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Sunday, October 25, 2009


Sir John Johns discusses 'Collideascope'

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, "Collideascope," is from 1987's Psonic Psunspot, the long-lost full-length album by the Dukes of Stratosphear.

Due to recent negotiations with Virgin, XTC now has rights to several of their albums, including the Dukes catalog, which has now been beautifully remastered and packaged by the band. They've included demos that weren't available before and added extensive liner notes, and made them available to the public separately for £9.55 (£10.98 including VAT, which doesn't apply to those living outside England) or together for £17.38 (£19.98 including VAT). But if you your order both, you get a pstunning pset of psix psychedelic button badges free! (It's been said before, but we'll say it again -- you can get the buttons these days!)

They're there on the APE Web site, ripe for the picking. Plug in and tune out TODAY.

No one takes home the coveted "guess the next song" cup this week -- our hint ("an interview about one of Andy's more divisive songs" -- referring to the line, "You will see one young girl split into two") was rather oblique, we must admit -- but given the subject matter, we hope you'll take a sip of your wormwood tea and float downstream with us.

TB: Let's talk about "Collideascope."

AP: Do you have your manatee turned on, to capture the psychedelic vibes? I think I can hear it whirring contentedly in the background.

TB: [laughing] I do indeed! So, Sir John -- what was the inspiration for this particular song? I saw somewhere that you said you had the lyrics for this sometime in the late '70s, but you decided not to use them because they were too psychedelic, even then.

AP: Do you know, I'd forgotten that! I think you might be right. I think that some of these lyrics were hanging around in the late '70s, but I don't know if there was any music to go with them.

TB: It makes sense in a way, because a lot of your earlier lyrics were kind of kooky and Science-Fiction-y...

AP: Oh yeah, I was just writing stuff like, you know, those kind of compendium comics, those "weird stories," like "Tales of Suspense." Inevitably drawn by Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby or whomever. The stories all had a kind of a formula -- the shock was in the last couple of panels. The unexpected "turn it on its head," which you began to expect! It would have been more shocking if they'd kept them more conventional.

But that's all I did write about at one time. I thought I could do my own version, yet as a teenager or a man in his early 20s, what experience of life had I had? I hadn't -- I could only guess at what life was going to be like, and then, as the more living you've done, the more you can talk about it, and the more you can tell. It always amazes me when anyone under the age of 20 can write things that are not about holding a girl's hand or fumbling with somebody's bra.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say this, because you can think about some artists who seem to have all their creativity in their 20s, and then they're done. In fact, they should be getting more mature and having richer output as they get older. I mean, that was certainly the case with you guys -- your music got more complex, your lyrics got more complex.

AP: Yeah, that's true. Look at the Beatles' early lyrics -- they're so banal, in that sort of Hallmark Cards way.

Can you imagine what it must be like to be a copywriter for Hallmark cards? [laughs] Can you imagine sitting in an office and thinking, "Okay, it's got to go [imitates meter of simple rhyme]. They all do that."

TB: I think they have to drink. A lot.

AP: [laughs] They have to drink! But it's not conventional liquids. It's helium, or a couple of liters of krill. "What have you got there?" "I've got some krill!" "I've got some sink cleaner!" "Let's make a cocktail! It's nearly 11 in the morning -- come on, we've got a few more hundred cards to write!"

TB: [laughing] Or, they sit there and say, "How far back in our catalog can we go before people don't realize that we're plagiarizing from ourselves?"

AP: [laughs] And that's your standard Pop lyric, really!

But I guess at that point I was working for the Hallmark branch of Sci-Fi lyrics -- that was my early attempts at writing lyrics. I mean, the hundreds of songs that we never got to record, from the early career, are just ludicrous. They are like those comic compendium things -- you know, "My Baby Was a Reptile from a Horror Movie on TV." That was one of them. Or, "Escalator Out of Hell."

TB: Nice. How did audiences react to that?

AP: Well, there was nothing they could grasp on to. But sometimes, some of the gigs The Helium Kids did were, like, to no people. Or one or two people. I remember traveling 40 or 50 nights to play a pub somewhere, and it'd be a Monday night or something, and one person would come in. You'd be in the corner of this pub with the disco lights flashing on you, running through your set -- stuff like [sings dramatically] "Martian invasion, 1970" -- and there's this one lobotomized local, drinking cider, leaning on the wall looking at you for an hour-and-a-half. And that was considered a good gig, because a person came.

But yeah, well done, "Collideascope" was an earlier lyric that I thought was a bit too daft to do anything with, so it was left to rot. And I grabbed it when I was secretly writing for the next Dukes record -- I didn't think it ought to be done, but really secretly I was thinking, "Oh god, I wish they ask for a second one, because I'd love to do another one!

TB: Were you just waiting for permission from Virgin?

AP: Yeah, because they were having to fund it. But it was also the thing of, I could say, "Well, yeah, they made me do it." [laughs] I really wanted to do another Dukes record, because it was so much fun. You'd get to have a musical holiday.

But the actual music for the song all derived from that ascending chord change. In fact, let me put the phone down a second, and put you on speaker. There you go, you're on speaker!

TB: Ooh, I feel it bouncing around under me.

AP: Yeah, you just love the vibrations, don't you.

TB: I do!

AP: So, this chord change -- the E minor with the ascending B to C to C# to D -- then you go up to G-flat minor and you ascend on the top line again -- I thought, "Whoa, that's just like a kind of Lennon-esque, lazy chord change, the sort of thing that he'd do, and wow, it's also like The Move's piece of fake Lennon," which was "Blackberry Way."

So, I thought, "Ooh, perfect -- I've got a double whammy. I've got a piece of fake Lennon psychedelia, and I'm snaring in The Move," who were trying to write a piece of fake Lennon psychedelia, I think, with "Blackberry Way." I killed two Byrds -- that's B Y R D S! -- with one stoner! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Do you remember how you stumbled upon this chord progression?

AP: It probably was the same as how I stumble upon all the chord progressions -- I make a mistake. You know, "What happens if I -- oh dear! Oh! That's not bad ... if I keep going to get myself out of the mess I've just made -- ooh, that's pretty good. It's climbing up. What if I go up one more? Oh yeah, that's great."

So, 90 percent of my chord changes come through blundering, I'm sure of it.

TB: What are you and Dave playing on the song?

AP: Well, it's me playing acoustic, fumbling around on my Martin. I think Dave comes in during the choruses, doing the descending then ascending line on the guitar. Dave's best contribution to this, which to me really makes the song, is the Mellotron stuff. The orchestration he comes up with is great. That ascending Mellotron part really makes it for me.

TB: Who does that figure at the very beginning of the song?

AP: That's myself and Colin -- he's on bass, and I'm doubling it on guitar, and it's probably got a little twisty, bendy effect on the guitar. On the outro, it's the intro backwards -- [imitates the final part] -- it's just flipped around. That's the sort of thing they'd do in that era.

TB: Are you playing any electric guitar on this?

AP: I don't think I am! I think I'm just strumming the Martin, and Dave's doing the little electric rolling things. He's also playing a piano that doubles up the bass line during the choruses. And, like I said, the Mellotron stuff, which is really the backbone of it all.

TB: You guys owned your own Mellotron by this point, right?

AP: We did, yeah. But as the years went on, Dave seemed to nab it more and more, which was fair enough, because he'd keep it oiled and feed it grapes or whatever it needed [chuckles]. It's kind of a living thing!

TB: I was going to say, it's a cranky old monster, isn't it?

AP: It really is. You've got to feed it its own special mello-grub or something.

TB: Mellomars!

AP: Yeah! Mellomine!

But yeah, he seemed to like that. He'd get the can of oil out and the screwdriver, and he could go all Great Western Railway footplate engineer on it.

TB: So, tell me, where did the sawing come from? It's even on the demo.

AP: It's even on the demo because I had a disc with sound effects on it, and one of the sound effects on the disc was sawing. You can even hear the number, which is the fellow introducing the tracks.

TB: Ah, I was wondering what that was -- "Number 57."

AP: That was track 57 on the album.

TB: I thought that was you being silly and doing a "Revolution 9" thing.

AP: No, no, I just put the record on and left a couple of tracks running. One was sawing, and another one, I think, was smashing glass. It was whatever came up -- I thought, "Well, this is the approach to use. I'll just grab whatever." I loved the sawing -- I think I just dropped the needle on the record, and when that came up, I thought, "Wow! Sawing -- snoring -- sleeping! That's great."

So, we decided to reproduce it in the studio, and I think I forgot to bring the album, so we had to re-do the sawing.

TB: It's obviously done live.

AP: [laughs] Yes, it's live sawing! That's Colin sawing.

TB: And then who says "Bloody hell"?

AP: Oh, that's "Bloody Nora." That's Jimmy Jewel, the English Variety Hall comedian, who was in a quite a long-running, truly awful sitcom on TV called "Nearest and Dearest," where he and an older English comedienne -- no one seems to use that word anymore! -- named Hilda Baker played his sister. They ran a run-down pickle factory in the north of England. This series was truly awful, saved only by the fact that Hilda Baker spoke in these mashed-up English phrases, very much like the ones that Lennon used for his books -- you know, like "a bowl of Rice Khrushchevs," or "take a taxi ride to go sightsee Buckinghell Palace." You know, that kind of mashed-up English made into comedy phrases.

TB: So, what is said after "Bloody Nora"? I haven't been able to parse that.

AP: Oh, it's something like, she says, [imitates Nellie] "Any changes here will be made over my dog's body." She'd speak in this mangled up English, which I think Lennon caught, and which is why he used that kind of stuff to write his books with, because she was already doing variety shows and doing stuff like that on TV and radio in the '50s and early '60s. I think that was an influence on him, to be truthful.

And then, she did this long-running TV series in the late '60s and early '70s. And one of the videos we took with us to the studio -- possibly the only video -- for entertainment was the "Nearest and Dearest" feature film, which is truly appalling. It's really awful. We decided to just take some of the phrases from this film, and spin them into the song. So, you get Jimmy Jewel saying "Bloody Nora" when the apparent leg gets sawn off -- or whatever it is you're imagining! -- and then we captured a phrase from Hilda Baker.

It's tricky to talk about this one, actually, because I wrang out a lot of this stuff in the liner notes of the re-issue. I could always repeat them, and say them in a more-ornate fashion!

TB: [laughs] No, because we want people to buy the album!

AP: [laughing] That's true. So, in this interview, I'll say totally different things! I'll lie terribly.

TB: You had a little bit more of a budget for this album than for 25 O'Clock right?

AP: We did. We had just over twice as much. The original budget for 25 O'Clock was £5,000, and we gave them £1,000 back -- sort of facetiously, I think. Because we felt like they were laughing at us -- "Let's see you try to make a record for that much."

TB: And so, you were saying, "In your face -- here's £1,000 back."

AP: Right -- "Here's your change." We should have just drunk the change, to be honest, but it was a kind of fuck-you. "Here's your change, and here's your album." And it sold very well, so there was more budget to go around on the second one. It was still a laughable budget in terms of what they were handing out to other bands -- you know, they'd be handing out 30, 40, 50, 100 grand out to other bands, but they gave us £11,000 to do the second one.

TB: And the studio was a proper 24-track studio?

AP: I think it was a 24-track. We wanted to go somewhere different than that Christian place where we did 25 O'Clock in. John had been to the Sawmills, and liked it, and liked how remote it was. I think he liked how psychedelic it was, because it was up a tidal creek, so it was a bit dreamlike up there, and I think he thought it might lend to the atmosphere.

TB: Did he bring along a bunch of vintage equipment, or did you just use what they had there? For example, you brought the Mellotron, right?

AP: We couldn't get too much down, because we couldn't actually drive up a truck or anything to the studio. The only way you could get to the studio was either walk about a mile up a railway track, or you'd ring them from the nearest town, and they'd send a boat along to get you. You'd have to load the Mellotron and amplifiers and stuff on this tiny little boat, with a little petrol engine at the back and a little wheelhouse up front, if you didn't want to drag it a mile along this railway track.

TB: That's quite an image -- the Mellotron in the back of this little boat.

AP: We were manhandling it onto this tiny boat -- about the size of a rowing boat, with a little house on the front with a steering wheel -- and I was thinking, "Oh god, this is going to go to the bottom of the sea. I know it. If we don't drop it to the bottom of the sea as we're loading it, we're going to turn a corner and, because of the excess weight of this bloody big thing, the little boat's going to tip over, and down it will go, into the briny deep.

TB: Along with you!

AP: [laughing] Along with me! Yeah -- "I'll walk along the railway track, fellas!" Actually, I think I took the boat, but I was not happy about it, being a non-swimmer.

But if you wanted to get any equipment there, you had to bring it in this tiny little boat, because you couldn't get a truck or a car up to the studio very easily.

TB: Did you guys rehearse these tunes in Swindon before you went out to Sawmill?

AP: Did we rehearse these here? I'm sure we must have done something...

TB: Because you have some demos, but not for every song, and obviously you would have had to get together with [drummer] Ian [Gregory] to work through the tunes with him...

AP: Do you know, I don't remember rehearsing this stuff! Maybe we didn't. Maybe it was a case of, "Yeah, we'll play it through a couple of times, then you turn the tape machine on and away we go!" Maybe Dave or Colin could remember, but I don't remember rehearsing this material at all.

TB: When you were recording your parts, were you playing together?

AP: Oh yeah. We'd be playing as much live as possible. And if we couldn't do it live, then the other person would play the instrument -- like, Colin would be playing the rhythm guitar on "Vanishing Girl," and because we needed a bass on the song, I played the bass. He played rhythm guitar because I'm a slow learner, and there were too many chords to remember, so I played the bass -- I could pick that up quicker -- so we got the whole rhythm track done as one thing.

And it was the same thing with this song -- I seem to remember it's Ian on drums obviously, it's me on acoustic, Dave on electric and Colin on bass. Dave would have overdubbed the Mellotron on another pass. In addition to the sound effects, we also dubbed some "interesting" percussion. There were these rather large drum cases -- I think they were Ian's or they were there in the studio. I said, "What would happen if we got all of the percussion in the studio and put it in one of these cases, and I drop it on the backbeats, so you get this rattling crunch?" John said, "Yeah, try it." The spirit of the Dukes was, "Do it, no matter how daft it is."

So, we threw all the tambourines we could find, all the maracas, everything that shook, into this big black drum case, and I lifted it up and dropped it on the parquet floor of the studio on the backbeat.

TB: Did you sample it once and play it that way, or did you have to do this throughout the song?

AP: I lifted it up and dropped it on the backbeat, sort of in-time [chuckling], throughout the song.

TB: [laughing] Well done! That couldn't have been easy.

AP: [laughs] That kind of sampling thing was really against the Dukes' ethos. Lift-drop, lift-drop, lift-drop...

TB: And you had to lift it up the same height each time, if you wanted it to land at the same time.

AP: Science gone mad, eh? Nothing to do up that creek. We really were up that creek without a paddle, I'll tell you.

TB: So, let me ask you about one of few times you've been on stage post-touring, which is when Aimee Mann was performing this song...

AP: Oh, she had a real thing for this song! When she and Dave were romantically linked, she had a series of gigs at The Bottom Line in New York. Dave was in her touring band at the time, and I was living in Erica's apartment on 2nd Avenue at the time. That sounds so cosmopolitan for me -- council-house boy from Swindon! -- "There I was living on 2nd Avenue" -- way down in the East Village, in the scummy bit.

Anyway he rang me up and said, "We're playing at the Bottom Line, and she wants to do 'Collideascope' -- will you come up and do the vocal?"

TB: Oh, so that was planned! I thought you were just there attending the show, and that getting onstage to sing was spontaneous on your part.

AP: Nope, he talked to me about it -- told me where it would be in the set, and all that. I did it because Dave was in love, and he asked me. So, a favor for a friend.

TB: I remember, in the fan community, it caused a little bit of a stir, because there you were, performing live.

AP: Yeah, and I wasn't dying, and I wasn't throwing up. I probably had chronic diarrhea, for about three or four days beforehand, when he asked me. I probably never left the lavatory in the days preceding the performance, but it went okay. A little rough. I've never heard it, but I remember thinking at the time, "Jesus, I'm a bit out of tune, because I'm out of practice."

TB: It's funny -- if you're not singing live a lot, it's a muscle like anything else, and you get out of shape.

AP: Oh yeah, sure. I was a bit croaky and out of tune, but it was a case of helping a friend.

TB: Anything else you remember about the song?

AP: It's just a piece of fake Lennon, really. I'm doing my own harmonies, for speed of getting them done. I did sing "sleeper" with a pronounced "PUH," because I knew it would trigger off the slap-back echo, in that Lennon fashion.

Also, it was to end the album -- this was to be the closing track. But Virgin flipped the sides. They said, "We want to start with 'Vanishing Girl'."

TB: So that should have been side two?

AP: Yeah -- "Collideascope" was supposed to be the apocalyptic closing track of side two.

TB: Ohhh -- that makes so much more sense to me.

AP: The album should start with the approaching airplane of "You're My Drug" -- you know, the Dukes are flying in, and "Pale and Precious" is the halfway house.

TB: Exactly. That song never felt like an album closer to me.

AP: If you play the sides reversed, that's how we intended it. They said, "The most commercial thing on here is 'Vanishing Girl' and we want to start with it, can we flip the sides?" And it was a case of, "Ohhh, okay."

TB: Plenty of singles have been the lead song on side two!

AP: But this was their reasoning. To be truthful, they didn't really want us to do the first Dukes thing, and then, because it sold so well, suddenly they were keen and getting serious -- or more serious -- about the second one, so they started to interfere.

So, the album should have ended with the dead stop of the backward guitar at the end of "Collideascope."

11:04 PM

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