished national monuments almost invariably incur public outrage and disgust at the time of their construction. Hadid has already seen her designs commissioned in other countries, including Germany, Italy and America. Without wishing to disparage Pet Shop Boys, it speaks ill of Britain that the first structure by one of its foremost architects to be built here is a stage set for a pop group.
“It won't be the very first thing, actually,” Tennant points out. “She did an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, about art and fashion. And she's done the Mind Zone in the Millennium Dome, but that obviously won't
have opened. It's true, though. It's very sad they didn't build that Cardiff Opera House. I still think they'll regret that. Architectural history proves that when you build a very startling building somewhere, it's incredibly rejuvenating. Bilbao is literally on the map because of the Guggenheim museum, and the Pompidou Centre, it's the most visited building in France.”
Hadid's own, brief press statement promises - somewhat bewilderingly, for those unfamiliar with the language of architects - to “move beyond the boundaries of a tradition based on horizontal vertical dichotomies” and to “add another temporal layer to the concert narrative itself.” When I later speak to her, Hadid puts it more plainly. “I like their music,” she says, “and we're always interested in these other kinds of projects. We're doing a set for Aida at the Cincinnati Opera House.” Hadid's practice is also working on a bigger project in Cincinnati, the Contemporary Arts Centre. Does she find it frustrating not to be creating more permanent structures within the UK?
“We're doing the Mind Zone, which is sort of permanent. But I know, we have so much work abroad now, we don't do much to show ourselves here, and hopefully it might change one day. A lot of people seem to have got the idea we're taking this on because there isn't anything else, but that's not necessarily the case. I've always been interested in a variety of things. In our office we don't really give higher value to one thing or the other. Of course a building necessarily is more. . . not necessarily more interesting, but has more permanence. It has more complexity, let's put it that way. It has more influence. But in the same way, I think film and music are very influential on our culture, and I like being part of that experience.
“Pet Shop Boys are like any other clients in that most clients are not in your discipline. Chris did architecture for a while, and they are maybe more receptive. It has a different kind of burden, because it's not a permanent thing. But it also has other limitations, because of packaging and packing and reinstalling and the speed with which it's done; it has a different dynamic. I always find it interesting to take on something which you don't do every day. You have to go back and think in a flat system. It brings another idea to the story, to our story, in the office.”
“Working with Zaha Hadid,” Tennant submits, “it's showbusiness. That's really my motivation. It's just trying to put on a good show. To do something new. That's what pop is, isn't it, doing something new? There's no great intellectual theme behind it. You just want everyone to go, ‘Wow!’”
“THANK you,” crows Neil Tennant to the throng of perspiring young things which has just sung along to every word of West End Girls. The tent is so crammed that it has developed its own weather system. Sweat, evaporated then recondensed, drizzles from the rigging. “This is a new song we wrote with David Morales.” A huge cheer. Morales is a hero of house, a star producer and DJ. “It's called New York City Boy. It's DISCO!!” he proclaims exultantly.
Chris Lowe is grinning. This is unusual. Were Lowe to take his stage face to the poker table, he'd scoop the pot every time. But there he stands, a jack'o'lantern beam plastered across his mug. Tennant looks at him quizzically. Lowe grins back at him. The penny drops.
“Er - no it isn't,” says Tennant. “It's Being Boring.”
New York City Boy, when it does arrive, isn't just disco. It's disco to the power of x, a thumping great Village People pastiche which outclasses its inspiration, and will this week become the most unabashedly queer song to hit the charts since the heyday of such groups as Boystown Gang. It is a highlight of the forthcoming album, which in Tennant's words, “Takes place at night. I know people whose entire life, whose entire economy is the night, and who sleep during the day as a result. So it interests me, and also my own experience is that it's quite a destructive thing, because there's a huge reliance on drugs to do that. And the people can get quite cruel at night, exploiting each other, for whatever reason, to get money, drugs, to further their own careers. So there's the negative aspects of night. That's why New York City Boy works so well on the album, it's a celebratory song, to remind you that people do go out to enjoy themselves and to dance.”
New York City Boy aside, Pet Shop Boys have the good sense and, you might argue, courtesy to concentrate on their more familiar repertoire. This is not, after all, a gig to promote the new record. The tour will serve to do that.
Justly deemed a success, the show is followed by the traditional holding of court. In the Portakabin which functions as a dressing room, Tennant receives well-wishers graciously, in a manner faintly reminiscent of the Queen Mother.
“You've corrupted me,” Chris Lowe is telling him. “I was a normal, innocent, working-class boy and now you've got me wearing a dress.”
“You were part of a huge showbiz dynasty,” protests Tennant. “Forty years ago your grandad was playing Vegas.”
“Not dressed like that, he wasn't.”
“No,” Tennant says. “He had a fake broken leg. You could try that.”
“And you could trip over it,” replies Lowe. “Like you already do.”
At around midnight, a party heads back to the nearby cathedral city of Chester, where we've been billeted. By day, Chester is both quaint and genteel. Within its ancient city walls, tourists throng the streets and shops. It is a winsome testimonial to conservation, prosperity and order. On a Saturday night like this one it reverts to a more familiar British scene, with teenage boozers lurching from kerb to pavement, wall to gutter, sing-song to punch-up.
As Tennant said earlier about the Nightlife album, “People's perceptions are different at night. People get drunk off their heads, people want to dance, want to have sex.” Throw in a few noisy brawls which involve more staggering and shouting than actual, connecting blows, and that's Chester city centre to a T. Tennant looks vaguely appalled at this unexpected illustration of his point. “My God,” he mutters, half to himself, “this is worse than Newcastle.”
As none of us is falling over, under 25 or wearing a minidress, we are suitable material neither for fucking nor fighting, which renders us invisible. We wander in search of an open curry house, like a minor detachment of peckish ghosts. We find a place; but they won't serve us alcohol. “Soft drinks only,” the waiter tell us, firmly. We give our orders. “Diet Coke.” “Sprite.” “Erm - champagne?” proposes Tennant, hopefully, as if the fact of its fizziness might sneak it under the wire. The waiter eyeballs him as you would a small, impudent child caught in transparent chicanery. “Water, then,” sighs Tennant, and turns, defeated, to his menu.
“WE WANT to do Waiting For Godot as a stage musical,” announces Neil Tennant. “It's our new project. Chris can be Godot. He won't have to turn up.”
Tennant's jest isn't a million miles from the truth; Pet Shop Boys are indeed planning a musical, in collaboration with playwright Jonathan Harvey. The songs will all be new, except for one called In Denial, which appears on Nightlife as a duet between Tennant and Kylie Minogue.
“It's set in a club,” recounts Tennant, “It's a gay club, and the front-of-house manager has a daughter from a relationship with a woman when he was quite young. He hasn't brought her up and he hasn't been a very good father to her. I'm playing the father, so Kylie is in fact,” to his quiet but evident delight, “playing my daughter.
“As a form, I think musical theatre is wide open at the moment. I think the cycle that started with Jesus Christ Superstar has come full circle. What we want, what I've always wanted to do, is a musical that has contemporary songs in it. Not just the kind of music you get in musicals.”
There are two related trends going on, I suggest. Most new musicals take the form of back-catalogue pop music, shoehorned into an ungainly plot. Meanwhile, pop itself is going through a stultifying phase whereby it's been taken over by graduates from stage schools, as typified by Steps.
“It's rather annoying,” Tennant concurs, “that there are now stage schools that are quite good in Britain, which have trained people who are not going into theatre but into shit pop groups. If you do an audition for dancers or singers in London, there's a shortage of them. And these pop groups aren't really doing pop music at all, they're doing some weird showbusinessy thing, which is really anodyne and pre-Beatles in its inspiration. There is no darkness in Steps.”
“Oh, there is,” says Chris Lowe, cryptically. “There's H.” H being the blond male one who has dispensed with names altogether and makes do with a single initial. Lowe, whose appetite for mischief has clearly been tempered with common sense over the years, declines to explain further.
“I'll fill you in on the gossip later,” deflects Tennant, and returns to his subject. “The only darkness within that whole phenomenon is the sheer ambition in it, which has a cruel quality about it. Calculating, like Boyzone. It's an astonishingly calculated thing. There's not a lot of exhilaratingly young music around. It's not very sexy either. It's a shame, because all of that can work. Great music's come out of that. Stock Aitken & Waterman was the last one. Weirdly, it had a kind of integrity about it. Because it was heavily rooted in dance music, because Pete Waterman is a huge dance fan. You've got Kylie, you got an icon out of it.”
“She made some great records,” Lowe adds, “and like with Abba, it will only be fully realised in years to come.”
“With Abba,” says Tennant, “there's a lot of darkness there. I mean that's an amazing story, two couples, performing in the most successful pop group in the world, then splitting up, and carrying on in the full public glare, at their most successful. It's a really intense story and all the songs are about it. I went to see Mamma Mia the other week. The songs seemed so sad, like prisoners of this musical, done like a pantomime, being made to work and earn all this money.
“What we're wondering is whether you can marry the popular music tradition with the theatre, again. Musical theatre where you can play the songs on the radio. Like it was in the thirties and forties, when Noel Coward or Cole Porter or the Gershwins were writing for it. Not that I'm comparing us to those people. I don't know if we'll pull it off, because it's a very complicated thing, writing a musical. And of course you're always faced with the problem of, why are they singing? Why not just write a play?”
Because you can't tap your foot to a play.
“Exactly. At the end of the day there are songs in a musical because it's a musical.”
Pet Shop Boys' bid to allow darkness back into the theatre will not be produced before the end of next year. Until then, they must occupy their minds with gallivanting around the planet atop what looks set fair to be a mindboggling stage set; a giant, flying wedge of abstract geometry which Hadid has opaquely summarised as “a catalogue of frozen choreographies”. Frank Zappa (who hated disco) is widely credited with the saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Pet Shop Boys, being the almost perfect opposite of that miserable old snob, will soon be doing exactly that.
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