A Brief Pre-Fame Biography of the Pet Shop Boys

Neil Tennant

Neil Francis Tennant was born on July 10, 1954 in Brunton Park (near Newcastle upon Tyne), Northumberland, United Kingdom, the second child and oldest son (of four children) of William and Sheila Tennant. His siblings' names are Susan, Phillip, and Simon. A quiet, studious type with a strong inclination toward the arts and history, Neil attended St. Cuthbert's Catholic Grammar School in Newcastle and learned to play guitar and cello. While in his teens he wrote a one-act play that was performed in a local arts festival. He was also singer and guitarist in a local "hippie folk band" called Dust. In fact, he wrote the band's most popular song, the acoustic ballad "Can You Hear the Dawn Break?"

Having earned in 1975 a degree in history from the Polytechnic Institute of North London, Neil initially considered graduate work and possibly a career in academia, but instead he settled on the field of journalism and the publishing industry. For a time he worked for the U.K. branch of Marvel Comics, where it was his job to Anglicize the spellings, perform small bits of censorship to accommodate British standards, and insert advertisements. Later he served as an editor for Macdonald Educational Publishing (where one of his editorial assignments was The Dairy Book of Home Management) and ITV Books before starting his now-legendary stint as an assistant editor for the pop-music magazine Smash Hits.

Chris Lowe

Christopher Sean Lowe was born on October 4, 1959, in Blackpool, Lancashire, United Kingdom, the eldest of the four children of Clifford and Vivien Lowe. Like Neil, he has one sister and two brothers: Victoria, Tim, and Greg. Theirs was a musical family, and Chris learned to play piano—with formal lessons starting at the age of 10—as well as his father's favorite instrument, the trombone. (His maternal grandfather played trombone, too, as a member of the comedy jazz band The Nitwits, active from the late forties to the early seventies.) Chris was also athletically inclined, and was nearly as fond of sports as of music. During his teen years he played in a dance combo, One Under the Eight, which specialized in old-style pop standards, catering to an older, more conservative crowd. He also played very briefly with a local rock band, Stallion. In fact, Chris has noted that he wasn't particularly interested in more contemporary pop music until the late seventies when he heard the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But at that point he quickly became enamored of contemporary dance music.

Even as a child attending Blackpool's Arnold House School, Chris had enjoyed "designing houses" as a hobby, so he eventually decided to pursue a career as an architect. Hence, he studied architecture at Liverpool University. Oddly enough, he also appeared onstage as an extra in a 1979 Liverpool production of the classic opera Carmen. Soon after he moved to London to gain architectural experience with the firm of Michael Auckett Associates. Perhaps his chief achievement during this period was to design a staircase in an industrial complex in the town of Milton Keynes. During the early 1980s he also worked briefly in the toy department at Harrod's department store.

Pet Shop Boys

It was during Neil's time at ITV Books (shortly before starting his tenure at Smash Hits) and Chris's apprenticeship in architecture—on August 19, 1981 to be exact—that they happened upon each other in a London hi-fi shop on King's Road called Chelsea Electrical. While waiting to be helped, they struck up a conversation about musicians and synthesizers.

After going their separate ways from the hi-fi shop, they kept in touch and soon became friends and musical collaborators, writing songs together in Neil's apartment on his synthesizer. Although in general they had different musical tastes, they found they shared a passion for David Bowie, Euro-disco, and hi-NRG music. They also soon discovered a mutual fondness for the music of the American dance producer Bobby 'O' Orlando. In particular, the song "Passion" by Orlando's "girl group" the Flirts was a special favorite—one that would prove extremely influential on their early sound.

Among the songs that they wrote together during this early period were "Bubadubadubadum," "Oh, Dear," "I Can't Say Goodnight," and "Jealousy." In 1982 they made their first demo tape in a studio they rented for £6 per hour. Determining that their duo needed a name, they tentatively decided to call themselves West End.

In the summer of 1983, a remarkable string of coincidences came into play. Smash Hits assigned Neil the task of traveling to New York City to review a Police concert and to interview Sting, who happened to be a fellow alumnus of St. Cuthbert's School (coincidence #1). And, as it also happened, the building in which Neil was scheduled to meet Sting was the same building in which Bobby O had his offices (coincidence #2). So on August 19—two years to the day after he and Chris first met (coincidence #3)—Neil arranged to meet Bobby O, which was not a particularly difficult thing to do considering his credentials as a British pop music journalist.

Neil and Bobby O wound up having lunch together—cheeseburgers and carrot cake—at a small restaurant nearby (at 1725 Broadway, to be precise), the Applejack Diner. During the course of their conversation, Neil "let slip" that he was a member of a songwriting duo interested in making music somewhat influenced by Bobby O himself. The producer immediately agreed, without having heard so much as a single song or demo tape, to cut a record with them. (He later confessed that he liked Neil's "look" as a potential pop star as well as the idea of recording a singer with a strong British accent.)

Neil returned to London to file his articles with Smash Hits, but a few weeks later he was back in New York, this time accompanied by Chris. While working with Bobby O at Unique Studios, Sugar Hill, and Bobby O's own studio, they recorded several of their newer songs, among them "West End Girls," "Opportunities," and "One More Chance." It was also apparently around this time that Chris and Neil decided to change the name of their duo to Pet Shop Boys. Inspired by some friends who indeed owned a pet shop, it sounded to them like something that a "British hip-hop group" might call themselves.

Although these initial recordings with Bobby O achieved only limited success, it was enough to get their career rolling. Of course, it was a rearrangement and re-recording of "West End Girls" roughly two years later for EMI that proved their true breakthrough. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.