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Dec 17, 2006

Monday, January 01, 2007


Andy discusses 'Making Plans for Nigel'

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, "Making Plans for Nigel," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

Happy New Year, everyone!

TB: Let's talk about "Making Plans for Nigel." We've been chatting about the band's singles, and though this is one of Colin's, I knew you could talk about it at length, since you had a lot to do with its arrangement.

AP: He brought the song to us on a nylon-string guitar, strumming it slowly while he sang the melody. It initially sounded like a piece of Judy Felix folk music or something -- it was very slow and rather ponderous, and he had no idea about how it should go.

TB: So he came to you guys looking for arrangement ideas.

AP: Yeah. Terry and I were really enthused about Devo's "Satisfaction" drum rhythm, where they take a normal drum pattern but put the parts on different drums than they'd usually be played on, if you see what I mean. [Sings pattern] Terry and I loved the thinking that they played the "right" rhythm on the "wrong" drums, so we said, "Do you fancy trying something like that for this?" And Colin said, "Yeah, give it a go."

So I said to Terry, "Let's get it into a better tempo, and what you'd normally do on the hi-hat, try it somewhere else." It sounded great on the tom-toms, the 8ths on the floor tom, almost like a red-indian-type thing. And then we just juggled around where the snare and hi-hat and bass drum went. It was that upside-down thinking thing -- right rhythm, and right hands, but "wrong" drums.

As soon as we got that going, I think Terry's comment was [imitates Terry], "Fuck off for a minute, let me learn this, and I'll come and fucking get you when I've got it." So, we'd go and sit in another room, or go out and get a sandwich or something, and he'd sit in there and program himself 'til he could do it. And then it was a case of [TC voice] "Roight, you fuckers, I've fucking got it!" And that was it! He could play anything, no matter how unusual, as long as he kind of programmed himself.

Very quickly, it was decided that we should put the bass guitar on the floor-tom stroke, the 8ths, and then Dave began to chop away, doing a much more syncopated version of the basic chords, on electric guitar. Almost snare-drum-like, you know? And I thought, "Well, what the hell am I going to do?" So I clicked in with Terry's cyclical thing, which I usually did -- Terry's drumming usually spoke much more to me, and vice versa, than anyone else in the band. I picked a repetitive pattern, just a two-note pattern, that went through all the chord changes. Because I'm a lazy git! I've done that on so many of Colin's songs -- I'm just too damn lazy to work up anything more complicated.

TB: [laughing] C'mon now, it's not because you're lazy. It's because you like the frisson that's created when...

AP: You're right -- I like the rub of notes, and I love repetition.

TB: Right! So you serve both masters that way.

AP: This is a classic case of repetition. We have this beautiful repetitive drum thing, so I locked on to that with this two-note, little oriental pattern. That's really how the whole feel of the song came about, because when Colin brought it up, at about half that tempo, on a nylon-string guitar, it was a case of, "Well, this is a great melody, and great subject matter, but it's going to go nowhere like that."

TB: So, you take that two note pattern, and then you flesh it out a bit during the parts when he's not singing...

AP: Yeah, it gets extemporized into that little muted solo, that little sort of muted, clucky solo.

TB: You do a fair amount of that on Drums and Wires -- different sounds, such as when you dampen the notes as you solo.

AP: Yeah, I guess it was another way of looking for new sounds on a guitar, without having a billion and one effects pedals, and stuff like that. I think on some tracks we tried, I even threaded some newspaper through the strings, so it sounded more banjo-like. It was sort of a gentle experimentation of looking for new textures, without necessarily having to click in more effects pedals.

TB: Do you think some of that had to do with Dave's arrival in the band, which meant you had another guitar to compete with?

AP: Yeah, definitely. But Dave's arrival also took a lot of the donkey work off me. He took a lot of that on his shoulders. If you listen to what he plays when he enters the band, and the effect it has on my guitar playing, it's different from when Barry was in the band. Dave does a lot of the backbone chord work, meaning I can play in the holes, I can converse with the drums in a more rhythmic, choppy way, or I can find little plinkety bits and pieces that go in the holes. I couldn't do that stuff when I was singing, so if I was singing the song, I'd have to play more of the backbone sort of stuff, but on Colin's songs, that was Dave's duty -- to be "Mr. Backbone."

TB: The backing vocal you came up with on "Nigel" is quite an integral part of the song. How did that come about?

AP: Literally, as soon as it came up, it was like, "Jesus, this is annoying! But then again, that might be a good thing. That might click with people, if they find it as irritating as I do!" [laughs] It was just a little a little "byoo-doop," sung in a falsetto.

We still loved those high-falsetto, Beach Boys-y answer things. You can hear them all over White Music and Go2, and it only starts to get out of our system over the next few albums. I still love it. I mean, every time I hear "Ca Plane Pour Moi" by Plastic Bertrand, with the [sings high whoo-oohs], I think, "Jesus, why wasn't that me?" [sings in cocktail-lounge voice] "It shoulda been meee!" [chuckles] I love that sort of cod Beach Boys high-plains drifting backing vocals stuff.

TB: You guys did it in a very percussive way.

AP: Yeah, because I use to think percussively. I never thought melodically. I'm a closet drummer. I always thought, "How can I bash the guitar so it sounds like another drum? How can I play a pattern that sounds like a little drum pattern, or a little percussive thing? How can I play the guitar so it sounds like a tambourine, or tablas?"

TB: Plus, you're looking for things that cut through the music, if you're thinking in live-performance terms.

AP: Yeah, you're looking for things that poke through, so you can be heard. You don't want to get swallowed up and buried by the drum kit. So you want to find something that converses with the kit, and makes the clock work. It's a mixture of vanity, where you want to be heard, and of delight in the rhythm -- you're making this funk by fitting in the holes and conversing with the drum kit, rather than with the singer.

TB: This was a pretty high-profile single for you guys -- the first time lots of people heard of you.

AP: And when it came out, British Steel got pretty upset.

TB: They had some PR event, didn't they, to show how well they took care of their workers?

AP: They went and found some Nigels in British Steel factories, and interviewed them, and of course they all said how fantastic their jobs were. I think they probably all lost their jobs within five years of saying that, though.

Funnily enough, two songs we've talked about -- "Senses Working Overtime" and "Making Plans for Nigel" -- have both entered the English lexicon. I've seen them in newspaper headlines --"Making Plans for Nigel" has been used about politician Nigel Lawson, Nigella's father -- Nigella Lawson, that's one woman I'd love to see naked! For goodness sakes, look at those cakes!! [laughs] And then "Senses Working Overtime" has appeared in various places, too.

TB: I even remember seeing it in one story about the U.S. Census.

AP: There you go, then! You can count on us.

5:42 AM

©2007 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.