The confinement has stimulated all kinds of unexpected creative impulses. For Neil Tennant of synthpop geniuses Pet Shop Boys, the result was a collection of folk songs.
“During lockdown I started recording songs I had written in the 70s,” he said in an interview with BBC Radio 4. This cultural life. “And they were on guitar.”
Tennant’s first musical forays were during his teenage years in Newcastle with a folk band called Dust, inspired by the Incredible String Band. His early songs, Tennant told interviewer John Wilson, were composed on guitar and inspired by the chord he had learned that day.
“The first song I wrote that I thought was a good song, which I’m not embarrassed about even now, was called Can You Hear the Dawn Break?” he said. “And it was very folk. We actually had a session on BBC Radio Newcastle. We did four or five songs that were played over breakfast in the morning.
Listeners to the show will hear a snippet of the song, featuring a young woman singing on a guitar and what sounds like a mandolin.
“It’s more folksy than I’ve become,” admitted Tennant, but said he continued to write songs on guitar as well as keyboard for Pet Shop Boys. Her musical partner, Chris Lowe, was less taken with this new acoustic venture.
“Chris said to me, you know, it’s not… It’s not… I don’t even know if you want to do anything with it.” But it’s not the Pet Shop Boys.
A folk solo album by Neil Tennant is not planned yet.
“It’s not really an album,” Tennant said. “It’s about five songs at the moment. … I do not know. Perhaps. I don’t have any plans for that, though.
The interview covers Tennant’s 50-year career, from her time in publishing, publishing the Mary Berry ITV cookbook in 1981 – ‘I used to think ‘whatever happened to Mary Berry “” – and her collaboration with David Bowie on Hallo Spaceboy.
Tennant and Lowe cut the Space Oddity lyrics to add a new verse and told Bowie during a phone call. “He didn’t look very happy — ‘looks like you better come in,'” Tennant said. He played a demo to Bowie, singing the verse. “And he loved it. He said, ‘Yes, but you’ll have to keep singing it’.
The muses of one of the Pet Shop Boys’ biggest hits, West End Girls, were Grandmaster Flash and TS Eliot, Tennant said.
“I have always loved the poem, land of waste by TS Eliot, although I don’t really understand it, to this day, but I love all the different voices. So while writing West End Girls, I was also thinking of writing a collage of different voices. So it’s not just one voice all the way through. It’s dialogue. It’s like a found dialogue.
He still enjoys creating and said he would probably make records even if they weren’t released. But Tennant’s observational lyrics and the Pet Shop Boys’ intricate melody lines make him wonder if they’ve gone “outdated.”
Tennant, who is 67 and a former Shattering Blows writer, added that he was not very interested in contemporary pop music.
“And maybe it’s because of my age, which would be a perfectly reasonable thing,” he said. “For me, pop music these days is very narcissistic. I find it a bit tedious.
“Sometimes I wish there was more art, rather than, you know, dissing your boyfriend or something. You know, David Bowie wasn’t really Ziggy Stardust.
This cultural lifewith Neil Tennant, is on Radio 4 on Saturday April 16 at 7:15 p.m.