How the Pet Shop Boys unintentionally made one of the best tour diary in pop historical past
Pop music, Brian Eno as soon as stated, is not nearly making music within the conventional sense of the phrase.
Instead, it is about “the creation of a new, imaginary world, which beckons the listener to join it”.
For the final 39 years, the Pet Shop Boys have been doing precisely that, making anthemic dance music that wryly scrutinizes tradition, politics, private relationships and the character of pop itself.
On stage, they’ve created their very own universe the place theatre meets pop – pushing the boundaries of what a reside present can obtain. And, alongside the way in which, they stumbled into top-of-the-line biographies in pop historical past.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in a Chelsea electronics store, the place an opportunity dialog about music and synthesisers began a lifelong friendship and musical partnership.
Four years later, in 1985, they scored their first primary – West End Girls, a strolling tempo disco monitor concerning the drama and pleasure of late evening Soho, the place cultures meet and meld and conflict surrounded by “faces on posters” and the ever-present risk of intercourse or violence – or each.
From the start, a way of thriller surrounded the band. They weren’t showy or glamorous like regular pop stars. Tennant wasn’t a pure vocalist. On Top of the Pops, they barely moved.
No-one knew fairly what to make of them, at the same time as they constructed up an enviable discography of excellent pop singles. Hovering within the air was the everlasting query: Was this all an ironic prank?
The assumption rankled the band, as journalist Chris Heath found when he tagged alongside on their first ever tour.
“Yes, I’m supposed to be the irony merchant,” scoffed Tennant, who maintained, “most of what we do is meant totally sincerely”.
“When we started out we got into hi-energy and hip-hop music and we liked the power and the rawness and the excitement of it. And we’ve always tried to make records that had the same delirium and excitement, or a very strong feeling about them.
“But, ” he added dolefully, “my voice can’t sound ‘up’ once I sing. I actually can’t do it.”
This interview was captured in Heath’s book – Pet Shop Boys, Literally – a phenomenal piece of observational journalism, cataloguing the group’s first, tentative venture onto the stage in 1989.
They’d planned and cancelled two previous tours, in 1986 and 1987, discovering that their ambitions for a theatrical live show weren’t compatible with the economics of a pop concert.
It was a generous offer from a Japanese promoter that finally got them on the road but, even then, they weren’t convinced of the wisdom of playing night after night to actual fans.
“Rock reveals are actually embarrassing. The viewers could be embarrassing and the performers I discover cringeworthy,” Lowe postulates as they set of for Asia.
Later, at a press conference to promote their shows in Hong Kong, Lowe tells the media: “We’re not a reside band, actually.”
Heath’s book offers unprecedented access to the band. He’s there in hotel rooms and on tour busses, he dances with them at Japanese discos and takes a long walk with Tennant in the countryside. There are no drugs and no sex (except when they stumble across a couple in flagrante on a hillside).
Instead, it’s a frank and revealing peek behind the curtain.
Tennant and Lowe are simultaneously bristling with self-confidence and racked with insecurities, not least because the tour hasn’t sold out in the UK.
They are also fantastically catty – slagging off Adam Ant, Piers Morgan, bobble hats, their tour promoter, and even their fans – while getting giddily excited that Jason Donovan might come to one of their shows (he doesn’t).
While they’re wary of rock cliché, Heath doesn’t spare them when things go a bit Spinal Tap.
Before their first concert, Lowe flies into a rage because a backdrop curtain that should be black is, in fact, brown. When his mother comes to see them play in the UK, her first comment isn’t about the music but his haircut: “I did not know you’d develop into a Buddhist”.
Throughout the book, Tennant slowly starts to enjoy himself, finding that being a rock star sometimes is all its cracked up to be.
“I’ve an obsession with teenage hysteria and simply to seek out myself on the centre of it, I simply discover fairly thrilling,” he observes.
But there’s mock horror when the singer shouts “arigato”, the Japanese word for thank you, at the end of one of the shows.
“I assumed ‘How shameless,'” Lowe tells Heath. “I bowed my head in disgrace and thought, ‘he is a tart'”.
No wonder that, when the band first read the manuscript in 1990, they declared themselves to be “kind of horrified”.
Sadly the book, and its 1993 sequel Pet Shop Boys vs America, have long been out of print… until earlier this week, when they were republished by Penguin books.
“They’ve been in a bizarre netherworld,” says Heath on the phone from the US. “Perversely, there’s one thing fairly good about having these books which might be unavailable and that individuals speak about like some thriller… But I’d moderately folks had been studying them.”
Interestingly, the books were initially written off by reviewers who were sniffy about Heath’s decision to delve into the minutiae of touring life, feeling it was all surface and no depth.
The Face’s Dave Halsam said Literally “is not a e-book, it is a record” adding: “I’d have most popular a e-book that informed a number of truths, or perhaps a few lies.”
But that misses the point, says Heath.
The author – who, like Tenant, started his writing career at Smash Hits – believed there was value in close-up reporting, without having to explicitly state a grand intellectual thesis.
“I at all times thought I used to be going to have the ability to inform a a lot deeper story [through] an unbelievable accumulation of element,” he explains.
“No-one reads a novel and says, ‘It’s only a load of stuff that occurs,’ as a result of they go in considering there is a better goal to all this; that each one of these things is being juxtaposed to do one thing better than simply telling us a sequence of occasions or a sequence of conversations.
“Any great non-fiction book should be that – but somehow that wasn’t the way that people went into a book about pop music.”
In the intervening years, although, the e-book’s fame has grown; and others have adopted Heath’s type of reportage – most notably Bill Flanagan, who spent two years on U2’s Zoo TV tour for the similarly-revelatory U2 At The End Of The World.
The query stays, although: How did Heath get this unprecedented entry?
“There’s not an incredibly simple answer,” he says. “People took photographers on tour as a standard thing in the 80s and I think they thought, ‘Why don’t we take a journalist?’
“I used to be pleasant with them, and I’d written about them a bit, however I do not suppose that they had thought concerning the finish outcome, notably.”
In fact, discussions about the nature of the book form a recurring part of the narrative.
“This can by no means come out,” exclaims Tennant at one juncture, but surprisingly little was expunged from the record.
“Famously, the factor that bought minimize out of those books is most of after they swear – however that is completely brazenly declared,” insists Heath.
“People think about there’s an entire different unexpurgated model of it – however why would you think about that in a e-book that is already far more truthful and revealing than you’d usually anticipate?”
Despite their horror at the original manuscript (“We’re horrible, aren’t we?” said Lowe after reading it for the first time) the band were sufficiently happy to ask Heath back on the road for their first US tour a couple of years later.
It came at an interesting point for the duo. Their fifth album, Behaviour, had been critically-acclaimed, but failed to scale the chart peaks of their previous work. Their new single, a kitsch cover of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name, wasn’t getting the expected radio play, meaning they were embarking on an ambitious tour, in a country that hadn’t been their strongest market, from an uncertain base.
It didn’t help that the first night had to be cancelled due to sound problems. Then Lowe caused a minor diplomatic incident by walking off stage during a performance on Jay Leno’s late night chat show, furious that the camera was focusing solely on Tennant and the backing singers.
The band spend large portions of the tour fretting about their future. Heath captures one typical exchange backstage at Los Angeles’ Universal Ampitheater.
“We’ve gone off the boil with the general public,” sighs Neil.
“It’s all all the way down to the album not being pretty much as good,” says Chris.
“I believe we have misplaced among the teenage viewers,” digresses Neil
“I believe we have got to put in writing some easier, hooky music,” says Chris.
“Yeah,” says Neil. “That’s what I believe.”
“It was powerful,” says Heath, “touring America with a file that wasn’t on fireplace, and with this extremely sophisticated, costly present – however I do not keep in mind an enormous despondency.
“My more glib memory is that, pretty much always, they’ve been a mixture of a complete exuberance and [thinking] ‘Oh it’s all over, let’s not bother.'”
Ultimately, the Pet Shop Boys’ Performance tour was broadly a hit.
The US press welcomed the high-concept, theatrical stage present as a revolution in stagecraft – the San Francisco Examiner known as it “more performance art than rock concert” whereas the New York Daily News in contrast it to a Met Opera manufacturing of Satyricon.
And, after all, Pet Shop Boys did return and write some “simpler, hooky music”. Their subsequent album, 1993’s Very, contained the hit singles Can You Forgive Her and Go West, and stays their biggest-seller.
But whereas Heath’s second e-book has a considerably conventional “triumph-over-adversity” narrative arc, Heath says that is only a glad accident.
“I’ve written other books where I’ve had pressure from the publisher to have some sort of ‘moment’ at the point where the book ends,” he says.
“And I’m not shy of expressing larger themes and showing powerful arcs of things changing; but lives don’t end just because the book ends.”
Heath went on to put in writing for Rolling Stone and GQ – the place Paul McCartney informed him he’d envisioned DNA earlier than DNA was found whereas tripping on acid within the 1960s. He additionally wrote two painfully sincere books with Robbie Williams, primarily based on a similarly-unprecedented stage of entry.
The key to acquiring such revelatory interviews, he says, is simply to be keen on folks. And, often, to interrupt with social conventions.
“I always think,” he says, “one of the hardest questions to ask, but one of the best questions you can ask is the one I’m about to say…
“That was it.”
“It’s actually uncomfortable doing it. You should intentionally power one thing that each one your instincts are telling you, as a well mannered human deliver, to not do.
“But very often people have more to say, and you’ve just got to give them space.”
Pet Shop Boys, Literally and Pet Shop Boys vs America are out now.