XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:
Dec 28, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008


Colin discusses 'Generals and Majors'

Song of the Week -- Colin's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Colin Moulding about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Generals and Majors," is from 1980's Black Sea.

J.D. Mack was first with the correct guess for this week's song, joining the Pantheon of Great Guessers. (Kim, where ya bin?)

We'll be back in two weeks with a look at a song that talks about how small we really are.

TB: Let's talk about "Generals and Majors," which was a single from Black Sea. Did you feel the weight of the success of "Nigel" on your shoulders as you were writing "General and Majors," or were things simply moving so fast that you didn't have to think about it?

CM: Things were probably moving a bit too fast to think about it. I started thinking about it later on, and then the failure started! [laughs] But I was still on the crest of the wave, I think, with this -- out on tour all the time, and didn't have time to think. Started to imagine grander things. Of course, which was exactly what I should have been doing -- being imaginative and grabbing stuff, and not worrying about it too much.

[chuckles] I really couldn't believe me luck when they said, " 'Generals and Majors,' hey, that sounds great!" I thought it was just okay. I thought what really got the song going was Andy's guitar riff, more than anything. That's the power in the song, I suppose. Some of the parts are rather nursery-rhyme-y, I think...

TB: But, because of that, very memorable to a listener.

CM: I suppose so. I think I just liked the power of it, and Andy's chiming guitar. You hear the song on telly sometimes -- they'll play it over the football matches and stuff. I guess it's because of that glorious, chiming stomp.

TB: Do you remember what prompted you to write the song?

CM: I remember I was thinking of the phrase "Oh, What a Lovely War." You know, the absurd idea of a "good war." I don't know if you remember, but there was a film in England called "The League of Gentlemen," about robbing a bank. The gist of it was, these guys all were in the army, and had had [Sandhurst-type accent] "a bloody good war." Now they were redundant -- they were out of the army, in pretty duff jobs -- not really succeeding in Civvy Street as they had in the war. They were good at what they did, you know. So, they all plot to rob a bank, basically, and get caught in the end, obviously -- they can't succeed, just think of the message it'd send to society! -- but I remember one of the guys saying, "Yeah, I had a bloody good war."

I was putting these phrases together in my head, and thinking of generals and officers having a "good" war, and I think that's where it came from. Not true for the cannon fodder, of course.

TB: I was just going to say -- it's usually a lot easier for a general or major to have a "good war"!

CM: Yeah, exactly. So that was where it came from -- the pomposity of a phrase like that. They'll never come down until they're victorious again, you know? They're on a high, because they're having a "good war."

TB: Would this have been a matter of you sitting down with a guitar and, as you were saying before, just working music and lyrics out together?

CM: I had that lyric thing, and I just started strumming an F7 chord -- I'd started messing about with "Dr. Robert," the Beatles song, which is pretty full of seventh chords. I was also thinking of "Paperback Writer," which is really just one chord, and I'd thought, "I'd like to write a song that's more or less one chord." So, I'm strumming in F, and had this phrase "generals and majors" in my head, along with this marching-type rhythm -- an unlikely combination, really, but I didn't question things as I later did. If they go, then go with it. I didn't worry to much about "why." It just is, you know? I didn't realize then that this is just what I should be doing!

TB: When you're young like that, too, you don't feel that you have to think. It's enough to do, you know? I think that's perhaps a burden of age -- as you get more experienced, you start thinking more about motives.

CM: I think you think that it should take longer! "It should take longer than two minutes to write a song! It can't be worth anything if it only takes that long." But I know now that this way of thinking is totally wrong. If it takes that amount of time, it's probably worth more!

TB: Yeah, a little bit purer.

CM: Exactly. Once you start thinking about changing it, then it's worth nothing. I didn't say "why" then -- I was just happy to go with things. Then I did start asking why, a few years later -- and now I think I've come out the other side. I can see now that I was overdoing it, exactly what I shouldn't be doing.

TB: So, you brought the song up with the band, I presume, and it was a rehearsal/arranging-type of situation?

CM: Yeah, kind of just strumming me acoustic, and seeing what they thought. Pretty much had all the chords. But it did lack something. We have a tape of us rehearsing it in a Swindon rehearsal hall [released on Coat of Many Cupboards], and it's got me playing bass, and I think the guys are just strumming on the F chord. It didn't sound too interesting -- it needed something that was going to go through those chords. I think Dave got on playing with the chords, but there was some noodling to be had, you know? [laughs] Somebody had to come up with something, and Andy came up with that great chiming guitar part that goes through everything. I think Dave's got a little something going as well, in a kind of lower register, something syncopated.

TB: And then Terry's got his "pea soup" drumming, of course...

CM: Yeah, well, I think at the time everyone was just nutty on Disco. I still like Disco, though I haven't listened to any records in a long time. I think Blondie's "Heart of Glass" had influenced some people.

TB: I think the main reason Disco was successful was that it had this very primal beat, easy to dance to -- but then Terry takes it to the next level and makes it vicious!

CM: Yeah! It's vicious Disco! [laughs] I don't think he could play anything that had a very light touch -- every time he touched the snare it exploded, you know? It's the John Bonham school of drumming, I think. That was his style, you know. It was great live, actually -- it really came over live, because of the power. But when it came time to do things with a lighter touch, it was different -- he didn't have as much of a feel for that.

But Black Sea was his album, drumming-wise. I think he really felt comfortable with those songs.

TB: And the two of you, especially on this song, lock together so tightly.

CM: It was almost first take, I think. I don't remember doing it too many times -- it was just a matter of, "Well, let's get in there and do it." It really gelled right away, and we said, "That's a bloody great backing track -- we can really build on this now." I think it was me, Dave and Terry that put the backing track down, and Andy put his part ..wards, as an overdub. I think the chiming guitar needed a special sound -- kind of a chorus-y, flange-y kind of sound, and it was easier to do that separately as an overdub after we'd got the backing track down.

Again, I realize now that the first takes are usually the best ones.

TB: Yeah, because there's a spontaneity and a feeling...

CM: I always say that if you track with me, and we're having a run-through while the engineer is getting his sound -- [laughs] that's always the one that you've got to keep!

TB: [laughing] If you can, yeah! If the engineer doesn't mess up!

CM: Exactly! I don't like doing those run-throughs, because you might get something you want to keep, and they might fuck it up. I'd rather it be a case of, "Let's just play a little piece, and let him get a sound. That way, we can save ourselves for that first couple of takes, and don't throw them away."

TB: Were [producer] Steve Lillywhite and [engineer] Hugh Padgham amenable to that? Because I remember Andy telling me, with Mutt Lange, you guys played "This Is Pop" something like 30 or 40 times.

CM: Mutt Lange was the other school, yeah. If you didn't get it first time, he'd go [imitates Lang], "We'll play it until you do get it." But it's kind of like Burt Bacharach, when he came to London to do "Alfie" with Cilla Black at Abbey Road. He and George Martin were trying to decide which take to use, and I think they got it -- or George Martin thought they had it -- on the second take, but Burt Bacharach said, "No, no, she can do it better than that." And I think it was take 23 that they decided on! [chuckles]

Of course, I think you can do it so many times, that you come round the other side. You get really, really rotten for so many times, but then you come out the other side and it becomes spontaneous again.

TB: Is there anything else in particular you remember about the recording of this? I know, for example, during the chorus, there's that great stomping effect -- I was wondering how you guys got that.

CM: We were very enamored with the New York Dolls' "Jet Boy." And on that, they used stack heels on a parquet floor -- that kind of school of thuggery, you know. [chuckles] So we stomped and yelled in the Stone Room at the Townhouse, and got that kind of "Oi, oi, oi, oi!" sound.

The whistle was also quite important, I think. None of us could whistle in the key of the song, and make it sound good.

TB: Yeah, and it's hard to whistle loud enough to really cut through a Rock and Roll song.

CM: Indeed, yeah. We had problems with the humming part of the song as well. We had to get somebody from the kitchen, a guy called Step, I think. The cook from the kitchen, and my, could he hum! [laughs] That part was all him.

I think the whistling is partly the Korg synthesizer. I think it's mixed in with somebody whistling.

TB: And when you did the song live, it was just Dave playing keyboard, right? Did anyone even attempt to whistle the part live?

CM: I don't think we could whistle loud enough to cut through the row, you know? So, yeah, that part was Dave.

TB: And I think even the humming part was keyboard when you did that live, correct?

CM: That was the Korg, yeah.

TB: Who came up with the ideas to add whistling or humming to the song?

CM: I suggested the whistling.

TB: Was that something that happened in the studio, or did you know from the beginning that you'd want something like that in there?

CM: I think I knew I wanted to add that melody line, maybe as a vocal part, but then I thought, "Wouldn't that be good if it could be whistled?" I knew that I couldn't whistle it, and it was kind of a search for someone who could whistle it in that key. So we used a bit of trickery, because it was generally acknowledged that it would be a good idea to get the whistle to happen, so I think everybody tried, to see who had the best whistle, but none of us could really cut the mustard. Probably Andy did better than most -- he can whistle quite well. But the key was killing everybody, so I think we did it partly on a keyboard, and then mixed in Andy's whistling.

TB: How much arranging work was done in the studio as opposed to in rehearsal? I'm also wondering how much input the producer had, because, depending on the producer, that is the type of thing that they can help a band with. But I know you guys have had varying levels of that over the years...

CM: Lillywhite was pretty good. I don't think he came up with too many ideas, but he knew when we had a rotten one. [laughs] Or, it was kind of, "That's good, Colin, but you need to refine it more," or "You need to do this." He didn't come up with many ideas, but he recognized when a good idea came out and needed to be refined.

He's a kind of vibe-y guy -- he would help the record, do what was important for the spirit of the record. And from that perspective, he did a pretty good job. I don't think he's a musician, though his brother is a drummer. He was a good producer in his own way -- his attributes were right on for what we needed, I think. Of course, by that time, I don't think he was doing a lot of engineering -- he had Hugh Padgham in the engineering chair, and Hugh did rather well for himself! [laughs] I think we were surprised when we couldn't get him later for less than $10,000 a track! [laughs] "Oh, remember us?" A good team, though.

TB: [laughs] Yeah, that was for Nonsuch, wasn't it?

CM: We were going to use the pair of them on Nonsuch -- we were going to get the old team together. But Lillywhite was having a few marital problems at the time with Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty wanted him to come on holiday with her, and I think he'd already arranged to work with us. In the end, he had to blow us out.

TB: And then Hugh was so expensive, that you ended up with Gus Dudgeon instead, I guess?

CM: [laughs] Cut-price Gus! Yeah, Gus was one of these characters where we'd seen his name on a lot of famous records, and so we thought he might have the right credentials for us, you know? He probably liked the old school, as it were, more than we did.

TB: Back to "General and Majors" -- as you were saying, this was a favorite song of yours to do live...

CM: It seemed to go down a storm live. It's good to play, and everyone enjoyed doing their parts.

TB: Did you end sets with this?

CM: Yes. For a good while. We used to chop and change -- I even remember it in the beginning of a set. I'm not sure when, exactly. But certainly, for a good part of our live career, it was at the end.

TB: You paired it up with "Living Through Another Cuba," right?

CM: Yes, we started with "Cuba" and then ended with "Generals and Majors." Then we thought "Nigel" could be the encore one.

TB: I know there's a video to this -- Richard Branson was in it, wasn't he?

CM: I felt a real bit of a shit at the time, because I think they'd agreed that we were going to do "Towers of London" as the single. We might have even done a video for it, thinking that it was going to be the first single. In fact, I'm almost sure that was the way it was -- we'd done the video for "Towers of London," then there was a change of heart. They decided they wanted "Generals and Majors" as the first single, and that "Towers of London" would be the second single, even though we'd already made the video for it, and we couldn't afford to do one for "Generals and Majors"!

So, we didn't have a video, "Generals and Majors" was coming out, we were going to Australia, so how the fuck were we going to promote it? We needed a video, so we could get on "Top of the Pops" and stuff. It just wasn't very well thought-out, you know. Maybe they should have carried on and released "Towers of London" -- at least we had a fairly decent video we could give to the BBC while we were in Australia, but those were the kind of managerial bollocks we had to deal with at the time -- that we were going to Australia on the eve of releasing a single off the record! Not very good timing.

So, just before we were going to head off on some sort of major tour, they had what's known as the annual party at the Manor, which is Richard Branson's recording studio in the country. Huge kind of manor house, where we've done several records. On that particular day, they were doing a documentary about the Manor, and the party that was taking place. So, there we were, doing a fake recording of "Towers of London" at the Manor, and being filmed as part of the documentary. After they'd done that, we thought, "Well, hang on a minute, we've got 'Generals and Majors' coming out -- we've got a film crew here -- I've got an idea! Let's get the film crew to make a cut-price video!" [laughs] So that's what happened.

So, when you see the bouncy castle at the end of the video -- that's because it was there for the party, and we just cleared off the kids using it, and said "We're shooting a video here -- go play on the swings."[laughs] We were kind of desperate, I think.

TB: [laughing] Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

CM: Absolutely! Necessity knows no bounds. So we just made a cut-price video, since we were desperate and going out of the country the next day. We had nothing to promote the record, and were going to be away for weeks, and knew it was going to die unless we did something.

Quite bizarre, really. I think one or two of those geezers who were dressed as generals were part of the film crew! Along with [Virgin Records'] Simon Draper and, of course, Richard Branson. But ludicrous, really. A lot of the band acting, and when you get the band acting, it's not good, is it! [laughs]

TB: Well, there is a certain "Hard Day's Night" vibe to the video -- you know, the silly, more surreal bits.

CM: Yeah, I hope it comes over that way. It's always difficult to know how it's coming over. Hoping it's seen as a bit of fun -- [laughs] how could they see it as anything else? But the sentiment of the song -- of having a "lovely war" -- is a bit more serious, of course.

5:30 AM

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