Patrik Fitzgerald, once described as "the new Bob Dylan" is the punk hero who refused to go pop. He's just released a new record and it's his best yet.
Patrik Fitzgerald is that rarest of things: a complete original, a total one-off. Emerging at the height of punk rock, he positioned himself somewhere between an acerbic punk poet and a sensitive, off-kilter urban folk-singer. His debut EP, Safety Pin Stuck In My Heart, was hailed as an instant punk classic. He was variously described as “the new Bob Dylan”, “a John Betjeman for the blank generation” and “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson.”
Despite signing to Polydor in 1979, commercial success eluded him. Fitzgerald, however, still continued to plough his own distinctive creative furrow, releasing increasingly sporadic albums and EPs on independent labels. His latest album, Subliminal Alienation, is his first full-length studio release since 1994, and almost certainly his finest work to date.
I meet with Patrik Fitzgerald in a pub near London Bridge and for three hours he explains exactly what became of the boy with the safety pin stuck in his heart.
JW: What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?
PF: Growing up, I listened to loads of different stuff. My sister was into reggae and Tamla Motown. I was more drawn to stuff like The Animals and The Yardbirds. I saw The Beatles play live when I was nine. A friend of the family took me and my sister to see them play at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1965, just before they gave up playing live. It wasn’t that memorable an experience to be honest. I was too small to see them and you couldn’t hear a note over the screaming girls. Going into the 70s, I was into stuff like Bowie, Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel. By that time, music was my way of creating my own world. It’s like the Jim Morrison line: “Music is your only friend.” By the time I was thirteen I’d spend most of my time stuck up in my room either playing my guitar or listening to records. Having left school at sixteen I started working and I was keen record collector so I’d buy everything, up to and including Genesis. Before punk came along, what the fuck did you buy? No-one was talking about The Velvet Underground or any of the Nuggets stuff back then.
JW: How do you remember your schooldays?
PF: Not fondly. School was pretty shit really. I was small so I got picked on a lot. I didn’t have a lot of friends simply because I didn’t get on with many people. I was one of those kids who would go into the street and play football on my own, doing my own commentary for a full ninety minutes. My parents got used to the fact that I preferred to be left to my own devices. I would have been OK academically if I could have been bothered. I’d get thrown out of lessons because I didn’t listen. I’d sit there drawing cartoons or reading the music press. I always saw it that the school set up let me down
JW: On the song All Sewn Up you write about a kid who was growing up wanting to be someone. Did you imagine you were destined to be a successful performer?
PF: I knew I didn’t fancy a life of nine to five drudgery. My song Pop Star Pop Star is actually I true story. The careers officer offered me a job as a cartographer in Hounslow. Strangely enough I would have been quite happy doing that. But, as the song says, I never made it to the interview. On my way to there I passed a cinema showing an Elvis Presley film so I went in and saw that instead. In the back of my mind was the idea that I could always be a pop star. I started playing the guitar at fourteen and, gradually, I started writing songs. No Fun Football, which ended up on the Grubby Stories album, was written as early as 1971. I used to go and watch Tottenham play. Originally it had a line in it about coppers on horseback and supporters throwing around blocks of wood with nails sticking out to scare the horses, which is what I was going on at the time. I just thought football was becoming an excuse for mindless violence and the soul seemed like it was being sucked from the game.
JW: How did you end up approaching Ken Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager?
PF: It was 1975. I was nineteen at the time. My dad had just died and that’s when I realised that nothing actually lasts in this life. I’d just about given up on the idea of doing anything. I found Ken’s address in a Bowie book by George Tremlett. So I wrote off to him asking if he’d like to be my manager. He then invited me to his flat to play him some of my songs. My impression is that he liked my songs but they were a bit strange for his tastes. I would have played him some of my earliest stuff like No Fun Football and Backstreet Kids. Ken didn’t take me on but he put me in touch with publishers and got me some singing lessons. I did four lessons before deciding it was a load of crap.
JW: Didn’t you audition for London SS, Mick Jones and Tony James’ pre-punk band?
PF: Yeah, I did. Through 1974 and 1975 I’d tried to contact other musicians through music press adverts with the idea of getting a band together. But in those days it was impossible to find any like-minded individuals. Then, in 1976 Mick Jones and Tony James put an ad in Melody Maker, looking for a guitarist who was into New York Dolls, Mott The Hoople and Rolling Stones. The ad caught my attention because Jones and James were clearly looking for something very different from most other people at the time. I turned up at Tony James’s flat and the atmosphere might best be described as one of mutual incomprehension. By that point Mick Jones already had the Keith Richards look going on. Then there was me – this short, slightly tubby bloke who wasn’t very forthcoming. It was obvious that it wasn’t going to work out when they asked me to play some slide guitar. I’d never played slide guitar before but I gave it a go. It was an interesting experience. But I came away thinking they were just a couple of posh kids looking to be rock stars.
JW: Back in 1976 did you have the feeling that something like punk was around the corner?
PF: I could definitely feel that something was in the air. It was obvious that things had to change. But, living out in Leytonstone, I felt very remote from anything that was happening in London. I felt quite directionless and lost. I tried a few different things. Through 1976 and 1977 I acted in plays with a community theatre. I also did some busking which I didn’t find too difficult because I felt invisible. I was busking my own material and made no money out of it at all. The general public didn’t want to hear songs like Safety Pin Stuck In Your Heart when they were out doing their shopping. I got fed up with people asking, “Do you know any Beatles songs?” I did a few gigs with some terrible local bands. I even played rhythm guitar in a reggae band for a while. The bloke who ran the reggae band had heard me practicing from halfway down the street and invited me to join them, but that didn’t last long.
JW: How did you come to record your first EP, Safety Pin Stuck In Your Heart?
PF: I learned about punk rock through the music press and John Peel but I was too shy to go to any punk gigs. I’d read all the stories about Shane MacGowan getting his ear bitten off and stuff like that. Having been bullied at school I wasn’t sure how close I wanted to get to places where that kind of thing went on. I started hanging around the Small Wonder record shop in Walthamstow, run by a guy called Pete Stennett who wore a green bobble hat. It was very entertaining. At that time there were very few punk records to sell. Someone would come in looking for the new Status Quo, Jethro Tull or Yes album and Pete would rip the piss out of them, then send them off to Woolworth’s up the road. He viewed his record shop as a source of amusement.
Had it not been for Small Wonder, the Safety Pin EP would never have come out. Pete had mentioned about wanting to do a record label and he started putting out singles by bands like Puncture and The Carpettes. I made a cassette of some of my songs and popped it through his letter box. I was too shy to put my name on it but Pete knew me well enough to know whose songs they were.
We recorded the five songs for the first EP in a studio in a house in South Woodford. It was quite chaotic. The phone kept ringing so we had to keep stopping and do it all over again. I doubt Pink Floyd had to worry about problems like that. Then I broke a string and I hadn’t brought any spares with me. So the whole EP was recorded with five strings.
JW: If memory serves, that EP received rapturous in the music press.
PF: It actually got Single Of The Week in NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.
JW: At the time you were described as “the new Bob Dylan”, “a John Betjeman for the blank generation” and “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson.” That’s quite a bit to live up to.
PF: Yeah, it was weird getting all that praise all of a sudden. But nothing really changed, apart from the fact that I now had the confidence to go and do gigs on my own. I started supporting fairly terrible punk bands at The Roxy and The Vortex and that led to gigs at The Marquee. Some gigs went OK because people could see I had the bottle to play, just me and my guitar. Some gigs were hard work. Supporting Sham 69 was never easy. I was lucky to get out alive from some of those places. Sham had a big right-wing following and so it was like a Nuremburg rally at the front. These skinheads assumed I was a Communist so they hated me before I’d played a note. No-one could hear me above the abuse. It was like a Beatles gig except with violent intent.
One of the hardest gigs I did was supporting The Clash, X-Ray Spex and Steel Pulse at Victoria Park at the 1978 Rock Against Racism festival. The whole thing felt hollow to me. The only worthwhile part was the march to the park. When it got to the concert it was like just another big rock gig. There were loads of hangers-on, people doing drugs, the usual showbiz stuff. I went down terribly. There were rows of skinheads down the front throwing darts and cans at me.
I did all sorts of gigs. I supported Buzzcocks, The Police, U2, Ultravox and Hawklords. It was always impossible to predict how I’d go down. Most of the time the fans of the headline act couldn’t give a shit about me. I’d go from doing a gig at Rugby public school to playing for non-English-speaking farmers in some small town in Norway. One of the weirdest venues I ever played was a Saturday night disco at a nuclear base in the Arctic Circle.
JW: Were you doing a lot of drugs in those days?
PF: Not at all. I was never one for drugs. I smoked a bit of dope. I had one night on cocaine in ’78 and took the night bus home, talking crap to complete strangers. The morning after I had the worst hangover ever. After that I was never interested in drugs again.
JW: In 1978, NME printed a letter from a reader which read, “Punk died the day Patrik Fitzgerald signed to Polydor.” Would you care to comment?
PF: I’d done four EPs for Small Wonder, then Pete announced he was fed up with doing the label. He decided to sell of his assets to make some money and I was one of those assets. The move to Polydor had nothing to do with me really. I did feel I was treated as a commodity. I felt I’d been sold out. Almost immediately I got a couple of managers who dealt directly with the label. It all became very corporate. The first time anyone from Polydor saw me play live was when I was supporting The Jam. One of them came up to me and said, “So, what’s your image?” I told him I didn’t have one, that it was just me and my songs. I could see him thinking, “Christ, we’ve got a right one here.” From that point it was clear that they just didn’t know what to do with me.
JW: How big was your Polydor deal?
PF: I was given £25,000 which would have been quite a lot of money in those days. But a lot of it went on recording in their own studios. I was on a weekly wage for the first year. By the end of that year most of the advance had been spent. Six months into the deal, I’d done one album and two singles. I then went off on my own and recorded the songs that eventually became 1980’s Tonight EP. But Polydor refused to finance them as the budget was exhausted. So those recordings were financed by me and my managers. But it took a while for those songs to be released.
It was clear to me that the bands who would be supported by the label were The Jam, Sham 69 and Siouxsie & The Banshees for the simple reason that they’d all left punk behind and gone into pop. I wasn’t heading in that direction so it was clear my days on Polydor were numbered. They didn’t pressure me to come up with hit singles. I thought Improve Yourself and All Sewn Up would have made hit singles. I made a conscious effort to write hits with those two songs. But Polydor couldn’t see the potential in them and they were considered to be too short to get radio play. Around that time a lot of so-called post-punk singles were sneaking into the chart but that never happened to any of my stuff. All in all I was starting to see that the music industry is a horrible place. It’s easy to get bitter and twisted about it.
JW: On the song All The Years Of Trying, from Grubby Stories, you seem to be anticipating a musical career untroubled by commercial success.
PF: Even when I was writing that song I knew that’s how it was going to pan out, that my songs would never go very far. If I’d achieved any real fame during those early days I’d have probably ended up as a complete arsehole like many of the other people who came out of punk.
JW: How would you describe your approach to songwriting around this time?
PF: I’d write a song like Lewisham but I never wanted to be cast as a punk protest singer. I saw my stuff more like diary entries. Some people thought my words were very sarky but I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of my songs came straight out of observing what was going on around me and commenting on people I’d met. The song Jarvis was about a bloke I met Manchester from Manchester. All he wanted to talk about was all the horrible things he’d done to cats, like sticking them in liquidisers. I suppose I had a tendency to attract strange people. One morning I was on the tube and I put my feet up on the seats. This old lady, she must have been seventy, pulled out a carving knife and said, “If you don’t take your feet off, I’m going to stab you.” Every time I went on the underground you could guarantee that the nutter would sit next to me and start bothering me. That can make for great songs but not necessarily for a comfortable life.
JW: Starting with Suicidal Wreck (from Grubby Stories), quite a few of your early songs alluded to mental illness. Clearly these songs were very personal to you.
PF: They were, yeah. I’ve always seen myself as the pessimistic, depressive, nihilistic type. I’ve always thought that, if you haven’t got that in your head, you’re not actually alive. I’m not one of those people who think there’s something wrong with people if they’re not jolly all the time. I think the complete opposite. I’ll never be happy. I’m as confused about life as anyone could be.
I was never going to be the next Ian Curtis. At the same time I was never going to go down the Altered Images road and start singing chirpy songs like Happy Birthday. I didn’t like the way music was going in the early 80s. In no time at all we went from the punk movement to having Margaret Thatcher running the country and all this bright, shiny pop in the charts. If you listened to the charts, it was like, “happy days are here again.” And, clearly, they weren’t. As most other music got lighter and shinier, my music got darker and darker. I suppose I think of life as a prison sentence. Thinking that way somehow keeps me sane.
JW: On Grubby Stories, you moved away from the solo acoustic approach and worked with a band, including Robert Blamire of Penetration and John Maher of the Buzzcocks. What was the thinking behind that?
PF: I suppose there was a part of me that thought that a certain number of people weren’t getting my songs because they were being performed solo. So I thought I’d give the other approach a try. I like the idea of working with a band but I also like to be in control of things, so the band thing doesn’t always work for me. The other musicians end up being subservient to what I want to do, and I’m not comfortable with that.
Also, I’ve never had much luck with musicians. I was playing gigs with a band, including a drummer who was a bit of a lunatic. He told me that he’d killed his dad in a drunken argument by pushing him down the stairs. He was a very imposing character who had a skinhead cut and wore Doc Martens and a kilt. My bassist, Charlie, couldn’t stand him. They were fighting constantly and I’d always be having to separate them. It’s sometimes good to have a bit of conflict within the rhythm section, but not that much. So what would happen was that I’d try working with bands, then return to the solo thing.
Back in 1976 I was listening a lot to Dr. Feelgood. Wilko Johnson showed me that it was possible to play rhythm guitar by myself, that I didn’t need a lead guitar to work off. Once I’d worked out how to play the Feelgoods’ Roxette, I realised I could do it on my own, that I didn’t necessarily need a band.
Having decided I wanted to stick with the acoustic guitar, I didn’t want to be just another folk singer putting out pretty tunes. I’ve always tried to push the boundaries on that by fucking about with the idea of what you can do with guitar chords. More than anything I like chaos and discordance in music. Woody Guthrie famous boasted that his acoustic guitar killed fascists. I don’t know what my guitar was intending to kill. But it was definitely on the attack.
I was touring with Roy Harper at one point and his guitarist Andy Roberts came up to me. He said that, with other guitarists, he could always quickly work out what they were doing and how they were playing. He said, “I’ve been watching you play and I haven’t got a fucking clue what you’re doing.” I took that as a big compliment. In terms of people who play acoustic guitar, I feel I’m ahead of a lot of people. So many performers are stuck with a busker’s mentality and they don’t seem to have anything to say. It’s all so cosy and I’ve been interested in cosy. I’ve never been interested in pretty songs that tug at the heartstrings.
JW: Going into the 80s, you seemed even more out of step with prevailing musical fashions.
PF: By the time the Tonight EP came out, I didn’t really feel I was being listened to. I wasn’t making a living from music so I had no option to start doing what turned into a long series of shit jobs that I’d rather not talk about. I would have been completely out of the picture had it not been for Dave Kitson and Red Flame Records. Dave invested a lot of time and money in me through the 1980s and I ended up doing three albums with his label, which basically bankrupted him and he ended up disappearing completely. He effectively kept my career afloat by putting my records out. Red Flame released Gifts And Telegrams, Drifting Towards Violence and Tunisian Twist between 1983 and 1986. I doubt anyone else would have picked up those records.
JW: With 1986’s Tunisian Twist, you went back to recording with a band. Addressing subjects like terrorism and trade unionism, that album contained some of your most hard-hitting songs.
PF: At the time I was looking to do pop songs that still sounded cantankerous and subversive. Maybe my songs are too off the map to ever appeal to the mainstream. But I’ve come round to thinking that the people who get my songs really do get them. So I’m happy to keep my stuff exclusive to those who do get it. I’m perfectly content enough to know that what I do is unique. I know what I do isn’t like anyone else. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that uniqueness just to make the music palatable to more people.
Between 1986 and 1995 I didn’t put any records at all. Then I released Pillow Tension. After that the releases became sporadic again. The Room Service album came out in 2001, Floating Population in 2006. My profile was very low-key and that suited me fine. I was moving around quite a bit, spending long periods in Normandy and New Zealand, doing different kinds of jobs. When I found space to express myself in songs, then I’d write and record again. I look at the people who came along at the same time as me and I can’t think of any that have impressed me. Elvis Costello, Sting…is that really the best they can do? I’ve lasted as long as they have but I’ve never been mainstream. I’m more like an outsider artist. I drop in and out of music, just like I drop in and out of life. I moved back to London again at the end of 2011. Music is a full-time thing for me now. But I don’t really expect the music to support me, provide me with a living. If it did, that would be quite worrying. I’d rather continue the way I’ve always done, living from day to day, keeping myself on edge, so that the songs remain spiky.
JW: Punk revival tours are all the rage these days. Do you give such things a wide berth?
PF: I’m not interested in being a retread. I don’t consider myself a part of that. I don’t really want to be known as someone who was involved with punk. That’s very restrictive. Having said that, I have done the Wasted and Rebellion festivals. Those things are uncomfortable for me because I don’t think of myself as a nostalgia act. At those events it can feel like going into an old people’s home on a zimmer frame.
The song Pilgrimage on the new album is about a gig I did in Birmingham just before Chirstmas last year. It was some kind of punk reunion where they had a reggae/ska disco and I was the only person playing live. When I got on stage to do my soundcheck, it was obvious that no-one had a clue who I was. I had to try to get them to turn down the stereo while I soundchecked. A few punks did turn up during the evening and they stood there booing me because they didn’t think I was punk enough. It was worse than supporting Sham 69 back in the day. Nothing much has changed really. I’m 56 now. I don’t feel any different to how I felt when I was five or ten or fifteen or 25 or any age. None of us change that much, if at all. My gigs will always be introverted. I suppose most performers are essentially shy people and they throw themselves out there because they’re scared of being ignored or even being invisible. I do get excited about going onstage but I also feel threatened, scared, worried and nauseous. Performing to me still feels like being in a goldfish bowl. I still work without a setlist, just improvising songs off the top of my head. As in the punk days I never know whether people are going to get what I’m doing. Every night is like walking a tightrope.
JW: Over what period of time were the songs on the new album, Subliminal Alienation, written?
PF: The oldest song is probably Teacher Teacher which might have been written about 1974 or 1975. The music for Inside Me There Is Nothing was also written around then, with a different lyric. Amateur was probably 1975 or 1976. The most recent ones, Knockabout and Pilgrimage, were written in 2012. All of the arrangements took shape over the last four or five years. The CD has been ‘in recording’ since 2007.
JW: Is this new album any more or less autobiographical than previous releases?
PF: Routine Never Stops is as much about people I have known as about me. Teacher Teacher and Inside Me There Is Nothing are pretty much totally autobiographical. I like to think that the whole album is about estrangement within society, as reflected in the album title. But it is not a concept album as such. I just felt that all these songs are related somehow.
JW: Songs like Knockabout, Acid Wisdom and All The Splattered Children are more like short stories than traditional songs. Was that your intention when you wrote them?
PF: I have always written songs and poems separately. Knockabout is a song. Acid Wisdom, Junior Gangstas and All The Splattered Children are all poems that I have added music too. Pilgrimage is a poem or a narrative plus an anecdote at the end. My songs are often (but not always) stories or a bit like journalism. I have always dabbled with writing short stories and have also considered writing a novel but don’t really have the concentration. I like to write short pieces of writing very quickly and just say as much as I need to without too much fluff or padding. I sometimes think of my songs as pictures.
JW: How would you say your approach to songwriting has changed since the late 70s?
PF: The only real difference is that, with a computer and some music studio stuff and music systems on it, I can approach recording and writing differently. I have the option of sitting down with a piece of paper, an acoustic or an electric guitar or a lyric and some backing music. You still have to have stuff to write about and a need to do that. I think more about what I write which means I write a lot less. In the past I would write all the time with the slightly delusional view that it was all important stuff. Life intervenes, kicks you in the head and tells you that your view might be worth something or might not, the same as your life.
JW: Did you have a very specific idea how this album should sound when you started recording? Is it essentially a “home recording”?
PF: I started recording it as a home recording but, once other people had become involved, it was always going to be a studio/studio quality recording. I’m happy with that. I just wanted something that remained original, reflected my way of songwriting and was a challenging unique and interesting album. That’s the way I have always tried to do it.
JW: In the sleevenotes to one of your compilations you wrote, “these recordings remain true to me, even when I don’t. This is what they are; the voice of a small, insecure, somewhat lost person, living in a small, insecure, somewhat lost country.” Would you stand by that?
PF: Yeah, I’ll settle with that. That’s exactly how I feel about my music. Primarily I make records to please myself but I can’t say I’ve ever made one I’m happy with. It’s never quite good enough. I always want to do better.
JW: A number of people have namechecked you as a big influence including Billy Bragg and Benjamin Zephaniah…
PF: I only heard recently that Adamski originally got into home-recorded music through my stuff. He sent me a message on Facebook saying just that. I’d always loved Killer. It was very heartening to know that my D-I-Y approach to recording influenced him to do his own thing. And Adamski probably influenced a lot of people in his approach. But I don’t like to think too much about whether I’ve had any influence on people. It starts feeling a bit unreal.
JW: Finally, any regrets?
PF: Not really. Early in my career I could have done with better guidance, better management. It might have helped if I hadn’t been so stubborn and arrogant at times. Then again, I think that’s a good way to be a lot of the time. If I’d had better guidance in my career, would I have taken anyone else’s advice? Probably not.
(Subliminal Alienation is available directly via Patrik Fitzgerald’s Facebook Page.)
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