West End Boys.
The Pet Shop Boys are a fascinating enigma. Their minimalist style and urbane sensibilities ushered in an era of pop music that became inextricably linked with dance music. Their work spans two decades and is as vital and ingenious as ever, growing this summer to embrace a new stage musical and the first-ever gay-targeted summer music festival tour. Dubbed Wotapalava, the coast-to-coast concerts will touch down in 18 North American cities from July 13 through August 11 [see sidebar on page 49].
I met Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe two years ago on the devastating occasion of Dusty Springfield's funeral. We ended up at London's Groucho Club, and the night evolved into a surreal celebration of Dusty's memory. She'd worked with the Boys on their hit single "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and she was a close friend of mine.
On a recent visit to London, I spoke to Neil after catching a preview of Closer to Heaven, the glittering, sexy, and addictive new musical about London's club scene that the Pet Shop Boys have cooked up with playwright Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing). As you would hope from the Boys, the show encompasses erotic sex, ambition, K holes, and the search for love. A cast album, produced by Stephen Hague (whose credits include "West End Girls") and the Pet Shop Boys, is due out in the fall.
In person, Neil Tennant is very un-pop-star-like--affable and down-to-earth. We talked about Wotapalava, gay culture, and musical theater as we sat in the bar of the West End's Arts Theatre, Closer to Heaven's home. The sound of the cast's rehearsing echoed in the background.
Pope: Let's talk about the tour. Tell me about the name, Wotapalava.
Tennant: Loosely translated, Wotapalava means "what a fuss about nothing." The idea of the tour was to do a gay Lollapalooza. The title reflects our attitude on sexuality, which at the end of the day is a lot of fuss about nothing. Because some people have sex with people of the same sex, an entire culture has been created, broadly speaking, out of oppression. Which in a rational world would not be an issue. We hope we are moving toward a world where [sexual orientation] is not an issue, because we hate the idea of a gay ghetto. I think that it's a real shame that people become restricted by their sexuality or define their whole lives by their sexuality.
Yes, that's so sad.
The idea of "gay"--it's a big subject. To me, it's like a '70s response to political repression; as political equality is achieved, the idea of "gay" should evaporate. I'm always very suspicious of gay communities or communities based on people's ethnic origins or what have you.
It's a ghetto mentality.
It's totally ghetto, and it smacks to me of what they used to say in the British empire: "Divide and rule." I'm totally suspicious of it; I think we should be one community. I think the world should be one community. This is really the point of Wotapalava. When you look at the artists on the tour--Pet Shop Boys, Rufus Wainwright, Soft Cell, and Magnetic Fields--what they have in common is, they're gay or have gay members. They've pursued their own agendas, and they've done what they've wanted to do and not pursued traditional careers in the music industry. They've followed their own instincts, and they are in many ways maverick performers.
To a certain extent, this tour is a celebration of individuality and that you can invent and reinvent yourself. You should have the power to be able to do that. Sexuality is a part of that. It should release you. It doesn't have to be an issue. It shouldn't box you in. We shouldn't feel restricted by our sexuality, and our sexuality doesn't have to be a cultural choice. That's an amazing variety of music within those five main performers. I think it proves that being gay isn't a cultural choice, which means you've got to like Barbra Streisand records. You can be what you want to be.
That also applies to Closer to Heaven--you're reinventing the Pet Shop Boys. What prompted you to write a musical?
Since we started, Chris and I had theatrical ambitions. When we did concerts, we wanted them to be theatrical events--collaborations with designers, choreographers, and directors--because we thought traditional rock concerts were boring, that it was most exciting when people [first] came up on the stage and then when they came back for the encore. We wanted to make a show that kept on developing, that was interesting, so we tried to do that with our live shows.
We thought it would be great to see if you could put pop music back into musical theater. At one time musical theater, particularly in the '40s and '50s, was a big source of pop songs. That's how musical theater started, really--it was just a way of linking several pop songs for the stage.
At the beginning of the '90s we started to think seriously about it. The BBC asked us to do a musical for BBC television around '93-'94, and they suggested we get together with a playwright named Jonathan Harvey, who'd just had a play in the West End called Beautiful Thing. We went to see that, and we liked it. We decided we didn't want to do a musical for TV because the idea of writing a musical that would be seen on television once seems insane.
For a while we were chasing a book by Graham Greene to do Brighton Rock as a musical. We didn't get the rights, so we decided to create something from scratch, with Jonathan. By that time we were big fans of his work.
As we're talking, the play is just starting previewing, and it's a really exciting time for us because it's taken ages to put together. [The show opened on May 31.]
Tell me the plot of Closer to Heaven, in your own words.
The plot is about a boy who comes from Ireland, 'cause he's bored there and maybe he's running away from something. We never quite know what that is. He comes to London and gets a job in a nightclub, a gay club, where he's known as Straight Dave by the bar staff--and no one believes he's as straight as he claims to be. He meets the daughter of the club manager, and he has an affair with her. He also meets a young drug dealer called Mile End Lee, and finally his girlfriend discovers Dave having sex with Mile End in the club toilet. There's also a subplot about a guy who manages pop groups. Dave is a very ambitious boy, and he gets offered an audition but only wants to do it on his terms and conditions. He wants to maintain his integrity.
The night of the [weekly] club, where all the action takes place, is called Billie's Night. This is the night presented by Billie Tricks, who is a fantastic functional character who's meant to be a bit like [Warhol personality] Nico. She's German, lived in New York. She's been a smack addict, she's had big success in Europe in the '70s, and she's lost everything. She's been rediscovered in the '80s, and as we meet her she's just about to sign a new recording contract. She's a very charismatic character, and she holds the whole play together.
Is there a message to the play?
I'm always uneasy with messages. I think if there is a message, it's about taking control of your life. Not becoming a victim. Be true to yourself. In essence it's about love in the drug culture.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
We've been working on a new album, which is going to come out next spring, which is very different, a change of style for us--it's going to be almost like rock music. We've been using rock drum samples, rock guitar samples, rye been playing the guitar, and rhythmically, the songs are more like rock. They're very, very melodic, and the songs are very beautiful.
The first song is called "London." It's about two Russian soldiers who desert the Russian army and escape to London, where they indulge in a life of crime.
Just to go back to the "gay" thing for a minute before we finish, do you think straight society is becoming more accepting?
A lot of what used to be known as gay culture--broadly speaking, homoeroticism and being camp--has been brought into mainstream culture. I think we should be moving to an era where it's just sex. [Addresses the unseen multitudes] "It's just sex, everyone!"
"People! Get over it."
"Can we all get over it, please?" I think there's an element where people get very comfortable in their ghetto. Which is fair enough.
Comfortable and complacent.
And sort of lazy.
Oh, God, yes.
When I was I younger I didn't want to be gay. Not because I was scared of the sexual thing; I didn't want to be a clone. Now this was in the late '70s. I didn't want to wear a checked shirt and grow a mustache--that's what you had to do, and everyone did.
I've never understood that.
I think we've come a long way since then. The big thing that changed was when ecstasy came along in Britain. The big gay clubs like Heaven started having mixed nights in the late '80s. That was a brilliant thing, because if you were bi-curious--as many people are, without having to be completely homosexual--it was great, because when you released people from having to define themselves sexually, much more interesting things happened.
I can't talk from an American perspective, but kids in Britain assume that homosexuality and bisexuality goes on and it's not a big deal. And "gay" makes it into a big deal. Which is why the idea of gay with a capital G is a bit past itself. Gay seems, dare I say naff, a bit old-fashioned. I think we're all now postgay. Wotapalava is a postgay event.
RELATED ARTICLE: What's a Wotapalava?
Here's the scoop on the first-ever gay-targeted touring summer music festival, hosted by the Pet Shop Boys
Alternative rockers had Lollapalooza. Women's music followers had Lilith Fair. Even fans of '80s hair bands have their own touring summer music festival, Poison's Glam Siam Metal Jam. And now gay men and lesbians have the Pet Shop Boys' way gay music day, which the Boys have more creatively dubbed Wotapalava.
Meaning "what a fuss about nothing," the name refers to society's endless flap over sexual orientation, not to the festival lineup. The Wotapalava main stage is a who's who among out gay musicians, including Pet Shop Boys, Rufus Wainwright, Soft Cell (led by Marc Almond), and Magnetic Fields (brainchild of Stephin Merritt). The event's originally scheduled leading woman, Sinead O'Connor, bowed out soon after the tour was announced due to "unforeseen family commitments," although she may appear at select dates.
For festivalgoers who need a constant beat to keep it gay, Wotapalava will also have a second stage of continuous dance music from DJs, including Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia, Tracy Young, Susan Morabito, and others, plus guest vocalists from Broadway and cabaret. It begins July 13 in Miami and wraps August 11 in The Woodlands, Tex., with stops in between in Atlanta; New York's Jones Beach; Boston; Cleveland; Toronto; Irvine, Calif.; Dallas; and nine other locales.
For a complete schedule and updates, go to www.advocate.com.
* Find more on the Pet Shop Boys, Closer to Heaven, and the Wotapalava tour at www.advocate.com Pope is a singer, co founder of the transgressive band Rough Trade, and author of Anti Diva (Random House).
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|Title Annotation:||Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jul 17, 2001|
|Previous Article:||It's all about choices.|
|Next Article:||Out in Eden.|