Pet Shop Boys interview – SMASH the system
By John Earls | July 5, 2023
In June 2023, Pet Shop Boys released what’s possibly their ultimate statement – SMASH, a boxset of all their singles. But, in the 2020s, what is a single? What’s the best Pet Shop Boys seven-inch? Can PSB really be summed up by a pair of dolls? Join Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe for an epic career-spanning exclusive interview…
“Oh, can the dogs stay?” asks a hopeful Chris Lowe, as he and Neil Tennant take their places on the sofa in the living room of the soon-to-be ex-home of their manager, Angela Becker.
Angela and her husband, Pet Shop Boys producer Stuart Price, have a beautiful house, in one of North London’s fancier suburbs. But forget that, as Classic Pop is witnessing Chris Lowe fuss over a pair of small and lovable shih tzus.
For fans who’ve heard Chris Lowe comment: “I want a dog” in Introspective’s classic rave-up of the same name, this is A Moment.
Neil and Chris have only just sat down (Chris on the left) and already they’re perfectly Being Pet Shop Boys, the pop stars whose interviews are famously almost as entertaining as their singles, and thus the most riotous pop chat of anyone, because nothing in life is quite as entertaining as a Pet Shop Boys single.
Of course the shih tzus can stay though, being management dogs, they disappear unobtrusively within two minutes of the interview tape going on.
In every possible way, Neil and Chris are an advert for the benefits of a life in pop. Neil is 68, Chris is 63, but both look a decade younger: pop music is important and it keeps you young.
What makes them so special to interview is that they both want the journalist to become part of their world, while also giving the impression they’d share their relaxed thoughts with each other if you weren’t there.
Tennant is the musician who first detailed the theory of the imperial phase: the period in a pop turn’s life when they can do no wrong. He’s as erudite as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, Lowe is 180 degrees away from the studiedly diffident presence behind the keyboards, familiar since Pet Shop Boys’ first Top Of The Pops appearance in 1985. (More on that later.)
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A man comprised of equal parts doof and mischief, Chris is hilarious and has a frequently deployed delighted laugh that makes Muttley look morose.
Despite 38 years as a pop star, Chris Lowe has the air of someone who can’t believe this is their job – but he’s a genius at knowing how to be a walking art project in his public life.
Neil has said he puts on a touch of make-up and slightly stacked shoes to feel like a Pet Shop Boy before going on stage. Does Chris have a similar routine? “Oh no,” he demurs. “If I want to become a Pet Shop Boy, I just put a cap and glasses on. That does the job.”
A baseball cap and glasses is of course the standard disguise for any celebrity wanting to stay incognito. But Chris Lowe wears that disguise in public all the time. “That’s the idea,” he nods. “Take the disguise off, no one recognises me.”
Another reason Pet Shop Boys have remained ageless no matter what the birth certificates claim is that they have only ever presented themselves as “Tennant/Lowe”: Pet Shop Boys stand for pop music and nothing else about them is relevant, including the inner lives of the people in the middle of it all.
“You’re right, our motive was just to make the records,” confirms Neil. “In presenting those records, our motive then was to personally be iconic: to have an iconic image.
“Particularly in our earlier records, there’s a lot of iconography of ourselves. There’s a lot of imagery for Pet Shop Boys: pointy hats, yawning, wigs. Giving ourselves personally, that was never part of the agenda, in part because we don’t have those personalities.”
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Aside from posting the occasional ‘Pet Text’ on Twitter of what they’re up to on tour or in the studio, Pet Shop Boys don’t do social media. How would they cope if they were starting out now, when every aspect of a musician’s life is relentlessly documented?
“Some people can’t help but have a personal life all over the place,” smiles Tennant. “But I think it’s still possible to keep a distance. Lady Gaga is similar to us: tons of imagery, but you don’t really know much about her, do you? We worked with Lady Gaga at the Brit Awards in 2009 and her work ethic was so impressive.”
Lowe posits The Weeknd as another modern star with mystique, pointing out: “I don’t even know what he looks like. All I know about him is he can’t spell.”
Neil: “That’s a great example. The life is very much part of the younger generation, to the extent that their life is very much part of pop music nowadays. But I don’t know what The Weeknd looks like either, and that’s because he doesn’t want you to know. He makes amazing pop records, so I think we could have been like him.
“And then of course, there’s Madonna. You think you know her, but she’s still got that classic 80s distance. She’s embraced Instagram, but only to create new imagery of herself. It’s always: ‘This is my new look.’ Madonna’s new look can be showing her bum to the camera, but it’s never revealing anything about the inner Madonna.”
And with that, to business. Neil and Chris are here to discuss SMASH, their capped-up compendium of the 55 Pet Shop Boys singles from West End Girls in 1985 to I Don’t Wanna from most recent album Hotspot 35 years later.
Chronologically sequenced, it’s an astonishing three CDs (or six LPs) of how Pet Shop Boys simply do pop music better than anyone else. SMASH just might have instantly marched its way into being the best singles compilation by anyone, ever.
MORE THAN A DREAM
SMASH is a defining statement, but it started prosaically, when former record label Parlophone pointed out that 1991 singles collection Discography was no longer available on vinyl and wasn’t that remiss of them?
“We always want to make something new out of our old product,” reasons Neil. “We suggested to Parlophone, ‘Why not do ‘Discography 1-3’ and bring it up to date?’”
Lifelong PSB designers Farrow duly created sleeves for each volume, which is when the duo began having doubts. Neil: “Discography had been done as a title, and it’s always a difficult word to say anyway.”
As they were playing the first leg of their singles tour under the name Dreamworld, after Hotspot’s euphoric Years & Years collaboration, Neil suggested ‘Dreamworld 1-3’. But Chris stated: ‘I don’t fancy Discography, but I don’t like Dreamworld either.”
Over to Chris: “We briefly thought about calling it Hit Music, after our song on Actually. But that’s two words.” You could have cheated and joined them together, as on previous compilation PopArt in 2003. “We could,” admits Chris doubtfully.
“But, as you say, it’s cheating. Then we were in New York, talking about Roy Lichtenstein, because if you’re in New York, you’ll start talking about him and his ‘POW!’, ‘WOW!’ paintings. ‘SMASH’ is a very Roy Lichtenstein word, and of course it’s associated with hit records. Then there’s the connection with Neil having worked at Smash Hits. So here we are: SMASH.”
“It’s nice to have all the singles in one place,” summarises Neil.
Except pedants – yes, like Classic Pop – will note SMASH isn’t quite all of Pet Shop Boys’ singles. The deluxe CD version of SMASH adds two Blu-Rays: one of the videos for those 55 singles, the other for 13 more PSB ‘singles’ including London and Axis.
Who better to ask what exactly comprises a single in the modern era than Pet Shop Boys? “We had to define ‘What is a single?’ with SMASH,” nods Tennant. “Weird things happen with singles now. Angela will say something like: ‘Kevin – our radio and TV promo guy – wants a single for 6 Music.’
“So we suggested Burning The Heather, because that sounds like a 6 Music song to us, though it may well play into a clichéd idea of what 6 Music is: it’s got Bernard Butler on it, so it’s got a story for 6 Music.
“But, although we released it as a 7”, Burning The Heather is only on the Blu-Ray of SMASH, because we don’t really regard it as a proper single. It’s not in the Pet Shop Boys’ singles canon.”
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The most notable omission on the regular SMASH is How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?, a No.4 hit in 1991 as a double A-side with their cover of Where The Streets Have No Name. “It wasn’t played on the radio,” shrugs Neil.
“Streets Have No Name: tons of radio. The single version of …Seriously was the first time we worked with Brothers In Rhythm.”
Chris interjects: “Oh, I like that version, very moody. But it just doesn’t sound like a single. And it’s not a single. Remember: we decide, not you.” Cue delighted laugh.
Although the Top 40 has long been broken and a closed shop to artists of Pet Shop Boys’ vintage, unless via a particularly dramatic Netflix sync – “it’s annoying, but we got over the singles chart years ago,” rationalises Neil – Pet Shop Boys are still all about singles.
“Even if it’s now redundant, we still think: ‘What’s the single?’ when we’re making an album,” explains Chris. “To us, a single is a type of record – what we imagine would be a hit.”
Neil adds: “It’s about thinking of a song: ‘Oh, this is definitely a single.’ Gorillaz’ new album has a great song, Silent Running, where I thought: ‘That sounds like a single.’
“Our ethos from the start was that every track on the album should be able to be a single. We might have veered from that occasionally, but every track on Hotspot could be a single. All its songs are super-catchy, to our ears.”
That ethos is integral to how Pet Shop Boys write songs, as Neil emphasises: “It’s a real discipline, making a single. We’ve always thought of singles – and pop songs generally – as a discipline.
“You have to get a lot into a short amount of time. To write a three-minute single is much more difficult than writing a five-and-a-half minute track.”
Lowe is pleased that brevity has returned to singles, noting: “It’s good that singles have generally got a lot shorter again. Three minutes: ample. If you can’t get a song over the crossing in three minutes, forget it.” Neil: “Remember, the great age of the single was the 60s.”
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Chris: “Exactly: two-and-a-half minutes.” Neil: “The revolution came with Strawberry Fields Forever, which was five minutes.” Chris: “Could have been shorter.” (Beatles Ed: It was four minutes).
Although he’s in favour of new artists getting to the point with their singles, Lowe admits: “I struggle with a lot of modern pop. I know Taylor Swift is very popular, but I wouldn’t recognise one of her songs. Maybe it’s because I’m old or don’t listen to her music but, given her level of success, I thought I’d at least recognise one of her songs.
“If you didn’t know who Harry Styles was, you will have heard As It Was and probably go ‘I love that song,’ even if you didn’t know it’s by him. I don’t have that with Taylor Swift.”
Neil continues: “I don’t think Taylor Swift has got the song which is our definition of a hit: a record you have to make no effort to listen to, because it’s just there. As It Was is one of those records. So was Liam Gallagher a couple of years ago. I was aware, without making any effort, Liam had a song out that was just as good as Oasis.”
THE POP KIDS
Beyoncé has also come under Pet Shop Boys’ microscope, as Chris volunteers: “I listened to Beyoncé’s new album on a train journey recently. It was very good, it was accomplished and the production was fantastic. But, at the end of it, I couldn’t remember one track or think what the standout was.”
With this attitude to the importance of hits, it’s no wonder Neil chooses West End Girls when asked his choice of Pet Shop Boys’ best single.
After Lowe jokes: “What’s the longest Pet Shop Boys single? That’d be my answer,” Tennant ponders: “You can’t give a definitive answer to our best single, but West End Girls is a perfect single.
“During lockdown, The Guardian said it was Britain’s best ever No.1 single. I thought that was a bit random, really. I’d have made Good Vibrations the best ever No.1.”
Chris turns to Neil, faintly aghast: “Good Vibrations? Would you? Oh, I wouldn’t. I suppose that’s the whole point of a meaningless poll.”
As Tennant emphasises, “West End Girls isn’t really like anything else we’ve ever done. It’s actually a classic one-hit-wonder record, because it’s like nothing else. I thought Pet Shop Boys were very likely going to be one-hit wonders.”
Referring to follow-up Love Comes Quickly, Chris admits: “I thought we were going to be classic one-and-a-half hit wonders, which is even worse.”
Neil adds: “We were on a classic trajectory. Our first single: No.1 everywhere around the world. Next single: No.19 in the UK. Now, the logical trajectory is that the next record goes to No.29, the one after doesn’t make the Top 50, and then you’re dropped.”
Chris: “Dropped and unrecouped.” Neil: “I adore Love Comes Quickly. We still perform it, and every night I think: ‘I love this song.’” Chris: “It’s one of my favourites, too.”
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What saved Pet Shop Boys was Suburbia, which returned Pet Shop Boys to the Top 10 in 1986. Neil recalls: “We fought against that trajectory, because we knew we had a good song in Suburbia.
“We’d recorded Suburbia just before finishing Please, so the album version is basically Stephen Hague polishing up the demo. For the single of Suburbia, we went back to West End Girls and made it very filmic. Suburbia starts with the noise of steps leading down to the street, which still sounds very iconic.
“We made it much bigger sounding, replacing the little synth in the middle of the album version with huge ‘Ba-ba-ba-DUM’ synth brass. When we finished it with Julian Mendelsohn, I thought: ‘Now, that is a hit record,’ and it was huge, particularly in Germany and France. Suburbia led to It’s A Sin and everything that followed.”
So began Pet Shop Boys’ own imperial phase. Are there any songs from that era they wish they’d released as singles? “Maybe Kings Cross,” Neil considers. “But I think that’s really more of a great album track.”
Chris offers: “Mine isn’t one of ours. Daydreaming, which we did for Dusty Springfield, is one of my favourite songs we’ve ever done. The way Dusty sings that – talk about yearning.
“You could have the acid house track we did with Dusty, Occupy Your Mind, as the double A-side. What a fantastic single package that could have been. But Dusty didn’t want either song as a single, so that was that. Do you have any?”
Classic Pop volunteers I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today, the Pets-go-Phil Spector euphoria on the B-side of 2004’s standalone single Flamboyant.
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“I totally agree,” smiles Neil. “If you want a great lost Pet Shop Boys single, I will totally go with I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today. It’s unusual for us, in that it’s 1960s-sounding. It was inspired by seeing The Strokes at Heaven, coming out and singing ‘I didn’t get where I am today,’ which is a lyric from their first album (Strokes Ed: It isn’t).
“We didn’t put it on Release because it didn’t fit the mood and wasn’t on any of that album’s B-sides as we always thought it could be a single.
“It’s the same with Shameless, the B-side of Go West. I think we learned something from Shameless: if there’s something you can do easily, you don’t really value it. I often say to people now: ‘You only don’t like that because you think it was too easy.’
“Really, you should value what comes easily because it’s the core of your talent. In the Shameless days, Chris and I could do OTT Hi-NRG tracks with funny lyrics so easily. Everyone thought: ‘That’s what Pet Shop Boys do, isn’t it?’ Because of that, we never thought for a moment that Shameless would go on Very, when it could absolutely be a single.”
Have Pet Shop Boys ever pandered to their audience? “Go West could be seen as pandering, but it really wasn’t,” insists Tennant. “It was meant as a comment on the AIDS crisis and the changes politically in Russia and Eastern Europe.
“But it could have been seen as pandering, because Go West really defined us. It was so huge, and then its football chant arrived. In a way, that changes you and makes you become a certain thing: ‘Pet Shop Boys: Big men, four-on-the-floor.’
“We tried to shrug that off. Was Always On My Mind pandering? Absolutely not, because we thought it was going to be the B-side of Rent.
“I’m always interested by just how much we’ve brought into our singles: So Hard and I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore are very dark lyrics. I became aware of how dark some of those are when Stuart Price reworked them for our singles show.”
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That ethos of packing their singles as tight as a wildly infectious pop song will allow stretches back even further than West End Girls, as Chris remembers: “We wrote a Pet Shop Boys manifesto when we started.”
Neil: “We sent it out with our demo. It was quite heartfelt, and it said what we wanted to do. We also made a mixtape of bits of records that we loved, to send to producers, of: ‘This is what we like.’
“It was things like claps panning across the speakers and breakdowns of lovely strings coming in. If I played that tape to you now, you’d say: ‘There it is. That’s Pet Shop Boys.’ Left it on a plane, sadly.”
As soon as West End Girls took off, that manifesto was lived large, as Neil explains: “From the start, we had a different way of doing things. Our first appearance on Top Of The Pops is regarded as a landmark in being deadpan.
“If you see it now, it doesn’t really look like that, it just seemed it for the time. Chris famously told me before we went on: ‘Don’t look triumphant!’”
If Pet Shop Boys didn’t look triumphant at making it onto TOTP, did they feel triumphant? “It was lovely to be No.1,” smiles Chris. “But triumphant? Definitely not. It took us too long to get there to feel triumphant.”
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Their actual triumphant moment was getting the Christmas No.1 with Always On My Mind in 1987, beating Rick Astley’s cover of When I Fall In Love.
“Pete Waterman was furious, apparently,” cackles Chris. “Fuming,” adds Neil. Chris: “Livid.” Neil: “And the funny thing is, we were working at Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s studio at the time, with Patsy Kensit. That felt triumphant.
“Of course, we didn’t look triumphant on Top Of The Pops, though my father noticed, as I was singing with my hands in my pockets. He told me: ‘You were looking very nonchalant.’”
How do the Pets feel that Always On My Mind never gets any love at Christmas?
“We were a classic record that happened to be No.1 at Christmas, like Don’t You Want Me,” counters Neil. “Does Don’t You Want Me get any love at Christmas?” It’s on Now Christmas… “Is it?” boggles Neil. He’s very, very good at looking appalled, Neil Tennant.
“Really? In that case, Always On My Mind should be on Now Christmas.” Chris: “What I hate are the novelty Christmas No.1s. I’ve never heard any of those sausage roll records, but I know I don’t like the idea of it.”
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Despite their glee at beating Stock, Aitken & Waterman, Neil and Chris are big fans, as Chris enthuses: “That Channel 5 documentary was brilliant.” Neil continues: “We always defended them at the time, even though Pete Waterman would slag us off. People never realise the level of talent and application needed to churn out hit after hit.
“There are musicians who could never write a hit, yet they’d create three in a day. I know it’s formulaic, but to have a formula to write to is a great thing.
“The number of their songs that are gorgeous pop is incredible. I really love Wouldn’t Change A Thing by Kylie, and Say I’m Your Number One by Princess. Both gorgeous, and Better The Devil You Know is a masterpiece. We didn’t have a feud with Stock, Aitken & Waterman, not at all. Didn’t need to: we got the Christmas No.1, remember.”
Conversely, the closest Pet Shop Boys came to feeling the dumper circling – “It’s a very underrated place, the dumper,” Chris reminds us. “There’s so much talent in there,” – was in 1999. Not only was an arena tour selling poorly, their live promoter had gone bankrupt.
“Expensive tour, losing massive amounts of money, financing it ourselves,” reflects Neil. “That was the low moment. We didn’t know it when we started that Nightlife tour, but touring became what we’d do for the rest of our lives.
“Playing Glastonbury in 2000 was the changing point, as people noticed us again. We’ve played Glastonbury three times now, and always had the same reaction: people are surprised how much they liked it. That’s insulting in a way, but ultimately it’s good for us.”
Last year’s Glastonbury coincided with the first leg of their Dreamworld singles tour. The second run starts on 17 June. “I love touring the hits,” says Neil. “
During previous tours, I was aware of: ‘Oh, they really liked that new track,” but also: ‘I see everyone’s going for a drink now.’ We just wondered what it’d be like if the crowds knew every song. The energy level stays up all the way through.”
Chris reveals: “Doing SMASH, we both would have liked to edit our early singles to make them a bit shorter, like they are in the live show now. Because you know what? They’re all better for being shorter.”
It’s clear Pet Shop Boys have insightful pop ideas on command, but still – about their inner lives? “I can’t understand why people think they don’t know about that,” frowns Neil, briefly stern.
“It’s only on the surface that we don’t give a lot away. Look at the lyrics or read the stuff we’ve done around our music: has a group ever been so documented as us?”
It’s true their fanclub magazine has exquisitely detailed Pet Shop Boys’ thoughts month by month since 1989, expanded by Chris Heath’s fantastic biographies Literally and Versus America.
“Those books are almost embarrassingly revealing,” Chris emphasises. “And if you read the unedited versions, they’re even worse.”
Yes, but they don’t detail the sex and drugs, if much is to be had. Have either Neil or Chris died for 30 seconds, like Dave Gahan? “Oh no, we’re not like that,” attests Neil. “Dave Gahan can’t get away from that story, can he? But that’s what pop media does.
Quite rightly, it reduces you to a little avatar of what you’re famous for. He’s in Depeche Mode and he died for 30 seconds: Dave Gahan.”
What’s Pet Shop Boys’ avatar? “We’re our Funko Pop dolls,” laughs Tennant. “I was very sceptical when it was suggested we do one, I just let them get on with it. But when they came in, I got how cute the format is.
“As portraits of Chris and I, they’re quite truthful. There’s something about them that makes me think: ‘Well, there they are: that’s the Pet Shop Boys.’”
Compiling SMASH, the Pets were delighted at how strong its third volume is, with Neil noting: “There’s a dip in the middle where we got more deep, but we got more poptastic again. The Pop Kids is one of my favourite of our singles and that third disc holds up really well.”
As well as updating their 2006 artwork book Catalogue next year and planning a musical based around a Hans Christian Andersen story (a different tale to their 2011 Andersen ballet The Most Incredible Thing), Neil and Chris began recording a new album in March. It’s being made with Depeche Mode producer James Ford.
- Read more: Making Pet Shop Boys: Electric
“We wrote at least two albums’ worth of songs during lockdowns,” Neil reveals. “Chris got me to start programming, which I’d never done before.”
Chris: “I pointed him towards this incredibly obscure software called Garageband. I had to tell Neil it’s free with everything.”
Neil: “Chris was saying: ‘You just get your keyboard and…’ I had to tell him: ‘What keyboard?’ I bought one for £70 off Amazon. Then I was off, writing songs. The new record is very tuneful, less super-electronic sounding. Strings will be returning. It’s more autobiographical, looking back.”
Chris summarises Pet Shop Boys’ future plans: “Touring places we haven’t been, musical, Catalogue, maybe a new production of Closer To Heaven, new album. That’s it from us.” Not forgetting more incredible singles, undoubtedly.
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