June 15, 2005. Angel Studios, Islington, London.
Midway through recording their new album, the Pet Shop Boys have booked an orchestra session to record string and brass parts on three of their new songs. Neil and Chris sit at the back of the studio control room, off to one side behind the mixing desk.
Through the glass they can see the musicians filtering in and unpacking their instruments. Trevor Horn, the producer, comes in and Neil moves to get up. “Trevor, you can sit here,” he says.
“No, I normally sit down there,” explains Trevor, pointing to a position in front of the mixing desk as close to the musicians as possible while staying on this side of the glass. He says that they need to get moving if they’re going to get through all three songs.
“I might go home,” says Chris, though he makes no move to do so, and seems happy enough here; it just seems to be the kind of thing he says at times like this. Instead, he and Neil chat about the Michael Jackson trial verdict from the day before.
Trevor tells the string arranger, Nick Ingman, that they’re going to do the song called “Integral” first. “I’m just going to nip to the loo before we start,” he says.
“‘Nip to the loo’,” repeats Neil. “Sounds like a folk song.” He points out that they have recorded strings in this studio before. “We did ‘Rent’ for Liza Minnelli here. ‘Getting away with it’. Quite a few things. We did ‘Dreaming of the Queen’ here.”
The microphones are on in the orchestra’s room; we can hear them talk to each other.
“What time is it?” one says to another.
“Well after half past three,” comes the answer. They were booked to begin at half past three. The rules are very strict when you employ classical musicians —
“Good afternoon,” Nick Ingman tells them. “‘Integral’.” Pages rustle and flap on music stands. “Into bar nine, ‘Integral’, avec mci, please,” he instructs. They play the arrangement he has written, by sight; this is the first time they have seen it. “Jolly good,” he says. “Bar 33.”
One, two. After a while, there’s a huge melodramatic symbol crash.
“Sounds a bit over the top, doesn’t it?” sniggers Chris.
They’re still finding their way, and Neil worries whether they’ll be in tune. “Sounds a bit like a school orchestra,” he worries.
“Don’t worry,” Trevor reassures him.
The orchestra chatter. “Are you marked ‘forte’?” one asks his neighbour.
Chris picks up a copy of Private Eye that is lying on the mixing desk and starts reading it.
“Discipline, discipline,” mutters one of the musicians.
Trevor queries one of the percussion sounds. “Frank, is there any way you can get any more tone out of the spanner?” he asks. He suggests that the orchestra now start playing along with the Pet Shop Boys’ recorded track.
“Bit of track coming, folks,” Nick Ingman tells the musicians, as though it is some kind of gentle warning. They play along. “Could we have another five per cent of the vocals?”
In the control room, Neil picks up an aviation magazine called Pilot and starts browsing through it. “I thought it was a yachting magazine,” he says, as though this would somehow explain his interest. Soon he puts it down and shows Literally the brochure for a new play, Telstar: The Joe Meek Story, which he is planning to see as soon as it opens. It’s about a legendary eccentric record producer who made a series of remarkable, sonically innovative records then met a sorry end. “Don’t you like ‘
Telstar’?” he asks. “Don’t you like ‘Have I The Right?’ by The Honeycombs?”
The musicians do a full run-through. Neil and Chris laugh, amused at the most over-thetop moments. “We might not use it all, you know,” Neil says. Trevor says that they need to split the musicians up into smaller groups. “There’s a lot of racket,” he says. “Exciting, I thought.”
“That timpani roll,” laughs Chris.
“Hilarious,” says Neil. “From their new album, Hilarious.”
They listen back to the recording of the orchestra. Chris raises his fist.
“Very Wagnerian,” nods Neil.
“It sounds like the overture to a show” says Chris.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Neil agrees.
Gavin, who leads the strings, comes into the control room to have a listen. Trevor tries to introduce him to Neil and Chris but they point out that they have known him for years —
“‘Left to my own devices’ was the first string session we ever did,” Neil points out.
“Twenty years ago?” suggests Gavin.
“No” corrects Neil. “Seventeen years ago, to be precise. Studio One, Abbey Road.”
Neil picks up Pilot once more and Trevor explains that the best bits in the magazine are the details about safety matters and recent crashes.
“Trevor has an unhealthy interest in plane crashes,” Neil observes.
Nick Ingman gives the string section new instructions. “Instead of what you have please play your lowest D.”
“D? Or B?” queries one of the players.
“D,”says Ingman. “For ‘disaster’. And as big and loud and juicy as possible.” The instructions continue: “… Pete, you know that quaver thing?” “It’sforte from bar nine, the m.f has gone…” and so on. He chats with Trevor about the fact that the harp player hasn’t turned up yet.
The song’s relentless chorus hammers out:
“If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear. If you’ve something to hide you shouldn’t even be here.”
Nick Ingman asks them to stop because the cellos are lagging behind. “It’s not getting to 4 when I expect it to,” he frets.
“A different world,” observes Trevor, quietly. “The skill it takes to do this…”
Chris reads about Camilla Parker Bowles in the newspaper. He doesn’t appear to be paying much attention, though occasionally, without looking up, he’ll say something like, “We’ll have to have a proscenium arch for the next show.”Continue »
Trevor points out that you can’t get strings recorded for pop records to sound like this in
America. (He lives and works in Los Angeles some of the time.) “They’re working in a factory —
They play along to the track again.
“I wonder when the kitchen sink is coming,” sniggers Chris.
“With the harp,” says Neil.
“Fireworks…” Chris says.
“We recorded fireworks once,” Neil recalls.
“Did we?” says Chris.
“Julian recorded them at J.J.’s party for the ‘Always on my mind’ twelve-inch,” Neil says. “They weren’t that good though —
“The harp’s arrived,” Trevor announces.
“Someone wearing a top hat…” predicts Neil.
… some jugglers coming,” adds Chris.
Neil continues the fantasy: “We’re recording some mime artists this afternoon…”
After a while, Trevor says that he’s happy with what they have. “You can always fix the timing,” he says. “It’s hard to fix the pitch.” He has two suggestions. One is to the orchestra. “Why don’t we move on and do ‘Luna Park’ now?” The other is to Neil. “Shall we put the kettle on?”
At a later date, Neil and Chris explain to Literally the background to today’s session.
“Originally on this album we weren’t going to do strings…” Neil explains.
“Or guitars,” laughs Chris.
“Our original idea in writing the album was to do minimalist electric-pop,” says Neil. “Consequently as a result we’ve made an album of sweeping epics, one after another really. I don’t know how we’ve managed that.”
Trevor suggested that they used Nick Ingman for the arrangements. This is the first time they have been in the studio with him, though he arranged the strings on “Numb” which will also be on this album but which was recorded in 2003.
“With the style of these string arrangements, they’re not incredibly intrusive strings,” Neil notes. “They’re used as a rich texture.” As he pointed out in the studio, the first time they ever used live strings was on the first song they recorded with Trevor Horn, back in 1988, “Left to my own devices “It was the first time we worked with Richard Niles who did the arrangements, and he did a massive arrangement and we edited some of it out. It’s exciting doing strings, because it makes the harmony sound much richer, which I really like. I always like hearing the strings playing by themselves as well —
They point out that sometimes orchestrations don’t work. “In this case not at all —
They talk through these three songs. First, the anthemic “Integral”.
“One of the ideas for the album is that we took the themes of the songs from contemporary events,” says Neil. “‘Integral’ was inspired by the issue of ID cards in Britain, whereby everyone in Britain is issued with an ID card which has a smart strip on it which collates all of your social security information, any criminal convictions, and other stuff, which also is going to be shared with the United States of America. And it seems to us to go against all British traditions of liberty and freedom. Continue »
“They’re certainly more interesting,” says Chris. (He adds one more practical objection to ID cards: “It’d be a nightmare for Batman and all those superheroes.”)
They wrote the music in their London studio.
“You started writing the music,” Neil reminds Chris. “You didn’t like it to begin with.”
“It’s alright,” says Chris. “It’s the sort of thing you might get annoyed with after a few plays. It was just trying to be uplifting really. It’s not easy. People think it’s easy doing uplifting four-on-the-floor stompers but actually it’s quite difficult, particularly when you’re not in the mood. When you’re feeling like Chris Martin on a good day, it’s not easy to do. But we try. We owe it to the fans.”
“I think it sounds threatening more than uplifting,” says Neil.
“Musically it’s a bit triumphalist, don’t you think?” says Chris.
“Yes,” Neil agrees. “Threateningly triumphalist.”
“Yes,” says Chris. “It’s the state —
“It actually has an influence from Rammstein as well,” says Neil. “It reminds me a bit of Rammstein’s song, ‘Amerika’.” He starts singing: “We’re all living in Amerika… wunderbar …” “Intregal” also reminds them of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “Trevor thinks a lot of things on this album sound like Pink Floyd,” says Neil. “I, of course, have never really listened to Pink Floyd so it’s very difficult for me to judge this. I was never a fan.”
The second of these three songs is called “Luna Park”.
“It was written about two years ago,” says Neil, “in the north of England…”
“I think it was done in London,” says Chris.
“You might be right,” says Neil.
“They come from the heavens anyway,” notes Chris. “We’re just a vessel through which they pass. If anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus.” (Literally readers may like to consider at their leisure whether this represents Chris’s true opinion or is a savage parody of pompous pop star interviews.)
“I’ve always like the phrase ‘Luna Park’,” says Neil.
“You don’t get them in England,” says Chris. “We have Blackpool Pleasure Beach.”
“In Nice there’s a Luna Park,” says Neil.
“All across Germany,” notes Chris.
“Luna Park is their name for a permanent funfair,” says Neil, “and obviously it means something to do with the moon, that you go there at night, lit by the moon. I’ve always thought there were a lot of connotations… …lunatic, for instance. So there is that notion that it’s madness, and that’s specifically what I liked about it —
There’s another song on the album called ‘Psychological’ which has a similar theme. It’s basically about how you imagine things, of how being afraid of a directionless terrorism in a way is like being afraid of the dark. In the dark you don’t know what’s happening, and with terrorism you feel where information is concemed you’re in the dark so you’re irrationally scared.”
The third song is called “Casanova in Hell”.Continue »
“We wrote that in the north of England,” says Neil. “Chris started writing a song on the grand piano which I’ve got in my house, and I’d had the idea of writing a song called ‘Casanova in Hell’ from reading a book about him… It’s a short novel, Casanova Homecoming, by Arthur Schnitzler who was the Viennese writer at the tum of the twentieth century and it sort of draws upon the idea that Casanova is getting older, and so the song is about Casanova. A woman laughs at him because she thinks he’s too old to have sex with her, and he confronts that realisation and gets his revenge by writing his memoirs.
And it was his memoirs that made him into a historical figure as well as a literary figure —
“We didn’t want a parental guidance sticker on the album sleeve,” deadpans Chris. “We’re not that type of band.”
Once the kettle has boiled at the back of the control room, Trevor Horn makes his own cup of tea and stares at the jar of chocolate biscuits. “Biscuits around the place, it’s deadly.”
“Don’t go there, Trevor,” counsels Neil.
He has one biscuit anyway while the strings run through “Luna Park”. Chris points out a bit of the arrangement that he doesn’t like.
“We should have Axl Rose singing on this, really,” says Neil. “He’d sing it really well.”
“This has got more rock, hasn’t it?” Chris observes. “I don’t mean in a bad way.” He shares his reservations with Nick Ingman about the opening passages.
“We can schmoot them up a bit,” Ingman suggests.
“I think they’ve got to do it aggressively,” Neil agrees. “I think it needs to sound rushed. It’s got to match the piano.”
“Which is obviously being played percussively,” states Nick Ingman. He talks the strings through the song. “There’s the famous semi-quaver passage at 65…” he says at one point.
“Famous,” says Neil, who is enjoying tea and a banana. “People talk of nothing else.” He says that he sat next to the notorious art critic Brian Sewell at a dinner the other night when he was presenting the BP National Portrait Gallery portrait prize. (Neil took the opportunity to note how old-fashioned portrait painting was and reasoned that it must, consequently, have something going for it.)
“This is about Casanova in hell,” Nick Ingman tells the string section. “Listen to the words. They’re very good.”
Neil chats with Chris about Sondre Lerche. Chris laughs when the already-recorded Neil sings the word “erection” in the background.
“That sounded a bit better than I thought,” says Trevor.
Neil worries that some of the string parts sound a bit inconsequential, and says that he doesn’t understand the discordant part at the end.
“You asked that the strings sort of comment at the end,” Trevor reminds him.
“Did I?” says Neil.
“We can cut it,” says Trevor.
“No, no, what did I mean?” Neil says, wondering. “It might have been a good idea.”
Nick Ingman talks to one of the viola players. “You’re a tiny bit flowery for me,” he says. “Because you’re the bottom viola, if you’ll excuse the expression…” They do another runthrough and he praises them. “Lovely,” he says. “Very limp. Beautifully limp.”
They consider the problematic end passage. “This ascending chromatic thing which may get cut,” as Nick Ingman describes it to the players. Continue »
“Lovely,” says Neil.
“Much better,” Chris agrees.
Another playback. Chris teases Neil about his vocal timing.
“It’s my signature style,” Neil says.
“You just can’t wait for the beat,” says Chris.
“I think it’s too corny,” Neil explains.
Nick Ingman is worrying about something else. “You can get rid of the semi-quavers at the end of bar 69. They’re not a big deal.”
Neil says he’s happy. “Great,” he tells Nick Ingman. “I loved the flaccid penis.” He’s referring to a part of the orchestration which amplifies the lyric.
“There’s a sort of chamber thing about it,” Nick Ingman tells him.
“It’s nice to have something a bit eighteenth century,” Neil agrees.
The engineer picks up the phone then asks whose Mercedes it is in the studio car park —
“Do you want to get the blowers in?” Nick Ingman asks Trevor. (He means the brass players.)
“The blowers,” says Chris. “And get the fluffers…” He has a question for Neil, the question that usually looms during a Pet Shop Boys recording session. “Where’re we going to eat then?” he asks.
“We’ll worry about that at the time,” Neil says.
Trevor returns to “Integral” to record the harp part.
“Why isn’t there a men’s choir on this, Neil?” Chris asks. “Would that be going too far?”
The harp is quickly recorded and the “blowers” take their place. (The percussionist is frustrated that he is being left till last, but he is only one person.) As the tuba plays Neil comments, “I expect Harry Secombe to start singing.” By now, Neil has taken over the copy of Private Eye. The brass play “Casanova in Hell”. “I think that’s fine,” Trevor says. “There may have been a bit of air between the two French horns at the end, in tenns of pitch.”
Nick Ingman suggests that they re-do it from bar 63.
“Two bars before the quaver,” he instructs. “Done,” says Trevor, triumphantly. “Not bad going,” says Chris. They are well within the three hours and they only have the percussionist, Frank, to record. “Frank played congas on ‘Close (To The Edit)’,” says Trevor. “He played with Tina Charles in 1981 on ‘I Love To Love’.” (Trevor’s first modest success was as a bass player for the British disco sensation Tina Charles.) Frank adds some timpani to “Casanova in Hell” then some thunder noises to “Luna Park” by shaking a sheet of metal. When he does so, Chris and Neil look perplexed and Trevor laughs.
“That was fine,” he says.
“It’s like sex,” Nick Ingman notes. “You hang around for three hours and it’s all over in two minutes.”
Frank plays some timpani on “Integral” which reminds both Neil and Chris of the beginning of University Challenge. Then, finally, he plays the spanner. At 6.04 pm, 24 minutes early, the session is over. Frank packs up his strange sonic implements.
“The thundersheet,” exclaims Chris. “It’s the first time we’ve had a thundersheet on the record,” says Neil.
“How come it’s taken us so long?” Chris wonders.