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Sep 2, 2007

September 16, 2007 - Sunday


Andy discusses "Meccanik Dancing"

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, "Meccanik Dancing," is from 1978's Go 2. (A big shout-out to Kim for guessing this week's song, as well as for her correct pick when we did "Summer's Cauldron.")

We'll be back at month's end with an interview about a song that many people have been requesting, but that we haven't featured yet. In the meantime, given that Halloween is on its way, you might want to check out the aptly named Monstrance!

TB: Let's look at "Meccanik Dancing." This is album opener for Go2, and obviously there was a lot of stuff going on with the album itself...

AP: It was really that "difficult second album."

TB: Right. You had described the living conditions, and how you guys were like The Young Ones...

AP: [laughs] Yeah, that was difficult! Plus, you know, Barry was trying to -- well, let's be frank, I felt he was -- I don't know if he was or not -- trying to take my band away from me.

TB: Right. He was trying to express himself, and his own songwriting, within an environment that you and Colin felt that you'd carved out.

AP: Yeah. See, I had, like, a picture -- I wanted the first album to be White Music, and it was the black-and-white thing, and I wanted to carry on the black-and-white thing with the second one, and then open up on the third. I had the great "three-album plan"! [chuckles] It sounds vaguely communist, doesn't it! "Joe Stalin's three-album plan!"

So, it was a plan where on the second album it would be my songs, and Colin's songs, but maybe opening up a little more musically, and then for the third one, I was open to different things -- it could go a little more multi-colored, a little more varied. Maybe then, if Barry then brought up stuff, we'd do the best of his songs. But, from out of nowhere, on the second album, he pulled up, like, seven songs!

TB: That many? Wow.

AP: Yeah. And they were good, dammit! I got the willies. So, I thought, "Shit, this bloke's trying to take my group away from me!" I could see there was kind of an attempt by Barry -- and probably an attempt by me, though I didn't realize it, because I was in the middle of it -- to sort of hive-off the group and bring it my way. And you could see that he was trying to bring Colin and Terry his way.

TB: Sure. That's a fairly well-known band dynamic, unfortunately.

AP: Yeah, so we were wrestling for control of the baby. It was a tricky time, that whole album.

TB: Did you guys ever think about writing together, or did you ever? In some bands that I've been in, when you have several strong writers, one of the ways you could get around the competition was by composing together.

AP: No, because the nearest we got to it, I would be making suggestions for Colin's stuff, where I thought his melodies were excellent, but his lyrics might have needed attention. So I'd try to make suggestions -- I didn't even want a co-writing credit -- "Look Colin, you're mixing your metaphors here," or "That really doesn't rhyme with that -- if you use this word, it'll rhyme," or you know, whatever it was -- "You've posed a question here, and you've not answered it."

He was making the sort of mistakes that I'd started to already come through, and I could see that they were mistakes, and I wanted to help him out. But I think he thought that I was being the bossy older kid who wanted to mess his songs, you know? So he resented any changes that I tried to make to the actual, physical content of his songs. But for some reason, he would allow me to have quite a big hand in arranging them. I think because he frequently had no idea how they were going to go until they got into a communal work-out setting -- everybody putting their five eggs into the basket.

TB: What about co-writing with Barry as a partner? Did he have the same attitude?

AP: No, as soon as he started writing, I thought, "Shit, he's going to be taking over!" Because, I've got to say that his lyrics were very good, and also his sense of melody -- which I hear he's getting back to, because I know that he's been in the "melody wilderness" for a long time now. But when he brought up those seven songs initially, they had very interesting melodies and very sharp lyrics to them, so I immediately felt threatened.

TB: Why did you choose this song as the album opener? Is it because of the response you'd had to it live, or something else?

AP: It just kind of felt like a good, kicking-the-door-down, Pop, breezy opener. I mean, make no mistake, this is the Pop song from the album. In my opinion, Virgin missed a trick by not considering this for a single. Because, dammit, you could dance to it!

That was a big consideration then. If you had a track that was half-decent, and you could dance to it, then that was the one they wanted to think about maybe as the single. I thought this filled quite a few criteria -- you could sing it; it was about a subject you kind-of related to, if you were English, at the time; and dammit, you could dance to it!

It came back to me, as I played it today, what I'd actually based it on. Which famous work song is it based on?

TB: You got me!

AP: Okay, just sing the melody to yourself, but sing it telescoped up, so there are no rests between the lines.

TB: [sings tune, brings it up to speed, comes to realization just as Andy starts singing]

AP: "Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin', Mama's little baby loves short'nin' bread."

TB: Yeah! Of course.

AP: It's based on that song. I told you, you could hear it! [Starts singing lyrics of "Meccanik Dancing" to the "Short'nin' Bread" tune]

TB: [laughs] So, where the hell did that come from?

AP: I don't know, it was just one of those tunes that must have rattled 'round my head as a kid. Along with [sings] "There's a hole in my bucket" -- which I'm sure is going to surface in some song somewhere! It's one of those tunes that seems to be kicking around in your head forever, and it just seemed to surface on this. I don't know who wrote "Short'nin' Bread" -- it's probably "Trad," isn't it? That famous writer, Mr. Trad, who seemed to write an awful lot of the old material.

TB: [laughing] So, which came first, the music or lyrics?

AP: I have to be honest, I can't remember. Like I say, it came back to me today that the melody is based on that song. I can tell you what the kind of main impetus behind it was. It's obviously punning, with the way it's spelled, on a chain of dance halls in England, called the Mecca chain.

TB: Yeah, explain a bit more about that, for readers outside the UK.

AP: Well, there's a chain of dance halls where you take yourself on the weekend -- they're just big halls, with dim lighting and a big huge bar at one end, and a DJ or a stage with a shell backdrop or something for a band. They were just sort of temples, really -- temples of dance and drink. There's a chain of these, owned by a company that call themselves Mecca.

TB: Are they still around?

AP: Do you know, I don't know if they are. Maybe somebody who frequents one of these places can tell us, but they seemed to be everywhere in the '60s and '70s. So, the places where people went to dance in most of the towns in England was the local Mecca. And also, the place where my parents' generation went to dance was called The Mechanics -- The Mechanics Institute, which was a kind of a social club in Swindon that was run ostensibly for railway mechanics. It's pretty much "The Mechanics Destitute" at the moment -- it's just a really smashed-up, vandalized shell of a beautiful old building.

So, my mother would always talk about "dancing at the Mechanics," which I thought was an odd-sounding thing as a kid. So it's a cross between the Mecca dance halls, the Mechanics in Swindon, and how we used to hang around in the nightclub that our first manager had. None of us ever would have got in if he hadn't been our manager -- you know, we were just scum -- but we used to hang around and watch these people getting drunk out of their skulls and trying to dance like robots! I thought that was really weird -- I mean, that the mating ritual involved trying to be mechanical. They'd be loose as a goose, yet trying to dance like a piece of machinery. That fascinated me -- I liked the dichotomy of it -- that these drunken, loose people would spend all week in the factory, and then they'd be there in this nightclub, or in one of the Mecca clubs, trying to dance like a robot.

TB: Was this a result only of the music of bands like Kraftwerk, or were they doing that anyway to non-mechanical music?

AP: They'd be largely doing it to that "das disco" kind of thing, but it seemed to spill over into lots of songs. This album has got a couple of those sort of observation songs about Swindon -- the other one that comes to mind immediately is "Battery Brides."

So, what else can I tell you? It was recorded in Studio Three, the small studio -- although it's still pretty bloody large -- of Abbey Road.

TB: That must have been something for you guys, at that point in your career, to be in that studio.

AP: Do you know, I never thought about it until much later. It never really particularly occurred to me.

TB: Was this a matter of the insolence of youth, or you just didn't really know your history?

AP: I think it was the insolence of youth, and I never realized, at that point, what an enormous impact The Beatles had had on me. I wasn't aware that I loved them that much, if you see what I mean.

So, it was like, people who work there would say, "Hey, this is the 'We Can Work it Out' harmonium," or whatever, I'd go [blandly] "Oh, yeah." Or, "This is the piano that McCartney played such-and-such on, on The White Album!" I'd say, "Oh, really." Then go plonk-plonk-plonk on the piano, and, "Oh yeah, quite nice, isn't it. Quite nice-sounding." It never sunk in!

I do remember [producer] John Leckie showing us a some section of girder that apparently Mal [Evans] played with a hammer, for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." They tried it on anvil, but it didn't sound right -- it sounded much better on this piece of girder! [laughs] Who knows? Only Mal could tell you the real story there, and I don't think he's going to!

So, a lot of the Beatle thing never sunk in for me. I mean, now, I'd be ultra-aware of that. And, in fact, with Holly going in to Abbey Road shortly, she's ultra-aware of it, because I've drummed it into her. When she was a kid, I'd sit her down and we'd watch Help!, and Hard Day's Night, and stuff. I think she had a crush on Paul McCartney about the age of 8.

TB: [laughs] And it's obviously had its effect on her, with The SheBeats doing what they're doing.

AP: Yep. And she also has the concise-songwriting gene. Obviously, sat down in front of those movies as a kid has got to come out somewhere.

But I really wasn't that -- I shan't even use the word "enamored" -- I wasn't so aware of it. I was too busy thinking about what we had to do there, and not about the history in the place, if you know what you mean.

TB: That makes sense. When you're at that age, you think the world's revolving around you...

AP: Around you! And you think, "Oh, that other stuff is the past. Who cares? That's the previous generation."

TB: "Whatever, gramps."

AP: Yeah, exactly.

TB: One of the things that struck me about this song when I was listening to it today is...

AP: I know what you're going to say. Go on.

TB: Oh! Let's see if I can fool you, then.

AP: Is it the locked-in groove?

TB: Well, Colin and Terry have got that going, but then the thing that struck me is how syncopated you and Barry are on this.

AP: I'm playing that skanking, off-beat guitar -- F6, and B-flat 6, if you want to play along! -- and they're locked into that [sings bass and drum pattern]. In fact, they're pushing the "a-one" -- they're really laying that heavy push on that. They're not on the one, they're before that -- they're on the "wuh" [chuckles] -- of W-U-N.

That's a very odd groove. I vaguely remember them kicking this around for quite a while to find this funny, locked funk that they got into.

TB: It's a cool part -- I love what Terry does with the hi-hat there.

AP: Yeah, because he's getting into that big, aggressive disco thing. I think we mentioned it before , but disco records were an enormous influence on us as a band. He really loved that whole "pea-soup, pea-soup, pea-soup" kind of drumming.

TB: And this is when he was first starting to show it. Then it became very dominant on Drums and Wires and Black Sea.

AP: Yeah, you get to peek at it on "Meccanik Dancing."

TB: Right. But in the very beginning, where you're playing that odd guitar figure, Barry's being very percussive too, in that organ part he's playing during the intro.

AP: Right.

TB: And then, you guys are doing a call-and-response type of thing.

AP: Yep. And then he does that little thing after the first chorus, where -- I was aghast that he'd done this -- "What?! He's rented something?!?" -- he'd rented a clavinet, and you can hear him playing that there. I think there was one laying around in the Manor studios -- was it the Manor studios, or was it Wessex, when we did, "This Is Pop"? -- the clavinet is certainly on "This Is Pop."

TB: Yeah, the single version, right?

AP: Yeah, yeah. So maybe he played one there, and it was a case of, "Ooh, I like this!" When it came time to do the second album -- and I wasn't aware of this! -- he very craftily said, "Look, rent me a clavinet." I think he also rented a couple of swish synthesizers -- which, for me, that was out of the purist bag, because I just wanted to stick with that Krumar organ, and his ropey old Lawrence piano -- those were his colors, you know?

TB: And that was your sound.

AP: Yeah! I didn't want him spoiling the sound. "What? He's rented a clavinet?! That's not our sound!" [chuckles] So, I was getting a little needlessly reactionary.

TB: What else do you remember about the recording of the song?

AP: Well, it was good old John Leckie again. He's just the nicest bloke you could be in a studio with, I'll tell you. He's so fatherly to young musicians.

TB: Which is important, because I know what you've told me about being a producer, how it's too much...

AP: Too much social work! Too much like being some sort of marriage guidance counselor.

TB: Too much fighting between band members.

AP: Yeah, you're the probation officer, or something.

TB: So, he's well-suited for that role?

AP: He's perfect for that. He told me a couple years back, when we were talking about who he'd worked with lately, that he doesn't like working with older bands, because they just don't have the kind of stupidity and energy and naivety, and the general kind of "up" thing. He said younger bands really want to be in there, they really want to be working at it, and they really want to be sounding great. He said older bands just don't care enough.

TB: Yeah, I can see that.

AP: So, he doesn't like older bands. He much prefers kids, you know? I think he meant that in a musical way [laughs].

TB: [laughs] Let's hope so! But yeah, I see what he means, because there's so much unfettered energy and optimism that you feel when you're that age. Like we were saying, the world's at your feet, right?

AP: Yep, the world's your lobster! [laughs] You can do anything.

TB: Right. So, he was doing was providing you guys with good, solid support...

AP: Nothing fazed him! You know, if a piece of equipment broke down, it was [mellow voice] "Hey, that's alright, we'll just get another one, and look, we'll just use this instead." His whole temperament was really very good. And Hayden Bendall was the engineer!

TB: Oh! That's funny. A name that has resurfaced in more recent times...

AP: Yeah, he resurfaced for Apple Venus, but he was an in-house engineer at Abbey Road, so he was our Norman Smith or whatever on that album, and John was just the producer. Although he couldn't resist twiddling knobs or setting up microphones either.

TB: Do you remember any arranging or musical ideas he might have contributed?

AP: No, he never did anything like that. He would never suggest other than stuff like, "Give it one more shot, lads! Try to get the middle bit a bit tighter," you know.

TB: So he wouldn't say anything like, "Well, you should double up the chorus at the end of the song," or something along those lines?

AP: No. He would never do that. Never anything like that. His strength was sort of winding you up and then letting you go, like a great little mechanical toy or something. And then he would take a photograph of you doing your thing, and that sonic photograph became the record.

John was not a "mess with it" kind of producer. He was a "let you do exactly what you're going to do, and he'll make it sound as best as he can make it sound" guy. And, do you know, I have a lot of respect for that. I mean, sometimes you need an arranger, sometimes you need an outside voice saying, "Hey, that's too long, can you chop that out and get rid of that," but John never did any arranging, John never did any structural changes or anything like that. He would sometimes say, "Do you know, that would sound good if we put it through this little tiny speaker," or "That would sound really good if we tried it through this piece of equipment, because I know that screws the sound up in a really interesting way." His suggestions would all be to do with sonic quality. And I liked that a lot. You could always rely on John making it sound good.

So, he was at the controls, and everything was alright with the world. I was so wound-up about being in the studio that when that red light went on, you know, it was like "Ohhh, my god!" Very nerve-wracking.

TB: So, were you guys recording pretty much live?

AP: Yeah. It was pretty much live, and then if anybody messed up really badly, you'd drop their part in, or have another go at it, or whatever. But it was mostly live -- you all played the take, and that was it! The take without any mistakes on it was the take.

Let me look at my notes -- oh yeah, I was reminded, during the bit where I say "helps you unwind" -- I think that's the first time -- or one of the first times, I think we'd probably used it on some of the dub stuff at the end of White Music, the end of the session when we did the dub stuff at the end of that -- I was like, "Wow, that's a harmonizer! That's what a harmonizer does!" But "it helps you unwind" [bends the word "wind" way down] -- that's just dialing a harmonizer down. It may have been at John's suggestion -- I was asking, "Can we make it sound like it's unwinding?"

TB: And what about the octave jump right before that? That's always struck me as very Beatlesque, but you weren't thinking along those lines then?

AP: No, I'll tell you, The Beatles were the farthest thing from my mind! I don't think The Beatles came back into my mind musically until Black Sea or English Settlement. "Knuckle Down" I thought sounded a little Beatlesque. And then it really wasn't until that middle section of "Ladybird," when I thought, "Shit, this sounds a bit like The Beatles! Ahh, what's wrong with that?" And that, for me, was a big moment. But they weren't in my head up to that. I wasn't going to admit to an influence as square as that, you know?

TB: [laughs] I mean, part of the whole Punk movement, of course, was the rejection of all that.

AP: Yeah, there was no past. It was Year Zero. A real Pol Pot kind of thing, which is ludicrous, and rather nasty. Because everybody is, of course, the sum of all their influences.

So, let me look at my notes again -- I noticed that there are a lot of backing vocals and counterlines and stuff. And real yob choruses on this song. I was reminded how somewhat brusque some of those backing vocals were!

TB: Well, it's a bit understandable -- this was a song that was born while you were playing live, and it was meant to be an audience pleaser, so why not have rabble-rousing type choruses, right?

AP: I think audiences got into it. Oddly, I remember playing it more once Dave joined the band. Of course, it had an outing with Barry, because that was the lineup that made the album, and then we toured the album, but not long after that, Barry left, so I actually remember playing it more with Dave in the live band.

TB: The cut that is on Coat of Many Cupboards -- that's Dave, right?

AP: That's Dave, playing guitar and keyboards.

TB: Yeah, that little monophonic synth, right?

AP: Yeah, that little Korg keyboard we had.

So yeah, there are lots of little backing vocals and counterlines. I quite like the little breakdown section, where it's just drums -- that rather spastic kind of drum rhythm he falls into.

TB: Yeah, great use of hi-hat there, too.

AP: Yep. And we're just doing these very close-sounding, dirty-sounding harmonies -- they have a lot of rub, and a lot of dirt, to them.

TB: And that was a result of, what, you guys sitting around and arranging that together?

AP: Yeah! Basically, because I didn't have any demo facilities, I would just bring the song up in its rawest form, and just tap my foot, and we'd just try stuff out, you know? Up until '82, all songs were built in a rehearsal-room situation, or even sometimes just in a recording studio, because there wasn't time to sit around in a rehearsal room. Or at soundchecks, and stuff. That was another thing.

TB: Sure. So, is there anything about the lyrics that stick out for you? As you said, this is kind of along the same theme as "Battery Brides."

AP: Yeah, I sort of have the two as a pair, really, which is maybe why they had to be close together on the album. I think of me walking from The Affair Club past Woolworth's -- they were, like, 200 yards away from each other, and it was that observational thing.

But no, there's not much otherwise I can tell you about the lyric -- I like the simplicity and the shortness of the lines -- that "1-2-3-4 ... 1-2-3" thing. I like the almost-haiku-like shortness of the lines.

I was a bit miffed it wasn't a single, I have to be honest. They never entertained it as a single.

TB: That's where "Are You Receiving Me?" came from -- they sent you guys back into the studio to create a single, right?

AP: Yeah, they said, "You don't have a single on this album."

TB: And then it kind of got shoehorned into subsequent releases.

AP: Well, we did actually record "Are You Receiving Me?" for the album, but we considered it not quite good enough for the album. And then Virgin got to hear everything, and it was a case of, "Well, we quite like that one, but we think you can do it better, and we'd like you to try another producer."

TB: So that's why you did it again.

AP: Yeah, that's why we did it with Martin Rushent, and re-recorded it. We'd kind of done the same thing with the White Music album, with "This Is Pop." Virgin saw that as a single, but they didn't think it had been recorded tough enough, or strong enough, or [chuckles remorsefully] expensively enough. Certainly expensively -- Mutt Lange was not cheap!

TB: Well, when it's your money, what does Virgin care?

AP: Oh yeah, I mean, we were getting something like 11 percent, and we had to give 4 percent of that to Mutt! So, we'd share 7 percent between the four of us. So, Mutt took more royalty on that than we did! Of course, since we never saw any royalties until 1997, it's a moot point! He got paid, but we didn't.

TB: I know some of your lyrics are better known than others for having misheard lines in them, but looking at the lyrics now, I'd always thought it was "to a disco track from Germany."

AP: No, it's a "disco trot"!

TB: And then "I'm under a fluorescent light" -- I know lots of people have had different interpretations of that. Is that something you tried to do on purpose, just to try to obscure things?

AP: No! Do you know, I thought the lyrics were pretty easy to hear on this.

TB: You do kind of slur your words there [sings caricatured version of line]...

AP: [laughing] Well, I am singing it in my theatrically drunk voice! You know, I'm trying to paint the picture for you here that these are people who work in the factory, and they've had too much to drink, and they're under the fluorescent light, and they're just thinking "I'm going to hit that dance floor, and dance like a robot!" [laughs]

I enjoyed doing the dub of this song, actually.

TB: Which one did this turn into? "Dance with Me, Germany," right?

AP: Ah! The harmonizer! Yes! That was the first time I had heard a harmonizer, because we did the dubs after we did the Go 2 albums.

TB: That's what I thought! I didn't think you had done any dubs after White Music.

AP: I got John to do "Fireball XL5" -- that was done in the White Music sessions. Listen to the version on Coat, where it starts all tinny, and then it goes into the big fat dub version -- that was done at the White Music sessions. But all the dub stuff that came out on the Go + EP was done afterwards. So the first time I was exposed to a harmonizer would have been Go 2 album. There you go.

5:55 PM

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