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Nov 12, 2006

Monday, December 04, 2006


Andy discusses 'Peter Pumpkinhead'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Peter Pumpkinhead," is from 1992's Nonsuch.

TB: Let's talk about "Peter Pumpkinhead."

AP: Aha! "The Ballad of"! Songs with "The Ballad of" in the title are always a bit too long, aren't they? [weighty voice] And thus was the case with "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead"!

TB: Why do you think that song is too long?

AP: Actually, I heard it on the radio the other week -- Jonathan Ross, who hosts the big national show on Radio 2 on Saturday mornings, opened the show with it. I hadn't heard the song for years. He played the album version, and I thought to myself, "Yeah, it's actually too long," as in the great tradition of "The Ballad of Whatever," where it's always just one or two verses too damn long. But if you're going to have that in the title, it's got to be too long. You've got to tell the tale.

TB: Ostensibly, it was about a pumpkin you'd had...

AP: A rotting jack-o-lantern...

TB: Well, that was obviously gave you the idea, but the lyrics are not about that.

AP: No, the lyrics are not about a rotting jack-o-lantern. Actually, it was probably the best jack-o-lantern I'd ever made. I just could not bear to throw it away. So I just stuck it on the fencepost, and every day when I'd head down the garden path to the studio, it'd be, "How's old Jack looking today? Oh, boy, he's really caving in."

TB: Cromwell's head!

AP: [laughs] Exactly! It was, yeah. You know, they dug up Cromwell.

TB: Yeah, because he hadn't been punished enough...

AP: He hadn't been punished enough, so they dug him up and messed him up some more. [jive voice] "Yeah, I'm gonna mess you up real bad!"

Yeah, so I'd see the rotting head, and I started to think, "What did he do to deserve to be executed -- to be put on a spike on Traitor's Gate here? He did nothing wrong. He was kind of perfect." And then I thought, "Hmmm, what would happen if there was somebody on Earth who was kind of perfect?" I just started to extrapolate on that idea, and really mess around with it in a kind of Dylanesque way. I thought, "Why don't I come up with 'The Ballad of' -- the ballad of somebody who's pretty much perfect?" And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "god, they'd make so many enemies!" You know, if they really encouraged humanity and humaneness and love and sharing and giving, they would really piss off so many people in power, that those people in power would do everything they could to stop them, including killing them!

TB: We were talking recently about "Dear God," and the people who were so violent in their response to it -- you know that if Jesus came back today, they'd be the first in line looking to string him up. He'd be some hippy radical today that they'd get rid of as soon as they could.

AP: Well, certainly if Jesus came back, he'd be really upset with what they did with his teachings. One reason he'd be really pissed off is because Christianity was a Jewish cult. Then it got this almost anti-Jewish thing to it over the years. He'd come back and say, "No, I'm a Jew, and so are all my followers!"

But I started to think about somebody who could be potentially perfect, and how he would upset people. There is the Jesus thing in there -- you know, his teachings obviously upset the status quo of the Jews and Roman occupiers at the time, and they colluded to have him bumped off. "We'd better shut him up," you know. And it's the same with Peter Pumpkinhead. World governments are saying, "He's preaching that we should share the wealth, that we should not be homophobic and everything -- we'd better bump him off." And so they do. They execute this character. It's just a little fable saying, there's no way you can get away with being perfect.

TB: Let's talk about the music. It's the album starter.

AP: [emphatically] Aren't they the best-recorded tom-toms that you've heard?

TB: It's a beautiful big sound! I've always loved it. Just from the very beginning of plugging the guitar into the amp, you're putting the listener on notice. I thought it was an interesting transition from Oranges and Lemons, which was a very studio-based, bright, in-your-face style of production, where this seemed to be much more of a return to your -- cliche to say it, but your rock-and-roll roots.

AP: That was kind of our intent. And you've got me playing the harmonica, too, which let me get my little Jagger fetish out. [laughs] I'll tell you, although I played the main rhythm guitar in the song, it's actually Dave doing the plugging in. Because that plugging in didn't exist, and I thought, "Wow, this song would be great to open the album with, and what would be a great way of opening it is plugging in your electric guitar to get going, to kick off!" And although we already had the playing, because we'd done the track, we didn't have the plugging in.

So I sent Dave in, and said, "Just crank your amp up, and we'll tape you plugging your guitar in." And god, we must have done about 20 or 30 takes of him just plugging in! Because it was, like, too buzzy, not buzzy enough, too clean and you didn't hear it click in to the guitar, or he'd drop it, or whatever. All that fuss just to get something that was almost supposed to be a little piece of verite -- "This is going to be an electric song, because here he is, plugging his guitar in."

But in the video that was done, Dave has to play the rhythm guitar, to look convincing in the video. But it's me playing the main rhythm guitar on the record, while Dave is doing his trademark arpeggio runs and things -- and playing the Hammond organ rather beautifully, as a matter of fact.

TB: Oh yeah. And Dave Mattacks is playing drums.

AP: Yeah. He did a great job on the song, because he's ludicrously rock-steady. When he hits the rhythm, you don't have to do too many takes. I think it was probably first or second take at most, you know -- it was just so solid right from the top.

TB: Had you guys rehearsed the song a lot?

AP: Sure. We had a couple of weeks in a converted chapel in Swindon -- in the Gorse Hill area of Swindon, for the geographically minded amongst you! It was a converted chapel that had recently opened up as a set of rehearsal rooms, and we just booked the whole lot out for two weeks. And in that two weeks, every morning we'd look at our watches, and say, "Well, Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham are due to be here any minute..."

TB: Oh, right, because they were supposed to be the producers of Nonsuch.

AP: They were supposed to be the producers, yeah. And then literally, in the last few days of rehearsal, we got a message that "Steve Lillywhite's having marital problems, and he's been instructed by his then-wife, the late Kirsty MacColl, to go on holiday to the Caribbean with him to repair their marriage, and he won't be coming to produce your album." So we said, "Oh well, never mind, we'll have Hugh on his own." And I think Hugh's management said, "Oh, no you won't, he'll want twice as much money if he's doing everything," and we said, "Oh no, ouch," you know. "I thought we'd already agreed on the money." We already had the studio booked -- Chipping Norton -- so it was a case of "Oh well, we'll just grab someone else."

Virgin said, "One of the only people we could find who's not working is Gus Dudgeon." And Dave said, "Oh, I like some of the things he's done -- the Bonzos, Elton John," and we said, "Well, okay, we'll have him."

TB: So you didn't interview him or anything like that?

AP: No, we actually met him literally a couple of days before we were due to go into the studio. And [laughing] from the second I saw him, I thought, "He's so wrong." He didn't have to open his mouth, it was just the vibe -- the skin-tight white satin pants, the satin tour jacket, the heavily piled-up hair with lots of hair spray, the flash car, the personalized license plate on the car -- GUS2, or whatever it said. And I thought to myself, as he approached the pub, "He is so wrong".

TB: With 20-20 hindsight, do you still believe that? Because I know Nonsuch is one of your favorite albums.

AP: [pauses] I'll tell you who the giant in the Nonsuch stakes was: Barry Hammond, the in-house engineer at Chipping Norton. His engineering is faultless.

TB: That's how you got that big drum sound?

AP: That's how we got everything to sound a million dollars on the album. Very, very underrated engineer -- never comes up in anybody's list of great engineers. And he's given it all up. I think he now teaches computer. But his engineering was great -- everything sounds so weighty and pristine and shiny and gorgeous.

TB: It's a good-sounding album, to be sure.

AP: Yeah, I think it's one of the two better-sounding albums -- Nonsuch and Oranges and Lemons. That was Ed Thacker doing the engineering on that. Those two engineers are, I think, the best quality engineers we ever worked with. But Barry Hammond got the drums on "Peter Pumpkinhead" to sound that big and that fat.

TB: Going back to my question, what do you think of Gus now, looking back on it? Because I know your attitude about Todd and Skylarking has softened over time.

AP: Well, Gus had it from day one that he was going to sort of break me and get me to behave. He was very headmasterly, and I think that was his way of dealing with people -- to sort of bully them. He'd read that I didn't get on with Todd Rundgren, so he immediately surmised that it had to be my fault. That I was the difficult one, and therefore he better come down on me extra hard from day one onwards!

Which he did. It was rather schizophrenic, because he could be very funny, you know -- he could fart with the rest of the guys and tell dirty jokes and be one of the gang, and then suddenly he'd click into this weird headmaster mode, and go totally the other way, and belittle you and threaten you, and you'd kind of think, "Hang on, that's not the best way to get the goods out of the artist." And he got more and more difficult. For example, when he started, we couldn't get "Rook" to feel right at first, and he just said, "Ah, scrap it, then." That was my favorite track of all the things I'd written for the album, so when he said that, that was it -- the icy winds started to really blow. I thought, "This man does not have our best interests at heart, if he's willing to say 'Just scrap it' about the best song that we have to work with." And then, when he barred me from the mixing of the album, that was the end. That was it.

But back to the song -- do you know, it's one of our straightest songs? I mean, it could almost be someone like Tom Petty or someone.

TB: Did you agree with it as the choice for the single?

AP: Yeah, I think so. I've got to be honest with you, none of my choices for singles, I think, have ever been picked over the years. I always want the more adventurous stuff -- I thought "Omnibus" would have made a great single.

TB: And I know you wanted "Wrapped in Grey"...

AP: "Wrapped in Gray," I think, would have made a good single, and it almost was. Even down to storyboarding a video for it -- everyone thought it was going to be a single.

TB: Until Virgin "smothered it in the crib," as you've said. Let's talk next week, then, about a song you intended to be a single from the start.

AP: Sounds good.

5:42 AM

©2006 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.