XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Sir John Johns discusses "25 O'Clock"

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, "25 O'Clock," is from the 1985 EP of the same name by the Dukes of Stratosphear.

In case you hadn't heard, the band has renegotiated a deal with Virgin, and as a result got ownership of several of their albums, including the Dukes catalog. Andy, Colin and Dave have been hard at work remastering the original songs, mastering and adding demos that weren't available before, writing liner notes, creating beautiful packaging, etc., and now they can be yours (the albums, that is, not the band). You can buy either 25 O'Clock or Psonic Psunspot pseparately for £9.55 (£10.98 including VAT, which doesn't apply to those living outside England's green and pleasant borders) or save some money by buying them together for £17.38 (£19.98 including VAT) -- plus, with your order of both, you get a pstunning pset of psix psychedelic button badges free! (You can get the buttons these days!)

To get yours today, just visit the APE Web site, and you'll soon be feeling groovy.

Before we start the interview, we should explain that we can't call anyone out for winning the "guess the song" contest, because we didn't give a hint this time! So, here 'tis -- check in two weeks from now, when we'll cover a song that Andy and Terry had discussed playing drums on together in a live situation.

Happy Fertility Festival, everyone!

TB: Let's speak about your first foray into Psychedelia.

AP: The only note I made about this song -- because I've been speaking so much about the Dukes lately -- is, "It's a quasi-Eastern, pretentious doom-laden teenage control song."

TB: [laughing] Okay, then. Thank you very much! Good night!

AP: [laughing] Shortest interview ever!

TB: Well, there's a lot of history out there about the Dukes -- for example, about how they first met in a tea shop in Twickenham in 1962 [Andy laughs] -- but if you could give a brief overview for the people reading the MySpace blog who might not know so much about how the whole Dukes of Stratosphear project came about, that'd be a good place to start.

AP: In the later '70s, I found myself longing to be doing the music that I loved as a kid of 13 or 14. I'd be listening to the radio then, and there'd be stuff like "See Emily Play," or "Strawberry Fields Forever," "My White Bicycle" -- you know, all these great psychedelic singles, and I thought, "This is wonderful! When I grow up, I'll be in a group, and we'll make music like this!" Of course, as a kid, I had no grasp that this was just the whim of fashion, and that this music was going to last only a year or so, and then it would be gone!

But it affected me so profoundly that when I was in a position to be in a group and making records, I thought I should say thank you to the people who made those records, and to say thank you to them by sounding just like them.

TB: Sure. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. So, you contacted Dave early on...

AP: In 1978, I invited Dave Gregory around with a whole bunch of other people on a playback at my flat for the just-finished Go 2 album. After the beers had gone down and all the people had gone home but Dave, I was chatting to him, and I said, "Look, do you fancy making an album of songs that sound like they come from 1967?" He said, "Yeah, I'd love to, but when could we do this?"

We talked about it a lot, but he wasn't even in the band at the time, and really, to be honest, I didn't have any spare time at all. I was constantly touring, and it was all I could do get home long enough to get my underwear clean, and then it'd be back out on tour, or back in the studio, or back at rehearsals, or whatever.

TB: Why did you ask Dave to do this?

AP: Because I knew that he liked '60s music, and was such an aficionado of that kind of thing. I'm not going to use the word "genre"! I refuse.

TB: But you just did! Too late!

AP: [laughing] D'oh! Damn. No, I say "type" -- that type of music. Anyway, I knew that he was such a big fan of it that he would do a good job.

In 1984, while we were working on The Big Express album, during spare minutes I'd sneak off upstairs in Crescent Studios, in Bath, with my cassette machine and whisper these ideas for psychedelic songs into it. I was beginning not be able to contain the desire to do this. You can see it leaking out earlier -- you can see it leaking out on Mummer -- "Let's get a Mellotron! Let's put some backwards so-and-so on here."

TB: Yeah, sure. "Deliver Us from the Elements."

AP: Right. "Let's do phasing" -- all that. Even on English Settlement, during a drunken jam session one night, it was like, "Hey! Let's pretend we're a '60s band improvising some songs." So we were struggling, sort of feeling around in the dark, to be the proto-Dukes even then.

But by '84 I could contain it no longer, and was actually writing stuff that could be done in that style, the first one being "Your Gold Dress."

TB: Wait -- are you saying infamous The Drunken Sessions were the first appearance of the Dukes?

AP: Kind of, yeah. There's one called "Orange Dust," which was just made up on the spot. It took all of 10 seconds to make that up, and in fact I'm remixing it at the moment for inclusion on a Virgin expanded version of English Settlement, which is coming out in the summer.

But that's not the way to do it, because the songs that I loved weren't these kinds of sprawling jams -- they were quite well-arranged and organized little jewels, you know?

TB: Absolutely. So, if I remember correctly, what gave you the opportunity to do this project was that in the mid-80s you got an opportunity to produce someone else -- Mary somebody?

AP: I was put together by Virgin with a Canadian artist they'd just signed called Mary Margaret O'Hara. The couple of times I spoke to her, the alarm bells were going off, to be honest, and I should have listened to them. I was thinking, "This is not going to happen. This is not going to work between us.

The second time I ever spoke to her, she called me from a party from wherever she lived -- Montreal or Toronto, somewhere like that -- she was whispering, and said [imitates her], "I'm at a party. And I'm under a table! And I've been here for three days!!" You know, something just goes off in the back of your head that says, "This person is not the most stable individual."

I got to meet her in Virgin's offices. I spoke to her for about 10 minutes, sat on a sofa outside somebody's office, and she then decided that I was the one to produce her album. So, Rockfield Studios in Wales were booked, and she and her band came over. I got John Leckie to agree to engineer it, so I thought, "That'll be a good team. I'll produce it, I'll do the musical side of things, and John can do the engineering side of things, and it'll be great." But I was concerned by the apparent dent in her sanity. I knew she was exceedingly religious -- she was exceedingly Catholic, to the point of obsession.

It sounds like I'm having a real bad downer on her, but I've got to say all this to give you the background of the story.

I went down on a Thursday or Friday night, and John said he could join on the next Monday, so I said, "Okay, I'll go down and start rehearsals -- I'll start knocking the band into shape," you know? The band were there, but for some reason, I couldn't get them to agree to play. I said, "Look, we've got a whole album to work through here, could we please start rehearsing this stuff, and letting me in on what you're doing?"

Mary Margaret O'Hara wasn't around. She wouldn't come out of her room. She would just spend all day spinning on her spinning loom, or she made her manager get her a list of all the Catholic churches in the area, and she went off with him, visiting them all, instead of rehearsing.

Finally, on day two or three, I went to bed at midnight, thinking, "Fuck it, they're never going to rehearse! I don't know what we're going to do." I was asleep for about an hour when the phone rang. [mimics caller, speaking abruptly] "We want to rehearse." So I got up and got dressed, and went down to the studio. They were there, and she was there, and it was, "Oh, nice to see you again. Did you enjoy your churches, and what are you spinning," and all this kind of small talk.

They started to play through a few things, and I thought, "Jesus, this is really rough." Their sense of time was not good -- it was all over the show. So I said, "Look, I've brought a LinnDrum down with me. I'll hook it up, and we'll give you some headphones, and we'll put a click in them, because I want to get it more rhythmic." Then oh boy, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. It went really sour. The band looked at me like I was Satan himself, and Mary Margaret O'Hara was convinced that I was Satan himself for saying this, and that was it. They immediately halted the rehearsal.

The next morning, at breakfast, their manager pulled me to one side and said, "I want to have a talk with you." He took me out on the long walk, the driveway outside the studio, and said, "Mary doesn't want to work with you. She doesn't want you producing her album." I said, "Oh, is it because I asked them to rehearse with a click track, because of the timing?" He said, "Well, partly -- and she said you're giving off bad vibes." [laughs] I'm not sure how I was able to give off bad vibes for her, because she'd been in her room!

So, obviously, I hit some terrible raw nerve. Maybe they knew their timing was shit, maybe they knew they were really rough, and I hit some raw nerve by saying, "Look, you've got to rehearse this more in-time, I want a groove out of you people." I mean, I was trying to be nice about it, but basically I got sacked because my vibe wasn't right.

I said, "Well look, John's coming down tomorrow. He's a great engineer, you should start with him. He'll make you sound great. You play it how you want to play it, but work with John. He's wonderful."

And the manager said, [mimics manager talking haltingly] "Erm, no -- um, Mary's got wind that John is an Orange Person, right?" At the time, John was a follower of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- which he's not at the moment, or he's not since, but at the time he was -- and I said, "Yeah, John's an Orange Person," and he said, "Ah, okay, I thought so -- Mary refuses to be in the same studio as him." I said, "Why? He's a really nice person, he's a fantastic engineer." [mimics manager] "No, he's a member of a filthy lust cult, and she refuses to be in the same studio as him."

So, that was it, really. I was sacked because I tried to produce them, and he was sacked because he would have got his orange dick out and waved it all over the mixing desk and upset her Catholic sensibilities.

TB: [laughing] Now, by "orange," you mean he wore orange robes?

AP: He would wear normal clothes, but dyed orange. I said to him a while ago, "What was it all about?" He said, "Well, to be honest, I just used to like to go to the ranch -- where was the ranch? It was up north somewhere, on the west coast?

TB: In Oregon, I think.

AP: Something like that. He said, "I just used to like to go to the ranch for the free sex."

TB: [laughs] Who wouldn't?

AP: Exactly! So, anyway, we suddenly found ourselves with nothing on the books. I said to him, "Hey, do you fancy making a Psychedelic album?" He said, "Sure," and that was it. It took about one nanosecond for him to answer. I knew he'd be great for it, because of his credentials. And really, that was it! This was the chance we needed to go and be this '60s band that sounds like every '60s band I ever loved.

I had maybe three songs. John originally tried to get us into Edgar Broughton's studio, because I said it would be nice if we could use period gear. But then he went to see it, and he said, "No, it wouldn't be good enough." He then mentioned, "Well, there's this funny little Christian studio in Hereford, and they've got some great old gear in there, and they're not expensive" -- because the only way we could get Virgin to agree to finance the project was if they'd give us £5,000, which you couldn't really make an album for.

And, to be honest, I never had all the songs! I was really winging it. It was just pure intention. I think by the time we went in the studio, I had "Your Gold Dress," "Bike Ride to the Moon," "25 O'Clock" -- did I have any others? "My Love Explodes." I had four songs.

Actually, it was going to be a full-length album, but time was running out, basically. We did it very quickly -- we did all the recording in about five or six days, and did all the mixing in that much time, too. It was all just first takes. We didn't have the luxury to keep going over it. In fact, I think we spent as much time just rehearsing it and bashing it through in situ with the mic's on us, ready to be rolling at any second.

TB: Did Colin have "What in the World?" written already?

AP: I think he had it lying around as a song, yeah. Colin was the least interested in the Dukes. That's not quite right -- not "least interested," but it wasn't his experience. Dave had had very similar experiences to me -- you know, psychedelic British singles, and both being guitar players and liking that kind of thing, but Colin was more of a Heavy Metal kid. He was more into Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep and people like that. So he didn't really have much of a grasp on Psychedelia.

But by the time we got hold of the song he brought up for 25 O'Clock, and we'd added all these sound effects and tape loops and stuff over it, it blended in perfectly. It's like the great lost relative of "Only a Northern Song," you know?

TB: Yeah, very Beatlesque. So, let's talk about the song "25 O'Clock."

AP: Although the Dukes are primarily English Psychedelia -- big dollops of Pink Floyd, and The Move and The Beatles and Small Faces, and stuff like that -- there's also some American stuff that seeps in there, and I think "25 O'Clock" is the American-sounding one from that disc. It's people like The Electric Prunes -- you know, "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night." I loved the atmosphere on that track. I loved that quasi-Eastern, minor-scale thing.

It's very difficult to talk about the song, actually, because it's more of a sonic intention than a real song. It's taking the sand of Psychedelia and trying to make a castle out of it, but there's sort of no reason to do that, if you know what I mean.

TB: I see what you mean by the intention of it, but are you saying you're going more for a moment in time than an actual song?

AP: I'm going for a moment in time, and I'm going for a sort of feeling that -- well, the whole Dukes thing is a fancy dress ball, so it's like you're somehow putting history to rights. You're somehow being the grown-up version of you at 13, with the music you heard, which turned you on to adult novelty music -- which, to be truthful, Psychedelia was -- but you're rewriting history. You're correcting history by going back and bringing that 13-year-old kid forward, and saying, "Okay, I'm the 'older you' now, I can make all this happen. We've got a studio, I can play the guitar, I can write a song, let's do this."

So, that dreaming 13-year-old kid was in charge in my brain. He was the one coming up with this quasi-Eastern song. It's very difficult to pin down to it being a parody of one group, because it's not. It's more of a feeling from the time.

TB: I think that's actually part of the charm of 25 O'Clock -- it's one of the reasons I like it a bit more than Psonic Psunspot. I think 25 O'Clock is much more of a melange -- except for "Mole from the Ministry," which is pretty much a direct lift from Magical Mystery Tour -- but all the other songs have lots of different influences, and you can play "spot the bands" throughout each one. Do you know what I mean?

AP: Yeah. It's a real tapestry of influences. Well -- not influences as in subconscious influences, but there are quite heavy dollops of, "Yeah, now we're trying to sound like whatever."

But, in terms of how we've been talking about songs in all our previous interviews, this is very difficult to talk about. Because it's not me being "real," as such.

TB: I was going to ask you -- had you ever intended this as anything else but a Dukes song?

AP: No. In fact, it never existed before this overwhelming intention to do this project came up.

TB: Oh, so you did the demo after you'd decided you were going to do the project?

AP: Yeah. The only song that I'd written before we decided to do the Dukes was "Your Gold Dress." I whispered that into a cassette machine during the mixing of Big Express. I also had one called, "Martian Invasion, 1970."

TB: [laughs] Are we ever going to hear that?

AP: [sings, very solemnly and dramatically] "Martian invasion, 1970 -- bom bom bom -- what will become of the likes of you and me -- bom bom bom." [laughs] It was all about how the Martians are coming, and they're going to enslave us sometime in the far future -- 1970!

There was only a very poor quality mono demo, so if it were ever to see the light of day, I'd have to re-record it, I think. It's so crass. You've heard the best part of it. [laughs]

TB: Something to look forward to! So, when you knew you were going to do this project, you wrote "25 O'Clock"...

AP: I think we had something like five days while John was trying to get a studio together, and we were trying to get Virgin to agree to pay us some money to do it. I thought, "Oh Christ, I better write some songs, quick! So all of the demos that you'll hear on the 25 O'Clock expanded record -- and some of them are on Fuzzy Warbles as well -- they were all knocked up really quickly.

TB: And just as a way of giving the band a guide of what you were going for.

AP: Yeah -- really, to show them how the song would go, but knowing that most of the delight would be in the actual production value of it -- the phasing, and the reverse guitar, and the tape loops and all that. Stuff you couldn't rehearse.

TB: I wanted to ask about some of the differences between the demo and the studio version, but you've kind of explained the differences right there. For example, in the demo, there's backwards guitar liberally splattered all over the place, there's lots of organ, you repeat the initial lyrics -- you do things like that, that you decided not to do on the studio version.

AP: When we just started bashing it around as a band, it suddenly came to life. It was like, "Okay, we don't need to go back to the demo, because the demo is just the most primitive springboard." It suddenly had such a robustness in the studio that I wouldn't try to copy the demo, because there was not much there in the way of arrangement ideas. There just wasn't time to think about how to arrange the songs. It all happened so quickly -- the whole idea to do it, and then suddenly we're in a studio, and suddenly the red light's on, and it's, "Okay, let's go for it!" There was no time to sit and say, [preciously] "Should that be a minor ninth or an augmented ninth?" [chuckles]

TB: You said that you were looking for a studio that had vintage gear -- what about your instruments? Let's start with the keyboards.

AP: We already had a Mellotron, which we'd used on Mummer and Big Express. We managed, through a friend of friend, to get in touch with Verden Allen, the keyboard player for Mott the Hoople, who lived in Hereford, and he agreed to loan us his Hammond organ. He caught us taking the back off of it, to get access to the Leslie speaker. The organ was his baby -- we thought he'd loaned us this organ and then gone home, but he was hovering outside the studio looking in the door and shit...

TB: [laughing] While you tore it apart!

AP: John said, "Yeah, wouldn't it be great if we took the back off the Leslie cabinet and connected up a microphone so we could sing though it?" Verden caught us doing this, and he just fucking freaked out -- [mimic Hereford accent] "Roight! That's it! Oi'm taking my bloody organ, and you're not bloody havin' it, ya bastards!"

He and his rather aged dad came and picked it up in a van, and took it away. But when they went off to get the van, we just had time to quickly do the organ overdub for "What in the World?" [chuckles] So, we didn't end up having a Hammond for the entire session, but Dave had this Roland JXP keyboard, I think. We used that to build a little, cheap-sounding Farfisa-type organ with that.

TB: And that's pretty much what you used on "24 O'Clock"?

AP: Yep. It was better, actually, because we got that cheap sound.

TB: How about your guitars? Had Dave started his collection by then?

AP: Yeah. In fact, he talks in the liner notes about what guitars he brought to the studio -- he wrote some pretty exhaustive liner notes for the re-release of the album. But he'd have to tell you...

TB: Oh no no no, he's not going to tell me -- the people are going to buy the Dukes re-issues so they can get this information, right?

AP: [laughs] There you go! Dave wrote a lovely article called "Stratosgear" where he describes all the technical side of things. I didn't have any vintage gear -- I think I just brought my brand-new, cheap Fender Squire Telecaster. £150 worth of guitar. But it sounded fine. I knew the kind of tones I wanted, and I thought, "Well, Syd Barrett played a Telecaster, so I can get those sounds."

TB: I was going to say, it's an appropriate guitar for that time period.

AP: Yeah, it's just that it's a new one, and it's the cheap, kind of beginner model, which a lot of guitarists would sooner cut their own hands off than play, but I don't have any qualms about playing cheap guitars.

TB: Were there special amps that you guys used?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember much about the amp situation -- you'd really have to ask Dave. It was such a blur, it was such a fast thing, that I don't remember too much about it. We just seemed to be in there, and threw some microphones on the drum kit, and said, "Okay, Ian, it goes like this!"

We got Ian Gregory to play drums because we needed a drummer quickly, and the only one I could think of was Dave's brother! I knew he'd never made any recordings before -- he'd only played at an amateur level, but he was great! He was just right. It wouldn't be the Dukes with anyone else, I think.

John Leckie reminded me that Ian had this great thing about wanting to change the tuning of his drums before each song, so that the kit sounded slightly different each time. That helped, you know -- it helped the "disguise nature" of the quality of each track.

TB: Do you remember sitting down and giving him any guidance in particular for this song?

AP: We did for things like "My Love Explodes." I wanted him to drum like Charlie Watts -- "Drum like Charlie Watts doing a swing rhythm for '19th Nervous Breakdown'." Because the thing about Charlie Watts was, a lot of those Stones things, he's playing swing rhythm while they're playing straight. That's where you get the groove from. So I asked him to do that on "My Love Explodes," and also, from Psonic Psunspot, on "Little Lighthouse."

But I don't particularly remember for this. It was just a case of crashing through it a few times in rehearsals, so any guidance was probably like, "Give us more bash-bash-bash!" It was all grabbed very quickly, and sort of intuitively, I guess.

TB: What do you remember about the bass part? Colin's playing on this song is very distinctive, very punchy. But, as you say, he was more of a Metal kid. Did you sit down with him and say, "Look, this is the type of bass part that I'm looking for"?

AP: We all agreed to play simple, because in the music that we liked, there were no technical chops going on. I mean, the Beatles were pretty rough players. They just had enough to get through. So did Pink Floyd. None of the records that we liked from the late '60s were particularly technical records. The people who we liked were not great players, it has to be said.

TB: Do you remember if he played the part on this song with a pick or with his fingers? The sound is very distinctive, and obviously some of that has to do with the way you guys mixed it, but...

AP: I know that on a lot of those records -- especially the ones that had more of a dreamy, druggy feel -- the bass would be reverbed and echoed, so I think it's probably muted, and probably played with a pick. I think there's probably quite a lot of echo on it as well, so you get that slappy kind of sound.

As for that two-note pattern of the bass part, Prog was really born out of the ashes of Psychedelia. People were borrowing more and more from Classical music, so it was okay to play those kinds of bass lines. Before, if you strayed away from a Blues-based bass, people would have thought you were insane.

But I find I almost can't talk about the song. Isn't that weird? It's almost like trying to capture a dream of something. There's very little concrete about it in my head.

TB: But do you feel that you did capture it? You realized your intent?

AP: Yeah. When we did this, there were no brakes on ourselves about being stupid. There was no shame. "Yeah, let's put loads of recordings of clocks on the front. That's really corny, and they would have done it in 1967. Let's do that."

TB: It's kind of like how actors can be more free when they're in a part, because they're not being themselves.

AP: Exactly! But how many musicians are like that? None. We were even playing badly on purpose in some cases. I remember saying to Dave -- because Dave plays the organ solo and the guitar solo...

TB: Does he? I assumed it was you on guitar, since he was playing keyboard.

AP: No, they're both Dave. If you listen, I'm playing the little rhythm guitar underneath. Dave is playing the organ solo, and the fuzz guitar, and he's doing all the feeding-back guitar as well. I'll tell you, Dave was born a Duke.

TB: [laughs] And yet you made him a Lord!

AP: He made himself a Lord! He picked his own name.

TB: Did you guys all do that?

AP: I picked Colin's, because [laughing] I think he was not as into it as we were, so I thought, "Okay, I'll find one for him."

TB: And that went back to when he used to have long hair, right?

AP: Yeah, because everyone used to call him "Curtains."

So I said to Dave, "When you play this lead, can you not play too well? Can you play kind of stumbling and not very fluid, because the players that we liked at the time were not that great." So, it was a case of, we were acting the role through the playing. You hit the nail on the head there -- it's like being an actor. We were acting at being other musicians in another time.

TB: Anything you remember about singing the song?

AP: I'm shamelessly being over-melodramatic with the vocal and the melody. There's also an octave vocal on it -- I think I'm doing that.

You know, there is a pomp to it. It's a kind of teenage pomp -- [melodramatic voice] "I'll control you! How dare you run away from me? I'll make you mine, you wait and see!" It's like a real petulant teenage kid, you know?

TB: Yeah -- "Every move you make, every breath you take"...

AP: [laughs] Doo-doo-doo-doo, dah-dah-dah-dah!

TB: Let's talk about the end -- there's that Bolero-esque rhythm...

AP: [mimics ending] Time! And then of course, you've got to have the scraping of the open piano strings -- you put the loud pedal down on a piano, and it takes the dampers off all the strings, then you just rub a coin up and down the strings. That's very much the thing they would have had on The Avengers when one of them would get drugged and the corridor would start spinning and going at weird angles. So, we had to have it, because that was a corny way of suggesting the drugs kicking in.

TB: What memories do you have of the mixing and the after-effects or processing that you did?

AP: There were some wacky little things -- like, I remember saying to John, "Can we do something with the panning?" He had a great suggestion -- when it goes into the solo sections, he changed all the pan pots to the opposite direction. So when it goes in and out of the solo section, everything suddenly pans completely opposite to where it was prior in the song.

TB: Every single instrument?

AP: Exactly. Listen on headphones, and you can hear them all swap around at that point. After the solos we stopped, changed, swapped them all back again, made the edit, and so it cuts back to the original panning positions. It really flosses your head out! It's like having big purple rope going through your ears and flossing your brain through, you know?

As we were mixing this, everyone was working the desk. Everyone was working pan controls and the various effects -- "Great, get that reverb now" -- you know. That's what it was like before automation. We used to have to rehearse what we'd do during the mix, just like we had to rehearse what we'd play on the instruments.

1:08 PM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.