Back in the early 1980s, when the Pet Shop Boys were a twinkle of a concept in the minds of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the former made a living as a writer on Smash Hits, asking pop stars of the day such revealing questions as “does your mother play golf?” and “have you ever thought you were a city centre?” Disappointingly, Tennant appears to have forgotten this inspired line of tangential inquiry; instead, his thoughts are on an actual city centre when I speak to him in advance of the Pet Shop Boys’ headline slot at the Concert in the Gardens.
This will be the duo’s second attempt to perform at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. They were first booked to take the party into 2007, but the event was shut down due to high winds. Tennant recalls soundchecking for the show, then receiving a call from Lowe at 7pm that night reporting that a beam had just flown past his hotel window. “We felt a bit funny about it really,” he says. “It wasn’t a great new year for us because it felt a bit strange and anti-climactic.”
Three years earlier, when the street party had been cancelled, Franz Ferdinand made the best of an unfortunate situation and played an impromptu gig at a friend’s house party instead. The Pet Shop Boys don’t quite roll that way. “If you play guitars and drums it’s easier to do that,” says Tennant. “The year we couldn’t do it, Paolo Nutini and his acoustic guitar did a televised thing, but our show is not as flexible as that.”
Pet Shop Boys are relatively new to the Hogmanay hoolie. They ended 2011 playing Sydney Harbour and began 2013 performing in front of the Brandenburg Gate. But Tennant recalls his childhood Hogmanays on Tyneside where first footing was the tradition. “ To be in Scotland for Hogmanay is very exciting,” he says. “We’re going to have a party – I think that’s probably the tradition everywhere.”
Tennant is not one for making New Year resolutions, though he will look back and take stock, noting that “it’s been a rejuvenating year for the Pet Shop Boys.” This summer, they released their 12th album, Electric, going back to dancefloor basics following the more introspective Elysium, and embarked on a six-month tour of 29 countries, including their first trip to China.
“I actually thought we wouldn’t be allowed to go,” says Tennant, “because they asked to see all the lyrics and the opening part of the show particularly is very political. The song Integral is specifically against surveillance. During that line in Suburbia, ‘where’s a policeman when you need one’, I could have pointed to about 12 policemen standing in front of the stage, but they obviously didn’t consider it to be subversive.”
Their debut hit, West End Girls, at least has populist connotations since it was the song being performed during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics as the Chinese team walked into the stadium. “A lot of people in China heard West End Girls last year,” says a tickled Tennant, “which is funny because in the 1980s and early 1990s you wouldn’t hear Pet Shop Boys on the radio, because you wouldn’t hear pop music on the radio, you only heard revolutionary songs.”
The duo’s airtime in China began in 1993 with one radio DJ who had a cassette copy of Go West. That same song had been a somewhat subversive hit in Russia around the same time.
In the UK, it is regarded with the same frothy affection as the camp Village People original but, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the lyrical exhortation to “go west” and “start life anew” coupled with the song’s melodic resemblance to the Soviet (now Russian) national anthem and a video partly filmed in Russia made for a potent political statement. (Curiously, when I researched the Soviet anthem on Youtube, the clip was preceded by an advert for the Electric album – coincidence? I’d like to think not.)
“When we started off we thought pop music could be about any subject you wanted and we’ve followed that through right up to [recent single] Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” says Tennant. “There’s been a Pet Shop Boys way of doing things, which has never been the easy way.
“When we first made a record, we discussed all these ideas about how we wanted to be presented. We didn’t want to look like conventional happy-go-lucky 1980s pop stars, so when we did Top Of The Pops we were very much in contrast with what was going on at the time.
“Our Please album sleeve was plain white with a little postage stamp picture of us in the middle. This was in 1986 at the height of almost baroque graphics. If you look at Simple Minds album sleeves from that period, there couldn’t be a greater contrast. So we introduced this minimalistic thing into pop music which is something we still do to this day.”
Yet the Pet Shop Boys have also always brought an ambitious sense of theatre to their live shows. The late Derek Jarman directed their first tour and they now regularly collaborate with renowned stage designer Es Devlin on their concert extravaganzas.
Along with the likes of Damon Albarn and Rufus Wainwright, they are among a handful of artists to move seamlessly between pop music and more highbrow musical projects. In the past decade, they have composed and performed an electro-orchestral soundtrack to the classic silent film Battleship Potemkin and collaborated with Sadler’s Wells on a dance adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing, while some time in the next year they hope to premiere A Man From The Future, their song cycle inspired by the tragic life and brilliant work of pioneering computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing.
“They all fit together in this giant Pet Shop Boys tapestry of music and art,” says Tennant. “And they all make sense because each one has the same impetus, which is to bring something new into an established form.”
As one who truly loves pop music, Tennant wants to hear others doing the same. He namechecks Arctic Monkeys for their integrity and Lady Gaga for her idealism, admires Lorde and Rihanna for their singles and is fascinated by the One Direction phenomenon.
“Pop music now is more like the 1960s than you would think because people buy singles in vast numbers like they haven’t done since the 1960s and we have younger artists again,” he says. “I just wish music was more forward-thinking. Everything is so tainted by sponsorship. You don’t seem to get that ‘the first time you heard When Doves Cry by Prince’ moment very often. If someone wants to be taken seriously now they do a very sentimental ballad, which seems to me to be unbelievably corny and conservative. What I’m always hoping to hear is a totally fresh sound and attitude and it doesn’t happen very often.”
It’s a valid concern. But there is a more pressing matter to address and it is this: Neil Tennant, have you ever thought you were a city centre? “Yes,” he says without a moment’s hesitation, “probably in 1988.”
• Pet Shop Boys headline the Concert in the Gardens, Edinburgh, on New Year’s Eve
It may not be on quite the same scale as Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party, but Stirling also offers fireworks, a castle, and a big name headliner – Scotland’s own Deacon Blue. And with support from Dougie MacLean, there will be no shortage of rousing Scottish anthems. Expect to get a bit misty-eyed by the end of the night.
Stonehaven already puts on a world-class Hogmanay show in the shape of its famous fireball festival. This year, the small town will be even busier than usual thanks to the addition of Open Air in the Square, an outdoor gig headlined by Simple Minds.
George Square is still the place to be on New Year’s Eve, with music from West African group Ayawara, Glasgow’s own Samba Y Bamba and more, from midday until 10pm. After that you’ll need to find your own way to see in the new year, but with gigs, club nights and parties taking place across the city there are plenty of options, including burlesque night Club Noir at the Academy and a party in Merchant Square. There’s a full list at the city’s Hogmanay website.
Union Bridge, Union Terrace, Blackfriars Street and Schoolhill are the suggested vantage points for the city’s annual firework display from the roof of His Majesty’s Theatre. There’s live music on Union Street too.