The making of Pet Shop Boys‘ Please
By A.D. Amorosi
On the newest album from synth-pop’s drollest duo, Pet Shop Boys, dryly romantic (and icily British) vocalist Neil Tennant wryly recalls a past with longtime musical partner/orchestrator Chris Lowe without wallow or recoil. “The Pop Kids,” the centerpiece cut from the blunt-synthonic Super, finds Tennant—still writing and crooning like Noel Coward in a leather bar—wringing the line, “We were young but imagined ourselves so sophisticated/Telling everyone we knew that rock was overrated,” for all the cool, collected-ness he could muster. “That’s my snapshot recollection of coming up, really” says Tennant, talking about the time that led up to 1986’s Please, the first Pet Shop Boys album, which became an unlikely platinum-plated smash across the globe.
Sinister, sardonic and kinkily sensual, yet somehow alluring, sweet and even innocent for all its experience(s), Please is that rare, odd commodity: an elegant, commercially viable work that didn’t lose PSB its underground cool or cred upon release. Quite the opposite, really.
Just consider the first hit from Please, “West End Girls.” Recorded originally with American producer Bobby “O” Orlando—then, in album form, by Britishby-way-of-Maine mixologist Stephen Hague—the smooth, snaky and snarky track was inspired in equal parts by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Lenin’s clandestine trek to Russia detailed in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station and the rough-boy, red-light district youth-quake of London that Tennant and Lowe came to know in the mid-’70s.
That’s but one three-and-a-half minute song on Please.
From there, Tennant—a cynical ironist to the max—turned the cinema-worthy lies and licentiousness of Midnight Cowboy’s principals into a greater outrageousness with “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money),” which means you’ll never quite look at Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo again in quite the same fashion.
Influenced equally by the racially tense riots of Brixton in 1981 and the violence and boredom that was the subtext of Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia, PSB’s “Suburbia” lolled and gagged on its own hubris. For every slowly rolled vowel sound and sarcastic distance/dissonance from Tennant circa Please, there were Lowe’s subtle arpeggios and glad-to-be-unhappy verses—a merry widow’s melodic mix of Burt Bacharach, Giorgio Moroder and Vince Clarke for a soundtrack that was smart, tart and chart-topping. “That was very much how my life was then, observationally,” says Lowe thinking back on his existence immediately before and after meeting Tennant and getting to Please.
In actuality, it was a long time coming to Please, when you consider that neither gentleman was much about playing pop to start, let alone electronic music. Tennant claims that he’d been writing songs since age nine at his home near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, teaching himself guitar and falling in love with the likes of Joni Mitchell and the Incredible String Band, the latter of which inspired his first folk group, Dust. He also attended an all-boys Catholic school there, whose strict morality (and Tennant’s wish to act in opposition) easily influenced grand, percolating Please hit “It’s A Sin.”
“All this became a totally separate thing from my career at that point—as much as it was—in magazine writing and editing,” says Tennant, who, by 1975, moved to London to work for Marvel UK, the British branch of Marvel Comics, before becoming, by 1982, a news editor at Smash Hits (the British teen-pop magazine). “The only reason I wound up at Smash Hits, really, was because they knew that I knew about music. What they didn’t know was that I had a secret parallel career as a songwriter—my folk songs, some punk, these angst-ridden Elvis Costello-ish songs—which I actually took around and played for publishers. Those days are long gone. That was fun.”
Lowe would not have been fond of Tennant’s folk or punk songs, in all honesty. “Not a fan, no,” he says. Five years younger than Tennant and raised in Blackpool, Lancashire, the keyboardist/ sequencer’s past includes “playing trombone in a big brass band, then dance bands, and I mean Glenn Miller-type jazzy dance bands, neither of which was very punk,” says Lowe with a laugh. “I did have a rock band at school, and we were heavy, though I wouldn’t call it metal, despite our heavy-metal name: Stallion.” Playing piano as much for pleasure as for compositional largesse, Lowe fell in love with disco, electro and house music at his coastal region’s night clubs and never looked back when he moved in 1981 to London, where he worked for a local architect right around the time that he met Tennant. It’s no joke that they met in an electronic/hi-fi shop along Kings Road and got to talking about each other’s various musical interests.
“I was very much into Soft Cell then,” says Lowe, mentioning that Tennant was not only still a bit folksy (“that Incredible String Band thing”) but also more romantic—even poetic—as a lyricist.
“After I showed him my writings, Chris said, ‘Can’t you make those lyrics just a bit sexier?’” says Tennant, which Lowe concurs was the start of Pet Shop Boys—a duo whose rise came quickly once the two of them shared their ever-developing tastes. Making things sexier meant a lot of Bowie, Italian disco and a love for the bourgeoning rap scene of New York City, the Bronx and Queens, and the lo-fi electronic dance music of Bobby “O” Orlando.
Back up a second, though.
“When Chris asked me to be less poetic, I did and started writing about London, the people we knew, the places we went,” says Tennant. Writing less romantically gave his new sets of lyrics their caustic, sardonic edge and distance, the latter element aided by him in character. “That’s the remove, you see; I wasn’t just being me anymore,” he says. “I also began writing satirical songs—which I would say, ‘Opportunities’ was—you know without being outrageously humorous. I also thought of things that Chris would want to do or hear. It worked. Even now, I don’t think I write as me much.”
Lowe chuckles when he thinks of that moment in time, as “this was very weird; I don’t really or usually comment on lyrics.” Tennant considered their new London experiences—especially Lowe’s club life—part of the deal. “I don’t recall being that fascinating,” says Lowe. “We were just young and enjoying London … something that wound up being reflected in Please. I don’t know what Neil could have got from me, though—was he spying?”
One thing the two spoke about out loud was their love for Orlando. This New York City-born, Italian-American producer and composer’s life and work wound up changing the fates of Lowe and Tennant.
Their initial writing partnership quickly became simpatico because the two had similar interests—Orlando in particular. “His records were almost punk, really,” says Lowe. “Simple beats, two three chords, lo-fidelity production; definitely a punk attitude to it all.”
Lowe is correct in his description. Orlando (attempts to contact him for this piece were thwarted) as a producer/composer created the sound of lo-fi, HI-NRG, electronic American dance music, usually playing all parts of each robotic melody himself with a heady array of synthesizers, rolling bass lines, clanging cowbells, early robotic sequencers and hammering pianos. When Tennant mentions the Flirts, an alias ensemble of Orlando’s, he seriously all but squeals. When Lowe talks about “The Best Part Of Breakin’ Up” by Roni Griffith or “Native Love (Step By Step)” by Divine (yes, John Waters’ Divine), it’s with the reverence one uses for John Cage.
When an opportunity to travel to New York City arose (to interview the Police), Tennant decided, too, that not only would he interview Orlando (“He had several ‘singles of the week’ at Smash Hits,” says Tennant. “I wonder why?”), the Pet Shop Boy would bring some of the early demos that he and Lowe had worked on. “Chris and I were simply all about our own interests,” says Tennant, talking about “Planet Rock,” Orlando’s HI-NRG disco and early hip hop. “We were really so much more American than British in our tastes. In fact, I think what Chris and I were working on truly represented a new era in dance music. We replaced pop elements with dance-music elements—we were never trying to do what the new-wave bands of that time were doing. And, of course, by the time those acts eventually had their own dance elements, we were onto something else.”
In 1983, however, everything for Tennant and Lowe was Bobby Orlando, who, upon meeting Tennant in Manhattan and hearing several PSB demos (“Opportunities,” “I Get Excited”) at a restaurant called the Applejack, agreed to do their debut album and work out a one-time single deal with Epic (for “West End Girls”) as well as some sort of production publishing deal.
“I remember Neil phoned me after meeting Orlando in NYC and he said he’d produce our record for us,” starts Lowe. “Neil was excited. I was excited. If Orlando knew how much I was living and breathing his music, he probably would’ve been scared.”
Going to New York and recording at Unique Studios in Times Square only made the whole thing seem like even more of a dream. Arthur Baker was in an adjacent room to them; there was breakdancing in the street and fresh graffiti on every wall. “The city was still a slightly dangerous place, in a good way,” says Lowe. “There were amazing clubs such as Paradise Garage, and Jellybean Benitez would spin house records into morning. It was all so exciting.”
So was the 11-track session that the studio time in 1984 spawned (pretty much all of Please, plus), including a version of “West End Girls” that sold zip in the U.K. but did swimmingly in America, becoming a club hit in Long Island, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“When you realize that we did that song in a few hours—because you paid by the hour at Unique—it was pretty funny,” says Lowe. “We wanted to use sequencers, but everything wound up being played manually. Bobby O opened the door to weird sound— shambolic, really—playing an emulator with me playing a bass with everything slightly out of time.”
Tennant continues that when “our (then) new manager Tom Watkins was in L.A. on business and heard that we were ‘the scream of the week’ on L.A. radio, that was even more hilarious.”
Not so amusing was when Watkins—one of pop management’s true raconteurs and an architect and antiquarian of the highest order—got PSB a deal with Parlophone in the U.K. and EMI in America, who insisted that they get out of their deal with Orlando. Push came to shove, and Orlando got a huge chunk of money, including a slice of Pet Shop Boys’ future royalties. “Basically EMI bought us out of the deal and put a million-dollar ceiling on it, so he made out fine,” says Tennant. “That sounded like so much money then, doesn’t it? Wait. It still does.”
Ask Lowe and Tennant if they thought there were any hard feelings from Orlando, and each says they all met up years later and laughed it off . “How bad could he feel?” says Tennant. “He got a million dollars in 1985. What’s there to be mad about? Plus, we did one of his songs on Please (“Two Divided By Zero”), so he did all right by us.” Without aping the twitchy, speedy, lo-fi HI-NRG of the 11 tracks that make up most of Please, the Boys had to find a producer who had sleek, dance-disco-heat experience but with something more something richer. Enter Stephen Hague. The wunderkind producer from Maine, onetime member of and mixer for Jules & the Polar Bears, became the go-to electronic producer for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly,” Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Crush and Erasure’s “Chains Of Love.” He did smash synth-smooth albums for New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees and anyone who sought his lush, signature tone with its occasional jagged edges (a sound he eventually brought to Blur, along with other Britpop ’90s ensembles as well as new recordings with U.K. cats such as Whitey and a new outfit called AccroGeist).
Ask Hague how he came up with his layered, sweetly somnolent, proactively sinister sound, and he’s modest about the accomplishment. “Gee, I have no idea, except that everyone is a product of their influences to some extent,” he says, calmly mentioning the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren and German “experimental” records by the likes of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu! as prime inspirations for his sound. “When producers and artists decide to work together, it’s usually based on shared sensibilities that could be heard in their previous work. So one project follows another in that way, and before you know it, you’re associated with a ‘sound.’ It’s not by design on my part, at least not consciously.”
As a fan of British and European records as a kid, Hague got his first break playing keyboards for (then) newly solo Peter Gabriel (busting out of Genesis). “Peter was kind enough to play some of my home-recording stuff to his label, and they hired me to produce Rock Steady Crew, which became a hit in the U.K. Then the work and the hits seemed to keep coming, and suddenly I was a producer. Life is strange.”
Tennant mentioned that between “Madame Butterfly” and the Rock Steady Crew material, he liked the producer and his “hip-hop-era” sound. “I thought everything that Stephen Hague did was so cute,” says Tennant. “Besides, the label wanted us to use Stock-Aitken-Waterman (Brit schlockmeisters). Stephen Hague was our man.” (Strange, but every time Tennant mentions Hague, he uses the producer’s full name, even if he had done so just a second prior.)
One thing that Hague didn’t want to do was what Bobby Orlando did. Working on “West End Girls” first for a single that— this time—would rise quickly up the British charts, Hague says of Orlando’s production, “There were some good parts there. He’s no dope, but it also sounded to me a bit like a novelty record. One of the most important decisions we made was to slow it down. One thing led to another once we’d done that.” With “West End Girls” rising on the charts and the slowed tempo an apt vibe for Pet Shop Boys’ once-Orlando-mixed cuts, Hague’s rich orchestration made lustrous sense for everything that came next.
“First off, I’ve always been a lyric guy in my pop tastes, going way back,” he says. “Neil’s lyrics, intriguing as they were, have always pushed all the right buttons for me. He’s a bit of a master of that craft, I reckon.” As Orlando did with “Two Divided By Zero,” Hague too co-composed a song with the Boys, “Love Comes Quickly.” Hague states that, as originally written, the dreamy cut “needed a middle-eight, and I stumbled on the chord changes for it. That’s often been my role as a co-writer on records that I’ve produced: ‘song doctor’ stuff. I do enjoy that process.”
Tennant says he relishes the fact that he’s had great relationships with all PSB producers, Orlando, Trevor Horn and Hague included (“Neil and I are still in touch after 30 years, which says something,” says Hague). “You have to be able to share your musical DNA, let them in … and they have to be able to let you in.” Tennant likens what they and Hague shared—what the producer brought to their already-penned-and-once-before-produced songs—was something closer to a cinematic film-noir soundtrack than a pop tune. “It wasn’t just some remixes of what we did with Bobby O,” says Tennant. “Please was something different, richer. It’s funny, too—even now, I think it sounds classic and contemporary. Unlike say, Depeche Mode, who don’t particularly like their first album because it sounds dated.” (For the record, Tennant thinks that the Mode’s Speak & Spell sounds “beautiful,”)
Lowe recalls that there was an urgency to get through making that first album, not just because it was the excitement of their debut, but because “West End Girls” was a hit that required followups. “Yes, we had to move much more quickly than we might have, but it was all a learning process, as we had never really been in a proper studio before,” he says. “I mean, Unique (Orlando’s studio) was great but threadbare—like the music.”
“Chris and I wanted everything programmed, metronomic, tight and precise,” says Tennant. “Stephen Hague wanted a bit more air in everything, especially on a song such as ‘Love Comes Quickly,’ which is still one of my favorite songs. Stephen Hague’s heightened bass line started as a mistake initially but just worked to our benefit eventually.”
Ask Tennant what Please means to him 30 years after the fact, and he thinks that it’s an incredibly romantic album “whether it was meant that way or not. Please is full of life and joy and possibility—even at its bleakest—about all that London held, and all you were running away from.” Lowe says he rarely listens to any of Pet Shop Boys’ early work, unless planning for a tour, as they are presently, and imagines that Please is still quite fresh. Ask him, though, if he thinks that newer albums such as Super will be talked about in the same way that people regard Please, and he stops me.
“In 30 years, Neil will be 100 years old,” Lowe says with a hearty laugh. “It won’t matter.”