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Jan 21, 2007

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Andy discusses 'Statue of Liberty'

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, "Statue of Liberty", is from 1978's White Music.

TB: Let's talk about "Statue of Liberty."

AP: Do you know what I heard today? I hadn't heard it for many, many years, but I heard "Made in Heaven" by Be Bop Deluxe. They were quite a sort of a template for us -- well, sort of a template for me -- pre-White Music.

TB: What did you find compelling about them?

AP: I liked the succinctness of them. I could see what they were aiming for, and they were obviously aiming at and hitting it much better than we could. I think things like "She's So Square" sound almost like ersatz Be Bop Deluxe, but not played as well, or as tight.

But what they were aiming for was a noble thing. It was almost like all the good parts of Yes condensed down to a few drops. Whereas Yes were a little long and flaccid in places, Be Bop Deluxe had the best, tight side of Yes, and distilled it and squished it down. And I thought, "Hey, that's not a bad template."

So, "Statue of Liberty" almost has Be Bop Deluxe in the back of my mind. I also think I wanted to write a Lou Reed Rock and Roll Animal thing, like "Sweet Jane" -- the very simple [sings pattern] three-chord thing. It was a matter of, "Well, if Lou Reed can do something great with three dumb chords like that, I'm sure I can."

It would have been 1976 when I wrote this. Marianne and I had two very cheap rooms next to the shunting yard at Swindon Station, in Swindon's red-light district, which is sort of all around the Manchester Road area. I was living in No. 7 Gladstone Street -- there's a Victorian-sounding street for you! They were tiny Victorian houses, but they'd been split up into two two-room flats. You shared the lavatory with the people downstairs.

We both worked at Kilroy's department store, and we stole a role of blue felt, which was ostensibly used for window dressing. The flat was disgusting, so we covered everything in it with blue felt. We stapled it all over the sofa, which was rotten and decaying. We stapled a load of blue felt over the grotesque table. We made blue-felt curtains, blue-felt carpet -- I mean, everything was covered in blue felt.

TB: [laughing] So, this was your Blue Felt period.

AP: [laughs] This was my Blue Felt period, yeah! We made a bed cover -- actually, it got so damp in the bedroom that we ended up living in just one room. We'd lay in sleeping bags, and stick our feet in the oven to warm them up, then turn it off and fall asleep with our feet in the oven, because it was that cold. [Old-man, West-country accent] But 'ey, we were 'appy! [laughs]

But I was sat there, banging around these three chords, thinking, "If Lou can do it, so can I!" And I remember she was ironing -- she used to love ironing for some reason, I don't know why -- and she got the ironing cable all tied up, and she was holding it in the air, sort of trying to let the cable unwind itself. And her hair was -- I don't know if she'd just washed it and it was all sticking all over the place, or whatever -- but I looked up, and I thought, "Jesus, she looks like a weird, futuristic version of the Statue of Liberty, holding this hot iron with her arm up in the air like that and a handful of washing in her other arm, like the book or something."

And I thought, "Wow! Statue of Liberty!" And bleaargh! that was it, that just became the lyric. No more, nothing deeper than that. It was just one of those things you fall into. [sings] "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa-ah, whoa, my Statue of Liberty, boop boop!" Like a sort of a tugboat, you know? Sort of a Steamboat Willie tugboat there. [laughs]

So, there's not too much to tell you about this. It came very quickly. It doesn't particularly mean anything -- it was just the idea that I thought she looked like the Statue of Liberty untangling the flex from the iron.

TB: At the same time, you take a step further. It's one of the reasons I liked you guys from the beginning, because you were a little smarter and funnier than the other bands out there.

AP: [Yogi Bear voice] Smarter than your average band! Yeah, we had all the pick-i-nick baskets from the other bands...

TB: [laughing] Exactly, you stole them all. But, you know, the whole thing about sailing "beneath your skirt" -- there's a very arch sense of humor to this song.

AP: Yeah. Obviously, I was sailing beneath her skirt, but it's the idea of Lady Liberty, and you kind of sail beneath her skirt to reach [dramatic voice] the Land of Freedom, or whatever. And it's just a metaphor for pussy, I'm sure of it! But it got the record banned by the BBC.

TB: Which is always a good thing for publicity.

AP: It's great, but it's so stupid. They were playing Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," where people are giving head. Obviously, no one knew what that meant at the BBC!

TB: [laughs] Which is pathetic enough, when you think about it!

AP: [laughing] It really is. Anyway, I think John Peel liked the song. He was very, very instrumental in us getting a record deal. We played at Ronnie Scott's club in London -- they used to have jazz downstairs, and then a scummy bar upstairs where they'd put on rock music. We had sent him a cassette of some demos, and he obviously liked them enough that he came along to the gig. That night, he particularly mentioned that he liked "Statue of Liberty."

He gave us a session on his BBC show, because of going to that gig. And then, because we got a session on the BBC on the John Peel show, record companies became interested, more people wanted to book us for gigs-- it was like suddenly we had this big rubber stamp of approval. He was very, very instrumental in eventually getting us a record deal.

TB: May he rest in peace. Other people can get an idea of what you guys looked like playing this song, because it made it on to the Old Gray Whistle Test DVD that's been out.

AP: Yeah. There was also a promotional video made for it, which is just us dicking around in a tiny studio, and I think there's a cardboard cutout Statue of Liberty that we're probably abusing and mucking about with. But I think we did four songs for the Whistle Test, and they ended up using two or three. "Statue of Liberty" is one.

[dramatic, sorrowful voice] And I was thin, and I had hair! Arrrrgh! I was looking a little "Brian Jones" at that point, with my pudding-basin haircut.

TB: You were all looking younger, and playing well.

AP: Yep. Terry did his good, solid tub-thumping drumming. Barry played great, and I always thought it was very good how Colin fitted his vocal exactly to mine. Those were the days where we didn't always talk about the harmonies -- we either felt them instinctively, or there was no harmony. We were still very naïve at that stage.

TB: You were quite the performer, really mugging for the camera.

AP: Why did I sing like that? Desperate to be remembered, that's what it was.

TB: Well, let's talk about that a little bit, because that always struck me as kind of a '50s/'60s-type hiccupping vocal.

AP: It's almost that rather trashy kind of hiccupping Buddy Holly, almost "dial-up a corny rock-and-roll vocal." You've got your slapback echo on it, with lots of hiccups triggering off the echo. I guess I found that easy to do. Plus, the seal-bark bits were easy to get over on shit PAs, where you couldn't sing "e" sounds -- you had to turn any "e" sounds into "oooh" sounds, or else you wouldn't be heard, they'd just disappear.

TB: Having sung through my share of shitty PAs, I figured it had to have something to do with that.

AP: There's a practicality to it. It's a mixture of practicality for crap PAs, and the cartoon rock-and-roll voice.

TB: Were you consciously doing that to set yourselves apart from the snarling punk and new wave vocals of the time?

AP: Yeah, I think so. I didn't want to sing in a London accent, because I didn't have a London accent, I had a...

TB: West country accent.

AP: Exactly. Our managers begged us not to tell anyone that we came from Swindon, but it was obvious the second that we opened our mouths. Especially Terry. He was the living Troggs tape! [laughs] But our managers would sit us down, and say, "Look, do not tell anyone you come from Swindon. If they ask you where you're from, say Mars, anywhere -- do not say you're from Swindon."

And of course, immediately we'd spoil that by talking about Swindon in all the interviews. We were proud of coming from England's comedy town! It was like a perverse badge of honor.

But I sang like that on purpose, because I didn't know how to sing, I didn't think I had a very good voice, and so I thought, "I'm going to grab something that people will remember." I also liked the idea of kind of dubbing yourself as you sing -- you're chopping the words up like you're punching them in and out, or something. I think the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack has got a lot to answer for.

TB: And that is very '50s-based rock.

AP: Yes. I liked the kitschness of the idea of the rock-and-roll voice, so I thought, "I can do that." If you mix that with the need to change vowel sounds to be heard through crap PAs, what you end up with is how I sound for at least two albums.

TB: Speaking of crap PAs and your singing style, your love of percussion comes across in these vocals -- "I lean right over to kiss your stony booK." You're really emphasizing the consonants there.

AP: Oh yeah, if you're singing along with a flatback echo or whatever, it triggers off another K-k-k-k.

What does it say on the Statue's book? Do you know what it says on Liberty's stony book?

TB: Oh, um ... I think it says July 4, 1776, in Roman numerals.

AP: Oh, a finger to the British, is it?

TB: Kind of. Given to us by the French, of course!

AP: [laughs] Oh, then it's going to be a finger to the British, isn't it. The funny thing is, this song always went down well in France -- maybe it was because of "Liberty" -- they knew what that meant.

TB: Maybe! You could have also sung [sings] "Egalité! Fraternité!"

AP: [laughs] Stick it to the Englishé!

5:16 PM

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