LIZA MINNELLI MEETS THE PET SHOP BOYS
THE EAST END BOYS AND THE BROADWAY GIRL
The Improbable Pop Charm of RESULTS
Article and interview by Michael Layne Heath
It all starts with a late night phone call, sometime in early 1989. Liza Minnelli, star of stage and screen, offspring of American show biz royalty, is rung up by Gene Simmons - yes, as in KISS - whom she had just had dinner with earlier that evening.
Gene pointedly asks Liza how she'd come so far in her career without an actual hit record, seeing as the two songs she was most associated with were in fact hits for other people (Sinatra with "New York, New York," Louis Armstrong with "Cabaret").
In short order, Simmons takes it upon himself to manage the recording side of Liza's career, with the intention of scoring her a bona fide pop hit. Gene hooks Liza up with the president of Sony/Columbia, who signs her to a contract with Epic. As it happens, Tom Watkins, manager of several British pop acts, gets wind of Liza's signing, and offers the services of one of his acts - none other than Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, best known as the Pet Shop Boys - to work with her. A meeting is taken, arrangements are made, and all parties agree to get down to business.
And in October of 1989, Liza Minnelli's first album in 12 years that is neither a Broadway cast album nor live concert, titled Results, is released.
Now, the casual music fan might be forgiven in surmising that the meeting of such minds would be a one way ticket to Camp Kitsch - Amuck. Thankfully, The Ethel Merman Disco Album this is not.
By way of perspective, for all of her well-earned Vegas/Broadway celebrity rep, Liza Minnelli has scattered some surprising breadcrumbs of hipness across the course of her career. It's interesting to note that among the production numbers in her Bob Fosse directed 1972 TV special, Liza With A Z, are versions of both Joe Tex's salacious R&B hit "I Gotcha" and future PSB collaborator Dusty Springfield's "Son Of A Preacher Man."
In addition, fans of Sex And The City might recall her cameo performance of Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" in the second SATC movie. Ultimately though, one must take into account Liza turning up as a backup singer - alongside Ronnie Spector, no less - on Alice Cooper's "Teenage Lament '74," off the Muscle Of Love album from that year (that's her scat-singing at the fadeout).
Liza, Alice, Ronnie Spector
As for the PSBs, over time, this reporter has grown to think of their artistic approach as similar to what Brecht/Weill did with German music hall, or Becker/Fagen with hipster jazz/fusion: taking a popular musical form - in their case, electronic dance/club music - and combining it with lyrics more thoughtful, even socially critical, leavened with more than a little classically British irony and humor. So while there are moments that precipitously tip towards cheesy excess, for the most part, Results proves itself to be a solid, enjoyable, danceable modern pop album that doesn't disgrace the CV's of either Minnelli or the PSBs.
Tennant and Lowe's production most capably captures the innate theatricality of Minnelli's singing, while also eliciting some impressively nuanced vocal moments. Meantime, the pulsing, kinetic chatter of their amassed synths and sequencers keeps the more up-tempo proceedings moving along at a brisk BPM clip, and apply the requisite sonic pathos needed to sell ballads like the poetic (literally, with its concluding Shakespeare recitation) "If There Was Love."
The setlist of Results is quite impressive: at its core are a handful of songs written by the PSBs especially for Liza. Elsewhere, there's a choice bit of classic '70's disco fromage in Yvonne Elliman's hit "Love Pains," and a radical retool of the doleful Tanita Tikaram smash "Twist In My Sobriety" (that maybe just for me resembles the equally radical hiphop crawl of the mixes of Texas' DJ Screw).
Lead-off single "Losing My Mind" (a #6 hit in the U.K.- well done, Gene) originates from Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical Follies, while Liza's take on the early PSB gem"'Rent" (with an orchestral arrangement by The Art Of Noise's Ann Dudley and Angelo Badalamenti of Twin Peaks fame) could have very well come from a Sondheim musical itself.
All told, Results was a leap of artistic faith that worked for all concerned, and still holds up to this day. Personally, it deftly serves as a bookmark match to another seemingly incongruous LP from the top of the '80's: namely, Shaun Cassidy's Wasp LP, in which Mr. Hardy Boys not only paid tribute to the music he partied to at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco as a youth (Bowie, Mott the Hoople), but also included one of the first recorded Talking Heads covers in "The Book I Read" - all borne up in fine New Wave style by Todd Rundgren's Utopia crew.
Results being a minor object of fascination over the years, I wanted to dig deeper into its origins and the process of its creation. Thus, I was lucky enough recently to reach out to none other than Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, and got to quiz him at length.
(Special thanks to PSF contributor Robin Cook for inspiration, and to Charlie at Becker Brown PR for setting up the Tennant interview.)
PSF: First off, whose idea was it to suggest a collaboration between PSB and Minnelli? How did it initially come about?
NEIL TENNANT: Our then-manager, Tom Watkins, was having a meeting with Epic Records in New York about another group he managed (UK teenybop duo Bros), and was told that Epic had just signed Liza. The idea of PSB writing/producing an album for her was discussed, probably because we'd worked with Dusty Springfield.
PSF: I would imagine you two were already conversant with Liza's work (be it Cabaret, the Bob Fosse TV specials et al), but how familiar was she with PSB at the outset?
NT: I don't think she was that aware of us, but she had heard "West End Girls." It was arranged for us to meet her in London at the Mayfair Hotel; she was on tour with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. I always remember, we took the elevator up to her suite, and she opened the door, and the three of us burst out laughing. It was a great start.
PSF: There is the 'urban legend' of the first day she met with the two of you in the studio (her expressing surprise at there being only Tennant, Lowe and studio techies present, instead of the usual orchestra). How true or accurate is it, and for those who don't know?
NT: I think she did ask, "Where is the band?" if that's the urban legend. But she soon got used to the idea of keyboards and computers... and, of course, we also had a guitarist (J.J. Belle), keyboard players (Pete Vettese and Andy Richards) and backing singers (Carol Kenyon, Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles) adding to the tracks, and Courtney Pine playing sax. An orchestra, with arrangements by Anne Dudley and Angelo (Twin Peaks) Badalamenti, was added towards the end of the sessions.
PSF: Were there similarities, differences or commonalities in working with Liza that related to your work with Dusty Springfield (on 1987's "What Did I Do To Deserve This")?
NT: Yes, in that we were co-producing with producer/engineer Julian Mendelsohn, as we did with Dusty. But we never worked with Dusty on a whole album, or so concentratedly on a project (unfortunately).
They were very different singers to work with. Dusty was a pop/soul singer and very much aware of the recording process, whereas Liza is a theatrical performer... I always remember Chris (Lowe) showing Liza a dance move! Liza also had to learn to sing with a programmed beat, which can be tricky for a singer used to working with a live band. Towards the end of the recording sessions, Liza was coming to the studio from the Royal Albert Hall, having performed with Frank and Sammy there, so we worked much later hours than normal. Sinatra told us he was worried that she was working such long hours!
PSF: What was the process by which the songs for Results were chosen - did you sit down with her and play her songs and she'd say 'yes' to this one, 'no' to that one, that sort of thing?
NT: We wrote several songs specifically for Liza: "I Want You Now," "If There Was Love," "So Sorry, I Said" and "Don't Drop Bombs." We had written "I Can't Say Goodnight" a few years earlier.
We made demos of all of them, and of "Losing My Mind" and "Twist In My Sobriety" - that was a new song by Tanita Tikaram at the time, and Liza loved the lyric (she had to ask Kander & Ebb for permission for us to quote "Liza With a Z" in the rap at the beginning).
The album was recorded in London, but we started the whole process in New York by recording Liza over our demos of "Losing My Mind" and "So Sorry..." just to see if the collaboration would work. Liza suggested we included a song from a new musical, but we agreed that we were going for a fresh sound for her, and that it wouldn't fit in.
PSF: Relating to that, were there songs she expressly wanted to do off the top: my impression was that perhaps 'Losing My Mind' was her idea? And maybe she associated the Yvonne Elliman disco hit "Love Pains" with some memorable night spent at Studio 54?
NT: No, we suggested both those songs. Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies had just been successfully revived in London, which made us aware of "Losing My Mind."
We had heard Yvonne Elliman's "Love Pains" in gay clubs earlier in the '80's and always loved it. Liza gave us a great excuse to record it and, as you point out, she was part of disco history. Indeed, maybe her Studio 54 history resonated in the album.
We were consciously trying to write in a more theatrical, story-telling style for her. And we liked the idea of her recording some of the more theatrical songs from our catalogue.
It was a thrilling day in the studio when Liza sang live with the orchestra on "Rent" and "Tonight Is Forever," with Anne Dudley conducting. Angelo Badalamenti did the orchestral arrangement for "Rent". He'd previously written the orchestral arrangement for "Nothing Has Been Proved", which we wrote for Dusty (as the theme song for the film Scandal, about the infamous 1963 John Profumo-Christine Keeler affair).
PSF: Did any particular conflicts arise over the course of the recording in terms of her vocals, songs or arrangements?
NT: Only with "Losing My Mind"; on the demo, we had a sample of a crazy laugh, and Liza thought it was inappropriate. She was right (you can hear it in our released demo).
PSF: Any particular suggestions or coaching that you did of Liza when recording the songs?
NT: Whenever we work with a singer, we want them to sound authentically like them, so no. Liza wanted "So Sorry, I Said" to be a duet with her and me. We recorded it but it didn't work because my voice was higher than hers! We wanted that song to be a duet with her and Frank Sinatra (he was in London, as I said) but she wasn't interested in that.
PSF: Which reminds me: it seems on songs like "Twist In My Sobriety" and 'Love Pains', that Liza is singing in a higher register than usual. In the case of the former, I notice even a touch of Kate Bush in her phrasing. Any of that intentional?
NT: There's no Kate Bush influence, but Liza did sometimes sing in a higher register when that worked for the songs. It sounded more pop, particularly when we double-tracked her voice.
PSF: In retrospect, what are your lasting memories of working with her on Results, and how successful do you think the collaboration was? Any especially proud moments, or things you might have done differently? And where do you think it fits within the career arcs of yourselves and that of Minnelli?
NT: It's an album we're very proud of and which still has an audience today; it has been re-released several times.
Putting Liza Minnelli into the musical worlds of electronic and dance music was exciting. It's basically a PSB album with vocals by Liza Minnelli: what's not to like?
Liza is a star, and we've always loved stars. She introduced us to the world of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Caine, Roger Moore and other film stars. Imagine going with her to a Broadway theatre, where the entire audience turned around to look at her when we came in!
We also used to enjoy having afternoon tea in her suite at the Savoy Hotel; Sammy Davis Jr. would wander in and call us "you cats"! In return, we took her to the Land Of Oz night at (London gay nightclub) Heaven.
It was a memorable time in our lives and, as ever, a learning experience. One poignant memory from the recording process is that a very good friend of mine died of AIDS during the album sessions. I brought a book of Shakespeare's sonnets into the studio to choose one to read at his funeral. We were looking through it, and Liza ended up speaking one of them - Sonnet 94 - on "If There Was Love." It was a beautiful moment in the studio (she did it in one take), and it's a gorgeous moment on the album. Liza said it was a tribute to my friend.
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces...
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|