Saturday, 17 August 2019

A visit to the pub with Steve Tilling

Earlier this week I met up with Steve Tilling, leader of the group CIRCU5. Steve also played guitar for former XTC members Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, otherwise known as TC&I, for the series of live shows they gave in their hometown last year, the first time the duo had played together on stage since 1982. The TC&I album, Naked Flames: Live at the Swindon Arts Centre, came out yesterday and is available now from Burning Shed

This interview originally appeared over three days at the XTC Convention 2020 Facebook page.

Words copyright Darryl W. Bullock; live images copyright Lou Dommett Young.

Quietly spoken, Coke drinking (rather than coke-sniffing) and self-effacing: not very rock ‘n’ roll, is it? But then Steve Tilling is not your average rock ‘n’ roller. Part of the extended XTC family through his work with three quarters of the band, Steve and his own group CIRCU5 (pronounced Circa Five, for those who, like me, have wondered), which currently features former TC&I member (and a certain bass player’s son) Lee Moulding, will be one of the highlights of the 2020 XTC Convention.
Gearing up for a homecoming gig on September 21, I caught up with him recently for a natter at the Tuppenny, the pub where so many of us gathered last year ahead of the TC&I shows at the Swindon Arts Centre. Before we had even sat down, his phone rang, the screen lighting up with the name Terry Chambers. But more about that later…

Swindon born and bred; Steve grew up on the same estates and the same streets as Andy, Colin and Terry, although being a generation younger he’s happy to admit that XTC were not his first musical influence. “Abba,” he laughs. “I was about three years old when they were on the Eurovision Song Contest performing ‘Waterloo’. Apparently I was jumping up and down on the sofa telling everyone that they were going to win!”

Obsessed with music from a young age, he was initially attracted to the trumpet before being taught to play classical guitar, which he continued until he was around 12 years old. Then something happened that brought about a change in musical direction. “I was a bit of a space cadet when I was about 12, I was into things like Gong and Yes: I was a little hippy really, old school prog and space rock. A mate of my dad’s lent me a couple of albums – it’s all his fault. I feel I missed out on the classics, The Beatles, The Who and the like. It’s odd because I was never really exposed to them: I went straight into weird! Being a musician, the self-doubt creeps in, you know, should I have been weaned on the Beatles, but it’s who I am. You can’t go back and change those influences.
“As a teenager, I was into bands like Iron Maiden, but I soon grew out of that. It always seemed like a bit of a Boy’s Own club, very strange... all a bit Dungeons and Dragons. Then in my 20s, I got into bands like XTC and Jellyfish… I love harmonies, nice plump guitar sounds, big drums. I grew up through the 80s, with Duran Duran and that tinselly stuff, but my ears were more attuned to the70s. That’s probably why my own melodies are a bit proggy or space rock-y.”

After a few years playing in Swindon-based metal outfit Bardiche, music was forced to take a back seat. The arrival of children meant that he needed to find a proper job, one that would feed and clothe his offspring. Now the kids have grown up he has returned to his first love. Sadly, there’s not a lot of money to be made music these days (unless you’re Ed Sheeran, that is) but working as a freelance copywriter allows him the time to concentrate on writing and performing while still being able to earn an income. “It’s a struggle,” he admits. “Everybody’s listening to Spotify and the other streaming services, but people of my generation don’t really use them. For me as a musician my income mainly comes from live work, then there’s the CDs and t-shirts. But I think the secret of happiness is in creating something – whether that be gardening, writing or making music – just create! There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in creating.”

Before setting out to record his own album, Steve played with singer Johnny Warman in his 60s tribute act Magic Bus. Warman, who has had a long association with Ringo Starr, has his own XTC connection, both appearing on the 1989 charity single ‘Spirit of the Forest’. It was through Steve that Dave Gregory got involved in the band. “We needed a guitarist, and I got in touch with him through Facebook Messenger! I told him what we were doing and asked if he’d be interested and he said, ‘Yeah! I’d love to!’ But, being as it’s such a small world, Johnny and Dave already knew each other. In the late 70s, Johnny had a band called 3 Minutes, and they’d supported XTC several times on the ‘Drums and Wires’ tour.

“We became friends, so when I started working on the album, I asked if he could come and add some of his magic to it. I gave him a blank canvas, and when it came back to me I was blown away. His melodic sensibility is unbelievable. It’s almost orchestral. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and I didn’t change a note. He’s such a talented bloke. It’s great playing with Dave: he’s got a rack of vintage guitars; the finest gear and he knows everything. He’s just perfect and you just bathe in his sound!”

Had he been an XTC fan? “My earliest memories of XTC were seeing them on Top Of The Pops, around the time of ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. I remember thinking, ‘My God! They’re from Swindon!’ then later, when ‘Senses Working Overtime’ was a hit, I remember being in the playground at school, everyone singing along. I loved the singles I heard as a kid, but I came to them, in terms of buying their albums, quite late. It was 1992, and the first album I bought was ‘Nonsuch’.”

Like most musicians, Steve finds difficulty in labelling or limiting his own music. “Before I released it [the CIRCU5 album] people were saying, ‘this is prog’, and I’m thinking, ‘is it?’ I know that there are elements on there, so I focussed on the prog audience, and they’re all scratching their heads going, ‘Well, there aren’t any 24/18 time signatures’! ‘Where are the nose flutes?’ But I’ve never really liked the pastoral style of prog rock. In my mind, I had things like the Jellyfish album ‘Spilt Milk’: it’s not got that level of production, they threw the kitchen sink at it, but in terms of hooks and harmonies… music should be enjoyable to listen to, and a lot of prog rock is hard to get through. I wanted something a bit easier going. Everything should have a point; you shouldn’t be meandering in music. I mean I love Yes, but some of their stuff is hard work.”

Most XTC fans will know Steve from his stint playing live with Colin and Terry at the Arts Centre last October and November. He was initially approached by Stu Rowe, who has worked on a number of projects with Andy in recent years (Monstrance, Gonwards, Lighterthief and the as-yet unreleased Clubmen album) as well as with Barry Andrews’ group Shriekback and with Colin and Terry for the TC&I project. “My immediate reaction was ‘no’,” he candidly admits. “I’m a bass player, live, although I do play guitar. That’s a typical example of that lack of confidence that local musicians seem to have. But he talked me round.

“So, we met up, and I had about a month to learn the songs before I went around to Colin’s and began rehearsals. They were happy with me so that was it. It was really daunting, but I just spent every minute I had learning the songs. I put all the tracks into Pro Tools, which helped me to pick out the guitars. The night before the first rehearsal I didn’t sleep a wink – I had a big dose of panic. It was pure terror!”

Asked if it was difficult, coming in as a third wheel to a relationship that had existed between Colin and Terry for more than 40 years, Steve says that the duo were just as worried as he was. “I think they were lacking a bit of confidence too, so we all seemed to be on the same level. They were not sure if it was going to work and just grateful that I was part of it. I was amazed at how modest, and unsure, they were.”

The TC&I gigs were incredibly well received, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider that the pair had not played together in front of an audience for 35 years. But what was it like, as an outsider, coming in to join one of the world’s best-loved rhythm sections? “I felt like a rabbit in the headlights at that first rehearsal,” he admits. “The first notes I played were the ‘Bungalow’ intro and then into ‘Day In, Day Out’, and I’m just trying to make a good impression. At every rehearsal we went through the set list as if we were doing it live.

“Terry was really keen to go out live, and Colin wanted to give these songs of his an airing. Terry’s drumming was such a big part of the early XTC sound; he’s got a very distinctive style, these solid rhythms. He didn’t seem to struggle with the songs that he had not originally played on, he just made them his own. Colin and Terry are really humble and modest, which is great, but I think it also made them worry about people actually turning up!”

Clearly he had some big shoes to fill, and not everyone was going to give him an easy ride. “I loved it, but I was petrified. I was trying to do both Dave and Andy’s guitar parts, and then I lost my voice, so I couldn’t do any backing vocals for the first few nights! You’re always going to get people who say things like ‘huh! I didn’t enjoy it He’s no replacement for Andy or Dave’. There were a few of those, but I know that: I wasn’t trying to compete with Andy, I just wanted to do the songs justice.” Luckily for us, the live album, Naked Flames, captures the performance from the last night of the shows, by which time Steve’s voice had returned. “There were a few technical difficulties with the other nights, a few niggles here and there,” he says. “Colin and Terry were really limited to what they could choose from. But I’m really happy with it[ST1] . It sounds great and captures the ambience of being there. It’s quite an intimate sound.”

As we all know, the set list was the same at every concert. That may have disappointed a few fans, but there was a very good reason for this, as Steve explains: “I don’t think that either Colin or Terry realised that people would buy tickets for multiple nights, the thought was that it would probably be a different audience every evening. There were other songs that were considered, and I even suggested some, but they weren’t that keen. We jammed a few disco-ish things, like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, and some stuff by Chic… we even did ‘Masters of the Universe’ by Hawkwind, just noodling about. Terry had a drum pattern, something cyclic, a bit like ‘Travels in Nihilon’, and we jammed along with that. I thought that might turn into a great XTC or TC&I type song, because he’s great with those looping beats, but it wasn’t to be.”

Due to personal circumstances Colin felt the need to put TC&I on hiatus, however Steve and Terry have become close friends and are looking at doing something musically together at some point soon. “I was gutted when it finished, because by that last night it was getting really good. We were getting tighter and tighter, and it would have only got better.” Yet although Colin may have decided that, for the present time at least, he’s putting things on hold, Terry may have other plans. "He’s a great drummer and I really want to play with him, do something productive and keep things moving,” Steve says. “He’s one of my best mates now: we talk every day. I love him to bits. You can’t escape the XTC legacy; it’s something to be proud of. You can’t help but want to get a band together and go out and play some of these songs. I don’t know how it would be received, with Terry as the only founding member of the band, but we just want to do it and see how it goes. Ultimately we’d like to write our own material as well, which is something I’m really looking forward to: I fancy writing something in a different vein. It would have been great to continue with Colin, that would have been perfect… or to get Dave and Andy involved, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve lived in this town all of my life and I’ve never even met Andy! (Note: two days after this interview, Steve met Andy Partridge for the first time, and the two got on famously.)

“I love Terry and I want to play with him. He’s a brilliant drummer and he’s having a rebirth, and I want to give him the opportunity to go out and do it. We’re both really keen to get out there and do what we love doing, which is playing live. That’s what I live for.”

I asked Steve if he thought about asking Dave Gregory to come along. “We did ask Dave,” he admitted, “But he’s got a hell of a lot of work with Big Big Train he doesn’t want to get involved in another band. I’m still very good friends with Dave…” Then he dropped the bombshell, something that would be news to the majority, if not all, XTC fans: it certainly was to me. Last summer, Colin and Terry asked Dave if he would like to join them for the Swindon Arts Centre concerts. “When we first met, we were sat down talking about me joining them, and I know how much XTC fans would have loved to see Andy or Dave rather than me there, so as an act of self-sacrifice I said, ‘Do you want me to ask Dave if he’ll do it?’ And they said ‘Well, we’ve already asked him’. [ST2] It’s a tantalising thought: for a moment, just the briefest of moments, there was the slight chance that we could have seen three members of XTC on stage again, for what may have been one final hurrah. Since I spoke with Steve, Terry has confirmed that it was he who initially reached out to Dave, and that Colin was happy with that.

"It would have been great if Dave was involved, but unfortunately that was not meant to be. I’m a massive XTC fan and all I ever wanted was for XTC to get back together. It would be like the universe had aligned. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Colin’s always said, ‘never say never’, and as a fan I would have loved to see Dave up there.”    

Still, right now the focus is on CIRCU5 and his project with Terry. In these days of instant gratification, digitally downloading everything, why did he decide to release the CIRCU5 album on CD? “I wanted a proper release, rather than a download, because I wanted something physical. You never know what might happen, and this could be my one shot – I might get run over by a bus tomorrow! So, I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, I want to do it properly’, you know? I wanted something tangible. Financially it’s madness, but I think it has more value; downloads are so ephemeral, disposable… if your computer buggers up it’s gone. Seeing your name on something physical, it’s a real high, isn’t it? He admits that several people have asked if the album will be available on vinyl, but he feels that the costs would be prohibitive.

On September 21 Steve and the band, which also features former Tin Spirit Mark Kilminster, play a one-off gig at Swindon’s Level Three, showcasing the album as well as throwing in a few covers and some other songs. “There’s so much talent in this town,” he says. “It was hard in the pre-internet days because you didn’t know anyone, and there was this idea that to be any good you had to come from London. Now you’ve got people like Mark, Lee, Chris O’Leary (formerly of the K Band) and so on… these people are as good if not better than the so-called premium musicians from London. It’s the Swindon disease, thinking you’re not good enough, but they are. The musicians I’m playing with now are the finest I’ve ever played with. People like Lee, Mark and Chris really put the time and the effort in. They’re amazing.”

Then, after a break – which will probably be spent writing – there’s a new album to consider. “I’ve got a lot of songs nearly finished, and ideas for a lot more, so I want to take some time to go through all of those and see if I can make something of them.“ His mobile phone has become an audio notebook: “I’ve got about two years’ worth of ideas on there,” he reveals. “I don’t know what would happen if I lost them all: I’d be twitching in a corner before they carted me off to somewhere secure!

“We’ll probably do the odd gig here and there, but I’ll be easing off for a while to give me a chance to write. But I’m really looking forward to playing at the Convention next September: I can’t wait! I wasn’t at the last one, but I know that Colin and Terry were, and I think one of the motivators for getting them back on stage was their attending the last Convention. I don’t think Colin was aware of how popular the band still were until then. When I told my kids that I was doing something with members of XTC they told me that there were loads of kids walking around college wearing XTC t-shirts. Lots of bands have dated, but XTC haven’t. I think that’s partly because they didn’t fall into that 80s trap of cheesy synthesisers. It’s still relevant. And they were ahead of their time.”

Tickets for CIRCU5 and friends at Level Three, Swindon, are available now at

Monday, 23 July 2018

An update

Hello. Hope you're all having a great summer.

I apologise for not having kept you up to date with my efforts, but it's been a busy few months.

You may have heard me blathering away on BBC Jersey, BBC York, BBC Bristol and/or BBC Devon recently. That's because David Bowie Made Me Gay was recently issued in paperback here in the UK (and, I understand, is selling quite well), and I've been doing the rounds of various BBC radio stations to promote it. I also took part in a couple of 'in conversation' events in Rough Trade stores in Bristol and in London's Brick Lane, which were fun and gave me the opportunity to catch up with a few friends I had not seen for a while.

To celebrate the launch of the paperback edition I started a new blog, to carry on the story, update any information and correct any mistakes. It's also an opportunity for me to write about some of the great LGBT artists I missed. You can read David Bowie Made Me Blog here

My new book, The Infamous Cherry Sisters, is coming out in the States in December. I've not seen any UK release date yet, although Amazon is importing it. I shall let you know as soon as I hear anything: I certainly hope that the UK price comes down a bit!

The Cherry Sisters were a fascinating phenomenon, five sisters from Ohio who decided, on a whim, to put an act together to entertain their neighbours and ended up having a career in vaudeville that lasted for more than four decades. Their story has fascinated me for years, and I hope my biography, the very first to tackle the Sisters, does them justice.

Finally, I'm currently writing a new book (my sixth!) which is a companion of sorts to David Bowie Made Me Gay. I can't tell you too much about that just yet, but I'll have more details on that once the contract is signed. Sorry, that 'finally' was a bit premature: finally, here's a link to a Pitchfork article I recently contributed to:50 Songs That Define the Last 50 Years of LGBTQ+ Pride. I wrote about Bowie, Jobriath, and John Grant... who got in touch after reading it to tell me that he loved my words! he's playing in Bath in October and I'm hoping we'll have chance to meet up for a chat.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Out of Tune

My biography of Florence Foster Jenkins is being issued in paperback in the US next month. This great review, by the best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, appeared in the New York Times last year.

The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer
By Darryl W. Bullock
Illustrated. 198 pp. The Overlook Press. $24.95.

One of the daunting aspects of biography, from the reader’s point of view, is length, which is why we like obituaries. An obituary gives us a life in under a page — and for some lives that’s as much as we feel we need. The 600- or 700-page biography, complete with lengthy lists of sources, can be tough going. Under 200 pages, which is the length of Darryl W. Bullock’s charming “Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!,” is just about right for those who want to know more about the world’s worst opera singer but might not want to know absolutely every detail.

The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is quite astonishing. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1868, she showed a strong early interest in music and the arts and succeeded in graduating from a music academy. She made an unsatisfactory marriage to a physician, and when this ended in divorce she enjoyed the life of a socialite in New York. After her father’s will “mysteriously vanished” from his office safe, she succeeded, with her mother, to his extremely large estate and took up residence in a Manhattan hotel. There she conducted the life of a patroness of the arts, assisted and encouraged by an English actor, St Clair Bayfield, with whom she entered into what the couple described as a secret marriage.

Then the performances started in earnest, and over the years she established a considerable reputation for singing at the soirees of the various clubs and societies she supported, attracting an enthusiastic audience of well-heeled New Yorkers. They loved her. They loved her elaborate, ridiculous costumes; they loved her overdramatic gestures. They presented her with bouquet after bouquet as well as expensive jeweled trinkets to show how much they appreciated her efforts. But she couldn’t sing. She was gloriously, spectacularly, irredeemably out of tune.

Not that this stopped her. She once observed that although some people said she couldn’t sing, they could never say she didn’t sing. Nothing was too difficult for her to attempt — not even Mozart’s notoriously demanding “Queen of the Night” aria. Higher and higher she would go, squeaking and clinging on to the notes, taking her audience with her in sheer ­delight at her audacity. And when it came to recordings, she tackled these in a single take, apparently believing the excruciating results were incomparably good.

Bullock deals with all this in a thoroughly readable and entertaining way. His explanation of how she got away with it is convincing: She was loved, she was magnanimous, and she brought happiness and laughter to those fortunate enough to get tickets to her concerts. Why shouldn’t one get away with something like that, if that is the sort of person one is? We all love sheer slapstick failure, particularly when it’s clothed in camp and presented as high art. Florence Foster Jenkins was Tintin’s Bianca Castafiore and Groucho Marx’s Margaret Dumont rolled into one. What’s not to love in that?

This appealing little biography — which arrives just as a film version of its heroine’s story, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, has been released in the United States — is warmhearted and delightful. At its core is a touching love story, as well as a message about the human spirit. Florence Foster Jenkins was generous in her outlook and seems to have brought joy and light into the lives of many. In a world where slickness, ambition and greed have destroyed the spirit of amateurism, here is the great and utterly hopeless amateur filling Carnegie Hall. What a message for our times.

Still Glad To Be Gay?

A feature I wrote back in the summer for The Quietus abut the need for Pride events

Still Glad To Be Gay: Does Pride Need To Return To Radicalism?

Writer Darryl W. Bullock looks back at the politically radical roots of the Pride march and asks if, in an age of continuing homophobia, it should make more effort to honour them.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Pride season is upon us again. An excuse, as if one were needed, for members of the LGBT+ community to don their finery and shake their collective booties for all they are worth. Although we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK this year, the backlash following Pride in London’s recent and ill-advised poster campaign (sample slogan ‘Being homophobic is sooo gay!’), shows that there’s still a split between LGBT+ people who want to party and those who feel the need to protest. It’s great that Pride has been embraced by the mainstream, but has the original message been lost?

Pride grew out of civil unrest. In the US violent protests had taken place at all-night coffee shop Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959, and at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966; when the NYPD entered the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village’s LGBT+ community fought back, and the demonstrations that erupted are now enshrined in history as the most significant event in the struggle for LGBT+ rights in the United States.

Post-Stonewall polite requests for better treatment of LGBT+ people were quickly replaced with more militant action: a week after the riots the Gay Liberation Front was formed in New York, and on the first anniversary we saw the world’s inaugural Gay Pride marches, held simultaneously in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In October 1970 a British branch of the Gay Liberation Front was established, and in 1972 (the same year that Gay News was founded) London saw its first Gay Pride march. Within five years of the Wolfenden report being enshrined in law LGBT+ people were taking to the streets to demand their rights. Violence against LGBT+ people was met not with acquiescence but with defiance: after years of oppression people were angry and no longer prepared to be quiet about it. ‘They were called Gay Rights marches because that was what were fighting for,’ one man told me recently. ‘I remember going on marches in London in the 1970s and having stones thrown at me.’

Pride and politics were inextricable. Reacting to a high-profile campaign led by singer Anita Bryant to deny LGBT+ people equal rights, tens of thousands of people marched in cities across the United States. In San Francisco more than 100,000 protested; a Pride parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue attracted at least 25,000, and there were demonstrations in Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver. Protests were held in London, and in Amsterdam 2,000 people marched through the city carrying banners that read ‘Against the American witch-hunt on homosexuals’. Then, in February 1978, a song about the real-life experiences of LGBT+ people made the UK Top 20 and Pride gained its anthem.

‘Glad To Be Gay’ by the Tom Robinson Band was my coming out song. The angry, venomous solo performance Robinson gave at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball fundraiser in June 1979 sparked the beginning of my gay life. I was 14 and I had already attempted in my own clumsy way to come out, and when the music from the show was issued the following year I pulled my pocket money together and bought a copy. ‘Glad To Be Gay’ changed my life; I’m sure it changed many other lives too.
‘Glad To Be Gay’ was inspired by an increasingly violent series of police raids on gay pubs in London. In 1975 three coach loads of police officers made a midnight raid on Rod’s Club in Kings Road, Chelsea; the following night a similar number of police raided Earl’s Court pub The Boltons. Other LGBT+ drinking haunts were singled out, and agent provocateurs were used to entrap gay men in popular cruising areas. Robinson himself was caught up in a raid on the Coleherne Arms in Old Brompton Road. ‘By the summer of ‘76 the police in London were completely out of hand,’ Tom explains. ‘They were using the Sus Laws - you could arrest anybody on suspicion of anything - and so black people in Notting Hill Gate and Brixton were being arrested for being black and in charge of a motor vehicle, stuff like that. They were able to swan in and make easy arrests because they figured that gay men in that climate and at that time were very unlikely to contest an arrest in court. It was clear that the police were our enemy, and they were a common enemy for other oppressed minorities at the time too.’ This was Britain’s Stonewall moment, and the continued abuse of the Sus Laws against the black community would lead to the early 80s race riots in cities including Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds.

As if dealing with the police wasn’t enough, in January 1978 20 fascist thugs from the National Front smashed up the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s longest-established gay pubs. Similar attacks would inspire LGBT+ people to join the Anti Nazi League, established in 1977 to oppose the rise of the far right. Pride became an opportunity for the community to show solidarity with other minorities, to demonstrate that we were not going to be oppressed.

Yet the arrests continued: during the Pride march in London in 1980 ten men were charged with misdemeanours including obstruction and minor assault, and one with possessing an offensive weapon - a prop meat cleaver worn as part of his headdress. But police oppression and attacks from right wing hate groups were not the only issues facing the LGBT community. Britons were starting to become aware of a new disease that was decimating the gay community in the United States; AIDS education quickly became the number one priority within the international LGBT+ community. Pride gave us the opportunity to speak out against ignorance, prejudice and a world that seemed not to care if our people were dying in their thousands.

Pride was essential in giving young people a space to be themselves, and the support of musicians happy to wear their political colours on their sleeves was important for young LGBT+ people in Thatcher’s Britain. The members of Bronski Beat were openly gay, insisted that their music would reflect this and used their clout to support minorities, miners (as immortalised in the hit movie Pride) and the socialist movement. In return for the LGBT+ community’s support trade unions marched alongside us at Pride in London in 1985, and at the Labour Party Conference a motion to support equal rights for gay men and lesbians was carried thanks to the votes cast by the National Union of Mineworkers and their allies. On leaving Bronski Beat Somerville formed The Communards with Richard Coles, and the pair joined Tom Robinson, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and others in the socialist musicians collective Red Wedge.

Yet as we slowly gained more rights – including the equalisation of the age of consent, the introduction of civil partnerships, same-sex marriage and the introduction of the Equality Act (which finally outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation) it seemed that there was less to protest about, and the desire to celebrate with our straight friends took centre stage. As Pride events grew, so did the cost of running them, and the political element was somewhat subsumed by commercial necessities. Many Pride events were in danger of becoming little more than mobile adverts for certain alcoholic drinks producers, but Pride has always had to balance the need for income with the desire to protest, as Dale Wakefield, co-organiser of Bristol’s first Pride (held in 1977) explains: ‘There have always been those who think the event is political and those who think it is too commercial, but Bristol Pride would have never happened had we not had the backing of the clubs and pubs. From its very inception Bristol Pride was concerned with families, attracting the general public and using entertainment to change attitudes. Politics was of immense importance to the organisers, but not necessarily to the participants.’

In 2017, in countries including Turkey and Russia, even attempting to organise a Pride event can land you in jail... then there are countries where simply being LGBT+ can be a death sentence. With the number of LGBT+ young people attempting (or, sadly, succeeding) suicide on the rise (LGBT+ teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of attempted suicide worldwide) perhaps its time to put the politics back in to Pride. Gay filmmaker and former councillor Christian Martin certainly thinks so. ‘I am all for celebrating but sadly I feel that the politics has been lost. Equal rights have advanced, but when a British Government fails to raise international voices of concern over Chechnya or tackle the DUP’s vetoing of equal marriage in Northern Ireland then something is wrong,’ he says. ‘We are still falling short on equalities here and abroad.’ Clearly neither the fight nor the party are over yet.

Darryl W. Bullock is the author of the book David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, published by Duckworth Overlook on September 7, 2017. You can order it here in the UK and here in the US

The Pansy Craze

A feature I wrote recently for The Guardian. The first photo comes from the JD Doyle collection, and is used by permission. 

The lights over the Ship Cafe were still advertising the “Last Night of Jean Malin” when, on the morning of 10 August, 1933, the main attraction, his boyfriend Jimmy Forlenza and fellow actor Patsy Kelly piled into his car to head off to a party at the Hollywood Barn.

Tired after finishing a fortnight-long booking, Malin accidentally put the sedan into reverse, sending it off Venice Pier and into the water. Forlenza and Kelly escaped but Malin, trapped under the steering wheel, wasn’t so lucky. The brightest star of the Pansy Craze – a spate of wild parties full of drag queens and bawdy songs – was dead at 25.

The roots of the Pansy Craze stretch back decades, at least as far as the first of New York’s infamous masquerade balls, held in Harlem in 1869. The city already had a number of gay-friendly bars, including Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (favoured by Walt Whitman) and the Slide, which Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World labelled “morally the lowest in New York, Paris, London or Berlin”. But the popularity of these drag (or fag) balls was such that by the 1920s, as many as 7,000 people of all colours and classes were attending. Prizes were awarded for the best costumes and Malin was often among the prizewinners.

The 1920s also saw an increase in the number of bohemian enclaves in rundown areas, such as New York’s Greenwich Village. Painters, poets and performers were lured by the cheap rents and by an increasingly wild and lawless lifestyle. Prohibition had given birth to a black market for booze and a bustling underground scene, where bright young things slumming it in mob-run nightspots developed a taste for camp, cutting repartee.

LGBT people were flocking to cities as much for the nightlife as for the ability to connect with others. Soon, Variety was reporting that Broadway “will have nite places with ‘pansies’ as the main draw. Paris and Berlin have similar night resorts, with the queers attracting the lays.” In Berlin, you could hear singers performing Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song), one of the earliest songs to celebrate homosexuality. “This song became the gay anthem of the time and still has status today,” says singer Ute Lemper. “The lyrics are witty and ballsy, quite unbelievable.” You can hear its influence in the work of Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond and others.

Every European capital, and several major US cities, had similar scenes: London had Douglas Byng and Noël Coward, who once admitted: “I should love to perform There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden, but I don’t dare. It might come out There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom.”

Performers, including the acid-tongued Malin, quickly eclipsed the drag acts that had been a stage staple for decades. Malin began his own career in drag, as Imogene Wilson, but it was as the tuxedoed MC of Club Abbey that he “gave Broadway its first glimpse of pansy nightlife”, as Mark Hellinger of the Syracuse Journal put it. At Club Abbey, Malin ditched the dresses and reinvented himself as a high-camp, waspish, obviously gay man – and it was this that singled him out. For possibly the first time ever, an entertainer’s entire act revolved around an explicit queerness. “What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men’s clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture,” explains LGBT historian JD Doyle. “If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds, to the delight of the crowd.” At 200lbs and over six feet tall, few would argue with him anyway.

“Malin was a tremendous success and other club owners followed the lead,” Hellinger reported. “Before the mainstream knew what happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway.” Songs with titles such as Masculine Women, Feminine Men and Let’s All Be Fairies were all the rage, and Malin’s innovative style was copied by dozens of others with varying degrees of success. Gladys Bentley, dressed in a white top hat and tails, kept punters happy in Harlem belting out risqué versions of popular songs, but Malin was the undisputed queen of the Pansy Craze.

Prohibition had forced legitimate bars to shut up shop, and the mob-run speakeasies that sprang up in their place were openly flouting the law. Crooked cops took backhanders to look the other way, but with serious violence breaking out between rival gangs keen for a slice of this lucrative pie, the authorities had to do something. And as many of these clubs had floor shows starring LGBT acts, it must have seemed that wherever the pansies went, trouble followed.

In January 1931, mobster Charles Sherman was shot and stabbed at the Club Abbey, female impersonator Karyl Norman (appearing in a revue entitled Pansies on Parade) was caught up in a police raid on Manhattan’s appropriately named Pansy Club, and on the same night, police shut down the Club Calais speakeasy, another popular pansy haunt. Sherman survived the attack, but four years later his corpse was found buried in a pit of quicklime.

Tired of the trouble the pansy clubs attracted, New York’s police commissioner Edward P Mulrooney stationed a cop at the door of every known pansy nightspot and barred female impersonators from the local clubs. Some acts tried valiantly to cling on but Malin, effectively barred from working in New York, went to Boston where, according to the front page of scandal sheet Brevities: “Queers seek succor! Fairies cruise in daisy beds of Boston, making the city a lavenderish camp of love.” Gladys Bentley took her butch lesbian act to San Francisco, but Malin, after briefly trying to re-establish his career in New York, decided to try his luck in Hollywood instead.

He appeared in a couple of films, but after seeing the rushes for one of them – Double Harness – RKO Studio president BB Kahane sent a memo stating: “I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture”, and Malin’s part was recast. When, following New York’s lead, Los Angeles also issued an edict banning female impersonators, it was time to move on.

“Pansies Blow US”, Brevities announced. “Prominent pansies of this country are scramming for Berlin and Paris [where] they have found a freedom not granted them in America.” London’s law enforcers were as intolerant as commissioner Mulrooney – in December 1932, more than 50 men were arrested at a private party in Holland Park Avenue, after undercover officers had watched them dancing and, they claimed, having sex dressed as women. More than 100 people were arrested at queer-friendly club The Caravan after locals complained of it being “frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites.”

But Paris had a reputation for its laissez-faire attitude, and queer performers were encouraged by the success enjoyed in the city by American performers including bisexual dancer Josephine Baker and gay trapeze artist Barbette. Berlin, too, had been a mecca for LGBT people for decades before Brevities reported on the “queer resorts” where “patrons, either lesbian, fairy or normal sexed are welcome”. Ute Lemper, whose 1996 collection Berlin Cabaret Songs ignited new interest in the songs and stars of the period, says that she was “stunned by the array of songs that expressed freedom of sexuality, and also proclaimed emancipation and women’s rights.”

Like New York, Berlin’s regular drag balls made it a popular destination for LGBT tourists. Yet many regarded this tolerance as a sign of the country’s decadence, and Hitler’s rise to power saw countless bars, clubs and cafes closed. Nazi stormtroopers tore the heart out of Berlin’s cabaret scene, arresting anyone deemed entartete: degenerate. Max Hansen, who recorded War’n Sie Schon Mal In Mich Verliebt? (Weren’t You Ever In Love With Me?), in which a drunk Hitler made passes at a Jewish man, had to make a quick exit from Germany, and other cabaret stars either followed or went back into the closet. Willy Rosen, Max Ehrlich and Kurt Gerron (the star of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera) all died in Auschwitz. The bawdy, openly gay Paul O’Montis died in the Sachsenhausen camp, just 25 miles north of the stages he once commanded. “At the time of their creation, these songs were kind of shocking and anarchic,” adds Lemper. “Today, nothing can shock any more but these songs can still entertain and provoke.”

Hailed by Variety as “the best entertainer in the Village joints along the pansy lines”, Malin’s death in 1933 signalled the end of the Pansy Craze, and the repeal of prohibition that same year closed the doors of many speakeasys. The scenes he had filmed for the upcoming Clark Gable and Joan Crawford feature, Dancing Lady, were consigned to the cutting room floor. With the Hays Code effectively banning Hollywood from portraying homosexual characters (or “attempting to keep the dual-sex boys and lesbos out of films” as Variety put it), and war in Europe on the horizon, the LGBT performers who had dominated nightlife for more than a decade were driven back underground. It would be decades before we would see anything as outrageous again.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Andy Partridge: Songwriter

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Songwriting

Andrew John Partridge was born in a naval hospital in Malta in November 1953 but grew up in Swindon – a town he still calls home today.

Leaving school at 15, he followed the time-honoured route of all wannabe rockers by enrolling in Art College. In 1972 he met bassist Colin Moulding at Kempster's Music Store in Swindon, the two of them forming the nucleus of the band that would become XTC. Signing to Virgin Records in the wake of the punk/New Wave explosion, XTC issued 12 highly acclaimed albums, plus two as their psychedelic alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphear, and a slew of great singles before finally calling it a day in 2005.

An in-demand session musician, songwriter and producer, outside of XTC he has worked with a wide range of performers including Joan Armatrading, Ryuchi Sakamoto, The Residents, Doctor And The Medics, Blur, Terry Hall, Cathy Dennis, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Thomas Dolby, Peter Blegvad, Harold Budd, Jamie Cullum, Robyn Hitchcock, Pugwash, Meat Beat Manifesto and Lloyd Cole.

With a career that spans four decades, Andy is often compared favourably to the likes of Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello. He was the recipient of the Q Classic Songwriter award in October 2014. Andy discusses his songwriting in depth in a new book (Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC), published by Jawbone Press in March.

Q: How did you get into making music?
A: My father always had an old battered acoustic guitar behind the sofa and after seeing the Beatle films and then being exposed every week to the Monkees TV show, Top Of The Pops and so on, I thought ‘this looks good; this is very attractive to me. I'd like to try this out’. The fact that girls screamed at young men with guitars pulled me in.

Q: What were you biggest musical influences?
A: My musical influences are many, many. I suppose the most powerful ones were the Beatles, the Monkees (Andy has a song You Bring The Summer on the new Monkees album, Good Times!, due for release in June 2016), the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Stones and an awful lot of 60's bands. I would fantasise about being in one of those type of groups, you know, making fake album sleeves for them, logos, drawing myself on stage and in the studio with 'them', whoever they were (probably the Dukes?). I remember writing essays in my school English book about being in a band. It was a total obsession with me: a 24-hour daydream every day. 

Later I realised how much my parents music went in deep too, with my dad's jazz records and my mums 'musical shows' which came out of the radio constantly at home. All went in the melting pot. Novelty songs were also a huge influence, which is why I think I took to psychedelia so much.

Q: Are there any current bands or musicians that inspire you?
A: There aren't any current bands, as I don't think anyone is doing anything new. The musical landscape is very conservative right now, and I may be passed being influenced. I hear quite a bit of XTC influence on lots of bands though.

Q: Who or what inspired you to first have a go at writing a song?
A: No one song or group particularly, probably one of the more colourful singles from ‘66 to ‘68. Oddly it took me ages to grasp that the missing piece of the kit I needed was to learn to write songs! I had the vanity and the drive, the ideas for presentation, the art side, I even taught myself to play a guitar… but not the song. That took years to kick in.

Q: Can you remember the first song you wrote?
A: Yes: I think it was called Please Help Me; it was truly awful formless rubbish in A-minor. Sophomore to the Nth.

Q: What would you be if you were not a songwriter? Would you have stayed working in graphic design?
A: I think so, but I have to admit what little experience I had of graphic work for 'the man' wasn't for me. It was too restrictive, not imaginative enough. I needed to fly in some way. Visually, musically, as a writer, even a sculptor. I had to be in control of my own creativity.

Q: Do you prefer writing to performing or recording?
A: Totally. The first spark of inspiration or creativity is the best. I found the repetition of performance boring; I get bored too easily. Even some recording can be boring if you aren't taking the initial idea higher.

Q: In 1982, after a decade on the road, XTC quit touring. Did it become easier or harder to write once you stopped playing live?
A: Much easier, as I had time, and I wasn't being pitched from wearing one head - the creative, private, naive, childlike one - to having to don the other head: the athletic, performing, public property, learn your lines, get through it alive one. Of course, stopping touring made me a figure of hatred and mistrust from the manager, who just wanted instant live shows cash, the record company who retreated from any promotion of the band, and the other band members, who probably thought that I was ruining their one shot at fame and fortune. I desperately needed a break: it was killing me.

Q: Where do you like to write?
A: Ideas come everywhere. Asleep, walking, messing with an instrument, hearing someone say a phrase. I also agree with Duke Ellington when asked about where did his inspiration come from? He said ‘fuck inspiration, just give me a deadline’. That always works.

Q: Is there a time of day when you find it easier to work?
A: Probably before mid to late afternoon, from waking until that 'slump' time.

Q: What part of writing a song do you find the hardest?
A: Freeing my head from the editor. The naive child in you is the creative one, the one who can put stuff together in new and exciting wrong ways. They can be the maker. The editor though is very needed, as they can sort all the gibber out into a form that can be accepted more easily by others. They are the 'straightener', but the editor and the creator don't get along. The editor puts too many restrictions on to the naive kid. I have to watch out for that. The better my editing skills get, the less the naive creator kid comes to visit.

Q: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
A: Not to fret, and I get it a lot because of the editor problem. A deadline usually sorts it.

Q: How is your health currently? Is the tinnitus causing problems?
A: I get heart palpitation problems and quite a few complications from IBS or similar. The tinnitus is a pain, but doesn't stop me creating. I'll just never trust anyone with my headphone volume again. The other things put the brakes on more, also the 'everyday life' stuff that you have to do: the shopping, the cleaning, blah blah blah. That stuff eats up so many days. Generally I've never been a healthy chap, I'm more the ill weed who forged his own school sick notes to avoid sports.

Q: What comes first: the melody, chords, lyrics or the title of a new song?
A: Hopefully all of that. The best ones have all of that mostly arriving simultaneously. If they don’t then a good technique might be to take the chord change you are liking and describe to yourself what it makes you think of. The description of this then can make the lyric. It's like you have started to paint some stage scenery and saying what that looks like becomes what the actors say, their lines. That works for me. Also, reams of loose written jibber. Exploded poems, prose, brain vomit. If I get a load of that out and written down, I can always go back days later and find good couplets, titles or even the bulk of a lyric. The trick is turning off the editor, or censor.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration? Does having synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which sounds or words appear as colours) play a part in the songwriting process?
A: Synesthesia is very helpful, especially in describing what it is the chords you have played look like in word form. Inspiration can come from anything though. Some things that are good triggers are ...trying to write a song like one by another artist you admire, you know, 'in the style of' one of your favourites.  This can lead you down some great creatively wrong thinking alleys. That can work well. Repetition is big for me, to find a musical phrase that I can leave playing around and around whilst you go into a kind of trance and skate verbally over the top. That's been very productive for me; bring up songs like River Of Orchids (from XTC’s 1999 album Apple Venus Volume One), Battery Brides (a track from the band’s 1978 album, Go 2), Travels In Nihilon (Black Sea, 1980), Stupidly Happy (Wasp Star, 2000)... loads really. That’s a favourite technique.

Q: Your lyrics are very evocative. Do you have a particular favourite lyric or song that you have written?
A: Probably the ones that stand up alone on the 'poetry' front: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul (from 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking album), Easter Theatre (Apple Venus Volume One, 1999) and Across This Antheap (Oranges and Lemons, 1989) are three that could be appreciated without hearing the music I think. I love lyrics, from any writer, that are pungent and can work on the poetry level. Rook (from the 1992 XTC album Nonsuch) is a good lyric too I reckon.

Q: Is there an XTC song that you’re most proud of?
A: Maybe Easter Theatre.

A: Is there a song you’ve written that you feel you did not do justice to in the recording studio, or anything you demoed but didn’t record that you regret leaving to one side? Personally, I think Everything (originally planned for Oranges and Lemons, 1989) cries out for the full XTC treatment!
Q: I really wanted to do them all, but time and costs meant that many fell by the wayside. Spiral (initially released as a digital download with Apple Box, 2005) would have fit well on Wasp Star and I was crushed that we never got to do Wonder Annual on Nonsuch, which I had a real soft spot for (Partridge’s demo appears on his 2002 demo collection Fuzzy Warbles Volume One). We actually started Everything but it was never finished, not sure why; maybe it just felt too old by the time the next album came around? The group’s way of democratically voting for songs meant that many favourites fell between the cracks for both Colin and I. We should have done This Is The End (a song Partridge wanted to use as the closing track to Oranges and Lemons: it appeared on the 1992 fan club cassette The Bull With The Golden Guts, and on Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3 in 2003), but it was voted down. Jump (issued as the B-side to the 1983 single Wonderland) could have come out better. Part of me thought that may have even been a single, but it was rushed and sounded weak.

Q: Some of your songs - Across this Antheap, Respectable Street (from 1980’s Black Sea) for example - feature a kind of prologue which later re-occours as a bridge with very different dynamics. Is that an influence you picked up elsewhere?
A: Probably from the show tunes my mum would like. That's an old Hollywood trick.

Q: Is there a band or artist that totally nailed their cover of an XTC or Andy Partridge song?
A: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul, the version by Ruben Blades, was thrilling to hear; also Sarah McLachlan’s version of Dear God (XTC’s breakthrough hit in the US; originally the B-side to the 1986 single Grass) was rather haunting, maybe better than ours?

Q: Is there a song that you wish you had written?
A: Thousands. I sometimes think my whole career is made of me chasing after writing a song as good as Autumn Almanac by the Kinks, which haunts me still. Rain is my favourite Beatles number: a droning nursery rhyme, but magical. I hear the fingerprint of that in Towers of London (from Black Sea). Oh lord, too many songs! So... yeah, a thousand fold.

Q: You usually write alone, but have at times collaborated with other writers. Do you prefer writing alone or collaborating?
A: It's a different discipline. The two are very, very different things. For yourself you can vanish in silence, thought, tinkering, trying stuff out... sometimes for years, on a song, but if you are collaborating you have to be 'present' and compromising. I thought when XTC fell apart I could step into a career as a songwriter for hire, which I've tried to be, very unsuccessfully I must add, for the last 10 years. It seems to me that I'm constantly writing for others, only to have them reject what I do - only for them to go, in my ears, to record far inferior material with other 'hipper' writers. Maybe I am too odd for a lot of the others I have worked with? Consequently I have a vast backlog of demos of stuff written for others that they haven't used. One day I may use it myself. Who knows? My writings for others tend to be straighter than what would thrill me.

Q: Do you prefer to work with people you already know, or are you open to working with other people?
A:  I can be OK with both.

Q: You’ve had mixed experiences in the past when working with other artists. Do you find it easier or more beneficial to work with people as a songwriting collaborator, as a hired musician or as their producer?
A: Production is generally not for me. It's too much baby sitting/social worker for bands and not enough creativity. I don't think I have enough of the patience gene and can get very bored waiting for bands/artists to come up to just average. Some of them have unworkable egos where they think that they're so fucking good... but they aren't! They struggle to reach acceptable – but I'm not naming names! I have better luck with being a hired musician, but I'm not that great a player. At best I can be inventive or 'distinctive'. The songwriting thing is my best side; that is what I'm good at.

Q: What instruments do you use to write?
A: Mostly acoustic guitar, but keys now and then.

Q: Do you ever de-tune/re-tune for songwriting or chording inspiration?
A: I had a big phase on doing that in the 80's; I don’t do it now.

Q: How do you record spontaneous ideas?
A: I have a shed at the bottom of the garden for multitrack recording, but for just day-to-day ideas I still use an old cassette machine, as it's instant. I tried using digital recorders but by the time you'd set the file destination, the recording bit rate, mono or stereo etcetera, you'd forgotten the idea. Grab it quick.

Q: I know that you usually work up demos at home, but do you ever write in the studio?
A: Never. I have too much fear and respect for the cost of studios and others time, not to waste it. I always have 90-something percent of any song prepared by the time it even gets to a pro studio. The last thing you want to be doing is working out parts with the studio clock ticking and engineers drumming their fingers. The only times I've done this is where the improvisation is integral to the project, say for Gonwards with Peter Blegvad and Stu Rowe (released in 2012) or Monstrance (2007) with Barry (Andrews, former XTC member and Shriekback front man) and Martyn Barker.

Q: What advice – if any - would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
A: Where to begin? Keep your song short: two minutes is a good thing to aim for. The classic pop bands knew that and so did the classical composers. Their best works are strung together chunks of short ideas. Learn and copy from the masters: Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Rogers and Hammerstein, anyone you respect really. Find out what makes them tick. Remember that you will write 300 or more songs before you start to get decent at it; the ten thousand hour rule applies here too.

If your chords don't move about much, then make your melody mobile... and vice versa; busy chord changes often need a static melody. Never use lazy rhymes in your lyrics, but be creative and make sure they all rhyme well. Anything else will judder the brain to a halt. Try to start with the title line and give them the gist of the song in the first two or three lines. Be concise and never commit the sin of boring the listener.

Q: If XTC had continued after Wasp Star, what direction do you think you and Colin (and possibly Dave) would have gone? Did you have any ideas or songs in the bag for a follow up?
A: I think we had about run our course, and it was a good long run too. I have to admit, I loved writing for XTC and now I don't have my troops, or Indians, this chief is more than a little lost, I must confess. They were such good natural players and music fans. I miss them but the male marriage is over. I've read people say ‘Oh Andy drove the band away one at a time, till there was just him’. That is so far from the truth. I thought in terms of a band, a group, never the solo thing, right from being a schoolboy.

We had a very long career and those that left did so for their own reasons. I never threw anyone out, that's not my way. If the others had of been into it, I would have kept going till I dropped dead. They were my band.

Q: You were approached by Disney to write songs for the movie version of James and the Giant Peach, but didn’t get the gig; you also wrote the theme tune to the US TV series Wonderfalls. Would you ever consider writing for film again, or perhaps the theatre?
A: I have written a couple of film ideas out but neither are musicals. They're pretty good. Opera intrigues me, as I love the scale of it but not the musical forms. They frequently have crap songs, not up to my standards. One opera in a hundred has maybe one good tune, otherwise back to the drawing board with you! Maybe I could change that?

Q: Is there anyone you would like to work with, or anyone no longer around that you would like to have had the opportunity to work with?
A: Odd choices, but here goes: I would have loved to have written some stuff for the Cramps, but seeing as Lux is solid gone... or work with Iggy Pop on an album of material. Elvis Costello intrigues me: he has good lyrics but is lazy with his melodies. I could help there.

Of course working with Macca, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson would be interesting, but they don't need me so what's the point of those particular fantasies? I would like to steer Bowie back to classical song shapes, but he's doing fine. They are all the silly dreams of a pop fan. (note: this interview was conducted less than a fortnight before David Bowie passed away)

Q: Are we ever going to see a ‘proper’ Andy Partridge album?
A: I don't know, as the 'being a pop star' dream faded a long time ago, leaving me with nothing other than the freaky ability to write a decent song. I seriously don't know. I'd like to try my hand at being an alcoholic for a while, but I think I'd get bored with it too quickly!

For a real insight into the songwriting mind of Andy Partridge a new book, Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC, is a must-read. With a forward by Steven Wilson – the guitarist and songwriter who has been working with the former members of XTC on a series of 5.1 reissues of their back catalogue - Complicated Game offers a unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most influential and original songwriters.

Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC by Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt, is published in March 2016 by Jawbone Press: ISBN 978-1-908279-90-3

Monday, 19 January 2015

Swallows and Amazons Forever!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Good Bristol magazine

The Divine Comedy frontman returns in Bristol to relaunch Swallows and Amazons.

Neil Hannon is no stranger to Bristol: the Divine Comedy’s leader has brought his band to the city on a number of occasions, playing venues as diverse as the Trinity Arts Centre, the Anson Rooms and the O2. More recently the Irish-born songwriter’s presence has been felt, thanks to his collaboration with playwright Helen Edmundson and the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, through his compositions for the smash-hit musical Swallows and Amazons, which returns this November by popular demand.

Based on Arthur Ransome’s classic 1930 children’s novel, Swallows and Amazons is a story of an idyllic era, of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination. In the story Captain John – the eldest of the Walker siblings - and his able crew set sail on an exotic adventure to Wildcat Island, encountering savages, capturing dastardly pirates and defeating their mortal enemies.

Neil first became interested in the idea of writing a musical after Tom Morris approached him following a Divine Comedy gig in London. “I was trying to find more books to read to my daughter,” he says. “She let me read Swallows and Amazons to her, and about halfway through I thought ‘this might work’!” However the first song he composed for the musical – Island Life – ended up not being used, finding a home instead on the Divine Comedy album Bang Goes the Knighthood.

Launched in Bristol in 2010, Swallows and Amazons proved a resounding success and the show has since toured the UK to great acclaim. With this in mind, Neil has decided not to try to alter it too much. “I’m always very dubious of tampering,” he admits. “It’s like when you come to play songs from an old album. I might think that the music I’m making at the moment is very different from that, but you’ve got to think of the people who might really love that earlier album. So we shall re-jig a couple of arrangements but not really tamper with the original at all, because it worked so well.”

A real treat for the family, Swallows and Amazons is a huge celebration of childhood and children. “My daughter came to see it last time and loved it,” Neil says. “I’ve seen children in the audience who I thought were far too young, but they’re always rapt.” There are plans afoot for the trio to collaborate again, but first there’s still the day job to consider. “It should be out next autumn,” he says when asked about the next Divine Comedy album. “It’s all written, I’m just working on the arrangements!”

Neil and the Old Vic have also launched a competition, open to all school choirs - primary and secondary, big and small - in the Bristol area. Choirs are invited to send in a recording of any song that takes its inspiration from a life on the open waves - anything from nursery rhymes to pop songs or choral works. The winning choir will be chosen by Neil, a former choirboy himself, and will get to perform their song at the Old Vic in December.

“I can't wait to hear what these choirs do with their song choices,” he says. “My main problem is just being jealous of people in choirs. I can just about remember the awesome feeling of being part of that great noise.”

Swallows and Amazons runs from November 27 – January 17 at the Bristol Old Vic, King St, Bristol. Tickets start at just £5, with discounts available for family and group bookings. See website for dates of signed, audio description and captioned performances.

Box Office: 0117 987 7877,

Closing date for the Bristol Schools Choir Competition is November 10.
Send recordings (video or audio) to or post to Swallows and Amazons Choir Competition, Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED