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Sunday, August 02, 2009


Colin discusses 'Ball and Chain'

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, "Ball and Chain," is from 1982's English Settlement.

We stumped you with this week's "guess the song" competition, but it's hardly a victory to be proud of, given that you only had a week to guess. We'll be back in two weeks with a special guest to talk about his memories of a month spent recording with the band.

TB: Let's talk about "Ball and Chain" -- you actually recorded a version of this as a single before you went into the studio with [producer] Hugh Padgham, correct?

CM: It did actually come out as a single, but it didn't come out as the first single. That was the plan, I think, initially, to record it as the first single, but the powers-that-be were drawn more to "Senses Working Overtime," and subsequently, that became the first single. But it was earmarked for a single -- I think it came out as the second single.

TB: The album version did, but then there was a version that you recorded earlier that didn't come out as a single. That's on Coat of Many Cupboards, correct? You recorded it in March of '81, with Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer.

CM: Ah, that's right. It's coming back to me now. They thought "Ball and Chain" was a contender, and said, "We should go straight into recording it as a single," using the Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer team, who at the time were having a lot of success on the Madness front.

They were getting hits for them, and so we tried it out. We tried it for a bit, until Clive Langer walked off the session! [laughs] With the cymbals still swinging.

TB: Yeah, I'd seen that story. What happened?

CM: As you know, there's never a shortage of ideas with the band, and I guess he thought, "Well, these guys have got enough ideas, they don't really need a producer." Clive Langer's job in the team was as kind of an overseer, in an executive producer position, while Alan Winstanley was more of a heads-down engineer chap. So, I suppose he thought, "Well, you really don't need my side of it, so I'm off!" [laughs] He left us with Alan Winstanley, and it wasn't a bad version.

TB: In the liner notes of Coat, you called it "the definitive recording of the song."

CM: I did?

TB: Yeah.

CM: Well, I was lying, really. [laughs] To tell you the truth, I haven't heard that version in many years. It would be interesting to actually make a comparison, I suppose, but it's really water under the bridge. One would think, because the album version came out, that we made a decision then and there that the album version was better.

But I wonder whether that was strictly true. I know Andy prefers the Winstanley version. I don't know -- I'll have to compare them, I suppose.

TB: The album version strikes me as much more muscular and in-your-face. Certainly the drums are stronger -- it's more of the Black Sea approach.

CM: Yeah, that was a brutal sound. Winstanley's version was a bit more gentle, though it's not exactly a gentle song, is it. Bringing on the old metalwork was probably a good idea. [chuckles]

TB: Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you if you'd set out to write an anthem, because that's the way the song strikes me -- that it's meant to be shouted out and sung by a crowd.

CM: Yeah -- it's definitely one for the old football terraces.

TB: What prompted you to write the song?

CM: I think it was probably the state at the time of where we were living. The whole Swindon area seemed to be under the hammer. Mrs. Thatcher had come to power a couple of years before, and [laughs ruefully] everything was kind of being battered to the ground. 3 million unemployed -- it was a difficult period, until this country got its North Sea oil revenue and began to come out the other side.

Swindon doesn't have much beautiful architecture, but a lot of the old buildings that it did have seemed to be coming under the hammer, with a lot of shite being put up in place of it. That was my biggest beef, I suppose. The photograph on the front of the sleeve of the single is actually little terrace in Swindon. I think it's about two or three houses standing on their own. Well, that had been a full terrace of houses once upon a time, and that's the way they get people out, isn't it -- just flatten everything around them, so they're living on a bomb site, and they're almost forced out.

TB: Where there any places in particular that were getting knocked down that were affecting you?

CM: There was quite an important building in the center of the town called the Baptist Tabernacle, a kind of a church, that had a wonderful classical fascia. They just took it down, and put a carpark in its place.

That was just typical -- you know, probably the best building in the town, and they plow it to the ground. There was a carpark there for three or four years because no one had any money to put up anything in place of it. Eventually they got some money together, and put up some steel and glass.

TB: What do you remember about the demo of this song?

CM: I'm not sure if the demo was recorded in the rehearsal hall, or whether it was just me strumming an acoustic guitar and singing into a tape machine. There must have been some demos, for Virgin to make some kind of decision about what they wanted recorded.

My demos are primitive anyway -- I don't go to any great extreme to make them rather wonderful. But on the basis of what they heard, they must have thought, "Let's get cracking and try to make the Top 20 again." [laughs] At the time, there was a big thirst for us to have a hit. They'd tasted blood with the Black Sea stuff, and this was going to be it, you know? The band was going to "make it."

I think they were trying to market us as a chart band -- they didn't quite have it right, the way that we should have been marketed. But we'd had one or two hits, and that had improved album sales, so there you go, you know? That was the strategy -- to get some more hit singles.

That might have had a big part in how I went about writing at the time. I think the pressure was on to have a hit so much that you compromised yourself somewhat.

TB: So, the desire to have a hit shaped the song?

CM: I think that's one reason why the song is slightly obvious -- that rush to have another hit.

TB: I was looking at another quote from you about this song, and you say that it's your least favorite of your contributions on English Settlement. I was surprised to see that. Do you still think that's true?

CM: I think it's the most obvious of my songs there, and probably because of that, it's more commercially palatable to people. For musicians, that's not always the be-all and end-all of it, you know? Maybe it is my least favorite on the record. Certainly some of the other stuff is a bit more interesting.

TB: "Fly on the Wall" or "English Roundabout" are certainly less-obvious songs.

CM: Yeah -- different time signatures, things like that. But you've got to realize that, at the time, Virgin had a big say as to what they wanted to have as singles, and that we had to have them. That went on throughout our career. I remember one time when Jeremy Lascelles, who was the new guy, the head of A&R for Virgin at the time, said, "We're not putting the album out until you get a hit single." That was the strategy.

TB: So, they'd hold the album hostage, and make you be obvious!

CM: In a way, yeah! We'd get to do the other songs that we thought were a little bit more interesting, that everyone in the band really liked, but if Virgin said, "No, we're going to do this one as a single," then we'd do it. There wasn't usually too much debate.

But on the other hand, they might say, "There's not a single on it -- go write one!" [laughs] I think we were just thankful that we could appease them -- that at least there was something there for them. Then we could get on with the rest of it.

TB: Let's talk about Terry's drumming on this song -- "Runaways" starts the album, and though you've got the big, boomy bass drum, the drumming otherwise is relatively subtle. But then this song starts, and the drums are huge -- and a huge part of the song. I wondered if you worked with him on that, or if this is a pattern that he came up with on his own.

CM: Maybe not choice of drums to hit, but I probably worked with him on emphasis. I deal more in emphasis than specific drums -- I think if you tell people exactly what to play, they soon get pissed off with that. If you give general guidance, it's a better way of going about it -- just explain what you want. Then you bat-and-ball it with the drummer until both of you come up with something that, together, is acceptable.

The drums have the brutality of a lot of Black Sea in them, I think. The stone room at The Manor, and that Hugh Padgham sound -- very "In the Air Tonight." [laughs] That was the sound of the moment.

TB: You guys really helped define that sound -- that's one of the things people tend to forget. They talk about "In the Air Tonight" and the Phil Collins sound, or even the Peter Gabriel sound, but that team [Padgham and Steve Lillywhite] was working with you right at the same time, forging that sound.

CM: Right before that, he'd worked with Phil, actually.

TB: And they had done Drums and Wires with you before they worked on Peter Gabriel's third album, which Collins played on -- and Dave, for that matter.

CM: That's right, yeah. Steve Lillywhite was talking to Gabriel and played him some of our stuff -- "Nigel" and all the rest of it -- and he liked it. I remember him coming back and telling us he'd played it to him, because he was thinking about doing that album. It was quite an influential time.

TB: When you recorded your parts, did you actually sit with Terry in the room while you guys were recording, or had you started tracking your bass separately by this time?

CM: I think we were still tracking with the rest of the band at this point. Even on Mummer we still played together. I remember playing "Ladybird" as a band -- kept the bass part that we put down just playing as a band. So, we were probably still playing as a band until Big Express.

If there was something to repair then we'd go in and repair it. Obviously, that's not quite so easy with drumming -- you were looking for a complete performance there, really. Once that was in the bag, you'd look around and see what else on tape was keepable. It was nice to actually get it together, if you could -- it seemed a bit more wholesome.

TB: More of an organic feel.

CM: Indeed. So, probably done at the same time, with just the odd repair here and there.

TB: What bass did you play on this?

CM: I was playing the Fender at the time, I think.

TB: Your P-bass?

CM: Actually, thinking about it, no -- on this record, I had a choice of guitars. Not quite sure what I used on this particular track, but I also had an Ibanez fretless bass, which I used on a lot of the songs on this record. I remember using it on "Senses." Come to think of it, I probably used it on this as well. There are some tracks on the album where I used my Precision. Can't quite remember -- I'd have to get the headphones on and study it -- but I think it was the Ibanez on this song.

I got a lot of stick from the other guys about the intonation of my playing, with the fretless, but I didn't think it was too bad!

TB: Was it one of those fretless basses that actually had frets painted on the neck?

CM: No, this was years earlier.

TB: A friend of mine had a bass like that, meaning I could actually mess around with it -- if there were no fret marks, I would have been lost.

CM: Having those painted frets are okay until the lights go out, and then you are in trouble! [laughs] I don't remember frets being painted on the neck. I don't have the bass anymore -- I told it to Dave's brother, Bob, who plays bass. I'm wondering what I then bought, because I usually sell one bass and then buy another -- it might have been the Wal bass.

TB: The keyboard part on this -- what do you remember about that? It's Dave playing, correct?

CM: The single, kind of brassy lines, were done on the MiniKorg, which I still use to this day.

TB: Still going strong, eh?

CM: Still going strong after 30-odd years. It's a great little monophonic synthesizer. When the guys got the Prophet-5, they just kind of disregarded the Korg, and I said, "Well, I'll take it off your hands." I've had it in my possession since then. I use it on my demos and various recordings -- I think it's a great little synthesizer.

TB: And it's all over your earlier albums -- it's got some great sounds on it.

CM: Yeah, that's true. It plays those brass lines, which have got a lot of "slop" on them, to make them sound like brass [laughs]. Otherwise, the dry synthesizer sound doesn't really have the carry or sustain that would be needed for those single lines, though I'm always amazed when you hear the synthesizers on those early Stevie Wonder records -- how he uses them dry, virtually, and they still stand out.

We should have real brass, but we ended up with cut-price brass, I'm afraid. [laughs] I was rather hoping at the time that we were just mocking it up so we could have real brass, but then, thinking about doing it on stage, we realized we'd have to get a brass section, and I don't think the budget would have stretched to that, so it's just as well that we mocked it up on the synth, really. At least Dave could play that part live.

TB: You double the brass/synth part with vocals -- is that where the part originally came from?

CM: I think largely done by committee, really. A lot of the brass parts usually are, you know. One thinks of, perhaps, the start of a line, and then another guys comes along and finishes it off. That's the way it is -- a lot of those single-line brassy parts. We wanted to make it sound like the newsreels -- the passage of time.

TB: How did you guys like playing this live?

CM: It always seemed to go down quite well. Gregsy used to start the chords up, chomping away -- allowing me and Andy to have a breather and a drink of water while he was doing it! [laughs] Then we'd all come in. It was a nice, rough-and-tough number. People would sing along. Quite brash, I suppose.

TB: If you can't be brash when you're young, when can you be?

CM: Indeed! [laughs]

TB: How about the guitars? Anything in particular you remember? You have Dave chomping away on the chords, and then Andy's doing his line, and ends with a very dissonant chord. You guys just worked this out while rehearsing the song?

CM: Yes, in the rehearsal hall, there's usually room for throwing something in, as opposed to later on, when the demos were more clear-cut.

TB: Andy plays the solo?

CM: [laughs] Yes, that's him. For a while there, it seems like he would never us any sustain on his solos!

TB: I'm looking at the album credits, and it says Terry does backing vocals on this.

CM: He probably joined in on the "save us from the ball and chain" football terrace chants.

TB: Would he ever sing live with you guys? In looking at footage, I've never seen him with a mic.

CM: No, he made a policy to never sing live. Although, after we'd had a particularly bad gig in Canada, I remember him going to the front of the stage, grabbing hold of the mic, and saying, "Yeah -- we've got your money, and we're fucking off!" [laughs] That's the only thing he ever said into a mic, I think, and he nearly got us lynched!

11:21 PM

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