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Last Updated:
Nov 23, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008


Colin discusses 'Making Plans for Nigel'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

The first of what we hope will be an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Colin Moulding about the songs we feature on MySpace. This week's song, "Making Plans for Nigel," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

Sara gets huge props for correctly guessing that the surprise mentioned two weeks ago was a "Colinview." Of course, big thanks go to Colin for graciously agreeing to provide access to Mr. Moulding's Marvelous Memory Machine, for the benefit of all assembled here. Oh, one more thing: He says "Hi" to all y'alls.

We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song that Andy says is an example of XTC "stretching out."

TB: The first song I wanted to talk to you about is what was pretty much the defining hit for you guys in the early years -- "Making Plans for Nigel." What was the impetus of the song?

CM: What the impetus was to write it -- god, I wish I knew! I wish I could bottle it! [laughs] I'd be rolling in it.

Where does it come from? I don't know. I think if you could say, you'd have the secret of eternal youth. All I know is, it comes from my unconscious mind. That's where all the good stuff lies -- in the unconscious. You don't think about it -- if you think too much, it turns out wrong. If it comes to you, you grab it with both hands, as I did. Most good songs, you can write in usually about two minutes -- well, I should say 10. If it takes much longer than that, then it's probably not worth the paper it's written on. I've found that to be true, anyway. Whether it's true for other people, I don't know.

TB: What are some of the ways that you're able to connect with your unconscious?

CM: I write a diary every day now, for the last two years. I find that the best way is to just let it spill on to the page, and not correct it too much. It comes out very conversational that way. When you concentrate on "making it good," you're not making it good at all. People can sense the realism when you're not correcting things -- they sense the emergence of something that's just shot from the back of your mind, you know? Things seem more interesting when they happen that way.

And that was the thing with "Nigel" -- I didn't know where it came from. That phrase popped into my head, and one line followed another. Before I knew it, I'd written three parts of the song, and the rest of it just kind of fell in line probably a day or two later. It was a kernel of a song -- [laughs] if you'll pardon the pun! -- but it was all over in 10 minutes. And why look for it to take longer, you know? I think wonderful things happen in short bursts. I've learned not to question it over the years, and even more so in middle age. Your best ideas can come out of nowhere, and can come out at any moment.

TB: And the secret is to be ready for them.

CM: This is it. That's where the secret lies -- to know when something wonderful has happened, and has sprung from your unconscious. You have to pounce on it and make something of it, you know? That said, you don't always know when you come up with something wonderful. I live with it for a few days. Like with my diary. If it still holds after a few days -- well, I won't change it anyway! -- but I think if you can test it for a few days, it's pretty good.

TB: So, was it a matter of lyrics coming out first? Or, once you got that phrase in your head, did you pick up a guitar and do something with it?

CM: That's rather wonderful, when both happen at once. I think it's all the better when they happen at once, and you're not trying to fit one to the other. That's not a very good scenario, when you've only got one or the other -- it's not disaster, but it's harder.

TB: Does that usually does happen for you, that you write both music and lyrics together?

CM: Very often, if you pick up the guitar, you strum a few chords without even thinking of it -- you're just watching the telly or something -- something might pop out. You stumble upon a melody, or a few words, some syllables, and before you know it, you've got a phrase to go with the chords, you know? After that, it kind of escalates very quickly. Before you know it, you've written three parts of the song.

The arrangement is something different, of course. You try to make the arrangement as interesting as you can. But that's not part of writing a song -- the song kind of writes itself, really. It's a bit fantastic to non-musical people, that things write themselves -- I suppose they wouldn't really believe it -- but in a way it does. The initial first line, or the initial melody, or the first bit -- usually one thing follows upon another, and it can happen very quickly.

TB: It's interesting that you say that, because I think what might slow some people down as songwriters is that they are trying to have it spring out of their head fully formed. But it sounds like what you're saying is, allow it to be simple, allow it to just flow out, and then the arrangement can come later.

CM: Well, other people can help you with the arrangement. That's not the important bit. There are a lot of musos out there that can't write songs. They can arrange. What's important is the initial idea -- that's the most important bit. That's what there's a lack of in music today. There are a lot of people out there trying to polish a turd. [laughs]

You've got to have that initial, good idea that springs from your imagination -- that's the most important bit. And sometimes, just because it sounds naked, and it's not fully formed, people think it's no good. But very often, the simplest phrases can have an underlying meaning -- look at something like "It Ain't Necessarily So." It's a kind of loaded statement, you know. Very often, those are the types of simple phrases you can build on, with your imagination.

But, the point I'm trying to make -- I'm getting off the case here -- is that it's a matter of recognizing when you've come up with something worthwhile to build on. You don't need to be a fantastic musician to do that.

TB: You were saying, about arrangement, that when things sound naked, some people will think that it's not necessarily good, but it would seem to me that when something is simple, and spare, and stark, then whether the idea is a good one or not shows through even more.

CM: I think you've got a point there.

TB: Like you were saying, you can try to polish a turd, but if the turd's just sitting there by itself stinking up the joint, it's obvious that it's a turd!

CM: [laughs] True. And a good idea will stick around -- it won't go out of your head. Though, now that I've said that, I have to admit that I find myself humming the Birdie Song! [laughs] So maybe that's a complete fallacy, I don't know.

TB: [laughs] It's the curse of the jingle, right?

CM: That's right. I don't know -- if something kind of makes you feel a bit strange, and makes you wonder, "Where did that come from?" -- these days, if something unusual happens or springs through my imagination, I write it down, or strum it into a tape, just in case. You learn to do those things -- you learn to recognize things that are a little bit odd. But, even the "un-odd" stuff, I'll strum into a tape recorder, just in case! [chuckles] But if it comes from I don't know where, I'll make even more of an effort to capture it.

TB: How did you get ideas down in the early days? With "Nigel," for example, how did you capture these ideas?

CM: I wasn't as studious then as I am now. I was a lot more reckless. I don't know, I think that "Nigel" just kind of stuck in my head -- I kept strumming it, thinking, "Maybe I've got something going on here."

We used to rehearse about two or three times a week with the band, and I'd take songs to rehearsal, you know? This one seemed to get a favorable response. But at that time, I didn't really have enough confidence in myself to know where I was going with the arrangement. The other guys helped me on that, I suppose.

TB: You guys pretty much all did that for each other at that point, didn't you?

CM: Up to a point, yeah. We used to bounce ideas off each other in the rehearsal hall. One chap would take an idea so far, then perhaps the other would say, "Well, that's great, that's the beginning of something, but what about just diverting it a little bit this way," you know? It was a kind of a collective thing, I think.

TB: Which is the reason to be in a band, right?

CM: Absolutely, yeah! It's that collaborative effort.

TB: I was looking at liner notes about this song, and you were saying that the lyrics are partly biographical, that your father wanted a university future for you.

CM: When I was about 16, my father wanted me to stay on in school. But by that time, I really didn't want to do anything other than music, I think. Anything I did outside of that, was just a way to earn money in order to get where I wanted to go, you know?

TB: So you knew even at that age that music was the way you wanted to go?

CM: I'd always been into music -- chart records and stuff -- but I suppose it was when I started to buy albums that I really got into following what the bands did. The first album that I ever bought was by a band called Free. I admire them an awful lot. I just thought the bass player was amazing -- what he played was very unusual. Sometimes he would just come in on the choruses -- you'd have a whole verse with only the guitar player playing. I though it was very unusual.

I was just mad on music at the time, and really wanted to do it. I bought music publications -- NME and Melody Maker, which was probably more popular at the time -- and started going to concerts, and as soon as I saw bands live -- I used to leave the hall with my ears bleeding [chuckles], and walk all the way talking about equipment. What equipment the bass player had, or what the drummer used, or whatever. Just mad for it. I was so enveloped in it that I thought, "That is what I want to do." Plus, I was quite a shy lad, and I thought that if you were a musician, you were going to get girls as well.

TB: There is that!

CM: Indeed! [laughs] Perks of the job. It was all part of that, you know. Coming out of one's shell, and I just wanted to be part of something, something that was going to take me out of my hum-drum life, I suppose. Music just blew me away. It stays with you all your life, as you know. You're wrapped up in it, and you don't get out -- if you're a musician, you're a musician for life. You don't drop out.

This didn't please my old chap. He thought that I had it in me to go to university, I suppose, and just thought I was passing through a phase. But I kept plugging and plugging away, and working at a lot of shitty jobs to keep things going.

So, in a way, is it autobiographical? Well, a little bit. I knew somebody called Nigel at school. But I think that, when you write songs, it's a lot of things all wrapped up, like in your dreams. Your dreams are kind of bits and pieces of all the walks of life you've been in. Very often, when they meet up, you think, "What's he doing in this dream?"[chuckles]

I don't know where that phrase "We're only making plans for Nigel" came from, but it was a phrase I was able to build on. I think sometimes you come up a phrase before you even know what the song's going to be about. You'll think, "Where did that come from? Well, maybe the song'll be about this, then." Then you start to build and reinforce it in that direction. So maybe though you didn't set out to write the song about domineering parents -- because I don't think my parents were that domineering -- you do anyway. I think my dad was just upset, because he wanted the best for me, and he thought he thought he could see me making mistakes, so he did it with good motives, you know.

TB: I guess there was also a fair amount of the present day in the lyrics as well, because wasn't that a time of layoffs and redundancies?

CM: Yes, it was the Grim '70s. We're entering the Grim Naught-ies now, I think. We're going back to the '70s -- things are looking pretty bad.

TB: Maybe the next wave of music is going to come out of this, who knows?

CM: You never know, we might get the next Punk explosion!

But, British Steel, and things like that -- those were phrases that were in the news. "British Steel announced figures, that they lost half their yearly profit, they're down by so many percent." These are the kinds of phrases you heard on the news. Sometimes, they spring from nowhere, like the title of the song.

It's great, when you think of a phrase like that -- especially now. I don't question it. I think stuff like that is not ordinary. It's when you start thinking too much about things that they become ordinary. But anything unusual that comes up -- like "British Steel" -- I won't change it. "Let's make it British Steel," you know? I didn't change it then, and it was a good policy, and [chuckles] it's taken me until now to think, "Well, I must have been doing something right then." So, I don't push it. If it's British Steel, fine. If it had been British Rubber Company, and it worked, then it would have been that. Whatever comes, and stands the test, must be right.

TB: When I talked to Andy earlier about this song, we discussed the arrangement of it, and the drum pattern. If I remember it right, he said that Terry was messing around, looking for a pattern, and Andy asked him to play what he was doing on the "wrong" drums.

CM: On the strumming of the chords of "Nigel," there's a kind of underlying [mimics accents of the drum beat, on the and-one, and-two, and three] -- you can feel the emphasis of those beats. I didn't know how that would manifest itself on a drum kit, so I think Terry was kind of playing it on the snare. But it was a little bit rigid, and didn't flow very well. I think it was Andy who suggested, "In order to emphasize those beats, try it this way round." I think that is what Terry did -- started playing it ass-about-face on different drums, and arrived at that place. I think he was already doing something to emphasize those beats, but I think it was Andy who suggested, "Well, that's good, but what about if you played that emphasis on that drum, and not that one. Instead playing the eights on the hi-hat, why don't you try it on the floor tom," you know. So, yeah, the guys did help me out quite a bit on the arrangement.

TB: How about your bass part? As you said, you wrote this initially on guitar. What were you thinking about when it came time to come up with a bass part?

CM: The bass part just follows the floor tom. I figured that was probably the best thing to do. It doesn't play anything too conspicuous -- it's kind of like a musical drum, in a way. It just plods along. Stops everything from sounding tinny, I think! [laughs]

I just didn't feel it needed anything particularly complex. I think the power of the song is the understatement of the lyrics and the delivery. I think the first line just pulls you in, you know? That, and the unusual drumbeat. It's kind of understated, you know?

TB: That's a really good point about the lyrics -- I can remember very clearly hearing the song for the first time, and thinking, "Who and what is he talking about?"

CM: I think when you get people asking that, you're on to a good thing.

TB: Although, it's funny -- this song is one of my "misheard lyrics" examples with you guys -- when I first heard this, I thought you were saying he had "his future in a British still." [laughs] I remember thinking, "Oh, poor guy, he's doomed to a future as an alcoholic."

CM: He's got a drinking problem! [laughs] "British still."

TB: Had you never heard that before?

CM: No, it never occurred to me! I thought people would grasp that one, but there are lots of lyrics out there that people get wrong. I misheard Stones lyrics all the time. If people can't hear what you're saying, they use their imagination to fill in the rest.

TB: One part of the lyrics that I wondered about was, "Nigel is not outspoken / But he likes to speak / And loves to be spoken to." Was there any particular conscious intent behind those lines?

CM: Just to give the impression that he's shy, and he's having his future cooked up for him. He's not the sort of guy who would come out and say, "I want to do this," but you should ask him his point of view -- that's the point I was trying to make. He's not an outspoken fellow, but what about lending an ear?

TB: The guitar parts on this -- is this something you guided Dave and Andy on? Or was it a group-arranging dynamic?

CM: Pretty much everybody had a free hand. All I wanted was the chords played! [laughs] It was usually down to Dave to play the chords, because Andy can't be bothered to learn them. [laughs] That's the way it usually worked -- Andy usually found a figure on the guitar that incorporated all the chords, and Dave played the chords. One played off the other, in good arranging fashion.

Andy had a freer rein than most of us on my songs, really, to noodle and so on. You've got to have some structure -- everybody can't noodle, you know [laughs] -- usually one does the noodling while the other holds the thing together. Although, having said that, sometimes if there was a tricky guitar bit, a tricky riff, it'd be Andy who actually played it. In fact, it's him playing the riff on "King for a Day."

TB: Did you guys have any idea how big a single "Nigel" would be?

CM: No. Nobody had a clue.

TB: Virgin knew fairly early on that this was the song they wanted as a single, didn't they?

CM: Well, it started getting all the attention. They heard the demo that we'd done at Swindon Town Hall [later released on Coat of Many Cupboards], and kind of appointed Steve Lillywhite as XTC's next producer. They obviously got talking, and said, "Well, of this bunch of songs, we think the most promising is this one, called 'Nigel'."

"Life Begins at the Hop" was also getting a fair amount of attention, because we decided to do it as a single several months before the album came out. That wasn't on the original album.

TB: Right. I know it was on the American release.

CM: Yeah. They put it out in the States, but it wasn't on the original. We had this thing where we liked to do some singles that weren't on the record. Kind of an old-fashioned thing, really. In the '60s and '70s, you didn't always find hits that you'd had on the record -- they could be things that'd been released in their own right. But because we wanted to shift albums later on, that approach got blown out of the water. So, we did that with "Life Begins at the Hop," which as you way was on the American release, and eventually got added to all the formats later on.

But as far as "Nigel" goes, I don't think any of us knew. I don't think anybody knows what will become a massive hit. It's such an usual song, that you think, "My god, is it too unusual for the public?" I think I thought perhaps it was a little odd -- a little Toytown, a little childish, perhaps. The melody was almost nursery rhyme-like, so I had me doubts about it.

TB: The guitar part are very angular, the drum part is kind of skewed, but at the same time I think everything comes together very well, and you guys were in the right place at the right time...

CM: I think there's something that the general public realizes in a song, that they latch on to. And I don't think the musicians who create it really know about that. The general public is kind of more ahead of the game than musicians think they are. Musicians tend to come at it from a completely different angle, while the general public, who are not musicians, simply know what they like, you know? They're a bit freer in their thinking than musicians are. Musicians worry too much about, "Is the guitar too loud?" or other things like that. The public has a purer, more animal instinct.

TB: This relates to what you were saying before about conscious thought -- when you go out trying consciously to write a hit, chances are you won't!

CM: They almost always fail, yeah. That's why, if you have lots of hits on your first record, you're in deep shit! [laughs] Your thinking gets influenced by the success you've had, or that you think you've had. "Well, I better do some more of that, then" -- you know? But you should go even wilder, even more off the wall -- then you'll probably have even more hits! Success can be kind of poison that way.

TB: That hearkens back to a point that Andy had made, about failure having been very good to you guys.

CM: Yeah, well, it keeps you hungry. Because you want to sell records -- I think all musicians do want to sell records and be a success, have some money in their pockets. But you must be brave -- be as brave as you can, and do unusual things. You'll still have the hits, even if you do that! If the idea is good, you'll still have the hits.

1:55 AM

©2008 by Todd Bernhardt and Colin Moulding. All Rights Reserved.