Pet Shop Boys on Their Favorite Hollywood Memories: “So Gorgeous. So Elegant”

Look around and you just may find yourself amid a Pet Shop Boys renaissance.

Of course, the English duo — consisting of Neil Tennant, 69, and Chris Lowe, 64 — never went anywhere. They have been steadily putting out music since their landmark 1984 debut, Please, which instantly established them with timeless songs like “West End Girls” and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).”

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But Pet Shop Boys’ deep catalog has been plundered in recent years everywhere from Madison Avenue (“Opportunities” showed up in a Super Bowl ad for Allstate) to Hollywood (several classics were used to wonderful effect in two of last year’s zeitgeistiest movies, Saltburn and All of Us Strangers). Their signature sound is suddenly everywhere —  wistful and longing, danceable and intellectually sophisticated synth-pop. Their 15th studio effort, Nonetheless, drops tomorrow and features more of that infectious trademark music.

Tennant and Lowe sat with The Hollywood Reporter recently to relive their headiest career moments — from basking in the glow of the neon Pet Shop Boys billboard that once adorned Sunset Boulevard to their days sipping tea at The Savoy with the Rat Pack.

This is such an exciting moment for me. You guys are like my Beatles. The soundtrack of my life.


CHRIS LOWE Wow. That’s going in the press release.

Right before the pandemic, you announced the tour with New Order. I bought tickets, and then boom, everything shut down. Did the first single from the new album, “Loneliness,” come out of that period?

TENNANT “Loneliness” was actually the last track written for the whole album. So it was at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, around the end of 2022. But it’s definitely the one most influenced by COVID, by the isolation. Chris sent me the track, which is really quite “up” sounding, and I’d already written this lyric about “where you’re going to run to now from loneliness” in my notebook. And so I just started to sing it to the chorus part and that just filled it all in, really. It’s classic Pet Shop Boys in that it’s a happy track with a sad lyric. But it’s quite a defiant lyric, as well. It’s trying to help someone.

In some ways it reminds me of another Pet Shop Boys song, “I Don’t Wanna,” which is also a song about a lonely guy who just doesn’t want to leave the house. Then something finally convinces him to get out.

TENNANT He hears “Rhythm Is A Dancer” on the radio. Yeah. Well, there’s always lots of miserablism in the Pet Shop Boys, you know? Again, though, it has a happy ending.

Exactly. I love this through line in your work — that somehow music can pull you out of these dark places.

TENNANT Well, I think that’s true. I think we both think that. I think we both use music for that, as well.

And I think your music has done that for so many people.

TENNANT That would be nice if it had. That’s definitely one of the functions we see for music, to accompany you through all the phases and moods of your life and to help you when necessary — and to bring joy and happiness as well.

I am curious what your process is. Is it a two-room type thing, like with Elton John and Bernie Taupin?

TENNANT Well, it changed. When we started — and for many, many, many years, until actually very recently — we might bring things into the studio separately, but we’d be in the same room. But then with the pandemic, we were in separate houses. So Chris suggested to me that I learn how to program, which I never thought was my function. So I learned how to use Garage Band on my computer. And that was sort of surprisingly fun, actually.

Chris, do you ever write lyrics?

LOWE No. God no. I’m virtually illiterate.

But you split all the writing credits like Lennon/McCartney did — Tennant/Lowe.

TENNANT Yes, absolutely.

LOWE Otherwise, we’d have probably split up. Even Coldplay do it that way, don’t they? All the bands that have split up, it has been over songwriting publishing.

TENNANT Actually, The Beatles had that argument after they split up.

LOWE They split up after they split up. But Spandau Ballet, I mean, they’re the classic example.

TENNANT Then there’s [Oasis’] Noel [and Liam Gallagher]…

Funny you should bring Noel Gallagher up. Did you hear the nice things he said about you?

TENNANT We did, yes. Suddenly Noel Gallagher became a Pet Shop Boys fan.

LOWE He came to see us at Glastonbury. He was already at Glastonbury, obviously, but he actually made the effort to come and see us, rather than go and see…

TENNANT Kendrick Lamar.

LOWE He chose us.

You’ve been taking your greatest hits show, Dreamland, all over the world. I assume it’s the one I saw at the Hollywood Bowl?

TENNANT The Hollywood Bowl shows were great shows. What a fantastic venue that is.

LOWE It was just magical playing there.

I once read that your 2012 album Elysium was named after Elysian Park, which is near where I live in L.A. Is that true?

TENNANT Yeah. We were in L.A. for two-and-a-half months making that album, and we were living above Beverly Hills. But we did the photo session in Elysian Park. And that’s where the idea for Elysium came from, the park name. Because we were struggling with an album title.

I remember seeing TMZ chasing you down one day. Do you remember that?

TENNANT Yes! We had just come out of a tea shop.

LOWE Because we’re English, we like to have a cup of tea at 4 o’clock. And then from nowhere, out of this van came a video crew, and we’re being chased down the street.

TENNANT I was thinking, “Wait a minute, we’re not famous enough. We’re not Kim Kardashian.”

That’s what you said.

TENNANT Did I actually say that?

If you’re going to get stopped by any paparazzo, you want TMZ. That’s the creme de la creme.

TENNANT Yeah, you do.

I know you went to Madonna’s greatest hits tour recently. Over the years, I’ve heard different Madonna rumors about Pet Shop Boys. One was that the 1987 song “Heart” — which features Ian McKellan as Dracula in the music video — was written for her. Is that true?

TENNANT No, we wrote “Heart,” and we thought it would be great for Madonna. We didn’t send it to her. But we mentioned that in an interview, and people often mention it.

The other rumor is the Madonna album that became 2008’s Hard Candy, that Pet Shop Boys were supposed to produce that album.

TENNANT True. Well, not true. We were asked by Madonna’s manager, who ironically is now our manager, Angela Becker, “Madonna wants to know if you’ve got any tracks she could work with.” This was the period where we were asked simultaneously to write for Madonna and for Kylie Minogue. And out of it came nothing for either. Kylie, we wrote a load of songs for, which I thought were pretty good. I don’t even know if Kylie ever heard them, to be honest. Because she’s never, ever mentioned them. As for Madonna, they phoned back and said, “Forget about that. Madonna’s going to make an R&B album.” So we did write some stuff, but it was never sent to her.

LOWE We’re not the go-to for [R&B].

TENNANT Weirdly, we wrote quite a good R&B track, but she never heard it.

But you are good at rap, and “New London Boy,” a new song from Nonetheless, has I think your best rap since “West End Girls.”

TENNANT I love my rap in it. People keep pointing out it’s the same rhythm as “West End Girls.” I do early ’80s rap. I do Grandmaster Flash rap. That’s my style. I have actually done more up-to-date rap, but as Chris pointed out, it takes too many words.

It seems like there’s a lot of throwback to your earliest work in the new album. Was that intentional?

TENNANT Not really, no. I mean, we are those people still. When Chris sent through the track for “Dancing Star,” I thought that sounds like Madonna’s first album, which is still my favorite album. I don’t know if that’s where the “Dancing Star” title came from [which Chris came up with himself]. Was that intentional?

LOWE No, it’s just what I did. But the sound of the record is very much early analog synths, and so it has a purity of sound.

Are they actual vintage synths that you’re using?

LOWE James Ford, the producer, has got a room full of them, and old drum machines, old analog synths, the whole thing. And that’s basically the sound of this record.

The cover art is interesting. You have gloves masking your faces for the “Loneliness” single cover and then light bulbs in your mouths for the LP cover. Is it some reference to the pandemic, or is there some other symbolism there?

TENNANT In our heads, in our mouths. We worked with this photographer, Tim Walker, and that was his idea. As soon as we saw it, it was immediately a very strong image. We thought, “Well, that’s the album cover.”

LOWE I like your interpretation, and we will be repeating it.

You reinvigorated two classic acts, Liza Minnelli [with the 1989 album Results] and Dusty Springfield [with the 1987 smash “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”]. What was working with Liza like?

TENNANT Our then-manager, Tom Watkins, had this group called Bros who were a big teen thing for a moment in Britain. He went to America to meet with Sony. And the A&R guy said, “We’ve just signed Liza Minnelli.” I mean the amazing thing about working with Dusty, you get offered everything. That’s how the music industry works. We got offered every female singer. And Liza was really special because, for our generation, she’s Cabaret. In 1973, you’ve got David Bowie, and you’ve got Cabaret. And that all filters into punk rock, as well. It was a big popular culture moment, Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.

And so we were immediately intrigued by this idea. So Liza was in London playing with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. And we met her in a suite at the Mayfair Hotel. And we went up in the lift to meet. And we walked down the corridor and rang the doorbell of the suite. And Liza answered it, and the three of us all laughed. We just burst out laughing. Because it was so ridiculous.

LOWE It was an amazing moment. Because Liza is so Liza.

TENNANT She is Liza. She’s Liza in real life.

LOWE She is Liza. Fantastic.

TENNANT And, of course, we’re us in real life. And we all laughed. And that was that. We’re doing the album. And we did some demos in New York and then we just got down to it. We only had 10 weeks. The album had a budget, which we weren’t familiar with the concept of, and we did it. And that’s why we did cover versions — because we didn’t have time to write more songs.

LOWE Consequently we ended up at this amazing dinner for Frank, Liza, and…

TENNANT And Sammy.

LOWE In this huge room in the Savoy Hotel. We made an entrance.

TENNANT Everyone was there. And Liza was very good at making an entrance. And so the three of us came in, us on either arm with Liza, and she was worried that Frank was going to be in a mood because Chris wasn’t wearing a suit. But then he was very nice to us, actually.

LOWE Yeah. And we saw Frank Sinatra backstage just before we went on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and that was something you’d never forget.

TENNANT He came out with a glass of bourbon or whiskey, or whatever it was he drank, and there’s a slope, and he’s wearing his shiny patent leather shoes. And he just slid down it with his bourbon. He looked like someone who meant mischief.

LOWE Yeah, definitely had a twinkle.

TENNANT One afternoon, we were in Liza’s suite at The Savoy. We liked it because you get tea served by a waiter, the whole thing. And we were having tea served and suddenly a barefoot Sammy Davis Jr. comes in, and he calls Chris and I, “You cats.”

LOWE Doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

TENNANT I mean, to be called, “You cats” by Sammy Davis Jr. is a real career high. And actually, he told us — this is a showbiz exclusive for you — that he wanted to play the Phantom of the Opera. And I think he even was in conversation with Andrew Lloyd Weber about doing that.

LOWE And then of course we went to see him in a cabaret. Not the musical.

At an actual cabaret.

LOWE Was it in one of Trump’s places?

TENNANT It was in Atlantic City.

LOWE In Atlantic City. Oh, Liza did this amazing thing. I said, “You do know, Neil, that she’s going to put the spotlight on us because I know how showbiz works.” And he was like, “No, no, she won’t. She won’t do that.” Anyway, so of course, “Oh, it’s amazing. I’ve got Neil Tennant! The Pet Shop Boys are here.” Anyway, so we didn’t stand up, which of course is the showbiz tradition. So the audience had to stand up to look at us.

TENNANT I was worried that Liza thought we were very weird.

Whose idea was it to have her cover Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind?”

TENNANT It was actually my idea because, at that point, I’d just gotten into Sondheim, because the musical Follies was revived in London, a big production. Funny enough, they asked Dusty Springfield to play the part that sings, “I’m Still Here.” And she turned it down. The first time I saw it, I thought, “Wow, that could be a hit song, ‘Losing My Mind.'” And so Chris and I did a demo of it, which then Liza later sang. That sounded to me like a hit song, first time I heard it.

What an amazing cover.

TENNANT Stephen Sondheim’s only had two chart hits, in Britain, anyway. “Send In The Clowns” by Judy Collins and “Losing My Mind” by Liza Minnelli. I saw an interview where Sondheim said, “The Pet Shop Boys did a rock version.” I was just intrigued he thought it was a rock version.

If there were two bands that really defined my personality as a teen, it was you guys and The Smiths. You guys have kept this beautiful partnership going. And I don’t know what the hell happened with [Smiths co-founders] Johnny Marr and Morrissey, but it really went down the toilet.

TENNANT A long time ago.

So what’s the secret to a happy musical marriage? How do you keep the magic alive?

TENNANT Well, because Morrissey is Morrissey. But [Chris and I] have always got on well.

LOWE Mm-hm.

TENNANT We like doing it. We’re probably loyal people, but we like writing songs, really. I don’t know if it’s true, but maybe for The Smiths, it was a restriction for Johnny. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. But Pet Shop Boys is not a restriction. You can pretty much do everything in it. You can go from minimal dance records to show tunes with everything in between. People think all our records sound the same, but they don’t. There’s a wide range.

There’s always interesting people involved that we bring in — designers and producers and artists and stuff. If it didn’t feel like it was a living thing, we wouldn’t be doing it. It would’ve fizzled out. But it’s never come close to fizzling out. At the moment, with “Rent” in Saltburn and “Always On My Mind” in All Of Us Strangers, it’s sort of like a little vote of confidence, in a way.

We love this new album we made and the tour is really fun to do. It sounds like a sort of naff idea, doing a greatest hits tour, but actually, our greatest are quite varied. Some of the songs are very strange. Every night I think what a weird song “So Hard” is. And it was the first single from an album. It’s about two gay guys accusing each other of infidelity, with a double entendre as the title.

Have you guys ever come out officially? I think you’re thought of as a gay band, but have you?

TENNANT I came out in 1994.

LOWE Came out of what? You came out of Newcastle.

TENNANT Yeah, that was in 1992.

LOWE And I came out of Blackpool.

TENNANT That was quite enough coming out for that day.

LOWE One of the high points in our career was our neon sign on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know if you ever saw it. You’re not old enough. You weren’t born.

TENNANT It was in 1986.

I was very much born, but I was living in Montreal at the time.

LOWE Oh, what a shame. Because it was a pink neon sign. On the top of the EMI building, which was on Sunset. And the first time we went to L.A., we could not believe it. Because at the magic hour…

TENNANT It looked so gorgeous. So elegant. It said “Pet Shop Boys” and then you drove past and it said, “Please.” People used to say to us, “Oh, are you the Pet Shop Boys? I like your sign.” It was there for a year. I felt very sad when it went down.

LOWE Yeah, it looked so gorgeous.

Oh, I’ve got to find a photo of that.

TENNANT It was on the cover of Smash Hits. So you can see a picture of it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Smash Hits magazine with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys
Smash Hits magazine with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys

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