From Pet Shop Boy to nostalgic folkie: Neil Tennant plays guitar

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Lockdown stimulated all kinds of unexpected creative urges. For Neil Tennant, of synthpop masterminds Pet Shop Boys, the outcome was a collection of folk songs.

“During lockdown I started recording songs I’d written in the 70s,” he said, in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life. “And they were on the guitar.”

Tennant’s first musical forays came in his teenage years in Newcastle with a folk band called Dust, inspired by the Incredible String Band. His early songs, Tennant told interviewer John Wilson, were composed on guitar and inspired by whichever chord he had learned that day.

“The first song I wrote that I thought was a good song, which I’m not embarrassed by even now, was called Can You Hear the Dawn Break?” he said. “And it was very folky. We actually got a session on BBC Radio Newcastle. We did four or five songs that were broadcast at breakfast in the morning.”

Neil Tennant in 2019
Neil Tennant at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 2019. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Listeners to the show will hear a clip from the song, featuring a young woman singing over a guitar and what sounds like a mandolin.

“It’s more folky than I became,” Tennant admitted, but he said he had continued to write songs on guitar as well as keyboard for Pet Shop Boys. His musical partner, Chris Lowe, was less taken by this new acoustic endeavour.

“Chris said to me, you know, these aren’t … This isn’t … I don’t even know if you want to do anything with these. But this isn’t the Pet Shop Boys.”

A Neil Tennant solo folk album is not slated for release, yet.

“It’s not really an album,” Tennant said. “It’s about five songs at the moment. … I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve got no plans for it, though.”

The interview runs through Tennant’s 50-year career, from his time in publishing, editing the Mary Berry ITV cookbook in 1981 – “I used to think ‘whatever happened to Mary Berry’” – and his collaboration with David Bowie on Hallo Spaceboy.

Tennant and Lowe cut up lyrics from Space Oddity to add a new verse, and told Bowie in a phone call. “He didn’t sound very happy – ‘sounds like you’d better come in’,” Tennant said. He played Bowie a demo, singing the verse. “And he loved it. He said, ‘Yeah, but you will have to keep singing it’.”

The muses for one of Pet Shop Boys’ biggest hits, West End Girls, were Grandmaster Flash and TS Eliot, Tennant said.

“I always loved the poem, The Waste Land by TS Eliot, even though I don’t really understand it, to this day, but I love all the different voices. So in writing West End Girls, I was also thinking of writing a collage of different voices. So it’s not just one voice all the way through. It’s dialogue. It’s like found dialogue.”

Related: Pet Shop Boys: where to start in their back catalogue

He still gets pleasure creating, and said he would probably make records even if they weren’t being released. But Tennant’s observational lyrics and Pet Shop Boys’ complex melody lines make him wonder if they have become “old-fashioned”.

Tennant, who is 67 and a former Smash Hits writer, added that he was not that interested in contemporary pop music.

“And maybe that’s because of my age, which would be a totally reasonable thing,” he said. “To me pop music nowadays is very narcissistic. I find that a bit tedious.

“Sometimes I wish it had more art in it, rather than, you know, dissing your boyfriend or something. You know, David Bowie wasn’t really Ziggy Stardust.”

This Cultural Life, with Neil Tennant, is on Radio 4 on Saturday 16 April at 7.15pm

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