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Sun September 9, 2012
Music Interviews

Pet Shop Boys Leave 'West End' To Explore 'Elysium'

Originally published on Mon September 10, 2012 1:40 pm

For 25 years, the London synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys have done one thing better than any other duo in the UK: sell records.

In fact, they've sold 50 million records worldwide since Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met at an electronics shop in 1981.

Many people were reminded of the Pet Shop Boys when they helped close out the 2012 Olympic Games in London with their biggest hit, "West End Girls." The duo, however, continues to make new music and has just released their 11th studio album, Elysium.

Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz sat down with Neil Tennant to talk about their early days and influences, as well as the new album.


Interview Highlights

On the single "Winner" from their new album Elysium: "It became clear after a while that we were writing songs about being pop stars at our age, which is in our 50s. And pop music is in theory, at least it used to be, a young people's musical form. I think the main thing is whether people still think the song sounds fresh. I think the funny thing about pop music is it goes through a phase of being dated, and then it sort of comes out of that and sounds fresh again."

On the rap roots of "West End Girls": "When we wrote the song, it was meant to be a rap record. It was influenced by Grandmaster Flash. If it had been sung or spoken in an American accent or rap accent you've had realized it was a rap record and the verses are rapped."

On their influence on gay culture: "Well I've always had a very ambivalent relationship with the idea of gay culture, because I think it's often been used to marginalize people. In the United States it was used to marginalize the Pet Shop Boys. For instance, we were briefly on Atlantic Records in the mid-90s, and all of the marketing was done by the gay marketing department. And I sort of resent the idea that being gay means you liked a certain kind of music, which maybe that includes the Pet Shop Boys."

On the merging of pop, electronic/dance and hip-hop music: "I think it's quite a good development in that all these different styles of music have been mixed up in one giant EDM [electronic dance music] pot. So Snoop Doggy Dog can be performing with David Guetta, which 10 years ago or 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. Pop music is a fantastic monster; it eats up anything and regurgitates it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

RAZ: In 1986, this song, "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys, went right to the top of the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

PET SHOP BOYS: (Singing) In West End town, a dead end world. The East End boys and West End girls.

RAZ: For the past 25 years, the London-based synth-pop duo have done one thing better than almost any other duo in Britain: The Pet Shop Boys have managed to sell records - a lot of them - 50 million worldwide since Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe founded the group in the early '80s.

They're about to release their latest studio album "Elysium." And this is the first single. It's called "Winner."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINNER")

BOYS: (Singing) You're a winner. I'm a winner. This is all happening so fast.

RAZ: When I spoke with Neil Tennant recently, he told me that when he and his bandmate, Chris Lowe, started writing songs for this record, they had a realization.

NEIL TENNANT: It became clear after a while that we were writing songs about being pop stars at our age, which is in our 50s. And pop music is in theory, well, it used to be, a young people's musical form.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINNER")

BOYS: (Singing) It's been a long time coming. We've been in the running for so long, but now we're on our way.

TENNANT: I think the main thing is whether people still think the song sounds fresh. I think the funny thing about pop music is it goes through a phase of being dated, and then it sort of comes out of that and sounds fresh again. So for instance in the '90s, everyone used to despise '80's music (unintelligible) sounded really dated. And then suddenly, in the last 10 or 15 years, it sounds really, really fresh and also more interesting because the '80's records have sort of unusual lyrics and experimental music (unintelligible).

RAZ: I want to stick with this theme of your early stuff because there's a song actually called "Your Early Stuff" on this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR EARLY STUFF")

BOYS: (Singing) You've been around, but you don't look too rough. And I still quite like some of your early stuff.

TENNANT: This song came about because I travel around London in a taxi instead of a car. The London taxi drivers are very talkative. They'll ask me questions about the Pet Shop Boys when they recognize me. And sometimes they're very, very flattering, sometimes they're quite rude. And they just assume that maybe I've retired now. And I would say to them, do you listen to the music? And they say, no, just talk radio, which is (unintelligible). And also, there's always the thing in music, people were so - I really like your early stuff, which is normally (unintelligible) pure. (Unintelligible) we often like people's latest stuff, like Chris is a fan of Elvis Presley's latest stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR EARLY STUFF")

BOYS: (Singing) You've been around, but you don't look too rough. And I still quite like some of your early stuff.

RAZ: On that topic, I mean, on this idea of your early stuff, you get asked about it. And recently, you guys played the closing ceremony at the Olympics, which was great. It was amazing to see all these performers and you guys and George Michael on the stage. But you did perform probably one of your - if not your biggest hit, "West End Girls." That was the number one track in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

RAZ: That song I've read you refer to it as the first number one rap record in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

BOYS: (Rapping) Sometimes you're better off dead. There's a gun in your hand and it's pointing at your head.

TENNANT: Yeah.

RAZ: What do you mean by that?

TENNANT: Well, when we wrote the song, it was meant to be a rap record. It was influenced by Grandmaster Flash, but I said it in English accent. If it had been in an American accent or in a rap accent, you'd realized it was a rap record and the verses are rapped.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

BOYS: (Rapping) If, when or why, what, how much have you got? Have you got it? Do you get it? If so, how often? Which do you choose, a hard or soft option?

TENNANT: It's interesting no one ever mentions it a rap record if you think about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

TENNANT: (Rapping) Sometimes you're better off dead. There's a gun in your hand and it's pointing at your head.

BOYS: (Rapping) Sometimes you're better off dead. There's a gun in your hand and it's pointing at your head. You think you're mad, too unstable.

TENNANT: I mean, it was early '80s rap record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

BOYS: (Rapping) In a West End town, a dead end world. The East End boys and West End girls.

RAZ: When you started out your music, was - and to some extent, still is hugely important in the gay community. And at the time, at that time, when gay culture was still not yet mainstream, it was even more significant, did you guys consciously seek that out, that place in gay culture?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

BOYS: (Rapping) Too many shadows is whispering voices.

TENNANT: Well, I've always had a very ambivalent relationship with the idea of gay culture. For instance, we were briefly on Atlantic Records in the mid-'90s, and all of the marketing was done by the gay marketing department. And I sort of resent the idea that being gay means you liked a certain kind of music, which maybe that includes the Pet Shop Boys. But now, I think we are - in Britain and (unintelligible) parts of America in a more open society where people's sexuality doesn't have to determine every aspect of their life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST END GIRLS")

RAZ: What do you make of this notion that pop music, electronic/dance and hip-hop have kind of begun to merge? When you turn on the radio and you will hear elements of all these things in a Katy Perry song or a Kanye West song or a Rihanna song.

TENNANT: No, I think what (unintelligible) that P. Diddy (unintelligible) one summer, and suddenly it became appealing for hip-hop stars and rap stars to work with euro music, house music. So Snoop Doggy Dog can be performing with David Guetta, which 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. That's my vision for the future, part of my own future anyway. But we never make plans, you know, little work on the - on what we're doing and think about the next thing. We don't look ahead (unintelligible). And pop music is (unintelligible).

RAZ: That's Neil Tennant. He and Chris Lowe are the Pet Shop Boys. Their new record "Elysium" is out this week. You can hear more music from the record at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING")

BOYS: (Singing) I know when enough's enough and you're leaving. You've had a lot of time to decide on your freedom, but I can still find someone to believe in love. Our love is dead...

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or go to npr.org/weekendatc. And don't forget, a new round of Three-Minute Fiction is now open. Submit your story at npr.org/threeminutefiction. The winner will be published in The Paris Review. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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