Mark Fisher, editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls, talks to Andy Partridge about his limited-edition EP covering two songs from 1967: Humanoid Boogie by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Apples and Oranges by Pink Floyd.
MARK FISHER: I’m assuming you’re sitting there in Dukes of Stratosphear garb.
ANDY PARTRIDGE: It’s only just coincidental that they’re two songs I’ve always loved and always wanted to cover. There are other songs I could have equally picked: Citadel by the Rolling Stones or Mellow Yellow… seemingly all from the same sort of years. I guess I was just at that everything-impressiony stage. I would have been 13 – or 14 in November 67.
So these were the first things you were listening to of your own volition.
Well, one of the very first albums I bought in 68 was the Bonzos’ Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. I took my paper-round money into a bookshop called Wymans. They had this groovy little square section filed off at the back as a record shop. I knew about the Bonzos from Do Not Adjust Your Set and I saw Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse and was impressed by the sleeve and the packaging. I thought, “Ooh, I think I’ll have this.”
The reason I chose to cover Humanoid Boogie is I loved the lyrics. They’re very prescient. They describe the charts now: it’s done on computer, it’s all automated, you can go in and belch and a modern computer will put that in tune and you can play it. You can go in and speak the lyrics and tune that up so it sounds like you’re singing.
Did you have a sense of that when you were first listening to it?
I thought, “Wow, is that what the future’s going to be?” And as the future came on (and it’s always coming on, I think you’ll find), it was like, “My goodness, this is really coming true.”
Another thing is I was haunted by the Mellotron solo. It’s so spooky and the choice of notes is so unnervingly haunting. What took me the longest in recording that song was working out what he was playing on the Mellotron – the lead line and all the harmonies on top and underneath it. That took me days and days to work out.
The Bonzos’ version is a rather sloppy 12-bar blues type of thing. I’ve done a kind of 90s hip hop version. The lyrics to me sounded semi-spoken at the time and now they’re close to what you would call rap: “Well, the Humanoid Boogie’s got the humanoid hip-types/ Jumpin’ and-a jivin’/ Burnin’ out their energy cells like an infrared hot dog.” If he was straight outta Compton, his accent would make it sound like every rap record.
There are some fantastic lyrics in it: “Knick knack paddywack, give a dog a humanoid,” and “Let’s have fun, gonna get a personality cell/ If all goes well.” You get these lovely tensions because the rhyme is inside the line.
I was wondering if it was influential on your writing in the sense that it’s not just a four-bar lyrical scheme – the beat goes on longer than you’d expect. It puts me in mind of Burning with Optimism’s Flames and When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty. Was it influential in that way?
I don’t know. I’m still discovering my influences really late. I discovered yesterday that about 90% of my guitar playing is Pete Townshend. I put new strings on my Telecaster and I was just slamming away and thinking I was playing like Pete Townsend. Then I thought to myself, “But I always play like Pete Townsend!” He’s really deep in my rhythm playing – not my lead playing, but my chords and chops. It went in deep through the Who’s singles.
How did the Humanoid Boogie cover come about?
It was getting this new set-up and getting the habit of recording again and the joy of recording. It was great fun to do and I think it came out pretty decent.
As for Apples and Oranges, I actually never heard it until many years later. It was Dave Gregory that played it to me. He said, “Oh, can you believe, Partsy, this was a bloody single?” It was really out there for a single. Of all the most art-brut, naïve records to release as a single… It changes times and speed and direction. It’s full of dream logic.
It was like something the Shaggs might have done. If you haven’t heard the Shaggs, one track at a time is all you can take. Go and listen to My Pal Foot Foot. They’re really primitive and naïve. Even though their guitars aren’t in tune, they’re playing exactly what they’re singing because they haven’t been instructed that one plays chords and one plays the melody over it. It’s naïve art. And Apples and Oranges is kind of naïve art as well.
On the Wikipedia entry, it says, “Roger Waters blamed the single’s sales performance on Norman Smith: ‘Apples and Oranges was destroyed by the production. It’s a fucking good song.'” When you were doing your version, did you think about the production of the original?
I did and I thought, “OK, if I was going to make this a single, what would I do with it?” Fifty percent of the reason See Emily Play was a hit is it’s consistently danceable. It’s very constant and thumpy. It was memorable melodically, very nursery rhyme, and it had that consistent thumping beat. It was the same sort of formula for the one before that, Arnold Lane. So to follow it up with something that had, at best, a nebulous melody, tempo changes and areas where there wasn’t any tempo at all – it just floated – and a melody that is Martian… The chords are just not usual pop-song changes. It goes G, A flat, A, then it jumps to D, then a D sharp, then an E, then A. And A is great for setting up the chord of D, but it doesn’t go to D, it goes to G. It’s so odd.
And yet deliberate. Although it’s not commercial, it’s not accidental.
No, it’s worked out like that. It’s got some lovely bits in it, but whoever said, “Well, this is the next single,” really needed their head read, as they used to say. There’s no way it was going to be a success. It’s just too damn odd. But I loved it for that.
How many years later was it that Dave played it to you?
I think it was in the 80s. I used to listen to the radio a lot as a kid. It was the Beatle years and you were petrified of missing the latest Beatles single. There wasn’t an enormous amount of pop music on the radio, but it would always be on in the background in the house, but I never heard Apples and Oranges on any pop shows.
So it’s not like you’re reclaiming your youth, because it wasn’t your youth.
I never heard it till the 80s but I totally loved it for the same reason I love other musics that take me a sideswipe. You think, “Wow, that shouldn’t really exist.” But it does, bless its cotton ears. If it was going to be a single, it should have had a much more solid beat, so I’ve done that with loops, samples, programming and playing. And I’ve given it some emphasis – that Red Indian rhythm with the big beat on “one”. But I thought the bass line was very good so I tried to work out what it was playing, which is rather difficult because the mix is tinny and squawky. It seems as if the bass and piano are playing the same thing which was a trick in the 1960s that thickened the sound, so I did that on my version.
His two wah-wah guitars sound incredibly out with each other. I thought, “I can’t play this badly” – or, “I can’t play this Jackson Pollock-esque” – so I ended up being a lot more straight forward with my wah-wah. I’ve got a wah-wah pedal given to me by the one-time roadie of Marillion, Colin Price, lovely fellow. He just turned up at my door one day and handed me a wah-wah.
There’s a long section in the middle where I thought, damn it, I’m going to play a very melodic guitar solo. I kicked off the solo by quoting the phrase that Syd Barrett plays on the single during the long, meandering section, almost like a dream of Cambridge University… cloister rock. So I thought I’d quote that and then make it a melodic and structured solo that leads up to the last section.
Because his structure is dreamlike, I couldn’t better it. So I thought I’d keep about 90% of his structure the same, with the same bar count in between one bit and the next. It’s so dreamlike, I thought if I totally straightened it up it was going to kill the dream. I was fantasising that if they’d have played it straighter they would have had a big hit, but I don’t know – everything about it is odd.
Does it sound more like a hit now you’ve done it?
Not really! It sounds like a different dream.
Were there any challenges in covering the two songs?
It was easy getting the chords to both songs. It was difficult picking up what’s going on in what you might call the chorus of Apples and Oranges. It was difficult determining what the melody is and what the harmony is. I just decided it was all one thing. Again, I may have straightened it up a little, but that was only so I could grasp what was going on. I think the original was written and recorded very quickly.
When did the point come that you thought, “I could do something with these. I could let them be heard”?
I did Apples and Oranges originally for the magazine Shindig. They’re lovely folks and they’ve given me a free subscription which is brilliant. In fact, the new edition just arrived today and I shall sit in the bath and get it all wrinkly (and the Shindig!) But they were talking about introducing this thing called the Singles Club, which was either going to be a solid vinyl 7in single or a flexi disk. I said, “Ah, I’ve always fancied recording Apples and Oranges – if I did it for you, would you do it for the Singles Club?” They said they’d love it, so I recorded it in about 2016, but after about a year I got in touch with them and they said they’d been costing it out and thought they were going to lose too much money. So I thought if I recorded another song, there’d be a pair and I could do something with them myself.
Why is the limited edition specifically 1396 copies?
You’ll have to ask Declan who runs Ape for me. He wanted this specific number because he said, “If you add up the two years it’s made of, and the number of tracks in on the album that Humanoid Boogie is, and what month this came out…” It was so convoluted, I thought, “Wow, this is oddly genius.” He’s a real good numbers man. He can remember the catalogue number of any album. It’s a freaky power he’s got.
But so many people have said they can’t play vinyl that we’re actually now thinking we might make a CD single of it as well.
You’ve done a stereo mix and a mono mix.
Yes, this was Declan. He said it would have been mixed in mono originally and stereo would have been a kind of luxury. He said, “Why don’t you do it in mono as well? It won’t cost any more.” I do a lot of mixing in mono anyway because that’s the best way of telling the balance of things. I work in tandem: I’ll plan out where things go in stereo, then I’ll collapse it into mono and adjust the volumes.
The only other thing that caused me a lot of head scratching was the cover: how to represent two songs with very different topics? One is about chatting to a girl as she goes shopping round some new town. The other is a comical warning about how robotic music is getting. I thought it’s got to be circles because apples and oranges are the round fruit. Then for Humanoid Boogie, I thought if the circles were coloured flesh and electric purple they could be like buttons or lights on the chest of an android. The bottom corner is a red one, but instead of a bite being taken out of it, there’s a white finger pushing it on. I thought the end product looked very mod. It was a similar quandary with Are You Receiving Me? and Instant Tunes.
And, actually, a similar solution: a nice simple graphic.
The solution was think simple, yes. A question mark for Are You Receiving Me and Instant Tunes – exclamation mark!
Have you got a taste for this? Will you be doing more covers?
It was just these two, but Declan’s been saying to me, “Ah, can’t you pick something from 69 and 70 now?” He’s leaning on me, but I’m busy doing other things…
Apples and Oranges/Humanoid Boogie is released on 28 June 2018. The limited edition is sold out, but you can register here at Burning Shed for updates about when it is back in stock.
Back after 25 years, the classic 1980s fanzine about XTC is on sale again. The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls is a 256-page edition of Limelight, featuring the original copies published between 1982 and 1992 plus new material, including interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers.
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