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Last Updated:
Dec 17, 2006

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Andy discusses 'Mayor of Simpleton'

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, "Mayor of Simpleton," is from 1989's Oranges and Lemons.

TB: So, after the worldwide domination-type success of Skylarking...

AP: Ahhh, don't say that, because that's the name of our first manager's company! I jokingly said to him, "You're going for world domination, are you? You're going to call yourself 'Global Domination Ltd.'?" And he did! And he used to send me memos on his letterheaded notepaper, with this name.

TB: [laughs ruefully] Ah, yes, the man we all know and love as Ian Greed [Reid]. Well, you followed up Skylarking with the bright, shimmery Oranges and Lemons album, with "Mayor of Simpleton" as the single. I suspect this was another case, like "Senses Working Overtime," where you were going for a single. Is that true?

AP: It ended up sounding like a single, but it had a very confused birth, this song. If you've heard "REM Producer Enquiry" from the last of the Fuzzy Warbles, that's how it started. It was a half-speed, quasi-reggae, Quasimodo type of thing! [Sings initial version.] It had a kind of jaunty vocal over this lumbering quasi-reggae thing. I wasn't happy with the music at all. It didn't seem to suit the intent of the lyric, which I thought should have something with more propulsion behind it.

Then I found a little three-note pattern on the guitar -- in ascending order, it was C, D, and open G, and you move it up a tone and it becomes D, G-flat, open G. I think I was kind of messing around with looking for the chords to "Don't Fear the Reaper," to be honest!

TB: [laughing] Seriously?

AP: I'm not joking! I thought, "Wow, isn't that a bit like 'Don't Fear the Reaper'? How does that go? No, that's not it, but that's not bad! That's pretty good, in fact. It's got an essence of the Byrds about it -- that big, ringing open-G thing -- but it's nothing like Blue Öyster Cult, and I wonder if I could fit the lyrics to 'Mayor of Simpleton' over it?" So, I was kind of blundering around with someone else's song, and made the mistake of finding the "Mayor" riff -- it was not what I was looking for, but I found something all my own.

TB: It's interesting to me that you have no problem with taking pieces of songs you've written, or half-written, before, and repurposing them. Other people might have felt protective, and said, "No, those lyrics belong with that melody, and I'm not going to take them apart," but you didn't mind lifting those lyrics and putting them to a new melody, to fit these new chords.

AP: Sometimes you can make a great roof, but the building it's on top of is just not happening. You know, you've made the roof of the Louvre or something, and put it on top of a mud hut! So, you mess around a bit -- and in my case, I blunder -- and then suddenly you sometimes find the key to the rest of the building under it, and you keep at it until it looks in proportion.

TB: It would seem to me to be a valuable lesson for songwriters...

AP: Never throw anything away!

TB: And be willing to cut things up and reassemble.

AP: You can't be precious with your own material. You've got to get the knife into it, and cut it up and hack it about, and be very uncaring about it. Because if you don't, you'll never find the potential goodness in a lot of it. You've got to get in and hack away the dead wood that comes along with a lot of ideas.

But some people don't want to do that. [whines] "They're my words, I don't want to change them!" Sometimes I do co-writes with people -- and I've got to vow to stop doing it, because sometimes I get sent people who just can't write. And I say to them, "Look, this line is great, but those three lines are rubbish, so let's come up with..." [whines] "Oh no, it's my poetry, I can't change it!" And I'll say, "Well, then you're not going to get a good song out of this, because the opening line's really good and the next three are just dogshit!" But they don't have the attitude of, you better be tough on your material, because the whole rest of the world is sure as hell going to be!

TB: And you've got to be willing to sacrifice some of your children so that others may live.

AP: Exactly! In a kind of Scientology way! [laughs] Is that the sort of thing they do? Don't they eat babies and stuff?

TB: [laughing] They do now! "Andy Partridge Reveals the Truth about Scientologists!"

AP: [laughing] Yeah, Scientologists eat babies -- you heard it here first.

TB: Back to the song -- let's talk about the bass line.

AP: Yeah! I'm going to be immodest, because this is part of my drive toward immodesty this year...

TB: Well, the line is yours, after all! It's obvious -- it's there on the demo.

AP: [chuckles] People do these survey things, and say, "Let's vote for Colin's best bass line" or something, and they don't realize that the two bass lines they vote for -- "Vanishing Girl" and "Mayor of Simpleton" -- it's me playing bass on "Vanishing Girl"...

TB: Oh, I didn't know that.

AP: Yeah. Or "What in the World?" -- that's me playing bass as well.

TB: Get out of here!

AP: That's me on bass -- Colin's on rhythm guitar.

TB: And you came up with that bass line?

AP: Yeah.

TB: That's funny -- I've always thought that was him channeling McCartney.

AP: No, we had to cut it live. He obviously couldn't play the bass and the rhythm guitar, and I didn't know how the chords went, so instead of him teaching me the chords, I said, "Look, you play the chords, I'll play the bass, and we'll get this thing done before lunchtime!"

But the one they mention is "Mayor," and Colin had to work very hard to get that bass line. It's very precise. It took me a long time to work it out, because I wanted to get into the J.S. Bach mode of each note being the perfect counterpoint to where the chords are and where the melody is. The bass is the third part in the puzzle.

TB: You do that a lot in your songs.

AP: Yeah, it's a compulsion. On many of the songs I don't tell him which exact notes to play, but with this one, I said, "You have to play this bass line, because it's taken me weeks to work this out." I went through and worked it out a note at a time, to go with where the vocal note was at, where the implied guitar chords were, where the actual notes of the guitar being twanged to make that implied chord were. It was built scientifically, it was [laughs] precision-engineered so that every note is in the perfect place. And I think Colin liked the bass line, because we talked about it sounding like a collegiate peal of bells.

TB: Why did you feel you needed that kind of driving bass line in there?

AP: To keep the song moving, moving, moving. I wanted it to have a fleetness of foot, a joyousness to it. I used to love running as a kid -- in fact, I still dream of running. If I ran now, I'd die of a heart attack in about 30 steps [laughs], but I used to love running, and got really high on it as a kid. I wanted this track to have a sense of fleet forward movement, so the bass had to be very propulsive. The guitars are doing that kind of [sings guitar pattern] -- they almost sound sequenced, but they're not. They're played. I wanted the bass to move against that continuous arpeggio. And of course the drums locked into that as well, with the bass drum really hammering along.

So yeah, it was tough for Colin to get, but he did get it, because we played it live during the radio tour we did, where he would play that line on the acoustic guitar.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics a little bit. Where did you come up with the conceit of feeling inadequate? I know that it's kind of a theme with you, but it's usually centered around money, where you want to provide for somebody.

AP: Oh yeah, there are lots of money worries in my songs. [sighs] I guess I'm being a little bit of a fibber in this song, because I'm not a stupid person. I suppose it's saying that emotion, and the warmth of emotional honesty, is better than some sort of stinging, cold, rather antiseptic brain power. It's better to be not so intelligent and more loving -- quite a simple message. I think I've been criticized for rewriting -- what's that old rock-and-roll song...?

TB: "What A Wonderful World It Would Be." By Sam Cooke.

AP: Was it? I didn't do it on purpose. If I did, it was a subconscious lift. It's not the sort of music I heard as a kid, and when I was old enough to choose my own listening spectrum, I certainly didn't go for old rock-and-roll.

TB: Well, and I think it's a well-worn groove in terms of subject matter.

AP: So, if people see it as a Sam Cooke lift, that wasn't intentional. But I can see that you could find similarities.

I guess there's also a little bit of autobiography in the lyrics. I recently found a load of my school reports -- you look at them, and you can just see my interest in school going down through my teenage years. In my first school reports, I'm pretty good a lot of things, and then I really lose interest. You can see that I'm just not bothering by the time I'm 14 or 15 -- I'm just not bothered with school at all.

It was largely expected that I would fail at everything. But I knew it was not about being academically successful. I knew that that was not going to be important to me. I decided to leave school at 15, rather than go on to grammar school and do another three or four years or whatever it was. [Grammar schools are secondary schools where students are admitted on the basis of academic testing.]

TB: Oh, you left that early?

AP: Yeah. I couldn't wait to get out of school. I detested it. I detested the idiots -- the idiot teachers, the idiot pupils even worse. I was bullied a lot because I was sort of weak and thin and artistic, and I didn't like sports. So yeah, there's some autobiographical aspects to the song.

TB: You did go on to Art School, though.

AP: Yeah, at one time I thought I might want to be a graphic designer. Now that surfaces in sleeve designs and other stuff, but I very soon found out, after a year and a half or so at college, that it was just school, too And of course by then I was getting more and more interested in making music, and I had this craaaazy fantasy that I could have a career in music.

TB: You'd be Big.

AP: I'd be grotesquely large! [laughs] With my own gravity. My own rings.

TB: [laughing] So let's talk about the music a bit. Dave's doing the 12 string in there...

AP: Yeah, Dave's doing his usual stellar work. And Pat Mastelotto's doing a great job on the kit, powering along there. It's actually a mixture of looped stuff and played stuff.

TB: I had read in an interview with him that he recorded all the parts separately -- so, he'd record just the hi-hat, and then he'd record the snare...

AP: I think what happened is, we did a pass where we kept a number of bars of bass drum that felt really good, and then we looped it, and he would then play in certain sections with hi-hat and snare to that. Or maybe he even played them separately! I can't remember.

TB: If I remember the interview correctly, he said he did it because you guys were trying to get the clarity and separation of instruments -- you know, no bleed-through in the mic's.

AP: Yeah, we were trying to get no bleed-through, and I wanted it to have, like "Stupidly Happy," an almost-mechanical sense of propulsion to it. I did not want it to slow down or speed up in any way. So I seem to remember that we started with a few bars of a take of his drum track, but we only kept the bass drum. And then I think we may have lined everything else on top, so many bars at a time.

TB: Structurally there are a couple of cool things that you do in the song. The first is in the bridge, when you change the feel completely. Somebody on the MySpace site the other day commented on how you're the "master of bridges."

AP: [laughs] The Christopher Wren of bridges! Or, no -- Brunel did the bridges.

TB: Yeah, Wren did the churches...

AP: The Isambard Kingdom Brunel of the pop world. That's me. [laughs]

TB: The change of pace in the bridge is intentional, obviously. You probably like doing that in bridges -- setting them apart, I mean.

AP: I do, but I also like to try to involve them in some other way in the song. So, with "The Disappointed," for instance, the bridge becomes the intro. That's a George Martin trick.

But on this one, the change of pace in the bridge was just kind of like a breather -- I wanted to take a breath. I kind of had to slap [producer] Paul Fox's wrist. He really wanted to drop in all these kind of dub echoes in the middle section -- I think there is one weak one, on the word "act," but he was putting those all over, and I said, "No no no no, you're spoiling the propulsion of it!" I felt a little sorry for him there, because he felt as if he couldn't put his fingerprints on that track.

TB: The ending of the song is very distinctive, too. Having sung and played the song in a band myself, the timing's a little weird, but it's very cool and original.

AP: I was very proud of the outro, actually. What we're doing is, I got Colin to play the backing vocal, the "please be upstanding for the Mayor of Simpleton" part -- I said to him, play that part...

TB: But with different phrasing, right?

AP: Yeah. The backing vocal becomes the bass line, but slowed down, and that throws it into this realm where the 4/4 of the guitar and drums becomes dislocated from the implied different timing of the bass. It was a case of "here, try this out," and it just seemed to work beautifully.

And, like "Thanks for Christmas," it's one of those plateau fade-outs...

TB: Right, because it stays on the same chord.

AP: It stays on the same chord, but you're into that suggested dislocated rhythm, because the bass is now playing the backing vocal.

TB: And the backing vocals have a "round" feel to them, where they repeat and intertwine.

AP: Yep. A slight tip of the hat there to something like "Good Day Sunshine." Just call us the Fab Three.

5:19 PM

©2007 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.