Welcome to this newly-built, state-of-the-art rest home for the writings of Pete Paphides.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

“Oh, Jesus. I'd never called my mother a cunt before." Andy Partridge, 2005

“I OVERDID CHRISTMAS”, says Andy Partridge by way of explanation. “Hence the bottles”.

The bottles in question are in a cardboard box in the front garden — or, rather, they were, until the box finally succumbed to last month's rain. As a result, the people whose job it is to collect the bottles haven't touched the XTC frontman's glass pile. “Come in, come in”, he says, striding back down the hallway. Possibly because you don't expect successful musicians to live in Edwardian two-up two-downs, Partridge assumes Gulliver-like proportions in his lean-to kitchen. “Tea?” he asks. He boils his water with a kettle that whistles, uses Provamel soya milk in his tea and seems surprised when you ask for sugar. Last night, curiosity compelled him to go online and look for a recent picture of Syd Barrett. “I so wanted to look like him as a teenager, and finally I achieved my ambition. There was a picture that someone took of him walking down the street and finally we have exactly the same hairline and physique! It only took me 50 years!”

What do you do when one famously reclusive musician invokes a self-deprecating comparison between himself and another famously reclusive musician? Like Syd Barrett, Partridge's apparent retreat into anonymity has made him less of a national treasure, more of a rarefied cult. Twenty-two years have elapsed since he fled for home hours before he was due to front a sold-out Hollywood show. With every passing year, the incentives to return to the stage get a little greater. “The last one”, he says, “was in the region of a million”. But there's only one stage that Partridge is willing to mount. At the bottom of the garden, his shed plays host to banks of recording equipment, an electric guitar and a computer. What can you do in a space as small as this? Well, quite a lot actually. It was here that Partridge demoed 1999's Apple Venus — the magnificent album that completed XTC's turbulent journey back from the cover of Smash Hits and pan-European pop to practitioners of baroque pastoral psychedelia.

To those in the know however, reclusiveness has done nothing to diminish Partridge's stock. He's up for collaborations on the proviso that you're willing to make the train journey from Paddington to Swindon. Recent day-return purchasers include songwriter du jour Cathy Dennis and Sophie Ellis-Bextor — both seemingly convinced that the man who sang “I don't know how to write a hit song” on 1988's Mayor Of Simpleton could do just that. None of the sessions, however, appear to have made it on to any CDs.

Partridge says that both Dennis and Bextor used him: “I wrote six songs with Cathy, and after that, she kept me hanging about for months and months. Then the same thing happened with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Later I found out she already had the album sorted out, so maybe it was a vanity exercise by her then-boyfriend/manager who had been a big fan of the band. So, the upshot of all this is that I've recorded an album's worth of songs which may never see the light of day. Fancy hearing one?”

He leans over to a small hook on which hangs a single key. A refreshing spray of drizzle precedes the surreal experience of hearing the 50 year-old XTC frontman's take on Sophie Ellis-Bextor. For all the rough edges and primitive rhythm track, the bell-strewn I Defy Gravity manages to sound quintessentially Ellis-Bextory. And yet, with the chorus, “Isaac Newton's cross with me / 'Cause I defy gravity”, the latter observes a theme that has stayed constant in Partridge songs such as Helicopter and That's Really Super, Supergirl. Women hover above the ground, unbridled by the laws of physics, while men stay rooted to the spot, unable to reach them. All things considered, it seems incredible that she didn't use it.

“Well maybe she does, but if the record company want her to be this cocktail disco diva, then who's going to win?”

That Partridge's record company are happy with his records may have something to do with the fact that he owns it. Just out on his own Ape imprint is a remarkable collaboration with Peter Blegvad that took seven years from conception to execution.
Orpheus — The Lowdown draws from a sonic well that dramatically belies the cramped environs in which it was created. Blegvad's abstract narratives riff around the tale of Orpheus, creating surreal new fragments of myth. On one track, the heartbroken son of Apollo transports himself to Galveston believing it to be hell (he might find Eurydice there) but proceeds to drown his sorrows in a Galveston bowling alley. Here, the world Partridge creates for Orpheus is vast and unforgiving, helping to bring out the suggestion that love is the predicament we endure in exchange for living. If they ever get around to making a record about Icarus, you suspect that Partridge may conclude it with a loop of his own West Country burr, intoning, “I told you so”.

IN FACT, THE ENORMITY of what's Out There has terrified and inspired Andy Partridge for longer than he cares to remember. On the opening lines of XTC's debut single Science Friction, he sings, “I look out of my window at night / I see the stars and I'm filled with fright”. When Partridge was a child he suffered from astrophobia — a fear of looking up at the stars. “I used to go to cubs on a winter's night and on the way back I would run all the way home, looking at the ground, sweating intensely. The vastness of the stars scared the fucking shirt off me. I remember we always used to come in through the coalhouse door — no-one ever used their front door — and I'd shut it behind me and start panting. Then I'd turn back and through the obscure glass with the wire in it, I could look back and see the glow of the stars”.

That inability to come to terms with his own cosmic tininess has never quite left Andy Partridge. Indeed, if you cast your eyes over XTC's back catalogue, you'll notice that it defines several of his finest moments. On Across This Antheap, only man's delusion elevates him above the scurrying insects who live out their repetitive existence: “And the screaming sky won't let me sleep / The stars are laughing at us / As we crawl across this antheap”. On The Wheel And The Maypole, the planets exist merely to feed the stars. Over four decades on, Partridge remains in thrall to cosmic forces. Tonight is a full moon and, as he explains, “I have terrible problems in the run up to a full moon. It happens every month without fail. I go to sleep for an hour and then I'm awake”. Last night, knowing that I would be visiting, Partridge left nothing to chance. He took a sleeping pill — from a “bootleg supply” belonging to his girlfriend Erica — and treated himself to his first decent night's sleep for four days. On top of this, there are the night terrors that have plagued him since childhood: "Those are with me twelve months a year”. He's come to live with these nocturnal panic attacks over the years, but their cumulative effect is a kind of weary fatalism: “You're out of bed again, scraping at the wallpaper, thinking you're going to die. It's very, very frightening”.
Does anyone know why they happen?

“Well, not really. They think it's something to do with dropping too deeply into sleep, so your body releases a surge of adrenalin because it thinks you're dying. It's a drag. In my early 20s, just after we started XTC, I would deal with it by simply not going to bed. I would just stay up all night and paint or draw. I'd go and rip up all the boxes in the flat and paint on them”.
It doesn't require too much imagination to work out what kind of a child the young Partridge must have been — at least not from this charmed vantage point of his kitchen table. The room adjoining his L-shaped kitchen is dominated by books on military history and old annuals — Topper, The Beezer. Every available display space has toy soldiers — most of them carefully painted in their authentic battle colours. In the front room sits an old toy fort built by a French company called Bon Dufort, whose employees later perished in the First World War. On the other side of the brick fireplace, is the television. “It's a new one”, explains Partridge, pre-empting my question “so the old Pollocks Toy Theatre façade no longer fits around it”.

That he was an only child, he says, explains his propensity for finding out how things work. “I'm one of those people who, if you give me something, I'm very tempted to take it apart. Hahaha! Give me a pet frog and I'm tempted to dissect it, I'm afraid!”
Compromise isn't something that only children have to learn, and Partridge was no exception. In Chris Twomey's 1992 XTC biography Chalkhills And Children, Partridge declares that he was “a brat. A terrible tantrum-thrower. I had to have my own way and be in control. If I didn't, I would throw the contents of the cutlery draw at my mother”. One occasion even saw poor Vera Partridge locked in her son's toy cupboard — freed only when a passing milkman heard her knocking.

Had he been born a little earlier, his childhood may have followed the template you see depicted in Picture Post images of the 1950s: one child with toy soldiers knelt beside pipe-chewing daddy and apron-clad mummy. By the time Partridge had reached puberty, his whole world was thrown into turmoil. His father John embarked on an extra-marital affair — causing Vera to have a nervous breakdown. With his mother briefly institutionalised, Partridge's own behaviour became erratic. At school, he needed to use the toilet every few minutes, a development which led the family GP to put him on Valium tablets. What remained of his childhood innocence was stolen by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. He grew his hair long, which caused his mother to verbally disown him. He fantasised about murdering her, but wisely decided to buy a guitar and get a job in a record shop instead.

PARTRIDGE WASN'T THE ONLY song-writer in XTC, of course. Some of their most lovable tunes, especially on the dreamy psychedelic pop of 1985's Skylarking, were written by Colin Moulding. But they were always Partridge's band. He named them (the name came from a film in which Jimmy Durante finds the lost chord and exclaims, “Dat's it! I'm in X.T.C.!”); he designed the sleeves; he even attempted to take charge of their image, forcing Moulding to fall into line with post-punk sensibilities by cutting his hair.

More to the point, it was Partridge whose mental decline consigned the group to the margins, with a series of increasingly troubled hymns to a terrifying world. Walk through Swindon's Old Town and songs like Red Brick Dream and The Everyday Story Of Smalltown seem to hang in the air. Partridge's Swindon is his muse and his iron lung. It may have somehow trapped him here, but it's also keeping him alive. To imagine him functioning away from here is like separating Philip Larkin from Hull.
If he's come to accept the fact now, he wasn't always blessed with the same self-awareness. Partridge formed a band so that he could travel the world with a gang of like-minded people. Look at early television appearances of XTC and, actually, they shine with the unstyled camaraderie of so many provincial new wavers. On a 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test singing Statue Of Liberty, they all — even Partridge — seem utterly without fear. By this stage, Partridge and Colin Moulding had been playing together for six years. As personalities, they couldn't seem more different. Moulding was phlegmatic, shy, and heartbreakingly pretty. His McCartneyesque melodies were accentuated by the fact that he could actually sing. Partridge the art-school dropout was uptight, dominating and extrovert. The quirkiness of his staccato melodies was accentuated by the fact that he tended to yelp them. If asked which one would be more suited to the paraphernalia of pop stardom, you'd have chosen the blond exhibitionist.
And yet, the first big hit was written and sung by the quiet one. Moulding's Making Plans For Nigel dryly depicted the grim future that its subject's parents had planned for their beloved son. Responding to the line, “He has his future in British Steel”, the yet-to-be-privatised utility arranged for four Nigels from its Sheffield plant to appear in Steel News, waxing about their career prospects.

Moulding's greater facility for melody and the success that followed impacted upon all of Partridge's insecurities. “He never said much”, remembers Partridge, “and yet he got all the shags. He was the Nureyev of the band”.

By the time Making Plans For Nigel had turned them into pop stars, Partridge and Moulding were respectively engaged and married — Moulding to his childhood sweetheart Carol, and Partridge to a local girl Marianne. For Partridge though, the prospect of marriage wasn't so much a grand gesture as an act of contrition. “I had an affair with a woman from Virgin Records, who was so stacked I can't tell you. It was my first time abroad, we were being lauded to the skies and I was intensely excited. It all went to my head. I was in Paris, this woman was paying me far too much attention and I was drinking out of my skull. Then we got to Brussels and the sexual tension was unbearable. Now, every time I see pictures of the Atomium there, the memories come flooding back. We spent an afternoon wandering around it together. Have you seen it? It's like a big molecule of atoms, a big silver thing. I think of those as my testes and the interconnecting walkways as the penis. I fell head over heels for her, but it ended at a gig in Reading when my girlfriend punched her lights out”.

With a world tour pencilled in to capitalise on Nigel's success, Marianne had good reason to feel insecure. Over the next few months, XTC very quickly got themselves a reputation — but it was one from which their chastened frontman thoroughly distanced himself. By the time they reached Australia, a pattern had begun to emerge: “I was always in bed by midnight reading Letters From A Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake, and then five hours later I'd be woken up by the sound of Colin creeping in. I'd say, ‘Colin, is that you?' And he'd whisper, ‘Yeah — she had fantastic tits'”.

Somewhere along the way, the once-reserved Moulding had embraced the excesses of the touring life. Partridge: “I think that was the point at which it became apparent that going on the road takes all your sense of perspective away. We always came back with a souvenir. I had my little Sydney Opera House ashtray, Terry [Chambers, the drummer] had two tobacco pouches made from kangaroo testicles, and Colin brought back an entire woman”.

A woman?

“She was a reporter from some newspaper. She gave up her home and her job on the promise that they would move into a flat together in London. It was a terrible shame actually. We went to Colin's house to pick him up one evening and found his missus smashing him around the head with an acoustic guitar. He came to his senses and this poor girl was left stranded in London”.

Appropriately, XTC's final Top Of The Pops appearance was with Senses Working Overtime. Everything you needed to know about Partridge's afflictions was laid bare in the song's peculiarly medieval air of foreboding. That he even managed to make it as far as the BBC studios was some achievement. When the band completed the accompanying English Settlement album, the idea of playing it on the road started to give him panic attacks. The rest of the group, he says, were unsympathetic. In the meantime, Partridge and his wife put down a deposit on a house. It took him several days to muster the courage to introduce himself to the neighbours. After Marianne flushed his Valium down the toilet, the mere act of reaching for the front door induced panic. A tour of theatres across Britain was cancelled, incurring colossal debts for the band. He at least made it on to the plane for the ensuing American tour. But hours before the Hollywood Palladium show — he found himself paralysed with fear. He bought a plane ticket and, fearful of reprisals, fled.

With the air of a man who has pored over the facts time and time again, Partridge says that he had to sabotage his career in order to save himself as an artist. Likening his role in the music industry to that of a serf in feudal times — “I was on fifty pounds a week” — he wrote Love On A Farmboy's Wages. The allegory appeared to be lost on his record company, who released the song as a single. In autumn 1983, the elderly convalescents who made up the studio audience of Pebble Mill At One were treated to the sight of Partridge bitterly miming the words, “Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in / Shilling for the fellow who milks the herd / Shilling for the fellow with a wife for keeping / How can we feed love on a farmboy's wages?”
“YOU CAN FLIP between thinking Andy's superb and wanting to kill him in a matter of minutes. Half the time, he doesn't realise the effect he's having on people”. That's what the late Gus Dudgeon had to say about Partridge after his work on XTC's 1991 set Nonsuch. Certainly, diplomacy isn't one of his stronger points. Asked to sum up the effect of his break-down on the rest of the band, he says he became “dogshit” in the eyes of Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory. I put it to him that there must have been some sense of loyalty towards him. With another writer already in the band, they could conceivably have sacked him. “They didn't break free because they knew who their battery was. And, you know, they look at the person doing all the interviews and writing most of the material and designing the sleeves and they think, ‘No, we'll continue limpeting on to him'”.

What's revealing here is the way the rest of XTC's willingness to yield to Partridge is portrayed by him as a weakness. And yet thrown into a room with an equally strong personality, he is simply unable to function. It took him years to come round to the popularly held view that XTC's 1986 album is the group's masterpiece. With Todd Rundgren at the helm, the sessions saw Partridge's volatility increase to such extremes that Colin Moulding briefly left the band: “Todd's way of working was to be dominant in all matters. As long as you lay down on your back while he puts his foot on your stomach, you'll get along just fine. If you had the temerity to argue with him, he'd just go home and tell you to ‘dick around with it on your own until it doesn't work your way, and then I'll come back and we'll do it my way'”.

Partridge's predicament elicits little sympathy when relayed to The Lilac Time's Stephen Duffy, whose And Love For All album was produced by the XTC frontman. “When we started working together, the Todd experience was still fresh in Andy's mind. He would go on about what a controlling egomaniac Todd was, and then proceeded to do with us what Todd had done to him. He used his genius to push us into things we couldn't do, just so he could prove he could do them better. It was a little detrimental to the group's self-esteem”.

With his seemingly innate inability to compromise, it might just be that Andy Partridge should never: a) have been in a band; and b) have been signed to a major record label. The release of Nonsuch came on the back of renewed momentum for XTC. Skylarking and the two exercises in period psychedelia they released as The Dukes Of Stratosphear had found them a whole new audience in America, ensuring that 1988's Oranges And Lemons and Nonsuch sold in the hundreds of thousands. Incensed by what he saw as Virgin's “sabotage” of XTC's best ever album and their unwillingness to renegotiate the band's contract, he went on strike until his paymasters agreed to free him. For an artist teetering on the brink of paranoia, these were tough times. Virgin refused to relent; Partridge refused to supply them with any more material; Blur junked the sessions that he produced for their Modern Life Is Rubbish album. His life was on pause. Asked what he remembers most about this time and he cites two unlikely records: Sting's Fields Of Gold and REM's Automatic For The People. “My wife would just leave them to go round and round and round all day while we were trying to kill each other”.

Partridge's wife decided she wanted out, although he points out that, what with the sudden change of wardrobe, the new hair colours and the purchase of a motorbike, he knew that something was up. “Marianne had started to mourn the teenagehood she never had. She dumped me, but then I've always been the dumpee in relationships”.

He says he hoped it might be amicable, but when he went to the bank to get some money out and discovered she had withdrawn everything, he went spiralling into despair. Anyone hearing the extraordinary Your Dictionary from Apple Venus will know the impact that the incident had on Partridge: “H-A-T-E / Is that how you spell love in your dictionary?”

In an empty, childless house, locked in a war of attrition with his record company, Partridge had plenty of time to dwell on the circumstances of his solitude. In 1995, he and Peter Blegvad began work on their Orpheus project, but convinced that everyone was out to use him in some way, Partridge froze Blegvad out. Halfway through a phone conversation between the two, the line went dead. Blegvad attempted to get back in touch with Partridge, but to no avail. His grievance stemmed from the fact that Blegvad had erroneously left Partridge's name off the credits of an album on which he had guested. “That's where I was at back then”, he says, “and Peter, bless him, kept in touch. Or at least, tried. He sent me post-cards, presents, you name it. He never stopped”.

At 45, it would probably be unrealistic to expect someone to change the habits of a lifetime. But people can help themselves by creating favourable conditions for those habits. Released from their Virgin contract, XTC released two albums — Apple Venus and Wasp Star — through Cooking Vinyl. Contributions from Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory (who left during the sessions) were minimal — an arrangement which apparently suits both parties perfectly well. Moulding opted not to join his colleague on his next project. Through his own Ape records, Partridge has so far released four albums in an eight-part series of unrecorded XTC material. Fuzzy Warbles may be only of interest to XTC diehards, but there are several thousands of those around the world. With almost all copies sold online, it doesn't take a genius to work out that Partridge has a few shillings in his bank account. The situation is set to improve next year when his theme tune to Wonderfalls — a US sitcom by the creators of Malcolm In The Middle — begins to air.

More importantly, for the first time in his life, there's no-one to answer to. He's got the control he always wanted.

IS HE HAPPY? Right now, he's happy enough to suggest we continue this conversation over lunch. Fusion cuisine never really made its mark on Swindon, although the chef at The King's Head takes it upon himself to serve the Thai Chicken Curry with a poppadum on the side. Partridge suggests a game in which we have to name three good things and three bad things about England. He has no trouble reeling off three complaints about this country: 1) our xenophobia; 2) the way no-one is expected to give an honest answer to the question “How are you?”; and 3) people don't get things fixed when they break.

You suspect that this list has been reeled off a few times before, possibly with a little help from Erica Wexler — a New York singer who terminated a liaison with pop artist Roy Lichtenstein in order to be with Partridge. When he relays this last coup, it's hard to conceal my amazement. “Roy had an open marriage with his wife Dorothy. He referred to Erica as one of his ‘young Tootsies'. In the end I gave her an ultimatum: ‘What's it to be? The millionaire and the flat in the East Village, or me?' I'm still pinching myself. From a city that never sleeps to one that never quite wakes up. Poor thing. She's still coming to terms with the culture shock. In New York, you can go for a Chadian meal at 1.30 am. In Swindon, the only thing you can get at 1.30 am is arrested”.

In fact, as Partridge discovered a couple of years ago, you can't even do that. He tells the sorry tale of Christmas 2001, when he invited his elderly parents over to enjoy a good old fashioned day of festive cheer. Full of good intentions, he hired a Santa costume for the day and attempted to ignore his inner Philip Larkin. “But you know, it's always difficult. I got so drunk, in fact, that I ended up letting my mother know exactly what I thought of her”.

Bad, was it?

“Oh, Jesus. I'd never called my mother a cunt before. That was a Christmas and a half. I just had too much cheap champagne and champagne is the worst thing to get drunk on. My mother just ended up pressing all the wrong psychological buttons, like they do. And that was when I unleashed this tirade”.

What does a paralytic 48 year-old Santa do when he's called his mother a cunt in front of his two children? He walks out into the night, looks up at the stars he was once so afraid of and begs them to swallow him up. Cries unheeded, Partridge made the short journey to the local town gardens and attempted to negotiate the gates. Unable to scale them, he walked on to a small children's playground, where he sank into the mud and wept — “dressed in my Santa suit, swearing at the stars with passing cars honking at me”.

Back at home, a panicking Erica called the police and reported her partner missing. Unsurprisingly, they didn't have too much trouble finding him: “It was exactly as you would have expected. It was all, ‘Come along now sir, I think your lady's worried about you'. They put me in the car and drove me home, but the damage was done. My kids had never seen me in a mess. And what a mess! The mess was Santa. It's terrible really. You love your parents to bits but mixed with it all is the pain from way back when”.

Card swiped, we commence the five minute walk back to Partridge's house. On the way back, he exchanges greetings with Tony, the Old Town barber — although it's been some years since he had cause to go there. “I can just run the clippers over my head and achieve the same effect”. Once again, the ghosts of Partridge past sing in the distance: “Chalkhills and children / Anchor my feet”. Does he ever think he'll leave here? Or is this it now?

He talks about how Erica would love to move to Bath — an idea that he's not averse to. “I've sworn to her that we will move. She finds it really depressing here, but I like this house. There's a great vibe in it. If I ever moved, I've got a good idea of the house where I'd like to live”.

He unlocks the front door, and walks into the kitchen where he keeps a book of sketches and notes. “Here — let me show it to you”. Partridge produces a detailed pencil drawing of his ideal home: “I'd like a walled garden, with these little circular bits in each corner to keep my garden tools and implements. And look, this bit is two storeys. I'd like red brick with white trim. I think I could maybe get it built for half a million. What do you reckon?”

In Bath, the plot alone would cost about half a million.

“No! Look! All these bits here are single storey. And it's only one room deep”.

Well it looks great, I say.

“I'll probably never do it. But it's a scheme I've thought about many a time”. #

"The story of a big, brilliant, gay genius. And his three slightly dim mates." We Will Rock You, 2002

If it looked good to you on telly you've no idea what it was like to be there. You didn't have to sit through endless turns by Sade, Paul Young and Bryan Ferry. And even if you'd chosen to watch it at home, at least you weren't vying with 72,000 other people to go to the toilet during the satellite transmissions of George Thorogood and The Destroyers' set. Until that point, Live Aid was the dullest giig I'd ever been to in my life. But when Queen came on, it turned into the best one ever. All my inhibitions vanished in an instant. I air-soloed along with BrIan May on We Are The Champions. I joined in with the Radio Ga Ga Nuremberg clap. I went "DAAAAAAAAYO!" when Freddie made us all go "DAAAAAAAAYO!" No rock star has ever understood what they're there for as well as Queen did on that day. But then that was Freddie all over. A man who understood the simultaneous absurdity and clearly seriousness of his job. Deep down In their hearts even the most right on indie curmdgeon knows that there will never be a better rock star than Freddie Mercury. Even Kurt Cobain, in his suicide note, seemed to suggest that he killed himself because he'd never be as good as Freddie.
This week sees the premiere of Ben Elton's Queen musical - and it must be said there's very little that is recognisably Freddie. We Will Rock You is a futuristic fantasy set on Planet Mall (because this planet is turning into a big mall, do you see?) And in that world dancing and music are controlled by the evil Globalsoft, whose ruler the Killer Queen wants to banish any dissenters who "want to break free" to the seven seas of Rye. Are you following this? However, out there in the disued subways and wastelands of Mall be the Bohemians. Their leader Galileo Figaro bears rhapsodies in his head. Do you get it? Problem is, the Killer Queen's on his trail and Galileo - along with his girlfriend Scaramouche - has to find The Living Rock (in which a guitar is buried) and tell the brainwashed kids of Mall about a golden age before manufactured pop and boy bands, when we weren't "caught in a landslide of marketing... (with) no escape from (this) reality." Do you s.. oh, never mind.
I can't say I wasn't angry when I attended a peview and saw how Ben Elton brushed Queen's songs under the shadow of his huge ego. I was livid, but not for myself or for the fans, who remained conspicuous by their apparent disinternest in storming the stage mob handed and setting fire to it. I was livid that Ben Elton had done this to Brian May.
You see, I've been watching Brian May trying to get his life back together following Freddie's death. And he basically seems like an all-right bloke, albeit with too much time on his hands. The solo career seems to have dried up. There are no more recordings of Freddie singing in the shower that the rest of Queen can tart up and release "posthumously". And there are only so many times that Never Mind The Buzzcocks will invite you back.
Like those peculiar middle-aged widows who get befriended by animal rights activists and before long seem to spend their days outside Huntingdon Life Sciences shouting "murderers!", Brian's fallen in with a crowd who don't necessarily have his best interests at heart - in this case Ben Elton and the musical's major backer Robert De Niro.
Brian wants to keep Freddie's name alive. Ben Elton must have assured him that a musical was a good way to do this. But We Will Rock You isn't a musical about Freddie Mercury. It's a muscical about how Ben Elton thinks the world is becoming corporatised by, um, boy bands and um... the internet. Does it matter that, had it not been for the internet, the anti capitalism riots wouldn't have happened? Um, apparently not. Would it be churlish to point out that May didn't seem too bothered about boy bands two years ago when he appeared on Top Of The Pops with Five for their version of We Will Rock You?
In fact, We Will Rock You, the musical is a very symptom of the world that Elton piously purports to rally against. Freddie may be dead but the Queen brand is very much alive, just like the Abba band is very much alive. This is why the Abba musicial Mamma Mia! is three years into its West End run, and it's why We Will Rock You - and, over in New York, a Springsteen-based musical, Drive All Night - will probably do the same. It's why when the artists finally expire, the musicals of Elton John and Oasis songs will also clean up. It's capitalism stripped to its cut-throat basics - the exploitation of consumer goodwill towards an established brand.
But what might make sound business sense makes for a lousy musical, because - and sorry if this seems to be stating the obvious - Queen's songs weren't written as part of a narrative about the evils of globalisaioon. They're not even close, Ben! Have you listened to the words of I Want It All and One Vision? Sounds to me as though Freddie rather liked the idea of it. And sorry if this comes as something of a shock, but Abba's greatest hits weren't written to form part of a story about a super trouper called Fernando who takes a chance on a dancing queen and appears on TV quiz show The Winner Takes It All, but then ends up losing all his money money money to a man after midnight at Waterloo station. Or whatever the plot of Mamma Mia! happens to be.
In all the great musicals the songs push the plot along without you even noticing. In My Fair Lady, we see Eliza Doolittle reluctantly taking an elocution lesson from Professor Higgins. During the course of The Rain In Spain though, her reluctance turns into excitement at all the possibilities that her posh new voice has opened her up to. By oscillating defly between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's accounts of their courtship, Summer Nights effortlessly fills you in on an entire back=story in Grease.
Ben Elton knows better than most that it's not an easy thing to do. In Andrew Lloyd-Webber's flop footy musical, The Beautiful Game, Elton's lyrics were so dismal that even Parky winced when Elton had the temerity to sing them on his chat show. Perhaps that explains why he's moved on to an already existing body of work and moulded it in his own image.
It's a shame really, because there is actually one fantastic plot very clearly suggested by Queen's back catalogue. In fact, it's a story that has everything. The story of Farookh Bulsara - the awkward, buck-toothed Tanzanian boy whose family were forced to flee their homeland for the leafy environs of Feltham in Middlsex. Increasingly aware that he ain't like all the other boys, the adolescent public-school dandy discovers Hendrix, goes to art college and finds decadence and depravity he couldn't havd dreamed of. He becomes Freddie Mercury and hooks up wth three straight science students and together they form a band. He calls them Queen - an in joke that his three colleagues and most of his fans take some time to cotton on to. He holds parties where dwarves pour endless quantities of champagne and drag queens mud-wrestle. He proceeds too slut his way through the 1970s and 1980s, unaware that, as his guitarist later put it, Too Much Love Will Kill You In The End. Which, obviously, it does.
The moral of the story? There isn't one, of course. This is Freddie Mercury we're talking about. The man who took the popular playground taunt "Nyerrr nyer nyer nyerr-nyer" and turned it into a song called We Are The Champions. The man whose preposterous One Vision was turned into a quasi-Nazi anthem by East European pranksters Lalbach[?]. That's the story of Queen. The story of a big, brilliant, gay genius. And his three slightly dim mates.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"Our brains are too complicated to be still all the time." Fleet Foxes, 2008

“Have I ever [ital] what [ital]?” Robin Pecknold, frontman with Seattle four-piece Fleet Foxes, smiles to conceal his embarrassment that I might even think him capable of such a thing. He heard me perfectly the first time, but I nonetheless repeat the question. Has he ever used his music to make himself more attractive to a woman? Finally, he gathers his thoughts. “No, no… I mean, I’m the wrong guy to ask that question to. That’s the last thing I would ever do. In the big debate about what music is and how it evolved, some people reduce it to a mating call – just like a bird has a mating call. You know, I’ve heard that a couple of times. Me, personally? I think music happens because our brains are too complicated to be still all the time, you know?”

Some half an hour after coming off stage to a rapturous ovation at Brighton’s Audio club, the bearded, blue-eyed Pecknold is too distracted to appreciate the irony of his utterances. Outside the venue, as he faces the lights of the pier, two young Japanese Fleet Foxes fans stare at him with an air of respectful adoration. If truth be told, it’s a reaction that isn’t restricted to the other sex. It’s hard to recall the last time a recorded noise elicited the sort of praise reserved for Fleet Foxes’ celestial four part harmonies. You must know you’re onto something pretty special when the worst reviews elicited by your eponymous debut album stop short of meting out a fifth star.

And yet the nearest Fleet Foxes get to arrogance comes during the actual show itself, when the freewheeling backwoods canter of Ragged Wood comes to an end and bassist Christian Wargo and drummer Joshua Tillman exchange high-fives. While they, along with Pecknold’s childhood friend and guitarist Skye Skjelset retreat to another corner of the bar, Pecknold points out that, often Fleet Foxes, are no less startled by their vocal chemistry – Crosby Stills Nash and Young quietly rejoicing at the bottom of a well barely begins to do it justice – than the rest of us are. Only twelve months have elapsed since Pecknold wrote Quiet Houses – the song that prompted him to junk everything they had previously worked on and start again. What changed, exactly?

“Prior to that, there were a few songs we were working on that were very much focused on the lead vocal, you know?” He almost baulks at the apparent gaucheness of such a conceit. “And I wanted to do a song that was the extreme opposite of that – where the vocals were just part of the music, and not just a platform for this guy, you know?” Not for Pecknold then, the ego-massaging benefits of lead-singerdom, the license to be just that little bit more cocksure than the rest of us? Fleet Foxes’, well… let’s call him their primary songwriter finds himself getting embarrassed “very quickly” by the mildest of misunderstandings. At some length, he relates a story about a show in Oklahoma with bucolic freak-folkers Blitzen Trapper, in which the venue owner’s wife served up separate meals for both bands. Pecknold asked if there might be any vegan food available, and when he returned to eat it, he recalls that “some guy who looked like me had been given the food.” At this point, all parties realised what had happened. Not a major faux, pas you would think – but Pecknold recalls feeling so embarrassed, he had to run back and hide in the van. It’s a tendency, he says, that his girlfriend finds exasperating at times. “If I order a coffee and they give me the wrong one, I would rather throw it away and buy a new one,” he smiles, “It drives her nuts.”

If the tics and traits of an “inward looking” childhood, remain mostly intact, it’s perhaps not so surprising. “By the time I was dressing myself,” says Pecknold, “I was uncomfortably overweight to the point where I would want to wear a t-shirt in the water when I was a kid.” It was by deciding to cut animal and dairy products from his diet at the age of 14 that the pounds started to fall off. “I went on a big bicycle trip – like, a summer camp thing – and decided I didn’t want t eat all the crappy food that everyone else had. At the same time, I had just heard about what a vegan was, so I told everyone that I was a vegan so I could eat special food.”

By the end of the summer, Pecknold returned home 30lb lighter. In keeping with what we already know about him, he says he’s thankful that his parents withheld from making a big deal of the transformation. “I think they knew to not make a big stink about it, so it’s not like you feel that they’re suddenly into you now. You know that they love you no matter what, you know?”

By this time, Pecknold – whose father builds boats and guitars for a living – was writing his own songs. Despite growing up in the town where grunge took off, Pecknold – just seven when Kurt Cobain did – found his inspirations elsewhere. His obsession with Bob Dylan made the life of a lone troubadour seem like a viable vocation. “The first time I heard Boots of Spanish Leather,” recalled his older sister Aja (yes, as in the Steely Dan album) “it was as if all of the oxygen had been drained from the room, suddenly replaced with the wavering golden longing of this one song. “Only it wasn’t Dylan singing, it was my 14 year-old brother.”

Written shortly after his return from that momentous camp expedition, his first song Sarah Jane was “just some story about a girl whose dad hated her and kicked her out, so she had to become a prostitute, then she became pregnant. A sob story, basically.” Looking back, Pecknold characterizes his early songs as attempts to write songs like his other musical role model Elliott Smith – “to see how he does it, you know?”

Perhaps a touch facetiously, I suggest that having a massive heroin problem seemed to help in that particular instance. Pecknold remembers being desperate to go and see Smith on his last ever Seattle show, but being too young to go. “That was the last chance I could have seen him, and I heard that tour was terrible. He could barely remember the words to his songs.”

Any worries that Pecknold may seek to lubricate the cogs of creativity in a similar way are without foundation on the basis of tonight’s encounter. Supping water from a polystyrene cup, he responds to a question about sharing drugs with his baby boomer dad by saying, “That has never come up. I don’t smoke weed. And I don’t think he does, either… although maybe he did at some point. Besides, having a drug habit implies you have money to spend on drugs. As it is, I might have to take a job when I get back to Seattle. I was a cook in a restaurant kitchen, so I’ll probably go back to doing that.” Having made the most unanimously feted album of 2008, it seems incredible that this even constitutes a possibility – but Pecknold says his band wouldn’t even be here in Europe had their label not advanced them £20,000 to finance these shows.

Far from complaining, however, Pecknold’s tone, in fact, is one more of gratitude that someone advanced his band the money in the first place. As if to mitigate any accidental negativity, he adds, “Maybe I’ll just be able to do get part-time work when I return. But hey, I don’t want to sound like a grouch. There’s nothing I really long for right now.” He pauses briefly. “Well, maybe nothing except for a list of countries where it’s acceptable to tip taxi drivers… because that’s another source of continual awkwardness.”

"I looked uncomfortable? That’s how I usually feel." Beyoncé, November 2008

On the steps of the Mandarin Hotel in Knightsbridge, Beyoncé Knowles is stepping out to meet the gathered paparazzi. From the hotel foyer, looking out into the filthy London rain, she’s a silhouette in a strobe of flashbulbs. A couple of young male fans are allowed to step forward, for a moment with their heroine. Instinctively, the first one places his left arm around the singer. No less instinctively, a vast minder detaches the arm from Beyoncé’s black-and-white designer dress, and places it back where it came from.

Before you’ve even met Beyoncé, it’s an episode that flags up something unusual about her brand of star quality. Fans of, say, Madonna or Cher wouldn’t dare entertain notions of placing an arm around their idols. Though still only 27, Beyoncé has had plenty of opportunities to appropriate their brand of starry untouchability. It’s three years since she formally dissolved Destiny’s Child after three albums and a run of machine-tooled, Grammy-chomping R&B hymns to womanly empowerment anthems such as Survivor and Independent Woman; six since her duet with Brooklyn rap demigod Jay-Z on his 03’ Bonnie & Clyde served notice to the world that America’s foremost hip-hop star and emerging queen of R&B were an item. In the past year alone, she is said to have earned $80 million from record sales, film appearances and endorsements. And yet, in the flesh, it all seems a galaxy away from her disarmingly open body language.

Two days previously, it’s precisely that lack of celebrity airs that the warm-up comic on Strictly Come Dancing picks up on, when she prepares to perform her new single If I Was A Boy. Relishing her presence on his territory, he leers, “You know, Beyoncé, you’re the kind of girl I could take to McDonalds and let you go large.” Her vulnerability is compounded when he enquires as to the whereabouts of Jay-Z, who she is rumoured to have married two months before his momentous Glastonbury performance this year. On hearing Jay-Z’s name, the gleam of her diamond-studded heels darts up to her eyes. “He’s looking for you,” she tells the comic. For a fleeting second, the Amazonian Beyoncé of Destiny’s Child is resurrected – just long enough, in fact, to terminate the exchange.

Reminded of the encounter, back at the Mandarin, she laughs. “I looked uncomfortable? That’s how I usually feel. When I walk into a room and everyone is looking at me, it’s still embarrassing.” After all these years, her singing persona and her private persona may never merge. But far from attempting to reconcile them, Beyoncé’s new double album I Am… Sasha Fierce embraces that division. Drop the first disc – the I Am bit – into the CD tray and, according to Beyoncé, you will hear the purest expression of the person she is “underneath the make-up.” Take her at her word and it would seem that, left to her own devices, the “real” Beyoncé of soft-scented power ballads like Halo and Satellites bears scant resemblance to the 22 year-old who, in 2003, lit the touch paper on her solo career with Crazy In Love.

But, of course, there’s another CD stuck to the back of I Am… to tell us that it’s not that simple. Anyone pining for the formidable Beyoncé of old will find her all over Sasha Fierce. The other half of Beyoncé’s album is just the kind of name a shy, privately-educated Houston daughter of a medical supplies salesman father and hairdresser mother might come up with when struggling to come to terms with the volcanic transformation she undergoes when she performs. And, indeed, watching the leotard-clad singer shaking her wondrous thighs on the video to her other new single Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – seven million Youtube viewings do date – it’s a part she plays astonishingly well.

It was, she insists, not quite as premeditated as that. “But there’s no doubt that in Sasha mode, things happen that wouldn’t normally happen. A few years ago, on stage, I had these earrings on, which were designed by Lorraine Schwartz. Anyway, we’re in the middle of the song and one of them fell. And, you know when you’re in the moment? I threw it out, and when I finished the performance, I thought, ‘What did I just do?’ Afterwards, my cousin – who is also my assistant – came in and was like, ‘You know, we’re gon’ have to have to tame Sasha.’”

The more she talks about it, the more it sounds like a coping mechanism; a device which allows her to normalize a life which, since forming Girl’s Tyme – aged just 10, with future Destiny’s Child cohort Kelly Rowland – hasn’t been terribly normal. She resents a lingering perception that suggests she was groomed for success in the way that, as children, Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears, might have been. In fact, two years elapsed between the dance classes she began attending as an eight year-old – to help overcome her shyness – and the first time her father (who eventually gave up his job to manage her, and even now, shares the credit of Executive Producer on her new album) saw her perform.

“The singing… when that began, [it] was definitely an escape,” she recalls. An escape from what? The answer, she thinks, has something to do with the birth of her sister Solange when she was five. “When she was born, I became the protector, and…”

The responsible one? She nods. “So, as an introverted kid, the stage was my place, where I could do whatever I wanted, and I wasn’t afraid of anything.” She is palpably a very different creature to Solange. Whereas an interview with Beyoncé amounts to a warm, yet ultimately tactful tango of discourse, an encounter with divorced single mum Solange Knowles – now also a singer – is characterised by statements such as, “I think people focus too much energy on getting people to like them… I’ve never felt any validation from that.” Whatever Beyoncé chooses to call herself, it’s hard to imagine her penning a title like ChampagneChroniKnightCap – the paean to self-medication which graced her sister’s recent album. “My sister…” says Beyoncé, struggling to stifle an almighty grin, “she definitely walks to a beat. The beat [of] Solange! She was born Sasha Fierce!”

With the role of family diva long since sewn up by Solange, it’s no wonder that Beyoncé has diverted a whole side of her personality into her creative life. In a story that she seems to enjoy retelling, the one time Beyoncé got close to entertaining delusions of diva-dom, she was publicly upbraided in a Houston record shop by her mother. After pointedly carrying on singing whilst her mother was asking her a question, the singer was slapped in the face and made to sit in the car. Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about this story is that Beyoncé was nineteen when it happened, with Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s On The Wall well on its way to selling 16 million copies.

As a singer, she says that the challenge of keeping her feet on the ground has come down to taking none of it too seriously. However, acting has made different demands of her. Immersing herself in the character of Deena Jones – loosely based on Diana Ross – for 1996’s Dreamgirls, Beyoncé later admitted that “I had to be moody and angry to make this role work. I was creating drama in my life so I had something to feed off. I was mad at everyone.”

Who, exactly? “Well, like my dad. I would have fake conflicts that weren’t really going on! So now, my dad is like, ‘When you’re doing a movie, I’m staying far away.’” This year, she completed work on Cadillac, playing legendary blues singer Etta James alongside Adrien Brody – a film chronicling the turbulent life of James, played out among the daily dramas that marked the rise and fall of Chess Records. This time, Beyoncé found herself able to demarcate between life and work. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t terrified,” she explains, “When you’re playing someone who is addicted to heroin and every other word is profanity… it was just so different from me.” So what changed this time? Though surely not intended as a slight to Diana Ross, Beyoncé exclaims, “I didn’t have to work as hard to make Etta seem interesting. It was all on the page. And, of course, I drew from the pain in my own life.”

If no film character is entirely a work of fiction, that leads you to wonder if the same can be said of the characters created to make music. Much of the fun to be had from listening to the second part of I Am… Sasha Fierce is spotting where the façade cracks. Graceful, demure, shy Beyoncé would surely never flaunt her man’s USPs as boldly as Sasha does on Ego. “Let’s get lost/Who needs to call into work/Cos you’re the boss… I love his big ego, too much/He walk like this/Cos he can back it up.” Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Jay-Z – formerly President of Def Jam Recordings, now co-founder of the StarRoc label – in those words. “I am attracted to someone that is strong and confident,” she begins. “Now, someone that is obnoxious and talks about themselves all the time and is overly confident is completely unattractive to me.”

Mention of Jay-Z’s headlining Glastonbury performance – a billing that seemed to offend Noel Gallagher and millions of other people who felt hip-hop had no place at the festival – elicits a proud glow. “I remembered seeing all the tents. I had never seen so many people. I’ve been at big shows before, but everyone seemed like they were in their own world. It was something I would definitely love to do myself one day. I knew that everybody would love Glastonbury, you know? But, whenever there’s controversy, it’s a little like, ‘OK, what’s gonna happen?’ It was like the [American Presidential] Election!”

She shoots a playful glare to let you know that she’s aware of the exaggeration. Nevertheless, both events signalled paradigm shifts in their spheres. This month, the hitherto apolitical Beyoncé travelled between Tampa and Miami in Florida and then Virginia to “meet thousands of people that have been waiting in the lines [to vote] to encourage other people to come and wait in the lines. Then, on the night, I was home with my friends and we had… you know, red white and blue balloons everywhere, and we had flags. I mean, this is new to me. It was like watching a Martin Luther King speech. He has a light, you know?”

Having discussed two big days in Beyoncé’s year – Glastonbury and the US election – it seems only fitting to round things off with a third. Which was the most nerve-racking of all – either of the aforementioned, or her wedding? For a nanosecond, she looks like she might, for the first time, let slip inadvertent confirmation of her nuptials. “That’s a good question,” smirks Beyoncé.

I persist. Hmm, Glastonbury, then? Solange would have surely thrown me out by now, but Beyoncé merely laughs. “And you’re good, ’cause you’re waiting for me to answer! Hahaha! I’m not saying anything. I’m just a’smile!”

One more try. Does that mean the wedding list question is out too? More laughter. In the ante-room, anxious ruffling can be heard. This time, no intervention is necessary. Between them, Beyoncé Knowles and Sasha Fierce have it covered.

"There is only one Dr Who, and that is Tom Baker." Ray Lamontagne, October 2008

Ray LaMontagne says that there are some days when he doesn’t want to leave his hotel room, such is his aversion to facing the world and the people in it. And when those days come along, he has no choice but to simply force himself. It’s hard to tell if today is one such day. At the Opera House in Boston, his band are already soundchecking when he leaves his room, at the nearby Hyatt, to join them. Such is his skill at not drawing attention to himself that you only notice his arrival when he dons his guitar and leans into a mike at the far right of the stage to sing Winter Birds, from his imminent third album Gossip In The Grain. Singing seems to make him appear. And sure enough, when he stops singing, he is barely there at all. If the song is anything to go by – a hushed woodland paean to nature going about its business, oblivious to human eyes – perhaps 35 year-old LaMontagne seems that way to the animals too.

Like the female fans who will tell him they love him between every song he later plays, your instincts towards him are wholly protective. It’s cold backstage. Shouldn’t he be wearing something over his t-shirt? Apparently not. It turns out that, in sharp contrast to, say, Van Halen and their “no brown M&Ms” rule, his rider demands are primarily atmospheric. “I prefer to have it this way. I like to feel cold.” Tempting as it is to trump his social ineptitude with a little of your own – “Cheer up! It might never happen” – something tells you the consequences would be catastrophic.

Sure, there are moments of unprecedented levity on Gossip In The Grain. As the title indicates, Meg White is an empathetic show of support for The White Stripes drummer, who he feels has been unfairly maligned by sections of the music press – while, by his standards, the lugubrious ragtime thump of Hey Me, Hey Mama is a veritable hoot. But the truth is that LaMontagne’s popularity is a paradox that he has yet to untangle. His crippling introversion is what lends his broken-winged blues its power. On the other hand, it’s also why his public performances are so fraught with what the bearded troubadour refers to as “anxieties”.

By his own reluctant admission, anxieties pepper LaMontagne’s life like sand on a beach towel. Raised alongside his brother and four sisters by his mother, LaMontagne’s childhood was a blur of continual relocation, a relative’s backyard here, camping in Tennessee horse ranch there. Perpetually “the new kid” at school, he was routinely victimised. His mother, he says, “was very strict. Public television was all we were allowed to watch, and in very limited doses. There was no candy, no sugary cereals.” It’s impressive, I say, to hold firm on those sorts of values in adversity, but LaMontagne’s answer suggests that I’m conferring my own middle-class sensibility on, what was mostly a practical problem. “She was kind of broke, so that maybe helped.”

Of the television he was allowed to watch, the only thing he remembers making any kind of impression were old Dr Who reruns on PBS. “I was a big fan,” he says. Has he seen any of the recent series? How do they compare to the old ones? Finally, reticence gives way to indignation. “There is only one Dr Who,” he says emphatically, “And that is Tom Baker. He is the only one. That’s it.” Then a pause. “Although William Hartnell was pretty great too.” I offer to send LaMontagne a DVD of David Tennant in Dr Who – although someone witnessing his reaction from afar would think I had offered to sew sardines into the hem of his curtains. “No, no, no… I can’t stand that stuff. The old shows had no special effects, and that is what made it great. It was so creative. It did so much with so little. Where is the fun in making everything computer-generated?”

How bad does a childhood have to be before memories of it fail to elicit even a gram of nostalgia? We’ve all met people who “had nothing” but were somehow happy. When LaMontagne talks about sitting beside his sister, by the glow of a small black and white TV, and watching those flickering images of Tom Baker, the memories seem more good than bad. But not to him. “I really don’t think I get nostalgic about anything,” he says.

What about records? Everyone has certain records that sweeten the memory of hard times. “We didn’t have a stereo or any of that stuff,” says LaMontagne, sinking his hands into his thick beard. “It was literally whatever we could fit into the trunk of the car.” If LaMontagne really did grow up in a music-free environment, that perhaps accounts for the near-mythical epiphany that took hold when, woken up by his radio alarm at 4am, he had a life-changing experience. Hearing Stephen Stills’ paean to leaving the system behind Treetop Flyer, he left his job in a shoe factory and, for the first time, acknowledged that music may be something that existed in him too.

After picking up the guitar for the first time, eight years elapsed before, aged 26, he recorded his voice to see what it sounded like. “I didn’t like it at all”, he says, “although, in truth it sounded much the same as it does now.” Perhaps his reticence to do so until this point had something to do with the fact that his estranged father – who he has spoken to for “about one and a half minutes in the last 20 years” – had also been one. Almost as if denial of the DNA they share, LaMontagne confirms that his father knows he turned out to be a musician too. However, beyond that, “he’s not worth discussing”.

LaMontagne talks about his tentative forays into a recording studio as though they were a guilty secret – an extravagance he could ill afford, considering the fact that he had a wife and two young boys to support. By the time, he came to the attention of Ethan Johns – who produced his 2004 debut Trouble, LaMontagne had trained to become a carpenter. By night, he might earn up to $200, playing the coffee houses of Maine.

“He’s come a [ital] long [ital] way since the first time I met him, says Johns, currently filling on drums at LaMontagne’s live shows. “But I think there was an instant connection with us. “He saved up something like $5000 and bought himself some land with it. And while his wife and two young boys lived in a camper van next door, he built a log cabin. He dug the well, did the whole thing… like something out of Jeremiah Johnson [the Robert Redford film about an American soldier forced to live outside of society]. Then, after they built the log cabin, he decided to tell the van and buy a Martin guitar with the proceeds. That was a real iconic moment in his life – the point where the real slog ended.”

To call it a happy ending, however, is stretching credulity. If you’ve spent years on Death Row only to earn a last minute reprieve, the tics and traits of a condemned man don’t disappear overnight. “Don’t put your trust in walls/’Cause walls will only crush you when they fall,” went Be Here Now, at the beginning last year’s Till The Sun Turns Black – before every ensuing song appeared to form a chapter the narrative of a relationship breakdown. Negotiating similar emotional and musical territory to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Lessons Learned seemed to freeze the moment when a comatose relationship either gives up or, somehow, finds a way to live. The songs that follow suggest that the latter turned out to be true. The last time a journalist broached the matter with LaMontagne, the singer snapped, “I won’t tolerate my business being invaded.”

Quite what a bona fide hit single – and the extra scrutiny it brings – will do for him is anyone’s guess. But, by releasing You Are The Best Thing early next year – the sort of mid-paced, radio-friendly R&B rapture that Van Morrison used to trot out in the early 70s – LaMontagne is sure to find out. This afternoon, he disdains the idea that hit singles have the power to change anything for the worse. “I don’t know what a hit single is. If people really like the song, that’s fine. The label makes more money. Maybe that translates to touring, but maybe not.” If LaMontagne talks about being an artist in crude economic terms, it’s probably because that his life has been defined by the comforts denied to him until his thirties.

He begs to differ, however. The idea that he should give his past adversities credit for his current success horrifies him. “I don’t want to go back,” he reiterates. “I want to keep going forward.” But aren’t we defined by our past? There’s a sense of entitlement – or a lack of it – to what life has to offer, that is forged in childhood circumstances. “You seriously feel like you’re the same person you were at 14? I always felt 40,” says LaMontagne. Even in the autumn, when the memory of going back to school fills you with a sense of renewal? That’s surely a universal feeling, isn’t it?

“I don’t know when kids go back to school,” he says, almost at a loss now. “I just don’t… I don’t remember when it started. I really couldn’t tell you. That is just a different life. A whole other life.”

"...like a procession of Nazi oompah-loompahs beating tin drums." Abba, The Guardian, 2002

The glass-fronted kitchen units are bright yellow and filled with many different kinds of crispbread. On the work surface there is a wooden block on which sits a large Plopp and a knife with which to cut it up - Plopp, of course, being a popular Swedish chocolate bar. When Benny from ABBA walks in, though, it's a circular disc of crispbread that he goes for. But for the greying whiskers and an expensive suit, he's barely aged since the group dissolved in 1982. Five minutes later, Björn from ABBA pulls up in his Lexus. Given that he and Benny employ everyone in the building, it's worth noticing that Björn makes his own coffee. Along with the communal Plopp and an office dog called Bjork, all the signs suggest that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson's Stockholm HQ must be a nice place to work.

It's only after a few minutes that the nagging sense of something missing dawns upon you. But for a poster proclaiming the 1999 premiere of Mamma Mia! - Catherine Johnson's West End musical - there are no gold discs or awards to suggest that Björn and Benny's 1970s might have been unusually productive. It can't just be modesty, either, because you can't move for posters and discs relating to Chess, the 1985 musical they wrote with Tim Rice - and who remembers that?

"Actually," says Björn, deploying that impeccably precise English in which Scandinavians seem to specialise, "there aren't as many ABBA awards as you might imagine. For the main part of the group's lifespan, the critics despised us." Maybe that's why, aged 57, he seems so happy to receive them now. Last month, at the annual Tony Awards, he and Benny, 56, received two awards for the Broadway production of Mamma Mia! Two weeks ago, they arrived in London to pick up a Special International Award at this year's Ivor Novello bash, and treated the throng to an impromptu chorus of Fernando.

"It's better than receiving a Brit, isn't it?" Oh, yes, I assure him. The Brits are a bit cheesy, really. Stevie Wonder and Leiber and Stoller have won this one. "Good. That's what I'd thought."

Björn Ulvaeus has two abiding memories of the ABBA years. The first goes back to the group's Eurovision Song Contest victory in 1974. In the preceding years, Björn and Benny, along with the group's manager, Stig Anderson, had become obsessed with the contest - reasoning that it would be the only chance the group had of getting recognition beyond their own country. "Stig rightly suggested that the song should have an international theme, so we all came up with Waterloo. It's the feeling of having won that I remember more than anything else. Just sitting in a room the day after, discussing what we were going to do worldwide. Suddenly we had a sense of something beginning."

Everyone remembers the footage, of course - especially Björn's stage costume. Sporting a sparkling skintight satin jump suit with what appeared to be knee-length Cuban-heeled wellington boots, Björn looked so bizarre that security guards refused to let him pick up his composer's award at the end of the show. "They couldn't believe that someone who looked like that could have had a hand in the composition," he explains.

In truth, Björn had waited a long time to jump about on stage looking like a total loon. To understand why ABBA were so brilliant in the 70s, we need to grasp just how bad the 60s were for them. Björn spent the most exciting decade of the 20th century in the Hootenanny Singers, clean-cut, short-haired purveyors of indigenous wholesome campfire fare like Song Of The Birch and I'm Waiting At The Stack. In 1963, just as his group scored their first Swedish hit, Björn heard the Beatles. "In my guts, I instantly knew that was what I would rather be doing, but we were beginning to have some success, so we kept repeating the formula. I would have much preferred to have been in a band like Benny's."

Benny Andersson also had a fairly clear idea of what he wanted to do in 1963 - and the fact that, at 18, he already had two children with his girlfriend, Christina, wasn't going to stop him. He grew his hair long and joined Sweden's nearest equivalent to the Beatles, the Hep Stars. He shifts uncomfortably when recalling his first brush with fame. Benny was not a frequent fatherly presence.

"I felt very immature at the age of 16, but clearly I was mature enough to get a girl pregnant. Whatever I might want to think, the fact is that I chose to keep on working instead of being with my family. Which, as you can imagine, was a disaster for them. But I've been talking to the kids through the years and for some reason, they feel that I made the right choice."

"When Björn and I finally met," recalls Benny, "our bands were staying in the same hotel. We met under an elm tree in the middle of a nearby park. We figured it would be a good idea to try and write a song together." By the time they got around to it, it was more in an atmosphere of desperation than glory. The Hep Stars had split up, but the Hootenanny Singers hadn't. "I remember," says Benny, "thinking it would be great to make a record like Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, but also wondering if I did, who on earth was going to listen to it."

Instead, they recorded the soundtrack to a Swedish soft porn movie, Inga, and plotted their next move. The details of what follow read more like the synopsis of an unmade early Woody Allen film than the genesis of a supergroup.

Agnetha Fältskog, who married Bjorn in 1971 and had already scored a string of self-composed hits in Sweden, had the most to lose from the arrangement. Björn convinced his new wife that a cabaret run might arrest his and Benny's sliding fortunes. With Benny now dating aspiring Norwegian jazz singer Annifrid Lyngstad (known as Frida), the two couples decided to put together a . . .comedy revue.

Hidden away in Björn and Benny's personal archive, there is a picture of them dressed as schoolboys with lollipops and little helicopter propellers on their hats. After a year of playing half-empty nitespots to Swedish businessmen, Björn and Benny wisely put their school uniforms away.

It wasn't until 1972, a year later, that they had the idea of making a record as a quartet. Given that the couples were near neighbours and were spending all their time together, this seems incredible. And even then, People Need Love was a world away from the breathless pop majesty with which they later became synonymous - an unsexy beer-hall clomp on which yodelling featured heavily.

Also, the group - who had so far traded as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Annifrid - had yet to think of a proper name. That came a year later when Stig Anderson ran a competition for Swedish radio listeners to come up with something snappier. When the best names on the short list were Alibaba, Friends And Neighbours and Baba, Anderson took things into his own hands and proposed that the quartet be called ABBA. That this was also the name of a Swedish brand of canned fish didn't seem to bother him; nor did Björn and Benny's initial lack of enthusiasm. He wrote to the fish canners and asked them if they minded sharing their name with a pop group. "They wrote back and said it was fine as long as we didn't do anything that reflected badly on the fish industry." ABBA was born.

Time spent with Benny and Björn is like time spent with a married couple, as befits two people who have been working together for 36 years. Benny is the alpha male - taciturn and vaguely intimidating. He borders on truculent when asked about his private life. Björn often seems to direct his answers at Benny, as if keen not to misrepresent him. In Björn's head, you suspect Benny is still "the cool one."

Benny recalls the writing of Money Money Money: "It was originally called Been And Gone And Done It. I said, 'Do you think this is really the best you can do?' " Björn seems both embarrassed and flattered that Benny remembers the episode. Björn's second abiding ABBA memory focuses on their co-operation, too: "It has to be the day Benny and I were working on two separate song fragments. I was playing guitar and he was at the piano, just like we always were. Then we realised that if we slightly changed one of them, they formed a complete song. That was such a kick! I'll never forget it. That was when we got the melody to The Winner Takes It All."

"The songs became something of an obsession for us," admits Björn."Each song had to be different, because in the 60s, that's what the Beatles had done. The challenge was to not do another Mamma Mia or Waterloo," says Benny. From SOS ("Our first really exceptional song," says Björn), it was something that seemed to come incredibly easily to them. Not only had they mastered what people refer to as the ABBA sound, they were writing songs especially for it. Björn: "Agnetha is a soprano and Frida is a mezzo-soprano, and that choral sense of tension you get with them is what happens when they harmonise."

Björn eventually took sole responsibility for the lyrics. "It wasn't really a job I enjoyed," he recalls. "I wrote a few stinkers." Benny: "I've told the record company that instead of releasing ABBA Gold, they should put out ABBA Wood. . .but, you know, they're not so keen on it. I don't know why."

"I'd like to nominate Dum Dum Diddle for ABBA Wood," smiles Björn, referring to the infamous album track in which Agnetha bemoans playing, um, second fiddle to someone who is "only smilin'/ When you play your violin". Ouch. "I'd been working all night trying to come up with a decent lyric. And I thought, 'Well, I'd better take in something to prove that I've been working.' I showed them this song, thinking they'd say, 'Oh, no! We can't do that!'"

Benny: "And we said, 'Whatever - that's fine.'" He was improving, though. Also featured on 1976's Arrival album was Dancing Queen. Five years ago, when the Sex Pistols' 20th anniversary reunion tour came to London, John Lydon decided that the band should enter to the strains of Dancing Queen - the plan being to remind us how terrible music had become when the Sex Pistols came along. The idea backfired. On instant recognition of that piano flourish, the entire audience cheered and broke into spontaneous dancing.

Here are three wonderful yet ultimately trivial facts about Dancing Queen: (i) Benny and Björn were inspired to write it by the rhythm to George McCrae's smooth anthem Rock Your Baby; (ii) It bore the working title of Boogaloo, and for days no one in the group could work out a satisfying intro - at the last minute, Benny and Björn hit upon the idea of starting it halfway through the chorus "for maximum impact"; (iii) It is the most perfect pop song ever.

Björn: "The day that Benny and I finished mixing the instrumental track of Dancing Queen, I was so excited, I just could not rest. Agnetha was asleep and I just had to share it with someone, so I drove all over Stockholm looking for someone to play it to. Finally I ended up at my sister's house. I played it over and over again to her. We couldn't believe how good it sounded."

Benny: "It's nice if you can like a backing track, you know? But by the time it appears on vinyl, it's gone. It's over. You have no connection with it. You know that it's you, but you don't sit around thinking, 'Oh boy! Am I good or what?' It's not like that."

Björn has gone uncharacteristically silent. For him, I suspect it was a bit like that.

It's impossible to talk about ABBA without talking about the darkness that gradually pervaded Björn's writing from 1977. It's in the Bergmanesque shadow-world of I Have A Dream, a world in which believing in angels might be our best hope for accepting an uncertain future. It's in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in which two estranged lovers survey the debris of their relationship. At this point, Björn must have had an inkling that family life was not altogether compatible with ABBA. "We all hated touring," he says, "and we were always careful never to be away from Linda and Christian [their daughter and son] for more than a few days. But for Agnetha, it was really hard."

That became clear to all on the 1977 Australian tour, when the group was greeted with adulation of Beatles proportions. "If you look at ABBA - The Movie [the film shot on that tour], you'll see that she was never quite able to let go on stage. She was always a bit fearful - whereas Frida is clearly having a whale of a time," Benny recalls. In her 1997 co-authored autobiography, As I Am, Agnetha writes, "Sometimes it was awful. I felt as if [the fans] would get hold of me and I'd never get away again. It was as if I was going to be crushed. No one who has experienced facing a screaming, boiling, hysterical crowd could avoid feeling shivers up and down their spine. It's a thin line between ecstatic celebration and menace."

The year the ABBA movie came out, 1978, was also the year Benny and Frida finally married. Three months later, Björn and Agnetha divorced. Björn is keen to emphasise that "mine and Agnetha's divorce was never acrimonious. We just felt that we had grown apart." Agnetha is more elliptical. Referring to their marriage as "destructive", she says, "We all know that there is no such thing as a happy divorce. The reason behind our separation is one of those things I definitely don't want to go into."

A week after the couple spent their last family Christmas together, Björn met his current wife, Lena Källersjö, at a party. "I think," he avers, "that divorce can produce a very positive creative energy."

Most people, I tell him, find it hard to imagine why the group wanted to continue in such circumstances. "Well, I agree, it was odd in the beginning. I would come into the studio and I didn't know what she had been up to for the last two weeks, that kind of thing. But we were very professional about it. "

Did you not ask her what she had been up to?

"Hah-hah! No, I didn't ask her that!"

Abba's final two albums portrayed a man buried deep in the doubts and recriminations of his own interior world. Happy New Year, from 1980's Super Trouper album, was set at the end of a party where the "dreams we had before are all dead/ like confetti on the floor". On The Winner Takes It All, Björn wrote the lines, "But tell me does she kiss/Like I used to kiss you?/Does it feel the same/When she calls your name?" Then, in one of the greatest acts of sadism in the history of pop, he got his ex-wife to sing them. "I wrote that one very quickly," he says.

The way the song begins - "I don't want to talk" - it's like the slurred beginning of a drunken speech.

Björn: "Yes. I wanted it to be a bit like that.

Benny: "It's bloody clever."

"As a matter of fact," admits Björn, "I was quite drunk. And that's unusual, too, because it never works. Whenever you write drunk, whether it's music or lyrics, you look at it the next day and it's bullshit. But that was a good one. I remember presenting it to the girls, and there were tears, you know?"

Even the album's ostensibly cheerful title track began with the line, "I was sick and tired of everything/When I called you last night from Glasgow."

"I was especially proud of that one," beams Björn. "We had already finished the album, but we needed one more song. So I thought about those big spotlights that you get on stage. They're called super troupers, you see." He leaves a pause for effect. "But, you know, I also like the fact that the song could be about someone who is a super trouper."

As Frida's new punky haircut confirmed, her marriage to Benny was now on the rocks. Writing sessions at the group's summer retreat were yielding worrying results. The Piper saw Björn imagining the rise of some charismatic dictator in a distant land - with Agnetha and Frida's harmonies on the chorus treated to a sound like a procession of Nazi oompah-loompahs beating tin drums.

"I guess we were in a strange place," says Björn.

By the time the group's final album, The Visitors, appeared at the end of 1981, they had given up trying to pretend everything was rosy. Frida and Benny had by then divorced. Slipping Through My Fingers articulated Björn's regret at having prioritised work over Linda and Christian's early years. The title track sounded like Joy Division, and described the plight of "a Russian dissident slowly going crazy whilst waiting for that knock on the door. Somehow these were the characters I was empathising with." In terms of mood and psychosis, these songs were on a par with Pink Floyd's Animals or Radiohead's OK Computer. The sleeve showed them photographed in the reception room of some stately home, dwarfed by huge paintings of angels. All four members of the group are bathed in orange light; each is looking in a different direction.

"The sleeve designer," says Björn "was a close friend who saw what had happened in our lives."

"I thought he just liked the room," suggests Benny disingenuously.

Björn: "Yes, but it really reflects what was happening. Basically, we'd had enough."

At the time of Abba's demise, the extent of their legacy was unclear. The group never formally split - the public didn't care enough for it to warrant a formal announcement. They released a masterful farewell single, The Day Before You Came, and promoted it in Britain with a couple of glum TV appearances. Benny and Björn, of course, started hanging out with Tim Rice and decided that by using the tactical high tension of a chess tournament in the Cold War as a metaphor for failing relationships (heaven knows where they got that idea from), they might attain some of the critical acclaim owed to them.

In the 1980s, Björn and Lena moved to Henley-on-Thames and sent their children to a nearby public school. Benny remarried, developed a passion for breeding racehorses and released two albums of instrumental folk music. He and his wife also had two children. "This time," he says, "I was ready for it. It felt more relevant."

Imagining ABBA would gradually fade into insignificance, they licensed their back catalogue to a host of budget price record labels "for next to nothing". Throughout the 1980s, you could buy ABBA compilations at petrol stations and newsagents for loose change. "That was it as far as we were concerned."

For a decade, only postmodernists and pranksters seemed to ally themselves to the group's music. On their 1987 What The Fuck's Going On? album, the KLF, in their early guise as The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, sampled the entire intro and chorus to Dancing Queen for their track The Queen And I. When ordered to destroy all copies by Abba's publishers, they drove to Sweden in an attempt to find Benny and Björn. This, it transpires, is the first they've heard about it.

Björn: "Why did they do this?"

Um, they were making a statement about the nature of copyright.

"Were they stopped?"

Well, they came to Sweden, trailed by the NME, in order to explain their actions to you, but they couldn't find you. So they put all the remaining copies of their album on a bonfire.

"That's good," notes Benny flatly. Understandably, Benny and Björn seem sensitive to the derision of others. Their first reaction to the success of tribute bands like Björn Again was annoyance. "I thought I was being sent up at the beginning. I felt that talking in these funny accents in between songs was a little too much. But when bands like U2 get in touch with you and ask you to appear on stage with them, you realise that it's just degrees of affection. I think it took us a while to come to terms with that."

Surely, though, tribute bands and the success of Mamma Mia! is about people wanting an excuse to go crazy in a public place to ABBA songs.

"I think it's kind of sad, actually," ponders Benny. "When you hear those songs being covered by young pop groups. I mean, hasn't anything happened in the last 20 years?"

"What I like," says Björn, ever the diplomat, "is when you hear it in a new song."

Max Martin, the Swedish writer-producer who penned Britney Spears' biggest hits, seems to be a case in point. The strange hymnal harmonies of Oops! I Did It Again and Hit Me Baby One More Time have Abba's DNA all over them.

"Well, some of those hits were produced in our studio, you know. Take away the production and it's actually quite a folky quality. That's why it sounds unusual to English ears. It's Swedish music with an American production."

These days, it's unadorned Swedish music that forms the basis of Benny and Björn's work. They're currently working on an English version of Kristina Of Duvemåla, their three-hour musical based on Vilhelm Moberg's 2,000-page epic about Swedish emigrants in the early 20th century. "It would be nice," says Björn, "if we could take it to London, but we're not sure at the moment." He doesn't say so, but you get the impression that backers might not be falling over themselves to invest in such a project. The problem is, I tell him, that post-Mamma Mia! musicals based on the back catalogues of established pop groups are all the rage.

Björn Ulvaeus smiles. "Ironic, isn't it? But you either accept it or give in to it. And for me, that's not what life's about. You know, last year an American promoter offered one billion dollars to reform for an ABBA tour. When an offer like that comes along, you have to seriously consider it, because for that kind of money you can build hospitals. But then the four of us ended up thinking what kind of a year that would be - all the stress of disappointing people night after night. I could imagine the looks on the faces in the audience as they realised we had grown old." He shivers at the thought. "Really, there's no amount of money in the world that could persuade me to do that."

"A Showaddywaddy lacking a waddy." Racey, The Word, July 2009

I remember pretty clearly the day that Racey changed my brain so that from that day on, a little bit of my brain would be forever Racey. As a treat for being patient whilst going shopping with my mother, she took me and my brother Aki to Debenhams’ record department. We were allowed a single each. Aki bought Cool For Cats by Squeeze. I plumped for Lay Your Love On Me by Racey. To Aki, my choice embodied everything that sucked about having a little brother. Punk had happened and, by virtue of being “new wave”, Squeeze were briefly affiliated to it.

With hindsight I can now see what Racey were. They were one last hurrah by RAK’s in-house songwriting magicians Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. A dud Mud. A Showaddywaddy lacking a waddy. At least that’s how they’re fated to be remembered. Thirty years later though, with that bit of my brain that will forever be Racey, I am not most people. I hear Lay Your Love On Me, with Richard Gower’s oddly pleading vocals and an organ hook that begs to be sampled and a Proustian avalanche ensues. Kept from the number one spot by Bright Eyes, Some Girls (originally intended for Blondie, trivaholics) remains probably their best known hit – and where, for most people, the story ends.

But my loyalty knew no bounds. I bought their only album Smash And Grab and remember feeling moved by the valedictory self-written rallying cry We Are Racey (“We are Racey,” it claimed, “And we move with the speed of sound”). But, as Racey’s stock plummeted, so did my local record shop’s stock of Racey records. I had to get them ordered in – although in pre-internet times, I’m not sure how I even knew that they were coming out at all. In the years that followed, I tried to get into cooler music, but throughout this time, I showed unerring loyalty to Racey.

And, indeed, continue to do so. Written by Gower, their 1981 b-side Let Me Take You Home Tonight lives in the special box I keep in the kitchen where all my best sevens live – Fats Domino woozily reconfigured by a lovelorn pygmy from Weston-super-Mare. Bob Stanley likes it and he’s in Saint Etienne, so there. Convinced that their 1981 non-hit Rest Of My Life still had “legs” if covered by the right person, I sent an MP3 of my scratchy vinyl copy to Ronan Keating’s A&R man, and received precisely the sort of reply that A&R men send to lunatics. Fair enough, really. He probably passed my email around the office to general hoots of merriment. You’re probably laughing too, aren’t you? I know I’m not cool. But I am Racey. And that’s enough for me.