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Nov 12, 2006

Monday, December 11, 2006


Andy discusses 'Senses Working Overtime'

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, "Senses Working Overtime," is from 1982's English Settlement.

TB: You talked earlier about how your choices for singles rarely were released as singles. Is that true for English Settlement and "Senses Working Overtime"? Wasn't that your choice from that album?

AP: Yeah, I think it was the obvious choice for the single. And I must admit I was trying to write a single when I wrote it. I remember going into the front room where I lived at the time, which was a couple of rooms above an empty shop, an old Victorian shop front, on King's Hill in Swindon. I used to write in the front room, which had nothing in it other than a sofa and a black wicker-work table with a telephone on it, because it was sort of quiet. [chuckles] Well, I say it was quiet, but it was on a busy main road. All you could hear was the rumble of traffic in there. In fact, there's an early demo of "Senses," I think on Coat of Many Cupboards, of me trying to grasp the structure of the song, and all you can hear is traffic. That was my "quiet" writing room!

So, I went in there and thought, "Well, okay, what were immediate great singles that had you singing them within 10 seconds?" And literally the first one that popped into my head was [sings] "5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1" [imitates beat], you know, the Manfred Mann thing [their hit single from 1964, written as the theme tune for the pop music TV series Ready Steady Go!]. I thought, "Okay, 5-4-3-2-1 -- I'll go 1-2-3-4-5!" So, I thought, "5-4-3-2-1 was like a count-down to something, 1-2-3-4-5 is like adding up -- what is there five of? There are five fingers -- no, really, there are four fingers and a thumb. There are [dumb voice] five seasons! No. There are five senses! Right!"

So I worked on this kind of stomping, idiot pattern, thinking about the five senses. Then I thought, "Well, everyone has five senses, what's great about that? Well, they're not just working, they're going crazy! They're working overtime! They're taking all of life in, and it's too much!" Because life is just too much. It's amazing, you know. Dave, still to this day, thinks I've rewritten [George Harrison's] "All Too Much" by the Beatles. [laughs]

So, I was piecing it together. I had the 1-2-3-4-5, and it was going to be about the senses, and these senses were just going to be going crazy at the fantasticness of the world. And I thought, "Well, I'm going to need a verse." The chorus was in E, and I remember I was playing the chorus, not looking at the guitar, and I stumbled and inadvertently played a part of an E-flat. And I thought, "Fuck, that sounds great! What is it?" And I looked down, and saw I was playing the E wrongly, playing it like a messed-up E-flat, and I thought, "Wow, that sounds really medieval! Let me find another chord that fits with that."

So I messed around until I found two chords that seemed to go together and I thought, "Yeah, this sounds great, it's medieval, it's like pictures from illuminated manuscripts, tilling the soil, and wow, how hard life was in those days. So, I know, I'll make the verse kind of like these little figures tilling the land, and cutting hedgerows, and stuff -- I'll make it as if it's their woes, and their worries, and the things that they'd be singing about -- or the things they'd be fantasizing about." About how the clouds were all made of whey, you know, while worrying if there was enough straw for the donkey, and that. So, because I blundered into this sort of medieval thing by accident for the verse, I thought, "I'll roll with it, I'll write kind of medieval words to it, and we'll go for the rhythm as a sort of medieval single little tight drum."

I didn't know how to join the half-time medieval bit to the great big stomping bit in E, the moronic backwards Manfred Mann bit, but I actually had a song called "The Wonderment" -- the lyrics of which, some of them, went on to become "Tissue Tigers." I took part of "The Wonderment," which was the A to the A suspended part, and then the B to the B suspended. Ending up on the B was a great way of getting into the chorus, because that's the set-up for E, you know. So that was it -- I was going to nab this piece of song called "The Wonderment," and have that.

And I came up with the words pretty quickly -- about the world being biscuit-shaped, or football shaped.

TB: Once you had the song structure together, the words just kind of flowed out?

AP: Yeah, I got the chorus first, and then I blundered into the medieval verse, which I kind of went whole hog into -- even down to, in the studio, doing some plague-ridden backing vocals. [imitates low vocals that are in background during the song verse] I said, "Look, can we sing these backing vocals like we're really suffering? Like, you know, your youngest has got the plague." [laughs] They were known as the "Lady Di vocals," because Colin said, "What are we singing, are we singing, 'Lady Di Di'?" And I said, "No, it's just like [sings vocals], it's like 'If I Was a Rich Man' or something!" It's just kind of wretched land-people noises, okay? It's the sort of thing you'd sing under your breath if you were trying to get your plow kick-started on a frosty morning!

I asked Terry, "Can we get a little medieval drum thing going here?" So he used a roto-tom for that verse rhythm, and combined that with that one-drop kind of reggae bass-drum thing in there, too.

TB: Going through the Snyper, no doubt.

AP: Yep. That was an odd little mixture, the reggae one-drop drumming with his foot, combined with 13th-century England with his hand! Altogether, it came out pretty well.

I wasn't sure once we'd finished recording it whether it was a single, but it came to life as me trying to write a single. I actually thought that it came out a bit too complex, once we'd finished it, for it to be a single, because there was that middle section as well.

TB: Which Virgin cut back for the single...

AP: They did, yeah. They hacked a few bits of that out.

TB: Did you have anything to do with that at all, any input?

AP: No, it was Virgin saying, "We're just going to cut some of this out, because it's too long, and radio won't like it."

TB: I read somewhere that the imagery of "and busses will skid on black ice" was too scary for them.

AP: No, I think it was a case of how they could make it shorter, to not upset DJs in the time stakes. I don't think they needed to cut anything out, but they did like to meddle in our songs continuously. I mean, look at "Life Begins at the Hop" -- in the single version, they cut out every fourth line! So nothing rhymes in it! [laughs] How's that for great record-company interference?

So, they chopped that out of there. Later, I heard that somebody had played the song on some speakers that were out of phase, and all they could hear was me doing the sort of contrary vocal interjections about the matches, England's Glory.

TB: What prompted you to put in those interjections? Free association?

AP: I love matchbox art. In fact, matchbox art has occurred in several songs -- that one, and also "River of Orchids." The Peckham Rose is a brand of matches.

TB: And "a striking beauty" is England's Glory's tagline?

AP: That's it. One of them, anyway. I was just being a little English there, a little bit of English trivia. But because this character played this on out-of-phase speakers, the only thing that was really clear to him were these words -- but he got them wrong! He thought it was something like, "Striking at me!" And then he theorized, "This is why Andy isn't touring anymore -- he's been murdered in the studio! Someone has struck at him." Yeah, sure! So, I'd sing that -- "Help, I'm being struck, I'm being murdered right now!" And then I'll just go on to sing the last choruses, then I'll be around for the mixing, and then I'll die. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] How polite of you. How veddy English.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, I know, I know. Speaking of being English, I like the crows on the song, too. We got them off some sound-effects record. I wanted it to be very English, and I thought, "What's the sound that you hear in your head when you think of the plowing medieval serf? The sound you're going to hear is the jingle of harnesses -- and crows cawing!" So, we had to get some crows. I think they're crows, anyway. Maybe some ornithologist out there will write in and say, "No, they're rooks, actually." But, to me, that was important to put the final full stop of the medieval thing we had going on there.

TB: Tell me about the video.

AP: That one was done really quickly, in Shepperton Studios while we were rehearsing for the English Settlement tour. And so that's us rehearsing. I can't remember the name of the filmmaker, but he said, "Look, I've got an idea where we play you the song at twice the speed, you mime it at twice the speed, and then when we slow the film down to normal speed, all of your motions will still be in sync, but you'll be [slowly] much more graceful. And that's been used a hell of a lot since then, but I think we were the first ones to do it.

6:30 AM

©2006 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.