Note: This interview took place in July 1987 in Toronto, and was originally published in the defunct national trade magazine ‘Campus Entertainment Report Canada’.
Keyboardist Chris Lowe, one half of the U.K. duo Pet Shop Boys, has just got up and changed the TV channel from MuchMusic to “Sesame Street”. His partner, Neil Tennant, is out of the hotel room, probably grabbing a breather from a morning of phone interviews at midday.
My brief chat with 27 year-old Chris, a former architect, includes topics such as “bonus” songs on CD’s (he doesn’t feel they are necessary), remixes of albums for different countries, and parts of the technical end in making the Boys’ second album actually. It’s clear he enjoys talking about details because they can affect all or part of his music.
Neil returns and, as you’ll discover, the 32 year-old former editor of the UK magazine Smash Hits loves to talk, and talk, about Pet Shop Boys. It’s hard to believe that these two bright chaps from London could have so influenced rock-oriented dance music in the two years since their remarkable debut Please, which spawned the worldwide #1, “West End Girls”.
“I think we’ve got a ‘sound”, Neil generalizes, “and I think on actually we’ve got a bit harder. It’s just that Pet Shop Boys’ attitude is a bit like punk’s in a way. We’re not hung up on nor interested in musicianship. We do what we want and sing what we want to sing about.”
Like Please, actually revels in well-weaved syntho-rhythms which simply make you want to dance. But it takes the music of Please a touch further using complex dance mixes and some unexpected experimentation instead of relying on a streamlined focus.
“We don’t sing patronizing, do-me-good sort of songs,” Neil explains. “We champion styles of music which have been sneered at, like Hi-NRG and Eurodisco. They’ve become fashionable partly because of us. The public loves it, so the UK charts are filled with it – not so much with Pet Shop Boys, but certainly Stock-Aitken-Waterman (producers of Bananarama, Samantha Fox, etc.). They have great melodies, they’re hard, dry records.”
Chris maintains that there are ‘post’ Pet Shop Boys bands about. Even a UK commercial for a men’s cologne has used the melody of “West End Girls” to its own advantage. Suddenly, Neil anticipates my next question about a major name similarity.
“Some people [this writer included] think that New Order’s “True Faith” sounds like us. I don’t think it sounds like us particularly. To me it’s New Order. There’s a slight chord change, but people say to us, “it’s you, it’s your sound”.
Stephen Hague may have produced Please and co-written and co-produced “True Faith”, but the only real aspect that runs through actually as rampantly as Please is the familiar sense of melodrama.
“We do like melodrama,” Neil admits – “Chris has this famous quote, “Tchaikovsky wrote through me and it worked!” We like music with a lot of strings and dramatic chord changes, and those arrangements go well with a sequencer bass line.”
Neil described “It’s A Sin”, the first hit from actually, publicly as being an ‘over the top’ arrangement, and Chris says the song had to be that way “specifically with its religious angle and gothic slant. Once you decide to go gothic you can’t hold back. You’ve got to have bolts of lightning and so on. We actually went and recorded it at a church to get the ambiance so we could get that scale.”
Similar to, but not inspired by, the film “The Name Of The Rose” (“a film neither of us has seen”, says Chris half-knowingly, half-jokingly), is the video for “It’s A Sin”, for which Neil has a wonderful anecdote.
“When we wrote it four and a half years ago, it was more supposed to be like “Joan Of Arc”. I was going to be burned at the stake, and in the end Chris was going to light the bonfire. The video crew later kept saying, of course, “You couldn’t be burned at the stake ‘cause they won’t show it on television”. We got Derek Jarman, set director on the Ken Russell film “The Devils” and director of “Caravaggio”, to direct. It’s quite slow paced, full of monks and such, with the right atmosphere.”
Pet Shop Boys seem to want to give a full picture of what their music is all about. In their short existence, they have had carte blanche over their records, complete control since their first release. Now you know the many mixes of “West End Girls” and “Opportunities” were their own doing. This led them to use mix-meisters Julian Mendelsohn and Shep Pettibone as co-producers of some cuts on actually, in addition to two from Stephen Hague. The Boys simply wanted other input.
“We had just done a remix of “Suburbia” with Julian, so we approached him. With Shep Pettibone, he had already done a few remixes (“Love Comes Quickly”) for us.”
Many performers would see “WARNING” lights flash at this point, as Chris acknowledges: “The only danger of doing this is that the album doesn’t hang together”.
From the extended remix of “One More Chance” (an old song of theirs) through the Boys’ match with Dusty Springfield on the Top 5 “What Have I Done To Deserve This” – from first listen, the certifiable hit here, with a fantastic melody structure – to the more offbeat “It Couldn’t Happen Here” (co-written with film score veteran Ennio Morricone), actually does indeed hang together.
“Everyone was worried it wouldn’t!”, Neil exclaims relievedly. “It was all us. We knew what we wanted. We realized people liked what we like, the dance remixes. We tried to make the dance tracks a lot harder and looser. (The cuts) are longer and looser than everyday pop songs.”
This will explain why another set of remixes, like their Disco EP of late 1986, will surface soon. The Boys’ UK #1 cover of Elvis Presley’s “Always On My Mind” will be on that record; it has just been released here as a single, though it’s not on actually. The new UK single returns to the current album, and it’s the high-powered track “Heart”.
Actually, actually, has gotten Pet Shop Boys over that perpetual sophomore jinx which halts new performers regularly. It will likely be regarded in future as a significant record which marked progression for both 80’s dance music and Pet Shop Boys.
One last question: That title, actually – here’s Neil again:
“We decided on the title while working with Shep Pettibone in London. When Chris and I would walk in and listen, both of us would say “Oh, it sounds quite good, actually”, and he’d get irritated by the faint praise he never got from us. He said one day, “Is that all you guys say, “quite good, actually”? We said, “Well gee, actually we’ll name the album that.” It seems to fit. Please had a very English title too. Actually is a lot more pushy, confident. Like Please, it’s a joke as well. When you go into a record shop and say “What’s playing?”, the reply could be “It’s Pet Shop Boys, actually”.