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May 18, 2008

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Andy discusses 'Roads Girdle the Globe'

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, "Roads Girdle the Globe," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

Jim Underhill of Dandelion's Lilac Cravat was first out the gate with a correct guess to the (somewhat flawed) hint of three weeks ago ... "Roads" was indeed covered by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, but it wasn't exactly a hit for them. Let's see if we can do better with the hint this week -- we'll be back in two weeks with an interview about Andy's favorite song from Oranges and Lemons.

TB: Let's talk about "Roads Girdle the Globe."

AP: Well, I've done some research for you! [fake German accent] Jah! It vas fun sewing together ze twins, but I had to put zem down and start the correct research!

TB: Good, you can be our Rhodes Scholar.

AP: Exactly. I knew you were going to ask me why I wrote this song, but I needed to find something out before I could answer. Right after the Go 2 album, I lived in a couple of rooms at 12 Manchester Road, in Swindon -- which is I think the nearest Swindon gets to a red-light district, actually -- with my girlfriend at the time, Marianne, who later became my wife. I was staying up late one night, and I saw a foreign film on television, which was the main spark to writing "Roads Girdle the Globe." For years, I haven't been able to identify what the film was, but I did some research yesterday, and I identified it. It's a Finnish film from 1970, by a filmmaker who also wrote it. His name is Risto Jarva, and the Finnish title of the movie is "Bensaa Suonissa." The English title was "Gas in the Veins."

I can remember very little about the film, other than it's about a car-crazy couple, I think. I think it's a bit of a proto-"Crash" -- which I never saw, but you read so many reviews of a film, you almost feel like you've seen it. So it was this early car-crazy couple film -- car equals sex, you know. Watching this Finnish film, something clicked in my head: Wouldn't it be greatly cynical to write a hymn to the motorcar? Because a lot of people treat cars like a religion. They have to have the correct car, all they talk about is their car, they watch car programs, they get car magazines...

TB: They wash it, they polish it...

AP: Oh yeah, they adore it. It's the altar of the garage. For some people, it's really a religious experience, but I never got that. Because I'm not interested in cars one jot. A car is a car! I'm almost like that with guitars -- whereas Dave, for example, is kind of guitar-crazy. He'll try to talk to me about guitars, and I can almost feel myself closing down, because it's just a plank with wires that helps you write a song, you know? It's the same with cars for me -- it's just a thing that gets you from A to B.

TB: Now, the thing about guitars can't be completely true, because you have to have some amount of anthropomorphic love for your Ibanez, I would imagine. It's been with you a long time.

AP: I have a nostalgic attachment to it. I mean, if that got stolen or broken, I'd feel a little upset. But the level I'm talking about with cars -- you know how crazy it gets. People lose all sense of proportion when it comes to cars, and car worship.

And so, with that car worship, I thought, "Okay, let me write a cynical hymn to the motorcar, if the motorcar could write it itself." It's really the car saying, "Oh, thank goodness there are roads everywhere, and thank goodness it's all been sacrificed for the road, and for my benefit," you know? The holy trinity for the car is...

TB: Oil, iron and steel.

AP: Yeah. "Hail Mother Motor, hail piston rotor, hail wheel!" It's one of these weird sort of holy-trinity things. [adopts whiny pedantic voice] "Well, it's three things, but it's really one thing." [laughs] "So, what do you mean -- is it three things or one thing?" [same voice] "It's three things and one thing."

TB: [laughing] "It's a mystery."

AP: [laughing] "It's a mystery! Nobody understands it. Just shut up and believe it. Send me your money and believe it."

TB: [laughing] Exactly. You have three verses in this song -- did you do that on purpose? Was that part of the whole trinity thing?

AP: No, I think it just probably felt too long with more! [laughs] I was reading a lot about the Futurists at the time -- you know, the Italian art movement? The sort of thing they would write would be in praise of speed, and motorcars, and machines. I think there were big dollops of that in there as well -- so, the lyrics are quasi-Futurist.

TB: I wanted to ask you about the syntax you use in the lyrics.

AP: It's like badly translated Italian Futurist manifestos! [chuckles] That's the syntax.

TB: You do this on later songs, too, like "Shake You Donkey Up" -- here, you say things like, "you every race," or "we all safe in your concrete robe."

AP: I guess I just like that disconnect. It's like you've already put the lyrics through a translator. You want to have some fun? Take your favorite lyric, put it into an online translator tool, then translate to Japanese, then to Finnish, then to Italian, then back to English and then read it. It's great fun. It gets so removed, you know? Chinese whispers to the Nth degree. I like that disconnect! I wanted it to be like some of the Italian Futurist manifestos about speed and cars and mechanical things. Because that was the future in 1913 -- it was speed and cars and aeroplanes...

TB: All the potential that technology presented.

AP: Sure, and you can see why it would have been exciting! Of course, you read them now, and they're very naive. It's that kind of naive praise of cars and concrete that I was lampooning.

TB: It's the pre-World War I view of technology, I guess -- after the war, everyone was then able to see the dark side of technology.

AP: Yeah, the mincing machine.

TB: Let's talk about the contrast between this album and White Music and Go 2. Those two first albums are very straightforward and simple, but as I was listening to this song today, I was thinking, "Wow, there are a lot of layers to this."

AP: Well, the instrumentation is quite simple -- it's basically two guitar, bass and drums -- but I wanted it to sound like metal and cars. Like, musically, if cars were making the music. So the chords do crash and grate against each other.

TB: Yeah, I think this song is a really great first glimpse at what's going to happen on Black Sea, where you and Dave come up with these very dissonant yet very complementary guitar parts.

AP: Sure. It was something that I was particularly thrilled by on this song, because everyone's part sat together great. I'd forgotten the bass and drums until yesterday, when I listened to the song on headphones. I thought, "Wow! That bass part is really good, too! Not only do you have two complex guitar parts crashing and colliding and scraping together, but you have this lovely cyclical drum part and a very snaky, melodic bass line." He's probably more melodic than Dave or I are being.

TB: And he's got a really cool, biting tone on this, too. Was there anything special he did on this song that you remember?

AP: I don't know what instrument he's playing -- I don't think it's the Newport, because it sounds too metallic. Maybe a Fender bass? I was playing a Fender Bronco, which is a poor man's Stratocaster. I think I swapped that guitar for a bass, so I could potentially do some bass playing on demos.

I'm on the right channel, with the slightly wiry sound, and Dave's on the left-hand channel. Let me see what I'm doing here [grabs guitar, starts playing] -- I'm playing a high thing in B, with open strings ringing in the middle. It's rather dissonant -- it's like an exotic B-minor, with a C and G thing in there. Difficult to describe.

TB: It's funny that when you play these parts for me over the phone, on acoustic, by itself it's very pretty and jazzy sounding, but when you and Dave are banging against each other on electric guitars, with bass and drums in there, it's something else entirely. You wouldn't think it had any relationship to Jazz, but it does.

AP: Right, when you pull the actual pieces apart, they're quite nice things. Because the main motif thing -- [plays the part underpinning the "roads girdle the globe" part] -- if you played it with a Samba or something behind it, it might be quite pretty! [chuckles] But, instead, Dave and I are purposely crashing into each other with a couple of stock-car guitars. "Wow, isn't that great, the way that Fender tore up that door!" We wanted it to sound metally and car-y -- as if cars could play guitars.

But, returning to my notes -- it's the closest we ever got to Captain Beefheart, I think. Because of the orchestration of the guitars and bass.

TB: I could see that, except for the fact that the rhythm is so regular.

AP: It is a very regular rhythm. I actually really like the tempo of it -- I used to love playing it live. Plus, listening to it yesterday, for the first time in ages -- when the first few bars came in, I thought, "Bloody hell, it's a bit like the Talking Heads for the first few bars!" It's kind of got that [mimics early TH approach] -- you know, you sort of expect me to twitter on, [high, David Byrne voice] "I'm cleaning! I'm cleaning my car!" You know there was a thing in some newspaper in England recently, about their album "More Songs about Buildings and Food," and the fuckers didn't mention that I thought of the title! Bastards.

Oh, and I did something stupid -- lunchtime, I did that thing where you sort of check your credentials, because there was a Sunday supplement in the cafe, when I went in and had a coffee, and I thought, "Ooh, 'England's 50 Best Songwriters'! I've got to make the Top 50, surely!" I sat and read the supplement, and was I in the Top 50? [chuckles ruefully] Fuck it, no. And yet, some of the people that were in there -- "What's that person doing in there? What the fuck is Pete Doherty doing in there?" He's one of England's Top 50 shitheads, you know?

TB: I was going to say -- "Top 50 Heroin Addicts."

AP: Yeah, it just goes to prove you shouldn't check your own credentials, because you're going to be in for a slap. The really annoying thing is, the second I die off, people are going to go, "Hey, do you know, they were quite good!"

TB: [laughing] "I'm going to buy lots of their albums!"

AP: "I'm going to buy lots of their albums -- it's a shame he died!" You just know it's going to go like that! Bitches. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] So, I wanted to mention that, for me, this song comes closest to what you guys achieved in terms of the mix -- the Big Sound -- on Black Sea.

AP: Yeah, at the time, this was my favorite track on Drums and Wires. I thought that, if you cut that album down the middle, this was sort of at the core of it. It is very drummy and very wiry!

TB: Were you the one who came up with the album title?

AP: Yeah. It was celebrating the guitar line-up, you know? Plus, we knew we wanted more of an emphasis on the drums, because we were a little frustrated that we didn't get that so much with John Leckie.

TB: But obviously that was a big part of your sound live.

AP: That was a big part of our sound. It was like, "Why can't we get that on record? Let's try to find somebody who can get this on record." This album was a big jump toward it. We wanted to celebrate the move away from keyboards back to the primitive twang and thump.

TB: I also like the title because it boils it down to what every band is -- even if you have keyboards, it's still wires, you know? Everything is drums and wires.

AP: We were going to call the album Boom Dada Boom. I'd been reading about the Futurists, I'd been reading Dada-ism, because I liked the mischievous nature of it, and then, in The Beano, a kid's comic, I saw a picture of Dennis the Menace's dog -- this is the English Dennis the Menace, who's very different than the American one. He's much more Satanic -- he's got dark, spiky hair, and he's got a dog called Gnasher, and I think he's got a pig called Rasher who was a later addition. In one frame of the comic, Gnasher was playing a drum set, and just smashing the shit out of it, and it said above it, "Boom Dada Boom." I thought, "We've got to have that as the cover." But then someone said, "Oh no, Beano won't let you use the drawing," and all that, so it was a matter of, "Alright, we'll come up with something else."

TB: You were talking before about how you viewed this song as the core of the album -- is that why it ends side one of the LP?

AP: I tend to think in terms of openers and closers. That's how I'll put an album together -- "What's a great opener, what's a great closer?" When it was vinyl, I could do that for each side.

TB: And you have two great closers on this album, because "Complicated Game" is also a great one.

AP: Yeah, we got lucky on this one.

TB: So, tell me about the "Vernon Yard Male Voice Choir," which sings the "bo-bo-bop-bo-bo" part.

AP: That was everybody we could rustle up at the time. We were being visited by two A&R men from Virgin -- the legendary Al Clark, and an Australian chap called Laurie Dunn. They're on there, plus all of the band, our two roadies -- Steve and Jeff -- and I've got a funny feeling that Hugh Padgham's in there as well. Either Hugh's in there, and Steve Lillywhite is working the tape machines, or the other way around. So, there are nine people, and we may have even tracked it up a couple of times, because I wanted it to sound moronic. "Don't sing too in-tune." It's one of those.

TB: I wanted to ask you about your own vocals on this -- it sounds as if you're doubling up, and there are times where you're trying to sing a little out of tune with yourself, to "broaden" the note, to make it a bit dissonant.

AP: Do you know, I never twigged that from listening yesterday. I just thought, "Jesus, this is the epitome of 'seal bark' in places!" Johann Sebastian Sealbach! [laughs] Sorry.

But I think I wanted it to have a desperate edge. I didn't want it to sound comfortable.

TB: Why?

AP: Because they're killing machines! They're destroying the planet. They're stalking the planet, like modern, mechanical wolves. How many people do they kill each day?

TB: [sarcastically] Oh, cars don't kill people, people kill people.

AP: [laughs] Okay, well, you get out of the car, and let's see how many people you can kill then. If you put that gun down, let's see how many people you can kill.

So, yeah, I wanted it to sound scary, frightening. I wanted it to sound like the uncomfortable thing it is. I mean, how many lives -- and how many towns, for that matter -- have been sacrificed to the car? English towns have been gutted, they've been filleted, all for the sake of the car. I'm on my high horse a bit at the moment, but England has been sacrificed at the altar of the motorcar, and I'm sure a lot of other countries can claim the same thing as well.

TB: Let me ask you about the volume change at the beginning of the song. Why did you do that?

AP: Yeah, that was me saying, "Look, can we have the intro so when we get to the "roads girdle the globe" motif, that really crashes. You know, you get comfortable with it during the intro, and then it's, whoop, up the fader comes, and the whole track kicks in a bit more for that motif.

TB: And, as you say, it's mostly guitars, bass and drums, but there is keyboard during the bridge.

AP: Yeah, the little monophonic Korg. Just for a slight change of atmosphere. And that's the "Steer me, Anna" bit, which was for my ex-wife, Marianne.

So, back to my notes -- did you know this song is made up of major 7ths, which are immensely cheesy chords. But they're an inversion of major 7ths that seem to bypass -- good car analogy there, "bypass" -- the cheese! Because major 7ths are -- you know that group America? "Horse with No Legs" and all that? But their songs are full of that stuff [plays some chords on guitar] -- I hate those cheesy chords!

"Roads Girdle the Globe" is full of those chords [plays underpinning of verse], but I just stumbled into an inversion that just seems more linear, and not as sickly. It's got more bite to it.

TB: And if you and Dave are also creating one uber-guitar part with your two guitars, that helps too, I'd think.

AP: Yeah, you're right. It's totally burned off any cheese, I think. I'll tell you the notes -- in ascending order, it's D, G-flat, D-flat. So, it's one of the few times I ever used a major 7th, but I didn't realize it was. I don't know much about music theory, really. It's all naive art for me.

Do you know Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin's version of this?

TB: Yep, I do.

AP: It was reading an interview with Dave Stewart, where he was talking about this song, and that's where he pulled out the fact that it was major 7ths, which I'd never realized -- I mean, at that point in time, I really didn't know what the hell I was playing. He said, "Oh, I love the fact that they've done these inversions that don't sound cheesy."

And I quite like the cover -- he made it much more like the plush interior of a car. I think we were doing the metal door panels, while he did the nice, comfortable seats and things. I was very pleased that he did it, I was really flattered, but the end product was a little bit like that group Dollar -- they were an early Trevor Horn-produced Pop group thing, all very lush synthesizers and programmed songs. It was unusual to hear Dave Stewart take this big, clangorous, industrial Futurist song and make it more like Dollar.

TB: He's quite a musician. I was a big fan of his because he'd played with Bill Bruford, and I got to hang out with him and Barbara a little bit when a band of mine opened for them back in the early '90s.

AP: Ah, so you didn't come at him from the Egg angle, then?

TB: No, I found out about Egg because of the Bruford/Stewart connection, then listened to them afterwards. Actually, Bruford enlisted Stewart's help on his initial solo albums because Stewart is so knowledgeable about music theory. So, it's interesting to hear you say that's how you found out about the theory behind your own chords!

AP: Yeah, I had to read it in an interview with somebody else! "Oh, is that what I did? Oh, he's right, I did do that!" How degrading. [chuckles] That's another thing you shouldn't read your own press about.

4:05 PM

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