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Sunday, August 30, 2009


Andy discusses "Scissor Man"

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, "Scissor Man," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

No one correctly guessed the hint given two weeks ago ("one of the band's more threatening songs"), so we get a virtual check mark in our virtual victory column. We'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song that's a good reflection of the city in which the band recorded it.

TB: Let's talk about "Scissor Man." I'd like to start with the lyrics -- they're a bit dark.

AP: I wanted to make an adult morality tale.

TB: Prompted by what?

AP: Struwwelpeter! Do you know the story about the kid who lets his hair grow, lets his nails grow, and just misbehaves all the time? Then, a person comes in with a big set of shears, and basically cuts his fingers off, and there's blood squirting everywhere -- the end!

TB: It's a story that parents used to tell their kids to keep them on the straight and narrow, right?

AP: Yeah! It's a scary tale, because I don't think he gets his nails trimmed -- he gets his fingers cut off!

TB: "He'll never have to worry about those nails again."

AP: [laughs] I liked the idea of there being an adult version of that -- of somebody who would come and punish you if you were being an asshole. Although that's only kind of alluded to in the lyrics, it was the inspiration behind writing it. That, and the love of this very dark, Gothic, Struwwelpeter story, which has been parodied many times. I think there was even a "Struwwelhitler" version during the war, which I'm sure you can find online -- I've seen it. It's basically Adolph with his hair all over the place, and he gets what's coming to him.

TB: So, was there something going on in your life that prompted this?

AP: I think, around that time, I was plugging in to trying to be moral. Perhaps I was becoming a bit of a moral vigilante, because I came up with the idea of "New Broom" as well, on Takeaway. I'd read the "Mr. A" comics by Steve Ditko, which were very highly morally judgmental examples of what you'd call graphic novels these days. I liked the no-gray approach -- it was very black or white, you're good or you're bad. Of course, that was a silly attitude, because everybody is every shade of gray, brown and khaki. But at the time, I guess it helped me think more clearly about the world, in terms of right and wrong. You know, bringing things into focus -- I had no space in my life then for out-of-focus gray things.

TB: Did you feel as if you were being taken advantage of? Is this you getting revenge?

AP: I don't know if it was as deep as that. I think it was just my state of mind at the time -- I needed to think in terms of good, bad; day, night; right, wrong. I found it very difficult to think in terms of wishy-washy.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say that, and to think about the graphical approach you took to the band's look during the White Music and Go 2 era.

AP: Sure. That was a decision to try to make a graphical language out of that whole thing.

TB: Then you moved into primary colors for Drums and Wires.

AP: So, I guess, this was one of the last of those songs that express this black-and-white, moralistic point of view.

If you read those Ditko things now, they are a bit totalitarian -- my-way-or-the-highway kind of things. But I remember liking that -- there was no gray. You were either good or bad.

TB: Sure. There's a certain clarity you get from that point of view.

AP: Yeah -- that "clear thinking." It's a bit "Right Wing radio." [laughs] But it doesn't have to be! That's the weird thing -- it doesn't have to be Right Wing. It can be Left Wing, center ground, or anywhere. In fact, I see myself pretty much as a centrist nowadays. The fulcrum! [laughs] What a silly fulcrum I am.

TB: [laughing] So, where did this song fall in the writing cycle for the album? One of the earlier ones?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember. I think it was one of the later ones, because I remember that after it was on the album, and we began playing it live, it started to grow much more.

For a start, it got faster and faster, which was insane. I'm sure Dave thought it was comical, but he'd play it faster and faster each night, and be daring us to keep up with it. He'd start off with the pattern, and you could see this evil grin come over him -- "Keep up with this, you mothers! I'm gonna start this song, and you're going to keep up with me! [laughs]

But it actually grew quite a lot live, especially the end section, which on the record was basically made up in the studio. It was basically a, "Okay, well, let's do a little Dub-by ending."

Playing it today, I thought how wishy-washy and half-hearted the end sounded. But it grew into quite a monster live. I mean, we'd be playing that end section for a good five to 10 minutes live! [laughs]

TB: Yeah, I listened to three of the versions today -- I listened to the studio version, of course, and to the BBC version that's on Rag and Bone Buffet, which is faster...

AP: That version, I think, is better than the album version.

TB: And I can see why you'd think that, too -- the song sounds more fully developed. It sounds like you guys had been playing it more.

AP: We'd had more time to live with it, and play it live.

TB: And then there's the Radio 1 Live in Concert version, which is faster still, and longer. Plus, I have an old EP with "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" on one side, and on the other side has live cuts...

AP: And one of them is called "Cut It Out"!

TB: That's right! It's you guys jamming on the "Scissor Man" progression.

AP: Because the actual coal shed attached to "Scissor Man" -- the Dub section -- got so big and long and important live that it overshadowed the song completely. The song became this little tiny hallway on the front -- this little entrance hall -- and when you opened that, you had this Albert Hall of the Dub section!

So, you'd whip through the first bit in a minute, then you'd spend another nine minutes playing the end part. That was one of the few things live I looked forward to -- was getting to the Dub-by bit of "Scissor Man." Because it was different each night.

TB: So, you had a basic structure -- the bass line and drums were more or less the same -- but you and Dave did something different each night?

AP: Yeah, sure -- we'd try to weave in and out. Terry was the one who improvised the least of all of us, because he needed to be "programmed." But he'd settle into his program, and you knew that on some nights he'd be relaxing, because he'd put in these beats and little flourishes -- little snare or timbale and cymbal bashes, punctuating in unusual places between the bass drum.

The "Cut It Out" section at the end became such a thing of its own that it was one of those spots, in the playing, in the night to look forward to -- one of the points where you knew you could fly a bit.

TB: Let's take a step back and talk about recording the studio version. This was obviously back when you guys were arranging songs together.

AP: Yeah. This song sounds to me like a Gothic machine. It's like a Tim Burton kind of construct or something -- Tim Burton before he was Tim Burton [laughs] -- like a slightly Satanic music box or something.

We always used to joke, when we were playing it, that the motif and the chords behind it were kind of like an old-fashioned, cheesy opening to a sitcom -- "open to living room" chords. You know how the motif kind of descends as it goes on? You get to a point you'd want to throw in a major chord -- which is what we used to end it on live -- which gave it a really cheesy, sitcom feel.

But it's also got a weird, almost like Gilbert and Sullivan changes to it. [sings the vocal line in a semi-operatic way] It's like a dark little musical or something.

It is the daftest song we've ever had, I think.

TB: [laughs] I've got to say, when I was listening to it today -- especially the Radio 1 version -- that I had a big grin on my face, and was thinking, "You know, this is one of the reasons I love these guys." You can tell you were having a great time, and you're playing tight as hell...

AP: It was fun to play! Like I say, it was like a little machine, and each person's part is one of the cogs to this little music box, this dark tale of comeuppance for badasses.

TB: So, how realized was this when you brought it to the band? Did you have the guitar part figured out?

AP: I had the guitar thing and the song -- it was one of those sort of things you work out on your own, and you learn it, and it becomes like a twitch for your hands -- which is why I can still play the vast majority of it these days. It gets set in your muscle memory.

If you had to learn it from scratch, it'd be, "What the fuck am I doing here? This is rather complex!" But I must have kicked it around for a long time on my own and made it turn into one of those muscle-memory things, where each of these little twitches in your hands go to put the runs and chords together.

So, I don't envy being the other members of the band when it was first brought up. They must thought, "What the hell is that, and how do we learn it?"

TB: [laughs] Although it sounds like Dave relished the challenge...

AP: Do you know why? I don't think it's a million miles away from the number he used to enjoy playing the most with Dean Gabber and the Gabberdines, which was "Friday on My Mind," by The Easybeats.

TB: Yeah, I can see what you mean by that! Let's talk about the bass and drum parts for this song -- do you remember working with Colin and Terry at all on this?

AP: You know, very little, actually. I don't know how it came to have all these little bumps and pushes and snatched parts. I know that -- and we've talked about this before -- Colin and Terry had this thing where they had their telepathy going, where they'd push each other on and try to catch each other out. I guess this is one of those songs where the arrangement has that bubbling up to the top, you know?

TB: There's some great stuff on there -- the slides that Colin does, and the little accents that he and Terry emphasize together -- as you say, there's this great push and pull.

AP: It's a very odd drum pattern. Have you sat down and worked the drum part? It's really bizarre!

TB: Oh, definitely. I'll tell you, when I think I can do just about everything Terry can, I'll put on "Cut It Out" -- which is probably the fastest of your versions of this -- and he always surprises me with his precision and endurance. It's tough to keep up with. It's not particularly technical, but to do it right, the way he does it, is not easy.

AP: Do you know, I haven't heard that version in years and years.

TB: He's doing the same hi-hat pattern that he does on "Living Through Another Cuba," and using the roto-tom for accents, with a driving bass drum...

AP: Yeah, I can't think what they call that bass drum pattern -- I mean, it's like disco, but when it's got that slightly Jamaican feel to it, I don't remember what they call it. Ambient Step-a-billy -- I don't know. [laughs] Anyway, the four-on-the-floor bass drum.

TB: [laughing] Yeah, that'll do.

AP: When we came to this very hastily grabbed ending in the studio, which later grew into a monster live, [producer] Steve Lillywhite said, "Did you know that we have a machine that can do this?" It was an Eventide harmonizer.

He said, "Terry, just hit the cymbals for me." Terry hit the cymbals, and then Steve dialed up this thing on the harmonizer where it steps down -- so you'd get these cymbal smashes that Terry does, and they're being caught this harmonizer and being bent down.

TB: Which he must have loved.

AP: I think Terry really liked that. I know Steve Lillywhite liked it -- it was like the effect of the week. "Hey, wow, have you heard this great new thing we discovered?"

TB: So, when you guys were recording, did you have these kinds of effects in your headphones, or did you apply them after the fact?

AP: I think it was probably dialed up later, because they had to set it up in the mix. I don't think they could set it up live, because they didn't quite know what was going to happen. Either did we, because it was pretty much improvised! Even though the album version is the lamest of the improvisations.

TB: The reason I ask is because sometimes that kind of thing will inspire your playing. It's like when you're an actor, and you've been rehearsing your part, but when you get in makeup and costume, it transforms you. Suddenly you're able to take it to the next level.

AP: I know what you mean, but that wasn't the case here. That had to be set up in the mix, because there are a couple of total drop-outs as well, where they punched everything out on the desk.

TB: Toward the very end, around 3:40 I think, the drums stop, and then when they come back in, the kick drum sounds like it has some effect on it that they forgot to pull away.

AP: That's probably reverb. I noticed, playing it on headphones today, that the bass has got reverb on it, which is very unusual. That usually clouds up a mix, but you can hear that he does these slides and things, and they've put that into reverb, and that sort of casts them off.

I think it was the dying days of being interested in Dubbery for me. I went on and took some of this material and did the Takeaway album, and that, for me, satisfied my desire for Dub. "Okay, I don't need to muck about with Dub too much in the future." So, I guess this was the prow of the hill in my Dub fascination.

TB: Tell me about this deep bass note that comes in about halfway through the song. Where does that come from?

AP: Oh, that's Mr. MiniKorg! Our little Korg synthesizer would be put on a rack unit, to the left side of the mixing desk in the studio and be left there, and if anyone had a little idea that couldn't be done on guitar, bass or drums, it'd be, "Run to the Korg and try to explain what it is," you know? So that's where that deep, rumbling octave comes from.

TB: And then Dave manages to do that live as well, and uses the same keyboard, I presume, for the high keyboard parts?

AP: Yes, to do those little, kind of whistling parts. Those little, pernickety parts that sound like a Sputnik swearing or something. [laughs] A bad-tempered Sputnik.

TB: The stereo separation on the album version is quite severe.

AP: I'm on the left in your headphones, and Dave's on the right. I also think there's a bit of slapback on Dave's guitar, which casts him across the stereo image as well.

TB: With the drums, the hi-hat is only in the right channel, it seems.

AP: It's far right, isn't it! I noticed that, and thought it was unusual. Those were the days where I didn't pay that much attention to the mixing and all that. The fascination with being in the studio grew more and more as the years went on. Now, I think, "Whoa, that's a radical move, putting that hi-hat right so far right."

I've got a note here that says I could very much hear the XTC of Barry Andrews playing this song.

TB: Yeah, I can see that.

AP: And I think maybe I might have even had that in my head -- it may have even been put together before Barry left.

TB: That's why I was asking when you wrote it, in terms of writing for the album, but you initially said that you thought it was one of the later songs. But, thinking of it, do you think you wrote it earlier?

AP: That's a point -- I just contradicted myself.

TB: [laughing] Hah! Got you.

AP: You have got me. I am fallible. I guess I can't really remember whether it was an early or later one, but you know what? When we say early or later, we're probably only talking about a period of three weeks!

TB: Yeah, that's true -- you guys were given so little time to make albums back then.

AP: It was like, "Okay, well, this tour's finished, we've got you chaps booked in the studio in five weeks' time, so that's three weeks to write the material, 10 days to rehearse, and then you go in there."

TB: And, as you said, you could have been messing around with this guitar lick for months before you decided to build an actual song around it.

AP: I probably was, yeah. And this was banged down so quickly in the studio -- for Drums and Wires, we spent the majority of the time recording "Making Plans for Nigel." That took about a third of all the recording time for the album, and then it was something like two more weeks to do the rest of the album, with a couple of weeks to mix it.

So, writing it early for an album was probably only the difference between week one, week two, or week three. That's how telescoped the time period was.

TB: I had one more question that I wanted to ask -- as I listened to each one of these versions, you seemed to enunciate less and less with the lyrics.

AP: Yeah, it's not important! They know the song, so it's more important to have fun and deconstruct it, and try to do something new with it.

It just becomes percussive noises and yelps and squeals and stuff. It's all about Andy having fun. If I'm not having fun, I would have quit touring a lot earlier. You've got to make it fun for yourself. And they know the song -- they don't want me to sing it like Julie Andrews. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Although, that could be a pretty good arrangement, when you think about it!

AP: [laughing] Now I've said that, you know what? I want to hear that version.

11:33 PM

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