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Last Updated:
Oct 16, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Andy discusses 'Always Winter, Never Christmas'

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, "Always Winter, Never Christmas," first appeared on the 1991 fan-convention release Windowbox, and later showed up in 1992 as a B-side (if CD singles have such things) on a single release of "Peter Pumpkinhead," from the album Nonsuch.

For once, the upcoming-interview hint ("a song that's been hidden away in the wardrobe for years") was opaque enough to stump even the most prescient blog readers. Try your hand at this one, then: We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song that's been covered more by "name" bands than any other song in XTC's catalog (Per is disqualified from guessing this song, since he provided us with the gift of this hint).

As an additional gift to all of you (and at Lori's suggestion), we've also posted "Countdown to Christmas Party Time," the B-side to the "Thanks for Christmas" single by The Three Wise Men. Andy touched on the making of this song in the "Thanks for Christmas" interview -- check last week's blog for the appropriate links.

Finally (do we detect your page-down finger twitching with impatience?), we'd like to wish you all the happiest of holidays, as well extend best wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year. Thanks for reading, and commenting, and supporting both the band and Andy's solo efforts. Look for something great in '08!

TB: I've got this song on a CD single. It has the LP versions of "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and "The Smartest Monkeys," a home demo of "My Bird Performs," and this one. But it also came out on Windowbox, right?

AP: Yeah! In fact, I think that was its first airing.

TB: That's what I thought, too -- tell me about Windowbox.

AP: It was all to do with the Dixes.

TB: June and Pete?

AP: June and Pete, yeah.

TB: Yeah, I know them. Very nice folks. I used to be a subscriber to The Little Express.

AP: There you go. They used to run The Little Express, and I'd put out a couple of cassettes with them previously -- you know, Jules Verne's Sketchbook and The Bull with the Golden Guts.

I think they sponsored some sort of get-together in Canada, so they asked, "Please please please, have you got some more stuff that we can give to the people who come to this get-together?" I was really scrabbling around, and I found -- do you know, I can't remember what was on Windowbox. I think I've got one up here somewhere -- let me walk over to the cassette department -- yep, here's one stuck way in here. [shakes it] Nothing else sounds like a cassette.

TB: Yeah, ain't that the truth.

AP: So, what have we got? Oh, we've got "Rip Van Reuben" on there as well! And "Bungalow" and "It's Snowing Angels." Whoa. Wow. Do you know, I forgot those things were on there.

TB: So, "Bungalow" is a demo as well?

AP: I think it is, yeah. I'm sure Virgin wouldn't have let the real thing out.

We gave those tracks to them, so people could have something to take away from this little "conventionette" or whatever.

I was so miffed -- which is too polite a way of saying it -- that Dave and Colin never went for "Always Winter, Never Christmas." I was so happy with it! I thought, "This is a great song! It's got a great vibe to it, and all the parts knit together well, and I like the lyrics." But they just never went for it.

TB: You suggested it for Nonsuch?

AP: Yeah. It was one of the early tracks written for that album. It was possibly the first thing written for it, actually. It certainly was in the first couple.

We kicked it around a bit in rehearsals, but they just didn't seem to connect with it. I mean, Colin was probably thinking, "Yeah, well, if I go for too many of Andy's, I won't get any of my own on," and Dave just didn't seem to like it. I don't know why.

TB: The first thing that struck me, listening to it today, is that it has a very strong Afro-Pop feel.

AP: I think it actually came about because I loved that cod Highlife thing at the end of "Hold Me My Daddy" [on Oranges and Lemons]. I wanted to do something where there was more of a whole song based on that kind of twinkling, jumping guitar, and I found this really beautiful little pattern, which goes like this [fingerpicks pattern on guitar]. The ascending notes are G, C, B and E. It's the thing of the C and the B open together, and then you play the melody on the top two strings.

I thought, "Ooh, that's a lovely, lovely figure," and I had this new little drum machine, one that I saw David Yazbek using. I bought it to do some things that I produced for him, which we did in Crescent Studios. It was an Alesis drum machine, and the sounds were really nice quality.

They had a lovely struck-brush sample in there, so I put this little shuffling beat in there [imitates pattern] -- it's that rolling snare-brush thing, with a four-on-the-floor on the bass drum. I got that, and just let it loop 'round, basically, while playing this twinkly quasi-Highlife pattern over it. [pauses] He's the other hunchback of Notre Dame, actually. He's the black hunchback [laughs]

TB: [laughing] He's the one who has more fun.

AP: He's the one who has much more fun! Bigger band. It's not just him and a bell.

TB: You were saying Colin and Dave didn't like the song much. Do you think that one of the things that might have put Colin off this song is how active the bass line is?

AP: I don't know! I thought he would probably have been capable of doing that.

TB: Oh, no doubt. But it's not really a style that you necessarily associate with him. I wonder if maybe he thought the bass was already too defined.

AP: Well, he handled the whole "Mayor of Simpleton" Bach-like, bell-ringing thing very well. And, you know, this is not a million miles away. In fact, I've made a note that this is possibly my second-favorite bass line. I mean, there's that phrase in this thing after each title line and over the end section [sings phrase] -- I thought that was very lovely. Where the hell did that come from?

TB: You also do some funny things where your bass is only a half-step off of the vocal.

AP: Well, I don't really think like a bass player. That's what it is. I'm not a bass player -- it's just another melody line for me, so that's why I go for these big melodic bass lines. It's more like the left hand of a piano or organ or something. I can't think, "Just root that thing down."

TB: Though, at the same time, you've got that walking bass during the chorus on this.

AP: Yeah, I love all that, actually. Do you know, there's a giggle at the end...

TB: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.

AP: I was so happy with how this song was coming out that I could not stop from laughing! At myself. I was just sat alone in the Shed, and I'm laughing at myself, because I'm so fucking happy on how this song is coming out!

TB: [laughing] Right, right. So the laugh wasn't affected at all?

AP: No! I'm just laughing my socks off, because I'm thinking, "Shit, this is great! This song's really good! The band are going to love this."

Bastards. [laughs]

They just didn't seem to like it. And nobody else, you know -- Virgin records didn't say, "Hey, that's really good, that's got to go on the album."

TB: And it's not on Fuzzy Warbles because I guess it was a Nonsuch-era cut, and Virgin claimed rights to it?

AP: Well, Virgin had already nabbed it because it had been released on a single. They got their claws into it, so they own it.

TB: Too bad.

AP: Yeah. I mean, legally, they actually own the songs on the Warbles, but they let me have the use of them forever, which is very nice of them, and [sardonically] should make up for the small fortune they've nabbed away from us in the past.

TB: Come to think of it, that's one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this song, because somebody on MySpace had said, "Please don't talk about 'Thanks for Christmas,' since I'm already hearing it in the malls."

AP: Oh yeah. Well, "Thanks for Christmas" is sort of purposely middle-of-the-road.

TB: Oh sure. You guys did that on purpose. But I was thinking today that Virgin has probably made quite a pretty penny off of that song. Because they're able to trot it out on various holiday-related compilations, and it gets played each season. You know, the mix will have have Paul McCartney, with that horrible Christmas song of his. You know the one, with all those cheesey synths?

AP: Do you know what? I should hate that, but I really like it!

TB: Do you?

AP: Yeah! I'm sorry!! I'm so sorry, but I really like it. I know there are annoying noises all over it -- if I was an oyster, I'd be annoyed by those boing-ing noises the synths make. But actually, as a song, it's kind of horribly effective. Damn his eyes.

TB: [laughing] He does have that gift.

AP: [laughing] Damn his surprised little eyebrows!

TB: [laughing] Damn his wattle.

AP: [laughing] Damn his thumbs up! Which at one point would have no doubt smelled terribly of Jane Asher.

Right. Where were we?

I loved playing the guitar on this, and I loved playing the bass on it. I was listening to it today -- I literally haven't heard it since then -- and I thought, "God, the bass in the verse, where it just anchors it down, is rather like the Patto track, 'Tell Me Where You've Been'." It's got that sort of feel to it, and I thought, "Jesus, maybe I was subconsciously going for that feel in the bass there." But that's what popped into my head when I played it today.

TB: Yeah. Well, Ollie was a big influence on you, right?

AP: Ollie was enormous, but I'm trying to think of the name of the bass player. Clive Griffiths, I think. But I really liked that bass line, and listening to it today, I thought, "Shit, maybe I should have done more with that line."

TB: So, what was the inspiration for this song?

AP: Well, I never read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia or anything like that. In fact, I think the only thing I read by him was Out of the Silent Planet. In fact, I know that's the truth, because if I look over at my bookshelf, I've still got the copies I read as a teenager up there.

The BBC did a dramatized version of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the late '80s, I think, and I'd sit at Christmas with the kids and watch this serialization. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, the phrase "Always winter, never Christmas" must have gone in my head. I never read it from the books.

I have to be honest with you, the whole song is kind of a cry for help -- this is kind of tacky to say this, but I'm going to have to say it, because it's the reason that the song got written -- to try to get my wife to put out more! Because, you know, she did the whole thing where we had kids, and then people say, "You've really got to take care of your husband now, you mustn't ignore him or push him away," and all this kind of stuff -- but it kind of happened, in a classical fashion. You know, "Kids -- okay, that's the end of your sex life, buster."

I was just gently crawling the wall, and trying to channel this frustration into a song, saying it seems like now, it's always winter but never Christmas. That's what the song is about. It uses the stupid or dumb images in celebratory times -- you know, it's always turkey-time, but never Thanksgiving. Who's the turkey here? Probably me.

TB: You know, after you and I talked about the lyrics of "Church of Women" in a fair amount of detail, looking at this, it seems like the same kind of approach -- almost every verse has a pun in there.

AP: Oh yeah, forgive me. I'm Public Enemy Number Pun! [laughs] I've got to stop doing it.

TB: "Always Easter, but never egg-giving"...

AP: Yep.

TB: Although she'd given you two, I guess, by that point...

AP: [laughs] Yeah. Just the two.

TB: The funny thing about this, too, is that it fits right in with the vibe that you had going on during Nonsuch. Of course, I know the timing of when your divorce happened, but if somebody didn't know that, they might think that Nonsuch, rather than Apple Venus, was the album that chronicled your breakup. Because there's "Crocodile," and "Dear Madam Barnum," and "The Disappointed"...

AP: Yeah, there are a whole lot of songs on there that are pointing toward "This man's in an unhappy marriage." This was yet another one of them. This was, "I'm stuck in an unhappy marriage, and I went from having a pretty damn healthy sex life to hardly any at all." I was suddenly stuck in the freezer -- it was always winter but never Christmas.

TB: So, was this the kind of thing where you sat down with her and played her the song and watched her face for her reaction?

AP: To watch it melt, like in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? I said, "Look dear, I've got a recording in this Ark of the Covenant. Let me just open it up and play it to you!"

Actually, that was Ronald Lacy, the man who looked like me. Or vice-versa, I look like him.

TB: That's right, he'll play you in "XTC: The Movie."

AP: Exactly, and I could be his understudy as Nazi torturer in "Raiders," you see.

But I don't think she's ever given this song a second thought -- she's probably never heard since it got written. I never played it to her and said [smarmy American voice], "Here, dear -- this is for you."

TB: When you would write a song, would you bring it out to share with her? On guitar, or in demo version?

AP: No, she really had no interest. I'd have to...

TB: Really?

AP: No, I might call her to the Shed or up into the attic, and say...

TB: "Look what I did!"

AP: Yeah, exactly. Like a proud dog that had crapped in the right place, you know. Dragging you by the sleeve to show you the crap under the rose bush.

TB: [laughing] Well, it's a natural thing. Plus, you'd think that she would also want to be part of that, because ultimately it was your family's bread-and-butter, right?

AP: No, it was pretty much, "Oh yeah, that's nice, dear." And she'd walk off after a couple of verses, and that would be it.

TB: Was that always the case?

AP: Yeah. She had no interest, really, in what I did.

TB: That's interesting. So, even at the very beginning of the relationship, you weren't bothered by that?

AP: No, I guess it was what I was used to, from my mother and father. They weren't interested in what I did -- they didn't want to listen to what I did. So, I think her "couldn't be bothered" with my music -- I felt right at home with that.

TB: Of course, a therapist would say that makes perfect sense.

AP: Yeah, "You picked a person like that, because that was your background. You were used to being ignored."

TB: [laughing ruefully] "The devil you know."

AP: Exactly. So, I guess I married my mother, and she ignored pretty much everything I did.

TB: I'm looking at the lyrics here, and there's the bit about "If you'd only step down from your tree" -- "Cherry in Your Tree" was written about this time, right?

AP: It was, but I think in this case, I'm thinking of this sort of perfect fairy, this sort of untouchable fairy at the top.

TB: Ah, got it. "From your present into some undone future with me." Another pun there.

AP: Yeah, this perfectly wrapped Christmas present which you're not supposed to spoil -- you're not supposed to undo it. The undone future is, you know, "Let's just strip off and get fucking, please!" [laughs] That's a nice way way of saying let's undo this perfect Christmas present.

TB: So, when you did write this, you came up with the guitar line, and then, what -- you programmed drums? Do you remember?

AP: I can't remember the precise order. I would have come up with the guitar figure, and thought, "How do I want this to go? I want that rolling kind of beat, and then I probably would have just programmed that one rhythm in and done it from there. Because, in those days of doing demos, I never used to program the drums in sections much -- there weren't cymbal crashes at key points, or rolls or many subtle changes. I'd just hit one rhythm and go.

TB: Sure. A lot of that had to do with the capabilities of the equipment back then.

AP: The capability of the equipment, and also the fact that, "Well, nobody's going to hear these demos -- the only people who are going to hear them are the band and Virgin Records and the producer. So, as long as they get the idea of how I'd like it to go, then we're fine." Because I didn't know these things were going to come out. I didn't know that there was going to be anything like Fuzzy Warbles, or that people would be bootlegging our demos, or whatever.

So, I came up with that little Country brush rhythm, and then I would have probably put the vocals on next. Because it was done on my brand-new eight-track cassette machine! Which I'd just got -- I'd leapt up from having a four-track cassette machine to an eight-track.

TB: Less bouncing of tracks.

AP: Less bouncing! This was actually the first song I recorded on that machine.

TB: So, you would have done the vocals next. I was struck by the vocal melody being kind of high on this song.

AP: Yeah, because it's in C, and I'm straining for some of those high things. I liked the counter-melody vocals -- the "Always ever winter, never ever Christmas." I can tell you the notes, because they kind of sing a G chord, but the whole song is in C, so you do get a clash.

TB: Because of the B and D in there, both rubbing against the C.

AP: Yeah. You get one vocal doing -- from memory, this may not be quite correct -- B G, B G, B G, and the other one's doing D B, D B, D B, all in these little kind of feminine voices, in a G chord over the C of the song.

TB: Are you doing that with the bass a bit as well? Because there are some parts where the bass rubs against the vocal, too.

AP: Yeah. I know it now, but I don't think I knew it at the time, but I think I was trying to accommodate the two keys together. But, like I say, I was so happy with all the parts of this coming together that I was actually giggling to myself. And you can hear me -- literally, I can't sing for laughing.

TB: Yeah, I actually looked at the liner notes for this on Chalkhills, to see if anyone else was playing on this, because I thought maybe somebody was in the studio cracking you up.

AP: No, I'm just pleased as punch!

TB: And Judy.

AP: Yeah, really. But I just can't stop playing the guitar part now. I think it's better than a couple of the songs that did make it on Nonsuch, actually.

TB: Such as?

AP: "War Dance"? Which was thrown away from Big Express. It had gotten rejected once already.

TB: Yeah, that was a Falklands-era song, right?

AP: Exactly. And I didn't want to do "Then She Appeared." That was Gus's thing. That was a sop to the producer. But it's a shame we never did a proper band version of "Always Winter."

TB: Well, now they can both read this interview and wish that they did.

AP: Nah. [posh voice] It's Perrier water beneath the bridge, dahling.

6:40 AM

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