Interview about Fundamental tracks
Neil: That started with something Chris wrote.
Chris: I’d just set up a little keyboard in my flat, and just to see if it was working, I programmed some drums, programmed a bass and a top line… and then I thought it was quite good, so I took it into the studio to work on it. It was just a groove, really. Then Neil added a middle bit.
Neil: That was much later. I had the title “Psychological” written in my phone. I’d been reading this book about Oscar Wilde and I read—
Chris: Like the word “earnest”.
Neil: When Chris played me what he’d written, I sang this psychological thing, and then I had this idea of just having a list of creepy images. It didn’t take that long to write. In the studio I’ve got a book by a writer from the thirties and forties, Walter Benjamin, which Dave Rimmer gave me, and “an undertaker with a bowler hat” came from that. It was one of the first songs we wrote for the album and we liked it, this very strange, minimal, funky groove. And then I thought that, as a pop song, it should sort of explain what it was about—
The Sodom and Gomorrah Show
Neil: This was a title I also already had. We went to Naples at the end of February, 2005, and we had a programmer called Luca Baldini, who’s an Italian dance producer and DJ who lives in Berlin, and we decided we were going to do an update of the Patrick Cowley sound.
Chris: Is that right? We wrote it in Naples but I thought we did the Patrick Cowley bit in London, because we got Patrick Cowley’s record in and worked out the scale. We spent ages to work that out.
Neil: I thought we did that in Naples. Anyway, the demo was terribly rough—
Chris: It wasn’t four-on-the-floor when we wrote it.
Neil: We were having a very frustrating time and then we suddenly came up with a really good chord change. The studio was owned by these Italian guys called Planet Funk and they said, “Hey! Great chord change! Great tune!” We weren’t sure about it, so it was quite encouraging. It could have had an “It’s a sin” sort of feel, but when we were working on it with Trevor Horn we wanted to get away from that. We spent ages working on it—
Chris: There were too many chords.
Neil: It was too musical.
Chris: It was chord overload. He simplified it.
Neil: And we got Anne Dudley to do strings on it, and she arranged that brass at the beginning.
Chris: Neil said that he wanted a classic Trevor Horn moment in it.
Neil: Trevor said, “Oh, you mean you want a gag?” I said, “Yes, I want a gag”.
Chris: He calls them gags.
Neil: I said, “I want a gag on every track”
Chris: That’s that “sun sex sin…” bit.
Neil: We wanted a boys’ church choir singing it, and Trevor had a school that was going to do it, and then they saw the lyrics. I said, “There’s nothing wrong with the lyrics—
Neil: Yes, because I wanted it to sound like Dollar. I was trying to do the greatest hits of Trevor Horn. And the speaking—
Chris: We tried to visualise where the song existed.
Neil: So it starts in the desert—
Chris: …and the door opens and you hear a blast of the band playing inside the club.
Neil: And then we got this guy, Fred Applegate, who was in The Producers. He was a really nice guy. He came in and we got him to say a few things and then Trevor edited that together. So we got a great intro out of it. And the piece of music at the start, the brass thing, was from a tape someone gave me which I made with some friends in 1979 and it had me playing a sort of honky-tonk thing on the piano. It took a long time, this track.
Chris: It’s quite an epic track.
Neil: I had the title first and I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew it was something about the modern world. I got the bit from the Bible from the Internet—
I made my excuses and left
Chris: We’d been to see A Minute Too Late by Simon McBurney—
Neil: We were thinking about the album having like links—
Chris: But Neil then said he had some lyrics, so for the second time—
Neil: I think I was finishing the lyrics in the studio in London. They were sort of inspired by reading, in the first autobiography by John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, called A Twist Of Lennon, the story of her coming back from holiday in Greece and coming into their house in Surrey and she opens the living room door, and Yoko and John are sitting on the sofa. She says, “Do you want to come out for dinner?” and John just looks at her and says, “No:’ And she walks out of the house and she realises her marriage has broken up. When I read her account of this in her latest autobiography I was quite impressed by how accurate the song is to her retelling of it—
Neil: The idea for “Minimal” came when we went to holiday in Ibiza the year before last, the day after Battleship Potemkin in Trafalgar Square. Continue »
Chris: Steve Reich in the afternoon…
Neil: This was nearly the first single, but we wanted something with a bit more attitude.
Neil: It seems quite nice that “Minimal” is followed by “Numb”, one of the biggest orchestral-sounding tracks we’ve ever done. We originally recorded it in 2003 for PopArt. It was Chris’s suggestion that we got Diane Warren to write a song for us because we had to write a hit. She gave us three songs—
Neil: Chris had the idea that we should have the introduction to the album, and he wrote the chord change. On auto tune, which is a programme on which you can tune voices or change the sound of them, I’ve always been interested by the fact that they’ve got different scales, so rather than just the normal western scale they’ve got ones with quarter tones. They’ve got an Arabic one, and I’ve always wanted to put my voice through it, so I was doing my version of the kind of call to prayer you hear when you’re in Muslim countries, and I sang about ten tracks of that. It ended up reminding me a bit of David Bowie on Low or something like that. Then we put them all through this programme. I don’t know if it does sound Arabic in the end but that was the idea. I called it “God willing” because that’s the translation of “Inshallah” which is what a Muslim will say—
Neil: This was originally written in 2003 when Chris and I were writing songs for PopArt. We wrote a lot of songs at the time—
Chris: For a while it became a big rock track.
Neil: It was the point in making the album where we said to Trevor, “We must remember: the Pet Shop Boys is an electronic duo”.
Chris: With orchestra.
Neil: We’re going to release that mix at some point, the one where I said, “I don’t know why we don’t get Axl Rose in to sing this because it’s just big, like “November Rain” by Guns ‘N’ Roses.
Chris: There was a big vocal thing at the end, like Dark Side Of The Moon.
Neil: This backing singer called Lucinda vibed out.
Chris: This is the song Trevor thinks sounds like Pink Floyd anyway, doesn’t he?
Chris: The reason it sounds like a fairground ride is because I thought it could sound like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.
Neil: I went for a run and when I came back Chris had done the whole arrangement of it. It’s sort of psychedelic. Trevor loved that. I think the song’s about America. Luna Park is America. A lot of the words were inspired by the Michael Moore film Bowling For Columbine—
I’m with Stupid
Neil: This was the first song we wrote when we started writing songs in our studio last year. The song title came from the t-shirt. Chris wrote the music. I thought it sounded like Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal”, maybe, or “Bad”. It was all written quite quickly.
Neil: I thought, “I’m with Stupid… oh, Blair and Bush”. It’s sort of a satire: Blair thinking Bush is the stupid one. The pivotal moment in the song is where it says, “Is stupid really stupid, or a different kind of smart?” I love that the website Popjustice now says “Popjustice—
Casanova in HellContinue »
Neil: Also written in 2003. It’s about Casanova.
Chris: In Hell.
Neil: The idea of Casanova in Hell is Casanova not being able to have sex—
Chris: It has a big Las Vegas ending.
Neil: Chris wrote the music in my house in the North on the piano. I changed the melody though because the melody was actually slightly more schmaltzy.
Chris: Schmaltzy! That’s a great word.
Neil: The last track written for the album. The demo was programmed by Chris rather than by Pete Gleadall. I’d had the idea for the lyric for ages “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem”. I was thinking of communism—
Chris: The end’s very good.
Neil: I love the electro groove it’s got. This is the track where we went back to the minimal electro vibe that was the idea right at the beginning. It’s not actually that different from the demo, apart from the fact that we put the acoustic guitar middle bit in. I notice a lot of people think it’s the weakest track on the album, and I totally disagree with them.
Chris: I think it’s the weakest track on the album.
Neil: I think it’s very unusual.
Chris: Yes, it’s unusual-sounding.
Indefinite leave to remain
Neil: The other song on the album that we wrote in Naples. I was reading a book about Bach meeting Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who was a hero of the Enlightenment. He was a sort of philosopher king. And in one chapter it mentioned a Bach chord change so I read it out to Chris who played it, then he changed it slightly. That’s why it’s got a slightly hymnal chord change. I’d had the title “Indefinite leave to remain” because a Sri Lankan friend of ours his passport had been at the Home Office for years, and he finally got it back stamped “indefinite leave to remain” which was a great moment for him because his status in the country had been rather precarious. I thought it was a rather beautiful phrase and one of our ideas for the album was to write the songs based on contemporary events and there has been all this debate about asylum. So I thought of writing a love song where the language of it is almost like someone applying for residency to stay in the country; a boy or whatever wants his girl to live with him and is saying she’s like a country. I like it—
Chris: Interestingly, the time signature doubles up in the middle bit, which you get twice.
Neil: It originally had words as well, that bit.
Chris: It worked much better without words. We almost took out the whole part and then I thought, “actually, you could just keep the music and not have the words”.
Neil: It was something like “Visas, and passports, may keep us, apart…”.Continue »
Chris: It was very Broadway musical. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of space.
Neil: It’s nice, because I like the fact that it starts off with the brass band and then it goes incredibly synth. It reminds me a bit of that American group The Postal Service. We suggested the brass band.
Chris: To me, it sets it in a northern town like Bradford or somewhere like that, where you’ve got brass bands but you’ve also a large Asian population, so you’ve got that contrast between the two cultures.
Neil: It’s a classic Pet Shop Boys bit of a tearjerker. It’s very sincere. We always thought the song would be near the end of the album if not the last track.
Neil: We started writing it in our studio in London but Chris didn’t like it.
Chris: I kept going “Is it crap? Is it crap?”
Neil: If Chris thinks it’s crap, it normally means it’s really catchy, by the way, readers. I said, “No, it’s great.”
Chris: I was, “Is it total crap?”
Neil: I don’t even know where the idea came from.
Chris: Wasn’t ID cards one of the things on our manifesto?
Neil: Yes, it was. Authoritarianism. I’d already had the idea of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”. Because that’s what they keep saying, isn’t it? It sounded like a song from a show, and I thought it was great that we’d got a four-on-the-floor stomper which we haven’t done a lot of recently. It’s always quite nice to have. Trevor liked it as well.
Chris: I played it to a friend and that helped me change my mind. And then lots of other people said how much they liked it. I’m very easily swayed. Sometimes, when something comes easily, you tend to not value it. The three bits to the song just came really easily.
Neil: The idea is that it’s sung from the point of view of the authoritarian New Labour-style government. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” is always used as a justification for ID cards. What we object to about ID cards is that they’re intelligent cards with a data strip that can link to a central database containing personal information which may be shared with America; when you say you don’t want that, they always say that if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide. But I think we all have a right to privacy. I feel it’s a move that suggests we have to justify ourselves to the state before the state will trust us, and I think it’s for us to trust the state and not the other way round. I think the government has to win our trust, not us win their trust. We put the lyrics on the website earlier this year when there was a fuss brewing about ID cards, and Chris had phoned me up to say that some junior minister had used the word “integral” in defending it. There was a big article in the Evening Standard about the song. But the song has got a wicked kind of humour as well. It’s meant to be’ someone giving a speech really, madly justifying all of this, with a lot of energy behind.
Chris: It’s quite authoritarian, the music.
Neil: Yes, it’s quite Stalinist, I think, and the music really reflects that. It’s really catchy, though.
Chris: It’s a great way to end the album. It’s in the “Go West” spot.