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Last Updated:
Oct 16, 2007

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Andy discusses 'Complicated Game'

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, "Complicated Game," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

The hint givers were able to stump the hint guessers for the second time in a row -- a record (of sorts), so let's see if we can extend the streak. We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song from Fuzzy Warbles that contains some of Andy's most impressionistic lyrics.

Be sure to stop by next week, when we'll have some of Dave's memories about the song!

TB: Let's start at the beginning with this one. There's a demo of it on Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 1. It's basically you and an electric guitar, and you're kind of mumbling the words, making them up. The melody line's there, the guitar part is pretty much there, but the bridge is different. The demo is pretty much full-length. You obviously wanted to get down the structure of what you thought was a completed song.

AP: Yeah, plus there was more of a folky swing there. Kind of Dylanesque! Kind of like a fetal Dylan. Not quite formed.

TB: Good name for a punk band!

AP: [laughing] "Fetal Dylan"! Yeah, who would play them in the film? Somebody really unexpected. "Mr. T as the Fetal Dylan"!

TB: [laughing] Listening to the words you're working out here, you can tell that you want to use the words "left" and "right" at the end of each line, and then "same," and "complicated game." You know where you want the rhymes to go, but that's it.

AP: This is one of those things where I'm feeling it out, you know?

TB: Now, let me jump ahead to the bridge. It's very major and optimistic compared to the studio version.

AP: Well, the other one's also in a major key, but it's got some intervals that sound much tenser. You know, like an A to an F is tenser. They're the sort of intervals that Nirvana used to deal in.

I was thinking about why this song came up, and it is a great futility song. As in, it's a reasonably good example of how strong and important futility is.

TB: What do you mean by that?

AP: Because a lot of our lives, or virtually all of our lives, are controlled by things we have no input in. We think we have input, but we're fooling ourselves.

TB: Okay. But at the same time, you said something interesting there -- you said how "important futility is."

AP: Yeah, it is.

TB: You think it plays a positive role?

AP: It can do, yeah.

TB: How?

AP: Because sometimes we overthink and try to overmanage everything, and it'd be better if we just relaxed and let life take us along. Because we'd probably end up in a very similar place, without punching ourselves in the face and in the soul continuously. So I think futility can play an important role.

TB: I like the way these lyrics build up on this.

AP: They build from absolutely the most minimal, sort of unimportant thing -- you know, if I put my finger there or there. What I'm trying to say is, it's kind like that thing where the butterfly sneezes in China and eventually there's a hurricane in Chile. Wow, we're getting into fractal land here! [laughs] It's one of those things where you're not sure how important any minor action is going to be. Is it going to be incredibly important, or is it going to be futile? It's the little cross on the voting paper -- you know, should I put it on the right or the left? This person or that person?

I think, at that time in my life, I was starting to feel a sense of futility. I think it had to do with being in the band, and being stuck on the touring trail, and seemingly not having any control in my career. In fact, I didn't have much control in my career at all.

TB: Interesting, because at that point, you guys were on an upward track...

AP: Sure, an upward track in terms of public awareness and things like that.

TB: But you were already beginning to see underneath the veil?

AP: I can see underneath the dust sheets, and it's filthy under there! It was like, "I can't get off of this treadmill! Nobody's going to let me get off of this treadmill." I started to get a sense of futility about things -- whether it's your small hand movement, or parting your hair, or voting, or God and religion. Even God's thinking, "Well, it doesn't matter if I do this with it, it's going to change in some way. Somebody else is going to change it!" So, I guess it's where the meniscus of futility meets the atmosphere of human interaction with it.

TB: I also like the circular logic here -- you go from yourself and the littlest movement to a girl and her hair-part, to a boy and his vote, and then to God, and then who comes back and talks to God? It's you. So, it's back to you again -- not only is there a progression, but it circles in on itself and starts again.

Let's talk about the lyrics in the bridge.

AP: I was feeling kind of futile in my musical career -- I wanted to go this way and they were pulling me that way, and I wanted to do this and it was, "No no, you've got to do that." I didn't think it was going to be like this. So, I began to think, "Is this happening to other people?" Contemporaries of mine -- was this happening to them as well? I wanted a couple of short names, and I thought, "Well, I want them to be somebody," so I remember opening up a Melody Maker, and there was an article on Tom Robinson and Joe Strummer.

So, I thought, "Great, those are two short names, Tom and Joe, and they sound kind of average" -- like "Joe Soap" or "Joe Public" or "Tom Tom the Piper's Son" -- you know, they're just real average names. I thought, "Yeah, they mean something to me, because they're people in a similar situation, and I wonder if they feel this frustrated and pushed and pulled from one post to another in the same situation."

And also, people had some funny ideas about those guys. You know, Joe Strummer had a public school background, from a rather sort of middle-class, upper-class family, and went and killed himself with a cocaine heart attack. And there's Tom Robinson, gay activist, getting married and having kids!

TB: It's a complicated game!

AP: [laughs] Sure is! Who'd have thought, if you'd looked at those two characters, and taken a snapshot of them then, how it would have gone, what their backgrounds were, and how they were changing, and how it would have ended up for them? So, my god, it was a complicated game.

TB: What did you mean by "They were arrows in a very bad aim"?

AP: Yeah, it's the sense that management and record companies and the corporate forces getting them to do what they want, and not what the artist wants to do.

Even when I wrote that line, I was a bit disappointed with it. I thought, "I've not said that very well. I'll change that later" -- and do you know, I never did.

TB: Back to the beginning of the song -- if you listen to the guitar on the demo, you're strumming this, but on the record it sounds as if you're tapping.

AP: "Tap in to America!"

TB: You were going to be Eddie Van Halen, right?

AP: [laughs] No, I play more of a faucet style than a tap style. It's a great sound, rubbing that faucet up and down those strings.

I like the tension of that -- I was actually pulling the strings, though, not tapping.

TB: Oh, really?

AP: Yeah. I'm pulling as many strings as I can get my hand on -- probably about four strings. For people who've tried to work the chords out, I can tell you what the first two chords are. You cover the top four strings at the octave, the four highest strings -- so that's basically a G-6 going on there.

TB: So, at the octave, you mean at the 12th fret? Remember, I'm a drummer.

AP: [laughs] Yep. Then, a tone down, you cover the E string and the A string at the position so they register a D and a G. Then, you keep the barred top four strings the same, but move those two notes down a semi-tone. That's the change. There's a nice tension with that. I just blundered into it, and I thought, "Ooh, that's really nice and tense. I like that -- it's like indecision and tension, and that's perfect."

TB: So, did the lyrics flow out of the chords?

AP: I've got a feeling they came out of the chords, because of that tension. And if you want to know a sick little secret here, when I was looking for songs for The Big Express, I had my guitar in open-E tuning, and I played those two chords, and I came up with "This World Over"! [laughs] They're the same chords, just a different tuning!

TB: [laughing] Well, if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from yourself!

AP: Yeah! I don't mind. [laughs]

TB: So, you're pulling those strings...

AP: And it has to be very small and personal to start with. So that's where you get that sort of broken whisper.

I found this song immensely difficult to sing, actually, because my voice was really shot.

TB: Because you had been touring?

AP: Touring, and rehearsing, and then straight in the studio, and performing this stuff. I don't know if I was coming down with something, but I can hear my voice cracking and breaking all over the place when I start to get louder on this.

TB: At the same time, I think that's perfectly appropriate for the song.

AP: It does kind of make it sound a bit more desperate. But that's not so intentional. It's because my voice was really done. It was one of those things where I don't think I could have sung it again. It was probably a first or second take, but I don't think I could have done it again. But, as you said, it kind of adds to the air of futility and desperation.

What really pissed me off is, when the album came out, they credited the song to Colin!

TB: Really?

AP: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, on the original vinyl, and I think it might still be that way on the CD...

TB: I've never seen it credited to him on CD, and not even vinyl, for that matter -- though there are lots of different vinyl versions of Drums and Wires out there...

AP: I'd forgotten this until last week, when I was in Bath doing a bit of Christmas shopping. I was in Waterstone's, a big book shop in Bath, and there were a couple of those books, the "History of New Wave and Punk," that kind of thing. One of them was one of those "1000 Tracks You've Got to Hear Before You Buy the Next Book on the Shelf" books [laughs] -- this one was about albums, and they had a couple of our albums in there. I think it was Skylarking and Drums and Wires, and I thought, "Well, let's have a peek, then."

I had a look at the Drums and Wires one, and the vast majority of this write-up was about how great "Complicated Game" was, and how wonderful it was for Colin to have written and performed it. God, do you know, I'd just about buried, over the years, all the annoyance of that happening, and then this chapter in this book, several pages long, is virtually all talking about how great Colin's "Complicated Game" is, and how I never would have done that, but it took somebody like Colin to.

TB: [in disbelief] Which is absurd! It just shows what an idiot whomever wrote that is, because it's so obviously one of your songs.

AP: Well, yeah. But like I say, for some reason, Virgin thought that was one of Colin's songs. And that's how it got credited, and there are obviously still people out there in the world who think that is the case. Harumph, huh?

TB: [laughing] Unbelievable. It's funny, too, because -- to me, anyway -- on Drums and Wires the contrast between your songs is very clear.

AP: Yeah, I think so. I think you can see the contrast between our songs almost from Go 2 onwards.

Right, where was I? Hey, you know the guitar solo on this?

TB: Yeah. That's you, right?

AP: Yep. I played this guitar solo without hearing the backing track!

TB: Really? Why did you do that? Did you do it on purpose?

AP: I did it on purpose. I thought, "I want it to just crash across the track." I'd read somewhere about how Captain Beefheart did the vocals for Trout Mask Replica with no headphones on. They just pointed to him from the control room when the track had started, and he just sang.

And I thought, "Well, if it's good enough for the Captain, it's good enough for me!" So I said, "Look, I want to do the guitar solo on this, but I don't want to hear the backing track. Just point to me when it should start." So, I cranked up my amp to number 11, and put the guitar through my little MXR Flanger, which, if you whittled with it, it didn't do a flanging thing but instead created a kind of metallic halo around the sound. And that's why the guitar sounds so metallic, basically.

So, everyone was in the control room -- [producer] Steve Lillywhite was sat there, with the rest of the band stood up with their arms folded behind him, looking at me. He just pointed at me, and it was a matter of, "Okay!" I just crashed into this no-key, no-time solo, and Dave practically was pissing himself with laughter. I mean, he was slapping his own legs and guffawing in there.

TB: But he was laughing with you -- he liked it, right?

AP: He liked it, and he liked the idea of me not knowing the tempo of the track, or what the hell was going on. I wasn't responding to the track, I was just making "a mess of noise" that became a solo. I just remember looking up as I'd finished it, and Dave was in hysterics. So I guess it was a big hit.

TB: Speaking of Dave, what is he doing on this song?

AP: He's very understated on this. I think he's playing stuff an octave down from me.

TB: Is he also pulling on the strings, or is he strumming?

AP: I think he's strumming. I was listening today, and it's very blended in the mix. I get the feeling that he's just playing stuff an octave down. I'm not sure whether he's playing keyboards or not. I'm thinking probably not.

TB: Yeah, I was hearing only guitar in there.

AP: I'll tell you what there is in there -- a drone supplied by Colin's electric shaver! I think he brought his shaver in the studio, and was shaving, and it was like, "Wow! That's nearly in the key of the track! Why don't we put it on there?" So he went in the vocal area, and we put a mic on it. We had to move the speed of the tape slightly one way or the other -- it was slightly flat or sharp -- and got his shaver to play in tune.

TB: [laughing] I'm looking at the CD, and I don't see him credited with "shaver."

AP: [laughs] That's true, but he did play his shaver on it, as well as some very nice, very tight bass guitar.

TB: Yeah, let's talk about that. I love the pattern that he and Terry have going there.

AP: It's the bass drum, isn't it? That bass-drum pattern is kind of unusual. I don't know how they came up with that, but I like all the holes in it.

TB: That's what I was going to point out, too -- you would expect it to be much more regular, but it's the kind of stutter in there that makes it special.

AP: While he's doing that nice stiff hi-hat, which is the constant. It's like me pulling the guitar. He's not accenting it, with a loud-soft-loud-soft kind of feel -- it's all on-on-on-on-on-on-on. It's rather mechanical. But it does seem to suit the song. And then he brings in that great bass drum with those two little pushes.

TB: And the snare is also very regular. So, do you remember them working that out at rehearsal, or...?

AP: No, but you know, sometimes you'd go out and get a sandwich or something, and they'd still be working it together. Or he'd say, " 'ere, Moulding, come in with me." Terry would drag him off, and they'd sit there together. In fact, when we were recording, Colin would usually sit there in the stone room with him, because he liked to see the foot and feel the drums. The bass amp would actually be in another room, but Colin would play in there with him.

TB: Yeah, they were really musical partners back then, weren't they?

AP: Oh yeah! Very tight players. And that's the way a rhythm section should be.

TB: There was a connection between the two of them -- they saw themselves as a team within the unit.

AP: Oh yeah, very much so.

TB: Let's talk about the end of the song.

AP: I loved all the echo stuff, because that really helped the kind of Dub-by feel at the end.

TB: So, you were playing this song live, and really working against that echo, right?

AP: Yeah, exactly. You can hear that I was having some fun with that.

TB: You guys were listening to a lot of Dub music then, weren't you? Because you do the same thing on that live version of "Scissor Man" that's a B-side on the "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" EP -- it's called "Cut It Out."

AP: Yeah, Takeaway was just about to come up, and all the stuff I had to play with was the first three albums.

TB: But on that B-side, you seem to really work the echo and rhythm of it, and scat with it, just like on "Complicated Game."

AP: Yeah, I like that. Or, I did like that. I still think echo is important, and still love it -- I was mixing some rejected Monstrance stuff today...

TB: Yeah, you do some of that on there as well -- that's a good point, because there are some songs on there where you play against yourself quite beautifully.

AP: Thank you! [laughs] Playing with myself beautifully.

TB: [laughing] No, you'll notice that I said "against"!

AP: Yes, playing by myself. Much better.

5:37 PM

©2008 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.