Pet Shop Boys: When Neil Tennant met Chris Lowe

Pet Shop Boys have been named as the UK’s most successful duo in music history, having sold more than 50 million records worldwide since their launch in 1981.

The English synth-pop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe has released 65 singles and 14 studio albums during their 42-year career.

Founded in London, in an era when the charts were full of synthesiser bands and the New Romantics youth culture was born, Pet Shop Boys have displayed amazing longevity. While other bands of their genre fell by the wayside as time went by, Tennant and Lowe adapted, without ever losing the unique sound that made them special.

© Ceoil / CC BY-SA 4.0

With Tennant as primary vocalist and Lowe playing keyboards, the band has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful British music duo since the charts began.

They have achieved an amazing 44 UK top 40 chart hits, including era-defining songs such as West End Girls in 1986, It’s a Sin in 1987 and Go West in 1993. They have won three Brit Awards and are six-time Grammy nominees.

West End Girls won a Brit Award and an Ivor Novello Award. Pet Shop Boys also received a Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music in 2009. In 2016, Billboard magazine named them the number one dance duo in history.

Where did Pet Shop Boys meet?

Before their rise to superstardom, the boys were both students with a keen interest in music, although more as a hobby than a career plan.

Tennant was born in 1954 in North Shields, Tyne and Wear. He attended an all-boys’ Catholic grammar school, where the strict regime reportedly inspired Pet Shop Boys’ songs, It’s a Sin and This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave.

After learning to play guitar and cello as a child, he joined a folk group called Dust in his teens and began to write songs. He completed a degree in history at North London Polytechnic in 1975 and took a job as production editor for the British branch of Marvel Comics, Marvel UK.

Lowe was born in the northwest seaside resort of Blackpool in 1959. While at school, he learned to play trombone, joining a dance band called One Under the Eight, playing old-time hits such as La Bamba and Hello Dolly. He then studied architecture at Liverpool University, before moving to London in 1981.

When Neil Tennant met Chris Lowe in a record shop, little did they know it was the start of a lifetime musical collaboration that would propel them to global superstardom.

Lowe was completing a work placement in 1981 at a London firm of architects. In his leisure time, he enjoyed the buzz of King’s Road. He met Tennant in Chelsea Record Centre at 203 King’s Road.

Music lovers would hang out at the trendy store, which sold hi-fi equipment and tape recorders, as well as new and second-hand records. They became friends through their shared love of synth-pop music.

On the day they met, Tennant had bought a Korg MS-10 synthesiser, a classic analogue synth released in 1978 and renowned for its huge electro bass sounds. His purchase sparked a conversation with Lowe.

They liked the same sort of electronic music, especially the electropop hits Bedsitter by Soft Cell and Souvenir by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which seemed to reflect their lifestyle at the time. They listened to the pioneers of electronic music such as Kraftwerk, OMD, Depeche Mode, the Human League and Soft Cell.

Their chance meeting in the London record store in 1981 led to the formation of Pet Shop Boys soon afterwards.

Pet Shop Boys meaning

Tennant was 27 and Lowe was 23 when they formed Pet Shop Boys. The meaning of the band’s name was a mystery to fans, but the duo explained it was inspired by some friends who owned a pet shop in Ealing – they were nicknamed the “pet shop boys”.

They started working together on songs at Tennant’s Chelsea flat, moving to a studio in Camden Town in 1982. Tennant writes most of the lyrics and Lowe much of the music. However, it isn’t a traditional “words and music” partnership, where the lyrics are written first, with the melodies created around them. It has been described as a more fluid songwriting partnership, more like the collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, when “who did what” varied on each song.

At the time, Tennant was assistant editor at Smash Hits music magazine. He was sent to interview Sting in New York, so while there, he arranged to meet high-energy dance music producer Bobby Orlando to give him a Pet Shop Boys demo tape containing It’s a Sin. This launched their pop career, as Orlando loved the demo.

In 1983 and 1984, he recorded 11 of their tracks including West End Girls, It’s a Sin, I Get Excited and Rent. West End Girls was a massive club hit in San Francisco and Los Angeles, two years before it charted in the UK.

Career achievements

They have had 42 singles that made the top 30 in the UK, including 22 top ten hits and four number ones. They have also had five US top ten singles. This led to the music press linking them to the “British invasion” of the American charts.

As well as winning Brit and Ivor Novello accolades, they have also won awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, MTV Europe, World Music, the Evening Standard, the Q Awards, the NME and many more.

They have completed 12 major tours all over the world, their first being the MCMLXXXIX Tour in 1989 and the most recent being their Unity Tour with New Order in 2022. They also headlined at the 2022 Glastonbury Festival, the third time they had played at the famous summer music event.

This year, they are currently enjoying their 13th tour, Dreamworld: The Greatest Hits Live, which has kicked off in the UK.

Despite having been going strong for 42 years since their chance meeting in a record shop, Pet Shop Boys are showing no signs of slowing down or retiring. The closest they ever came to calling it a day was playing to a seemingly disinterested crowd at Grimsby Auditorium on 10th July 2002, according to Tennant.

In an interview in 2020, he told reporters the venue wasn’t full and “everyone was standing with their arms folded”. To make it worse, it was his 48th birthday. During the gig, he admitted to thinking, “I can’t do this anymore.” However, he had already changed his mind by the time he got on the tour bus to return to the hotel.

The music press reviewing the Grimsby gig described Pet Shop Boys as “the greatest ever synth duo” and the “best thing to come out of the eighties”. They have not only survived the ’80s and every subsequent decade, but they have emerged in the 21st century as a greater creative force than ever before.

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