West End Guys

interview with the Pet Shop Boys

Chris Spedding
The scene was the Jockey Club room of the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Central Park South. I had been intercepted in the lobby by an EMI/Capitol press person, a functionary I had expected to fade discreetly away after he had escorted me to the cozy nook by the Jockey Club's open-hearth coal fire and paged the Pet Shop Boys - Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe - in their suites. But, noooo! Our EMI-person was evidently there to monitor proceedings should they get out of hand.
So I was in my
very best behavior...

NT Are you Chris Spedding, the guitar hero of yesteryer?
CS The same.
NT Oh, yeah? Cause when we asked our office the word came back, no it's the Chris Spedding from Details, but he is English. And we thought, oh, that's weird.
NT I kind of like that, "guitar hero of yesteryear," let that be my epitaph.
NT You played on "Price of Love," didn't you?
CS With Bryan Ferry? Yeah, that was me.
NT And you had a group as well, er...
CS Yeah, but wait, we all know you used to be an editor of Smash Hits magazine before you were a Pet Shop Boy, and we've established that I'm a musician dabbling in journalism - but who's interviewing who around here? (laughter) You know, one thing I thought we could talk about was ... I always find it difficult to write about stuff I actually like. I mean, what di you say after, "Yeah, it's great!"? 'Cause when you don't like something isn't it so easy to knock out page after page of smart-ass stuff putting it down? Which is a real cop-out. And when you consider that some writers are paid per word, it's no wonder a lot of music journalism has gotten so negative and cynical. That's why I think this kind of chit-chat stuff we're doing now can sometimes be more interesting and illuminating - let's hope so, anyway - getting pretentious and pompous.
NT I know what you mean. (points to Walkman) What're you taping over?
CS The Porno Sponges
NT That's a group, isn't it?
CS I don't know. one would tend to hope so, er? I must say I never listened to it. Wait an admission! But you did assume I was taping over something, right?
NT I just assumed - I always used to! Ah - the Sharks! That was the group you were in. Yeah, a friend of mine had the album.
CS Oh? That first Sharks album was kind of all right. But getting back to the Pet Shop Boys, after the huge success of your debut album, please - with its number-one single, "West End Girls" - what're your future plans for recording?
NT Oh, when we get back to England we'll start doing the usual demos, you know.
CS Need a guitar player? Ho, ho!
NT Well, Chris (Lowe) hates guitars! In fact there's only guitar on one track on the album and that's really Fairlight (a keyboard that's not strictly a synthesizer since it samples real sounds).
CS Hm, Hates guitars, eh? L know exactly how he feels.
CS Now, I bet you guys haven't seen the official PSB bio, the press handout that's being circulated to the media?
CL No, we haven't
CS Want to take a look.
CL (reading) Hm, this seems fair enough.
CS Anything you'd like to add?
CL Oh, it's going to be as easy as that, is it - just sign at the bottom?
CS Well, if you're ever wondered why you get asked the same questions all the time it's because everybody's referring to this same press handout. These things can become holy writ.
CL Oh, I like this bit, "...by the end of 1984 they had extricated themselves from their contract..."
CS Yeah, reading between the lines I'd say that pretty early on you had the usual sharp lessons in those unseen pitfalls for the unwary.
NT Oh, yeah.
CS ... and probably learned an awful lot about the devious, wicked ways of the music biz in short order, er? And all of your past ezperience writing about music ...
NT ... was a complete waste of time. Yes! Good point! People always assume that if you've been a music journalist you're going to know an awful lot about the music business, but actually music journalists don't know anything at all. They'll assume that just cause you've been signed for, say, four million dollars, you're walking around with four million in your pocket and you can buy apartments for four million. but, of course, even if the figure was accurately reported in the first place, which is rare, that money's nothing to do with you. So, yes, it was a bit of a crash course. Although we'd probably do it all again tomorrow.
CS Well, here is a carefully conceived question for you: Since it's just the two of you, that's okay for the studio. But you must have considered the inevitable question of what to do when it comes to playing live. Will you use backing tapes? Or do like the Eurythmics and get some extra guys in?
CL We've played live twice already, The first time was really funny cause everything, including the voice, was on the backing track tape.
NT The support group was sitting there really grumpy, really hating us.
CL Dead embarrassing. You see, the song we were going to perform that evening was with a drum machine and keyboards. Of course, we didn't really have any equipment in those days, just what we could muster together - and when we switched the drum machine on ... it didn't work! (laughs) The whole thing was a disaster. So we decided to stick to backing tapes which consisted of singing and playing along with a tape of the actual record. Oh, and then we played totally live on BBC TV's Old grey Whistle Test. We used two Fairlights on that.
NT One song was just piano.
CL Yes, one was just piano, but we had just gotten a new remix of the other song and we liked that arrangement. So we decided to play it using these two Fairlights. And that was nerve-wracking because we had the day to rehearse and the Fairlight kept going wrong. We didn't know why, of course, and just before we went on it turned out that the trouble was a tiny connecting cord. All this expensive equipment and one tiny cord was messing up.
NT I always wonder about playing live with Fairlights.
CS Yeah, they're a bit temperamental to drag around on the road. They're really for controlled studio environment, aren't they?
NT Well, we were planning to take them out.
CS So much for all those reactionaries who insist that using all this state-of-the-art hardware takes the spontaneity out of playing live. from what you're telling me, it's far more fraught with danger than relying on conventional methods. Seems like you've got to be ready for anything.
CL And drum machine that suddenly decide to go onto a different rhythm track. Then you've really had it.
NT But this is the problem, you see, because this si how we make records.
CL but we were talking to this drummer from Paul Young who said that when the Art of Noise toured they really clever - they had a drummer and every time he hit something it triggered off this sound. And that strikes me as being quite sensible 'cause a drummer is far more reliable. So we're obviously gonna have to use, er ... people.
NT The thing is, what normally happens if you're a synthesizer duo that's had a hit record and has got to tour America is that suddenly you go all credible and get a band.
CL And that's when the music changes.
NL Look at how the Eurythmics' music has changed since they toured America. What was interesting about them - the "Sweet Dreams" kind of stuff - has really become a very conventional rocksound now. I know Dave stewart, as a guitar played, probably likes thatb kind of music. But what in my opinion was so interesting about them has just been edited out by the fact that they're now geared touring ... playing live with musicians. And I wouldn't like to see that happen to us.
CS But don't you feel the need to go out and play?
CL we want to go out. We were going to go out early last year.
CS But isn't it a natural thing - a good thing - that the music changes to a certain extent as you go on?
NT Oh, it's good that it changes ...
CS But you want to have control over the way it changes.
NT Yes, I suppose so. I would like our music to sound more electronic, live. More hard. With less of the softness it has on record.
CL We've got lots of sound effects like car crashes and things on the records and it would be nice to have those dead loud when we're live. We want to scare the audience with them! We want the music to be only half the show 'cause we're aiming for it to be, er ...
CS Multimedia?
NT (laughing) Yes. Actually, we've got a new disco album coming out.
CL Yes. We've got six tracks which we had remixed, some of which have not been released at all, and which show a different side of us. It's very New York-sounding and it's very dance-oriented.
NT It's actually called Disco.
CL Yeah, cause in America disco is such a dirty word.
CS So back in England there is still such a thing as a New York sound? I mean, is it still cool?
NT Not as strong as it was, but ...
CL Somehow if you go into a studio in New York and record the same thing you did in London it doesn't sound the same.
NT But we've never worked in places like the Power Station. We've always worked in places like ...
CL ... like Unique ...
NT Yes, and Shake Down and Blank Tapes, which is where lots of dance records are made. And their approach is much less technological than in England. Loads of stuff gets played manually and things like that. And it ends up sounding more direct.
CL A lot of energy tends to get put onto things like that.
CS Mm, that's interesting. Just recently I've been doing some stuff at a studio called Secret Society. It also goes by the name of Chung King, probably cause it's down in Chinatown - which is where Run-D.M.C. record. Their mix-down isn't even automated yet. They work mostly with edits - cutting the tape up and putting it together again in a sort of sound mantage. To me, it's kind of reassuring that a lot of the more creative and original younger engineers are wary when it comes to "state of the art" and can use conventional - almost primitive - methods and still make innovative-sounding music. It actually takes a while, anyway, for musicians to get inside any new technology - before they learnhow to use it creatively instead of letting it use them. look how long it took for the synthesizer to come of age. All that crap about synthesizing a flute sound or "Gee, it can sound like a whole orchestra!" I could never take synthesizing seriously until people stopped pretending that they could sound like anything but a bloody synthesizer! Well, is that it, then? Anything more you'd like to say?
CL Nice weather we're having at the moment.
CS A bit brisk, but ...
NT Nice, though ...
CS For the time of year.
NT We went for a walk in the park this morning after the Today show.
CS And you did Live at Five yesterday, didn't you?
CL Yeah.
CS Get recognized in the park?
NT Not really.

Chris Spedding - the journalist