Unknown Pleasures # 2
In this new series, Unknown Pleasures, Gary Steel makes his case for worthy but under-recognised albums and artists. Bill Pritchard isn’t a name that drips off the tongue, but this hardly known English singer-songwriter is worth writing home about.
I’VE BEEN GOING through a periodic bout of purging unwanted CDs and LPs from the groaning and largely unloved ranks of my music collection. For many years, in an effort to avoid ending up on one of those TV programmes about sad loser hoarders, I’ve tried really hard to keep each format down to a maximum of 1000 pieces. The real reason is two-fold: 1) If I keep adding to the collection, vast chunks of them never get played, and I forget why I even acquired them, and 2) I just can’t afford Lundia shelving, and Warehouse shelves made out of glue and cardboard pulp have a habit of self-destructing.
The other night I picked out a random item from my CD collection – a disc I probably haven’t played for 20 years or more. Expecting to confirm that it was ready for a swift and ignominious trade at Real Groovy, I played it one last time. And I liked it. A lot.
Three Months, Three Weeks & Two Days was released in 1989, and although it was Pritchard’s most high profile release (he has recorded seven other albums, mostly for obscure labels) it seems to have never troubled the charts, or received any kind of major acclaim.
Although he’s an English native, most of his admirers lived in Europe and especially, France, and it’s obvious the minute you put this platter in the player why that’s the case: his sensibilities are clearly more aligned with a certain tradition of reflective, sardonic pop than its less cultured reflection from across the Chunnel.
The French connection asserts itself right from the get-go, because the first song, ‘Tommy & Co’, has chanteuse Francoise Hardy on backing vocals. In fact, the album is produced by French singer-songwriter Etienne Daho, whose own singular work is hugely inspired by the Gallic Leonard Cohen on steroids, Serge Gainsbourg. The backing band is also largely French, and the album was partly recorded there.
But although the sound is very French, Pritchard is in essence quintessentially English, and his Englishness asserts itself as strongly as it does with other quintessential Brits like Morrissey or Ray Davies/Kinks. There’s a keen literary streak and a way with words that I like a lot. Pritchard knows his country’s history and is attuned to – and disillusioned by – the political landscape of the late 1980s, but he resists the urge to overdo it. He’s a ‘less is more’ kind of guy, and his lyrics keep you guessing, while holding out intriguing verbal snippets to mull over.
Most importantly, he sings vocal melodies that really flow with these rather odd and arty lyrics, a contrast that helps to make Three Months a viable proposition: I found myself playing the disc a second time, and by that second spin, I was humming along.
What’s great about Pritchard, however, is that he’s no Morrissey. He’s more human, less Ego with a capital ‘E’, and I’d rather spend an eternity with this album than hear a single verse from any of Misery’s repertoire. Having said that, Pritchard’s vocal delivery does share a certain keening quality that I associate with Morrissey, but more than that, his singing voice reminds me of The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell. I’ve always loved Cornwell’s voice – masculine yet capable of tenderness – and Pritchard’s album could easily be placed next to Cornwell’s first solo album, Wolf (1988) as one of the finer intelligent pop albums of the era. Sure, Pritchard’s voice is higher, and flintier, and he’s a good deal more sophisticated than that big bully. But the comparisons are valid.
But why, if it’s so good, did it spend decades sitting unloved and unplayed on my CD shelves? For one, I seldom play old favourites because I’m always busy trying to keep up with the piles of new music that surge through my metaphorical doors. On the other hand, I just don’t listen to old pop music much these days – not even intelligent pop that’s as well wrought as this. But when I did do so, I couldn’t lose it to those dusty old racks at the record emporium.
I don’t know why Pritchard was doomed to semi-obscurity, because he clearly has talent to burn. But then again, Three Months is the only album of his that I’ve ever heard. Perhaps the others are rubbish? Or perhaps his personality was just too prickly to guarantee him a place in the pop’n’roll firmament. If the song ‘Kenneth Baker’ is anything to go by, his political views were very much left of centre: named after the conservative English politician, this bitter song ends up being a name and shame roll-call of corruption, in which he calls Margaret Thatcher (amongst others) a terrorist. [You won’t find that roll-call on the lyric sheet, for obvious reasons]. There’s nothing better than a pop record with balls. GARY STEEL
Sound = 3.5/5
Music = 4/5
The first Unknown Pleasures column is here.