North London's Cultural Guide

Pet Shop Boys in Camden: Top 5 locations revealed

Which Camden Town backstreet gave birth to worldwide hit West End Girls? With their critically acclaimed new album Electric out this week, we unveil the secret local haunts behind the UK's most successful pop duo

Pet Shop Boys June 2013. Photo: Leo Aversa
Pet Shop Boys, June 2013. Photo: Leo Aversa

A couple of years ago I wrote a little piece for The Guardian suggesting that Being Boring, the 1990 Pet Shop Boys classic, was the perfect pop song.

And while their work since that golden era has been mixed – though not without its masterpieces – it’s good to see some damn fine songs filling Electric, the new album released this week and generally considered their best in aeons.

Aided by Madonna producer Stuart Price, it harks back to that liminal late 80s/early 90s sound: full on dancefloor production, lyrics embracing hedonism, K-Klass-meets-Rollo style extended mixes (ask yer dad). No mean feat for two men in their mid to late fifties. And one track – Love is a Bourgeois Construct, complete with a Karl Marx reference or two – is already an all-time PSB classic.

To celebrate this new lifeblood we decided to take a look at how the borough of Camden has helped Pet Shop Boys’ career take shape. Did you know, for example, that in 1975 Neil Tennant graduated with a history degree from the North London Polytechnic (now the former Pizza Express building) on Prince Of Wales Road? And that more than twenty years later he performed Rent with Suede at the Roundhouse?


So without further ado, click through the following pages to find out where smash hits like It’s a Sin were first recorded, why Chris Lowe got lost in a cab on the way to Spring Studios, and which late night haunt the boys frequented way back in the early 80s.

5. Spring Studios for YES cover shoot

Shot at Spring Studios: the booklet for Yes.
Spring Studios: the booklet for Yes.

In January 2009, in Studio B, Spring Studios, Kentish Town, Pet Shop Boys were photographed for the inside artwork of their tenth album Yes by Alasdair McLellan.

Spring Studios: don't go there in a cab.
Spring Studios: don’t go there in a cab.

Literally, the official Pet Shop Boys magazine, was there to record what happened: “They arrive promptly at the designated 11 o’clock start time, just before a plate of freshly cooked scrambled eggs is carried in, followed by the other components of a full English breakfast. “Oh my God,” Chris exclaims. “Sausages have appeared.” As Chris eats and Neil doesn’t, there’s a discussion as to how a DJ they know who has a day job manages to DJ half the night and then still get in to work on time, looking fresh.”

Chris’ cab driver couldn’t, it seems, navigate the winding streets of industrial west Kentish Town. “He got lost on the way here, but Chris was able to direct him using the real-time map on his iPhone. He seems to have found the whole experience quite invigorating.”

Isn’t it amazing how only four years ago, GPS on a phone was considered exciting? Anyway, the duo settled on a rack of clothes by the designer Gareth Pugh – and the resulting pictures (above) are, of course, a small piece in the thirty year jigsaw puzzle of PSB history.

4. Barfly, intimate gig 2004

Snapshot of the Barfly gig: Image:
Snapshot of the Barfly gig: Steve Fisher

It was the the first time in 20 years that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had performed without the aid of dancers, costume changes or short films, relying instead on two keyboards and a laptop.

And Guardian writer Dorian Lynskey reported that, “far from appearing misplaced, though, the duo look exactly how most people picture the Pet Shop Boys: Tennant dapper in black jacket and T-shirt, Lowe mock-solemn behind sunglasses and baseball cap, in front of a mirrored backdrop. Hairlines aside, it’s almost like watching a 1986 Top of the Pops.”

The room throbbed with diehard fans, with “one woman virtually trembling as she mouths every lyric. Tennant and Lowe are free to tour the side streets of their remarkable back catalogue. There’s Jealousy, the first song the pair ever wrote together; In Private, originally produced for Dusty Springfield and never played live before; and Tonight Is Forever, their first album’s hymn to metropolitan hedonism.”

Lynskey concluded that in this stripped back format, “these songs sound sleeker and tougher. During a final gallop through the hits, including Opportunities, Rent and West End Girls, band and audience seem equally elated.”


3. King’s Cross Station

Like Being Boring, the song King’s Cross, which appeared on their second album Actually, is a fan favourite. Although it’s widely believed (even by our very own “rock ‘n’ roll” mayor Jonathan Simpson) that the lyrics refer to the tragic King’s Cross fire of November 1987, the album on which it appeared was released two months earlier.

King's Cross was the last track on the smash hit 1987 album Actually
Find it on 1987 album Actually

Instead, the song is a thoughtful and elegiac work about unemployment, containing one of my favourite lines ever: “Good luck and bad luck waiting in line.”

Kentish Town dweller Tracey Thorn recorded her own version – equally haunting – twenty years later in 2007. If you haven’t heard it, the Hot Chip remix is highly recommended.

2. Camden Palace (KOKO)

Pet Shop Boys in mid eighties combos. Photo: PR
Pet Shop Boys in mid eighties combos. Photo: Sound on Sound

The infamous venue down near Mornington Crescent tube has featured several times in the Boys’ careers. In a 2006 interview with rock critic Will Hodgkinson, Neil Tennant recalls regular visits to Camden Palace clubbing with Chris Lowe. “We were both living in bedsits in London. I was working at a book publishers and we were totally outside of everything: we hardly knew anyone, and we would go clubbing to Camden Palace just to look at people from the side of the dancefloor, which is a much better place to be than in the VIP area sipping champagne.”

As it is now: KOKO. Photo:
As it is now: KOKO. Photo:

Then, in 1985, just before their first hit, Pet Shop Boys appeared at Camden Palace to mime West End Girls for the Alternative Top Of The Pops on a bill with Curiosity Killed The Cat and Swing Out Sister. Remember them?

Finally, more than twenty years later, in 2007, Neil Tennant was special guest with Scissor Sisters at a charity gig at what was now firmly called KOKO. He performed Love Comes Quickly with Jake Shears during the encore.

1. Murray Street Studios, Camden Square

Where else could be #1 than Murray Street Studios? Run by musician and producer Ray Roberts, the little parade off leafy Camden Square was where, in the early 80s, Pet Shop Boys wrote almost all their early classics like It’s a Sin, West End Girls, Love Comes Quickly, Jealousy and Rent.

Murray Street parade
Murray Street parade

In an interview with Literally magazine in 2010, Tennant said: “I got the phone number of the studio out of the Melody Maker small ads and called [Ray] up, and he said he’d record a four-hour session, mix it afterwards and give us one metal cassette and three normal cassettes or something like that. He thought we had something about us, and he said we could use his studio for free if he could have a share of our publishing, and so that’s when we started going into his studio in Camden Town regularly. He’d be playing gigs — he used to play in pubs and things like that— and we’d be in his little basement studio on Murray Street.”

Original artwork for Opportunities (1985 version).
Original artwork for Opportunities (1985 version).

Anti-Thatcherite satire Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) was released as a single in 1985 and again in 1986, when it finally hit the charts. But the main lyrical concept came in the Murray Street studio when Chris Lowe asked Tennant to make up a lyric based around the line “let’s make lots of money”.

Once the Boys signed to Parlophone, they sadly never saw Roberts again, but were notified by a friend of his death in 2010. “We bought him out,” said Tennant, “and in fact he was very pleased, because he got a sum of money. That was probably the end of 1984, or the beginning of 1985. And I guess we never saw him again, though when the first album came out we gave him a credit, and a gold disc for Please.”

Interviewed in 1996, Roberts said: “I don’t think any of us in their heart of hearts believed that we would make a big splash.” But I reckon somewhere, deep down in that basement studio in Camden Town, Neil and Chris must have.

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