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Dec 17, 2006

Monday, December 18, 2006


Andy discusses 'Thanks for Christmas'

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, "Thanks for Christmas," is from the 1983 single of the same name by The Three Wise Men, XTC's first alter-ego band (shades of things to come with the Dukes). The song can now be found on Rag and Bone Buffet, the band's collection of scraps and singles compiled in 1990.

The 1983 single had "Countdown to Christmas Party Time" (also found on the compilation above) as its B-side. We also discuss in the interview below as a bit of a holiday present, since we've decided to take next week off. The next interview will be posted in time for the New Year.

As we take this week off, everyone involved with the XTCfans site would like to wish all of our friends -- MySpace and otherwise! -- a restful holiday, and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2007.

TB: So, given the season, you've got to know what song I'm going to ask you about...

AP: Yes, you're going to ask me about, "Let's All Have a Groovy Lammas"! [Laughs] Um, let me see, the season being Crispmess -- like your hair, when you've been gelling it too much, you end up with a crisp mess! Aw, you're going to ask me about "Thanks for Christmas," aren't you?

TB: Exactly.

AP: [effete voice] "But who is Andy thanking? Is it a loving God he's thanking?" That's the sort of stuff people would ask. No, I'm just saying thanks. Just thanks! You know, the same thing you thank when the shit comes out smooth, or when you find that public lavatory when you're really bursting! You just think, "Oh, thank you.

TB: [laughing] You're thanking the Powers-That-Be, no matter what they be.

AP: Exactly. "The Gods" -- plural.

TB: So, what are you going for with this song? It sounds sort of Phil Spector-ish at the beginning.

AP: Oh, Phil Sphincter! [laughs] The tightest producer there ever was! Actually, I didn't intend for us to do it. It was written purely as a fun thing. I like the idea of anonymous music, and I thought I'd put together a song and then find an act to do it.

I had noticed after a few trip up to Virgin records for something or other that almost everybody who worked there on the female side seemed to be called Mary. You know, there was Mary in reception, or Mary in international promotions...

TB: Maybe they weren't actually named Mary. Maybe Richard Branson just couldn't remember their names, so he sent out a memo...

AP: [laughing] That's right, "You're all called Mary from now on!" No, it was just pure coincidence. There happened to be a lot of Marys working there, and I thought, "Wow, we could do the backing track, and get a whole bunch of the secretaries that work at Virgin to sing it, just for the thrill of labeling them 'The Virgin Marys' "! But Virgin just wouldn't go for it.

TB: Why not?

AP: I don't know. Maybe they thought, "Nobody's going to play an act called the Virgin Marys at Christmas. It's just too piss-takey." So, we decided to do it, but decided to still keep it anonymous, labeling ourselves "The Three Wise Men." We got to do a kind of Christmas Dukes, as it were.

Of course, the best kind of Christmas records, or the ones that seemed to set the template, were those Phil Spector records, and then the Beach Boys carried on the tradition with an ersatz Spector sound. So we went for the Woolworth's Wall of Sound! [laughs]

TB: With the drums, and the bells -- only no guns.

AP: Yeah, no guns! Nobody was threatened with a loaded revolver.

TB: Well, 'tis the season for Peace on Earth and all that...

AP: A loaded piece on Earth! [laughs] Yeah, so, I cannot remember how we got to working with David Lord. He's the "Good Lord" who's credited on the sleeve as the co-producer.

TB: Right. This was recorded between Mummer and Big Express. So, was this your introduction to him?

AP: Yeah, he'd been recommended, and this was a case of auditioning him. You're reminding me, it's all coming back to me through the dry ice of time...

TB: The Ghost of Christmas Past...

AP: The dry ice and lasers of Christmas Past! Yeah, it was an audition, to see how we got on with him. I thought he was excellent, which is why he got the Big Express job. He got a good sound, and was very musically sensitive. He's a great arranger, actually, though we pretty much arranged this song ourselves -- he just tweaked a few little bits here and there.

We didn't want the band to be too identifiable, so both Colin and I sang the lead vocal.

TB: Is that the only song in your catalog where that's the case?

AP: Yes it is. It was done for disguise purpose, so you couldn't really catch the timbre, because it was a blend of the two of them. It's actually equal on the fader, although thinking about it, maybe my timbre is a bit more distinctive than Colin's and I seem to win the battle of the sounds there. But it was equal faders, in an attempt to blend us so nobody went, "Oh, that's just Andy," you know.

TB: Is that true even during the bridge? It sounds like you by yourself there.

AP: Yeah, I think I break out on my own at the bridge. But all the rest of the song it's our voices blended together equally.

TB: Does Dave sing on it as well?

AP: I think he's in the chorus sections, but not doing any lead stuff. You know, I haven't heard it for ages, and seeing how we're having the anti-Christmas in the house this year, I'm not even playing any Christmas music.

TB: Really? Why is that?

AP: I used to go excessively over the top when the kids were younger -- it used to look like Santa's grotto in here. I'd paint the windows in the front room to look like stained glass. I'd paint medieval farming themes, wintery-looking non-denominational scenes [laughs] -- there'd be Buddha in a nice white robe with a beard, climbing down a chimney...

TB: [laughing] No depictions of Mohammed, though, because that would be sacrilege.

AP: [amusedly and emphatically] Absolutely none! No, never never never touched it, no sir, not me.

But now the kids are grown up and the audience is gone, so I'm not going to do the gig, you know? I've been really sickened by the commercial side of Christmas -- I saw Christmas stuff advertised in late August here. I think there should be a law that nothing, absolutely nothing should be advertised until a week before Christmas, and then you can do it.

TB: [sarcastically] Oh, but you know, Andy, there is a law. The Law of the Market.

AP: Yeah, that's no law at all. That's the law of the jungle.

TB: That's the truth. Tell me about the key change as you go into the "it's dawning" part.

AP: One of the few key changes we've ever had in our music. But, you know, those Phil Spector kind of records have key changes. It was done as sort of a "what would they do" thing, and so we had a key change.

TB: I paused for a second when I was talking about where the key change happened -- I was going to call it the chorus -- but this song strikes me as one of those songs that you and I have talked about where verse and chorus meld together.

AP: The vhorus!

TB: Exactly. You've talked about how Bacharach was famous for doing this, but others do it as well.

AP: Oh yeah. Most of the world's great songs have the vhorus construction. It's kind of tricky to put into words, but I'll have a go. Instead of your looking at your chorus as simply a ramp between the verse and the bridge, what you do is you smash all of that together to form what -- and it's not a real word -- I call the vhorus. Let me think of some classic vhorus songs. Most of the Bacharach/Davis stuff is.

TB: I remember you using "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" as a good example...

AP: Right, the vhorus usually opens with the title line. The structure is typically this -- title line, then an answer to that title line, title line again, and then a rhyming answer to the answer line. Then whiddle-whiddle-whiddle-whiddle-whiddle-whiddle-whee, ending back up on title line. And that last part is all one chunk.

TB: And, melodically, it's the hook. You're leading with the hook, with what could be the chorus if you were following an ABACAB structure.

AP: Yep. You're leading with the hook, you're leading with the title line, and you keep hammering that title line over and over and over. Another good example of a vhorus is "Yesterday." Although, instead of the pattern I talked about above, he sings the second and third lines -- [singing] "and then they end on title line."

So that's the typical vhorus thing. Most of the world's great songs are vhorus shapes. So, to all you people out there who want to be great songwriters -- don't dick around with verse/chorus/bridge shit. Just get straight in there, like the masters! The verse is the chorus, the chorus is the verse.

I think it's a more old-fashioned, but a more ironclad form of memorable songwriting. It's a form that hasn't been bettered. It's like a table. No one's really come up with a better form for sitting and eating your dinner at than a table, and I don't think anyone's come up with a better structure for the pop song than the vhorus shape.

TB: Off the top of your head, what other XTC songs would you point to as having that construction?

AP: Hmmm, let me see. "I'd Like That" is vhorus-esque. "I am the Vhorus," goo goo g' joob! [laughs] That's the German version! "The Disappointed" is another. I'd have to really sit down and think about this, but I'd say quite a few are.

TB: On to the music and players -- Pete Phipps is playing drums on this?

AP: No, it's Linn drum, programmed in my kitchen. It's mixed quite low, with lots of handclaps and tambourines and sleigh bells to sort of blur the robot drum.

TB: The Linn was quite new then.

AP: Oh yeah. It was like, "Wow, it has to be on everything!" Those awful Linn years. [laughs ruefully] Though, there's not as much Linn drum on The Big Express as people think there is. That really is a fallacy.

We really played up the Linn drum on the B-side, "Countdown to Christmas Party Time," which is sort of ersatz Michael Jackson or something.

TB: Let's give the readers a special Christmas bonus discussion about that song!

AP: [laughs] Nice word -- bone-us! That's the kind of word that Michael Jackson would like to discuss with you. "Michael's going to give you his bonus for Christmas."

TB: [laughing, small voice] No thank you, Mr. Jackson! So, was the song just a bit of silliness, along the line of the dub experiments, where you had some extra studio time?

AP: Well, we knew we had to have a B-side with "Thanks for Christmas," and it was a case of, "Well, let's just go all-out stupid funky!" For a laugh, you know. "It's not our style, but let's just do it because we're not XTC, we're this group called 'The Three Wise Men,' and who knows what they sound like?"

Erica Wexler is singing and yelling in the backing vocals on that, you know. She dropped by Crescent Studios to visit me, and I played her a song I was working on called "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her."

TB: Ah, so she's the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

AP: Yeah! [laughs] But wasn't that more doom-y, though?

TB: Yeah, but it was up to Scrooge to change his ways, to make the choice and determine his future.

AP: Right. So, she appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but she's in high heels and negligee, pointing to a bed!

TB: [laughing] There you go, instead of a gravestone.

AP: Exactly. But that's possibly her only appearance on a bonified XTC record.

TB: So, what else is on the song? Sequencers, keyboards, guitar, bass...

AP: It's all real instruments, apart from the ludicrously unswinging Linn drum -- very early '80s, "Ghostbuster" programming. It's pretty funk guitar playing, you must admit!

TB: Yeah! It's you on electric, and Dave on keyboards?

AP: Yep. We had to have that cheesy bass synth in there. And, do you know, I think we may have sped my voice up, just a bit -- again, to hide the identity a bit.

TB: So, let's get back to the main part of our show, and talk about who's playing on "Thanks for Christmas."

AP: You know, I can't remember who played the trumpet! The engineer, Glenn Tommey -- bless his little cotton ears -- said, "You know, chaps, I can play trumpet!" And we said, "Great! Wow, this is going to save us a packet." So he dashed home in his car, and brought his trumpet in -- and he was awful! Couldn't get a fucking sound out of it. It was like, "Glenn, we should be suing you under the Trades Description Act! We just want a simple little phrase, and you can't even get a rasp out of this thing!" [laughs] We wasted hours trying to get him to -- I mean, I don't know what was on his mind, whether he played one as a kid, and he still had it, and he thought he could just click back into being Miles Davis again, but it was awful!

So, I don't remember who we did get to play. Probably some musician's union person that we picked out of a book or something.

TB: You're playing acoustic, and Dave's playing 12-string, right?

AP: Dave's playing his Rickenbacher, yeah. And I think it's him on Prophet V doing the xylophone part. And as I think of the song more, I'm not sure it qualifies as a true vhorus song. It's a more standard format but just starts with the chorus -- it has the verse and chorus flipped.

And it's a little on the long side, actually! But I like the fade-out, where it goes into "plateau mode." That's quite a nice vibe, actually.

TB: What do you mean by plateau mode?

AP: It becomes kind of a flat surface at the end -- it just stays on one chord, while we lay the several themes over each other. I like that smooth plateau that it goes out on.

TB: I remember the sleeve of the single as being pretty funny.

AP: That's me, Dave and Colin there, with a little padding -- a little extra padding! -- under our hired Three Wise Men costumes, and the most ludicrous fake beards. They were held on with white elastic, and I think you can see it.

On the back of the sleeve, there's a picture where Colin's holding a fake book that I'd made: "What's On in Bethlehem." [laughs] You know, because when they've done their worshiping, they want a great night out -- they've come a long way, you know!

And on the label, I got Design Clinic to clean up a sketch I'd made -- it's the Three Wise Men, coming over a sand dune toward the stable. Two of them are on camels, and one's got a tricycle.

All in all, I'm proud of the song. You know, more and more people tell me that they hear it played in stores over the speaker systems during the holidays.

TB: Oh yeah, I know I do. Every year.

AP: I don't see much in the way of money for that! [laughs] You know, nobody comes to my door with bucket of coins...

TB: As they should!

AP: As they should. [chuckles]

6:16 AM

©2006 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.