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Last Updated:
Mar 24, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Andy discusses 'Neon Shuffle'

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. Felicitaciones to Javier Tenas, who not only correctly guessed this week's song, but apparently was so confident he got it right that he even has a link to the video of it on his MySpace page!

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song where Andy repeats himself in the title.

TB: So, why is the "Neon Shuffle" the dance of the human race?

AP: Oh my goodness ... where to start with this? I mean, this is almost Prog Rock, this thing! I put the headphones on, and I remembered how complex some of the chord work is!

TB: I wanted to ask you about that -- when the guitar first starts, you're scraping the strings, you're sliding, and it sounds almost as if the keyboard's playing with you, but then Barry comes in, so you realize it's just guitar by itself.

AP: It is. I was listening to it, and thinking, "How the hell did I get that tone?" Then I remembered that I had this fetish for playing through a flanger pedal -- like an MXR or something -- and I used to set it so it made something like a 10- or 15-millisecond "ring" around the sound. So it actually is sort of out of phase with itself. So, what I'm saying is, there's a copy of the sound that's so close time-wise to it that it puts the original out of phase.

So, instead of it sounding like a sound with an echo, the echo is so close to it that it scoops out the original sound. So, it makes a "oh-oh-oh-oh" sound, instead of "ah-ah-ah-ah." It actually scoops itself out of phase. I had a mad keen thing for this sound, this flanger that's set on a really, really close repeat with no regeneration or anything. It just scooped all the guts out of the guitar, and made it sound as if it was coming down a tube or something. Very hollow and metallic.

TB: Do you remember what the chords were?

AP: Yeah, I do. It's a chord that's haunted me all my life, and I'm still using it, even now -- it's a C7 right up the neck, and then you throw a triad of G on top of it. When you do that, the notes you're playing, in ascending order, would be [grabs guitar] C, G, D, G, B [alternates the C7 with the C7/G]. And then that goes to an F minor 7. But it's that C7 with the G triad on top -- I have no idea what it's called, but that chord has been all the way through my career. It's the basis of things like "Beatown" as well -- it's a very majestic-sounding chord.

TB: I was going to say, it sounds very pretty when just you play it like that on acoustic guitar. But it's very biting in this song.

AP: Oh yeah, it's really the speed it's played at. It's played so quickly that you get this funny little peek into the chord -- [chuckles] it's like hyper-fast majesty, if such a thing can exist.

And then, the song's in two keys. It's kind of in C, and then it changes to an E for the chorus. And then there's a section in B that comes from an old Helium Kidz song, actually, called "Little Gold Runner."

And is this the ultimate seal-bark-vocal song, or what?

TB: [laughs] Yeah, I was listening to the live version on Transistor Blast, and you're really yelping it out.

AP: I mean, if I had a rack of different-sized car horns in front of me that I could play with my nose at the same time as playing the guitar, that would be spot-on. You'd have my vocal there.

TB: You're doing the Buddy Holly vocal-percussive thing, too.

AP: Oh, totally. It's the whole dubbing yourself on the mixing desk kind of vocal. I used to love all that. I felt I'd found an individual vocal style that nobody else had. It was a pinch of Buddy Holly, with his gulping; a pinch of twisting words into funny shapes, ala Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel; it was a little bit of the mumbly old Rock-and-Roll thing, which sounded good with slap-back echoes and reverbs; and it was a bit of dubbery -- you know, mimicking how you could punch yourself in and out on a mixing desk.

TB: You've always emphasized rhythm as much as melody in your vocals, I think.

AP: Sure. In fact, I used to approach a vocal as a rhythm first of all. To be honest, in the early stuff, melody was secondary. Frustrated drummer, see?

TB: What was the genesis of this song? When did you write it, and why did you write it?

AP: It's one of those nonsense things. I can actually tell you where -- this has got a very strange background. Star Park, our early group in the '70s, was pretty much -- if such a kind of music existed -- "Improv Rock." We used to do gigs and honestly, at least half the set, we never knew what we were going to do. I would just make up songs on stage, and expect people to follow me. You know, I'd just turn around to the band and say, "G!" Or, "B and E!" And then they'd have to kind of keep up.

I'd delight in making up songs on stage, and at some point we were playing the outdoor, little miniature one-third-sized Hollywood Bowl dome in Swindon, in a summer gig, in the very early '70s, and I actually improvised, in the key of B, this thing. I started yelling -- for god knows what reason -- "New York Shuffle!" And I liked it! At the end of the set, I thought, "Hey, that was pretty good. I liked that." And so it went in the brain box.

When the Helium Kidz came into existence, it sort of came back out around about '74 or something like that. I pulled it out of the memory box and worked on it, and thought, "No, it's not modern enough. New York has got too many connotations of the '20s and Art Deco, so I want something more modern." So I changed it to "Neon Shuffle," since I liked the cheap, tacky, sort of space-age sound of that.

Basically, I wrote a nonsense dance-craze kind of song. A lot of the early XTC stuff was nonsense dance crazes -- things like "Spinning Top," or "Radios in Motion," or "Jumping in Gomorrah." I was thinking of things like "The Locomotion" -- dances that would get a name. But the thing was, our songs weren't really dances, because they were quite convulsive rhythms.

There's a demo recording of the Helium Kidz in TW Studios in Fulham, from 1974 or early '75, doing this, with Steve Hutchins on vocals, me on guitar, and Colin and Terry on bass and drums.

TB: Was the song pretty much fully formed by then?

AP: Oh yeah. You can hear it. But it's more of a heavy, powerhouse version. It's not quite as angular. I think the angularity came in more and more as we played it live. And then, when Barry Andrews came in, it got more of this convulsive, space-age angle to it.

TB: I imagine it got more dissonant at that point, too, since you two were good foils for each other that way.

AP: Oh, sure. Yeah, that was Barry. I mean, he would drive me into dissonance, and then vice-versa. So you can hear lots of that. If you can find a bootleg of these TW recordings -- and there are plenty out there -- of "Neon Shuffle," with Steve Hutchins singing, you can hear the pretty straight-ahead version. When you hear the White Music version, with Barry, you can hear how it evolved through playing it live, and through his personality interacting with mine, and so on.

But it started as just a silly dance-craze type of thing. It's the sort of crass stuff you'd hear -- the Mashed Potato, the Hully Gully.

TB: Sure. Did you ever have specific steps in mind that would make up the Neon Shuffle?

AP: No, not at all. It was a dance that was kind of tricky to dance to, because it was very convulsive. But I liked the perversity of that. I liked the fact that it was a kind of "chocolate fireguard" of a song. You know, it's not fit for purpose [chuckles]. But that made it an interesting, immediately redundant artifact, which thrilled me.

TB: Would some people at your shows try to do whatever they thought was the Neon Shuffle?

AP: Around about '77, it was all things like, "Oh, what do we do? What does a Punk do? A Punk pogos! But you can do other stuff, too" -- like, there was a group called The Table, who tried to instigate a dance called The Standing Still. [laughs] You just stood still -- you never moved at all.

Actually, they supported us on one gig, and I remember they had a girl bass player or girl guitarist who was doing her darndest to get inside my pants in that dressing room. [laughs] That's all that I can remember about The Table!

Yeah, so obviously, there were other people who had these stupid dance-craze ideas. It was the trashiness of it all -- I mean, a dance craze and a song to go with it is inherently trashy.

The more we played it live, the tighter it got. In fact, it got overtight -- to the point of bursting. We started to throw in things, like "Now that the power's stopped" -- and the track stops -- originally, that was a timed break, like, "stop-two-three-four," and you'd carry on, you know? But, live, we began to leave it longer and longer. That was another anti-dancing thing.

TB: Right. Just to fuck with the audience.

AP: Yeah, just to seriously see how you could piss 'em off! Because that thrilled me, too. To me, if you could piss an audience off, at least you were getting a reaction. That was better than no reaction at all. It's a bit Dada-ist -- to get a reaction, instead of being nice to them, try pissing them off.

TB: Exactly. One of the things, too, that I noticed listening to the live version you have on Transistor Blast is the fact that you guys seem to speed up with almost every verse. You know, you take it up a notch each time.

AP: That's pure adrenaline, and more and more excitement. Plus, that was Barry! He was notorious for playing it more and more fast. It because like a competition, to see how fast you could play it.

TB: Yeah, it's funny -- I used to play along with White Music quite a bit, and one of the reasons why, back in the '80s and early '90s, I had big Popeye forearms was because of learning to keep up with Terry! [AP laughs very hard] Because the hi-hat work is so fast on that album, and by the time you get to this song, you're exhausted.

AP: [still laughing] Perhaps we should be marketing it as a workout!

TB: [laughing] Exactly! And sell them spinach on the side, as a dietary supplement!

But on this live version, you guys get so fast, he can't even try to do eighth notes on the hi-hat toward the very end of the song -- he goes down to quarter notes, because he can't keep up anymore. It's just not humanly possible.

AP: [laughing] I have to say, the fineries of Terry's hi-hat work had escaped me on this number, but I must go back and check that out!

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics.

AP: Oh, they're really stupid. The redundant dance craze that isn't -- it's full of lazy rhymes and silly word connotations. My lyrics were very poor at that point. I was a lazy lyricist.

TB: Tell me why "It's going to run you right through / with a stick of bamboo."

AP: Ah. Well, that's the one line that is true. I made a note of that when listening earlier. I had stabbed myself in the arm with some bamboo. I still have the scar, actually. I don't know how I did it, but I had a very sharp piece of bamboo, and ended up sticking it in my left arm. It wasn't self-harm thing, or anything. I was trying to do something with it, and slipped and stuck it in my arm.

Plus, I just like the word "bamboo." It's made up of two great onomatopoeic noises, so it was just great to sing.

TB: You have a lot of fun it, stuttering the "B" sound.

AP: Oh yeah. When it gets to the outro, and I'm just basically enjoying singing "bamboo" in a thousand different connotations, that to me gets into "Surfin' Bird" territory! [sings a bit of that song, followed by some "ba-ba-bam-bam-boo"] That's the second cousin once removed of "Surfin' Bird." Especially with that Huckleberry Hound gulping thing on it. It's a great, kind of classic Rock-and-Roll rhythm noise.

TB: What about the background vocals?

AP: Yeah, I'd forgotten about all those little Beach Boys harmonies, which crept into a lot of our early stuff, because I liked the Beach Boys singles. There was something cheesy and trashy about those high, single-line harmonies. That creeps into a lot of our early work.

TB: And it's interesting, given that the music is kind of dissonant and angular, that you have that sweet background vocal.

AP: Yeah, I thought that was a nice rub going on there. Pouring a little bit of honey over the barbed wire. It's a nice image.

You know the kind of "take it down" bit before the outro? That's that kind of [60s Funk voice] "Do you know like Soul music? Yeah! Put your hands together, boys and girls! C'mon! We're gonna do the Neon Shuffle!" [laughs] It was supposed to be parody of that kind of thing -- the concession to that convention where you tell everyone how to do the dance.

TB: "Break it down there. Now give me some funky bass!"

AP: Exactly. [laughs] "So the dancers just can't hide!" More like, "So the nerdy science kids just can't hide." So that was like a fake Soul-y band thing. I mean, this is actually, for a piece of annoy-the-audience music that you can't really dance to, there are a lot of movements in this.

TB: Let's talk a little more about the playing ... anything else you remember about your part?

AP: I really like the solo, actually. Nominally, the verses are in C7, with that G off and on at the top. But the solo -- I start with the C7, but then end up playing, like, a D with an open A on the bottom over the top of this implied C7. So I'm kind of a tone above that. Then there are those little descending and ascending riffs. I remember Bill Nelson nicking those -- it's all over the White Noise record. Very triangular, that. The whole thing is very dense.

TB: And Barry lays his own part over that.

AP: Yeah, he's got a harmony on top of that. I stumbled into playing that D with an A on the bottom over the top of that C. I guess I had not so many musical rules embedded in my head then, and I would do that, out of naivety more than anything else. I just knew that it viscerally excited me. I was excited tonally by what I was hearing, not knowing how I was achieving it.

And that section at the end -- where we're just playing the up-and-down pattern over and over, with the "Surfin' Bird" ba-bam-bam-bam-boos over it -- on the build up to that, I love the chords that Barry plays on the piano. He's playing these beautiful, snaky inversions and some really rather outré notes in there as well. I find that very exciting, but I'd forgotten all about that until I listened recently.

TB: I remember reading that Barry would go quite mad at the end of this song, when you played it live.

AP: Oh, sure. I mean, that piano usually ended up on its back, on the floor, during this number. [plays] So, he'd be left with the Krumar organ, with no lid on it, to do that end riff. [laughs]

In fact, Barry wanted the end part credited as a separate song on the album -- he wanted to call it "The Complete and Utter Destruction of Dresden by Allied Bombers." But I thought it was kind of bad taste! The song was in bad taste enough without calling the noisy end that!

TB: [laughs] Yeah, that probably wouldn't have gone down well in Germany.

AP: Yeah, because they really did bomb the shit out of that place.

TB: So, anything else?

AP: No, I think we've just about wrung the juice out of what is essentially a very silly song indeed.

TB: C'mon, I think it's a great song! That's why I wanted to talk about it.

AP: It actually used to be my ex-wife's favorite number. She used to say, "Oh, I really love that 'Neon Shuffle' when you played that tonight. That's my favorite of your songs." But I don't know why that would be her favorite.

TB: [laughs] Maybe because it was the last song of the set!

AP: [laughs] Then she knew it was blessed silence after that! But I did see that somebody got hold of our performance from Manchester in 1977, and there are Japanese subtitles on it, and they've stuck it up on YouTube. It's pretty rough. It's a performance we did at a venue in Manchester in 1977, when we were a support act. I can't remember who we're supporting -- it was somebody like Mink DeVille or the Buzzcocks.

But, there's no atmosphere! They left the house lights on, so the film cameras could see what's going on. You can tell the atmosphere is totally dead in the venue.

TB: Yeah, it's not the same as when you got those colored lights going...

AP: Yeah, a couple of go-go dancers in a cage...

TB: High plastic boots...

AP: [sighs] Those were the days.

5:14 PM

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