The Kinks, the Jam, Blur, Arctic Monkeys – all sang about the drabness and conformity of small towns and their ‘respectable streets’. For Wilmslow boy John Harris, these lyrics are part of a tradition that takes in Orwell, Larkin and Betjeman
The house sits on a quiet residential street. It’s Edwardian, by the look of it, and has only one special feature. In the back garden, the shed has been converted into an unbelievably compact recording studio, where the current owner works on music that can be instantly pinged down a broadband line, to be embellished by collaborators across the Atlantic.
This is the Swindon home of Andy Partridge, 56, once the senior songwriter with XTC, these days a cloistered pop hero who runs a record label called Ape, occasionally works as a songwriter-for-hire, and wonders aloud whether the world might have heard enough of his music.
Set against his much-loved back catalogue, his modesty is misplaced. If he was minded to go on tour – particularly in the United States, where XTC have an enduring fan-base – he would be reminded that thousands of people would love to hear some new material. But thanks to the stage fright that ended his progress as a live performer in 1982, he never plays in public – so he stays here, an underrated figure whose hometown has so far only offered him the most understated accolades (not that long ago, the local arts centre called to offer him a special plaque on one of the seats in its auditorium, only to tell him that he would have to pay £150 for the privilege).
Partridge has lived in Swindon – “a soft, gloopy, apathetic place,” he says – since he was two years old. Presumably, he could have been one of the British musicians who have at least temporarily relocated to Paris, or New York, or Los Angeles – but he has always stayed put, despite plenty of malign feelings. Today, he recalls telling Rolling Stone magazine that Swindon was “a little gritty industrial blob in the West Country” and being pilloried in the local paper. “It’s averageville,” he says. “You hear it crop up in radio and TV comedy all the time. If you slip Swindon into a gag, it stands as the shorthand for all kinds of things . . . it’s no mistake that in The Office, the other branch of the firm is located here.”
When I last interviewed him, five years ago, I came up against an obvious artistic stereotype: the eternal refusenik, kicking against his surroundings, and thereby drawing no end of inspiration. “I don’t actually like the place very much,” he said. “Whenever I’ve got enough money to move out, something seems to come along and take it away. But I do like the idea that it’s given me something to kick against. It’s the anvil you get to harden stuff up on.”
Among the scores of songs Partridge wrote for XTC are perfect examples of a very English genre: rock music uprooted from the glamour and dazzle of the city, and recast as the soundtrack to life in suburbs, small towns, and the kind of places – like Swindon – that may be more sizeable, but are still held up as bywords for broken hopes and limited horizons. The lineage began with Ray Davies’s compositions for the Kinks. Later on, it took in the Jam, and Coventry’s Specials, as well as scores of half-forgotten punk and new wave bands (as if to embody that era’s emphasis on suburban social realism, in among the late 1970s’ pop-cultural footnotes, there lurks a group called the Leyton Buzzards). In the 1980s, the flame was kept alive by the Smiths – and with the arrival of Britpop in the mid 90s, it burned with a new ferocity, duly inspiring people who would pick up pens and guitars a decade later – such as Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, a merchant of razored pop poetry raised in Stocksbridge, a former steel town 11 miles north of Sheffield.
One of the most evocative items in Partridge’s oeuvre is “Respectable Street” (1980), set in a place where to play your music too loud is to risk excommunication, and too much of life is mired in hypocrisy and cant: “Sunday church, and they look fetching / Saturday night saw him retching over our fence.” It was written, he explains, when he was living above a shop in central Swindon, looking on “a little street that was every English street: all these immaculate gardens and caravans that never went anywhere.”
He needs no encouragement to recite its key lines:
It’s in the order of their hedgerows
It’s in the way their curtains open and close
It’s in the look they give you down their nose
All part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose
I first heard “Respectable Street” when I was in my early teens, and living in Wilmslow, the comfortable Cheshire dormitory town that has long been the butt of Mancunian jokes. Relative to the city, it was hardly the most thrilling of places – though if I picked the right records, I could hear my environment being bemoaned and backhandedly celebrated in terms I instantly understood. My favourite musicians, it seemed, were intimately familiar with where I lived – and suddenly, the hum of Sunday-morning lawnmowers or the distant clatter of some after-hours ruck took on, just slightly, a mythical aura.
Though they had broken up when I was 12, the band I loved most was the Jam, who had been propelled out of Woking to take their place alongside the metropolitan prime movers of punk rock (and had thus been cast as “the black sheep of the new wave”). Occasionally, the lyrics written by the young Paul Weller looked towards the part of suburbia that blurs into the countryside; in “Tales From the Riverbank”, he celebrated “the golden country” – a phrase taken from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “where we ran when we were young”, a vision that has recurred in his music ever since. But his most effective songs were set somewhere altogether less idyllic, full of harried commuters, girls speaking in “bingo accents”, and lives played out in what 1979’s self-explanatory “Wasteland” bemoaned as a “drab and colourless place”.
Between 1979 and 1982, Weller’s chosen role was as pop’s chronicler of the debris left behind by deindustrialisation and Thatcherite austerity – and even if my immediate surroundings were less ravaged, it took only a 10-minute train ride to what modern urban planners call “edgelands”, and the scenes so beautifully captured in “A Town Called Malice”, arguably the Jam’s single greatest achievement:
Rows and rows of disused milkfloats
Stand dying in the dairy yard
And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts
Hanging out their old loveletters on the line to dry
It was all here: class, provincial frustration, teenage rage – and, most important, an underlying empathy with the rituals of non-metropolitan life that ensured everything came out sounding fascinatingly ambivalent. And when a combination of Weller’s love of Orwell and the O-level English poetry syllabus sparked new literary appetites, I was suddenly alerted to something that hadn’t even occurred to me: that my favourite songwriters and musicians were viewing the suburban expanse through the same lens once used by some of the titans of 20th-century literature. In other words, contrary to what I hitherto believed, my artistic year-zero wasn’t 1966, but some time in the 1930s.
At school, when the time came to deliver a talk on a poem of your choice, I picked Larkin’s “I Remember, I Remember”, thrilled by its account of everything that had failed to happen in his native Coventry, which chimed not only with my record collection, but my adolescent experience. Like a fool, I thought John Betjeman was a little too twee – although within five years I was in love with the visions pointed up by such titles as “Camberley”, “Croydon”, “Death in Leamington” and “Slough” (he also sized up my home turf in a poem called “Cheshire”). When it came to Orwell, once I had got through the obligatory Nineteen Eighty-Four, I was charmed by Coming Up for Air (1939), the story of the hapless suburbanite George Bowling, who tries to revisit the village where he was raised, only to find that much of it has been concreted over.
Bowling’s own neighbourhood is portrayed as follows:
Do you know the road I live in – Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it . . . Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses . . . as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.
This is the same vision you hear in countless songs, as embedded in English pop as cotton fields and shotgun shacks are in the blues (witness two lines from the Kinks’ 1969 classic “Shangri La”: “And all the houses in the street have got a name / ‘Cos all the houses in the street they look the same”). It is less about poverty and deprivation than conformity and cold comfort, and always haunted by what Coming Up for Air was written partly to highlight: that where now stand endless manicured avenues and shopping parades, there were once fields and farms. When it comes to a yearning for what has been lost, Davies’s work is again a good place to start: witness the title of that great English pop touchstone, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, released in 1968.
When I spend an hour with Andrew Motion, comparing lyrics and poems and trying to get to the heart of the non-metropolitan condition, he describes the vision of the suburban sprawl that runs from English poetry, through pop and beyond, as follows: “It’s a triffid: an enormous sort of brick triffid that takes over the English countryside. And both Betjeman and Larkin – and Orwell in his own way – are very interested in it, because it’s a way of crystallising a conversation about progress, and the destruction of something that for all of them, embodies a very primitive, organic, fundamental idea of what England is.”
He reaches for Larkin’s poem “Going, Going” (1974), and briefly explores an anguish that reaches its peak in the penultimate verse:
And that will be England gone
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres
And so to Blur’s Damon Albarn, who spent a great deal of the 1990s writing songs based in the outer fringes of Essex and transparently inspired by the Kinks, full of characters defined by dysfunction and desperation: a George Bowlingesque civil servant portrayed in “Tracy Jacks” (1994), who runs away to Walton on the Naze, and then decides to demolish his own house; the wife-swapping grotesques in “Stereotypes” (1995); the Essex resident and “modern retard” “Colin Zeal” (1993), a signifier for life viewed from the A12, which runs between London and Essex, and passes the kind of giant retail parks that Albarn once decried as temples of “bubble culture – people feeling content in these huge domes that have one temperature and are filled with lobotomised music” .
When Albarn was nine, his family moved from East London to the fringes of Colchester – and in the early 80s, he watched as Larkin’s concrete and tyres ate into the landscape. “Early 80s Essex was all about house ownership,” he explains, “and I got there just as they were digging up the fields and turning them into estates. I had an enormous love of the countryside, and the kind of archaic aspects of where I was – and I hated what was happening.”
In sour tribute to the housing developers, Albarn calls this process “Barratting”. “It was just ugly,” he continues, “and I felt very sad that this was what we were being given as the bright new future. And then once I’d spent some time in America, I made the connection . . . we were becoming part of America – which we are today.” I read him some of Betjeman’s prescient poem “The Town Clerk’s Views”, published in 1948, and he agrees that it’s based on much the same idea:
In a few years this country will be looking
As uniform and tasty as its cooking.
Hamlets which fail to pass the planners’ test
Will be demolished. We’ll rebuild the rest
To look like Welwyn mixed with Middle West
In among this landscape, there lurks one more source of inspiration that runs between English poetry and pop: boredom. In “I Remember, I Remember”, written in 1954, Larkin recalls his Coventry upbringing and fatalistically acknowledges that “nothing, like something, happens anywhere”. By way of proving that the intervening quarter-century changed little, the Specials’ no less downcast “Do Nothing” describes formative years spent in the same town thus: “I’m just living in a life without meaning / I walk and walk – do nothing.”
Motion points out that in another poem, “Larkin says, very interestingly, ‘Life is first boredom, then fear.'” This is “Dockery and Son”, from 1963. “And I remember saying to him, that I thought he’d got it the wrong way round – that really, life was first fear, then boredom. And he gave me a slightly funny look, and said: ‘Monica [Jones, his muse and mistress] thinks that too.’ So he accepted that it might be the wrong way round, but either way, there it is: that life is one of the two.”
I suggest this is probably not the kind of thought one would tend to have in, say, Soho.
“Quite,” he says. “It’s a boredom born of a certain sort of deprivation, isn’t it? The only cinema is closed, there isn’t a bookshop, the Royal Opera touring company never comes to your town – whatever it is. But there’s also a sense of something existential going on here too. It’s the human condition to be frustrated; to be thwarted. It might be exasperating and deracinating, but it’s also true. And that gives it a sort of dignity.”
Is it the case that free of metropolitan illusions, suburbanites and smalltowners might actually live much more authentic lives? Larkin, he says, most definitely thought so – which explains why his life story moves through Coventry, Leicester, Wellington in Shropshire – and, of course, Hull.
This seems a good moment to bring up Partridge’s summary of the artistic benefits of living in Swindon: that it’s “the anvil you get to harden stuff up on”. “Larkin definitely hardened the horseshoe of his mind by whacking it on that anvil,” Motion says. “He sought it out – it appealed to him. Sometimes, he used to pretend that he’d washed up there: ‘This was the only job I could get.’ But it suited him down to the ground. It was a place without bullshit – that’s what he liked about it. That was his version of the suburban sublime: a bullshit-free zone.”
Back in Swindon, I remind Partridge of an old interview quote that makes much the same point: “I can’t write mid-Atlantic airport lounge music. I can’t talk about my hot babe with her leather and whip or meeting my cocaine dealer. I like to write about what’s going on around the town.”
“That’s true,” he says. “I’m not from Memphis, Tennessee: I don’t know what it’s like to be out on the highway in a Buick. I used to go round the Co-op with my mum’s dividend number. That’s still my language.”
John Harris’s documentary Black and White Towns is on Radio 4 on Thursday 15 April at 11.30am.