XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:
Oct 14, 2007

October 14, 2007 - Sunday


Andy discusses "Great Fire"

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, "Great Fire," is from 1983's Mummer. (Kim is beginning to seriously frighten me with the accuracy of her predictions for each song ... get out of my head, dammit!)

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song that some people consider Andy's best. In the meantime, given that that will be Halloween weekend, you might want to check out the new four-song download-only EP by Monstrance!

TB: I want to talk about "Great Fire" this time around. How do you feel about fire?

AP: I never saw any fire until the age of two, because I lived in Malta, and nobody had fires. What would you need a fire for? It's warm. It's in the Mediterranean, nestled above North Africa there. The first fire I was ever aware of seeing was the sparks that came out of a jet bomber/airliner toy thing that the neighbors gave me when my family left Malta, as a going-away present. It was sort of friction thing, where you run it along the floor, and the sparks shoot out of the jet engine. Apparently I screamed, because I didn't know what fire was! "What's this stuff coming out of my toy?!" I wouldn't have it. I think the neighbors felt really bad that they'd bought something that was freaking me out.

TB: Do you remember your time in Malta?

AP: No, my very first memory is being on the plane coming home. I was sat on my father's lap, and I threw up on him, apparently. [laughs] The first thing I remember was that oval window on the plane.

Then, for some reason, I got very, very blasé about fire. I remember being at my grandmother's, and thinking that her cat didn't look warm, so I laid him on the fire while the fire was starting to get going. It laid there on a piece of newspaper, kind of on top of the fire, kind of feeling snuggled and warm, then YOW!

TB: [laughing] Right, the cartoon thing.

AP: Yeah! So, I went from being totally freaked out by a tin-toy bomber to being rather blasé about fire.

TB: Did that continue through your youth?

AP: No. I wasn't one of those pyromaniac kids. I used to play with a kid called Ivan, who just had to set fire to everything. You know, you'd go to a playground, and he'd have to build a little fire on a wooden swing -- and then swing it to see if continued burning while it burnt through the rope holding the swing, or something like that.

And then, when I went to college, in Swindon, at the Art College there, there was this older asshole fellow called Chris -- I've never forgiven him -- who just kept trying to set fire to me all the time!

TB: To you? To anybody else?

AP: No, just me. I remember he had false teeth. He must have been about 25, but he looked 55, and he had really long, obscenely greasy hair, very straight and lanky. No teeth. And he just kept trying to set fire to me all the time, because I was only 15.

TB: That was why he was targeting you?

AP: I was the youngest kid in the class -- I was a little softy young kid, so he used to try to set fire to me all the time.

TB: Classic bully stuff.

AP: Classic bully stuff. But I think, well, you know, I ended up with a life, and he ended up with his gums. [laughs] So I feel a sense of revenge. I don't know what happened to him, but he was a complete and utter asshole.

He'd freak me out -- knowing I was very superstitious, he said that he'd had a dream that I was going to die on this set day. Of course, I was totally freaked out on the build-up to this day, and I was petrified all day, in a state of [Mel Brooks lounge-singer voice] ang-xiety! Crossing the road really carefully, and walking very slowly, looking around all the time at everything. Not wanting to fall down the stairs at the college and all that.

And then, at the end of the day, he was in fits of laughter, telling me that he was just pulling my leg and what a joke, you know.

TB: Hilarious.

AP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you're building up to "Great Fire"!

TB: I am! Very slowly. We're getting a slow burn here. This was a late single for an album that Virgin felt didn't have a single, correct?

AP: Yeah. We delivered Mummer, and Jeremy Lascelles at Virgin called me up and said, "Look, we don't want to put this album out, because there are no singles on it. We want you to write a bunch more stuff, and write some singles, we'll record them and then we'll put the album out." I was devastated!

TB: What song had you been thinking was going to be the single up to that point? "Funk Pop a Roll"?

AP: I actually thought -- rather naively! -- that the correct frame of mind is, everything we did could have been a single! In an ideal world, what's wrong with this track, or that one, or the one after it? I kind of tried to make every track we did pretty much a single...

TB: Strong enough to stand on its own.

AP: Yeah! When I say "make it a single," I mean make it concise, make it as strong as I could. I don't mean idiot -- I don't mean banal. I want it finished well.

TB: With no filler.

AP: With no filler. If any of those tracks had been picked for a single, I would have been fine with that, you know? But it was a case of "You haven't got a single on this album, and we're not going to put it out, and you've got to write more stuff." I was really upset, and didn't know what to do.

I put the phone down after this conversation, and I was sat exactly at this desk that I'm sat at now -- a little desk in the corner of the room, where I kept a couple dozen pencils and pens in a cardboard chocolate box at the end of the table here. It was sort of a treasure-chest design, you know, with a domed-type lid. About seven inches long, made of cardboard, and covered in what were kind of reproduced watercolor paintings of really old-looking medieval or Tudor buildings. It was a company called Terry's of York and, looking back on it, I'm guessing they were scenes of Yorkshire, or scenes of "Ye Old-ee York," you know?

So, I was sat here with a blank piece of paper, thinking, "What am I going to do, I haven't got any ideas!" Looking at this Terry's of York chocolates, with these old paintings on it, thinking, "Wow, do you know, that looks like London! That's probably what London looked like before the Great Fire! Great fire ... great fire ... wow, like the great fire of passion. Whoa!" Then all of a sudden, bleagh! This song started to fall out.

I grabbed a guitar and sat in the kitchen, and literally the first chords I grabbed were this sort of easy A-minor, on and off, going down to a disemboweled F chord [mimics pattern]. I thought, "Oh, that's kind of unusually hook-y," and just started to sing "Great fire burning, blah blah blah blah, great fire burning..."

The song came reasonably quickly, all because of thinking that the pictures on this Terry's chocolate box, where I kept my pens, looked like London before the Great Fire. But I think it was supposed to be York, as I say -- you've been to York, you've seen that it's sort of full of half-timbered cars everywhere [laughs].

The thing was, this song fell out largely in that heavy kind of 3/4 thing. One, two, [drops voice, and accents the] three, one, two, three -- which, as everyone knows [chuckles], is kind of the anti-single these days, if you want something to dance around to!

I remember writing that, and not long after a song called "Gold," and sending those in to Virgin. Jeremy Lascelles said, "Yeah! Really like that 'Great Fire'!" And I thought, "Well, the man's insane, because it's no more or less commercial than all the other tracks they've got. Plus, it's going to be tricky to dance to! This is going to empty dance floors, with that 3/4 going into 4/4, in the build-up to the chorus part," you know? But no, they were insistent that it be a single.

I actually know that BBC Radio played it once. [laughs] That's not going to make it a hit, is it? They played it just once, and I was lucky enough to hear the one time. And I thought, "Wow, it's great! They're playing it already!" And then I never heard it again, and I was actually told that the BBC just played it the once. Yeah. So, thank you, Auntie, for the great leg up on the career there!

TB: Yeah, and thank you, Virgin -- they're real good at picking those hits!

AP: Yep. But I spoke to Dave today, because I wanted to cross-check a few facts with him before I spoke to you, and he said, "Oh yeah, I love that song! I thought it was a great choice for a single, because it was so unusual." He said it was sort of brave, and a good classy piece of music.

TB: Well, it's a fantastic song...

AP: It's okay -- it's not one of my favorites.

TB: Really?

AP: No, it's sort of okay. I just sort of thought it was "Yet More of da Mummer" [laughs] -- which is an album title The Police haven't had yet! You know, it was just another song from the batch that just sort of came out around that time.

Virgin suggested we use their flavor-of-the-minute producer, Bob Sargeant, who had produced Haircut 100. He had played keyboards in Mick Ronson's band for a while, and I think actually produced his Slaughter on 10th Avenue album.

And here -- [sound of paper rustling] rustle, rustle, rustle -- I turn to my notes!

TB: [laughing] You just have some wax paper there, and you're doing that for dramatic effect, aren't you!

AP: Yeah, there's nothing written on this at all. It's all in Cyrillic. Dah!

I was listening to the song today, as is the sort of thing I do when you ask me about these songs, so I put it on and had a listen. But, just to show you how paranoid I am -- I know there are some fans traipsing around the town [there was a meeting of XTC fans that weekend in Swindon, to see The SheBeats and tribute band The Fuzzy Warblers play at a local club the night before this interview], so I sat here with headphones [chuckling] so they wouldn't hear the sounds of my music coming out of my house and think, "What a wanker he is, listening to his own songs!"

I actually heard a horrible story about Sting -- where'd I hear this story, about someone who went to dinner with him, and a few other people...

TB: I sent you that! From the Holy Moly newsletter...

AP: Yeah, you did! He pulls out his iPod during dinner, cutting himself off from the conversation...

TB: ... and the guests ask Trudi if they said anything wrong, to make him be so anti-social. She says, "He always does it, and the worst thing is, he's listening to his own fucking music."

AP: Yeah! Unbelievable. Well, I didn't want that to be the case, I didn't want people thinking, "Wow! There's Andy, and he's listening to his own songs!"

TB: [laughing] Right. Sobbing.

AP: [laughs] Yeah. Sobbing gently.

So, like the cowardly cheese that I am, I put headphones on, and just sort of jotted down the first things that zoomed back into this bit of brain I have left.

I really like the drumming on this song. Great-sounding toms! I think Pete Phipps has got, oddly, better command of his tom-toms than any other drummer we've worked with! [chuckles] He seems to converse with them more.

TB: Yeah, I've noticed that on both Mummer and The Big Express -- you think of a song like "Train Running Soul Coal" and some of the great tom rolls he does there...

AP: Yeah! Or "Washaway," or "Wake Up"...

TB: "Human Alchemy."

AP: Yeah! Yeah, that's a great one. So, he seems to have this kind of "better awareness" of his toms. I don't know why. That's just his thing, obviously -- one of the two Glitter Band drummers, going "thumpa thumpa thumpa thumpa" all the time.

TB: A great example in this song is how his toms match that descending line into the chorus.

AP: Yep. He's right on that. Very solid.

TB: I guess one of the things that grabbed me about this song, too, were the lyrics. Did the lyrics come first on this?

AP: No, I think the very first thing was the looking at this chocolate box, and thinking that it was like London before the Great Fire, which reminded me of a great fire of passion, and that was it. And then I thought, "It's got to be a minor key if it's a great fire," so I grabbed that A-minor, and the funny little 3/4 pattern fell out of there.

In fact, tell you what, if I've got a guitar here I can tell you what the "mystery chord" is, which I bet nobody's worked out. [grabs guitar] So, it's an idiot A-minor -- sort of a "lesson one" A-minor -- and you take it off, but you leave the note of C on the B string. Okay, now, the other chord, I don't even know if it's a chord at all, but here are the notes, in ascending order, from the bottom -- F, B-flat, D, G, C, F. [He barres the two low strings with his thumb.] My hand just fell to that, kind of like a nervous tic or something, and I thought, "Ooh, that's not bad," you know.

TB: So you had the foundation of the song -- the chords and the "great fire" lyrical idea -- how did it get built up from there?

AP: I think I sort of sketched out the chords and melodies, and I think I had bits of lyric. I think it was one of those where you sort of get the ground plan, and know what shape the building's going to be on the ground first, and then you sort of fill in the walls -- the lyrics. But, do you know, I don't remember much about writing the lyrics for this. I think it came pretty damn quickly.

TB: I love the imagery in the lyrics. It's one of the reasons I like the song so much. You get the feeling of the "desperation of love" -- the panicking animals, and then you turn it around on yourself -- you say, "Animals are panicking / I'm animal and panicking."

AP: Yeah, and you know what, I get to do my panicking-animal saxophone playing! I do two styles of saxophone playing -- one of them is "Traffic Jam in Lagos," which got on to "It's Nearly Africa," and the other style I do is the panicking-animal, sort of "blow and hope" Captain Beefheart "Trout Mask Replica" kind of sound.

I bought an alto sax, thinking I was just going to click into Charlie Parker mode -- boy, what a sucker I was. But if you want Traffic Jam in Lagos or panicking animal, I'm your man.

TB: I'm going to make a confession here -- I'd always assumed that part was a guitar, feeding back and/or having its strings scraped.

AP: No, it's an alto saxophone, my panicking-animal saxophone playing.

TB: There's some great internal rhyming that you get into there -- I love the bridge of this song, where you do things like, "Memories of old loves crack and blister / Mister fireman, bet you couldn't put me out if you tried"...

AP: Right. Well, I think some people think it's "Old Love's crack"! [laughs] Who is this old love of his and her crack? No, it's "old loves crack and blister" -- the new love is so sensational that the old ones are just burnt away!

But yeah, I'm glad you like that, because I remember thinking, "I wonder if I can get away with this, because it's real push-pull." Almost Syd Barrett-like in its convulsiveness.

TB: These lyrics have always struck me as being along the same lines as "Seagulls Screaming (Kiss Her, Kiss Her)," where it grabs a specific emotion involving love -- there are so many ways that you can feel in love, and this is one of them, where you're just hot and frustrated and passionate, all at the same time. You feel like the fire is not only consuming you but it's purifying you. It can be a cleansing agent as well as a catalyst for action and movement.

AP: Hmm. That's interesting, because I visited this theme again, actually, but it was never released. I wrote a long poem, when I first got together with Erica, which made me think, "Wow, this is going to make a great song lyric. I can visit this and take what I need from this." I think it was called "The Fire and the Fireman." It was, again, more of the thinking of love as that burning, cleaning, renewing kind of thing. Not necessarily destroying, but renewing.

TB: Exactly. When you think about it, some metals are purified by heat...

AP: Yeah, almost alchemically changed. And certainly, well, Colin visited that theme to some extent on "Sacrificial Bonfire." But one of these days I may use the lyrics to "The Fire and the Fireman," because I really like them. I think I sort of said it better than "Great Fire," actually.

Now, I should add, it's "smoke curling 'round the door"...

TB: [laughing] I'd planned to ask you about that, because I know that's a classic misheard lyric of yours...

AP: It's not "spunk" and it's not "fuck"! How does fuck curl 'round the door? It's [whispers] "smoke," said in a smoky voice -- a smoke-effect stage whisper! It's not any naughty word! What do these idiots take me for?

TB: Let's talk about the instrumentation on this.

AP: We went into Odyssey Studios in London, with Bob Sergeant producing. Dave thinks it was around about March 1983. Pete Phipps agreed to come along and drum, and did a great job. Nice, pounding, ponderous tom-toms.

The fire bell -- I asked Dave, did we hire a fire bell, because I don't remember there being one laying around at Odyssey Studios, so we must have asked Virgin to rent us one in. I think we ended up with a couple of choices -- they're like hand-bells, you know?

TB: I was wondering what you used there. I always play that part high on the bell of my ride cymbal, but I knew it had to be more than that.

AP: I think it's a hand-bell. I can't remember exactly what they're called -- campanologists? Or is campanology church bells? That's different than hand-bell ringing, right?

TB: I don't know, that's a new one for me.

AP: Yeah, I vaguely remember that we hired in a couple of fire bell hand-bell things, and one of them sounded pretty damned good, so that's the one that's getting shaken over the track. I think on the demo, I'm playing a Pyrex bowl.

TB: [laughs] You work with what you have, right?

AP: You work with what you have! I didn't have a fire bell, but I did have a Pyrex bowl.

This song also is remarkable for us, in it being the first live strings that we ever put on an XTC song.

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah. We gave ourselves permission to be decadent and put live strings on.

TB: Now that you knew you weren't going to be touring to support the album...

AP: Exactly. It was like, "Okay, we can really have strings on this!" It was only two players, though! [laughs]

TB: Well, you've got to start off somewhere!

AP: Yeah. It was a case of, "We can afford two, so we'll just track them up," you know? I can't remember how many times we tracked them up, but it was probably something like four times -- made a little octet out of them. But it was just two players -- Gavin Wright, who also was first violinist on Apple Venus, and a fellow called Nigel Warren-Green, who played cello. Gavin Wright, I seem to remember, doubled up on violin and viola for whatever pass. The two them just sat there, sort of huddled together -- it was the smallest string section you could imagine!

TB: Who did the arrangement for that?

AP: Well, we just kind of sang ideas for lines, and they'd jot them down. I don't think we had anything written out -- it was a case of just trying stuff out on the fly, you know?

TB: I like the way they track the vocals on the verse...

AP: Very Dickensian, those strings sound!

TB: What about where to put the bowing versus pizzicato stuff?

AP: It was just a matter of what seemed right at the time. It may have even been Dave that recommended the pizzi stuff.

We added phasing to some of the strings, so they sound more burning. And we had them going in a round after the bridge, before that next chorus came in. And then, when we modulated up to the last chorus, we really screwed up the strings with flanging and other things, to make them "burn."

I like the bit at the end where they come back over the fade-out, and they play the "animals are panicking" melody line across the rhythm, more slowly [mimics part], like in a triplet time. That gets added in the melange of the fade -- good word, "melange." That's today's word! "The spice melange"... yes, I was a fan of Dune!

We've used that device a couple of times. We used it on the bass at the end of "Mayor of Simpleton" -- the bass plays the "please be upstanding" melody, but in a triplet feel.

TB: Let's talk about Colin and Dave's parts.

AP: Colin's playing his bass -- I'm not sure if it's his Newport or not -- I'd have to listen really closely. Dave is playing piano, and he's playing, in the sort of build-up to the choruses and in the choruses, these acoustic guitars doing that chord patterns -- [mimicking strumming pattern] jimba jamba jimma jam jimba jamba jimba jam -- I don't know how you're going to write that...

TB: Jimba jamba!

AP: Jimba jamba guitar! I was listening today, and I thought, "Shit, that sounds like a 12-string acoustic, but nobody owned a 12-string acoustic," so when I talked to Dave today, we put our two faulty memory cells together and came up with the fact that the guitar was double-tracked -- on the second track we put a capo on the guitar and recorded it an octave up, so it sounded like an acoustic 12-string. We just wanted a big, washy, rhythmic thing.

And he said, "You bastards made me do it over again and again, because I couldn't stay in time! I was rushing." [laughs] And I think we were right, to make him do it again [chuckling]. He got in the groove eventually, but he obviously remembered that.

I'm playing the 3/4, sort of spastic electric guitar...

TB: Did you just have a single track there, or did you do a couple parts as well?

AP: I think it's just one, actually. With Dave's acoustics, and him on piano, it gets much thicker, especially in the build-up and the chorus itself, you know?

TB: And then in terms of the vocals, did you do a single track, or were you guys doubling up your lead vocals by this point?

AP: I think it's a single track on the verse, with a slap-back effect on it. I think it's double-tracked in the chorus. I remember that, on "great fire burning throoooough," I sang that "through" purposely like that, so he could catch the reverb; I'm singing it a little long, feeding it in, a la Judee Sill.

And then Colin and Dave play the part of the Queen's Own Boopers, doing the "boops" toward the end of the song.

And oh yeah, the ending -- I'd always, always wanted to do a "Pleasant Valley Sunday" ending -- you know, The Monkees' single, where they just feed everything into reverb? So we did! We made the all-consuming flame, we made it into a big plate reverb.

TB: And then what happens -- the door gets slammed to the house, or...?

AP: Well, it just totally consumes the being -- the heart is just totally consumed with love, renewing and/or destroying. It's up to you to figure out which one. What we do is, we just stopped the tape machine. You're feeding more and more of the track into the plate reverb, and then you just hit stop on the tape machine, and it sounds like a slam or something. But all it is the track stopping, and the whole wash of this plate reverb just continuing over. But it's a direct lift from The Monkees, because I loved that ending so much on that song. I thought, "Yeah! I'm going to steal that." So, sorry, Monkees!

6:10 PM

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