To round off my long weekend down in London, I went to see Neil Tennant in conversation with Michael Bracewell at the new EartH venue in Hackney. The interview can be streamed here. In his introduction, Bracewell earned a cheer for his positing the notion that aside from the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys have written more great pop songs than any other group, which sounds plausible at the very least. Neil was interviewed for around an hour or so, and it was good to hear him speak in some detail about his songs in his usual thoughtful, often humorous manner. He wasn’t afraid to pause to digest a question before delivering an answer. Questions were also taken from audience members. I would have asked something about middle eights I’m sure, but sadly didn’t get my moment!
While I don’t intend to recount the entire interview here, Bracewell asked two questions inspired by Brian Eno (another musical favourite of mine). The first examined the extent to which pop music is concerned with ‘creating new imaginary worlds, and inviting people to join them’, and it was clear that Tennant sees the Pet Shop Boys as fitting into Eno’s definition comfortably, specifically as a result of their disparate and often unusual influences (including American Hip-Hop and Russian history) which create a unique world to which the listener is invited, and also through the visual imagery that each new incarnation of the Pet Shop Boys incorporates.
The second Eno inspired question was about how the best songs are encapsulated by their title, to the point where the ‘story’ of a song is almost contained there in its title alone. I’m intrigued by this idea, though not sure I can 100% subscribe to it. A pithy title isn’t always borne out by an equally eloquent song, and equally, otherwise good songs can of course have ropey, or at least unhelpful titles. But I like the idea that a solid concept can be boiled down and expressed pretty concisely, in a sentence for example (as is the case with a number of Pet Shop Boys song titles including You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously and the particularly cumbersome This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave).
I was also reminded of the fact that unlike many pop stars of his time, Tennant was into his thirties before he found any kind of fame as a songwriter (there’s hope for me yet!), though he was previously a successful music journalist. It turns out that he’s older than my Mum.
The book itself promises to be a good read, with each of the songs accompanied by an explanation by Tennant himself, along with an introduction by the author. There are plenty of his songs with which I am still fairly unfamiliar, others I feel get far less credit than they deserve (King of Rome, The Theatre, Don Juan and Kings Cross to name but a few). I’m sure I will refer to the book in future posts.
So the weekend as a whole has given me plenty of food for thought about the craft of songwriting, and pop music in particular. I look forward to reporting on lots more long weekends of songwriting.