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Monday, November 09, 2009


Andy discusses "Living Through Another Cuba"

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, "Living Through Another Cuba," is from 1980's Black Sea.

John R was first to hit our softball hint out of the park this week, followed in rapid fashion by Hans Bruun, crazy clarinetist Michel and Annie. Well done, all.

We'll be back in two weeks with a look at a song that Andy wrote using the same songwriting technique he employed to write "Prince of Orange."

TB: Okay, let's talk about "Cuba."

AP: Well, first off I must apologize for my historical crapness here, because the Cuban Missile Crisis was not 1961, as I say in the lyric. It's one of at least three factual blunders I've made in my song lyrics over the years.

TB: What are the other two?

AP: Well, for this one, I should have said, "It's 1962 again and we are piggy in the middle." You know, Britain's little place between Great Big Russia and Great Big America.

TB: Right...

AP: And in the song, "This Is the End," I say, "They might drop Fat Boy on your town," but of course the atom bomb was not "Fat Boy" -- it was "Little Boy" and "Fat Man." So, I weirdly combined the two of them to make a non-existent atom bomb -- "Fat Boy."

TB: The new atom bomb! The Third Wave.

AP: Yeah. The one they're going to drop on Swindon, I'm sure, just to tidy the place up a bit! [laughs] To correct all the problems we have with our architecture.

And also, in the song "Rip Van Reuben," the man who wrote the Wizard of Oz was L. Frank Baum, not L. Frank Richards. Frank Richards wrote the Billy Bunter school books. So, I should check my facts before I do my lyrics!

TB: You and I had also talked about another one when we discussed "I'd Like That." In those lyrics, you have all these historical couples, and you put together Helen and Hector, who were not really a couple.

AP: No. Dammit. [pauses] That one's poetic license!

TB: [laughing] They were close! Close friends.

AP: And they could have been doing something a bit filthy 'round the back of the temple. Lifting up that toga when no one's looking.

Actually I wonder if that's an archaic term for a gay person -- a "toga lifter." There's already the phrase "shirt lifter," so I guess the more historical version would be "toga lifter."

TB: And you could lift either side of your toga -- that's one of its advantages!

AP: [laughs] Look out!

So yeah, I've given my public apology for my historical mistake.

TB: Your mea culpa.

AP: Yeah. I think that's the name for that strange area between your balls and your anus, isn't it?

TB: [laughs] No, that's the "taint"! [link NSFW]

AP: [laughing] Ah, that's right. The taint.

TB: So, what prompted these lyrics? Was it the fact that Reagan was in office and everyone was scared that he was going to start something?

AP: It was total nuclear-war paranoia. That, and the uselessness of England -- this completely and utterly useless little country whose significance in the world ended at the First World War. England never recovered from the First World War -- that was it, that was the high water mark of England's empire, England's ability, England's power, in all aspects. As soon as those shots were fired into -- who was it who was assassinated?

TB: Archduke Ferdinand, I thinkf.

AP: Was that Franz Ferdinand? Yes. As soon as those shots were fired by Gavrilo Princip, Britain's power ended.

TB: You could even make the argument that it ended the European hegemony of the world as well, because that's really when America made its entrance on the scene.

AP: I think so, yeah, because we beat each other up so badly that we dilapidated each other.

TB: Right -- the flower of Europe's youth died in the fields of Flanders.

AP: And even more died on the Eastern front. And then, of course, the flu afterwards really took out an entire generation.

But I'll tell you, I was rather proud of these lyrics, apart from that terrible schoolboy howler of getting the date wrong.

TB: When I first discovered you guys, I had a 90-minute cassette with White Music on one side, and Black Sea on the other. I used to listen to it, and play along with it quite a bit, and this song always stood out for me.

AP: Well, it's a funny old mixture of stuff. It's not Latin music -- it's sort of Caribbean Rock Ska Dub -- I wouldn't know where to put it. In fact, when we played in Venezuela, this seemed to be the only song that anybody was interested in!

We did some gigs in Caracas, and you'd go to these dodgy radio stations that didn't look official to any of us -- they looked like somebody had done out a garage, or somebody had a motor house on a block of flats, and made a studio out of it -- but this was the only song they wanted to play, and the only song they wanted to talk about. And seemingly, it was the only song that the audience was really looking forward to when we played live. I guess it was because Cuba was in that neck of the woods.

TB: So, again, it was 1980 and Reagan was in power -- is that what prompted you to write the song?

AP: I just felt that Reagan was making all the wrong noises. My attitude about that culminated in "This World Over," really. I think I was concerned that the whole scenario of mutually assured destruction seemed to be getting more and more intensely possible. Of course, I didn't want it to go that way -- I was getting very paranoid about it all. I realized that Britain had no kind of power in this -- and still doesn't! I mean, what the hell did Blair follow Bush into Iraq for, for Christ's sake? Talk about sucking up to the arse of the wrong man. [sighs] Anyway, that's a giant subject, we'd better not touch on that.

So yeah, I was worried that we were heading toward the nuclear precipice, and what the hell were we going to do? Our pathetic little post-colonial country, backwater that we'd become in the world, and are increasingly becoming -- and American shouldn't get too smug, because you're going to go that way, too!

TB: [laughing] Oh, I know! It's already happening.

AP: It's your turn soon to be a third-world country!

TB: To bow and scrape before our Chinese overlords...

AP: You're going to be eating noodles with every meal! [laughs] You're going to be wearing those Mao jackets and loving it! Nike Mao jackets. "Yeah, Nike are doing a special foot-binding trainer." You'll see it on the Shopping Channel. [imitates lady pitching product] "Just break your young child's foot -- any age you want -- and put it in the Nike Cramper." You wait and see -- you think I'm joking! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] There is no demo of this song, right?

AP: Sort of -- before we moved on to the Townhouse Studios, we started the album in Polygram Studios in London, and did a version there that I didn't think was happening. I was convinced there was something better in the song than how we'd recorded it. [Producer] Steve Lillywhite said, "Look, just finish it off -- just do a vocal." I knew that the track wasn't any good -- that it was not going to be used -- so I actually did a very drunken vocal, to further sabotage it. I thought, "No, we must redo this, because it's not happening, so if I carry on drinking the amount I'm drinking this evening, and then say, 'Hey, let me do the vocal!', I shall further sabotage it, so we'll have to re-record it."

So, there is an earlier version, which I think Steve Lillywhite did a mix of and didn't even use my drunken vocal -- he might have just done a Dub mix of the track.

TB: Is that floating around anywhere?

AP: I've got it on a cassette somewhere -- I'm sure it's been leaked out and is on a bootleg somewhere. Everything we've seemingly done has been leaked out at some point.

TB: It's interesting -- I've never heard of that version, and looking at Chalkhills, which is usually a pretty comprehensive compendium of what you guys have done, I don't see it.

AP: If anybody's got a bootleg out there with "Cuba Dub" on it, that's where it comes from.

[Anybody have such a bootleg? Contact Todd.]

The whole song came from an improvisation that I did in late '79, early '80, in the Town Hall Studios in Swindon -- I say studios, but it was just a couple of boiler rooms -- they had some tiny rooms, covered in egg boxes, that sounded awful. You'd get in there and shut the door, and there'd be no air, and it'd sound terrible, and there'd be a bunch of cables punched through a hole in the wall that'd go to a four-track tape machine next door. I think there was a Vesta Fire spring reverb, so all the reverb was really twittery.

So, I wanted to go into this place and see if I could pull some stuff out of me. I went in there and improvised a whole bunch of stuff, and there was one thing that was tentatively titled, "Spy in Space," which had the same basic bass riff as "Cuba." I just improvised this silly little idea about a satellite watching you, or whatever, and was yelling out things like "Confess! Confess!" [laughs] down a little cheap reverb unit.

TB: You sound like Cardinal Fang!

AP: [laughs] Exactly! I never had any demo'ing facilities of my own, so I couldn't sketch out stuff. I just had to play stuff into a cassette machine. So this was a luxury, to have access to a four-track recorder, where I could lay down a drum machine or stamp my foot while playing guitar, and then put down a bass and then maybe a keyboard or something.

So, I had this improv instrumental with a bit of Fang-like yelling, called "Spy in Space," and I did a couple of others that week as well -- there's one called "Jumping the Gap," which became "Travels in Nihilon," and one called "Walking to Work," which was me trying to sketch out a theme song. My wife said she was going to write a soap opera about a supermarket, to be called "Prices." I thought, "Great! Now we're going to be rich! We'll need a theme," so I tried to sketch out an idea for a theme for "Prices." It was truly rubbish, and it ended up as this little rubbishy instrumental called "Walking to Work."

Anyway, back to "Spy in Space." It had this riff I really liked, and I thought, "You know, I can really do something with this." I've got a funny feeling that the lyric was almost beginning to exist parallel to this -- I seem to remember it was a separate poem or sketch about nuclear paranoia, and how useless England would be -- and I came up with the idea of smashing one into the other.

It seemed to work, and I thought, "Great, I can write a load more stuff, and just declaim over this riff" -- almost Dylan-esque, if you know what I mean. Like a Dylan "list" song. It did seem to work, and I thought, "Shit, with a little topping and tailing here, we've got a song!"

So then I came up with the main, ascending and descending guitar/vocal riff, which we put in at necessary points to break up all the continual riffage, and that's basically all the song is! It's very simple construction. It's a call-and-response thing -- "Living through another Cu...BAH -- Dah-dah-dahdahdah-dah-dah-dahdahdah!" Do you see what I mean? Very, very simplistic beast indeed.

TB: But then there is a lot of window dressing -- you guys are doing a bunch of crazy rhythmic stuff, and there are all the Dub-by bits -- why don't we deconstruct some of the parts as they were recorded in the final version. I wanted to start with the drums...

AP: [laughs] Of course you're going to start with the drums!

TB: I'm biased, I admit it! What is Terry playing? Is he using a Rototom rather than a snare drum?

AP: I do think so, yes. And, I never spotted it until listening to it closely yesterday, but I think he had his Snyper [drum synthesizer] attached to a tom, wound up super high, so it made this whistle, which he then set to peal down, like a bomb going down. When he does these rolls around, you can hear it, especially on live versions.

TB: On the live ones, I always thought that was Dave playing that on your mini Korg.

AP: No, that's Terry using the Snyper, this drum synthesizer with pads that you stuck to the drum head of your choice. All they did was add a tone when you hit the drum, and you could shape the tone by bending it and tuning it.

But I think his main backbeat, that big clanging thing, is his Rototom.

TB: Then there is all the crazy percussion you do toward the end -- it sounds as if that's overdubbed.

AP: Yeah, it's all overdubbed. And most of it is actually the Korg -- the things that sound like Chinese woodblocks are the little monophonic Korg. You could set up a sound on there with a very short decay and very hard attack.

TB: It also sounds as if you guys are taking white noise and shaping the envelope.

AP: Yeah, there's some of that, and I think there might be a shaker -- some real shaker -- in it somewhere.

The Korg also is playing a deep, fart-y sound -- I think that's over on the right-hand side? -- and that becomes part of the constant rhythm, if you see what I mean. And somewhere in the middle, and also right at the end, is a little cheap beatbox that we brought back from our first tour of the States.

Steve Lillywhite was pushing everything though this little amp called an Archer -- a little amp and speakers about the size of a box of matches. We weren't sure how the hell we were going to end this -- "If in doubt, Dub it out!" -- and someone suggested, "Why don't we have the little drum machine banging away?" And he immediately said, "Ooh yeah, let's try it through the Archer!"

So the little Archer amp and speaker would be set up on the top of the mixing desk there, with a mic on a boom bent in right against it, and we'd be hitting these rhythms, and then dialing through -- you'd set up a tempo, and then dial through the rhythms, like "Bossa Nova," "Roll," "Funk." So we ended up with this funny, mixed-up non-rhythm thing, with the distortion coming from the Archer.

TB: Being totally overdriven.

AP: Yeah. So that got punched-in at the end.

TB: Ah, okay -- I thought maybe that whole part had been done on the synth.

AP: Nope, it's this funny little drum machine -- I think it was called something like the "Drumatix." We were amazed that you could get a half-funky rhythm come out of a little box that size.

TB: Listening to this on headphones today, I was surprised at how much of the guitar is in the right channel. I'm assuming that's you?

AP: That's me. I'm doing all those choppy parts. In fact, I can still play it! That's how beaten into my subconscious this song became.

TB: That's muscle memory, yeah.

AP: [picks up guitar, starts to play] So, this part [plays ascending/descending line] -- that's me, and I'm also playing these choppy parts [plays a bit]. Dave is doing the part on the left that basically mirrors the bass line. I think it's got a little chorus on it, or a little tremolo.

TB: And then toward the end he starts messing around a little bit.

AP: Yep, he does these little crazy runs, but mostly he's just ghosting that bass line.

TB: Were there any keyboards besides what you've already discussed?

AP: No, I don't think so! The Korg was just doing most of the percussion stuff, and the woodblock effects.

Dave and Colin are doing the backing vocals, over on the right -- you know, the call-and-response thing.

TB: Your voice is in there too, yes?

AP: On the studio version, but certainly for live, they were the only ones left, so they're doing it. Because Terry [imitates him] "Oi ain't gonna fuckin' sing!" "Oh, go on, Terry, try it!" [brusquely] "No, I ain't fucking singing!" Should have cut his royalties down for that. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] But he did sing sometimes in the studio, right?

AP: If you got him drunk enough -- we'd come back from dinner, and he'd have had a crateful of beer, and then you might be able to get him to help with the backing vocals for something like "Roads Girdle the Globe." I think Barry Andrews got him drunk one evening while we were doing Go 2, in the pub around the corner, and came back and got him to do the backing vocals for "Things Fall to Bits." But Terry had to be very "liquidly liberated" to do backing vocals.

Actually, there are some Terry backing vocals on a thing we may be using when Virgin get around to re-mastering and re-issuing English Settlement. I've mixed a couple of the "proto-Dukes" jams -- "Orange Dust" and "Cloud of Forever" -- and a drunken Terry is doing the backing vocals on that.

TB: You guys used to enjoy playing this song live, right? You have some good, stomping versions of this out there.

AP: Oh, it was great to play live. Really good to play live. The intro got longer and longer as we played it -- it was just a great chance to get into a groove. Dave would kick into things by Booker T. and the M.G.'s -- I think it was a thing called "Time is Tight"? He'd be playing that riff, and I'd be mucking around talking to the audience. Or he'd play any other number of grooves, so we could string out the intro and have tons of fun with it.

You'd even hear Terry start to relax and improvise a few a rolls and things, outside of his "human program" thing. That was rare -- you knew he was having a great night if he put a roll in a different place than you expected it.

TB: And you would switch around the order of the album's songs -- live, you'd follow this with "Generals and Majors," even though that one came first on the album.

AP: Yeah, because they had similar tempos -- well, certainly, we matched up the tempos live. In fact, everything live was on one standard "too fucking fast" tempo! But that's a common thing. The only band who I think bucked that trend were the Rolling Stones, who seemed to play everything slower live. You see the Stones in Hyde Park, that film, they're playing everything at half-speed.

TB: Heroin will do that to you.

AP: Yeah, exactly. Silly me.

But I think every band, the Beatles included, did this. You hear the live stuff, and think, "Whoa! They're playing so fast." It's all adrenalin -- you're up there, and you think, "Wow, this is really slow -- what's wrong with the rest of the band tonight?" [laughs] "Why is the audience all moving in slow motion? What's wrong with them?"

TB: Tell me what you're saying at the end of the studio version.

AP: Until I listened again today, I'd forgotten that I was doing those ad-libs at the end, which they dubbed the hell out of during the mix. The very last thing I say is, "I've run out of ad-libs!" And then I laugh. And they left it in, the bastards!

TB: And you also say, earlier, "Look out for my corpse in the color supplement!"

AP: Yeah, because those '60s color supplements -- that's all they seemed to be. Certainly in England, the Sunday supplements, in the '60s and '70s, you could predict what it'd be. It'd be some really nice fashion shoot, then a few pages later you'd stumble upon a layout of mangled corpses in some war somewhere. Images of Vietnam, or some civil war in Africa, and that was the standard fodder of the Sunday color supplement.

TB: Did all the Dub-by stuff just grow up organically as you were doing this in the studio?

AP: Yeah, it was a case of not knowing what to do with it, and saying, "Let's Dub it up! It worked with 'Scissor Man.' Why not this one?"

12:15 AM

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