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Last Updated:
Aug 24, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008


Andy discusses 'No Thugs in Our House'

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, "No Thugs in Our House," is from 1982's English Settlement.

Andy Stone, who himself moved from DC to Chicago a couple of years ago, was first to guess the correct answer in response to why Todd's moving, followed closely by Senor "two-correct-answers-in-a-row" Javier Tenaz. Basically, the Bernhardts are moving because they're tired of putting up with about four years' worth of low-level harassment by the local Hitler Youth, and of the "boys will be boys" attitude of the parents of said youth (who've been harassing other politically and socially liberal people throughout the neighborhood as well).

We'll be back in two weeks or so with a look at a song that contains what Andy describes as "the sexiest groove" he's ever written.

TB: Let's talk about "No Thugs in Our House." This strikes me as a very angry song.

AP: I don't know if it is, actually! I think it's more of a genteel morality play. It's a real Threepenny Opera, but delivered over some Rock-n-Roll. To me, it's almost Dickensian in its morality, with ironic little twists.

TB: [mock snort] Dickens? Twist? I get it!

AP: [laughs] Oh, ho ho ho! "Do you like Dickens?" "I don't know, I've never been to one."

But yeah, it is rather archaic in its structure...

TB: Sure. It's got three acts -- four, if you count the bridge.

AP: Right. That bridge is like an interlude. Funnily enough, I was looking through some notebooks yesterday evening, and I found one I didn't even know I had! There wasn't much in it, but I'd jotted down, around the time of English Settlement, lots of ideas and connections and bits and pieces. I'd had a video idea for this, which eventually became the sleeve to the single -- that is, to make it like a toy theatre. So, I was obviously seeing as the sort of play you'd put on in a Victorian toy theatre -- you know, a penny-plain or tuppence-colored kind of thing.

TB: You say you don't think it's angry, but for me, it comes across as very angry. I mean -- guitar and drums, bang-bang-bang-bang, and then you go "Rwarrrrr!"

AP: [laughs] Well, that's my Johnny Winter yell you're hearing there. It was one of the things we'd do in the dressing room -- I was always being provoked, because I had, like, the loudest yell in the known universe. It'd be, "Oh, c'mon, Partsy, do your Johnny Winter yell. Give us all a laugh." So I'd yell like a wounded mountain gorilla or something, which would cause great mirth and merriment amongst all company gathered therein. I thought, "Well, I've got to throw this into a song somewhere," you know.

TB: You set the stage very well that way. To me, anyway, it sounds like you're about to sing about something you're indignant about, or angry about.

AP: Well, I could never stand parents who didn't bring their kids up properly.

TB: Was there a particular situation for you that brought this to mind? What prompted the writing of this song?

AP: I think it just was a desire to write this rather old-fashioned-slash-modern morality tale -- you know, to bring it up to date. At the time it was written, there was an awful lot of awareness of the National Front in England -- we'd done at least one Rock Against Racism festival by that time -- and at that point in England, there was an awful lot of anti-Right kind of feeling, because it seemed like they were growing in prominence. It was probably more to do with the paranoia of the time rather than their actual prominence, if you know what I mean.

So I decided to make up this character, who basically is asleep all through the story! Because he's out drinking all night...

TB: And beating up Asians.

AP: Exactly. So, you never even get to meet the main character in the story. He's offstage. He's ob-scene. I thought that was quite a nice mechanism.

TB: Because it's just all a reflection of his actions, rather than actually looking directly at them.

AP: Right. It's the young policeman reporting his actions, or his parents saying, "Oh, our little angel couldn't possibly have done this!" And there are a lot of word games in there, obviously.

TB: Let's talk about that -- there are some phrases I'd like to ask about, because I've always wondered about them. Why is it an "insect-headed worker wife"?

AP: Well, we lived next door to this woman whom we dubbed -- we never knew her name -- "Mrs. Washing." She would wash everything, and one day she was hanging out underwear that could best be described as "waspies."

TB: Why?

AP: They were corset-type things -- to give you a wasp waist.

TB: Ah, okay.

AP: So, she was hanging these out one day, and it was like, "Oh, she's hung out her waspies, I see, so she's like a worker in a wasp hive or something." It was that kind of word play -- who would hang out waspies? Well, it'd an insect-headed worker wife -- there's that alliteration. It's a little word circle thing there, something that sounds [chuckle] very surreal. People think she's a normal person, but why does she have an insect head? It's just so that the word circle feels complete.

TB: "The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying their cushion floor."

AP: Yeah, that cushion floor was sort of a [salesman voice] luxury vinyl flooring that, to my parents' generation, was the height of success. If you had cushion floor -- and I think it was probably spelled "Cushionflor" [chuckles] -- if you had that, you really had made it. I think we even had that in our kitchen for a while when I was growing up, and you know, my parents felt like they were royalty. Just because of this padded linoleum.

And yeah, he's got it pipe at the kitchen table, and he's reading his paper and absentmindedly setting fire to his paper with his pipe -- I'm just trying to set the scene here. A little poetic license.

TB: "His viscous poly-paste breath comes out."

AP: Oh yeah, it's the sort of a breath that a lot of that generation seem to have, which is like wallpaper paste. It kind of smells of wallpaper paste. It also symbolizes a kind of claustrophobia, where you feel the entire world is wallpapered over. All of their world is covered in wallpaper and Cushionflor, and so it's natural that his stinky breath would be reminiscent of wallpaper paste.

TB: Right, and of course that makes sense when you're talking about "their wallpaper world." Which is a great image, because at first glance, wallpaper could look like some solid barrier, but there could be nothing behind it.

AP: Right, there's nothing to it. You can poke your finger through it, because it's all surface.

At the time, I detested wallpaper. For me, it symbolized an older, dead generation. But now I actually have a grudging respect for it. I really like French pictorial wallpaper of the 1800s -- in fact, I treated myself a couple of years back to a large-format book called French Scenic Wallpaper, 1795 to 1865." The wallpaper in it is beautifully printed, sort of classical scenes. So, I've grown a grudging respect for wallpaper, but hopefully my breath doesn't smell of poly-paste!

TB: [laughing] And then, "A boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen door." So, you're setting that up...

AP: Yeah, and the snare drum is reinforcing it! Bang-bang-bang-bang.

TB: "And all the while, Graham slept on."

AP: Graham is offstage there snoozing. You never see him, you only hear about him.

TB: So, then the second act opens, after you've set the scene...

AP: Yeah, you pull off your little cardboard characters and get your next set of characters ready...

TB: "The young policeman who just can't grow a mustache." I've always loved that line -- why did you write it that way?

AP: Because young policemen always try to grow mustaches -- [deep voice] to give themselves authority! -- and they never can! It's like three or four wisps, and it's blond and ineffectual, and you want to walk up to them and say, "Look -- for christ's sake, shave that off, because the very fact that you've brought that out into the open air says to people, 'I'm so concerned that you might not take me seriously that I've grown a mustache! Look! Respect it.' Can't you see how stupid you're making yourself look?" So, young policemen should never attempt to grow mustaches.

TB: [laughing] We'll add that to the Partridgean Book of Rules.

AP: Exactly. Like Confucius:

TB: [laughing] This second act is a little more straightforward -- you're not as surreal in your imagery. It's the conversation between the policeman and the parents.

AP: Yeah, I need to tell some story. It's that device in film [laughing] where they cram in all the story -- you know, you've had all the action, and then 40 minutes in, you need to have two people at a table talking -- in essence, telling you what the film's all about. That's the equivalent of this in the song.

TB: Then the bridge, as you said, is a bit of an interlude. The narrator steps in to talk about what the parents have overlooked.

AP: Yes, this is the point where the spotlight turns to the narrator in a separate box off the side of the stage. He's filling in anything that you haven't grasped so far. It hints that there's something sinister in the lad, because his parents think it's a boy's club badge he's wearing. But it's not, of course. It from one of these right-wing groups.

TB: And then, in the last verse, you bring things around full circle. She's out there hanging her waspies on the line again, but now everything's okay. I wanted to ask you about one thing -- years ago there was an argument on Chalkhills about who "Dad" was -- is it Graham's dad who's a judge, or is it the worker wife's dad?

AP: Well, I can settle that argument, because it's Richard Branson's dad! His father was an extremely high-powered judge, and got his son off of a very serious charge. The young Richard Branson, in the very early days of Virgin Records, had a scam where he was claiming that records were for export to Europe and getting them marked up as such. Then the lorry, instead of driving onto the boat at Dover, would turn around and come back to London, and they'd sell these discs that didn't have tax on them, in their shop and by mail order. Branson would pocket the tax.

This was an offense that could have led to jail time for him, but his father, who was a judge -- and who knew exactly what the job of judging's all about! -- stepped in and sort of, [posh voice] "Well, now -- look here." So he got off, completely scot-free! So, that's a cameo in the song.

TB: [laughing] We're going to be able to print this, and not get sued?

AP: Yeah -- it's all out there in several books about Branson's life. He's not happy about it being out there, but the cat's already out of the bag.

TB: Let's talk about the music and the recording of the song.

AP: Actually, the whole song fell out as a result of me messing around with "Summertime Blues." It's not the same chords -- I'm not sure what key that's in, but if it were in E, then it'd be E, A, B. But I messed around and stumbled on a chord that I'd never found before, which I realized has something to do with D, but I still don't know the name of it. The song starts in E, then the notes of the second chord are, in ascending order, G-flat, A, D, A, B, E.

I thought, "Ooh, that's interesting -- that has an unresolved lift." You're settled on E, but then you're momentarily lifted up and hanging on that second chord, then you drop to E again. It's a very bumpy rhythmic ride, and I thought, "Ooh, this is good. Have I found a chord that nobody else knows about?" So that's where it came from -- dicking around with "Summertime Blues."

TB: I'm assuming this is one of these songs that you guys developed and arranged in rehearsal?

AP: Yeah. It was very tightened up in rehearsal. You can tell that -- it's so steady. Everyone's completely integrated with each other. There's not a beat or note out of place on this. It was bashed to death at rehearsal at Fatty Alderton's Tudor Studios in Swindon.

Great performance by Terry Chambers, actually. He's on the button there, all the way through.

TB: Oh yeah. Rock solid.

AP: Yeah, really. And how he does that strange mid-section...

TB: I wanted to ask you about that, because it's very Nigelesque...

AP: It is -- if you listen, there's very dead floor-tom on one side, very clicky-sounding. And then he's playing this triplet counter-rhythm on the hi-hat against that. I'm not sure what his foot's doing...

TB: He's doing four-on-the-floor with his kick drum.

AP: Right. I don't know how that all came up -- it's completely spastic, but completely perfect!

TB: So, that wasn't anything you suggested?

AP: Well, he and I always worked really closely on what the drum rhythms for any song were going to be. That was my closest relation to Terry. We didn't have a lot in common outside of him drumming, even though we were from the -- god, I hate to say it, but it's important in England -- the same class. Now, it's different -- I spoke to him two or three days ago, keeping him up on stuff. He calls every six months or so, and we have a chat.

TB: The credits list Colin as playing "Fender bass" on this. You and I recently talked about how you and Dave sometimes wished he'd "just play his Fender."

AP: Well, if he did just play his Fender, then we obviously thought it was weird enough to mention that it's a Fender! [laughs] Perhaps we were trying to suggest that he should stay playing that Fender, and stop picking up his cartoon novelty bass of the week. [chuckles]

TB: It's very punchy.

AP: Oh, it really is. It's very punchy, and he does put some rather seasick-sounding semi-tonal runs in there, which add to the queasiness of the scenario.

TB: I like the passing tones that he does in the chorus, where you guys are all banging on the A-G-F chords, and he descends to each one.

AP: Yep, that slipping-between-chords thing. Oh yeah, he's a great bass player.

TB: And you're only playing acoustic on this?

AP: I think so! I think Dave's doing all the electric guitars. Dave's doing that ferocious kind of Rock-and-Roll meets Stax thing -- like Booker T. & the MG's. You know, that Fender guitar and four-beat snare punching along together. And it's definitely related to "Life Begins at the Hop." It's very Dave Gregory in that respect.

He also plays that rather "Holly Up on Poppy"-esque keyboards in the middle section. That's the Prophet-5 synthesizer, which I would take home and try to program, to create sounds that I knew I would want to hear on tracks. Because you had to build the sounds and then save them in memory. There were some pre-programmed sounds, but it was a great delight to try to build your own. I had a notebook where I had all the sounds notated, just for that reason -- "this is how to dial up a flute," or "how to dial up a kaliope" or something.

TB: And you were really were dialing up things on that, because it was an analog synth.

AP: It was, and it was the old attack-decay-sustain-release approach -- ASDR. Which is I think is a porno expression as well.

TB: [laughing] I'm a little afraid to ask what the letters stand for!

AP: [laughing] I think the last word is "Roebuck" -- just to give you an idea of how wrong it is.

TB: Is this just you singing? Are you overdubbing your voice?

AP: Do you know, I never twigged that. I know I asked Hugh Padgham to give me a kind of Rock-and-Roll slapback vocal effect, to help the "Summertime Blues" feel.

TB: And that is one of the big differences I noticed between the studio version and the BBC version -- the BBC is much drier.

AP: Yeah. You have to kind of knock the songs out at the BBC, and it's a case of, you know, "The thing to make echo -- we're using that on the guitar, so we can't possibly put it on your voice."

TB: Was it that primitive?

AP: No, probably not, but it is a case of you've got to get so much recorded and mixed so quickly -- you've got a couple of hours to do four songs, and it's got to sound presentable. The best thing that you can hope for is that there's more nervous energy than there is on the album.

TB: And I think it succeeds on that level. It's interesting to listen to it -- because there's not such a wash of reverb, you can hear other things going on more easily. For instance, you're doing lots of percussive strumming accents on the acoustic.

AP: Yeah. Well, this is the most Rock-and-Roll XTC have ever been, I think.

TB: You mean, like classic Rock-and-Roll?

AP: Yeah, with the almost kind of "Rock Showband" kind of feeling, you know?

TB: Let's talk about the coda at the end, if you could call it that. Just when you think it's going to end, Rwarrr, it comes back in. Was that something you planned from the beginning, or did you say later, "Wouldn't be great if we just fooled people this way"?

AP: It probably grew out of enjoying playing it in rehearsal. You kind of don't want to stop, you know? The song would stop, and Chambers would probably look over, and we'd be off and running again. "Ooh, that feels so right!" A case of, "Well, why stop? This is great fun, let's do some more."

I also really like the false start, with the quiet drums. I don't know where that idea came from, but I was reminded of that, listening to this yesterday. I think that's a great way to bring the listener into the song.

TB: Yeah, you kind of do that on "Roads Girdle the Globe," right?

AP: Yeah, but that was the whole track -- for that song, we moved up the whole track up a couple of dB when it came into the motif part. But with this one, the drums were made to sound very thin and quiet -- kind of like a drum version of that thin acoustic guitar, and then suddenly, when the rest of the band kicks in, you get the proper drum kit. And it sounds great. Because you think, "Oh, well, that's it then, here we go," and then suddenly, Pow! Sucker punch.

And there's the Johnny Winter yell -- I remembered that on an American tour, we had a roadie who used to be one of Johnny Winter's roadies and, as I say, the band would poke me into doing my Johnny Winter impression in the changing rooms. This fellow told us, "Every night on stage there would be a slow Blues number where I would bring out a rocking chair, and Johnny Winter would sit in the rocking chair and play a little bit." I think Johnny had a sax player in the band for a little while, who would solo, and this guy said, "During that section, Johnny would inevitably -- every night -- fall asleep in the rocking chair."

He said it got to the point where the rest of the band would know this, and would signal to the roadie, who would slide on in the dark, and between the spindles of the rocking chair, would violently poke Johnny Winter with something, to poke him awake. Winter would leap out of the rocking chair with a "Rhwarrrr!" and start playing, start soloing. [laughs]

TB: [laughs] One more question -- there's a video out there of you guys on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing this song. Any particular memories of that? I think it's a great performance.

AP: I was exceptionally nervous. I did not want to be touring. And it was like, "Oh no, this is the tip of the iceberg of touring, and what's the first thing we do? Live television to the nation!" You've been writing and rehearsing and recording an album, and you don't want to go back on the road, and what do they do? They put another worldwide tour in, and they start you off with live television.

TB: So the Whistle Test was live?

AP: It became live after so many years. Not very many people realize this, but earlier, bands would mime to backing track, and either add a live vocal in, or they would just sing along with their record. For example, when the New York Dolls were on there, with the track "Jet Boy," they're just singing along. They've got the mic's in the studio, and you can hear the clumping of their stack heels louder than you can the actual tracks. They're obviously miming. And when David Bowie was on there doing "Five Years" -- people say, "Oh, that's the greatest performance" -- he's singing to a backing track, for christ's sake! Anybody can see this.

But then, as the years went on, they would insist that bands really did play live. When we did our appearance doing "Statue of Liberty," that was totally live. So was the "Yacht Dance" and "No Thugs" appearance.

TB: Was it going out on to the airwaves live, or were you performing it live in front a audience?

AP: It was a performance, one take, and then they'd put it out the following week, or whatever.

TB: I thought maybe it was actually streaming out live to TV sets across the nation...

AP: No, you got the one shot at it, and there you go. Which, I guess, is second-worst. [laughs]

12:07 AM

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