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Last Updated:
Oct 16, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Andy discusses "This Is Pop"

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, "This Is Pop," is from 1978's White Music. Props to the aptly-named (at least in terms of Andy's label) Ape Practicing Math, who was the first to get the pun in the "guess the next song" hint.

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview that looks at a song about something Andy loves. In the meantime, have you ordered the new four-song download-only EP by Monstrance? Get yours today -- impress your friends and intimidate your enemies this Thanksgiving with your impeccable taste in the avant garde.

TB: First of all, happy birthday to you, my friend. How does it feel to be 39 again?

AP: Oh my god. Actually, do you know what I've got written in my diary, for my birthday? Because I fill in all my birthdays a year ahead, when I get a new diary.

TB: [laughing] You have more than one?

AP: No, I fill in all the birthdays for people I've got to remember, and I do for myself. And if I look on Sunday the 11th here, it says, "Jesus wept -- I'm 54." And that obviously was my state of mind one year ago, but I don't think it's changed! 54. That's scary. That's, like, nearly dead.

TB: Oh, c'mon. [Partridge laughs] You are in the middle of your life, the prime of your life.

AP: I just want to be in the middle of a harem.

TB: [laughs] Well, that could be arranged!

AP: Yeah, that's the present I crave.

TB: Well, we've just got to get that request out to the fans.

AP: I think so. But I don't want any of them to be male and Swedish. The see-through baggy pants are not going to suit him! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Per's going to love that!

AP: He's great. I like him.

TB: It was really nice that you two were finally able to meet. I remember you telling me you were afraid you weren't going to impress him, because you didn't have this rock-and-roll lifestyle to trot out.

AP: No, not at all. I'm not like Bjork -- I'm not in up in a hot-air balloon eating cake made from tadpoles whilst Jean-Michel Basquiat paints my ass in gouache colors, you know?

TB: [laughs] So, 54 is not so bad. You've got good friends, and a nice little catalog of music under your belt. But let's talk about when you were 24, and you were writing this song, and the whole world was your clam, and oyster, and every other shellfish...

AP: [laughs ruefully] Yes. Right.

TB: Can you channel back to those times and tell us what you were thinking?

AP: I can, actually! I was thinking about it earlier. This song exists purely as a way of not wanting to be bracketed by music journalists, who were desperately falling over themselves to try to give a name, and build a box, quick, to put all this upsurge of new music into. For all my sins, I used to read NME at the time -- New Musical Express -- which was very elitist and very snobbish, but it sold you this elitism and snobbery under the guise of insight and new appraisals of things. But it really was just musical snobbery.

TB: "You can pigeonhole music along with us."

AP: Exactly. And they were desperately looking for what box to put this new explosion of noisy music into -- which of course largely came out New York a few years earlier, with The Ramones, and Television, and the New York Dolls.

I was a huge fan of the Dolls -- so much so that you probably know that I penned a letter to actually join them.

TB: No, I don't remember that story!

AP: Oh! Yeah, I was such a huge Dolls fan, around '73 or '74 when they first came out, that I thought, "Wow! This is the band I want to be in." And I actually wrote a letter -- I never plucked up the guts to post it -- but I wrote it, and my pseudo-name was "Lord Andrew English." [laughs] You know, along with Syl Sylvain and Johnny Thunders and Killer Kane, I was going to be Lord Andrew English.

TB: [laughing] I like it.

AP: It just would have put a horrible Mott the Hoople slant on the whole thing. I can see it now. But I didn't have the guts to post it. I thought, "Well, maybe one of the two guitarists is going to die off, what with all the drugs they're doing, and I'll get my shot in first."

TB: [laughing] So, you didn't want to actually post it because you were afraid it might work!

AP: [laughs] I was afraid they might say, "Yeah, sure!"

TB: Then what would you do?

AP: [laughs] Jesus, I don't know. I probably would have felt terribly trapped. You know, the passing fad of the New York Dolls would have been like some glam, glittery albatross around my neck forever. It would have gone horribly wrong.

But journalists in England were trying desperately to pigeonhole this new music, and I really didn't like the phrase "Punk" -- it just seemed kind of demeaning. I didn't like "New Wave" either, because that was already the phrase used for French cinema of a certain period.

I remember going into an HMV store in Swindon that had not long opened up, and somebody said, "Oh yeah, they're showing a video of the Sex Pistols!" They had a video of "Anarchy in the U.K." I thought, "Okay, well, I'll go and check what all the fuss is about."

TB: Had you not heard them before?

AP: Probably not. This was '77, and I walked in this HMV and waited 10 minutes or so, and, in rotation, "Anarchy in the U.K." came on. And I thought, "Is that it? Is that what all the fuss is about? It just sounds like a slower version of The Ramones, or The Monkees with a bit more fuzz." I don't know, it just wasn't new enough, you know?

TB: Yeah, I remember being pretty surprised when I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time, because I was imagining something far, quote-unquote, worse.

AP: They sort of had a modicum of professionalism, and they had a very good producer in Chris Thomas...

TB: And I thought the guitars and drums were pretty good -- it was straight-ahead Rock and Roll.

AP: Yeah! Sure, it was just cranked up Rock and Roll, so I thought, "What's all the fuss about?"

TB: Though the vocal-delivery style had to strike you, I'd imagine, because that's the thing that really struck me as being radically different. It was the attitude and the kind of anti-melody aspect of it, during a time where radio was being dominated by Disco and Corporate Rock.

AP: But I didn't even think that the vocals were terribly new. People like Ian Hunter -- having mentioned Mott the Hoople -- were actually singing with that sort of voice before. I just felt underwhelmed. That sort of spurred me on -- watching this stuff that I thought was rather average, and the sort of thing that I'd been into quite a few years before then. You know, watching The Stooges, and the Dolls, and the glam side of Bowie, especially the more minimal stuff, like "Jean Genie" and "John, I'm Only Dancing," or "Rebel Rebel." You can see exactly where the Sex Pistols were coming from.

I thought, "I don't want to be called 'Punk' -- I want to name us before we are pigeonholed by someone else." Then I thought, "Well, what sort of music do we make?" And once I'd seen the Sex Pistols on this video, I thought, "Well, it's just Pop! You can't call it anything else -- it's just Pop music." And that was the revelation. It is just Pop music -- let's call a spade a digging implement! [laughs] Let's be honest about this. This is Pop, what we're playing.

And that was the purest inspiration for that song. I was going to pigeonhole us -- or un-pigeonhole us! -- before we were pigeonholed by the likes of NME and people who would want to put stuff in their boxes, in their construct.

TB: And were you successful in that? Do you think that this song, being on your first album and everything, shaped the critics' assessment of you?

AP: [sighs] No, because they were going to put their stamp on us whatever we did. But I thought it was almost like, "Hey hey, we're The Monkees" -- it was a case of "Hey, hey, what we play is Pop," so don't try to give it any fancy new names, or any words that you've made up, because it's blatantly just Pop music. We were a new Pop group. That's all.

TB: Part of the reason that a lot of musicians in the mid- to late-'70s embraced Punk was because of the anti-virtuoso quality of it. Prog Rock had emerged, and groups like Yes and ELP were doing side-long songs and really emphasizing their musicianship, while Punk was a reaction to that -- it was the pendulum swinging the other way.

AP: But that had happened before, in the '50s, in England.

TB: With what? Skiffle?

AP: Yeah. I mean, the Skiffle thing was acoustic Punk, basically [laughs]. People made their own instruments, like "tea-chest bass," or rhythm poles, or by blowing on a jug, or scratching a washboard, or beating on oil drums. And then they'd buy a guitar that cost £2, from a catalog or something -- a "two-guinea guitar"! You know, literally unplayable, but it made a sort of a noise, kind of in-tune, and that was really a reaction to the fact that we couldn't do electric Rock and Roll like the Americans, and young kids couldn't do Classical music, and young kids couldn't do the Cool Jazz thing -- and so it was a home-grown, idiot burst of energy, to sweep away the stuff that we couldn't do with stuff that didn't belong to them.

And I think Punk was like that as well. Prog Rock couldn't be done by most kids on a council estate in England. The Classics still couldn't, Modern Jazz probably couldn't -- I just sort of saw it as "Skiffle II." A way of saying, "Well, we can't do your kind of thing, so let's find a simplistic, idiot version that gives us a lot of joy, that we can do on crappy, cheap instruments."

TB: Did you buy into that attitude as well? Is that something you believed, or were you perfectly happy to embrace the concept of being able to play your instrument well?

AP: I loved the energy of it, and I loved, to some extent, the minimalism of it, because that's a place I was trying to go, with wanting to play short songs again, in any case. You know, I'd been through all the noodle-y stuff, and been through the stuff where -- you know, you'd go out for the evening to a pub or a club in Swindon, what few there were, and the DJ would be playing Yes, or ELP, or "Sun of My Father" by Chicory Tip, and it didn't feel like my music, specifically. And then I'd go home and listen to the New York Dolls, and Bowie, and Iggy, and that sort of really stripped-down primal stuff.

So, I loved the energy when Punk came along. I thought the "Year Zero" mentality was kind of necessary, but also kind of stupid. This "There shall be no music before 1977." That's very Red Guards -- you know, smashing up the beautiful culture that existed before them, because there was not allowed to be any previous. And the more stupid side of Punk tried to do that, you know -- to negate anything that was there before. Yet it just sounded like Skiffle with the volume turned up, or it sounded like what the Americans had been doing for five years previous.

If you listen to the demos we were doing for a year or two before we made 3D-EP, you can hear that we're playing two-, three-minute songs that are quite succinct, and that we're trying to go different places in the arrangements, and different places melodically and structurally.

TB: Right. Instead of just three-chord idiot songs, which is what a lot of the Punk stuff was.

AP: Yeah. I liked the energy of Punk, but I didn't need to pretend to be stupid. I could play, to a certain degree, and I didn't see the need for pretending to be unable play. I think that's not necessary. There's a big difference between "unlearning" your instrument, and pretending to be stupid for commercial reasons. The process of learning by unlearning -- that never stops. But the process of being able to play reasonably well, and then just saying, "Oh damn, I'll just play E and A all night" -- that's not very rewarding.

So, we tried to find new ways of constructing what we thought was Pop music years before that. Much to the bemusement of a lot of our audiences, when we got live shows.

TB: Why is that?

AP: I don't know! We'd be playing somewhere in 1975, with John Perkins in the line-up, on keyboards, and a lot of the audiences would just be laughing, or smiling and drifting away. I thought, "Wow, we're getting to them, because they think it's comical!" You know, as long as you're having an effect on someone, at least you're making a difference. But they didn't understand what we were trying to do, but a couple years later it was like, "Wow! Hey, this is new!" "Yeah -- it was new a few years ago for us, but you just laughed!"

TB: So you don't really feel that there was much difference between the stuff you were doing in '75 and '77-'78?

AP: Not that much difference, no. It was better-recorded, and it did have more of an energy injection around '77.

TB: With Barry's arrival?

AP: Yeah. And that's also to do with us playing the songs more live. You find that the energy goes over better as a live thing. It's the old Beatles' "mak schau," you know? Suddenly they're playing everything at twice the speed, at twice the volume. I mean, things like "Neon Shuffle" -- you hear the old recording of that, from 1975, some people have got this demo -- it's Steve Hutchins, who was our vocalist then, and myself on guitar, and Colin on bass, and Terry on drums, and it's predominantly the same song, but two years previous. The more we played it live in those two years up to '77, the faster and nastier and more choppy it got!

TB: As you got more confident in it.

AP: Yeah! That's the "mak schau" principle -- "make it a show!"

TB: So, you've told me about the inspiration about the song. Do you remember the actual writing of it?

AP: Well, growing up a Beatles fan, I remember thinking of what symbolized Pop music to me, what was the start of the '60s -- in fact, the death of Queen Victoria! -- was the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night." That was the sound of her being stabbed in the back with an enormous sharpened Rickenbacker. "There! Queen Victoria's officially dead."

So, I took the opening chord, and thought, "I want to base my song on a giant, edited collage of 'Hard Day's Night'-ness." So I tried to write the whole song using as much of that opening chord in different places as I could -- in fact, even opening the song with that rather demonic chord. It's actually the "Hard Day's Night" chord with one note's difference. And the notes are -- should anyone out there wish to play it -- in ascending order, F, A, D, G, C, G-flat.

It would end on the high G if it were the "Hard Day's Night" chord. There are two schools of thought on that chord -- one school of thought says that it's as I've described it, and one school of thought says it's G, D, F, C, D, G.

But I took that chord, and I made the whole song out of it. I took it up to D, then down to B, then G, then up a semi-tone and turned it into a 7th -- to an A-flat 7th. So that's the whole song -- it opens on the one-note variation of the "Hard Day's Night" chord, then we have a bit of percussion, then that pattern. So I tried to make a new construction out of a sort of collage of that opening chord.

TB: Right. But then on the chorus you turn it around a bit, right?

AP: Yeah, it goes to C, then D, is it? Then F, G, C, C -- and Barry does that really florid [sings keyboard pattern] -- very nice little melody, that.

TB: Did he come up with that on his own?

AP: I think so. I made a little note that I really like that little bit he does there. Would you like to know what my rather minimal notes say? Because I've spoken about it quite a bit on the "How They Came to Be" recording.

TB: [cheesy announcer's voice] And how can our listening public get that, Andy?

AP: [laughs, matches voice] I'm glad you asked, Todd, because if they go right over to ape.uk.net -- I think it's still there for download [it is not]. And wonderful value it is, too -- about 15 minutes long, and I think it's about £1 or something.

But yeah, playing the track today -- again, first time in ages -- I'd forgotten the little "yes" at the beginning. I'll tell you what it was [laughs] -- when we were doing the vocals in Essex Studios in London -- which is where I think The Clash did a lot of stuff later -- I'd said to Mutt Lange, "Look, I want it to sound really cold and futuristic. What can you put on it to make it sound cold?" He said, "We'll try a flanger."

So, he actually put the flanger on and recorded it with it on. He was committing to it -- it wasn't a case of "We're going to do it in the mix," it was a case of, "This is how it goes down to tape." It sounded so good in the headphones that I just couldn't stop talking and listening to myself with this flanger on. I'm just sort of going [imitates flanged voice] "Hellllllo ... yyy-Yessss" -- and, of course, one of them gets left on the tape! [laughs] Because they're rolling, and I'm supposed to be doing a take, and I'm just listening to myself in the headphones with this fantastic sound on the vocals, making all these sibilant noises. They caught "Yes" on there, and left it on, because they were already rolling.

So then you get that opening chord, and Barry with his rented clavinet...

TB: Yeah, on the single version. You and I were talking about that when we discussed "Meccanic Dancing."

AP: Yeah, he obviously was coming into a clavinet phase here. But he didn't own one, so they were rented all the time. I was a little annoyed, because I thought, "Bloody hell, the man's jumping out of 'the sound'," you know?

TB: Right. Tell me a little bit about the guitar lead that you're doing in the intro there. What was going through your mind when you're doing that? Because it's very dissonant.

AP: You mean the solo-y thing on the album version?

TB: Yeah, that's what I'm thinking of.

AP: That was just me disassembling Chuck Berry, really. [laughs] I'm pushing Chuck Berry where he didn't ought to go! Playing him in two or three different keys at once, like it's a sort of a bad dream of Pop music -- it's the sort of phrases that Chuck Berry, or the Beatles would have played, but mashing them up and putting them in wrong keys -- you know, the whole song's in D, but I'm playing them in D-flat, and D-sharp, and D. So, it sort of sounds like a bad angular dream of Chuck Berry.

TB: Did that just fall out, or did you do that on purpose? Did you search around to find that?

AP: I'm a great believer in the concept of, you throw your hands on, and what comes out is what you get. Because you've already made the decision in your head that your hands are going to go there, really knowing full well that it's not going to fit, but that there are going to be some great accidents.

I like to put myself in the way of musical harm. You know, I like being at the wheel of that musical car, and aiming it at the wall! Just to see what shape the car's going to come out. You know, it might come out an interesting shape that would have taken me forever to decide on otherwise. You might as well just drive it at the musical wall and bend it up a bit. That thrills me, you see. I still do that now, with Monstrance. It's, "Okay, go!" "What key are we in?" "It doesn't matter -- go!"

TB: And music should be that way -- there should be the thrill of the unknown. Otherwise it becomes very calculated and it's just another job, right?

AP: I think so. I think if it's all measured and organized, there's no room for the accidental. And the accidental is truly thrilling.

TB: That's where the Muse is speaking through you.

AP: There are no mistakes. There are only new ways of doing things.

TB: We were speaking about the album and the single version, and one of the differences is the little bass-and-drum pattern there...

AP: Do you know, I didn't listen to the album version today!

TB: [laughs] You've got to listen to White Music more!

AP: [laughing] No -- that's naked-baby photos! Please. Give me the dignity of letting me put my trousers on.

I know that, in the end section, the intro chord comes in again between each chorus, which I thought was a mistake pretty much as we were doing it. So, as we came to do the single version, that was something that had to get corrected.

TB: Do you remember why you changed that bass-and-drum punctuation, too?

AP: I don't know why we did that! Do you know, I haven't heard the album version for years.

TB: Barry's part -- or, his instrumentation -- is different, too. When you're playing the intro, for example, on the album he does that sustained chord on the Krumar, but he uses a synth on the single.

AP: Yeah, he does like a high, tensile, cold string thing on the single. The album is more organ- and piano-based

TB: So let's talk about the bridge a little bit. You break out of that chord structure you were talking about there, right?

AP: I've forgotten the chords! I'd have to sit down with the song and work it out, like I was in my own tribute band!

TB: [laughing] That'd be great! You guys should start a tribute band.

AP: Yeah! Think about it -- a tribute band to the Talking Heads! [laughing] "The Talking Sheds," from Swindon. I'll be Tina.

TB: [laughing] So, let's talk about the lyrics in the bridge. They're pretty in-your-face.

AP: Yeah, that's all the criticisms. All the criticisms -- it takes forever to get a record deal, or to get recognized, or to have people not just flocking away from your live gigs laughing. It did take a long time, we did go the wrong way -- we wanted to do it our way, we didn't want to do it their way. And they thought our way was the wrong way. And yeah, we did play the songs much too loud! Especially after we had our own PA system built. [evil scientist voice] Mwa-ha! We could be as loud as we wanted!!

TB: Did you actually have people looking down their noses at you and saying, "What do you call that noise"? Was that coming from life at all?

AP: It was just kind of a parental thing. You know, you've got to bear in mind that I'd be at home, living with my parents a few years before then, playing "Trout Mask Replica," you know [laughs] -- or, my mother turning the power off if I plugged my amplifier in, and things like that.

TB: Really?

AP: Oh yeah, she'd rather sit in the dark and the cold so that I couldn't make a noise with my electric guitar and amplifier. Or, Colin would come to the door, in the early days of The Helium Kidz, you know, with his bass under his arm. I'd arrange for him to come 'round, so we could go up in my bedroom and run through the numbers, and she'd deny I was in! She'd go to the door, and he'd ask, "Is Andy in? I've 'round to rehearse." "No, he's not here, love." You know, knowing full well that I'm waiting upstairs, thinking, "Why isn't Colin coming up?" [laughs ruefully] My mother was an enormous influence on me! So, if she would let Colin in, she'd then she'd the power off.

TB: [laughing] Nice. So that's where you got the idea for doing the unplugged sessions, right?

AP: [laughs] Well, I was still plugged! But un-volted, or whatever the phrase would be.

My father was quite musical, and it was his crummy old guitar leant behind the sofa that got me picking up guitar in the first place, but my mother was decidedly against me making [Pepperpot voice] "that 'orrible noise!"

TB: In any form at all, huh?

AP: Yep.

TB: Were there any songs that you could play that she did like?

AP: No. The standard parental thing was, "C'mon, play us a tune, then." And if it wasn't "Wheels Cha Cha" [by Joe Loss], they didn't want to know.

"Hey Mom, I've worked out "Dachau Blues"! Wanna hear?" [laughs]

TB: What about The Beatles or something like that?

AP: They liked The Beatles up until they grew mustaches, and then certainly my mother claimed, "They've spoiled themselves and their music."

TB: [laughs] "Those nice young boys."

AP: While I thought, "Wow, they finally got really interesting!" So that's the generational thing. When I lived at home, I showed my mother the sleeve to "Spotlight Kid," by Captain Beefheart, where he's got the nudie suit on. It's a really tacky kind of Country and Western Glen Campbell outfit. And she said, "Ooh, who's that? He looks nice. I bet that sounds lovely." [chortles] And I thought, "Jesus, do you think I should lock her in my bedroom and force her to listen to "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby"?

TB: [laughing] It would serve her right, after everything she'd done.

AP: It would serve her right, yeah.

TB: When Dave joined the band, did you change the live arrangement of this much?

AP: No, we still kept the same arrangement, but we shared duties a little more evenly, I think.

TB: He played this mostly on guitar, right? Did he even play keyboards on it?

AP: He played a few little key bits, if I remember correctly. I'd have to listen to a live version to say for sure. But he would play within the chord structure, and I could play the little solo section, or whatever, so it would sound a little bit more like the album. But it sounded pretty beefy with two guitars playing it live. Which is a good thing! A little bit of beef.

TB: Sure. I think it's pretty funny that you didn't even consider listening to the album version of this. You only pulled out the single version.

AP: Yeah, because the White Music version was sort of like trying it out. It wasn't quite right. Whereas the single version is much more right.

TB: It wasn't for many years after I'd heard the album version that I heard the single version, because it wasn't as widely available here in the U.S.

AP: Ahhh! And what did you think? "Oh, they've spoiled it by playing it too regularly"?

TB: I liked it, but it was a shock hearing it so much more ... swish, I guess.

AP: Produced. Yeah. Well, the sounds on it sound more quality. I think the engineering has more weight to it. It sounds terribly dismissive of John Leckie, and I don't mean it to be, because John's a wonderful engineer, but it sort of sounds thinner and more demo-y on the album. But on the single version, the drums sound deeper, the guitar sounds more chiming, and the keyboards sound more sparkly.

TB: Well, certainly, in the drums and bass, it's a glimpse of the sound you'd eventually develop with Black Sea and English Settlement.

AP: Yeah, I think so. It's a nod toward that sort of thing.

2:18 PM

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