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Last Updated:
Mar 15, 2007

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Andy discusses 'Wrapped in Grey'

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, "Wrapped in Grey," is from 1992's Nonsuch.

Important note: Due to the pressures of work, family life, travel, and Todd's infected sinuses, we're going to take a holiday -- a blogiday? -- next week. Look for us to return, should the Fates allow, on April Fool's Day.

TB: One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this song was because we've been discussing the band's singles, and this would be a good one to end the singles series on...

AP: [laughing] It was a good one for Virgin to end on!

TB: Exactly! You had convinced them at one point to make it a single, and then they smothered it in the cradle. Why don't you tell me a little bit about what happened?

AP: I don't know! I don't know the reasoning behind why they withdrew it.

TB: Did you want it to be a single?

AP: I was so delighted when they suggested it, because I thought it was one of the better-quality tracks off of the album. Virgin always went for the obvious choices. It was always the Sgt. Rocks or the Making Plans for Nigels, so it was never the more interesting stuff.

But they came along on their own and said, "We really want to do this," and I was delighted. I thought, "Wow, this is great, we've leapt into the adult market," or something. I was really happy that they'd recognized it as a good song, and they were going to push it as a single, and they wanted to make a video for it.

Now, on "The Disappointed" video, when I said, "This isn't looking how we planned it out," I was actually told by the manager of the woman making the video, "Shut up, sonny, we're trying to make a video here!" I was really angry. It was like, "I just paid you fuckers £42,000 and you're telling me I can't have any input on my own video?!?"

After that horrible experience, I vowed that I would take control of any video that we were going to do, and Virgin agreed. So, I met up with -- I can't remember his name, the video-maker's name -- but we spoke on the phone a lot, and I said I wanted the video to look like Lotte Reiniger's shadow-show work. She was a German animator who worked purely with shadow theater. She would cut everything out of black card, and then animate it a piece at a time. Her work is beautiful -- really stunning. I've got quite a lot of her things on DVD and video. So I wanted to make it an homage to her.

This chap came down to see me. It was a nice day, we sat out in the garden, he brought out all this stuff he'd sketched out -- he'd done research on Lotte Reiniger, he'd actually brought things he'd gotten from the British Film Institute down, and we looked at that, and we said, "Ooh, isn't it nice, the way she's framed that -- we could do something in that style, we'll use different color tissue papers for the background -- different densities of grey for the distance," and all this.

And I thought, "Great, a single's coming out that I'm really, really proud of as an adult piece of work, and it looks like it's going to be a great film, where I've got a hand in saying how the film goes." And then, for no reason that was ever explained to us, Virgin just withdrew it.

TB: You must have been quite far along in the process though, because there were something like 5,000 copies pressed, correct?

AP: I've heard various amounts -- I've heard 2,000 to 5,000 -- so I don't actually know how many they did press up. I mean, they could tell you if they went back through their records, you know. But suffice to say that they withdrew it from sale, and so the single is reasonably rare.

TB: It's one of the most collectible items for you guys.

AP: Yeah. But I was gutted, because I thought, "It's like killing a child in its cradle -- they're not giving it a chance to grow." That was a big nail in the coffin of the relationship with Virgin.

TB: Tell me a little bit about the other nails, because obviously this was not enough to make you walk away. What else was putting pressure on you at this time, and convinced you to go on strike, which many people saw as career suicide?

AP: Certainly, over the years, I was unhappy about the way we were promoted. They tried to push us into more of a straighter Pop kind of mold than I think we felt comfortable with. We all thought of ourselves as an album band that made pretty straight music, generally, but obviously not straight enough for Virgin. There was this gentle pressure all the time to be more Pop, and to play straighter. And of course when they get big success with people like Culture Club, or Heaven 17, or Human League, it's a matter of, "Well, XTC have got to go this way," you know?

TB: Hey, it worked for Genesis, right?

AP: [laughs] Please.

TB: So they always wanted you to simplify, simplify, simplify.

AP: Yeah.

TB: Because that's what I'm talking about with the Genesis thing, they went from playing complicated music to very straight pop music, and because much more commercially successful as a result.

AP: Yeah. I don't know how they sleep at night, but I see what you mean. I always felt like they never accepted us for what we were. They were always trying to make us something that we weren't! I just wanted XTC to do what it wanted to do. I didn't want to have to jump through accepted hoops at Virgin. Also, I really hated how we had the video thing taken out of our hands every time. And, of course, when we stopped touring, the winds of interest at Virgin got really icy.

You know, I used to think to myself, "Kate Bush -- she doesn't tour, how come she gets to do great videos the way she wants to make them? Why won't they let me make videos how I want to make them?" Kate Bush is a great analogy, you know -- every time I read a Kate Bush interview, they never bully her with questions about when she's going to play live. But for some reason I get that every time.

TB: Well, you need to be prettier and have bigger tits.

AP: I don't know, my tits are coming on! We could do a tit battle, me and Kate. If she would take her top off, I'd take mine off, and we could compare.

TB: [laughing] But why do think that is, seriously?

AP: Fuck knows, because, you know, we did a hell of a lot of touring! She did one poxy tour, for Christ's sake, around England! And then that was it -- no more. We toured our asses off around the world for five years, got sick and tired of it, and then we were not allowed not to tour. You know -- "What's the matter with you? Keep going!"

TB: Do you think that has something to do with it? Because you proved that you were perfectly capable of doing it very well indeed, while she only did the one tour around England...

AP: I don't know, she's got the magic breasts and I don't, I suppose.

TB: She's the delicate flower, and you guys are just being petulant.

AP: Exactly. She's petal-like, and I'm petulant. [laughs]

So, yeah, I was very excited with the idea of "Wrapped in Grey" being a single, but poor thing was bumped off. It was smothered.

TB: And so you talked with Dave and Colin, and you all said what?

AP: Well, the strike was actually Dave's idea! We were all very fed up with Virgin, for dozens of reasons -- "Wrapped in Grey" being killed was just kind of the last straw, really -- but Dave said, "Why don't we do what other people do who don't like their working conditions? Why don't we go on strike?" And I didn't know if he was being serious or not, but I thought it was a fantastic idea! You know, there was nothing to lose. Because at that point we weren't in profit, supposedly.

TB: So, you were living out what -- advances from each album?

AP: From '77, when I gave up working at other jobs, until '85, I was living on Performing Rights Society money, and £25 a week, which was waged out of our publishing money -- which was all cross-collaterized with our recording money, so if one pot was down, our manager would go and borrow some money from the publishers to pay the other pot back, and vice-versa. [sighs] I never knew what was going on with our money until much later, and now I'm appalled by what happened then, of course.

So we were living on a tiny wage, which was our money -- our own money. Naïvely, I thought, "Oh, what a nice man -- it's not much, but he's giving us a little money every week, isn't that nice?" And the Performing Rights Society money -- every time a song gets played on a radio station, you get a certain sum of money that varies greatly with what the station is, and what country it's in. So I was living on a few thousand a year of that until publishing money started to come in as a profit from '85 onwards.

TB: So you were in profit with your publishing money from '85 on.

AP: Yeah, so the first eight years I never saw any profit from publishing or from recording. That's a long time not to see any money. [chuckles ruefully] Then we never saw any money from the sale of our records for 20 years -- until 1997 -- which is insane! I used to read that The Who never went into profit for the first 11 years of their careers, and I couldn't believe that. But now I know how that's done. It's completely true, because we weren't in profit for the first 20 years of our career!

TB: So when you decided to do this, then, how did you think you would support yourself? I know you did some side projects...

AP: Well, things got really tough for Dave especially, because he wasn't getting so much publishing money. We had this agreement where, whoever wrote the song would take 80 percent, or 70 percent of the money [when Terry was in the band], and then pay the other members 10 percent each, whether they contributed ideas to the writing of the song or not. Everyone seemed pretty happy with that when we were working, but when we went on strike it meant Dave was living on 10 percent of what I was living on, so it was extra tough for him. He was doing odd jobs like collecting rental cars and stuff.

From '85 onwards, Colin was making his publishing money. Initially, because "Making Plans for Nigel" was such a success, he was earning half of the publishing money, although he only wrote a quarter of the songs.

TB: It's amazing what one hit will do for you. We've strayed a little bit here, so let's talk about the genesis of the song itself.

AP: [chortling] Genesis?!? What, we're back to those gourd-heads? The genesis of the song -- it really came from finding a three-note pattern. I just stumbled on a three-note pattern on the piano, and I thought, "Wow, that kind of sounds like Burt Bacharach!" The piece that you'd call the verse [sings piano pattern] -- you know, it's just three notes. I kept playing it round and round, and thinking, "Hmm, this is kind of corny, but I like it!"

TB: Done in the waltz feel from the very beginning, I assume?

AP: Yeah, it was always that waltz feel. It just seemed to fall into my hands as a waltz thing. I didn't try any other tempos, because it felt good in threes, you know. I always wanted to do a heavy waltz-type thing. I think I never recovered from hearing the Moody Blues' "Go Now" as a kid.

I think the original sound I was messing around with was on the Proteus, and it was a sample of a piano that has strings mixed with it as well. This sounded extra romantic, you know. The song came pretty quickly. It wasn't a case of, like, with some songs, where you come up with it on guitar, and then you say, "Okay, let's try it on a keyboard," or whatever. It might jump over instruments, you know. But this never needed to jump instruments -- it just stayed on the keyboard.

I also remember wanting to give the song a slightly unusual structure. I felt quite early in the song as if it needed to break away, for some reason. So you get the whole section about kneeling with the flowers, which doesn't fit with the normal structure of a song. There's one verse, and then it goes to what might be a middle section, if you see what I mean.

See, the part where I sing "your heart is the big box of paints" is what you might call a ramp piece or something -- you think it's going to break up into a chorus at the end...

TB: And then it pulls back.

AP: Right. Instead of a chorus, you get the part where I'm huddled there, in petaled prayer -- that's the only time in the song where that piece occurs. It doesn't go to a chorus right away -- there's a little instrumental break, and only then does go into the "awaken you dreamers" chorus. It's a very strange structure.

TB: Why did you do that?

AP: It just felt completely right to do it -- I can't tell you why. It was like somebody whispering in my ear, saying, "Don't go to the chorus, hold it down, make it go small and holy," you know.

TB: Your voice sounds extra sweet and syrupy in this song.

AP: I'm doing my best Dionne Warwick impression. She's got a better mustache than I have, though! The vocals are tracked up, but I'm singing it in that kind of increasing -- I can't think what the effect is, but it's an effect where you draw it tight on the right, and it opens out toward the left. It's swelling as you're singing.

TB: Nice backing vocals, too. Little bit of Beach Boys there.

AP: Les Garcons de la Plage, oui. Or, the Beech Avenue Boys making a reappearance -- Beech Avenue is an area in Swindon. And yeah, I love that thing where the backing vocals answer the main singer.

TB: Where did the "stand up naked and grin" ending come from?

AP: I just wanted to deflate any kind of pomposity that the song may have had up to that point! [laughs] I thought, "I've got to stick a pin in this balloon."

You know, I don't usually play any of my material to my father, because he always criticizes, but I thought, "Yeah, he could get behind this, because it's kind of square, it's a bit Bacharach and David, maybe one of the safer Beach Boys things -- he surely couldn't find this offensive." So I played it to him not long after we'd finished it, and his face was looking kind of alright, like was going to say something great about it. And then it got to the piece at the end, and his face just went really sour.

TB: "And now you've ruined it."

AP: That's what he said! He said, "Oh, what do you want to stick that on the end for? You've ruined it!" And I thought, "Great. That's my dad!" [laughs] He can't say anything nice. Not to me. Maybe he can say it to other people, but he just can't say it to me. I thought, "Yep. Great. He doesn't like it! All's right in the world."

TB: [laughing] Which is why you did it in the first place, right? That's what your therapist would say -- subconsciously, you had to put a spoiler on there.

AP: [laughing] Yep, I had to make sure my father was still upset with me.

TB: You've done this with other songs, too -- the end of "Your Dictionary" changes the tone of the song.

AP: Yeah, but that's for a different reason. That's because I didn't want to end on a negative note. I'd gone past the negative, and wanted to look forward to a positive future.

But with this one, just in case the whole thing got too serious and too square -- I just wanted to burst the balloon a bit with the fact that, if all else fails, you can just take your clothes off and stand up and grin, you know. In a way, it makes it a bit more human.

TB: Yeah, exactly -- from a lyrical point of view, it seems to me that you're saying, "Hope hope hope -- you can do this," but you know in the back of your mind that sometimes it doesn't matter how much you hope. The bastards are still going to get you down.

AP: Yeah, they'll still grind you down, so why don't you just relax and take your clothes off and laugh? It's sort of the equivalent of mental mooning.

TB: Shake it at 'em, yeah. So, Dave is playing piano and synthesizers on this...

AP: Dave's playing piano, yeah. I just couldn't do the changes quick enough. When I did the demo, I'd do it in sections -- I'd have to drop-in each different change. I can sit and work this stuff out, but I just can't play it.

TB: Yeah, it's the performance part of it.

AP: Yep. Dave's pretty damn good on the piano, and he did a rather tasteful string arrangement as well. The demo doesn't really have a string arrangement -- the strings on the demo are just following the piano parts, because it's part of the same sound, you know. So I thought the demo was rather lumpen and never really took off properly, but I was able to explain to him the kind of thing I wanted -- you know, tension here, a bit of release there -- and he did a very tasteful little arrangement.

TB: And he does backing vocals on this.

AP: Yeah, him and Colin. Dave sings on our stuff more often than you might think. We used his voice as a certain texture, because it's all air. He calls himself the man with no voice -- it's like a meringue voice. There's no reason why it shouldn't be strong, but when it comes out it's very airy.

TB: Yet, listening to Remoulds, I think he can sing with a very full voice. I mean, he does one of the best imitations of Jack Bruce that I've heard.

AP: But he has no confidence with his voice whatsoever. He's always saying to me, [imitates Dave] "Oh, I can't bloody sing, Partsy." But I've always thought of Dave's voice of having this great characteristic to it -- if you wanted a little air or a little lightness, then get Dave to sing that part, or get him to track it up with me or Colin or both of us, and then you've got that layer of air on top that gives it a lightness. It doesn't sound so grounded, which can be attractive in certain situations.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics.

AP: My daughter says this is her favorite lyric I ever wrote.

TB: Well, it's one of mine, too, I must say -- it's very beautiful and positive. I've told you before that this was my first dance at my wedding -- this is what my wife and I first danced to...

AP: Ahhhh ... and she's never forgiven you! [laughs] Didn't you wish it was "Surfing Bird" by the Trashmen?

TB: [laughing] Ah, well, we danced to that later. But, as a matter of fact, I printed the lyric on the back of the program.

AP: You cheesy devil! Wow.

TB: I gave you credit and everything! I didn't steal it for myself...

AP: [laughs] Yeah, "copyright T. Bernhardt."

TB: So, what do you think of the lyric?

AP: I'm glad I got "parrots and lemurs" in a song! [laughs] I was really excited about getting that in a song. I like the lyrics -- they're the correct libretto for the actors on that stage to say. Anything plainer might not have taken off enough, and anything more wordy may have killed it.

Part of me was a little embarrassed that I'd kind of hinted at the holy connection -- some sort of prayer with the flowers. I thought to myself, "Can I sing that?"

TB: Oh, I think it's perfectly suitable for you -- it seems very naturalistic and humanistic, if anything.

AP: Yeah. Not all prayer has to be to a god, or gods. I prefer the idea of gods, actually -- real avenging ones, ones that live in your coffee machine, and things like that. The sort of things they have in India -- you know, the god of the air-conditioner, or the god of your left sandal and god of your right sandal...

TB: Or the angry monkey god who hurls his feces at you as you're trying to eat your lunch outside...

AP: Well, that's Iggy, isn't it? [laughs] I was reading about an Iggy Pop gig, where he crapped behind a PA system and flung it at the audience. That was in the early days, I think.

TB: [laughing] I wanted to ask what role, if any, Gus Dudgeon played in this. Did he have any ideas that got translated on to tape?

AP: Gus's role as a producer was not so much to come up with any ideas. It was really just to make sure that you did all the parts that you wanted, if you know what I mean. You know, now we need the backing vocal -- "Okay, Andy, how does it go?" "Well, it goes like this," "Alright, let's do that then" -- and he just kind of chaperoned you through what you were going to do in any case.

TB: So, the project-management school of producing.

AP: Very much so. I mean, all the hard, technical work was Barry Hammond, the in-house engineer at Chipping Norton. He's the man who made everything sound beautiful.

TB: I remember reading that Gus advocated for the dueling-guitar thing at the end of "Books Are Burning."

AP: I can't remember who suggested it -- it may have even been Dave. It was a case of, "Oh, alright." Because I had half a mind to hint at a kind of "Hey Jude" -- a Sub-Dude, not Hey Jude! -- a subdued version of just humming the melody at the end, and Gus didn't think that was strong enough. So he certainly encouraged us to go down the dueling-banjos route there.

TB: One more quick question, more related to your general approach than to "Wrapped in Grey" -- one of the things that makes "Books Are Burning" different is that you guys stretch out on guitar a bit at the end. You and Dave are quite capable guitar players. Both of you could show off if you wanted to, but you usually do not. When you have a lead in a song, it typically doesn't last longer than eight bars. Why is that?

AP: It's that thing of, you know, virtually all guitar playing -- as in solo guitar -- has been done. If I'm going to do, or if Dave's going to do, any solo, it's got to be very melodic, or it's got to be very stand-out, and it can't get flaccid. The danger is that, you know, you get into Foghat territory, where it's just endless noodling over boogying. "Freebird" territory -- oh, for goodness sakes. So, brevity is the key. Keep it short, keep it down to essential meat. I don't want any spare flab. Not on my songs, anyway!

6:53 PM

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