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Monday, May 11, 2009


Colin discusses 'Life Begins at the Hop'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Colin Moulding about the songs we feature on MySpace. This week's song, "Life Begins at the Hop," was released first as a single in the UK and included as the first track on the American release of 1979's Drums and Wires.

Greg wins the "guess the next interview" contest with his shotgun-style approach to guessing. Whatever works, eh? We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song that often gets mentioned in the "misheard lyrics" category.

TB: Let's talk about "Life Begins at the Hop." I remember that when I first heard it, thinking that you guys were almost doing an homage of sorts to the 1950s.

CM: Yeah, a lot of people have thought that. The Danny and the Juniors thing.

TB: For me, it was not just about the fact that it was "at the hop," but there was a kind of late '50s/early '60s attitude about it. Did you intend to do that?

CM: No. At this time, I really didn't have much of a clue about how to arrange a song. I just went along to rehearsals with my acoustic guitar, and the melodies that I had, and the words, and I really didn't know how it was going to sound. A lot of the things I did around that time just sort of grew into what they eventually became.

There was no specific plan. I couldn't arrange guitars, you know. That is subsequently something I learned how to do, but then I didn't really have much of a clue as to how it was going to turn out.

TB: You just wanted to get the chords down.

CM: If I could find somebody to play the chords! [laughs] But Andy would never play the chords. He likes to fiddle over the top of them -- or find a line that goes through all the chords.

TB: Yeah, "the noodley bits," you've said before.

CM: The noodley bits, yeah. Therefore, I had to beg Dave to play the chords, you know.

TB: So, is that Andy playing that persistent guitar line through the song?

CM: Actually, come to think, of it, roles were reversed!

TB: A-ha! [laughs]

CM: [laughing] This is the exception, folks. I'm just remembering it now. I think Andy played the chords on this one, yes.

What it was, was that Dave came up with this kind of Motown/Stax riff that seemed to go well through all the chords -- he knew that, if he didn't find a riff, he'd have to play the chords! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] So, it was self-defense!

CM: Exactly. Once he'd found that, then he was on much safer ground, and the seat would be vacant to play the chords, you know. And that could only fall to one person, were we to do it live. So, Andy played the chords, but probably twisted them in his own way.

TB: Exactly -- he's doing a lot of cutting and very jagged, angular stuff.

CM: The cutting and the slicing, yes.

TB: While you and Terry are really driving things forward.

CM: Indeed. We're powering it forward.

TB: The thing that strikes me about this drum part is Terry doing eighth notes on the kick drum, which is kind of unusual. He had a single bass drum, correct?

CM: Yeah, that's right.

TB: The other thing that strikes me about his part is that the hi-hat "choke" is very prominent -- he uses that as an accent throughout a lot of the song.

CM: That's right, yes. He was always very keen on those kind of hi-hat slices. I remember we always used to marvel when Queen used to say, "Now I'm here" [mimics double cymbal choke that comes after that line] -- [laughs] we were always very impressed with the tightness of the bass player and the drummer in Queen. I think a lot of those accents we did came from them, as well as from John Bonham.

TB: Andy has talked a lot about how your and Terry used to practice doing those syncopated stops -- saying that, even during rehearsals, Terry would yell, "Moulding!", you'd turn around, and he'd do a cymbal choke, and you'd be expected to keep up. And that you'd do the same thing with Terry -- you were always kind of egging each other on that way. Is that how you remember it?

CM: Yeah, there's a bit of truth in that, actually. I think we'd almost become like one -- it's surprising when you get to know the timing of the other person, when you've been in a group for so long -- when you've played live in a lot of situations, and are really tight. You almost can anticipate what they're going to go for next.

TB: And you guys had been playing together for a while by that time.

CM: That's why it's a pretty good idea to play together in the studio, and have a go at a take together, you know. I think you sometimes fall into this thing in the studio whereby you think, "Let's get everything separate on there, and we'll be able to isolate everything, and not get any spillage on any tracks, and everything will be as clean as a whistle." In the early '80s especially we got into that, and I'm not sure whether that was good thing, you know?

TB: Yeah, it tends to suck some of the life out of it.

CM: Indeed. As does doing things to a click track. "If we get the timing of the click right, then there's no worry about the timing."

TB: When Terry was in the band, you never worked with a click, did you?

CM: He never liked drumming to a click. Now, drummers do it as second-nature. But at that time, there were a lot of drummers who didn't like to do that kind of thing, and Terry was one of them.

We had to get it right, of course. If the thing speeded up and slowed down a bit, we thought that was a bad thing -- we didn't know that that's all part of it, the living and breathing of it. But, you know, musicians can get fanatical about things, and disappear up each others' asses, and all that.

TB: [laughing]Well, it is a scary thing when it's going down on tape, and it's going to be there forever, right?

CM: Yes indeed, but in those days we used to do a few takes of stuff. I remember doing loads of takes on "Towers of London," for example -- loads! Twenty takes. On Go 2, god knows how many reels of tape we used! Must have been 20 or 30, and at £50 a pop, that adds up! If you were doing that today, who knows how much it'd cost.

But there was a certain excitement about putting it down live, though as you say, there was fear there as well. [chuckles]

TB: The fear keeps you sharp, right?

CM: Yes, in a way, it does. You certainly don't become complacent when the finger can be pointed at you! [laughs] But, you know, if you goofed up, provided there was clear separation from the other instruments, you could go back and do your stuff again. Drummers have more trouble doing that, of course, so you're doing those initial takes principally to get his part down, and if you can nail your guitar parts as well in the process, that's all well and good.

One thing Terry used to have a problem with was when "Life Begins at the Hop" came in. It was usually me or Andy who counted the song in -- 1, 2, 3, 4 and off you go -- and the snare drum is on the on-beat, while the bass drum is on the off-beat. For some reason -- maybe it was because he didn't hear the count properly -- on some nights when we'd play the song live, he'd get on the other end of the stick! [laughs] We'd be playing the first part of the song ass-about-face, you know?

TB: Sure -- and then you'd all have to turn it around to match him, right?

CM: Yeah, providing he didn't change at the same time that we did! [laughs] Then the nightmare's extended. It always seemed to be a bit of a problem. We used to say to him, "Think Motown!" But I don't know, there was something in his head that couldn't always get around that.

TB: I think I remember reading that in the liner notes to Transistor Blast," where one of you guys mentioned that on that particular night, Terry came in correctly.

CM: Yeah, that's right. I remember it. [chuckles] You could see the fear in his eyes when I used to count it in, you know? The thought that he was going to come in wrong! You would just have to over-emphasize where the one was, and where that snare drum should be.

But I suppose we all these things that challenge us, that we're not sure about.

TB: You guys did a lot of different versions of this, and this was your first single, right?

CM: As a writer, yes, it was my first single.

TB: Were you thinking, as you were coming up with this, that "Hey, I've really got something here" or were you just pleased to find out that other people liked it and felt it should be released as a single?

CM: I think I was just [chuckles] pleased that anybody was taking interest in my songs! When Virgin said, "This is the single," I thought, "Blimey. This is a first!" I think Andy had to accept the view of the Neuremburg jury, you know? [laughs] They had spoken, and wanted "Life Begins at the Hop" as a single. And then, several months, when they wanted "Making Plans for Nigel" as the single, I thought, "Bloody hell."

TB: So, you guys recorded this before Drums and Wires...

CM: Yes, before the session. It was a few months before, I think. We demo'd it at the Swindon Town Hall, on an old Akai sound-on-sound kind of thing. It was very fizzy. I think our roadie [Steve Warren] recorded it for us. We sent the demos to Virgin.

Demos were pretty hard to come by then -- you just went into rehearsal and strummed the chords. There were no four-track demo'ing machines -- no Portastudio. Instead, it was, "It goes like this, fellows!"

On that particular occasion, early part of '79, we demo'd quite a few things at Swindon Town Hall, where they had a little setup in the basement. Our ex-roadie recorded us, and we sent the cassettes up to Virgin, and they were raving at these songs. They particularly wanted "Life Begins at the Hop" as the first single.

So yeah, I was quite thrilled. I thought I'd taken my writing in more of a commercial sphere.

TB: Do you think that having two guitar players in the band made a difference to your writing?

CM: We'd been put in the quirky camp, and I wasn't really liking that at all. There was all sorts of talk about us working with Eno, because we were eggheads like him or something. Now, I don't have anything against Eno -- I think he's a fine musician and very fine producer -- but I didn't know whether he was right for us at the time. I wanted to dispel this view that we were a quirky band, and that was all we could do -- that we were never going to be a singles band, and all the rest of it. I thought it was in me to take a lead in this area, and they started to like a lot of what I did, which kind of surprised me. But it wasn't a conscious decision -- I just felt it. That was the writing style for me at the time.

I think after that, the quirky thing was kind of dispelled. We got into Black Sea, and I think Andy's writing changed quite a bit, too.

TB: Yeah, I think that, when Barry was in the band, it was almost "The Battle of Dissonance between Andy and Barry." Certainly, once Dave joined the band, you still did some dissonant music, but with the more traditional lineup of two guitars, bass, drums, things had changed a little bit.

CM: I don't think there was too much of a foil for Andy when Barry was in the band, because he used to just sit on his organ, and see what came out. There was quite a bit of dissonance, I'll tell you! [laughs] Andy used to like the real kind of angular, spiky, upward-thrusting guitar, so there was no kind of foil for that -- if one is angular, the other has to kind of straighten him out, you know? It was just going too far the other way, I felt. So when Dave came in, and was a much straighter player, it seemed to make more sense, I think.

TB: Tell me about the lyrics a little bit on this -- it's a little slice of life. You're talking about the dances that you used to go to, I assume, and you're celebrating that?

CM: Yeah, the church on the corner is actually St. Peter's Church, Penhill, which is the council estate where Andy and I grew up. The Saturday night hop was the regular thing at the church. Everybody used to go there.

Someone asked me, "What's 'the church on the corner' then, Colin? Is it St. Peter's?" And I thought, "Blimey! You're right!" Before you know what you've said, it's come out. It's a subconscious thing. I like it when things spring like that, and you don't know why. It's healthy, because you know that things coming from your subconscious are going to mean a lot more to people than things coming from your conscious.

But the church was somewhere to go to put on your sports jacket, and skulk in the shadows and look at some of the gorgeous women who were dancing on the floor, you know, to Freda Payne's "Band of Gold," or something. Motown records.

TB: Was it DJs or live music?

CM: A bit of both. They had this band there called Oozy ...

TB: Like the gun?

CM: I don't know why they called themselves that -- maybe they oozed something -- but it was spelled o-o-z-y.

We used to be impressed with them, because they had a tape recorder at the back of the hall, recording themselves. I used to think, "That's revolutionary! [laughs] To actually record yourself playing live -- they're in a different league, these guys." They had three Futurama guitars, which at the time looked very much like Fender Stratocasters, with a kind of orangey-red finish, in a Shadows kind of way.

They didn't have a bass player -- I remember they used to play all the bass lines on the lower two strings of the guitar. They had a liquid-wheel show on the ceiling -- that kind of thing. I just was quite impressed with the fact that they were recording themselves, that they had a light show, and just that they were doing it. You could get girls that way.

TB: Is that when you came to the realization that you could get girls that way, too?

CM: Well, yeah -- that's why you get into the band in a first place! If you're not having a lot of luck with the opposite sex, then get yourself a guitar. Even if you don't play, just walk it around! [laughs] You're going to get some interest somewhere down the line.

But I remember the hop being quite important. Just a spotty youth, 15 or something -- maybe younger -- but it a chance to get on your sports jacket and go look at the girls.

TB: Yeah. "Too young for the bars..."

CM: Yeah! When you think about girls of that age, during the '60s and '70s, they all seem a lot sexier when you look back now. Those kinds of rippy jumpers and hot pants, short shirts...

TB: And the boots!

CM: And the boots, yeah. My wife had a suede skirt that had little poppers on it. You could just kind of rip the poppers, and the whole thing would come off! [laughs]

TB: [laughing very hard] Fantastic.

CM: Fantastic, yeah. I dunno, maybe I'm looking at it through rose-colored glasses, but when you see pictures of Mark Bolan in '71, you know, the girls that are dancing in the audience on "Top of the Pops," you think, "Oh my god!" This was sensational. And they filmed real people dancing, then. They didn't have professionals, which was a real big letdown, when they started that. Nothing more sexy than realism -- that's why you get a lot of people on the Internet doing these home-porn things. It's so much more stimulating that regular porn!

TB: [laughing] Well, speaking of videos, you guys did a video for this song, correct?

CM: We did. Because it was planned out that "Life Begins at the Hop" would be the first single, and "Making Plans for Nigel" would be the second single, we got together with an Australian videomaker called Russell Mulcahy, I think. He was making videos for a lot of Pop bands at the time. He came down to Swindon, and we were rehearsing in a barn on the outskirts of town at the time -- where West Swindon is now, I think.

We talked about what we were going to do, and we did the video to Nigel first, I think. And then we had about 20 minutes left to do something for "Life Begins at the Hop," which is kind of insane, because, you know, "Hop" was going to be the first single, and "Nigel" was the second. We'd had a couple of appearances at "Top of the Pops" with "Life Begins at the Hop" -- no, actually only one appearance, and the song went down in the charts after that! [laughs] I don't know what happened there. I think it was the first time we appeared on the show, and we went down in the charts! That's got to be a first, I think.

But anyway, on that particular day, we had about 20 minutes to do a video for "Hop." He said, "Well, you'll just have to all get in front of the camera, and play and sing, and we'll record you kind of dancing around. I'll move the camera around erratically, and I'm sure you'll create a sense of excitement." So we got some dancers up there whose boobs were going to fall out of their tube tops, and we were all kind of jumping and jiving around to this tune. We did several takes of that, and he just cut it together. There wasn't too much of a concept, really -- there wasn't time for a concept!

TB: It looks like you had some props -- there's a pink Cadillac cut-out, and you had cardboard instruments...

CM: When you do videos, especially around that time, the videomaker's usually got some sort of concept, you know, unless you've got very, very firm views yourself and you stick to them. But very often the videomaker gets his concept aired more than you do yours, you know? We've had the army coming in on a few of ours! [laughs] People ask what the hell does it got to do with the song, and they're probably right, but really, is it a good thing to be literal with the lyrics? Probably not, so why don't you just film the band doing what they do, and then you won't be found out.

The trouble with our videos is that we've been asked to "act" too many times, or make expressions in front of the camera, which makes us look ridiculous, and looking back on it, we're embarrassed. But a lot of videos got made like that during those heady times. I suppose that if you're going to not include the band in it, you can do something interesting. But very often the record company are saying, "Well, we want the band in it, because we want the band to have an identity with the public. So we want the band in the video."

So you've got this whole mish-mash of the record company wanting the band in the video, the band not wanting to act, the producer wanting them to participate in his concept -- so usually some sort of horrible compromise happens. Personally, if I'm going to appear in it, I generally just like to be doing my thing. That's what people know me for, and there's no embarrassment in that. If I'm not going to be in it, and somebody's got a concept that they feel would express the song admirably, then I'm all ears. I think that's good. It's when you're in it and you're not doing your thing that you have problems.

TB: Going back to the music, we were talking earlier about who did which guitar part -- who played the solo?

CM: I think it was partly Andy and partly Dave -- perhaps Dave took the second part of the solo, and Andy the first. Am I right in saying that?

TB: Well it sounds like it's one player throughout, because it started out muted and then the soloist lets the notes ring out.

CM: Oh, right. That's Andy -- definitely Andy.

TB: It sounded to me like his style, but then when you said it was Dave going the melodic line running through the song, I thought it might have been him.

CM: No, that's Andy, now that I think of it.

TB: Let's talk about why this is on some version of the album, and not others.

CM: After we hadn't had the hit we thought we would have with it, it was included on the American release.

TB: Yeah, I remember it was the lead song on the album I bought. I first heard "Nigel" as an import single.

CM: Indeed. And the running order of the American version was different as well. Was "Day In, Day Out" taken off?

TB: Yeah, I think so. It was not on the American version.

CM: Yeah. And see, I always liked that song.

TB: Yeah, I remember hearing that for the first time when I bought an import version of Drums and Wires, and thinking, "Wow, another Colin song I didn't know about."

CM: When "Hop" started to get some attention on American radio, it was deemed that we should re-record it with another producer. You remember that we did the original with Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham. There was this guy at the time, this Australian record producer, called Cameron Allen. Virgin had a lot of "flavors of the moment" -- "Oh, you should work with him, because he's really doing good stuff." He was their flavor of the moment -- Simon Draper, the A&R guy at Virgin then, wanted Cameron to do a lot of their stuff.

So, it was deemed that we would record the "American version" of "Life Begins at the Hop." I think we went into a studio in North London to re-record it. I think it was Wessex Studios, where the Pistols had done "Anarchy in the UK." Great recording area -- it was a converted church. I think AIR took it over later on, but at the time I think it was privately owned.

Anyway, on that version of the single, we were going to put hand claps on at the end, and who should be working in the other studio at Wessex but Sting. He was producing some other solo guy's effort. He was there with his first wife, and we asked if they would mind coming over and helping with the hand claps.

The thing was, as we were recording it, none of us were really liking what was going down. There was a sense of, "How is this better than what we've already got?" The other version had some sort of spark to it, and a sort of vigor about it. There was no attempt at perfection -- it was just sort of an unruly band, but it seemed to fit.

TB: So this guy didn't have his own vision for the song, kind of like when you re-did "This is Pop" with Mutt Lange?

CM: Yeah, that's right. That was a much better version than the album version. But no, I don't think Cameron Allen -- I don't think any of us -- understood where he was going with it, whether we could do anything different with it, and it just seemed a very tame version of what we'd already done.

TB: And in the meantime, you'd spent your money on a version that didn't succeed on the level that you'd wanted it to!

CM: Indeed, yeah. So said the American market, which didn't like it. I think when the record company heard it, they just kind of dropped the idea. It just wasn't working. So it didn't ever get released.

TB: It is on Coat of Many Cupboards, though.

CM: Yeah, I think it is. So, give it a listen, and you'll hear Sting clapping on it. Those are his hands. [laughs] And those of his first wife, Frances Tomelty.

TB: Had you guys toured with them by this point?

CM: Not by then, no.

TB: Was this the first time you met him?

CM: Yes, it was. We're talking probably October of '79, and I think we got to tour with The Police in the summer of 1980. We might have played one or two shows before that, I'm not sure. But yes, that was the first time we met him. It was just him and his wife there -- the other two guys weren't there.

It was a funny old time -- when we released "Life Begins at the Hop," somebody at the record company had the a crazy idea to take out the last line of each verse, so we got into the chorus a bit quicker.

TB: [laughing in disbelief at the idiocy of this] Seriously?

CM: Yeah. There is a version with just three lines in each verse.

TB: But then each verse doesn't resolve at all!

CM: Yeah, I know! It did sound a bit weird. I think some radio plugger said that was a great idea.

TB: Is that version around anywhere?

CM: Somewhere. I think some copies got printed up. Bizarre, but such was the desperateness for a hit 'round about that time. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love singles. It's a medium in the recording industry that I really love, and still do now. I had this thing that we should try to make all our stuff like it was a single.

I grew up listening to singles, then got into albums -- that high-brow thing where you think, "Albums are where it's at, man." But I secretly harbored a real liking for singles. It's like a ray of reflection for the album -- kind of like a racehorse that you offer up for the race. I liked the attention that they got. I think there was a kind of healthy competition between Andy and myself at that time as to who would get the single, you know?

TB: Sure. That's another benefit of being in a band -- that kind of healthy competition makes each one of you better.

CM: That's true. And there was a kind of desperateness around that time, for us to justify ourselves with Virgin -- that we would have a hit eventually. After them trying very hard for us to have a hit, when we did start to sell lots of records, it was quite a heady time. But some of the lengths that people went to, to get a hit -- [chuckles] they were flogging a dead horse. Making another version for America, for example. These things happened to a lot of bands I know.

TB: Yeah. It's a good demonstration that the so-called experts don't know any better than you do.

CM: That's quite right. If something is causing difficulty, it's not quite right, you know? And with this version of "Life Begins at the Hop," it was just not right, from the very beginning. We kind of went in for it because we thought, "Well, Virgin wants us to," and we wanted to keep in with them -- we didn't want to upset them. We wanted a hit as much as they did, but we didn't feel that this was really where we should be going. It was not right from the start.

Things just come out when they're right -- they just take on a life of their own. "Nigel" was the complete opposite -- we let it out of its cage, and it went "Pow!" Like letting a genie out of a bottle -- we didn't have to do anything! People lapped it up right from the word go, and you scratched your head and think, "Christ, if only I could bottle that." What was the magic ingredient? For years afterwards, you're still searching for it. But that's the beauty of Pop music -- you can't analyze it. It's an animal thing. If you get it right, it takes on a life of its own, and you have very little to do with its promotion. It promotes itself, almost, when it's right!

TB: And it gives you a reason to keep chasing it, because it is an unknown.

CM: Yes. People do chase it. You can't chase it -- people think, "Well, that one's a hit, so let's make something else exactly like that." But it never works out that way. What you're supposed to do is make something completely different, then it might work out that way.

1:06 AM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Colin Moulding. All Rights Reserved.