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BILL PRITCHARD

Non! Je ne regrette nien! Foreign exchanges with
Bill Pritchard

Hearsay #18 / 1998 / Interview with Pete 

280px-Bill_Pritchard
 
"Coming from the Midlands I find London rancidly exotic, but I've never felt comfortable there"
 

Stoke-On-Trent isn't a place you hear much about. Of course, like any town of reasonable size it has several schools and these schools generally have modern language teachers. French, being such a beautiful, mysterious language (and one, lest we forget, spoken by beautiful, mysterious French people), occupies inordinate amounts of our mental space and for that reason, way back in February, we sent Pete off up to Stoke to find us a GCSE French teacher to interview. Imagine our surprise when the first one he came across turned out to be long-lost songwriting genius Bill Pritchard (whose wistful, sensuous albums favourably compare with the Lloyd Coles and Stephen Duffys of these fair isles, and who is poised to return to pop stardom any day now with a brand new album, Happiness and Other Crimes). Hearsay Central quickly phoned through some questions to our virtual Midlander Mr Pawsey... Bill was only too happy to answer them, having been cunningly misled that Hearsay was in fact a glossy, German magazine of ill-repute. Altogether now: 'Good morning, Mr Pritchard, good morning, friends ...

HEARSAY: Why the long break? What tempted you back to the fickle world of Pop?
BILL PRITCHARD
: The last thing I recorded was the album Jolie in '91 and then I was in a bit of a quandary. I moved to Brighton for a year and was feeling very unenamoured by what I was doing in general. I literally lived with a head by the sea, which happened to be some American girl, and I had a fantastically miserable time for a year. After that, because I was financially OK, I went to bed for two years. And then I returned to the Midlands and decided to concentrate on something completely different. [Music] had become boring and I thought everything I wanted to say in writing songs I'd done. I'd just be repeating myself and boring not only me but everybody. So I just went to bed! And then I sort of got up and found I was a family. I decided to do something completely different which was become a teacher and spawn a child. I was contacted the end of the year before last and I was quite curious to see if I could still write words, let alone songs! This thing was offered to me and I thought yes, good. It was quite fresh. It would be a totally different album, writing words about a different situation---it all became incredibly parochial. The album reflects three periods. The first is nothing to do with France apart from two songs which I wrote in French but which aren't about any situation abroad—they're basically about three cities—Stoke, London and Brighton. Those three things are very important and all have come through on this album.

You write a lot about adolescence and adolescents... do you recognise the people you write about in the people you now teach, or is the youth you romanticise in song long gone?
Interesting. There's certain strains of youth and the hormonal changes will always be there—the fundamental testosterone level of adolescents remains, but the peripheral ways in which that testosterone is utilised may change!

I've been thinking recently about the difference between not so much adolescence but different bands that are popular--Oasis are basically the Rutles, right? The only difference is that Oasis are more phenomenal—and marginally more popular—and they do it with less irony but much more testosterone. The guitar player in Oasis is probably a better player than Eric Idle, though.

Care to expound on the recurring themes of summer and the sea in your writing?
I'll tell you the truth about this. I haven't had a copy of my albums... still haven't got hold of the first two, haven't listened to them and the only reason I just got hold of the Play It Again Sam albums [Three Months and Jolie ] was that I thought it would be nice for my little girl Chloe to have them. So I rang up the record company the ending there had been very acrimonious, they won't talk to me, I haven't talked to them for six years, but I rang up just before Christmas, mentioned my name and the first thing they did was to put me on to their lawyer! So I had to ask her for my albums! And fair play to them, they've come... But what the sea signifies for me is getting very wet and the summer is when it's not so cold. Sorry it's not very profound!

Who would be in your dream band? And who would produce?
I'd like the guitarist who used to be in Swede [sic]... I don't like Swede but I like their guitarist, Bernard Butler, brilliant, phenomenal player... I'd have Jacques Dutronc on bass and Remix LaPlage who is actually on this LP. In the 60s he was a session musician for Vogue records and he played everything, bass, keyboards and we managed to find him for this record. He's phenomenally old now, and very eccentric. And then I'd probably have Robbie Williams on vocals coz he supports my football team. I'd have Lee Hazelwood producing... and he could also provide the catering!

Is that catering or 'catering'?
Not that type of catering! 'Cause I know Lee's well past it now. The one thing I did which was really brilliant for me was I played a gig in
Rennes with Dr John and we did an encore together. We went through all these songs and I didn't know any of the songs that he knew... the only thing we both knew was Stand By Me. So I said to him, 'you must know the Beatles...' and he said 'tell you what, you tell me what key it's in and I'll vamp it' And he did! He made it up on the spot while I sang She Loves You. So I'd probably have him around there somewhere cause that was fantastic. John Rudge [Port Vale FC] would be the manager of course. I'd let him off Wednesdays and Saturdays, obviously, to do his other job.

Your songs often have a conversational and visual tone... have you ever thought about writing a short film for BBC2?
Um, no. But a lot of my interest in that conversational thing came from people like John Braine and stuff—that very realistic but also observational thing—and Arnold Bennett of course. But recently for one reason or another, I've become aware that the bloke who spawned all that kind of stuff like Sillitoe, and this was a couple of years before Room at the Top, was John Wain who came from Stoke. And I'd never read any of his stuff, much to my embarrassment. So I bought all his stuff. That sort of writing set off a whole thing—well-written plays on the radio and TV—and he must've been a big Arnold Bennett fan and it's amazing that all these themes still come through. He noticed things people wouldn't notice and put twists on them. It's fantastically dated writing, moreso than the later types who came along and did it, the style is between Kingsley Amis and John Braine. It's both ahead of its time and yet really 50s.

Songs of yours like Cranley Gardens have a sharp eye for documentary...
Yes, that came from when I lived in Muswell Hill. It was right near where I lived, you walk down a hill towards
Finsbury Park and this road was just so quiet—you can use terrible cliches but it really was deathly quiet The air didn't move. One particular day it was so spooky, this particular house. But I like Muswell Hill, actually!

We wondered if you'd categorise your relationship with London as 'love-hate' or 'hate-hate'... both in songs about Soho and Bond Street but also about the suburbs and Greater London?
I have a vague, badly-remembered fondness for some specific areas of
London. But for the situations that people there get themselves into and the atmosphere, it almost boils down to a hatred. But it's a fascinating thing for me because it's such a powerful place. Coming from the Midlands which is so provincial, going down there, I find London rancidly exotic but I've never felt comfortable there, always felt like an outsider--because basically that's what I was! I lived there for three years before I moved abroad. It's interesting to compare capital cities—I lived in Paris for quite a bit and it was totally different but maybe that's because I was an English head on French soil. There was a neon sign around Montmartre and it was the 'Love-Burger'---it didn't even work but I thought, 'God, that's brilliant!' I've been to London twice in the past six years but if you don't visit London regularly, you become alienated from the actual mechanics of it like getting on a Tube and the speed of it all and the people...

What's the song you covered on Happiness and Other Crimes?
It's a song called Hippy Hoorah from about '67. It's by a bloke called Jacques Dutronc who married Francoise Hardy, they were a big 60s couple in
France. He's a genius. He and his co-writer Lanceman always wrote with such irony. I used to play it live all the time and I always wanted to release it. You can choose so many of his songs because he was the Ray Davies of France; between them they were so lyrically clever and just like Ray Davies's stuff from the 60s, it's stood the test of time and still sounds—not exactly relevant—but good. It's a fantastic song because it's a piss-take of the Summer of Love before the Summer of Love flowered into this nasty garbage can! The play on words is brilliant. I had a great respect for people like Boris Vian who did L'Herbe Rouge which was a play on words, like a James Joyce of the 50s, 60s...,and he influenced Serge Gainsbourg, to some extent that sort of style and feel... Jacques Dutronc is like the popular, commercialised version of what they were doing.

The other big moment of my life was doing a show with Gainsbourg just before he died. He'd just come out of hospital and they'd said, 'you can't smoke, drink or anything' and there he was with his Gitanes! Still as articulate as ever.

And there you are on the Leonard Cohen tribute doing I'm Your Man. Why that song in particular?
I think it's a great song and it was almost a send-up of myself to do it. Brilliant lyrics, but me singing a song like that is absolutely ludicrous! I managed to get in very early—there were all these different people wanting to do songs so I said straight away that I'd got it. It's a very simple song, very blunt. Leonard Cohen over the years started off very blunt, always very good with adjectives but as he grew up he learned how to twist adjectives. He must have bought a book on irony because he just became completely ironic. It's not something I can listen to very often but its a bit more than, say, Dr John. Dr John I respect for what Dr John is... but I can't listen to any of his stuff! Leonard Cohen I can listen to occasionally. I didn't know till I read Nico's biography that he wrote quite a few songs for her and was completely enamoured of her. Even then, in '66, he was very focused and very literate. I think it's great the way he's carried on. If it were me, I think I'd get bored after five albums. He lived on that island off
Greece didn't he, when he bought that house for 3p and a box of Smarties...

Which is scarier—live performance or Parents' Evening?
Live performance, easily! Parents' Evening is easy to fend off because for a start I've got a much better idea of how to do it, I can remember the words and you're dealing with a lightened room. I hate the idea of being in a room with strangers in the dark--it frightens me. But parents' evenings are terrifying, potentially. Phwoo!

How about your short-lived band Beatitude (1994-1995): why split up Modern Lovers-style before doing anything?
There was a single distributed with a French magazine. Me long-term mate Paul Barlow who drums on the new CD, he and I always wanted to do a band. He's from
Liverpool and used to be in The Christians, a very good 60s-style drummer. We just decided to do something, like, for a bit of fun—that's all it was. We had no organisational sense at all--everything was fantastically disastrous. But it was just a couple of summers. Paul's a farrier now! We decided we'd both go on courses to become real men. So I became a teacher—a real man!—and he decided to go and kick shit out of horses' hooves. He supervises horses, I supervise adolescents.

"Kenneth Baker...
Oh, yeah...?

...is a sick man." [as Bill famously observed in an 80s song notorious for getting radio stations into hot water]

He certainly is.

Who are the sickest men of the 90s in your view?
I still say it's [excised] because [excised]. He's the biggest hypocrite to come out of 90s politics which is saying something.

How do you feel about our Prime Minister?
I voted for Labour because I wanted to believe that people like Jack Cunningham were really in the driving seat and it was all a bit of a smokescreen and that they were actually going to be humane. It's horrible--really frightening. I read a comparison somewhere of the speeches at the beginning of Thatcher's and Tony Blair's inaugurations and you know what? They said exactly the same things! You sort of know that already but when it's actually put in print side by side, it's frightening.

How would you characterise your relationship with France and Belgium? How does speaking more than one language define what you can do with lyrics?
I discovered when I was living abroad, and this must be a common thing for any ex-pat, that if you speak the language you lyrically express yourself differently and your identity becomes slightly different in your head. I'm basically blind as a bat so my visual co-ordination isn't very good but verbally, that's what I use. If you learn a different language, it's interesting to learn something that isn't a Romance language or that isn't Anglo-Saxon based like German. If you try to translate a feeling from one language to another, it's so different. I think it actually enriches it in a way. You'd have to ask a verbal genius like Beckett or someone, but it definitely helps. It changes you, gives you another avenue. But I have a real problem with German from an aesthetic point of view. German's great if you want to use ugly words, it's got a fantastic array of ugly words for ugly things; it's not a language which suits my personality whereas French is. And, of course, you can write twice as many songs!

But as for my relationship with France and Belgium, I don't know. I'll tell you what being from quite a parochial upbringing food-wise, living in Belgium taught me the meaning of mussels and the beauty of Moules Marinieres . I think that was the one thing I learned from being abroad: that mussels should be treasured and not thrown up.

Some of Jolie was done in Liverpool with Ian Broudie at the helm, right?
Yes, that was a great studio, Amazon, in Kirkby. You drive to it and it's surrounded by burnt-out cars! Loads and loads of bands do stuff there... Echo and the Bunny Rabbits... It's got a really great old Neve valve desk. Great warm sound.

You have fun playing around with sexual roles and stereotypes. What is it about that that interests you?
Well, it's all in the third person and third person is 'he', 'she' or 'it'. You have a greater depth of character. I don't agree with all that 'everyone's got a feminine side' bollocks, but I love ambiguity and it's a very easy way of realising ambiguity—to make gender unclear.

As they say, you don't have to know who Perfect Day is addressed to to appreciate the writing...
Yes, it's a brilliant piece of writing. It's a perfect pop song. You can listen to it in your own situation and understand what it's about. We went down
Tunstall Park on Sunday; from a glib element, my little girl was playing on the swings and that to us is a perfect Sunday. It could mean, 'I've just had a fantastic hit!' but what makes it such a good pop song is the imagery is common to so many people. Transformer is such a brilliant album. Reading biographies, it's amazing how focused Lou Reed was at that period. Like The Great Ig—old Iggy—I do think David Bowie did a good job on those two.

What's your biggest regret?
That I never managed to keep my first two albums--I haven't a clue what's on them. There must be a big wastepaper basket somewhere full of 'em. And another regret is that I was a big fan of Scunthorpe United when I was younger but I never went to see them. And my other regret is that I called my little girl Chloe last year and this year I discovered, unbe­knownst to me, that it's the most popular girls' name in the country. So there you go!

 
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