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Jan 26, 2008

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Andy discusses 'Yacht Dance'

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, "Yacht Dance," is from 1982's English Settlement.

During the latest round of Guess the next Andyview, "Sleepless in Sweden" (aka Per) was first to buzz in with his answer. Look for commentary about "Yacht Dance" next week from Mr. David Gregory, then in two weeks we'll be back with an Andyview about a song that should pluck at the heartstrings of Jan Svankmajer fans everywhere.

TB: I'd like to talk about "Yacht Dance" this week. In thinking about when you wrote this, was this a happy time for you? I know you'd kicked the valium and you were a little more clear-headed. English Settlement was obviously a different direction for you guys, and things were really rolling along for your career -- the trend was heading in the right direction...

AP: English Settlement was, I think, where we first found the "color control."

TB: What do you mean by that?

AP: White Music and Go 2 were definitely black-and-white. And that was a self-imposed palette choice. It was like, "Okay, we're going to make these bold marks here, in black on white paper," or whatever -- we'd consciously restricted our palette, and went with the whole thing there, to go through that narrow doorway.

With Drums and Wires and Black Sea, it was like we'd found duotone or something -- "Hey! What's this button? That introduces a bit of red. Wow! Black, white and some red -- that's pretty good. What's that one do? That's a little bit of yellow as well -- that's kind of interesting!" It was like comic art, you know -- a little bit of primary color coming in there.

I think by the time we got to English Settlement, that was it. It was like I'd bought a color TV for my head. And I think a lot of that had to do with coming off of valium. A lot of it was also saying to myself, "No more touring. I don't want to tour anymore, I want to be free of that treadmill."

TB: A lot of the songs on this album have acoustic guitar as a principal component...

AP: Yeah, it's the backbone of the album.

TB: On this song, you take it all the way, because you and Dave are both playing acoustic guitars.

AP: Yeah, he's on the nylon-stringed guitar, and I'm playing a steel-stringed acoustic. On your stereo, Dave's on the right. He's playing a lot of the twinkly, fancy stuff -- that was the pattern at the time, he played the twiddly, and I played the rhythm -- and I'm over on the left, with the skinnier, wiry-er acoustic. I'm doing the strumming-and-scrubbing.

TB: During the solo, the difference between the two guitars is very obvious.

AP: Yeah. Although it was conventional mic'ing up of an acoustic guitar for my part, during the solo I actually had a little cheap pickup in my acoustic, and I plugged it straight into the mixing desk, which gave it a different edge. It had a thicker, more electric halo around it, if you see what I mean.

TB: Yeah. It also sounds as if you're slightly muting the strings as you're playing.

AP: Yep. That's also the effect of the rather cheap pickup, I think. [laughs] I think the combination of those two things -- that's the change in tone there.

TB: So, tell me about the beginnings of this song. Where did it come from? What gave you the idea for it?

AP: I had an idea for a song called -- now, how daft is this? -- "Collecting Honey for the Queen." I can play you this, and I don't know how you're going to convert this to black-and-white, but it went like this [plays song fragment] -- that part, which was the chorus, became the slowly building melody I sing right before "in our yacht dance." Do you see what I mean?

TB: Yeah, sure. It's the same melody.

AP: It's exactly the same part -- the melody for "Collecting Honey for the Queen" became a harmony part, but using the same chords, into "Yacht Dance." And it changed from 4/4 time to 3/4 time. Because, I mean, yachts just aren't 4/4, are they. They really just waltz around the rivers and oceans in 3/4 time. There's nothing 4/4 about a yacht. You know, you get a kid to draw a picture of a yacht, and it's a triangle. There's no 4/4 in a triangle.

TB: There you go. That's funny. So, did the lyrics prompt you to take the music and rewrite it?

AP: Do you know, I was probably messing around with -- "Collecting Honey for the Queen," I probably realized pretty early on, "How the fuck can I sing a song about being a bee?" You know, I've never been a bee. I've been an irate WASP at times...

TB: And Colin was a Fly, right?

AP: Exactly. [laughing] I guess I was messing around with that song, and I thought, "It's such a nice thing, to play a chord and move the melody in the bass line, while you're holding the chord down" -- which I do quite a bit of. In fact, that was the same thing behind "Smalltown," which we talked about the other week. That was a chord with the melody moving in the bass line while you hold the chord.

I think I started to mess around with "Collecting Honey for the Queen" in different time signatures. The waltz-y signature made me think of boats and yachts, and then the idea came relatively quickly. The lyrics are a little self-congratulatory, I think. Saying, you know, "Isn't our love affair great?"

In fact, when I was listening to it last night on headphones, I was thinking, "Wow, I've got a funny feeling that this was almost a bit of a poke at my then-wife's parents." Because they didn't approve of me.

TB: So, you're saying to them, "no matter how you toss us around..."

AP: Yeah, "No matter how you view it, this is going to happen for us, and we'll sail on top of all this mental muck that you're projecting on us." So, I'm cocking a snook -- I'm saying, "We're going to sail over whatever bilge you can fling our way."

TB: [laughing] "Cocking a snook"?

AP: Yeah!

TB: That's a new one on me.

AP: Oh, you've never heard that one? That means to, you know, "thumb your nose." You're going to look that up now, aren't you? [laughs]

TB: Of course I am! [Reads explanation to Andy]

AP: Wow! There you go. I've used that phrase all my life, and I never knew was a snook was. But I knew that you could cock one! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Which is important!

AP: Right! You wouldn't want a snook that would be flaccid. Snooks are only any good when you can cock 'em!

TB: And, at that point, was it kind of you and her against the world? Or really just against them?

AP: The irony and shallowness of it is, that the more fame I got locally and nationally, the more her father took to me. But then, he was the sort of person who liked to drop names, and be associated with somebody who his pals at the conservative club might have heard of.

TB: [laughs] So they were all listening to XTC at the time?

AP: [laughs] You know what I mean!

TB: "My son-in-law -- yes, he's on a worldwide tour right now..."

AP: Exactly. It's all that sort of stuff. [posh voice] "Oh yes, he consorts with other pop stars. He's huge. He's a millionaire now." He very much lived by the guff, you know.

TB: So, I guess there's no extant demo of this anywhere?

AP: Not that I can remember, no. There may be a mono-type cassette of a rehearsal of it. But, if we rehearsed it, we probably rehearsed it electrically. So that, you know, you could all really hear what was going on. Because, if it was a drum kit and a bass and two acoustic guitars, Dave and I would have disappeared. So I vaguely remember rehearsing this, but as an electric thing, saying, "Okay, we're going to convert this to acoustic guitars when we get in the studio."

And we would have rehearsed this album in a place called Tudor Studios, owned by a rather rotund man -- "Is it a belt, or is it an equator?" -- called Terry Alderton. Or "Fattie," as we just called him. That's all there was to it. "We going down to Fattie's tomorrow?" "Yeah, see ya there."

TB: Livin' large.

AP: Yep.

TB: Let's talk about the song's arrangement. Terry's using a roto-tom instead of a snare.

AP: That's right, yeah, he's using a roto-tom. As I sat playing it in headphones last night, I thought, "Wow, I'd totally forgotten that I pushed Hugh Padgham to phase Terry's cymbals."

TB: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that, because it's so distinctive.

AP: I wanted it to sound watery. So, smash wasn't enough -- I wanted it to be smash-sh-sh-sh. Much more wave-like.

Terry's roto-tom, which has a lot of reverb on it, made me think of a record that was a big hit when I was a kid in England. It was called "Messing About on the River." I think it was sung by Josh MacRae. It was a waltz-y folk song, and there was a lot of reverb going on, where they're hitting a wooden box or something -- not unlike the sound of that roto-tom. It also sounds as if somebody's squishing a plunger in a bucket of water. It's a waltz-type thing with an acoustic guitar as well. So, I guess, that's the grandfather of "Yacht Dance"! You know, stuff you hear as a kid -- it's going to come out at some time or another.

TB: Let's talk about the bass a bit.

AP: It's a really melodic bass line.

TB: One of Colin's better parts, I think.

AP: I think so! I think he just nails it perfectly.

TB: It's a great counterpoint to what you and Dave are both playing.

AP: Yep. And that's his fretless -- you can hear those two big slides at the end of that figure in the beginning of the verse. The fretless was made for that, you know? And I like the fact that during the chorus -- during the "how how how" piece, the title-line piece -- he's doing an underneath harmony, which is really quite nice.

TB: Was that built with guidance from you at all, or the result of rehearsing and working it out?

AP: These were the days where we would have thrashed everything out between us at rehearsals. We all had cassette machines at rehearsal, and so he probably took his cassette home and worked on it a bit.

You'd be at rehearsal, have your cassette machine next to you, and it'd be, "Okay, we're all recording -- right ... go." We'd all hit record and play through a song, and then take it home, and you'd tweak it at home until you got it just right. Then you'd bring up that tweak at the next rehearsal.

TB: That's interesting -- I don't know if you've mentioned that before.

AP: Oh yeah, all the rehearsals, we all had a cassette machine. We'd all record every take of everything we rehearsed, take it away, and then either work on it overnight, or over the next few days, if there was a break or whatever.

TB: How long did you do that? Did you always do it?

AP: Yeah! Even as late as Nonsuch. The trouble is, I kept very few of those cassettes. I would have had some great stuff. Because frequently, you capture recordings of songs that don't make it past rehearsals. So, it would have been that [laughs] sort of "divine graveyard" of songs that never got out of Fattie's studio.

I've got a few of those now -- some months ago, I was going through some old cassettes and I found some songs of Colin's that were never going to get off the drawing board. It was amazing to hear really rough versions of these things.

TB: I was going to say, the sound quality of these is probably pretty terrible, right?

AP: Yeah, it's pretty awful, but just to be reminded of songs like "My Brother Ralph" [laughs] -- it was a giggle.

TB: [laughing] That's a good band name!

AP: [laughs] Yeah. It also sounds like the kind of name David Yazbek would give an album!

TB: [laughing] Okay, let's talk about the angklung.

AP: While we were recording this, the Manor had a stone room added on to the back, in a copy of the Townhouse [Studios]. And in this new stone room extension, I think it was Richard Branson or somebody -- maybe it was Mike Oldfield -- somebody had imported an angklung and left it in there. They'd brought this thing in from Bali, or in Indonesia or that neck of the woods, and it was massive -- the size of a huge double wardrobe or bigger. They had it stored in there -- didn't know where the hell to put this thing, once they'd bought it, so it sort of lived in the stone room.

They were hanging bamboo tubes, with a clapper piece in the middle of it, and you held a string or clapper -- I don't quite remember -- and when you shook it, you got a vibration between the tubes.

The thing was, I bumped into it one day, and all of them shook at once. I thought, "Wow! That sounds like water!" And so, I don't know who would have had the job of shaking the angklung -- because you were not supposed to shake the whole thing, you were only supposed to shake one note at a time -- but we put a couple of mic's up and shook it over the middle section. It starts about three minutes into the song.

TB: You're credited with playing it on the album.

AP: Oh, so maybe it was me, then. Maybe it was, "Muggins here has bumped into it, so he's got the embarrassing job of doing it." [imitating Terry] "Oi, it was Partso's bloody idea -- you better let 'im bloody shake it. I'm not doing it!" [laughs]

I was also reminded, listening last night, that there's a real Latin thing going on there toward the end of the song, where that clapping comes in. Which I think is the pre-cousin of the outro of "I'd Like That."

TB: Was that your idea, to add that in?

AP: I think so, yeah.

TB: Let's talk about the video.

AP: Oh, that was on the Whistle Test!

TB: It's also on Coat of Many Cupboards, right?

AP: Yeah, that's the Whistle Test performance. I can't remember where we did it -- some TV studios in London somewhere.

TB: Yeah, I'm tempted to put that on the MySpace player, because it's such a good performance, and I've read in other places that you've said that was the only time you guys performed it live.

AP: I think it is. I don't remember doing it on the road -- someone will probably disagree with me, and say, "Hey, I saw you play it in Belgium!" -- but I think it was sort of too much of a problem to mic up nylon strings and all that.

TB: Yet, at the same time, you were prepared to play acoustic, on this tour...

AP: But that was one of those wretched Ovation guitars, with the pickup in it. Just sounds like musical soundpaper.

TB: They are bright, aren't they.

AP: I don't like them at all. And do you know, apart from the horrible sound, what the most offensive part of them is? The fact that those holes drilled in the front of the guitar looks like really bad camper-van art! [laughs] It's like camper-van fretwork made into a guitar. Please! Stop!

I just found the sound and look of it offensive, and there I was, playing it on tour. [pauses] So, I'm never going to get sponsored by Ovation, am I? [chuckles]

TB: [laughs] That's okay, it doesn't sound like it's going to be any great loss for you.

AP: Not really, no. And, while we're on the subject, the round, smooth plastic-y back really made my belly sweat. It made my torso sweat buckets, so that's another mark against it.

TB: Unless you're trying to spot-reduce!

AP: [laughs] Yeah, it's easier than shrink-wrapping yourself! Just play an Ovation for half an hour, and, "There! I've lost a pound!"

TB: So let's talk about this performance a little bit. What led up to it?

AP: This TV gig, at which we did "No Thugs in Our House" and "Yacht Dance," was the first live performance of anything after English Settlement was done. The album had just come out, so it was a case of, "Well, let's try to get on the Whistle Test," which was England's premier -- well, possibly only -- live Rock show at the time. It was national, so everybody got to see it. It was the second time we'd played live on Whistle Test, so it was case of, "Sure, let's do that."

TB: Only the second time?

AP: Yeah, I think so!

TB: Because I've seen stuff from the White Music era...

AP: Yeah, that was the first time.

TB: Wow, so -- a pretty big gap between those two appearances.

AP: They didn't want us on! Not cool enough, I suppose. You know, all the reasons -- "Ohhh, it can't be any good, they come from Swindon." All those kinds of shitty reasons. The English get this thing about you, and they're never going to drop it.

TB: It's interesting that you chose those two songs -- had you not yet chosen "Senses Working Overtime" as the single?

AP: No, I think because the show was considered a Rock show, it was more like, "Do some album tracks." Whereas, if it was a singles show, like "Top of the Pops," you'd mime whatever the current single was. But "Old Grey Whistle Test," you had to play live.

Actually, not everyone played live. Some people had backing tracks, and sang live over backing tracks -- which is kind of a bit degrading! Now you can buy the DVDs of "Whistle Test," and you can see, "Hey! They're not even playing live!" Two examples are the New York Dolls and David Bowie. They're not live. Bowie's performance of "Five Years," and the Dolls doing "Jet Boy," are backing tracks. Which is [mimics Winston Churchill] shameful.

So we did those two things that they considered to be album tracks, and this was the first gig of the European tour, literally. I remember feeling amazingly nervous before these gigs. Because I'd set in my mind -- I now wasn't on valium -- the negative thing of, "I don't want to be playing this live. Here we go, we're starting another world tour, and I don't want to be doing this. But I can't get off!" You know, suddenly the car of the Big Dipper is starting to leave, and you can see the wooden hills of the coaster ahead of you, and you think, "No! I don't want to go on this thing again. I've been on this for five years. Let me off now!"

TB: "I'm sick. I'm sick of this."

AP: Yeah -- I was sick of it. That's what it felt like. I remember being really more nervous than I'd ever been before, before that TV show.

TB: And the audience, I presume, was pretty small.

AP: It was that usual TV thing, where they're put up in quite-steep tiers to one side of the stage, so the cameras can get access, but they can see as well. I guess it was a couple of hundred people.

Actually, as we started to play this song, there was a great bit of -- how shall I say? -- ambience happening, because Colin kicked over a pint of water down by his feet, and he was actually paddling in water during the song.

TB: Good thing he didn't get electrocuted!

AP: [laughing] Exactly! I thought, "Hang on, Colin, you're taking this 'Messing About on the River' thing a bit too literally!" He was literally paddling in a pool of water. He was stood in a puddle of a pint of water.

TB: I think the performance that came out of you guys is great on this.

AP: It's not bad! Dave, at the time, was a bit worried about it going on Coat of Many Cupboards, because he said he plays a bit stumbly, but you know, it's maybe five percent. The other 95 percent of his playing is great.

TB: Oh, yeah. And I think your vocal performance on it is strong, too.

AP: It's a little psychotic, but I was feeling a little psychotic at the time!

TB: [laughs] Well, you scat a little bit, and have some fun with it...

AP: I was being sort of like a dip-diving seagull, having a bit of fun on the therms.

5:00 PM

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