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Last Updated:
Feb 19, 2007

Monday, February 26, 2007


Andy discusses 'Respectable Street'

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, "Respectable Street," is from 1980's Black Sea.

AP: I saw Respectable Street the other week.

TB: You did?

AP: Yeah, I was visiting Stuart Rowe, who's building a nice little home studio.

TB: Yeah, he and I have been corresponding, actually.

AP: Oh really?

TB: Yeah, because I've been enjoying the podcasts that you've been doing with him. He's a nice guy.

AP: He is, he's very pleasant indeed. And he's not the one who deafened me! [laughs] For the record. I wouldn't be hanging around with him and allowing him near controls in a studio, if I thought it was him.

TB: He's working with Barry now?

AP: Yeah, he's mixing Barry's new album! Anyway, I was visiting him, and I was reminded that Respectable Street is actually a street in Swindon called Bowood Road that was diagonally opposite where I lived when I wrote the song. I used to stand in the front room of the two-room flat where we lived at the time, which had a lot of heavy traffic going by.

TB: Was this the same two-room flat that you and Marianne were in when you wrote "Statue of Liberty"?

AP: Oh no, this was another one, three places later. This was actually above an old shop, which has now converted to several flats. I used to stand in the front room, in the area where I used to do most of the writing -- it was a little space where I could lay out my amplifier and a cassette player and a microphone and a few effects, or whatever -- and I'd stand there looking out the window, and there was Bowood Road. I noticed that several of the houses had this very English thing: a caravan -- a trailer -- in the front garden. And I thought, "I've never seen those move! They must be like status symbols, telling people 'We could go away, if we choose to.' "

TB: [laughing] It's like the Monty Python skit in "The Meaning of Life," where the uptight Protestant tells his wife "I could use a condom -- if I chose to," in response to the "Every Sperm Is Sacred" song...

AP: [laughs] Right. "Could you"? Yeah, so I'd be thinking, "The caravans in those front gardens never go anywhere." And at the time, while I was living in these really wretched little flats, the sort of normal middle-aged life in those sort of houses seemed a thousand miles, a million miles away from me.

I'd found a nice, rather kind of jagged chord change -- the opening B, and then the really strange-sounding G-flat 7. So, I was working on this song, and I was kind of annoyed that the woman who lived next door to us at the time was always banging on the wall if I had my stereo system on, just even barely audible. It really annoyed me, because we weren't a noisy pair. We called this woman "Mrs. Washing," because she washed everything. You know, you'd look out on the clothes line, and you'd see shirts, and then you'd see mats, and then you'd see shoes. We said, "One of these days it's going to be small pieces of furniture, or the dog."

TB: Or children...

AP: Or children, exactly! So I guess the song grew out of the annoyance with her, and the million-miles-away respectable people living on Bowood Street opposite, and the hypocrisy, the veneer of respectability, of the "curtain twitchers," as they're called. They get behind the lace curtains and have a look -- down their nose -- at what's going on. And I was in my mid-20s, and people were decidedly looking down their nose at me. [jive voice] I was poor, man!

TB: [laughs] Well, you were not just poor, but you were a rock-and-roll musician, too.

AP: Yeah! I was either a "jumped-up, tuppenny, ha'penny ticket writer," or I was a long-haired lay-about. [chuckles] A cut-purse! A lie-a-bed! A ne'er do well -- and obviously doing that horrid, horrid rock music.

TB: Although, for a lay-about, you were working very hard at that point.

AP: At the point when I wrote that, we were touring ourselves stupid. It was in the midst of touring hell. When they'd give you a few weeks off to write an album -- I don't know how I did it! I guess I must have had some mental process of shuffling away songs in the back of my head or something, and they all spewed out the moment I got home from a tour -- because I knew, within a matter of weeks, we'd be in the studio working on that next album.

TB: So you wouldn't actually write while you were on the road? You wouldn't sit back in your hotel room and mess around with ideas?

AP: Occasionally, but not much came out. We did a lot of traveling around, just in a little van, and I remember stopping off at these service places in the States, for example, and buying what I thought were quite swish plastic folders that contained yellow lined paper -- I'd never seen yellow lined paper before! I'd sit and just write phrases or ideas, or design games and all sorts of stuff like that. Just doodling.

TB: Right, just language-based stuff. Not music.

AP: No, it was all words -- phrases that I liked, or ideas for lyrics, or just odd words that I liked, where I'd think, "This is either a song title, or it's the springboard to push my brain toward a song idea." But I don't think I ever wrote one whole song. Sometimes we'd run through ideas in soundcheck. I remember running through the idea for "Leisure" in soundchecks a few times. But mostly it all came out in one kind of mass vomit after the end of the tour.

TB: Do you think that the touring could have helped with that, because you would have been so immersed in music and in being a working, touring musician, that by the time you got home and had a bit of leisure, and were able to focus on something else besides just performing that night and making it through the day, it allowed the creativity to flow a little more easily?

AP: Maybe! Maybe I was just in a constant musical place. The deadlines were insane, but it never worried me, and I don't know why. I think the longest we ever had to work on an album was about five weeks.

TB: Was that to write and rehearse, or just to write?

AP: We'd usually get about three weeks of peace, and then it'd be, "Have you got the new album yet?" [laughs ruefully] And of course there'd be no demo'ing, other than just strumming it into a cassette player with an electric or acoustic guitar, and stomping your foot, or with a little Hammond drum box bonking away, you know. All those little lounge-y "tock tock" sounds. And then you'd get into rehearsal, and you'd still be squeezing them out during rehearsal time as well.

Of course, every time I moved to a new place, I'd have to be like some kind of dog, and scratch and make the surroundings my own, you know? And along with that, it was a case of, "I wonder if any new songs are going to fall out when we move to this new place." But they did -- sure they did, tons of them did.

TB: Moving probably helped with that, I would imagine. Being in a new context kind of shakes you up.

AP: Yeah, maybe it had a good effect! But I remember being concerned about it, thinking, "Ooh, I just got cozy in Number 12 Manchester Road."

TB: A lot of people would argue that coziness is almost the death of creativity.

AP: Oh yeah, I think it is. I mean, I'm feeling a bit squashed by coziness right now. So I've got to do some stuff to shake me up, I think.

But once I wrote the song, and I remember thinking, "This is kind of English. It couldn't be any other nation I'm talking about here." So I decided it should have kind of a Noel Coward-esque intro. [veddy posh voice] You know, short of me actually singing it like Noel! [laughs] I can't remember what they used to call it -- it had a name in old musical terms -- I think it was known as the verse. Where it was the actual funny little bit of the song that is sort of the preamble to the real song. It was very common at one time. I think it was called the verse! I may be wrong on this, but I'm sure somebody can correct me.

TB: And what you're using is actually the bridge.

AP: Well, it became the middle. And that's a trick I've used a lot since. It's a case of "Well, we've already heard it once -- we've had a prequel! Now we can have the actual thing in the middle, in the same tempo, with the same music bashing away." But I quite like the idea of giving it this Noel Coward-esque beginning, because of its Englishness, you know.

TB: And it makes it a great album starter as well. Was there ever any question that you'd start the album with this song?

AP: I don't think we knew whether it was going to be an album starter. When we gave it that messed up, telephonic-sounding, old-78 beginning, with the scratch sounds on it, I thought, "Ooh, is this going to be a starter or not? Is it going to give people the right idea? Because it doesn't go crash straight away." But I think it was a good way of easing people into the Englishness of it.

TB: Oh, and I think it makes the crash -- when you do crash into it -- more effective!

AP: It's the contrast of it, yeah. Virgin quite liked "Respectable Street" when we delivered it, but they said, "You're never going to get it played on the radio, with words like 'abortion,' and 'contraception,' and stuff like that." So they made us go in and do a cleaned-up version, which I rewrote -- I changed "abortion" to "absorption," and "contraception" became "child prevention." Pointless, really. Totally and utterly pointless, it turns out, because even though we did a different vocal take -- and a much better mix, I think...

TB: Really? You like the single mix better?

AP: Yeah, I think the single mix is much punchier. But even though we did a punchier mix, with a "cleaned up" vocal, the BBC still wouldn't play it. For many years I didn't know why, and years later, I found out the reason they wouldn't play it was because of the phrase, "Sony Entertainment Centre."

TB: Because they were worried about you saying a trademarked name?

AP: It was a trademarked name. It was the same reason the Kinks had to change "Coca Cola" to "cherry cola."

And interestingly, when we did the remix for the single, each time we got to the last verse I could hear this backing vocal, it was like a high-pitched note. And it's Terry! Terry had made some sort of mistake, or maybe he thought he'd made a mistake, but he got to the last verse, and he was actually yelling in anguish. The note he arrives at is kind of in-tune with the track!

TB: During the "Sunday church and they look fetching" part, right?

AP: Yeah! He's not singing along backing vocals -- because he's no Don Henley, you know? [laughs] But he was thinking we had to do another take or something, because we used to do pretty much everything live then.

TB: And it can be hard to punch-in drums.

AP: Right! So we went in the studio, and we doubled up on Terry's cry of anguish. It was a case of a great little accident that became a feature.

TB: Right. Let's talk about the music a little bit, and who's doing what. One of things that struck me as the difference betweens Drums and Wires and Black Sea is that, on the latter, you found your sound.

AP: Oh, it's much more muscular. We took Drums and Wires to the Nth degree, if you see what I mean. The drums got boomier and bigger and more gated and more aggressive, and the guitars got slashier, with more punch to them. This was Padgham and Lillywhite refining their trade, finding out how to get a certain sound and then taking it on until they could go no farther with it, you know? They were doing a lot of their experimenting on us! Or, we'd ask them, "Can you make the guitar sound like this, or make the drums sound like that?" And they figure out how, and think, "Hey, that's great!" Then people like Peter Gabriel would benefit from them, because they went on to work with him and other people, of course.

TB: Although it probably ended up benefiting you too, because they went from Drums and Wires to Peter Gabriel III -- you know, the melting-face album -- and then back to Black Sea. And they had learned a lot of things on the Gabriel album about gating the toms...

AP: Sure. Yeah, the thread was Hugh Padgham and Steve Lillywhite. Whether they were requested to get sounds, or they pushed to get sounds, they were then taking that between all the different artists they worked with, you know.

I also like the push/pull, the chopping between the two guitars, on this album.

TB: Was this a matter of the two of you getting more comfortable with each other, already having an album under your belt, or were you realizing what you could really do with another very good guitar player in the band?

AP: I think so, because we had narrowed the palette. There was no keyboard player as such, and the variety of sounds from keyboards is infinitely bigger -- I mean, a keyboard is like an orchestra, whereas a guitar is pretty much one color. No matter what you do with it, it's one color -- or it's one strain of color, where you can have a dark version or a light version.

So we said, "Okay, let's really work with that." Dave and I worked to not tread on each other's toes musically, so we played in the holes left by the other. There's that constant push/pull -- if I'm on the downbeat, he's on the upbeat, or vice-versa. And he would play the snappier parts, the more complicated parts, because these songs had to be performed live, and I was a stickler for it sounding as close to the record as we could get it. So, if I had to do the vocals, I usually gave myself a simpler part that I could play and sing with.

TB: And if it was one of Colin's songs, did you then consciously grab back the more complicated parts? Because it seems that you play more leads on his stuff.

AP: Yeah, I tended to play more adventurous things on Colin's songs, because I was not doing the lead vocal. For example, "Love at First Sight," there's a sort of mechanism going between the two guitars, their own internal little logical funk, with the patterns we're playing. I don't think I could have done something like that and sung a lead vocal.

I thought we made a good team of two guitar players. If ever we're mentioned -- I think there was a book called something stupid like the 500 Best Guitar Players, and we were actually in there as a team. I thought that was very astute of somebody, to pick that out. Because I think we played best in and around each other -- you know, using little bits of rhythm and little single lines together. Almost like one entity, an interesting little guitar machine.

TB: Precisely. You complement each other so well, and a lot of the reason for that lies in the difference in your approach -- for instance, Dave is very schooled, while you've admitted that you're not.

AP: I'm a bit more feral!

TB: [laughs] Exactly! But, you know, it's almost a right-brain/left-brain thing. You've got this pure, raw creativity, and are more comfortable improvising, while Dave would rather take the time to work out a part, and is more precise, with impeccable technique...

AP: He's Yin to my Yangeccch! [laughs]

TB: [laughs] Well, I'm sure you'll get some people who'll disagree with that, but at the same time, the two of you guys are a really interesting combination, and I think that's why a lot of people were so disappointed, of course, when he left.

Let's talk about the drums and bass. Did you write the bass part?

AP: Do you know, I don't think I did! I think that's pure Colin.

TB: Really? It's a nice counterpoint to the guitar parts.

AP: And it goes along very well with that very thuggy, lumpen drum beat there, especially at the beginning -- or "wombat" as Terry and Colin insisted on calling that. "What song are we going to do?" "Oh, Wombat" -- you know, since that was their opening phrase on the bass and drums. And that's what it does, if you listen to it! "Wombat wombat!"

TB: One of the nice things, too, about Terry was that he was willing to be simple in his playing and leave you guys the room to find holes and play against each other, instead of him stepping all over it.

AP: True. He wasn't one of those Mr. Giant Rolls everywhere. He knew how to punctuate -- listen to the end of the song, where we sing "Respectable Street!" and Terry stamps it out with us at the end. Bang bang bang bang!

TB: Anything else on this one? I know you did a video of it.

AP: Oh, christ, yeah, the video! Jesus. I don't remember who did the video for us, but they'd hired these two houses, and I think it was the filmmaker's concept that we were the respectable people, doing our string-quartet rehearsal, while the family next door were noisy and punky and playing loud, awful records, and we were screaming at them to turn down. Turning the tables. And my hair was probably at its most Sting-esque at the time! [laughs]

I just remember that the little old fellow that they hired to play the punky dad next door -- a little bald fellow in his 60s -- was actually [posh voice] very, very well-spoken! In a sort of Shakespearean way. He never drank, he was a teetotaler, and of course they gave him real tins of booze, with real booze in them. He was out of control! This little, bit-part-playing Shakespearean actor, who wouldn't have said boo to a goose, was on Planet Gone, because he never drank!

TB: He never had, or did you ruin his years of work battling his alcoholism?

AP: [laughs] Never thought about that! But we thought he was great, because he was just falling all over the place, and yelling, and crashing around -- you know, it was just fun to see somebody who was a teetotaler just totally and utterly off the leash!

I remember, when we first arrived there, his first question was -- very nicely-- he asked, "Are you punkers?" And we said, "No, not really, no." [laughs]

TB: [laughs] He was just trying to get into his role.

AP: He was trying to understand where we were coming from. But I think what confused him was the name, and the fact that, when we met him, we'd put on these tuxedos. [laughs] Dreadful video -- it looks so cheap and video-y now.

TB: Well, you're not a fan of any of your videos, are you?

AP: No, I hate every one of them. Well, apart from the Dukes' "Mole from the Ministry." That one's okay.

3:25 AM

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