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Last Updated:
Nov 12, 2006

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Andy discusses 'Dear God'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

The fifth in a series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Dear God," is from 1986's Skylarking.

TB: Over the next month or so, I want to talk about some of your biggest hits. The first one to talk about is probably the biggest of them all, in terms of giving you notoriety and introducing you to the widest audience. Let's talk about "Dear God."

AP: My goodness. Where should we start? Where should we kneel, to get this in the right perspective? [laughs] Get me a pint of that communion wine, and I'll tell you anything.

TB: [laughing] Mmmm ... and some of those styrofoam wafers...

AP: Yeah, some of those yummy styrofoam wafers. Yeah, if that's the body of Christ, what do you mean -- was he actually made of styrofoam?

TB: [laughing] Well, that's how he was able to ascend into heaven!

AP: There you go! He was very light. He just blew up there.

TB: So, tell me: Why wasn't "Dear God" on the original album?

AP: It wasn't on the original album because I honestly thought that I'd failed. It's such a vast subject -- human belief, the need for humans to believe the stuff they do, and the many strata involved, the many layers of religion and belief and whatnot. So I thought I'd failed to address this massive subject for all mankind -- and also a big subject for me, because I think it'd been bugging me for many years. I'd struggled with the concept of God and Man and so on since I was a kid, even to the point where I got myself so worked up with worry about religion that -- around about the age of 7 or 8 on a summer's day -- I saw the clouds part and, you know, there was this sort of classic Renaissance picture of God surrounded by his angels looking at me scornfully.

TB: Now, most people would have a vision like that and it would make them more religious. Why did you then go the other direction?

AP: Or they'd have a vision like that and start a shrine there. But, you know, I can't see them putting a shrine in Latton Close in Penhill [laughs]. I think you call them "the projects" over in the U.S. I was just stood on a little patch of dirt out in front of 40 Latton Close, where I used to live, and I just can't see there being a shrine there somehow. Because kids in the area would have it stolen before they could officially open it! [laughs]

But yeah, you know, normally you see stuff like that and you get sanctified and they start a convent or abbey in praise of you, and you become a saint and all that, and become very religious. But with me, I was just so wound up about the idea of religion and guilt and all that kind of thing, even as a kid, that it really plagued me. I guess the song "Dear God" was me trying to come to terms with this thing.

Though I thought those Dear God books -- you know, kids' letters to God -- were a pretty tacky concept, I liked the title. I liked the idea of writing to God to address the fact that I didn't believe he existed. I just wanted the thing to come back with an angelic stamp on it, saying "Return to Sender." Written in fiery letters!

TB: [laughing] "No such address."

AP: [laughs] Yeah, "No such address, redirect to Hell." But I thought I kind of failed. I think it would have taken more than three-and-a-half minutes to do the subject justice.

I'd also come up with a track, just before we started recording, called "Another Satellite," which I thought was much more interesting. It was interesting because it was personal, and I tend to disguise or hide away a lot of my personal stuff, and it was interesting because of the arrangement. It was also fresher, you know.

And, I think Virgin were also a little -- our contact there, Jeremy Lascelles, he's 11th in line to the throne or something like that -- I think he was a bit funny about "Dear God."

TB: Do you think he was scared of it?

AP: Maybe. For some reason, he said, [fast record-company exec voice] "Yeah yeah yeah, we should go with 'Another Satellite,' not 'Dear God'." He had his own reasons. Maybe he thought that if he said yes to that track, it'd push him farther down the ascending-to-the-throne ladder!

TB: Did [producer] Todd [Rundgren] have it in the original running order?

AP: Yeah, I think he did.

TB: Where did it fall? In the place where it is now?

AP: I think pretty much, yeah.

TB: Let's talk about the demo. It's one of the more-produced demos that I've heard from that era.

AP: Well, I messed around with the song in several different forms. It started off almost as a kind of skiffle -- a kind of fast, acoustic, jangley thing, twice that speed, but it didn't work like that. So I tried it with more of a "Rocky Raccoon" speed [laughs] -- I think they're in the same key, actually, A minor! -- and once I tried it at a more-sedate pace, it had more gravitas. The band quite liked it, and because there were some songs that we hadn't properly demo'd for Todd to hear, we got together one day down at Dave's and demo'd it. I think we might have done "Summer's Cauldron" as well.

TB: That was the version I was thinking of. It's on Coat of Many Cupboards. I was surprised at how finished it sounds.

AP: It's just us playing into Dave's four-track tape machine in his living room. I did say to him, "Look, I'd like some strings in there, and would like them to have sort of a Gershwin-y, blues-y, 'Summertime' feel." I always feel that strings, when they're full of blue notes and slides, have a slightly demonic cast to them. I wanted the song to get a little darker in the middle, so I thought that strings would be a great addition to it. I thought they would blend well with the acoustic guitar.

TB: Right. That mix of musical styles adds, of course, to the inner paradox of the song, in the lyrics themselves.

AP: Yeah, that paradox! People still say, "Well, what's he doing addressing God if he doesn't believe he exists?" [fast] But that's the paradox, asshole! C'mon, get with it! Wake up, that's the whole idea -- that you're talking to somebody you don't believe exists, and you're asking them why, if they do exist, they're causing all this trouble, but you're saying at the same time you know they don't exist!

[pauses, sighs] And, of course, I got all the hate mail and the booklets. It all came from America, by the way, all the hate mail. None of it came from England. Somebody sent me one of those books called -- and I've still got it, because I thought the title of it was fantastic -- "You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth." And I thought, "Wow!"

But all the hate mail, and the firebombing threats to the radio station in Florida, and all the rumpus caused by that -- I found that so medieval. I really felt sorry for the people who [pauses] got so upset at someone expressing an opinion that might be contrary to their beliefs, or at who might have another take on their beliefs. How could that make them so violent, potentially?

TB: All in a country where we supposedly have freedom of speech...

AP: No, you don't have freedom of speech. That's just an advertising slogan, like "I'm Lovin' It!" It's just another advertising jingle -- "Come live in America, we've got [sings syrupy melody] Freedom of Speeeech!" I mean, let's face it, to a degree white America was started by fundamentalist crazies who couldn't get on in England. So what happened? They turned up in America and began to pester the natives.

TB: It's funny -- we've always had this push and pull here in the U.S. between reason and religion. We have the Enlightenment values of the Founding Fathers, who are totally revered, and then we have these people who say they revere them, but their actions show that they completely disregard what they were all about.

AP: Oh yeah. They must be turning in their gravy, those Founding Fathers -- turning in their turkey gravy, with their own giblets! -- over what Papa Bush is doing.

Here in England, Woolworth's, and a couple of other stores, banned the "Dear God" single, with the sleeve that has a pen as a crucifixion nail going through a hand. They didn't want to upset people, so they wouldn't stock the single. They were all sanctimonious about it.

TB: And yet the irony of it -- which is perfectly fitting for a song that is full of paradoxes -- is the fact that the song made you guys more famous than anything you had done up to that point.

AP: Well, yeah. It started as a B-side, but later got added to the album. Which meant I had to sacrifice "Mermaid Smiled."

TB: Which was too bad, because it's a beautiful song. But at the same time, I can see why you took one of your songs off, rather than asking Colin to -- you guys were in a very delicate place then. The band had almost broken up during the sessions San Francisco, right?

AP: Oh yeah. There was such a bad atmosphere. Things were going pretty tough, working with Senor Rundgren. It was the first time we'd ever really fought in the studio. Over nothing in particular! So, getting through the album and still being a band at the end of it was quite a feat.

TB: And it ended up being your salvation. "Dear God" was your salvation.

AP: Because it upset people! And radio stations -- you know, they're kind of naughty, too. They figured this was going to piss off a certain part of the community if they played it, so they colluded in that. They began playing the B-side, and it took off, so yeah, it got added to the album, while "Mermaid Smiled" fell on its own sword. [laughs] Fell on its own sharpened bucket and spade.

TB: But managed to come back in the reissues, right?

AP: Yeah. It would have been nice if we could have got everything on, but it would have made the vinyl a bit lopsided.

TB: Let's talk about recording the album version -- Colin's playing his fretless bass?

AP: Yeah, I think he's on the Newport, which is the one that, if you put the damper on, it sounds like a cross between an upright acoustic bass and an fretless electric. There's a lot of buzz and knurl to the sound.

TB: And Dave's playing electric? I assume you're playing mostly acoustic.

AP: Dave's doing the classic Gregory arpeggio stuff. And I'm playing the acoustic. And Prairie's whacking away on the drums there.

TB: Yeah, he has an interesting little thing he does on the snare early in the song, where he lets the stick bounce against the head when he hits every other "three" during the verses. It almost has a slight military feel to it.

AP: Yeah, it's like a continuous rolling sort of feel.

TB: When you were talking to him about the song and telling him what feel you wanted, what kind of language did you use?

AP: I think it was a case of -- not jaunty, but the drums had to keep their head low, just roll on and roll on -- nothing really strident. Usually, I like the drums to be in conversation with the rhythm guitar, and the bass in some way, or even the vocals, but in this one I wanted them just to sort of almost ignore the song and just patter along. Which he does nicely, you know. That was not necessarily the kind of drums we usually do -- it was out of the ordinary for us, to have the drums play a very subordinate, "don't bother me" kind of rhythm.

TB: Finally, what role did Todd play on this song?

AP: I think it was his suggestion for a kid to sing the first verse. I'd told him the title was inspired by these kids' letters to God, and he said, "Well, why don't we have a kid sing the first verse?" And I thought, "Hey, that's kind of interesting." We might have talked about having the kid's voice cross-fade and become mine as the song went on, but in the end, we decided she should sing the first verse.

The only person he knew who could do it was Jasmine Veillette, who was part of a musical family that played bars and things in the Woodstock area. He told us, "Look, she's only 9," or whatever age she was, "and she knows me, but she may really clam up if she sees three strange English fellows staring at her, so could you just get lost for the afternoon while we do this?" So we did.

TB: Oh, sure. You'd get a better performance from her that way.

AP: I think we crept up and peeked in where she couldn't see us, but we waited 'til she'd gone until we came in and heard it. I don't know how many takes it took to get it, but she did a great job. A lot of people think it's a boy singing the part, because of the creepy-looking boy actor from the video, but it's not, it's a young girl.

5:11 PM

©2006 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.