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Last Updated:
Jul 22, 2007

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Andy discusses "Real by Reel"

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, "Real by Reel," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

NOTE: Just a reminder that these interviews are a biweekly event. We'll be back on the 5th of August with a song quite appropriate for the season. Remember, there's always Monstrance to listen to in the meantime!

TB: The next song I'd like to talk about -- "Real by Reel" -- has one of my favorite guitar solos by Dave.

AP: Yeah, he's doing that lovely guitar solo. In fact, I made a note of that when I was listening to this earlier -- that's a great solo by Dave.

TB: He sure made his entrance into the band in a big way with a solo like this. It's brilliantly concise and constructed, and technically quite stunning. I mean, that little run in the middle of it is so fast and precise.

AP: Oh, I know. The precision of it -- I couldn't play that precisely. I'm pretty sloppy, you know. Dave likes to work everything out, and write it all down, and rehearse it. It's the complete antithesis of what I do -- with me, it's "Roll the tape, and I'll just shoot from the un-hip, and see what we get."

TB: That's one of the reasons why you guys are such a good pair. You complement each other quite well that way -- it's a right-brain/left-brain thing.

AP: Yeah. It's a great little solo. I think he plays it on his Gibson SG. It sounds like an SG to me, because it's fat and nasal-sounding.

TB: You have said you used to open shows with this. You'd think you'd give yourself something easier to start with, but...

AP: Well, believe it or not, once you get past the intro, the rest of it's pretty easy, apart from Dave's solo. But hopefully two minutes into the song [laughs], his hands would have warmed up a bit.

TB: Would you all warm up before you went onstage? Would you sit in the dressing room and play?

AP: A little, but not much. You'd mostly be having a last crap, or a last few dozen pisses, or trying to stay awake -- the thing is, before you went on, you'd get immensely drowsy, and sometimes you would actually go to sleep, just on a bench or something. That's very common, apparently. I remember thinking, "Is this weird to me? Why am I yawning? We're due onstage in two minutes, I'm yawning and I can hardly stay awake." Then I read somewhere that Pete Townshend is like that as well. He said he always wanted to yawn and curl up to sleep minutes before The Who would be onstage. I'm sure there's a doctor out there that can tell me the reason for it.

I read somewhere today that yawning is a way bringing more cool air to the brain, and the body's way of alerting itself.

TB: It brings in additional oxygen when you yawn.

AP: Yeah, so maybe I was trying to make myself more alert for the experience.

But yeah, I thought it was a great intro for performance as well, because you had that melody [sings guitar part in intro]. But what I really loved was the drumming, the snare hit on each beat -- that was a great, live, sort of rabble-rousing opener. [laughs] Not to insinuate that everybody in the audience was rabble! But that sort of constant Tamla-like snare on every beat -- it was a great call to the audience: "Come on, get up, get into it now!" It's a real "We're on, wake up!" opener.

But it was tough to play that intro guitar figure when you've got extremely frightened hands!

TB: I guess, when you played this live, you did yelps and screams, rather than the keyboard whistle that you did in the studio?

AP: It's actually not a keyboard, it's me whistling!

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah, I think I grabbed it in the studio, and said, "Look, can you put an echo on the intro, and I'm going to whistle." And so it's me just going [whistles up, then down]. And where it drags in the echo, it makes that little spacey sort of sound.

And that was great to do live, because Steve Warren on the mixing desk -- or Gary Bradshaw, who took over for Steve when the big lummox failed to turn up for an American tour! -- would put the echo on the vocal mic, and I could do the whistling with the echo dragging, or yelps, or whatever.

This whole song is kind of like "Dub Rock" or something. It's got a very stepping-Reggae feel to it, especially in the bass line, which has a lot of triplet patterns [sings bass pattern during verse]. The Dub elements of it, with echoes and everything, were just completely where our brains were at that time.

When I played this today, and heard the singing -- I haven't heard this for ages -- I thought, "Oh god, the singing is sped-up!" I recorded the singing at a slower speed, and then the tape was put back to normal, so that my voice on playback is slightly higher.

TB: Is that because it wasn't in a good key for you?

AP: It was in a key that was just slightly a stretch. We hadn't bashed it about live, and I hadn't gotten into the muscularity of it -- my voice hadn't learned the kind of gymnastic of it, if you see what I mean. That's very much part of the whole body memory -- the muscles of your throat have got to learn how to sing something. I'd just literally brought this out of rehearsal, and I think I'd pitched it slightly too high.

So, I said to [producer] Steve Lillywhite, "I'm having trouble getting this," and he said, "I'll tell you what, I'll slow the speed down a bit, and you sing it, and then we'll put it back to normal." I asked, "Will that sound weird?", and he said, "No, it shouldn't do, if we don't do it too much." But today, I was struck, after not hearing it for ages. I thought, "Shit, that vocal is sped up!"

But, you know, it's no shame. Listen to "When I'm 64" -- I think they sped that song up a whole semi-tone. You know, McCartney sounds about nine inches high on that song.

TB: Yeah, he was going for that "vo-do-dee-oh" kind of effect, so why not?

AP: Right. So we didn't feel too bad, just speeding it up a little bit. It's not a semi-tone -- it's probably just a quarter or something.

TB: Tell me about the lyrics.

AP: It's a very paranoid song. I was looking in my little black lyric book here, and I wrote it originally -- it had the title "Real by Reel," but original lyrics were about the people's paranoia, and I was playing the part of the eavesdropper.

TB: What prompted you to write a song along those lines?

AP: Do you know, I've no idea! I guess it was a new way of writing a paranoia song, where I was the eavesdropper. 1984 was on the horizon, and people became very aware of how much information on them was being stored, or snooped -- I mean, in this day and age, Christ, they've got everything on you! But then, it was a new thing, and with 1984 approaching, there was a genuine, "Ooh, Big Brother is growing" feeling, you know?

But these are the original lyrics: "In this day and age / There's no such thing as privacy / I'll tantrum, I'll rage / If my toys are taken from me / I pick up tips from the Six-Million-Dollar Man / We hunters keep all the data we can / We guns may be fake, but we fantasies real / by reel / I'm storing facts about you / Every move, every ounce / I'm storing facts about you / My heart is in the cupboard, waiting to pounce / I stalk and I hide / Under cover and under your bed / On tape and I slide / I collect what you discarded" -- awful rhyme! -- "Pick up tips from Flynt and James Bond / We hunters using science from now and beyond / We disguises fake, but we fantasies real / by reel."

And then, the next draft in the book is totally flipped on its head, where I'm the subject of the prying.

TB: [pause] Wow.

AP: There, that's stumped you, hasn't it, Dr. Freud! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] One of the things that struck me, listening to that, is that it reminded me of the lyrical thing that you did on "Shake You Donkey Up."

AP: Yeah, you make a kind of primitive Pidgin English.

TB: Why? Were you doing that for metrical reasons, or what?

AP: Sometimes I like the primitive-meets-modern thing. You know, in some forms of Pidgin English, the words for telescope are "bamboo belong look look."

"Box belong look look," which is Pidgin English for television, was the original title for the video compilation. Of course, the executives at Virgin thought no one would get it, so I said, "Fine, let's just shorten the title to 'Look Look'."

"Kill him stinkfellow" is disinfectant. I saw a Pidgin dictionary in a second-hand bookshop, and I've kicked myself to this day that I didn't buy it, because I think there's a weird primitive-meets-modern thing in languages like that. So yeah, I've been known to throw those kind of "bring the sentence to a halt" Pidginisms in there.

TB: Looking at the lyrics on the song as they ended up, you're talking about tape. Were you going for the double meaning there, in that tape was how you recorded music, of course, but then it was also the principal way -- back then, anyway -- of storing information on computers.

AP: Yeah, it was all tape-recorded everything -- music, speech, data, whatever.

TB: What prompted you to flip the perspective and make the song from the perspective of the person being watched?

AP: I think I probably thought about it a bit deeper, and thought, "No, it's me that's feeling paranoid, so I'll write it from the way I feel." Not projecting me as the Big Brother character -- that was stupid. Who have I ever done that to? Nobody. But I felt that that had been the case with me.

TB: So you didn't feel comfortable with the other perspective.

AP: No, I didn't feel comfortable. I felt it was too pretend, so I decided to write it as what it really was -- my paranoia.

TB: What do you remember about composing the music itself? Did the music or lyrics come first on this?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember how it was written. I think it fell out from the easy hand-shapes of the chords. You're playing a part-chord, and you're moving your finger, and making the melody as you move these sort of part-chords around, in an easy shape, in C on the guitar, way up the neck. In those days, I used to write songs pretty damned quickly, generally.

TB: Well, you were forced to.

AP: You had to! "Okay lads, you've got three or four weeks to write an album!" And then the studio's booked, and you'd be in there. "Whaaaat? I've got no songs! I've got to find 16 songs in three weeks?!" It's amazing that I could do that. Now I can't find 16 lines in as many years.

TB: I bet you would, if you were put in the same position, where it was your livelihood at stake, and you were given a great opportunity...

AP: Or, if you're inspired by something, like the Disney things. Because, up to about the mid-60s, the best Disney songs were really excellent. So, when I had the opportunity to write for James and the Giant Peach, it was like, "Wow! I'd like to be in that company!" Doing those songs really inspired me, and I did actually come up with four or five pretty damned good songs in one week. [The four "James" songs ultimately ended up on Fuzzy Warbles.] So, yes ma'am, it can be done!

TB: [dramatically] And will be again!

AP: [matches tone] And will be again! Well, hmmm, harrumph. Let's not get into that one.

TB: Let's talk about how the song came together, in terms of parts and all that.

AP: As I say, it's kind of based on that whole rocking drum kit, and that Dub-by, reggae bass line. I turned my original guitar part around, so I'm skanking in the holes, really. I think Dave's following the vocal line. And then you get into the studio in the Townhouse, and you've got that big stone room for the drums, you know.

When I listened, I was reminded of that beautiful push that Terry does on the "and" before the "one," when he hits the snare and the cymbal.

TB: Yeah, I was going to ask about that -- who came up with that?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember, but it certainly as hell helps kick the song along. I mean, maybe he did it once, and it was a case of, "Wow! Do that again! That's great!" Something that just inspires you, so it's like, "Go back to that."

TB: Yeah, it's definitely one of the things that sets the drum part apart.

AP: It's snare and cymbal, which is always much more vicious that bass drum and cymbal. Did you ever realize, that you hit a cymbal on its own, it sounds rubbish?

TB: Oh yeah, it was one of the first things I learned when I sat down at a drum kit. You almost always have to back a cymbal up with something.

AP: Yeah, it either needs a bass drum behind it, or a snare drum.

TB: There are times, if you're doing something atmospheric or want an accent, when you can hit a cymbal by itself. I sometimes like the "wash" of a nice cymbal by itself, but it's got to be the right situation musically.

AP: Yeah, but if you're punctuating, you really need either a bass drum under it, or, for a more vicious approach, a snare drum. So, when Terry does that on the "and-one," it's like a kick in the ass to say, "C'mon, get to that microphone! Get singing!" It's a real good motivator, that snare and cymbal there.

I've just got a load of random notes written down here -- the feedback at the end is Dave, overdubbing. That's one of the few times we do a ritardando, is it called? A retard dildo? It's one of the few times we ever used one of those, where the song slows down at the end.

The laugh at the front is, I mean, there's all sorts of crap at the beginning of our songs, because we were just too busy joking with everybody in the control room when we were doing vocals, you know. So, obviously, somebody said something that made me giggle, and that little giggle was left on. It was a case of, "Oh, let's just leave it on, it's a good little way of kicking off the side."

TB: Back when there were sides to records!

AP: [mock moaning] Ohhh, dear, whatever happened to the side?

There's a little bit of that monophonic Korg, the old funny noisemaking thing, in the sort of ramp into the chorus. Oh, and Dave does his best Hank Marvin impression on the run-up to the guitar solo! It's very glorious-sounding, and reminds me of Hank Marvin from The Shadows. You get the vocals doing the very Dub-by "Now I lay me down to sleep" pieces, and the guitar's doing this [sings line] -- which is almost like a little Shadows song or something.

TB: You recorded a single version of this, correct?

AP: Yeah, we did, in [Cockney accent] Dick James' studios! [laughs] He was a very lumpen-looking man. He looked like one of the people in "The Dick Van Dyke Show. Is it Morey?

TB: Morey Amsterdam?

AP: Was he the fellow in the office with the bald head?

TB: No, that was Mel!

AP: Mel. Yeah, so Dick James looked like Mel! Imagine a more Cockney Mel. Dick James actually had a hit record in the '50s singing the theme from the Robin Hood TV show. Which he sang in a very kind of swish American accent [imitates him], "Robin Hood, Robin Hood," and then in the middle he's extolling all the kids to join in [reverts to Cockney accent], "Come on children, sing along with me!" He slips back into his obvious real accent, you know.

But we're getting off the track there. So Dick James had a studio called DJM -- Dick James Music -- and we sent to DJM when Virgin said, "Well, what's the follow-up single to 'Nigel'?" And we didn't have a single.

TB: Why didn't they think there was already a follow-up single on Drums and Wires? Why couldn't you just use the version that was on there already?

AP: They said it wasn't tough enough, and not strong enough for a single. So we took "Real by Reel," "Difficulty," and "Helicopter," into Dick James' studios and pulled them apart. Kept the bass and drums, re-recorded some of the guitars, and re-recorded all the vocals. And then we added a few percussion things, and a few more ideas, and then Virgin said, "Mmmm, no. Still don't like 'em."

TB: And that's when you re-did "Ten Feet Tall"?

AP: No, I think that's when I came up with "Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down." Is that right?

TB: I thought that was later, but I'm probably wrong.

AP: I may be wrong. I'm going to get slapped down terribly if I am wrong. I always laugh when I watch the Anthology, when Ringo goes, "Oh, is that on that album?" You think, "Doesn't he know?" But I'll tell you, after a time, you start losing track of stuff. It's not important what song was where, and what order it came out in, you know? It's just music.

5:59 PM

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