The Nature of the Tennant-Lowe Songwriting Partnership

On several occasions I've been asked by email correspondents what I know of the nature of the Tennant-Lowe songwriting partnership. That is, how do they write their songs together?

Based on various comments they've made to interviewers through the years, I've gathered that theirs is a very "organic" songwriting partnership. Early in their career it was confirmed that Neil writes the vast majority of their lyrics and, as he once told an interviewer (and has reiterated on other occasions), "Chris writes a lot more of the music than I do." He also once observed that Chris "tends to write the songs' 'hooks.'" Nevertheless, it's not a strictly structured, "traditional" words-and-music partnership, like the collaboration of Bernie Taupin and Elton John, where the former nearly always writes the lyrics first and then gives them to the latter, who writes his melodies around the words. It seems much more fluid than that, more closely resembling the collaboration of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in which "who did what" varied from song to song.

Backing this up is a 1996 article for the magazine Sound on Sound, in which the Boys' frequent programmer and engineer Pete Gleadall spoke of, among other things, how Chris and Neil often work together writing songs:

Neil likes to write a lot on his guitar. That explains why their chords are often so nice, because Neil voices his keyboard chords exactly like the guitar inversion—so because they're not played from a keyboardist's point of view, you get these very interesting chords. Neil is also very good at structure and melody, while Chris is more aware of rhythmic elements. That's not to suggest that Chris isn't aware of chords, but his priority is rhythm. He's a mine of ideas…. he'll come up with something brilliant that you wouldn't get again if you didn't record.… Neil will listen to what Chris has done…. That might then inspire Neil to write another new section.… Their songwriting partnership is very collaborative.

Perhaps the single most revealing interview with one of the Pet Shop Boys about how their songwriting partnership works appears in the 2001 book Behind the Muse: Pop and Rock's Greatest Songwriters Talk About Their Work and Inspiration, written by Bill DeMain. In this fascinating book—which I highly recommend to anyone interested in "pop songcraft" in general—DeMain records the highlights of his interviews with dozens of well-known songwriters of the past fifty years, including Neil Tennant. In short, Neil again confirms my long-held beliefs about the nature of his and Chris's collaboration. He states very succinctly that there are three ways in which he and Chris write songs together:

  1. "We play together, as it were, in the studio."

In other words, the song emerges from something akin to a studio "jam session," with the two of them playing off against each other, sharing their ideas, so that the song "evolves" or is "built" in the process. Among the songs written in this way are "Rent," "Domino Dancing," "Being Boring," "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave," "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?," "One and One Make Five," "Before," "Disco Potential," and "Integral."

  1. "Chris writes music at home and I put words to it, or maybe add a middle bit."

This method of course closely resembles the familiar "composer/lyricist" model of songwriting, typified by such famous teams as Rodgers/Hammerstein, Bacharach/David, and the aforementioned John/Taupin. Examples of songs written in this way include "Suburbia," "I Want to Wake Up," "Left to My Own Devices," "Only the Wind," "Jealousy," "Can You Forgive Her?," "Dreaming of the Queen," "Young Offender," "Up Against It," "Confidential," "Psychological," and "I'm with Stupid." Through most of their career, Chris wrote the music first to which Neil then added words. But in more recent years, as Neil has noted on more than one occasion, they've frequently reversed this pattern, with Neil writing the lyrics first, which Chris then put to music. Among the songs in this mold are "You Choose," "I Made My Excuses and Left," "King of Rome," "Gin and Jag," "After the Event," "Everything Means Something," and roughly half of the songs on the album Hotspot, including "Burning the Heather." Most if not all of the songs on Nonetheless were also written in this way because they were composed during the height of the COVID pandemic and the Boys were isolated from each other except through technology. Neil would write lyrics and email them to Chris, who would then compose the music.

And finally—

  1. "I write more or less completed songs at home on the piano, and then Chris maybe changes the rhythm track."

This is very often how the Lennon/McCartney collaboration worked, in which one of them would write a nearly complete song, and then the other would contribute in various ways and to varying degrees to improve or finish it. Songs that fall into this category include "Do I Have To?," "So Sorry, I Said," "Don Juan," "To Face the Truth," "Nervously," "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing," "Liberation," "Hit and Miss," "Luna Park," and "Did You See Me Coming?"

There are surely, however, some songs that don't fit into any of these three categories, such as those written primarily by Chris (including "One of the Crowd," "We All Feel Better in the Dark," and "Postscript"), which probably reverse the process of #3 above; those written with collaborators (including "One More Chance," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," and "A New Life"); and those in which they would write different parts of the song, such as "Only the Dark," for which Chris wrote the verses and Neil wrote the chorus.

Another perspective was shared by Neil in the 2024 BBC Imagine documentary Pet Shop Boys: Then and Now, during which he opined that "Chris is great at creating things," while he's "great at finishing things." It seems that Chris will frequently come up with a musical idea, a "hook," or even an entire composition, which Neil will then take and bring to completion, though undoubtedly often with further input from Chris along the way.

Someday I hope to classify all of the Boys' songs according to these songwriting methods. Yes, a good project for the future. And you can rest assured that, if I ever manage to put such a list together, I'll publish it right here on my website!

Finally, I would like to add a wonderful quotation from Lynn Barber, writing for the London Observer on July 1, 1997. In commenting on an interview she had conducted with Neil, she wrote this perhaps overly simplified but, I suspect, nonetheless accurate summation of the Pet Shop Boys' value to each other as collaborators:

"The genius of the Pet Shop Boys was to combine these polar opposites: Neil's wistful introspective lyrics and Chris's mindless, cheerful, upbeat rhythms. They would never have been in the Top 10 without Chris; they would never have engaged an intelligent audience without Neil."