The duo reveal the secret of pop longevity - 20 years after they almost quit, they are headliners at Britain's biggest festival.
Pet Shop Boys went to Hull last month, for a gig at the Bonus Arena. It followed a triumphant run in London, Manchester and Newcastle — but could the synth pop stalwarts do it on a rainy Tuesday night in East Yorkshire? Absolutely. The sold-out show ran through the hits, with its finale of It's a Sin, West End Girls and Being Boring lifting the crowd to bliss. Suitably, the arena's next big event was a seniors darts tour: another group of mature men who still know how to hit a target.
This weekend Pet Shop Boys play Glastonbury. Forty-one years and 14 albums after the singer Neil Tennant, 67, and the keyboard player Chris Lowe, 62, formed the band, they headline the Other Stage at the same time that the American rapper Kendrick Lamar tops the Pyramid. It is a battle of the hyped v the historic - and don't rule out Pet Shop Boys being the bigger draw - in Somerset and at home, via the BBC.
"We aim for euphoria," Tennant says of their show's continued appeal. We talk in a bare conference room in their Hull hotel the morning after the gig. "But people do go for a drink during the acoustic song." (You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk.) "I know I do," Lowe adds.
They both laugh. They have a groove like this — in person and on stage. Tennant? Long, wry observations. Lowe? Quiet, before offering a probing aside. It is rare for two colleagues to get on this well, let alone those who have been stuck with each other since 1981.
It was not always like this. Twenty years ago Pet Shop Boys played to a half-empty, smaller venue in Grimsby and considered packing it in. "And it was my birthday," Tennant says with a sigh. "How old were you?" Lowe asks. "Forty-six." "You weren't even young then." "I've never been young in this business."
Now, though, they sell out arenas — it is some arc. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the band had what Tennant, who used to be a journalist on Smash Hits, calls their "imperial" phase.
Their first two albums, Please and Actually, sold by the millions. Then the spotlight faded and the 1990s was a lengthy "survival" period.
Grimsby, down the road from Hull, fell in that phase and they even wrote a self-deprecating song, Your Early Stuff, about becoming a has-been. Tennant had the idea when he was in a taxi and the driver told him: "'I suppose you're more or less retired now?'"
Yet they rose again. "You don't expect your career to do that," Tennant says. "You could just dwindle out." So, what happened? First, the band made "big, brash pop" albums, which do well. Second, they got an outstanding contribution to music award at The Brit Awards in 2009, at which Lady Gaga sang with them. Third, they supported Take That on a huge 2011 tour. Finally, they began playing festivals.
Essentially, they reached new crowds. Last year the mega-selling US rapper Cardi B tweeted to her 23 million followers: "Pet Shop Boys are really underrated." Her favourite song is Rent. "My mom used to listen to them!"
So is this a second imperial phase? "No, it's not," Tennant insists. But you are long out of survival mode? "Well," he says, "my idea about that is based on Napoleon," a line that no other pop star has uttered. In brief, Napoleon was emperor and ruled a lot of Europe. Then his power ebbed, but, says Tennant, while in prison on St Helena, Napoleon created his own myth and it endured to the extent that, 30 years later, his nephew became Napoleon III.
"I'm making this up as I go along," Tennant says. "So, we need to create a myth?" Lowe asks. "No, we're in the myth phase now. We are, in effect, Napoleon III. But remember, he was defeated at the battle of Sedan and went to Chislehurst, where he died." (Tennant adds that the mansion in Chislehurst where Napoleon III lived is now a golf club — he visited once and was thrown out.)
"Basically, everybody goes through a phase where people lose interest," the singer continues. "Then you can get to a time when apparently everybody always liked you, which is simply not true. Because everyone used to hate Abba."
At the gig in Hull there was a mixed crowd of gay, straight, young, old. As I watched fans watch Pet Shop Boys, it was clear how well age suits this band. Anthems once danced to take on a deeper meaning when one sits down, listening to lyrics, and there is a whole short story to be written about the couple in their fifties who could not look at each other while both singing along to I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore.
New layers are being peeled off their old hits. In Hull, Tennant dedicated the elegiac Being Boring, written in 1990 about Aids, to "those we lost along the way" — the gig was delayed for two years because of Covid. "Everybody had a shared experience," he says. "Unless you were in 10 Downing St."
Then there is It's a Sin, the 1987 song that Russell T. Davies borrowed for his show about Aids in the British gay community. If it was not the band's best-known song before, it is now. "Everyone assumed it was about being gay," says Tennant, who came out in 1994. "But it was about going to a Catholic school and being taught sexual activity other than for procreation is a sin. It was broader than about being gay." He agrees the series changed that. "I'm very happy that the show has made it more gay."
So they, and their music, evolve. Sometimes they release overtly political music — such as 2019's Give Stupidity a Chance. "Well, stupidity is being given a very serious chance," Tennant reasons. And sometimes they just play the hits.
The industry evolves too. They are notoriously quiet about their private lives, so how would they have found the modern marketing need to share everything on TikTok? "Quite difficult," Lowe says, smiling. What are the big differences between musicians then and the younger ones they work with today? "They're all really good," Lowe says with a laugh. "And it's not like the 1980s, where everyone was a rival so you hated them."
Still, it is hard for young pop stars. A glance at the Glastonbury line-up reveals key slots being given to acts of a certain age, while streaming means significantly less income and less chance of having your song heard, given that it is up against every piece of music yet recorded. All of which means there is less chance to have enough hits to secure longevity.
"I don't necessarily agree," Tennant says, patiently, leaping into a state-of-the-nation speech about the mechanisms of pop. "There is a simple calculation for longevity — you need eight to 10 hits people know and then you've got something. Like Ed Sheeran has."
"But," Lowe interjects, "now you can have eight to 10 hits and people don't know any of them. I don't know any of Taylor Swift's records and she must have had eight to 10 hits?" He pauses. "But then," he adds, "what is a hit?" "I always define it as something you have to make no effort to hear," Tennant says.
Okay, but with streaming services, we choose what we listen to — where does one hear a song by accident? "Shops. Ads. TV shows. In a taxi with the radio on," Tennant says. Then the old pop hack in him reappears. "Or is hit music something in the past?" That would have filled a page in Smash Hits.
I could have discussed this for hours. Ten years ago Tennant was invited to the BBC to talk about bringing back Top of the Pops. He told them the show had failed because they had moved it from being a light entertainment show to one that was about music because they worried that it was uncool.
"But they are not cool people and Top of the Pops was never about being cool," he insists. It was about being top of the pops. "Music fans are like football fans — they want their team to win prizes."
He does not see the show coming back, to which Lowe adds, somewhat sombrely: "We never thought we'd outlast Top of the Pops, did we?"
Yet here they are — thrivers, not just survivors. The new tour is a five-star hit; their most recent album was well-received; new music — possibly an EP with songs about modern fascism — will be incoming. How do they manage it? Humour helps. "One of the reasons we carried on is that we take a certain pleasure in the low moments," Tennant says with a smile. "A lot of people thought Pet Shop Boys were a bit of a joke; there was total amazement when Axl Rose said he was a fan. But, as you go on, you get a grudging respect."
Well, most of the time. Once, in Manchester, a couple asked Tennant for a selfie. The singer said he did not do selfies, so the wife said: "Why, because you're such a diva?" Her husband's retort? "With a face like that, would you do selfies?"
Lowe laughs so hard that he is probably still laughing. "I love people saying tactless things," he howls. Tennant shakes his head. Then he laughs too. After all, the band have had the last laugh.
"People just say the most awful things," he says. "Even a basic, 'I used to like you.'" He rolls his eyes. "Is that a nice thing to say?"
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London