Sex, Death, and Samba

Pet Shop Boys warm up with Bilingual.

          "Sometimes you're better off dead," intones the ominous first line of "West End Girls," Pet Shop Boys' 1986 debut single; "There's a gun in your hand and it's pointing at your head," goes the second. Who would have thought one of America's first number-one rap songs would be an exquisitely lonely document of gay longing in a harsh city by two white British men?

          Born amidst the vaguely homophobic "Disco Sucks" movement, the queer-friendly British synthpop explosion (The Human League, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics), and the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Pet Shop Boys (formed by music journalist Neil Tennant and architecture student Chris Lowe) made an unusually smart brand of dance pop, and in the process breathed new life into contemporary music's confusing, coded trail of homosexual identity. Bilingual, the band's first new material in three years, is a sunny flirtation with the Latin dance sounds they heard in the discos of South America while on tour in 1994. Bouncy horns, samba percussion, flamenco flourishes, and snippets of Spanish float through Bilingual's disco-noir version of a modern day E.M. Forster novel: intelligent, somewhat stuffy Brits discovering their sensual side in the balminess of a tropical wonderland. Boy spokesman Neil Tennant spoke with us from his home in London.

          CITY PAGES: I've listened to Bilingual a lot, and it's a lot warmer and looser than Please--like you recorded it on summer vacation at the beach. Please was much darker and claustrophobic.

          NEIL TENNANT: I think over the last 10 years our sound has changed, firstly because we got better at making records. Secondly, it's kind of how technology has changed. When we made Please, around the end of 1985, it was all made with a Linn drum machine; we didn't really know how to work a sequencer and all that kind of stuff. Nowadays I think we're more sophisticated at making music. We use more percussion than we used to, more drum loops and things like that, to make it sound looser. That's technically why it sounds different.

          I think the actual songs themselves, the seams of them, in those days were less positive--which is quite an interesting thing. They're all songs of longing rather than experiencing, possibly. They're all songs of escaping from the pressures of life, into the city--like you have in "West End Girls." There are still elements of that in what we do, but not nearly as much. The songs on Bilingual tend to be about experiencing things, whether it be love or pain or life. It's also because we're 10 years older.

          CP: Are there particular songs that you feel portray this?

          NT: I think "Discoteca" is a very intense song, which is difficult for people to understand because it's not stated very obviously. The song is about someone discovering they're HIV positive. I'm not HIV positive, but it's about a friend of mine who's quite young. When we were making the album he told us he was positive. He's only 24 or something. So the song is really about dealing with it. How does that change your life? How does that make you feel about things? How do you communicate what you feel to other people? So much of this album is about the difficulties of communication between people. We use the differences in language, Spanish and English, to make that point. You can speak the same language as someone but not necessarily communicate with them.

          CP: There's a greater openness about being gay on Bilingual.

          NT: When we started in the '80s, I preferred things to be hinted at, rather than being stated explicitly. Because I thought it was more exciting and interesting. It's more interesting for people to be intrigued by you, wonder about you. I think people tend to listen to things more carefully then; when something's stated obviously, people tend to listen less carefully, probably because they think they know what it's about. So gay people might listen to it and think "Well they're obviously gay," but the other people wouldn't necessarily, and they would speculate about it. You can be part of someone's imagination--which I think is great.

          Also, as we've gotten older--I suppose our audience got older, too--I felt more comfortable with being more open about things. I liked doing the rap on "Metamorphosis" because it's kind of funny, but it's sort of true as well. It's about how you change when you grow up and you come to terms with sexuality. One thinks of rap as being rather a macho form and I thought it was quite good to do a rap about being gay. I don't think there's been that many of them.

          CP: I'm 24. For someone my age, it seems the progression of the Pet Shop Boys, from when you started 10 years ago to now, coincides with people my age coming out. The weird thing I've discovered is that a lot of gay bands that my friends and I have listened to are British--you, or Boy George, or Marc Almond, etcetera, etcetera. They're never American.

          NT: America seems like a country of extremes. You have a much stronger gay activist presence than you do over here, but at the same time you have a much more homophobic culture. British culture has so much homosexuality within it it's unbelievable. Whereas American culture really doesn't. You don't have an Oscar Wilde. You don't have a Joe Orton.

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