‘Music has ceased to be ageist’: Pet Shop Boys on 40 years of pop genius – and their hopeful new album | Pet Shop Boys

In the minutes before we address the business of their 15th album, the Pet Shop Boys outline a small curriculum’s worth of subjects. It’s mid-January and Neil Tennant arrives at London’s Somerset House in a black corduroy blazer and black rollneck, and likens bandmate Chris Lowe’s lateness to something out of Gormenghast. When our synthpop Titus eventually appears in a grey Adidas hoodie, minus the sunglasses that have made him pop’s most mysterious foil, the former architecture student is expounding on illogical new changes to the layout of the Strand.

We locate a conference room and they liaise with their publicist on a “half-time” provision of drinks and cakes. In their east London studio HQ, says Lowe, 64, they like “that big, thick chocolate bar – something-baloney?” Aside from their Tony’s Chocolonely compulsion, they also frequent a nearby deli, where “I also buy 100% rye bread,” says Tennant, 69, segueing into a customarily arch conspiracy. “There is, by the way, out there a much bigger market for 100% rye bread than they supply. Wherever you go, they’ve sold out. Why don’t you make more?”

Of course, they are spoiled for rye bread when working in their other studio, in Berlin – their last album, 2020’s Hotspot, was inspired by lunchtime trips to techno club Berghain. “I’ve been doing Duolingo!” Tennant announces. “Two years … ”

“He’s virtually fluent now,” says Lowe.

“I’m not,” says Tennant. He remains foxed by the “sheer randomness of gender” in the German language. He studies on the train, and “if you’re sitting next to me, I’m going: ‘Agh! Gah!’ every five minutes.”

You could bathe in this: the repartee, theories, references; how Tennant, a former editor, italicises as he speaks. In the 40 years since they released their beguiling debut single West End Girls, the Pets have been pop’s most culturally voracious band. Their immaculate synthpop packages emotion in cosmopolitanism, characterising love and loss via Italian subcultures, the Bolshevik uprising and David Lodge novels. They suggest that it is through culture that we make sense of our lives, and here, if you like, are some more songs by which you might do so.

‘We’re the only people daft enough to do it’ … the Pet Shop Boys’ Inner Sanctum show at Royal Opera House, London, 2016. Photograph: Ken McKay

The Pets’ entwinement with our cultural subconscious seems stronger than ever, from their 2022 Glastonbury Other stage headline set to two recent film syncs – Rent in Saltburn, sung in a tragic karaoke rendition by a young man living the song’s complex enmeshing of desire and dependence, and two spots in Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, portals to memories of queer loss and hedonism. And pop seems to buoy Tennant and Lowe in a perpetual present: they discuss the 1988 Frankie Knuckles remix of I Want a Dog that appears in Haigh’s film with such immediacy, it’s as if they’re still poring over the cassette in the back of the stretch limo that took them to the DJ’s New Jersey studio. When the BBC approached them about making a new Imagine documentary, they suggested an idea of Lowe’s. “I would like to make a film using our music as a sound bed for what’s happened in our Pet Shop Boys lifetime,” he says. “Covering New York in the 80s, Tiananmen Square, homelessness.” (The actual film, due in spring, is more conventional.)

The latest chapter would, naturally, include Covid: Hotspot arrived in January 2020, and they had to mothball their greatest hits tour a few months later. But they never worried it was all over. Lowe suggested Tennant learn how to program, so – alone in his house in the Kent countryside – Tennant downloaded Garageband, bought a keyboard, “watched a YouTube film for about 10 minutes, it was boring”, and embarked on a prolific songwriting streak. Lowe, who caught the last train out of London to what he obliquely calls “the country” (“I wasn’t sure if I actually could get out, I was a bit panicky”) sent tracks back and forth, and they took to working remotely. They trusted touring would return because during the plague “the theatre didn’t die”, says Lowe.

“Quite the reverse,” says Tennant.

Their magnificent Dreamland tour eventually started in 2022 and concludes this summer. And they brought their lockdown fruits to a new producer, James Ford, having rated his knack for strings on albums by the Last Shadow Puppets and Arctic Monkeys. “Also being in Simian Mobile Disco, we knew he was really good at analogue synth programming,” says Lowe. “The combination of those two things is basically the sound of the Pet Shop Boys: electronics with strings.”

The result, new album Nonetheless, is gorgeous: buoyant with optimism, it basks in songwriterly lusciousness after a trilogy of harder albums with producer Stuart Price, Electric (2013), Super (2016) and Hotspot. Newcastle-born Tennant and Blackpool-born Lowe stress the northern emphasis on the “None”. It’s a reference to their post-lockdown persistence: “Nonetheless! We’ve carried on and done this,” says Tennant. “There’s nothing more profound than that.”

Only one song specifically references lockdown, Why Am I Dancing?, which touches on Tennant’s makeshift kitchen dancefloor. What did he dance to? “Dance records,” he says mysteriously.

“Kylie!” Lowe interjects, as he opens the window. Tennant reveals that Lowe can do the Padam Padam dance, maintaining his tradition of learning every important pop dance. Disappointedly, he declines to demonstrate.

Otherwise, its 10 songs follow characters all going for it, chasing idylls, romantic and artistic salvation, certain they’ve unlocked the secret of happiness. “I hadn’t thought of that,” Tennant says when I point it out.

“We’ll take that,” says Lowe.

“Is that something to do with lockdown?” Tennant muses. “Reaching out? Dunno – just what comes out.”

There are a few personal moments among the character studies: New London Boy updates Bowie’s The London Boys as Tennant’s origin story, documenting his move to London in the early 70s, where the red-haired, stiletto-wearing graduate got a job in the manuscripts department of the British Museum. “I get a flat with friends, we’re all dressing up, you’re wondering about your sexuality,” Tennant says. He calls it “what happens between verses two and three of Being Boring,” their 1990 retrospective about living through friends dying of Aids. But New London Boy is all present tense, defiant and dreaming, sparked by glam and flashing forward, in a classic Tennant rap breakdown, to the New York dance records that would bring he and Lowe together. “It’s done in the style of an early 80s Grandmaster Flash rap,” he says. “Which is the rap style that comes naturally to me.”

“You’re not gonna do Cardi B, are you?” says Lowe (although Cardi B is, famously, a fan). “Lotta words required.”

Wig out … Running with the dogs for Nightlife, 1999. Photograph: Eric Watson

The album is full of these promised lands. Lead single Loneliness offers a stern hand out of a sad sack’s self-imposed solitude. The romantic A New Bohemia is filled with yearning for artistic sanctums of yesteryear. Dancing Star is an ecstatic hymn to Russian ballet dancer and KGB escapee Rudolf Nureyev, who Tennant watched a documentary about. He repeats a line referencing the swinging 60s that Nureyev joined: “When the streets of London sang with pop stars / Well the truth is that they always do.”

Do they still? Celebrating these scenes, Nonetheless comes off as a loving eulogy for them. “It’s not as true as it used to be,” Tennant admits.

“In the 90s of course, you’d see all the Britpop lot everywhere,” says Lowe. “And in the 80s they’d all be in the Camden Palace.”

They knew everyone in the 90s, says Tennant. “There was a scene. We’d all go down the Groucho Club, basically. It was a very fun period. It extended out into art galleries, ballet. And now I don’t feel we have that in our lives.” A New Bohemia, he says, “is actually quite a heartfelt statement”. Today, “everything’s about money, in a weird way, and therefore everything’s mainstream immediately”.

Nonetheless, says Tennant, “when you’ve been doing it a long time, you think about what you want. As you get older, I don’t like that idea of giving in.”

Since the pandemic, the Pets have also noticeably been going for it: the greatest hits tour; a US jaunt with New Order; reissues of Chris Heath’s brilliant books documenting their early tours; a Radio 2 documentary; a BBC retrospective; Smash, their fourth singles compilation; the upcoming Imagine documentary. It’s striking for a band not given to nostalgia, though Tennant insists “it’s just ‘doing catalogue’ – we don’t really sit around looking back.” (Lowe is so disinclined to look back that he made his father cry on his first day of primary school by striding into class without giving him a second look, Tennant says.) At most, he says, it leaves them wondering why such-and-such a song wasn’t a single and marvelling that a song as “odd, very dark and so gay” as 1990’s So Hard was.

They also re-signed with Parlophone, the label they left in 2013 when protracted contract negotiations prompted them to try label services company Kobalt. It was a great run, but Parlophone “wanted us back”, says Tennant. “It’s quite a nice feeling.’” They even spent two years developing a new all-gender fragrance “with a really top perfume designer”, he adds. “He really wanted to get electricity into the smell. We couldn’t work out what that meant.” But they don’t know what happened to it. “Ultimately all of our albums would be a perfume. Imagine!”

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Tennant famously worked at Smash Hits pre-Pets, and this begs a Hits-style question: what does their new album smell like? “That is a good Smash Hits question,” says Tennant. “It’s not citrony or sweet. I think it’s slightly more musky.”

Nonetheless is a marked development from their last Parlophone record, 2012’s beautiful but melancholy Elysium, a slightly defeated collection about becoming invisible as older men and musicians, also made in the wake of the deaths of Tennant’s parents. In 2022, the Pets helmed a Palace fashion advert alongside Joan Collins, now 90; a Loewe advert starring Maggie Smith, 89, recently went viral. Madonna, 65, is no longer lambasted for ageing, but triumphantly touring her Celebration retrospective. Have attitudes to older people changed in the past decade?

Diva patrol … the duo’s duet with Dusty Springfield, 1987. Photograph: Eric Watson

“Weirdly, music ceased to be ageist,” says Tennant, as various chocolate cakes arrive and the pair produce an astonishing amount of crumbs. “Young people are listening to their parents’ records. It’s all up for grabs.” He credits YouTube. “You could have a fond memory of seeing the video for Strawberry Fields Forever on Top of the Pops in 1967, and then you never saw it again. But I could look at it now. Something happened then. It all existed at the same time.” They crashed into this last year when Drake released a song with an unlicensed quotation of West End Girls, which Tennant found out about through a young nephew: “He was quite impressed, actually.” It got sorted after a cross tweet. “They were very helpful and apologetic,” says Tennant. Did they get paid? “Oh we certainly did.”

He ventures a theory. “I think pop stars have managed to do what we used to think only old blues musicians could do – turn into sort of ‘authentic’, classic … I think the public accept that. You could call it nostalgia, but I think it’s a desire to witness an authentic movement recreated. Age doesn’t seem to matter any more because the music doesn’t seem to have aged.”

April marks 40 years of West End Girls – albeit the Bobby O-produced original, not the famous 1985 Stephen Hague hit – though famously the Pets met three years prior in a Chelsea hi-fi shop. That happenstance meeting seems even more magical in an age where meeting strangers usually involves an app. Lowe was eyeing up unaffordable equipment. Tennant had bought a synthesiser without realising it lacked an in-built speaker, and needed a connector. “What amazes me about that is that the man welded a jack plug to the prongs to go in my 1970s stereo port,” he says. “There was a smell of welding.”

There’s the scent of electricity that their perfumer was looking for. “I didn’t even think of that,” says Tennant, surprised.

They don’t like to analyse why their relationship has endured. “To analyse something might be to destroy it,” says Tennant. “I think there’s an acceptance of the inevitability of it. We met by chance, we started writing songs. It’s sort of remarkable, really, so it’s best not to dwell on it too much.”

While Nonetheless is filled with dreamers, reality nibbles their toes. The Schlager Hit Parade is a very funny, bell-heavy song about the German postwar pop explosion that willed happiness and prosperity into being. “Gesundheit to Europa! / Let’s hope it’s gonna last … ” Tennant cheers. And Bullet for Narcissus imagines the perspective of Trump’s bodyguard, accepting he must die for a man he hates. On the possibility of a Trump second term, Tennant says: “It’s the undiscussable.”

The flip of the idylls on Nonetheless is, of course, escapism. “At the moment, everything’s awful,” he says, save technological advances. “Trump, Putin, all these ghastly, supposed strongmen, all the stupidity and hostility that informs that.” He has a rosier view on the relitigation of gay rights. “I was having a discussion with a friend and he said: all this will have to be fought for again. I don’t agree – I think it’s the success of the gay agenda that arouses hostility. And those people are reactionary losers.”

It’s “about time” for a British election, he says. “When they write the history of the Tory administration from 2010 to 2024, it will go down as one of the worst in history. Because when you look at what we’ve gone through – for what reason, really? – it’s led us to Brexit, the whole Covid thing, the gap between rich and poor.” The problem with Labour, he says, “is there’s always a row going on – ‘it’s not left enough’, ‘they’ve got to get voted in’. In my opinion, the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn was to get Boris Johnson elected. When you’re of my generation, it just seemed weird, like you were attempting to go back to the politics of the 1970s, whereas what you want to do is take the socialist agenda in a way that leads you forward into a bright future.”

He wonders if society has lost a sense of collectivism. “It’s only really defended with people talking about the NHS. People have to work collectively.” He sees it in Jon Savage’s new book about how LGBTQ resistance shaped culture. Even being in a club – rapidly disappearing from British high streets – “is ultimately a collective experience”.

Politics is unhealthy, says Tennant, because of “the corruption and self-victimising”. It ties back into their new single, Loneliness, practically a confrontation of the isolation epidemic that particularly affects older people. Tennant turns 70 this summer, and stresses that curiosity and community are key to remaining vigorous. “You’ve got to be interested,” he says. “Don’t become a victim of yourself. It’s just really, really unhealthy.” (It’s something he admires in Troye Sivan’s latest album: “It’s so unbelievably queer, but in a great way. I’ve never liked self-victimhood and there’s nothing self-victimising about Troye Sivan.”)

Pet Shop Boys: Loneliness – stream Spotify

Maybe that innate optimism is the key to the album’s yearning. “Within me there’s always been a sense of unfulfilled longing. Which is not really fair to me because it has been fulfilled quite often!” Yet it’s always there, he says: “a default position of longing for something different or something better”.

On whether he can imagine doing this at 80, he says there’s “unlikely to be a specific retirement point. You’ll just suddenly think: ‘Oh, we haven’t seen them for a while.”

This year, however, there is much business to attend to. In addition to the ongoing tour, there’s another run at the Royal Opera House, after one in 2016. “We’re the only people daft enough to do it,” says Tennant. Although they wrote two albums’ worth of new songs, there won’t be Nonetheless part 2. “What we’ve got is a whole stage show called Naked, based on The Emperor’s New Clothes,” says Tennant. “It’s tune-central!” (Why Am I Dancing? rewrites a ballad from the show.)

But, says Lowe, “I wouldn’t hold your breath for that! That might be posthumous at the rate it’s going.” The idea of a world without the Pets in it is not worth thinking about. At least their vision – of innocence and opportunity – has left this one a little better.

It is time for a meeting about the new album. Before they go, Lowe rummages in the abandoned bag of cakes, that Pets hunger as insatiable as ever. But someone has beaten him to it. “Neil’s nibbled them all!”

Nonetheless is released on Parlophone on 26 April Pet Shop Boys Dreamworld: The Greatest Hits Live at the Royal Arena Copenhagen is in cinemas on 4 February. PSB play the Royal Opera House, London, in July,

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