To celebrate the release of Psurroundabout Ride, Mark Fisher talks to Sir John Johns (aka Andy Partridge) about the roots of the Dukes of Stratosphear, his formative love of psychedelia and what it’s been like to revisit 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot in 5.1 surround with ace remixer Steven Wilson.
What is the history of the Dukes?
Sir John Johns: You’ll have to climb into my turdis (it’s disguised as a small outside lavatory) and we’ll go back to 67. I’ll be at school and I’m just loving psychedelic music – or the psychedelic music I can hear, which isn’t much. It’ll be under the bed clothes with a tranny (that means something totally different) and I’m tuning in to Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg because I was one of those geeks that got Fab 208 magazine. I’m listening to obscure psychedelic singles and thinking, “This is fantastic. This is pop music gone upwards towards the stars. It’s more dizzy, it’s more unusual. I didn’t know what phasing or flanging was, or how one achieved reverb. I thought in my naivety you shouted over a cliff or down a well dug in the studio. I was just a school kid in awe. I thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to be in a group making this kind of music.”
Slowly and Shirley, I did grow up and found myself in a group but they weren’t making that kind of music. It was a hole of longing in my guts that I needed to fix.
You were not a drug band, but that music is very associated with drugs. Were you intrigued by the drug side of it?
Sir John Johns: I found that side of it, on paper, kind of romantic. Obviously, LSD especially gave rise to some great art – or afterwards there was great art, probably not while they were doing it. When you’re on drugs anything is fantastic: looking into a dirty toilet bowl is the cosmos when you’re on drugs.
But, no, we weren’t really a drug band. Colin partook in a little weed early on but he was more of a boozer. With Barry, everything went in every orifice, whether it could be shoved or lit or eaten or smoked or randomly set fire to and driven through. Yeah, he would pretty much do everything. Dave didn’t – because of his diabetes he was struggling enough anyway. I was scared because of mental illness in my family – namely my mother – and, as became evident to me in my mid 20s, my own addiction to Valium. Beer or wine was my drug of choice. Terry was a boozer and didn’t mind the odd magic mushroom now and then.
“It’s tougher than any other XTC thing and
has a bad-ass quality I love”
has a bad-ass quality I love”
JASON FALKNER on 25 O’Clock in
There was a whole scene associated with that music and still is; the idea of hippies listening to it and getting stoned and finding deep meanings in it.
Sir John Johns: You can take any drugs, you can take drain cleaner and look at a pizza and get the meaning of life out of it. Even at that age, I found a lot of that kind of thing pretentious, but I was excited by a compact sense of psychedelia. I couldn’t afford albums, so when I borrowed them from friends at school, who’d nabbed them from their older brothers, and I heard longer pieces of what you might call psychedelia, I thought, “No, come on, get back to the song.” I liked a more compact canvas. I was a born miniaturist. I didn’t want a 50ft canvas, I wanted a little Tudor miniature. The pop song, at two minutes thirty, for me is the perfect canvas size. I liked my psychedelia when it was done and dusted and let’s move on to the next one.
Tuning in on the tranny, I’d hear My White Bicycle and I remember coming home from school and my mother telling me she’d heard the new Beatles single and it was Strawberry Fields Forever and I was so jealous – my mother had heard it before me! I did hear it eventually and I could not fathom how they made any of the noises on it. I had no concept of what a Mellotron was, I didn’t know stuff was sped up and slowed down and played backwards. I just thought, “How do you do any of those noises? I have to know how to make that alchemy.”
This hole in my guts remained, that longing of being a 13-year-old kid and wanting to make the kind of music I liked on the radio. When Radio 1 started [September 1967], suddenly pop radio happened and you were listening to stuff like Whiter Shade of Pale which was an incredible dream-sounding thing. I remember them playing (just once) We Are the Moles by the Moles. Or just the first few seconds of See Emily Play shot me off the planet. How do you make that sound?
I started to sneak little things in early XTC stuff. Just the word “psychedelic” in She’s So Square or mentioning 1967. I was starting to seed the music I was making with tiny references. By the time we got to Go 2, Battery Brides is getting quite psychedelic.
“Get ready for the fun – the fun begins now”
CRAIG NORTHEY on the Dukes of Stratosphear in
What Do You Call That Noise?
An XTC Discovery Book
It’s interesting you say that because it didn’t occur to me at the time and I remember being surprised when 25 O’Clock came out. I’m a generation behind so I didn’t see it coming.
Sir John Johns: Seriously, I was really building towards it. When we’d finished Go 2, we held this playback party with a cassette of the album. We invited a dozen or so people and the drinks went down. Most people went home, but Dave Gregory, who wasn’t in the band at the time, was hanging around at the end. We were talking about psychedelic music because he loves that kind of thing. I said to him, “Do you fancy making a psychedelic-sounding album that sounds like loads of bands from 1967?” He said, “You don’t have time to wipe your own arse, Partsy. You’re on tour or you’re in the studio. When are you going to find time to do this?” I thought, “Yeah, he’s got a point. I really don’t have time.”
|25 O’Clock covered in Limelight issue 5|
So that idea sadly got shelved, but it erupted to the surface again during the making of English Settlement. In the evening, we’d go to the local pub and we’d come back, nobody would want to work seriously, but no one wants to go to be yet. “What time is it? Oh, 11pm. Tell you what, run the tape – let’s be a psychedelic band.” We started improvising in a sloppy, one-take stupid way, trying on the shoes that the Dukes would put on. We were just making up gibberish. There was one called Orange Dust. I’ve got outtakes of them somewhere. They’re pretty atrocious because the songs weren’t written and we were alcoholically refreshed. It’s very bad not to have the songs written because to me psychedelic music has a very firm structure over which you climb; it isn’t going to fall to bits if you climb on it. The lyrics may be strange and the music may be dream-like, but that would apply to Strawberry Fields Forever, which is a very solid song under all that messing. You can’t just grab this stuff out of the air and expect it to be good.
So we’d muck around, but the time wasn’t right. But still this stuff would be surfacing all the time. I’d be saying to Hugh Padgham, “How do you do flanging and phasing? Can we have it on Jason and the Argonauts? Can we have a real 1967 Itchycoo Park phasing on this? Can we distort stuff to make it sound unreal? What’s it like if we sing through the Leslie cabinet like on We Are the Moles?” You can hear that stuff cropping up on XTC albums more and more.
Even if you didn’t sound like a psychedelic 60s band, you had a similar open-minded attitude which would be, “Let’s see what happens when you press this,” as opposed to having a very strict idea of what the song should sound like.
Sir John Johns: Absolutely. A lot of that got exercised with the dub mixes we did on the White Music material, Fireball XL5. Then Take Away/The Lure of Salvage was experimenting with “what happens if I press this and turn it full up? What happens if we splice in a bit of that hiss from there, but do it rhythmically?” All that is coming up more and more, and I’m pushing more with each album for us to be more like the Dukes were going to become. You can follow it right from the 3DEP onwards. By the time we got to the Dukes, I just couldn’t hold it any longer. “Come on, I’ve got to go, my bladder’s bursting. Let me get this psychedelic day-glow piss out of me, please!”
While the early mixes of The Big Express were happening downstairs in Crescent Studios, I was upstairs leaning over a cassette machine whispering ideas for psychedelic songs into it, Your Gold Dress being the first one that came out.
“It’s as good as the music it’s paying tribute to”
STEVEN PAGE on the Dukes of Stratosphear in
There were some songs that Colin had written as genuine XTC material, but you personally were writing for the Dukes…
Sir John Johns: I was writing for the Dukes on purpose. Colin was less interested. Because he’s a couple of years younger, he missed that day-glow summer. He was a metal kid or a glam kid. He would go along with the Dukes and he was very good at it, but I think the only thing he purposefully wrote for the Dukes was What In the World??… (I can’t swear to that), but I think we psychedelicised them nicely.
Was it Pale and Precious that Dave said should have been an XTC song because it was just so good on it’s own?
Sir John Johns: Yes, he pulled me aside in Sawmill Studios and said, “Partsy, you fucking idiot, what are you doing wasting this song on the Dukes? That ought to be on the next XTC record. That’s a single!” I said, “No, Dave, it’s just too Beach Boys derivative.” It was supposed to make you think of everything the Beach Boys did in one song. He really loved it, bless him, and thought I should put it aside and then say, “You know that song the Dukes had a go at, well we’re going to be doing it as XTC…” But by that time, we’d mutated and XTC were the Dukes.
Little Lighthouse was going to be an XTC song. I wrote it about baby Holly. It was recorded for Skylarking in San Francisco when Prairie could drum. It was a case of, “Oh, Andy wants to do some other songs. I better let him.” That version of Little Lighthouse is on the Skylarking surround. It was straighter. They’re not really 1967 chords. They’re a little bit jazzier and more out there.
Ten days before recording 25 O’Clock I only had one song, Your Gold Dress. I came up with Bike Ride to the Moon, 25 O’Clock and My Love Explodes. I didn’t have Mole from the Ministry. We’d started the record and Dave said we can’t possibly finish this project off without having Mellotron flutes. We’d already bought a Mellotron for Mummer – that’s how psychedelic we were getting. Mummer is covered in ersatz psychedelia. For the Dukes we needed flute tapes so Dave said he’d go up to Birmingham which was the head quarters of Mellotron in the UK – it was actually a garage – and he brought back this rack of tapes. It was a physical wooden rack that looked like a badly made venetian blind. You lift up the top of the Mellotron, slide it in and bolt it.
While Dave was gone, I thought I can’t waste this time. They had a lovely piano in there. I’m a dreadful piano player, but I started dicking round and wondered if I could come up with something like I Am the Walrus about some enigmatic animal like a dugong. I thought back to We Are the Moles and realised it had to be a mole, it’s an enigmatic animal with psychedelic credentials. When Dave got back a few hours later, I said, “Dave, could you sit at the piano and play these chords – we’ve got another song!”
Is it often the case with you that the best songs come out fastest?
Sir John Johns: No. Easter Theatre came out over ten years! Other things come out over ten minutes. When Duke Ellington was asked what he did for inspiration, he said, “Without a deadline, baby, I wouldn’t do nothing.” We didn’t have enough songs so it was a case of, “Shit, I wonder if I can come up with something while Dave’s not around.”
How did it feel going back with Steven Wilson and re-examining all that stuff?
Sir John Johns: John Leckie feared we’d lose a lot of the sound effects we had, which were spun in live at the mix. But we did find that some were spun in during recording, so they were on tape. Those that were spun in live we had to go and hunt out similar sound effects – or, in a couple of cases, go and find exactly the same one because they were from standard BBC libraries. So it wasn’t as difficult as John Leckie and I feared.
“Brainiac’s Daughter is Partridge and
McCartney all at once”
JIM MORAY in
What Do You Call That Noise?
An XTC Discovery Book
So there’s a little bit of faking going on…
Sir John Johns: There is but you’d be hard pressed to discover it. Steven Wilson is very smart and knows how they’re doing those sounds. He didn’t have access to three tape machines like we did to make genuine tape phasing, so he auditioned loads of plug-ins until he found one that sounded just like real tape phasing.
Are you pleased with what Steven’s done?
Sir John Johns: Yes, I am. It’s a bit perverse because we were trying to sound like it was straight out of 67. I thought if it gets digitally remixed and done in surround sound, which they didn’t really have in 67 (it was at the experimental quad stage), it’s not going to sound genuinely of the time. But I think what makes it more genuinely of the time is the songs and the recording techniques. The fact that they are spread around the room at the same relative volume levels doesn’t change the inherent width of the material.
Psurroundabout Ride sounds the same, it’s just all around your head – and the Dukes, ironically, would have loved that. They’d have said, “Yeah, spin it round, get it going faster round your head.” The fact that it’s not captured on tape but captured digitally means it’s clearer, so some of the dirty varnish is by necessity missing. It’s more revealed, but that has its thrill as well. It’s like every frame of a film being cleaned up: “Wow, I never noticed that detail!” There is delight in the revelation of the higher quality.