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Last Updated:
May 30, 2007

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Andy discusses 'All Along the Watchtower'

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 Along the Watchtower," is from 1978's White Music.

TB: Let's talk about "All Along the Watchtower," which is pretty much the only song that XTC ever covered.

AP: You realize that it nearly wasn't "All Along the Watchtower" that we did as a cover song, right?

TB: Yeah, I remember seeing in Song Stories that it was a choice between that and a Stones song, correct?

AP: Yeah, it was "Citadel," by the Rolling Stones. Which I've actually just done a little write-up for, for Mojo magazine, because they're doing a feature on people's favorite Stones songs. I've got a load of favorites, but that one has a special place in my heart.

TB: Why?

AP: It made such an impression on me. "Citadel" was on the Their Satanic Majesties Request album, and a friend of mine -- who oddly [chuckles] looked a bit like Mick Jagger, with very thick lips and a big mop of unruly hair -- used to come over when I was a kid, and he and I would have this pretend pirate radio station. We would get together with our favorite records, and I would have my Grundig tape recorder, which I bought with the money I won from a "Draw a Monkee" contest, and we would tape a show, as it were -- we'd play our favorite tracks, and we'd do this inane DJ stuff in between. [laughs]

He would bring around his brother's copy of the album, and I heard "Citadel," and thought, "Wow! That's fantastic." I though the music was kind of weirdly brutal -- because the Stones couldn't really do psychedelia, and that's why I love that album. It's a fantastic, magnificent failure. You know, the roses and the flowers are all decidedly plastic [chuckles], and the vibes aren't really good -- they're kind of troubling. And the drugs, you sense, are a bit more dangerous than some low-powered weed.

But when I heard "Citadel" I was really impressed. What struck me on repeated listenings were what I could hear of the lyrics, which had sort of a sci-fi content. Phrases like "Screaming people fly so fast/In their shiny metal cars/Through the woods of steel and glass." And I thought that was fantastic -- that was a perfect blend with the steely sound, the futuristic city sounds of the guitar, and the Mellotron, and god knows what else is in there -- little finger cymbals, and feedback, all that.

At school, I was a very slow reader, and I really resented having to read the books that they made you read for the class. Like Lorna Doone, or Prester John, or things that, I dunno, I just found crashingly dull. And also, I had this kind of fear of massive text -- I don't know if I was dyslexic or something, but I was one of the last to start reading in junior school. So I obviously had a bit of a problem with reading.

TB: But you don't now.

AP: No, but even now I prefer pictures. Even now, I prefer a book where I can kind of crawl up and pant and rest on a picture. Like a little island, you know? So I'd recently started reading of my own volition, and it was sci-fi. I was just absorbing these books at an incredible rate, and I really latched on to the sci-fi nature of the lyrics of "Citadel."

Funnily enough, that's also why I like the lyrical content of "All Along the Watchtower." Because both have a similar sort of subject -- somebody who's cosseted away in this city, and there are men at arms looking out of watchtowers and seeing over the walls to the city. People are coming and going in the scenarios, and people are being greeted -- it's the medieval citadel, and it's the personal citadel, and it's the future citadel. And both sets of lyrics, in both songs, I found similar in landscape for me. So I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to cover one of these songs, because they're both from people who represent the Old Guard. I think it would be mischievous to do either of these songs in a radically different way, and to show that we're not in awe of the Old Guard, and that we can take something that they've done, smash it all up, and put it back together in our way."

TB: The insolence of youth.

AP: Yeah, it's the insolence, you know. We would have said insolence, but we couldn't spell it. [laughs] The insolvence. The insolvency of youth.

So, we used to do it live. Basically, it was a flip of a coin which one we covered -- and it landed on Watchtower. I wasn't as familiar with Dylan's version at that time. I've heard it since, but the only version I knew of was Hendrix's.

TB: Yeah, of course. It was much more popular.

AP: I knew Dylan wrote it, but not being particularly a Dylan fan -- I preferred Donovan -- I didn't know what Dylan's version was like.

TB: Do you still prefer Donovan? I know you and I both saw the Scorcese documentary on Dylan, and it kind of changed our minds about him...

AP: When I saw that documentary, I did appreciate him a lot more, and see that he was a capable and stylish fellow. He looked great in suits; he should have stuck with that more! But I think Donovan was smart as well. He was obviously a disciple of Dylan's, but he had a very smart Pop head on him. A succinct Pop head.

So we decided to do "All Along the Watchtower," and at the time I was really liking the emptiness of Dub Reggae. I was hearing more and more of that. So I thought, "Why don't we use the same aesthetic, and literally pull this track apart, but only put a fraction of it back together? We'll put as many holes in there as there is content."

So we worked out a way where I could kind of dub myself as I sang it -- I would do that thing where you'd hear [imitates stuttering vocal style], where it's like someone's punching the button or the control -- or something faulty with your microphone.

I wouldn't play the guitar, because it would fill up too many holes...

TB: So that was the reason you didn't play guitar on this?

AP: Plus, I couldn't play the harmonica and the guitar at the same time.

TB: How long had you been playing the harmonica? When did you pick that up?

AP: Pretty much simultaneously with the guitar. In fact, I'd see Donovan or Dylan with one of those holders around their neck, you know, so I bought one with my pocket money from one of my early jobs. But of course, you can't really get in there and do the blues thing with the harmonica when it's on one of those holders -- you can only just sort of puff and blow. It's like an asthmatic accordion. [laughs]

TB: And that approach had become very hackneyed and cliched.

AP: It really is hackneyed. It's like, "Well, you want Folk, here it is!" All you do is just wheeze pathetically through the harmonica in the correct key. You can't go wrong!

I started hear more Blues people, and I thought, "Hey, they're bending notes, and their sound is much fire-ier and much fatter." At the time, I didn't realize that a lot of them used to play through an amplifier -- you know, with a little mic right up against it, so it'd be really distorted and screaming. And then what you do is, instead of just blowing pathetically, you actually suck more, and you can screw your mouth up and make these tiny little holes, and restrict the airflow and bend the notes. And I got quite reasonable at it.

TB: Oh yeah, I've always thought you're a very distinctive harmonica player. You and I have talked about this before, but I think you approach the harmonica like it's a guitar. On "Reign of Blows" on the Hinges CD in the Fuzzy Warbles set, you do this extended solo where you're really tearing into it, and it's almost like a guitar hero going at it.

AP: [laughs] "Play in a day" method!

TB: I imagine you got pretty good audience reaction with this song.

AP: Yeah, because the older people would be like, "Oh god, I love this song, what have they done to it?" They would be aghast that we were pissing all over holy writ.

TB: [laughs] I remember playing this song for people, and no one would know what song it was until you started singing, and then they'd invariably laugh and liked it

AP: [laughs] Sure, you play it live, and you'd see people laughing as soon as you started singing. I thought, "They're either laughing at my singing, or they're laughing at my harmonica playing, or because we're doing this to a piece of sacred scripture."

People used to laugh a lot at our early gigs, which pleased me to no end, because I thought that was a great reaction. Even if it were derogatory laughter, I didn't mind.

TB: You'd rather have that than a lukewarm reaction, right?

AP: Sure. Even derogatory laughter is great, because you know you're getting to them in some way.

TB: In your early career, there a certain amount of outrageousness to your music, don't you think?

AP: Yeah, that's true. There also was that thing of, sometimes when I don't know how to react to something I think is really, really interesting or impressive, I'll laugh. I'll see a great drummer, and I'll just laugh. Or I'll see a fantastic film, and I'll just be sat there laughing. It can be a serious film, but I'm laughing because I'm so impressed by it! I like to think that was why people were laughing, but it was probably a mixture of my singing, and the fact that we were doing that to a piece of Dylan music.

It was great fun to do live. We'd get into some interesting, dark, odd areas with the self-dubbery aspect of it. I liked that a lot. I would have liked to have done more stuff in that empty style. But that takes a kind of restraint that I don't think we had at that age.

TB: Well, now you do and the whole future is stretched out in front of you.

AP: Hey! There you go.

TB: So, because this was such a well-known live song for you guys, Leckie had you record it live, right?

AP: We recorded it live, yep. Vocals as well. It was all recorded live in the Manor.

TB: How many takes?

AP: I think two. Certainly if we did more, like three takes, I think we used take two. There was a little wooden-based tiny stage area, in a corner. Terry was set up in there, and Colin was stood in there with him, and had his amp around the corner. I was off in another sort of shut-off area in another corner, and Barry was in the main room. We could all see each other, but were quite far away from each other.

TB: He was trying to limit bleed-through in the mic's and all that?

AP: Bleed-through, spill-over, exactly. I must admit, I thought my harmonica sounded weedy. I didn't really understand the principle, as I said, of playing it through an amplifier and getting that distortion on it. When we played in clubs, I thought my harmonica sounded better, because I was so close to the mic I was singing through. You've got your harmonica right on it, and you're blasting away, and it's distorting and it sounds really good and scream-y. But when we recorded it at the Manor, I was singing in front of a really posh mic, about six inches away from it, and I'm wondering why, on the playback, my harmonica sounds so thin and weedy. But silly me, it was because it wasn't distorted.

TB: Well, you guys were so new at recording, you didn't know what to ask for, right?

AP: Yeah, you don't know what to ask for, and the whole thing's so scary and exciting, you don't even eat or shit when you're in the studio. You're just too wound up with excitement to be there.

I used to map everything that I had to do -- the structure of all the songs, even though I knew them really, really well. I had a whole sheaf of orange paper from somewhere, and it was all written down on this orange-colored paper. Little notes -- "guitar break in here, change up to another bit here," it was all mapped out, because I knew that when I got in there, I was going to be like some kind of weird zombie, just sleepwalking with excitement.

TB: I know what you mean. It's funny, too, how time just disappears when you're in the studio.

AP: Yeah! You think you're just getting into it, and it's like, "Well, we really have to wrap up now, fellas. It's 3:00 in the morning."

TB: [laughing] Exactly. Now, Colin and Terry get together on this song's groove and pretty much carry it throughout the song...

AP: Yeah, and as we used to play this live, the dubby section at the end got more and more extended, and got faster. The first half of the song is that kind of tumbling-over-itself funk [sings pattern] -- and then it would become the more punctuated [sings pattern toward end of song] -- very empty, kind of stabby rhythm. Live, that section got faster and faster. Not as we were playing it, but there would be a gear change from the first piece to the second that was brutal and sudden. The pair of them always clicked into the perfect tempo together. That really was a delight to listen to, when they clicked into that.

TB: How did you approach Barry's playing in the song?

AP: Well, in the first half, Barry is playing very long sustained stuff, with the big swirls and sweeps. But in the second half...

TB: He gets very staccato.

AP: He starts playing switching-on-and-off noises, bloops, and blips -- almost computer-malfunction sounds. And because that's rhythmic, and the bass and drums are obviously rhythmic, there's no more sustained sound. So my singing tended to get more and more shattered and rhythmic. You know, you're in sort of a nonsense conversation with all those rhythmic things. It's almost like scat singing, but it's not. It's just noises.

TB: Oh, I would say it's scat singing.

AP: I'm actually a pretty good scat singer these days. But then I wasn't very good. It wasn't so much scat as much as rhythmic noises. I was almost singing random hits on a vocal drum set or something.

TB: Yeah, I think I'd disagree with you about you scatting in the early days -- I remember when I first heard "Watchtower" and "Scissor Man" and things like that, I thought, "He's got to know something about Jazz, because he's basically being a scat singer here. He's turning his voice into an instrument, which is what it's all about."

AP: [laughing] "Quick, send the scat signal up into the sky! We need Scatman!"

Yeah, I always fantasize about doing a scat battle with a great jazz singer these days. You know, me and Ella.

TB: [laughing] There you go. Or Louis.

So, each of you guys were trying to find your holes in the music. It was almost a battle or, as you say, a conversation.

AP: Yeah, right. And I think because it was a piece of music that we didn't feel precious about, we could be more adventurous with it. W were more precious with our own songs, because it was a matter of, "Oh, don't hurt my baby!" But because this was a Dylan song, and it already existed in Hendrix's form, and Dylan's form, and god knows who else had covered it, and it wasn't ours, we had license to totally butcher it -- and we sort of found something very creative in it.

TB: It's very freeing to not have to worry about that. That's another thing you have in common with Jazz players in this approach -- they typically will take standards, and then make them their own. Because it's part of the common vocabulary, so why not?

AP: Yeah. It was certainly great to unmake "Along the Watchtower," if you know what I mean.

TB: Yeah, just the same way someone like Coltrane would take "My Favorite Things," deconstruct it, and then build it back up in his own way.

What else do you remember about the song?

AP: I know that, when it got to the "and the wildcats did growl" part, I used to enjoy growling! [laughs] My Johnny Winter growl. Dave still likes my Johnny Winter impression. To do it, you just do one long note for about 30 seconds, and then you leap to your feet and play a Blues lick.

I just liked the lyrics so much, both to this song and "Citadel." Both very similar -- a place besieged. But is the place a physical city, or a personal place of besiegement? If such a word exists, that is. Maybe I've just invented a word!

5:58 PM

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