Sex, Death, and Samba
"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.
I think it has been changing a bit in America. The mainstream of America tends to find homosexuality very spooky, and it's not regarded as a very good career move to say you're gay. For instance, it's not regarded as a very good career move that one of the Pet Shop Boys says he's gay. But at the same time, people tend to take the gay market very seriously, don't they? In Britain, people don't target a gay market like in America. You've got that dichotomy that it's more there and more present--and the reason for that is that it's more homophobic at the same time. I think it's the same with race issues in America, as well.
What I am worried about in America is that we get pigeon-holed as a gay group only. So they put you in a little box, "Oh yeah--PSB: gay. Send it out to all the gay clubs. Give out free records at Gay Pride." All of which is fine. But I don't want to be sidelined into being part of a minority. I'm not afraid of minorities--I think we all belong to a majority. We should have one community. Otherwise we all get sidelined. In politics there's "Divide and rule." And when you get everyone divided into little interest groups and supposed communities, I think it politically weakens people.
CP: Do you think there's hope for anyone in America being an out, gay male rock star?
NT: Yeah, I do, actually.
CP: Anyone you know?
NT: Well I would never out anyone, but you do have the example of Michael Stipe--who kind of floats around the issue a bit, doesn't he? He's sort of omnisexual or something like that. And I guess he has more of a straight audience.
Part of me thinks it's a pity that we have to classify ourselves as being gay or straight. The reason I suppose we do that is because of this political issue that homosexuals do not have, as yet, equal civil rights. I always hope that when the day comes that we all have equal civil rights, the issue itself will fade away. I think in years to come, people are going to look at the 20th century and find it fantastically weird that people used to define their way of life by their sexuality. Just in the same way that now people find it weird that people used to massacre each other because they were Protestants or Catholics.
CP: To change the subject, do you listen to current records as a guide to getting a certain sound?
NT: Chris occasionally does, yeah. He comes into the studio with records sometimes and says "I love this." You can suddenly change direction by hearing somebody else's record and freshen up your approach to it. Chris really just buys 12" remix records--that's really all he listens to at home.
CP: Was there an actual record that you could name that was a big influence. With the Latin sound?
NT: The Latin thing wasn't one record, it was a few things. Mainly we toured South America at the end of '94 and we heard a lot of Latin dance music. It seemed very exciting and different. We also heard that music in New York.
CP: And it's in your songs in the past, like "Domino Dancing."
NT: Exactly. We went to Miami [for "Domino"] and made a sort of Latin hip-hop record. It's always kind of fascinated us, the intensity and the different rhythms. Of course Latin rhythms are the basis for so many disco records anyway. It's quite interesting to go back to them.
We wanted to have a sort of international feel, with the Latin influence, and a choir from Russia and New York house music. Because that's really what the PSB are. We have this incredible international following, and we wanted to reflect a sort of internationalism without making some sort of fake world music. And I think we were reacting to the BritPop thing--we didn't want to be any part of that. There's a lot of very, very bad guitar groups in England at the moment. I think there's people who like everything that's popular and people who hate everything that's popular and they want something else-- We always aim at those [latter] people.
CP: I'm still trying to figure out the meanings of some of the songs on the new record. Like "Electricity."
NT: "Electricity" is about a drag queen who's trying to get someone to buy her a drink. Probably quite old, been doing it for years and years. It's a mood piece really. The inspiration was we sampled a line off the TV from some film where a woman says "What are you doing in San Francisco?"
CP: It sounds like Jane Fonda!
NT: No, it's older than that. Some old black and white film. Some really corny showbiz backstage drama.
CP: I'm probably way off, but is the song "To Step Aside" about Evita?
NT: Evita? [laughs] Maybe it would fit in musically, but no it's not. "To Step Aside" is about me thinking about leaving the PSB and the music business, leaving the relationship I'm in, to become a different person. To kind of dispose of the outer core that you accrue as you go through life. You kind of develop a persona, everyone does, just to deal with life. And sometimes the outer core seems to take over the inner. And it was inspired by being in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where there's this big, famous cathedral and pilgrims do this 120 mile pilgrimage. They believe that when they get there, they have guaranteed themselves that they'll go to heaven. I was comparing the incredible blind faith they must have to do this, with my sort of lack of faith in anything, really.
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