October 17th, 2006
History lesson, part one — the lesser-heard first wave of punk rock was not confined to sped-up pub rock or bootboy shouting. Some of the greatest and most enduring tunes of the time were by creative spirits rather removed from any stylistic straitjacket: the Swell Maps, Wire, The Fall, and of course, Patrik Fitzgerald, whose EPs on Small Wonder — Safety Pin Stuck In My Heart, The Paranoid Ward, and Backstreet Boys — all proved that the explosion of DIY creativity that punk opened up really did offer something never before heard.
In the case of Patrik, this was punk with an acoustic guitar: and though his insightful lyrics and observations earned him the media tag of "punk poet", Patrik was simply expressing his ideas and opinions — in a way that resonated through the first generation of punk — without a band. Poetry? Sure. Affected? No.
Having all but disappeared from the public eye when he moved to New ZEaland nine years ago, Patrik recently undertook a UK and Scandinavian tour, and discovered that his material and approach still communicated with audiences — be they the old guard, new punks, or merely the musically curious. Upon his return to New Zealand — where he is playing his first Auckland show with Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 at the Kings Arms on Oct 24th — Patrik talked to 84 Tigers about how it all started, where it all went, and where it may be headed.
"In 1976, I wasn’t actually doing anything but sitting around in Leytonstone where I was brought up, scratching my head, fairly bored witless, hanging about the Small Wonder record shop in Walthamstowe nearby, and just waiting for something to happen in the world."
Initially, I was a punk fan like everybody else — reading about the Sex Pistols, and the fact that there was something different going on, though I wasn’t brave enough to actually go out there. Actually, there wasn’t that many people who knew about the Pistols for quite a while, unless you were right there at the start. I don’t know who would’ve been the people in the know about those things, because most people in London found out when the press started writing about them and the various punk festivals and things happened, not too much later, So rather than going out to the clubs and discovering punk live, I more or less heard it through the earliest records. It can’t have been too much after punk started to happen that I started buying the records, but I don’t know how on earth I would’ve found out about the Small Wonder record shop, which was the place where it started for me. I had started buying stuff by Patti Smith – I heard it on John Peel and remember thinking, “What was that!”, and going out and buying it.
There were the bands like The Clash and the Pistols and everybody who had already started going out there doing stuff: The Slits, the Buzzcocks and various other people, but in retrospect, it’s hard to know the whole history of it even if you were close to it. I do know that I auditioned for what eventually became The Clash – I interviewed in about 1975 with Mick Jones and Tony James for what was called London SS, in response to an advert in the New Musical Express looking for people who were "fans of the New York Dolls, The Rolling Stones, and Mott The Hoople". That’s who Mick Jones in particular was employing at that time, and I went along there and remember at one point playing slide guitar – I’d never actually played slide guitar, but I thought I’d have a go at it because I thought if they liked the Stones, there’s a bit of slide guitar in there. I don’t really know why I even answered the ad, because I didn’t particularly like the New York Dolls, and I certainly wasn’t a big fan of either the Stones or Mott The Hoople, but it was the only advert I’d seen that looked vaguely interesting in terms of people looking to be in bands. I’d known people at school who had bands, but I was too kind of shy or unsure about my own musical capabilities or interest to actually be involved in those; as those people were into bands like Led Zeppelin and the heavy-duty rock people. I thought, “Well, I’m not a lead guitarist, and those sort of bands don’t have rhythm guitarists, really”. That was all changed with bands likr Doctor Feelgood and Eddie & The Hot Rods, but at school there were those who were the “wannabe musicians”.
I had always listened to Bowie and Roxy Music and things like that, and written stuff seriously since I was about 14, spurred on by Bowie’s longer more literate stuff in particular, and using it as a means to expressing my own thoughts and opinions. Certainly I’d written songs in 1975 when I rather cheekily wrote off to Ken Pitt, David Bowie’s original manager, and said, “Would you like to be my manager, Mr Pitt?”. I’d found his address in a book about Bowie, and went up and met him a few times, and he listened to a bunch of songs I’d recorded on a cheap tape recorder and was rather perplexed by them. Amongst them were things like ‘Backstreet Boys’. My stuff was already within the realms of punk before punk happened, and I think that’s true of everybody who was part of the initial thing – they’d been writing along the same lines thinking that’s what songs ought to be. But at that point – rather like today – most people with an acoustic guitar were buskers, or people like John Denver. And rather like today, I find it difficult to listen to songs – even my own stuff – acoustically, because I always hear other stuff in there. I initially thought that I was going to have a band, and I did try to team up with some musicians, but none of them were remotely on the same wavelength, really. They were in pub bands, and wanted to play the hits of the day and make a living out of it; and I did meet up with a few other songwriters who were all pretty terrible.
So, in 1976, I suppose I was unemployed – I’d done the office job bit and decided that wasn’t really happening for me, and I was hanging about at a theatre workshop doing improvisation before it became “comedy”; but really what I did at that time was be bored, broke, spending most of what money I had on records; and I was making recordings at home on a cassette recorder. The Small Wonder shop had started a label which was what every man and their dog was doing then, so I dropped off a tape to Pete at Small Wonder. I didn’t tell him it was from me, but because I’d basically made such a nuisance of myself hanging about the shop, he picked up on it and said “We’ll make a single”. And that was it.
Initially, we all thought that you go into a studio because you don’t stick home cassettes on records, so we recorded in a proper studio, but that didn’t work out. I thought it was alright, but Pete said "No, it’s crap!", so we went to a studio in someone’s house to record it again, taking it back down towards the cassette recorder approach. You often start off with a first take that’s the best one, but we had to stop a few takes because the phone rang and cars went past, so I did a few more that become more crap because I got bored doing them over and over, and then I got fed up with being bored and did a good one. Though of course, I broke strings. At that time it didn’t occur to me to bring spare strings, so the Safety Pin Stuck In My Heart EP was recorded on a five-string guitar, in a home studio.Up to the time I recorded it, I suppose I had the notion in my head that we’d add the other instruments, or do it this way and then do the real versions later. Nobody either had the bottle or was stupid enough at the time to do a solo, unaccompanied record, but Pete at Small Wonder more or less pushed me into it. I suppose he could see that it was good or different, and in some ways I couldn’t hear that because I was steeped in the conventions of rock, if you like, being a fan of music where most people do have a band. When the record came out, I thought I’d better go start playing these songs somewhere, because that;s what people do. I did actually go busking, and unsurprisingly got no money whatsoever and some very strange looks. I also went and played in some folk clubs, and that was like premature death. I had done a little bit of music in the theatre, and I’d written some songs for use in plays, and I’d been doing improvisational drama theatre as a form of therapy for myself to overcome shyness and not being happy with my own character in a way. Itt didn’t seem unnatural to be onstage as another person, acting, and I think in some ways , that helped with the idea of being onstage as myself – but you are a different person on stage whether you say you are or not – most of the time when I get on stage I’m an outgoing chap, and the rest of the time I’m an inward-looking shell. It’s quite difficult being a person that goes onstage and plays, when you are inward, shy and insecure: it’s a big jump, and certainly not an easy one. By then I had started going to punk clubs and saw other people who were part of the crowd one week and up on the stage the next, so I thought, what if I turn up with my guitar and ask if I can play some of my songs, partly to promote the record. I started doing that, got more and more offers to play, and it gradually became a way of life.
I was received in the punk clubs in a combination of different ways. Because I was physically small and thin, I looked rather waif-like and in need of protection. I would get the most hardcore of punks saying, ‘Well, they might not like you, but we do; so if they give you any aggravation, we’ll kick the shit out of them.’ I guess there was an oddball side to what I was doing that most people thought was interesting – a weedy-looking person shouting their mouth off along with everybody else, so there was that surprise quality. And at punk things, a lot of peple wanted to storm the stage, to share the stage or whatever, and with me it was easy: you could be seen on stage and you could protect me, so it was a funny scenario with a lot of odd psyches at work. Later on, I used to do a lot of gigs with Sham 69, who were followed by totally heavy skinheads, and I could actually get out of a room full of skinheads alive, even though I’d talk politics with them and tell them I was totally the opposite of them and didn’t agree with anything they were saying. And they wouldn’t storm the stage to beat the shit out of me – they might do sometimes for Sham 69 or the Cockney Rejects, but for me they’d just think ‘he’s not really worth bothering about, he’ll go away soon and leave us alone’. I did have an amusing conversation with a roomful of Sham roadies, friends and hangers-on, who came from the same part of London as me, who were saying things to me like, "Aren’t you a communist?" ‘"Well, actually – no". And they were totally confused – "But you get on OK with Black people and Indians and things, so why’s that then?" I suppose I could’ve said, "Because I was nearly in The Clash", but they would’ve taken that to mean ‘You weren’t good enough to be in The Clash!’. It was impossible to give an answer they’d understand, so they’d get fed up and talk about the football. Even then, they’d say to me, "Did you go and kick the shit out of this team or that team?"
With The Clash, it was odd – the biggest gig I played was the 1978 Rock Against Racism festival in Victoria Park that was headlined by The Clash, and I was canned off the stage. Most of the canning was done by Clash fans down the front! I was in awe of The Clash, and the Sex Pistols: I never really met the Pistols, but I’d see Cook and Jonesy at clubs because they’d hang about everywhere. Rotten never did, and the others never did, but those two were everywhere, being pop stars, which was how everybody thought of them. But like a lot of other people of my generation who were slightly outside of the punk inner circle, I felt quite disappointed with The Pistols, The Clash and people like Stiff Little Fingers, because I felt that it was all a front that wasn’t actually genuine, and they were just swanning about posing in guerilla uniforms, or gorilla suits, whichever. I think that people who came from outside that inner circle, the second wave if you like, were in fact more genuine – The Fall, Subway Sect, a lot of these were more punk than the originals. But I think not being part of the punk inner circle was a reason why a lot of people liked me as well. It soon became obvious to people from my era of it how much it was "show business" – The Clash and the Sex Pistols became more about their followers who were seen as part of their contingent, and even more so than that, became about their management: Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and Bernie Rhodes, being the media manipulators. It becomes blurry – I think ‘What was real, and what wasn’t real?’ It’s all a bit like that, really.
It was quite odd going back to England in August this year and playing the Wasted punk festival, because that was the first time I’d actually been involved in anything retro-graphic, as I’d held off doing anything of that nature for a long time. Going there and seeing a whole seaside town full of people who were either 17 or 18 year old new punks, or were people of my age and older who had gone there to either fly the flag for punk or rediscover their lost youth. At that point, you see the whole thing as quite a circus act really, and I feel rather the same about being a performer within music: it’s hard to keep a reality check, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t like being a musician much.
When I started doing gigs in the 80s for example, a lot of people would get really pissed off because I wouldn’t do ‘Safety Pin’ and I wouldn’t do ‘Trendy’, or any of that early stuff , because at that point I felt I’d had this stuff picked up and then thrown in the bin by the record companies and the media alike. I thought if I was to keep doing this, I had to find a way to put myself into it somehow, more than just being ‘that person in the papers’. The records through the 1980s were more "me", or more what I wanted to do. But in the same way that certain African people don’t want to be photographed because cameras steal their souls, there’s the same kind of thing with records and recordings: it’s a bit like part of you becoming something in a glass case in a museum. However, going back and playing in England this year, it’s amazing how much some of the early stuff just resonates through now, more so than the 80s stuff, though at every stage I’ve always tried to keep my songwriting fairly open, with the idea that it should be timeless.
With the 80s records — Gifts and Telegrams, Drifting Towards Violence, and Tunisian Twist – I still had an element of disbelief about anybody actually buying them, and a lack of caring about whether just a few people bought them or everybody in the world bought them. Because of that, I decided to keep trying to do my best making really good records, and that was the only yardstick I used. I was almost following a David Bowie pattern in a way, like his Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy, where you have an idea what you are doing and how to proceed. Gifts and Telegrams was like a do-it-yourself electronics album; Drifting Towards Violence was a conscious effort to go back to acoustic, but making it very dark with acoustic highlights; and in terms of Tunisian Twist, which I think is the most overtly poppy of my records – I wanted to blend a lot of things. In some ways, I think those are the most immediate tunes, and were similar in a way to people like Fun Boy Three using more experimental music and calling it ‘pop’. So Tunisian Twist was more diverse in its way, a more open book as to what I wanted to do with it. Both the front cover picture and back cover are meant to be characters from the songs, and crediting the album to Patrik Fitgerald + 3, made it clear it was a band — I wrote a lot of it with Peter McDonnell, and Alistair Roberts and Jilly came along later to do their bits — in the same way that Drifting Towards Violence was very much a collaboration with Alistair Roberts.
I suppose if you stick with the Bowie analogy, the group I had in the early 90s, The Patrik Fitzgerald Group, was my Tin Machine. I was working with Alistair again on bass, and Sam, who I’d done stuff with before, and Pete Dover, In some ways, a band situation t takes the pressure off you, but the group that did Pillow Tension in 1992 was the one I was least happy with. I wanted it to be a group effort but I wanted my fingers on the controls and I think it had worked better in the past; though with Pillow Tension there was a lot of strong opinions going into the melting pot, and it all got diluted. Some got diluted well, and some didn’t.
During the late 80s and early 90s, I’d got used to being a total nobody in London, and not really of any interest to anybody putting on concerts, but moving to New Zealand nine years ago was odd. I was told when I came here that my songwriting might very well change, and I wasn’t sure where I would fit in New Zealand anyway: I think that the few people who represent NZ music well have some sense of identity in there. I wondered if my stuff has any meaning here at all – I did an audition for a television program when they were looking for acts to appear, and I went to the Caledonian Hall in Christchurch and did ‘Charlie Leads a Life Of Crime’ from on an acoustic, and they all just looked rather blank.
Because of the fact that i felt there was so many references from within my own culture — London, football etc — I did wonder whether it translates well. Even a song like ‘Early Warning’ from Treasures From The Wax Museum, which is about somebody chucking themselves under a tube train: in London almost every day you’d see these little piles of sand on the tracks where the day before they’d have to cover up the blood from someone throwing themselves off the platform. All these little details in the material I write –does what I do contribute to the cultural identity or not? Shouldn’t I be learning as much Maori as I can and become as assimilated as possible? When I came here as an outsider, you are told very definitely in all the guidebooks what New Zealand is and what New Zealanders are all about, and in some ways, there is an identity clash for myself by just being here — rather like there was as a child of an immigrant family in London. How you’re brought up does shape your character — and being brought up in a struggling Irish immigrant family in the East End with the Catholic Church puts a shape on your soul or whatever. The music thing was just a way of kicking against it — especially with punk, most of the people involved had a few chips on their shoulders. But there was a lot of younger people drawn to punk — a band like Eater, who were only 13 or 14, and all the younger brothers and sisters of the early punks who were just waiting to grow up so they could get out places and do it. But in my case, it was a big thing to go out and sing in what was my own accent — in England at that point, most people and even a lot of the punk bands were still doing fake American accents. And that was one of the points of difference: why was this stuff all about London when they’re singing like Americans? I got accused early on of being a "token Cockney" in a review written by a guy called Garry Bushell, who later went on to edit gutter press papers like The Sun — and this was coming from someone who wrote totally from the position of being a "fake Cockney"!
There is the point of having freedom of expression which is something I often forget about - the point about my stuff is that in my songs, I say what i want.
Safety Pin Stuck In My Heart - The Very Best Of Patrik Fitzgerald CD comprises Patrik’s 3 Small Wonder EPs(the first 18 tracks); plus re-recorded tracks from the Polydor releases (the Grubby Stories album and singles), and a couple of others. To purchase an autographed copy from 84 Tigers, Go Here
Also available in the store: the out of print 1995 Room Service CD, and the new Floating Population CD, comprising Patrik’s unreleased recordings from 1979-2006.