The boys are back in town

CHRIS LOWE LOOKS NERVOUS. HE thinks he's going to have to wade through his entire 25 years as one half of the Pet Shop Boys. In fact, he looks as though he's been asked to take part in a PSB documentary called "Retrospectively" or something equally awful. Just because I began a sentence with the words: "That day you and Neil met in August 1981..."

"Oh, f***ing hell, we're not doing that, are we?" he complains over coffee upstairs in their recording studio in east London, expecting this to be some month-by-month account of their rise to electropop superstardom, starting at the dawn of the 1980s, the decade they went on to dominate with their lush mechanised melodies and intelligent, gently satiric lyrics. Pet Shop Boys like a natter, but they don't really do nostalgia.

"You're the first person who's ever asked us that," says Neil Tennant when I reassure them that I'd simply like to know what song was playing when the Marvel Comics editor (Tennant) first encountered the architecture student (Lowe) in that electronics shop on London's Kings Road a quarter of a century ago. Was it The Human League's Love Action or Soft Cell's Tainted Love, both synthpop prototypes? Neither has the faintest idea, nor do they remember their first words. They recall making each other laugh as they waited for Tennant's "jack-plug thing". Suddenly, it comes to Lowe: the distant memory of that first exchange. Tennant's normally poker-faced sidekick grins. "That's a very long lead you've got there, sir," he says. Ask a stupid question. "Well," says Tennant, sort of apologising, "it was over 25 years ago. That's quite a long time."

Indeed. And quite a lot has happened. Tennant and Lowe have had more than three dozen British hit singles, starting 20 years ago with West End Girls, also their first Number 1, as well as 16 Top 40 albums, a dozen of them Top 10 entries. And they weren't just parochial heroes: huge in Europe, Japan and Australia, the hard-to-please US also took instantly to these urbane masters of affecting, absurdist electronic pop, giving the boys five Top 10 hits in their first two years.

In many ways, PSB were the quintessential 1980s act, defining the era yet somehow distancing themselves from it with their sly cultural critiques. With brilliant singles - Love Comes Quickly, Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money), Suburbia, It's a Sin, Rent - and ingenious sleights of image, they achieved that rare thing: they caught the mood of the moment. Moreover, unlike many of their peers, they negotiated the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s - although as that decade wore on and Madchester, shoegazing, grunge and Britpop came and went, PSB were forced to resist prevailing trends, as Tennant is only too pleased to point out.

"We're great swimmers against the tide," he admits, casting his mind back over the band's second decade at the forefront of mainstream dance pop. "That's part of our modus operandi. In the early Nineties we were alright: we had one of our biggest records with Go West, and Very is the only Number 1 album we've ever had - and that was as late as 1993. But then Britpop happened. See, we don't really do retro; the only retro record we ever made was New York City Boy, and to my ears, although Britpop was quite fun, it was pretty retro, except for Pulp. Oasis and Blur certainly were. And we were doing our Latin thing at that point [the Bilingual album].

"And then, of course, two or three years later the Latin thing was everywhere," he continues, "by which time we were doing Nightlife and we'd gone back to making super-electro music. And then three years after that 'electroclash' started, by which time we'd got bored and we'd decided to make a record with guitars [2002's Release], which is the current thing . We don't normally jump on the current bandwagon. In fact, that's what we don't do."

In the last few years, PSB have seemed more relevant. They have written a song for Kylie Minogue, remixed Madonna, collaborated with Robbie Williams and been fted by Scissor Sisters. Today, they are finishing up a Pet Shop-ised version of the latest single by The Killers. Their recent soundtrack to the 1925 silent movie Battleship Potemkin, and its flamboyant staging in London's Trafalgar Square, highlighted their ability to straddle the divide between the accessible and the arty. Their ninth studio album, this year's Fundamental, produced by the ber-lord of Wagnerian white disco, Trevor Horn, has been their most successful for ages.

"This year has been pretty good for the Pet Shop Boys in terms of 'fitting in'," agrees Tennant. "We remixed Madonna's single, Sorry, we've just done two tracks with Robbie [who they say won't be joining them in Edinburgh, despite the rumours], we're busy remixing The Killers, I had Jake [Shears] from the Scissor Sisters all the time he was writing his album (Ta-Dah) saying he had writers' block ... There are people who are successful nowadays who admit to liking the Pet Shop Boys."

I ask Tennant, one-time deputy editor of the late, lamented Smash Hits (and provider of the introduction for its "Best Of" compendium), what he thinks of pop music today and whether that glorious term has been devalued by karaoke clothes' horses on TV talent contests like X Factor. "I don't think that's the issue," he says. "It's that groups at the other end of the spectrum no longer call themselves 'pop'. Because in the last couple of years there have been some very good pop groups like the Arctic Monkeys and The Killers. Arctic Monkeys would definitely have been on the cover of Smash Hits. The problem is that nowadays bands like that don't want to be perceived as pop, even though they are."

"Were The Smiths a pop group, then?" wonders Lowe. His partner is adamant. "Yes! They were also a rock group: The Smiths were on the cover of Smash Hits; Heaven Knows [I'm Miserable Now] is nothing if not a pop song. I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor is a great pop song. In America they don't tend to distinguish between rock and pop: at the Grammy Awards Rod Stewart is pop."

"Someone needs to define what pop is," suggests Lowe. "I kind of knew what it was in the Eighties but now I haven't a clue. To me, pop music is Girls Aloud." Tennant casts back for an earlier example. "David Bowie's Starman is a pop record. I know they were a rock band, but rock bands can make pop records. Muse are not a pop group. They make progressive rock that goes back to Yes and Pink Floyd, whereas the Arctic Monkeys sing three-minute pop songs about picking up girls, clubbing and the day-to-day life of a young person in the north of England - the same as what people sang about in the Sixties. Waterloo Sunset is a pop record."

You could argue that PSB, with their Hi-NRG 1990 medley of U2's Where The Streets Have No Name and Andy Williams's Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, blurred the barrier between authentic rock and manufactured pop, between heartfelt chest-beating and ironic 1980s synthpop. They punctured the myth. "That's what we set out to do," says Tennant. "It evidently didn't work, though, because the authentic rock band carries on regardless, although as we always maintained, it's only a style: the Joshua Tree image was achieved by a stylist, which is no different than Girls Aloud. I'm not knocking U2; it's just the way it works."

Does great pop not require strategy, whereas rock is about being unplanned and untamed? "Pet Shop Boys never had a strategy," says Tennant. "And we still haven't. We did work on the image a bit - although without a stylist - but really, we've just written songs, and they either have or they haven't been successful."

After an hour, Lowe and Tennant have said a lot but revealed little. Where do they live? What do they like? Whom do they love? "I'll tell you who I think is a star at the moment: the singer from Arctic Monkeys," says Tennant, casting yet more Wildean bons mots over the contemporary scene while avoiding the issue. "Pete Doherty has amazing star quality; he just doesn't seem to make the records to go with it, which I find frustrating and a bit of a bore. Brandon Flowers has star quality. Wotsisface [Johnny Borell] from Razorlight behaves as though he does. He does the Richard Ashcroft I'm-a-godlike-genius thing, which I don't think really works. He's a rockist: too in thrall to the myths. Ultimately - and it's an area where we fall down totally - you're selling sex or it doesn't work," he says, providing a glimpse behind the faade. "There are exceptions to that rule: Bob Dylan and Elton John don't sell sex."

Are PSB selling sex? "No, we're not," Tennant replies. "And I think that's the problem. Not selling sex is quite tricky. In the Eighties I think we were selling sex without realising it. But we're not selling sex now in the way that Madonna's Hung Up video was ultimately about sex. That's what Frank Sinatra sold: sex and sophistication. People still throw knickers at Tom Jones. Mick Jagger sells sex. Rod Stewart is selling romantic sex, still. It's about being unnaturally thin when you're 60 and still having the hair. Hair is totally crucial." "Yes," agrees Lowe, "otherwise get a wig."

• Pet Shop Boys headline the Concert in the Gardens at Edinburgh's Royal Bank Street Hogmanay Party on 31 December.

FIVE KEY PSB SONGS

West End Girls (1985) The duo's first number one, a melancholy, understated classic.

Rent (1987) Thatcher's Britain, caught in an unusual love song.

Left To My Own Devices (1988) Arguably the Pets' finest moment, an OTT pop epic produced by natural PSB foil Trevor Horn.

Where The Streets Have No Name (1991) A cheeky cover, mocking U2's self-importance by throwing in parts of easy listening hit Can't Take My Eyes Off You.

Go West (1993) Another thoughtful cover, as the Village People hit becomes a lament for a generation lost to AIDS. AE