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Last Updated:
Sep 28, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008


Andy discusses 'Into the Atom Age'

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, "Into the Atom Age," is from 1978's White Music. Good guesses on this one, but no one came up with the correct answer to the hint of two weeks ago -- perhaps because that hint was a trifle too obscure!

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about yet another song where Andy's fascination with the sea comes through.

TB: I wanted to talk about "Into the Atom Age" because I'm feeling a little bit whimsical -- I've just moved into a new house, we have a lot of work to do on it, and even though my wife's not lazy, she's going gadget-crazy! Of course, I'm part of it, too -- thinking we could add a palette-shaped coffee table here, a matching settee there...

AP: [laughs] As long as you're not getting nostalgic for string -- that's all that we need!

TB: [laughs] Well, let's start with the lyrics -- what the hell does that line mean?

AP: Actually, what do you think it's about? Because I can still remember vividly why I wrote this song.

TB: Well, I think you're probably taking the piss out of people who are really focused on having the best and latest for their modern, contemporary house.

AP: There's a bit of that.

TB: Yeah, you know -- mocking the materialism of people like that. But then I get to the line, "Hey, does anyone remember what happened to string?", and I'm like, "What the fuck?" [laughs]

AP: [laughs] Well, what did happen to string? I mean, I have plenty of string in my house, I love string, but string is just one of those dead technologies. You know, lots of things used to be done in string -- certain tribes would write in string, they'd measure stuff in string, they'd have messages in string and knots and shit like that, and now it's a completely dead technology. Who uses string anymore? So, it's a look at how quickly stuff comes and goes.

TB: And then, when you guys were on tour with The Police, you could ask, "Does anyone remember whatever happened to Sting?"

AP: [laughs] I remember they asked me, "Partridge, we're doing a new album. What do you think it oughta be called?" And I said, "Well, from the evidence of all the crowd-chanting you were doing tonight, how about Get Your Yo-Yo's Out?" That's because they didn't like the other suggestion I had, which was Yet More of the Same-O. That didn't go down well. [laughs]

TB: [laughs] I can't imagine why! Okay, so you were saying that I kind of got it, but tell me what else the lyrics are about.

AP: The whole thing came up because there was a period in the mid- to late-'70s when I was utterly obsessed with the 1950s' "Promise of the Atomic Future." And I don't mean atomic power -- I mean the look of things. You know, everything had to have those kind of atoms on sticks -- balls on sticks -- furniture was all decorated with balls on sticks, and you'd have these palette-shaped coffee tables, with matching coffee cups that looked like the different-color splotches that an artist would use on the palette-shaped coffee table.

I was totally obsessed with that whole thing, and when the whole Punk thing came along, I thought, "Is this yet another kind of new potential future that isn't going to happen?" You know, in 1950, they thought that by 1970 we'd all be holidaying on the moon, having pills for dinner, and going to work in a bubble on a jet pack. And what happened? 1970 was just 1950 with flairs! Well, it was in England, anyway.

And now, 2008 is just 1970 with the home computer and the 'net. The houses haven't changed, people's attitudes haven't changed -- very little has changed

TB: So, are you mocking the promise of the '50s? Or are you also waxing nostalgic for that time?

AP: There was a bit of nostalgia for something that never happened. When I wrote this song, I was at the age where I had no money to spend on anything. I was frequenting a lot of charity shops and junk shops for clothes and bits and pieces -- records and instruments and stuff like that -- and I started to see a lot of '50s stuff in there. I was sort of slyly buying up this stuff -- a little toast rack here, a little coat rack there, a little magazine stand here, a little vinyl there, you know -- because it was dirt-cheap. Nobody wanted it. It was the mid-'70s and this stuff was from the mid-'50s. It was like this graveyard for this future that never happened.

I kind of think I must have connected the whole Punk thing that was taking off -- "Wow, the bright new future" -- or, in Punk's terms, the grubby, snot-covered future! The no-future future! -- and I thought, "Well, is this just going to go the same way as all that promise from the '50s, where all the art got atomic and new and different and YOW?" And yeah, it did. I guess it was yet another phase.

I was personally obsessed with '50s artwork. I mean, the 3D-EP art -- the red-and-green squiggles -- I was red-and-green crazy for a couple of years. It was either everything had to be black and white, or red and green. The jumper I'm wearing on the back of White Music -- red and green squares.

TB: And you were attracted to that because they're opposing colors?

AP: Because they're opposing colors, and they vibrated against each other. So that's why we had that artwork for the EP.

The '50s were also behind that poem I wrote, "Fifties Kitchen Curtain," which ended up in the inner artwork of Go 2 -- that was me remembering my mother's kitchen curtains in the '50s, one of which was hung upside down and used to drive me crazy. I'd say, "That's hanging upside down," [imitates mother] "No it's not, you silly boy!" But it was! Because it was a kind of weird, semi-abstract pattern of wrought-iron tables and poodles and Eiffel Towers and stuff -- they just thought it was an abstract pattern, but I could see that one side was hung upside down. It used to drive me insane every breakfast time! [laughs]

I bought a book called Austerity Binge, by Bevis Hillier, which further fueled my love of that dead future -- the whole nuclear promise that never happened. I mean, even in our first press handout in '76, '77, I insisted that I be described as a "nuclear-powered Syd Barrett." [chuckles] A sort of whimsical longing for some long-dead future.

TB: I think that's one of the things that set you apart from other bands of that era -- you obviously had a sensibility -- a reverence, almost -- for the past during a time when, as you saying, it was the "no-future future," and a lot of people were saying there was no past, either. But you guys were clearly acknowledging it.

AP: Oh yeah. I mean, the present day constantly creates shit that grows a future, which itself will then turn to shit and grow another future. It's how all this stuff grows. I guess I was at the age where I was starting to feel a tad of nostalgia, mixed up with thinking about the new movements that were happening, and wondering if they were just another crest of another wave in a continuing sea. You know, "This is not a separate thing. This is just another wave in the same old ocean."

TB: One of the things that made me think you were kind of mocking all this was the bit in the second verse where you say, "I flick on the video to soothe me / It's better color than the real thing!"

AP: Yeah, it's also about people get totally ensnared by contraptions. I came from a family that had to have all these new contraptions. We had the first color television in the street. And back then, nobody locked their door, so neighbors would wander in and out of each others' houses, continuously. I remember one day staring at whatever it was, the test card, and then the first color program that I'd seen, and I turned around to go out of the room, and [chuckles] there were half a dozen neighbors leaning against the back wall of the room watching! They'd just let themselves in -- I didn't know they were in there! But that was typical of that time.

TB: It's prescient in some ways, because now we have HDTVs hanging on the wall, and I don't know if you can see a "3-D porno movie," but you can certainly see more details than you may have ever wanted to see...

AP: [laughs] You can also see different angles as well, with the angle selector! Actually, I haven't found that -- I'm sure I've got some angled films, but I haven't figured out the angle-selection thing yet.

TB: So, in a way, you were talking about the future -- maybe it is all going to come to pass.

AP: It constantly comes up and dies -- it's this wave on the same old ocean. I was suggesting to somebody last week that mankind has never progressed -- technology is not progression, because you're losing some of the inherent knowledge that you had. At one time, you'd get up in the morning, and you could feel a leaf and know what the weather was going to be in the next hour. Or you could see the way a certain grass had curled, and you could know what the temperature was going to be by mid-day. Or you could look at the clouds and say, "Okay, it's going to be frosty tonight," by looking at the color and formation of that cloud.

We've lost all that now! We've gained how to work a mobile phone, but we've lost a lot of the natural interaction and knowledge that we had. "I can eat this berry and that berry, but if I eat that berry, I'm going to die. That berry is going to cause me to have a headache and pass out for an hour." We exchange that knowledge for how to work a microwave oven.

Let's say the most knowledge you can ever have is 100 percent -- you want to learn to work a microwave oven, and you can't have 120 percent, so you're going to forget how to do something else.

TB: So, every time you hand a bit of "responsibility" over to a piece of machinery, you're abdicating some of your own knowledge.

AP: Exactly. There is just knowledge, and you do exchange it. You will lose some, and you will gain some, and that's the appearance of how the snake moves along. It's growing at one end, but dying off at the other. It's not getting any larger.

TB: Interesting. Let's talk about the music of this song. The first thing that strikes me is the beginning. I was wondering if it was something you guys created after you had written the song? Did you tack it on in rehearsal or something?

AP: I wanted to be flashy, and prove I could play flashy guitar as well as Bill Nelson. So it's our ersatz Be Bop Deluxe beginning. [chuckles] I thought it was almost stadium-like and anthemic -- it's really sort of, "Here we are! Hit the lasers!!" [laughs]

That said, I think it just sort of fell out of me, with a feeling of, "Yeah, I need to boast for a second here." Like I say, it's ersatz Bill Nelson, but he did his own ersatz version of White Music with that album Red Noise -- it's a weirdly imagined carbon copy of White Music -- even the title.

TB: Do you remember, when you wrote this song, what the circumstances were?

AP: It was just this thing of the great new promise of this great future. The whole New Wave thing -- "Yeah, this must be just like the '50s, where there was that great promise of a new future." You know, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." [laughs]

I remember just wanting something that sounded optimistic and grand, and did have a slice of nostalgia about it. I mean, certainly that keyboard sound is way out of the '50s, you know? Which I liked, because it was the trashy future-past thing. There's an album The Moody Blues didn't get 'round to: Trashy Future Past! [laughs] In Search of the Lost Kitsch -- or, In Search of the Lost Jungle Ornament. My mother had all these jungle ornaments -- these caricatured-looking black people with extremely long necks and extremely big lips that looked vaguely Beatnik and Tiki and all that.

TB: Did you originally write the song on guitar, then take it to the band, or did the song develop in rehearsal?

AP: I wrote it on guitar, and I think I wanted a slightly Who-ish slashing chord thing -- you know, there's an element of Townshend in there, I think. It's quite a simple song -- it's basically in G, with lots of easy chords to figure out. It's all basic, power-chord, [American accent] School of Rock.

Funnily enough, during our first tour of the States, I excitedly turned on the TV in my hotel room -- or, I think I was sharing a hotel room with Colin, actually, because we weren't swish enough to have our own room -- so, there had to be lots of agreement about wanking time -- and after about five minutes, I thought, "Shit, that's our music!" It was a news item on "Punk catering" -- I think it was closing out the program, where they have the goofy item at the end -- you know, the donkey that saved its owner, or the chihuahua that got trapped in blender and lived.

These people would come and do your party for you, except it was considered to be "Punk food" -- like, for example, they would have a big stone sink of full of green jelly, and they would have cigarette butts stubbed in that, but the butts would be made out of candy. You know, disgusting-looking stuff that was actually edible. And the music they played over this story was "Into the Atom Age"! I thought, "Wow! We've hit the big time -- we're on our first tour of the States, and somebody's playing 'Into the Atom Age' over a news story about Punk." I was so excited to hear us coming out of this TV, in America. "Well, that's it -- that's Beatlemania, then. It's Shea Stadium tomorrow!" [chuckles]

This song was my choice for a single on this album, you know.

TB: Really? But Virgin didn't agree, obviously.

AP: Nope. I was planning the artwork, which I think was probably yet more green-and-red stuff, but they didn't agree. To me, this was the obvious choice.

TB: What was their reasoning for the singles they did choose?

AP: They chose "Statue of Liberty" and "This Is Pop." "Statue of Liberty," to me, was a little obvious and a little cheesy, and it was sort of getting to be an old number by then -- it'd been around for six months! [laughs] Things move pretty rapidly when you're that young -- "Oh, that old thing." With "This Is Pop" they thought would have something, but not that recording of it, which is why we re-did it with .

But I would have put my hand up and said, "Please, sir, can we have 'Into the Atom Age' as our single?" It was not to be.

TB: Is there anything about the other players' parts in particular that you want to talk about? I mean, obviously, Barry plays a big role in this song.

AP: He does, yeah. And don't you just love the sound of that keyboard? That, to me, was the best thing Barry brought to the band. If he never touched that wretched Lawrence piano again, I'd be happy. But that Crumar organ was just heavenly.

TB: Yeah, and it really slices through in this song.

AP: Oh, it's fantastic. I mean, it just can't be beat. And it's still a sound I've never really heard from any other band -- I have to be honest. You know, bands like of flirt with slight versions of it, but not really that stinging Crumar sound, played in that way, because his playing is...

TB: Well, yeah -- that's more than half the battle, isn't it? The way he approached it.

AP: Totally. Victorian melodrama meets Sci-Fi meets Brainstorm! When he wanted out of the door, I thought, "Well, that's it. That's the end of the band. That's our sound, and off it goes."

But yeah, we're live in The Manor, pretty much. I think there is one overdub -- the whiddly-whiddly guitar was overdubbed -- and it's the pre-Stone Room Manor, when we were all in one room. Terry would have been in what they called the "live area," which was one corner of the room, sort of walled off with these three-foot high gobos that stood in front of the drums. So, you could see Terry's head and shoulders and cymbals, but the rest of the kit was behind these baffles.

TB: So it wasn't a fully enclosed booth.

AP: No. It was like a little fort in the corner. So we were all in one room just cutting it live, you know. One-two-three-four-GO.

TB: You did the vocals later, correct?

AP: Yeah, the vocals were done later. In fact, on that album, Colin and I did all of our vocals together.

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah, he'd be singing at the same time I would.

TB: And that was just for time efficiency?

AP: [Producer] John Leckie said, "Look, if you're a live band and that's how you're used to doing it, it always sounds tighter if you just do it like that." So, it was a case of, you know, we'd sing backing vocals together, or I'd sing a lead and he's sing a backing vocal, then we'd switch, whatever. And I must admit, it does kind of give you that thing where you're blending in together live.

TB: That's interesting. You've talked about John's approach before, and how he's particularly good at shepherding new bands through the process, and I can see that being a pretty valuable way of enabling people to feel comfortable, instead of feeling isolated -- "Oh my god, I'm in the vocal booth all my myself and everyone's listening to me!"

AP: Yeah, it's scary enough being in the studio, period! That was our first album, which was scary enough stuff to do, but he made it feel good. John is perfect for breaking the virgins in, you know. [chuckles] It's not scary when you're in the studio with John.

But I don't know how we got the album made, because we were just running off doing so much other stuff. You know, we'd go off to do TV -- I think we did two or three TV performances, and I think we did the whole album in about 10 days, along with TV performances as well. And recording stuff specifically for TV performances, as well.

You know that clapping section before the outro? Does that sound just a little bit Nazi to you?

TB: [laughing] Like goosesteps on asphalt?

AP: Yeah, it's kind of goosestepping over heads in the Sudetenland or something.

TB: Well, that was not what came to mind, but now that you've mentioned it, I'll never hear it the same way again!

AP: That was put in, shamelessly, for live purposes -- to encourage people to clap along. We figured, let's put a breakdown there, and get people to clap and stomp along. I don't think I ever got over the New York Dolls and their "Jet Boy" stomp -- those high-heeled shoes on the parquet floor, mixed with claps. So, I think we had to have just a little bit of that in there before the outro.

I was listening on headphones yesterday, and Jesus, it's a really mono-y mix! I remember John saying to me that he was going to mix it pretty much in mono. I think the only things that really sound stereo are, when Terry hits his cymbals, you can hear the cymbal in the "correct position." I mean, usually, you'll get a guitar over there, bass in the middle, organ over there, a bit of echo contrary to that, and so on, but this is pretty damned mono. I remember John saying, "Let's mix it that way, for extra punch" -- because you always get more punch from mono. He said, "The worst thing is to be in a pub, and they've got one stereo speaker near your head, and then 50 foot away they've got the other one.

TB: Or the wiring's faulty and the other speaker doesn't even work.

AP: Sure, yeah, so you just get half the stereo. He said, "You want to be mixing your stuff pretty mono-y," so it was like, "Okay, over to you -- you know how to work all the controls. You know how records should sound." So yeah, you get it on headphones and it's disappointing on the stereo front. It is stereo, but barely.

TB: How about Terry or Colin's parts on this? Anything in particular you remember, or does anything stand out?

AP: No, it's just kind of us bashing it down. There's not much finesse going on. I think the only slightly finesse thing might be the last chord -- that very strange, dissonant-sounding chord over the end. Which is just me and Barry wanting to not end on the obvious. "Well, I'm going to do something dissonant!" "Well, I am, too!" "Well, I'm going to do something even more dissonant!" [laughs]

TB: Exactly, and then clashing against each other, too.

AP: Yeah, we were in constant competition, I think, at that time. [sings] Anything you can do, I can do more dissonant. I can do anything more out there than you." [laughs]

TB: Which is part of the charm of the first two albums for me -- it's one of the reasons I like them so much, because I loves me some dissonance. Plus, I think competition can really enhance a band.

AP: We were in sonic competition.

TB: When you have healthy competition going on, you typically get better results from everyone involved, because they don't feel like they can sit back and be fat and happy.

AP: Well, it's certainly not compromise. Compromise makes the worst art. I think the best art is made from extreme joy or unhappiness and tension and clashing. And that version of XTC was more than happy to be clashing and crashing.

TB: There are a couple other versions of this -- there's a version you did for the BBC that's on Transistor Blast...

AP: Do you know, I can't remember that version!

TB: Then you have a live version, it's a medley that made it on to Coat of Many Cupboards.

AP: Oh yeah, that's from somewhere in Australia. That was sort of a medley of older stuff -- we'd pinned things together, as a sop to people who'd bought that first album. Because by then things were moving very fast -- we were much more happy to be playing the second or third album.

TB: Do you remember why you picked the songs in that medley?

AP: Well, I always liked "Atom Age" -- as I say, for me, that was the single that never was.

TB: You put it together with "Hang on to the Night" and "Neon Shuffle" -- was that because the keys were similar, or you felt there was a kinship between the songs somehow?

AP: They were just all up-and-going-for-it songs. I think it was just a matter of, "Let them eat Rawk." [laughs]

12:21 AM

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