From West End girls to teenage runaways – three decades of euphoric, bruised pop
here’s a pleasingly defiant comment by Neil Tennant towards the end of his handpicked selection of Pet Shop Boys lyrics. His footnote to the 2011 song “Your Early Stuff” reads: “Sometimes people just want to suggest that you’re finished, like the driver who said to me in 2006, ‘I suppose you’re more or less retired now?’, to which I was able to respond, ‘You’re driving me to Top of the Pops!’” It’s true his band still has a large following (including myself). It’s also true they are not getting any younger. (Nor am I alas.) Bifocals be damned though: what a pleasure it is to drift through more than three decades of droll vignettes, metropolitan tristesse and bittersweet generational chronicles.
Before he met his band partner Chris Lowe, Tennant had worked for the UK branch of Marvel comics, where he anglicised spellings and made judgment calls on whether certain drawings of females were too risque for the British. Later, in the early 1980s, he was an editor at Smash Hits. His lyrics are precise, almost fastidious in their use of language, with a hint of the clipped archness of Noël Coward (Tennant co-compiled an album of cover versions of his songs in 1998). The odd “baby” aside, there are few Americanisms; instead, the verses are plummy with words such as “touche”, “furthermore”, “fin de siecle”, “impudent”, “impasse” and “bibliophile”.
“Bibliophile” might describe Tennant himself. The song “Being Boring” was named after a line in Zelda Fitzgerald’s article Eulogy on the Flapper; “Can You Forgive Her?” after an Anthony Trollope novel. “Love Is a Bourgeois Contract” is inspired by David Lodge’s Nice Work. One lyric mentions Waiting for Godot. Another borrows lines from a poem by Anna Akhmatova, one of many Russian cultural and political figures Tennant discusses.
He was over 30 when the band had their first hit. At the time, he was asked how he felt about “West End Girls” reaching No 1. “What it feels like is vaguely nothing,” he replied. “It feels like having a cup of tea.” Throughout their career Pet Shop Boys have never lost their love of pop – its escapism, intensity, collective joy – nor their embarrassment at how it’s sold short by hucksters, hairy rockers and fame-at-all-cost chancers (“Shameless” contains the rather heavy-handed lines: “We have no integrity, we’re ready to crawl / To obtain celebrity we’ll do anything with anyone”).
London – its promises, its possibilities – also emerges as one of Tennant’s muses. He has never stopped identifying with the teenage runaways, art school upstarts and foreigners who head there, as he did, to begin anew. “London” is about two Russian guys who arrive “Looking for hard work / Or credit card fraud”, while “The View from Your Balcony” captures the capital’s skyline seen from a council flat in Bermondsey.
The single “A Red Letter Day” from 1996 featured a “Trouser enthusiasts autoerotic decapitation mix”, while DJ promos of “Before” sported close-ups of flaccid penises. But Pet Shop Boys have never been especially carnal. A teen magazine once described them as “the obsessive spinsters of pop”, while Lowe commented on their cover version of Village People’s “Go West”: “It’s a song about an idealistic, gay utopia. And I knew that the way Neil would sing it would make it sound hopeless; you’ve got these inspiring lyrics but it sounds like it’s never going to happen.” Still, Tennant does include the cheeky song “The Night I Fell in Love” (about a student who goes backstage at a gig and makes out with a rapper) as well as the delightfully named “The Trucker and His Mate”.
“Every lyric-writer has a guilty secret,” Tennant writes. “The sound of the words is sometimes more important than the sense of them.” It’s impossible to tell from these pages that “West End Girls” features a rap, or that “The Pop Kids” is partly spoken word. The lyrics are great, but can they be separated from the duo’s costumes, postures, record sleeves?
Pet Shop Boys have always been mirror ball magicians. Their songs are euphoric and bruised. If most dance songs are about the intense present or the heady future, Tennant and Lowe’s talent has been to flood theirs with references to yesterdays, to looking back, to tearful goodbyes. For all that, here’s hoping this book is not their final chapter.
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