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Last Updated:
Mar 8, 2007

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Andy discusses 'Helicopter'

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, "All You Pretty Girls," is from 1984's The Big Express.

TB: I wanted to look at one of your singles from Drums and Wires, so let's talk about "Helicopter."

AP: What can I tell you about "Helicopter"? Jesus, I have not thought about this song for so many years.

TB: Put yourself back into how you felt back then -- obviously, this was a crowd-pleaser.

AP: Oh, yeah. For some reason they'd go crazy with this. And they invented a kind of dance to do.

TB: Was that your intent? Was this one of your create-a-dance songs?

AP: I know I did songs that were fake dance things, like "Do the Watutsi!"

TB: "Neon Shuffle" comes to mind.

AP: Yeah, those kinds of things. "Spinning Top," all that sort of stuff. No, this was just a sort of a silly song that was great to go [sings high] "boo-boo boo-boo" with. It was like playing a human siren -- it was just the joy of yelling and playing a rotor-blade guitar. You know, the whole thing probably came out of the guitar pattern sounding a bit like blades of a chopper.

TB: Is that where it did come from?

AP: Probably! [Sings choppy rhythm-guitar part] It was probably, "Oh, that's a bit like the blades of a helicopter -- there we go, that's what the song's about." Sometimes it would take no more than that. In fact, that's a big thing for me -- the onomatopoeic sound of the instrument you're writing on. "Oh! That sounds like a blah-blah!" And so "Blah Blah" becomes the title of the song, or blah-blah is what the song's about. In fact, didn't it become "The Rotary"...?

TB: It did! On Take Away / The Lure of Salvage.

AP: It did, yeah. I sped the track up a little more, so it was even more violent.

TB: Where were you when you wrote this? Do you remember writing it?

AP: I think I thought "Helicopter" might be, because it was so stupid and instant, a single.

TB: Well, you did a single version of it.

AP: Yeah, that's right, in DJM Studios. I think we kept the bass and drums and re-did the guitars and vocals, and all the bits and bobs. But, when writing the song, I believe I was thinking of an ad that was painted by Frank Hampson, who was a famous artist for the Eagle comic, in England. Frank Hampson painted an ad for Lego in which there were two schoolboys with jetpacks on, flying over this Lego city -- in a Lego land, you know. And that image stuck in my brain, as a kid. Because, as a schoolboy, I thought, "Wow, that's going to be the future! We're going to have our own jetpacks -- our own helipacks -- to go to school or work, or holiday on Venus," you know. But of course it never ends up like that.

So that was subliminally in the background when this song came up. The song is just the daftest of ideas. It's about a girl who's obviously just messing around. She's just playing about. I'm kind of embarrassed to talk about this, because it's such an early, silly song.

TB: So, was there a girl who was a "laughing giggly whirlybird"?

AP: It was probably a previous girlfriend, Linda.

TB: Did you feel she was cheating?

AP: No, I didn't feel she was cheating. In fact, I think I cheated on her! But, you know, I was young and drunk, and hey! [laughs] Christ, we had some wild parties in the flats she lived in. She used to spend all day testing people's shit for these hospital laboratories. You know, I'd meet her up for lunch, and she'd say, "Oh god, I nearly didn't get out for lunch today, I just spilled an enormous vial of diarrhea all over the place."

TB: [laughing] And you'd push your plate away.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, I'd say, "Well, do you want my sandwich?" So, you know, because she was kind of testing people's crap all day, we used to have pretty wild parties to make up for the fact that she had kind of a...

TB: Shit job.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, a genuinely shit job! But I remember the staff at her laboratory used to take the piss out of me. I'd stand and wait for her at lunch breaks, and they'd say, "Hey, 'Red Legs' is here!" Because I'd wear these really tight, bright red trousers. I must have looked like some sort of exotic bird, because I used to wear a big fur coat that would probably be a piece of valuable clothing now, but I gave it away. It was made by Utility -- wartime clothing. It wasn't real fur, it was probably made out of wool or something messed up to look like fur.

It was a woman's fur coat, but I didn't care, you know. It looked cool. So I'd wear this Utility short-length fur coat, and I had these tight red trousers, and I must have looked some sort of weird cassowary or something! [laughs] You know, just a big ball of fluff, and then these two, stick-thin red stilts holding it up. So, anyway, she was probably the crazy chick in question.

TB: So, you were just having fun with the lyrics. "Has to be obscene to be obheard."

AP: Yeah, that kind of thing. And there's the old little monophonic Korg keyboard -- I found a little rotary chopper-blade sound on the Korg, which I played live, because there wasn't any sequencing, so I'd just have to sit on the thing. It was the same keyboard that I used for "Bushman President" and the funny little sighing noises on "Day In Day Out."

TB: But you're not sighing. You're shouting this song out!

AP: I'm so hoarse on it. Is this the height of seal-bark vocals for me?

TB: It might be!

AP: Well, what happened was, we booked something like five weeks to make this album. We spent a whole week doing "Making Plans for Nigel," and we had to do every other track in the three to four weeks left! [laughs]

I remember singing this live, and almost passing out, because it took so much breath. You listen to the song, especially toward the end, and it's so petulant! It's just like a long musical tantrum. Like a kid trapped in the rotor blades of a Chinook, having a tantrum before his head is sliced off!

TB: Yeah, but c'mon, how perfect is that, given the lyrics and the girl you're describing? Everything in the song has attitude. For example, I love the bass...

AP: Yeah, that big elastic band -- a big rubber band on an airplane or something.

TB: Are you doing the real choppy, fast guitar?

AP: Yeah, that was my thing. What a skanker I was! [chuckles] Complete and utter skanker. Dave's playing the little, high pattern there that's almost like a chordal suggestion of what I'm singing. And I think he's following me with his Fender Strat, playing the melody. That melody of the verse is almost like an old vaudeville song or something.

But that "air male that she pick up" piece -- it's percussive hell! Everything is going in these funny little push-pull rhythms.

TB: I like that little chromatic thing on the guitar coming down the neck, too.

AP: Yeah, I don't know who came up with that, but that's excellent. I think that's Dave playing -- he was usually Mr. Fancy Bits, you see. So, he's playing the melody on tremolo guitar, so it sounds mechanical, while I'm playing the rotor-blade guitar.

TB: The drumming is great on this song, too.

AP: I like Terry's backward drum roll -- from lowest tom to highest tom up. He plays it in reverse order. And there is disco drumming there.

TB: Yeah, there's a lot on Drums and Wires, and on Black Sea.

AP: Yeah! We saw nothing uncool about that style of drumming. Where other people would go, "Disco! Bleagh!", we loved disco rhythm tracks.

TB: One of the reasons that that rhythm was so successful was because it's so good to dance to. And it continues to be! I mean, even when Disco supposedly died, you still had dance music using the exact same "pea soup" drum beat, same number of beats per minute...

AP: It's so good to dance to. I, and Terry especially, were very much into the Disco drum rhythm, and the whole "chucking" guitar against that rhythm. Discovering that was a new lease on life for him, because he was very keen on the rhythm that the Pink Fairies did with "The Snake" -- this thing [imitates a 2/4 feel between kick and snare] that suggests a on-rhythm, off-rhythm, on-rhythm, off-rhythm. That was his favorite rhythm at one time, so to go from that to Disco pea-soup drumming was nothing! It was exactly the same sort of feel -- a mixture of on-beats and off-beats.

TB: There's a real transition between the first two albums and this album, where you start doing the pea-soup more. About the only song on this album that perhaps you could say is left over from that first period is "Outside World," where you're hitting the song at this breakneck speed.

AP: Yeah, and that was always an encore live, as well.

TB: Right, because what do you do after that?

AP: Exactly, all you can do is collapse. But Terry's grasp of that Disco "piston" drumming was great. I loved it -- that was my favorite thing that he did, I think.

TB: Anything else on this one?

AP: No, I think we've got it all covered! We've got rotor blades in there, we've got tremolo guitars sounding mechanical, we've got the bass that sounds like a rubber band on a toy airplane, we've got the Disco piston drumming to get the whole thing moving. Do you remember that piece of old black-and-white film of a man who's got a kind of a car, but it's a bed, and there's like a huge umbrella fixed to it, and it's pulsing up and down trying to lift it off the ground?

TB: [laughing] Yeah, I know just what you're talking about!

AP: And then it all just falls to pieces! That is Terry's drumming made into a mechanical thing! If you put "Helicopter" on and put on that little bit of old black-and-white film of that flying-bed-umbrella-car that falls to bits, there's the video! Just loop that.

2:37 PM

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