Andy discusses "That's Really Super, Supergirl"
Part of an ongoing series of interviews, posted every two weeks, by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "That's Really Super, Supergirl," is from 1987's Skylarking.
Kim was first out of the gate with the correct guess about this week's song, though props go to everyone who spotted the various songs in the XTCatalog with repeated words in the title. We'll be back in two weeks with a look at a song that contains one of XTC's lowest notes.
While you're pondering that, ponder also that today's Andyview marks the 50th song we've discussed here on MySpace. Whoa.
TB: Let's talk about Supergirl. Why her?
AP: See, I've come to the conclusion that DC Comics were much more influential on my thinking than Marvel.
TB: I was always a DC fan. I preferred them all along as a kid.
AP: I guess, for me, they just went in earlier. But the memories are very strong. I can't remember who did the song -- is it Steve and Eydie? [sings] "I don't want to go to the party with you / I don't want to go to the dance / I don't want to go anywhere with you / I just want to stay here and love you..." Do you know that song?
TB: No! Let me look it up.
AP: It's like an old Rock and Roll ballad-y thing.
TB: You're right, it's Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. It's a Goffin/King song called "I Just Want to Stay Here."
AP: There you go! You see, I get this Proustian moment when I hear that song -- when I hear it, I am holding the 80-page giant Superman book in my hands. You know how they used to do those? I can see the cover -- it's the one with Rainbow Superman, then there's a statue, like an Oscar Superman on the front, he's like a silver statue or something. I was a huge fan of Superman, but I wasn't a huge fan of Supergirl, I must admit.
TB: Well, she seemed like an afterthought, created to take advantage of his popularity.
AP: Yeah, there were loads of afterthoughts. There was even a fucking Superturtle!
TB: [chortles] C'mon.
AP: I'm not joking! There was a flying tortoise in a cape! And there was Streaky the Supercat! [laughs] Because Superboy had the dog, didn't he. And Supergirl had Streaky.
TB: [laughing] Because chicks dig cats.
AP: Exactly! And she had a super horse, too. [laughs] I'm not sure how the horse got from Krypton to Earth -- well, he galloped, obviously. A chunk of stable flew off into space! [laughs] A chunk of a gymkhana!
But I was um'ing and ah'ing about writing a song about a Supergirl...
TB: Why? What gave you that idea in the first place?
AP: Early on, I wanted to write a song about Supergirl -- I thought, "Yeah, great, I can get all my DC stuff into a song, and I'm singing it to a girl." And then Stevie Wonder brought out this wonderful early Moog synthesizer-driven song, "Superwoman," which I think is on the album, Music of My Mind, and I thought, "Drat, I've been pipped to the post." Of course, he's singing about a super woman, rather than a cartoon character, but that put me off for years. I came back to the idea in the '80s.
I guess I'm singing the song as a typical hurt male, because in relationships I was always the dumpee, never the dumper.
TB: A lot of lyricists or poets will wait for inspiration to strike -- that's the only time they can write. But you seem to be able to be able to draw on experience, like most good artists -- even when you're not in the middle of it, you can take an idea and an experience and work with it.
AP: I think it's because I save stuff up. I save emotions up, I save feelings up. I'll get in touch with something, and a little metaphor will hook me, like a fish hook, and instead of blood coming out, all this stored-up emotion will come out. I'll think, "Oh my god, of course -- that's me getting dumped again," or "That's me finding out she was fucking another man," or whatever. Instead of blood and plasma, all this hurt comes out, and you suddenly find yourself giving words to stuff like that.
TB: You work other emotions, too. The joy of infatuation, for example -- "You're the Wish You Are I Had" comes to mind.
AP: Oh, you do it with joy stuff, as well! You've hidden away good sensations, or confused sensations, or whatever. But in this case, it was not one specific woman. I guess it was a kind of Bride of Frankenstein of all the women who've ever dumped me. You know, they give you a lot of high ideals, like they're dumping you for your own good. They're dumping you to save you from yourself. Do you know what I mean? They give you all that shit. They try and make it more acceptable -- they give you some creative lying.
TB: Right. It's the whole "It's not you, it's me" thing.
AP: "It's not you, it's me." Or, "You're just too good for me. I don't deserve you, so I'm dumping you to save you the pain of ..."
TB: [laughing at the irony] "I don't deserve you, so I'm leaving you."
AP: Yeah! [laughing] You know, all that kind of shit. But "Supergirl" isn't one girl -- it's an amalgam of all the women who had better things to do than be around me. [chuckles] And, you know, the better things they had to do obviously involved saving the planet, and all that -- so, there's a facetious part of it, a little sarcasm in it.
TB: The lyrics, I think, are very clever in the way they pull all the superhero imagery in. For instance, "Now I realize you're on a mission saving some other man."
AP: Exactly. It's one of the few sarcastic songs I've ever written, because I don't do sarcasm very well.
TB: And there you were, doing it with Mr. Sarcasm.
AP: [laughs] And the shame of it is, he has your first name as well, which is really not good for this conversation!
So yeah, we recorded it with Herr Rundgren in der bunker -- Utopia Sound. He'd had the demo, which was eminently more Blues-y. If you hear the version on Fuzzy Warbles...
TB: Right, it's on Fuzzy Warbles Vol. 4, and you've got the little beat box going on in the background...
AP: Little beat box clanging away...
TB: And harmonica all over it! Tell me more about that.
AP: I'd written it with these rather exotic chords, which are sort of sixth chords -- a B-flat with an open G ringing -- and I thought, "Oh, that's rather slick and shiny. I kind of fancy playing a Blues harmonica all over it." So, you get the earthiness of the Blues-y harmonica against this stainless-steel, Metropolis, Chrysler Building architecture of these sixth chords, and I thought it was a nice mixture.
I remember when we were recording the song -- Todd was trying to master it on the keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, "He's got the chords wrong!" I think he thought the chords were major, and they're not. If we're in B-flat [plays chord on guitar], the actual notes I'm playing in ascending order are B-flat, F, A, open G, F, B-flat. I think Todd thought it was [plays major version, which includes a D rather than an open G], which is much cheesier. But I'm not playing a major, I'm playing an inversion of B-flat sixth. [Sings the notes behind "I can't hold you down," and plays the correct chord on the word "down"] But he's hearing like [repeats, ends on major chord] -- which is like your classic sit-com "open to living room" chord! I was hearing it a lot more clangorous.
So, I fancied doing it with a harmonica, but he talked me out of it, because he was convinced that this was the single on the album.
I was talking to Dave yesterday, and he reminded me that, on a supposed day off while doing the album, Herr Rundgren said, "Let's go to New York and buy some instruments." So we jumped in his camper van kind of thing -- which was like an Ovation guitar on wheels [laughs] -- really tacky fake wood and fretwork and all that kind of shit -- and drove for god knows how long to New York City. We went to these big music places, I can't remember where exactly they were...
TB: Yeah, on 48th Street. All the big music stores are clustered along one block there.
AP: There you go. And of course, they were not worthy, these assistants. They were all bowing and scraping to him, and they didn't know who the fuck this bunch of limeys were, just getting in his way. [American voice] "Can you get out of the way? I'm trying to serve Mr. Rundgren!"
He was saying things like, "Well, that's nice, that's a nice little small-scale guitar" -- it was called a Tiple -- so he said, "I want one of those." And he found a Prophet-10 synthesizer, which was basically two Prophet-5's built together in one box, and we had to wheel this bloody thing blocks and blocks to get to his camper van.
The more I think about it, the more I'm starting to wonder if that shopping spree was him spending some of the album budget ostensibly on instruments that would go on these tracks -- but obviously he was just buying them for himself! Because we never took any of it away with us.
So he bought this Prophet-10, and of course he wanted it all over this track. That meant that the idea of using a Blues-y harmonica got ditched, and all these Prophet-10 sounds -- and there are dozens of them -- got layered all over that recording.
TB: So, all the different keyboard parts are that Prophet-10?
AP: Yeah, I think so. Maybe a couple of them were DX7.
TB: Did he and Dave split keyboard duties? I know Todd played some of the parts.
AP: I thought they did, but I rang Dave yesterday evening, and he said, "No, I'm not playing anything on this track other than the guitar solo." In fact, all the keyboard parts are Todd.
TB: So Dave doesn't even play rhythm guitar?
AP: He doesn't play anything other than the guitar solo, and I'd forgotten that. I do remember that none of the keyboard parts are sequenced -- they're all played in by hand.
TB: Even that very percussive part at the beginning?
AP: Right, that bit at the beginning is sequenced -- that's the only thing. It's like a little distorted beat-box thing. I've got a feeling that it's probably programmed Fairlight, because he had one there that he was pretty keen on.
In fact, I think that, there is a mechanical programmed backbone to a lot of the songs. Like, for example, in "Meeting Place," there are cranky industrial sounds...
TB: Yeah, that was the first one that came to mind for me.
AP: In "Summer's Cauldron," it's all natural noises -- insects and dogs and crickets and god knows what. In "Dying," it's a clock ticking away. So, the Fairlight is also pretty much throughout the album. But on this one, the only thing that was programmed, that I can remember, was that intro. But all the actual keyboard parts are just played live, and it's all old banana fingers himself.
TB: Yeah, I remember reading that you guys were appalled at what Todd would consider a good take.
AP: Oh, yeah! His keyboard technique was incredibly primitive. I thought mine was bad, but his was on a par with mine. You know, he'd use something like two fingers on his right hand, and one finger on his left, and that'd be it. And I can still hear it -- the shoddiness of the playing.
You know, it's fine, it's part of the character of the stuff now, and you can't complain, but at the time, we were all looking at each other and going, "He's not going to keep that take, is he? That is so rough."
But he had this thing where, you know, he had to get it finished on-time, because it'd be more money for him, if you see what I mean. He could move on to the next project. But we were appalled that we'd only get one or two takes on something, and that'd be it. You know, "Okay, that's good. Move on." "Oh, but there are mistakes on it!" "Doesn't matter! Let's move on."
TB: It adds character, right? [laughs]
AP: [chuckles] I guess so, yeah. I mean, I'm not upset about it now. I think we all were then. "What, he's going to let that go? No producer we've ever been with would have let that go." But yeah, that's the sound of the record.
So, it's him playing keyboards, and I'm playing the little scratchy guitar on the right-hand speaker. And, listening to it, I was reminded of the peculiarity of the drums on this.
TB: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.
AP: What you're hearing is Prairie Prince playing bass drum and hi-hat to a sequenced snare drum from a Utopia record. Todd asked me, "How do you see the drums on this?" And I said, "Pretty simple, but I really fancy a kind of clangorous snare drum -- very biscuit tin, almost like a kind of Beat Music drum, with a lot of ring on it." I said, "Do you know the kind of sound I mean?"
He said, "Does it sound like this?" He pulled out the Utopia album Deface the Music, and he put a track on -- of them their kind of Rutles thing -- and I said, "Yeah, that's the sound! That snare drum on that track, that's the sound."
He said, "I'll tell you what we'll do, we'll just lift one of these off." I can't remember if it took it off the album, or if he had the multi-track there. He probably pulled it off the master tape. So, we played to a click track -- sort of sketched it out -- and when we got to San Francisco to do the drums and other parts, poor Prairie had to sit there, just hitting his leg for a snare drum, and sat there playing the rest of the kit. The poor devil had to play around the backbeat. And that's a tricky thing to do.
TB: How about that little drum-roll part before the chorus?
AP: Do you know, I'm not sure whether that's Prairie live, or a little sampled roll off of a record.
TB: It sounds as if it could be a sample.
AP: I've got a funny feeling it was, but I can't remember where that came from. It's like a little Tamla roll -- boomp-de-le-lap-boomp -- which is one of my favorite drum rolls of all time. Dave Mattacks said there are two variations I've got to listen for. There's boom-de-le-lap-boom, and there's boom-de-le-lap-bom-bom. So, thanks to Mr. Mattacks for pointing out the variation there.
TB: And he would know, wouldn't he?.
AP: Yeah, he is a student of the instrument. Anyway, we needed one of those rolls, and I've got a funny feeling that was lifted off of a record.
So the drums are a strange patchwork of bits of Utopia, bits of god-knows-where-we-took-it-from, and live Prairie.
TB: I was wondering about the snare -- it is a sound that Todd is associated with, but I had figured it was just something in the way he recorded the snare that Prairie played.
AP: To be smart about it, we should have waited until we got to San Francisco, cut the track with Prairie drumming, and then either tuned the snare drum to be what we needed it to be, or used it to trigger a more-clanky version, so it would have been perfectly in time with it. I mean, we really did it ass-about-face.
I also remember, on some of these tracks, that Colin was very upset that Todd was asking him to play bass to no bass drum.
TB: I know that goes against what he likes to do.
AP: Todd said, "Look, you put the bass guitar where you hear it, and then we'll get Prairie to fit the bass drum to that." And Colin said, "No, I just can't do that!" I mean, he's a bass player, and he's got to marry up to where the bass drum hits. He's got to glue that bass into the drums and the whole feel of everything.
TB: I remember him telling me that one of the things he started to do once you guys stopped touring was to lay the bass part down last.
AP: Exactly. You jam along with the drummer, to get the drumming recorded, and then you can take away that guide track -- which is probably too busy a bass part -- and then, later on, be more selective about exactly what the notes are.
I'll tell you what, I was on the headphones yesterday, and what reminded of what a bloody good bass part it is on this. And it's an unusual tone for Colin -- I can't remember how it was cooked up, but it's got a lot of Jack Bruce burp to it. It's not a tone that I would associate with Colin at all.
TB: Was that something that might have come out of rehearsal? Because I'm assuming you rehearsed this song before you went over. Or did you?
AP: I think, if we rehearsed this stuff anywhere, we did it in Dave's living room. It probably would have been us just sat there, running through the chords, and nothing more. So, it was the sketchiest of rehearsals for the majority of this stuff.
TB: Right. Not like you guys had done when Terry was in the band.
AP: No. And not like the vigorous rehearsals we did for pretty much every other album. Certainly Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch, where we had weeks of bashing it through with the respective drummers, you know?
The melodic content of the bass is really very nice on this song -- you know, the little tumbles he does going into the chorus, and the little tumbles at the end of the chorus are really very attractive. I hadn't clocked it until I listened the other day -- because I don't sit and pick our stuff apart, you know? It's kind of freaky to do that. But I'm doing it to talk to you, and I'm sat there thinking, "Wow! I never really realized how nice that part is!" He was a great bass player.
TB: We were talking about Dave playing the guitar lead before -- why don't we jump back into that?
AP: Oh, yeah. We walked up to that mezzanine section of Todd's studio, and in the corner, on a skinny little rusty old stand, was Eric Clapton's psychedelic SG, which is the psychedelic guitar -- I think even Hendrix's psychedelic Strat is not as distinctive as Clapton's Fool-painted SG. That Dutch art group, The Fool, painted it. They're also the people who did the side of the Apple Building -- which had to get painted over, because it was supposed to be too disturbing for traffic. And they actually designed the original Sgt. Pepper's sleeve, which The Beatles thought was a bit cheesy, and didn't go with.
Funny thing is, if you look at the Clapton guitar close-up, it's really rough. It's just fluorescent poster paint or something, which was all the rage at the time. But when Dave saw this guitar, it was like, "Oh my god, can I play this on one song?" So he used it to play the solo, which is beautifully worked up, on this song.
We'd be doing a vocal or guitar or some keys in the studio, and Dave would be off in his bedroom at the guesthouse, noting out and running through and learning and getting this solo down. Because he really wanted to rise to the challenge -- if he was going to play one of his all-time wet-dream guitars, he's going to play something that's just beautiful on it, you know?
It's a fantastic solo -- beautifully worked out. It's really melodically appealing. But I think I can hear Dave's nerves just a little bit.
AP: Yeah. I can hear him saying to himself, "I mustn't fuck up! I mustn't make any mistakes, this is my one chance!" I can kind of hear a little of that in his playing, but it's a great solo. Just as a melodic thing, as a little piece, it's really well thought-out.
TB: What was the processing on it?
AP: I think Dave would have liked to have played it with more of a cranked-up kind of Clapton-y sound, but it's more of a jazzy tone, and he's got a lot of chorusing on it.
TB: I was going to say, it almost sounds doubled.
AP: It's not doubled. I think it has a type of a Leslie effect, or a chorusing effect, and maybe a little slappy echo. But it's only one guitar.
But, as I say, I think ultimately Dave would have liked to have had that Claptonesque, cranked-up, Marshall/Gibson sound. Instead, he ended up with a sort of space/Jazz guitar thing.
TB: So, let's talk about the vocals, which are quite complex and ornate. Todd kind of follows your ideas from the demo, but he takes them to the next level.
AP: Well, I don't know whether if it's because he's got some of the chords wrong, and because of all these layers of very shiny keyboard, it does actually sound more American to me. And more like Utopia, actually.
TB: Well, it certainly sounds more major than what you have on the demo.
AP: Yes. It is. I think, instead of leaning on the G, he's leant on the D in the B-flat, which makes it a little slicker and a bit more lounge-y.
TB: And more radio-friendly, presumably.
AP: I guess so, because he was convinced this was the single. If you hear the flavor of the whole album, this one does have the more-modern ears put to it -- you know, just in terms of sound and treatment. There's nothing quite as late 20th century-sounding on the rest of album, if you know what I mean. The rest of the music on there is anything from pagan Britain up to Victorian -- [chuckles] probably about 1930s is the latest sort of sensation on there.
TB: I'd say you'd get well into the '60s with "Earn Enough for Us."
AP: Oh, you're right. There you go. But this track came right up to date, and is maybe even sort of "retro future," with some of those keyboard sounds. Since he thought it was the single, it got the single treatment.
TB: So, who was doing all those high vocal parts?
AP: I can hear Dave in there, but I'm guessing it's a mixture of all three of us. It may be even a little of Todd, too. I know he's on "Grass." But I can certainly hear Dave's timbre in there -- that wispiness. You know [imitates Dave] "The man with no voice -- Dave Gregory." You know what I mean? He seems have such a pink-noise content to his voice.
TB: And you've said before, that's an attractive quality -- that you would use that to your advantage in your harmonies.
AP: Oh, sure! If you need a little wispy air in your backing vocals, call for Dave. Because that's the tone you get when Dave sings. I mean, Dave is very upset with his own voice, because he swears he doesn't have one -- [imitates Dave again] "What's the point of me singing anything, Partsy? I don't have a fucking voice!"
TB: Then the funny thing is, you listen to Remoulds, and he does one of the best Jack Bruce imitations I've ever heard! And Jack Bruce has a pretty robust voice.
AP: Well, there you go. Maybe it's Dave's lack on confidence on the singing front, you know. But I can hear him in the backing vocals, and I'm guessing it's probably Colin and Dave, and/or Dave and myself.
TB: There are some different lyrics on the demo.
AP: Ooh! I didn't remember that.
TB: The lyrical structure is a little different, too.
AP: Yeah, Todd did a great edit. We sent him demos on cassettes, and he dumped them on to some other tape, and edited them to what he thought was the right shape. Which I thought was pretty damned smart. I mean, initially, I thought, "What?!? He's chopping our music up?" But, you know, when you get to play it in its edited form, it's much more concise, and I like that. It's something I've grown much more respectful over, as the years have gone on -- to chop things down to size and get rid of anything superfluous.
But I didn't realize there are different lyrics on the demo. I'd forgotten that. I'll tell you what I do like, is the answering vocals that I came up with -- "hurt like Kryptonite" and all that. It goes up through that funny scale, creating a sort of tension, then release. You get that funny tense note, and then it releases on the top note.
TB: Yeah, and it's also a good lead into [sings] "Now that I found just what you're doing..."
AP: [finishes part] Yeah, and then there's that big C -- that clang. Which kind of comes out of nowhere, because we're in B-flat! Then that leads into the chorus.
TB: Let's talk about the lyrics a bit more. There are a lot of little jokes in here, and internal rhymes, and other things.
AP: I can't even remember them right now!
TB: "I can't hold you down / If you want to fly."
AP: That's the whole thing of, "If you want to end the relationship, I can't hold you down."
TB: Right. And there's the pun with "fly" there.
AP: "You say you want to spread your wings and fly" ... that's the sort of shit they tell you! "Well, who the fuck do you think you are -- Supergirl?"
TB: "Can't you see I'm all broke up inside / Well, just you use your two X-ray eyes."
AP: Exactly. "I'm really hurting in here -- you've got X-ray vision, you can see that you've broken my heart!" It is really sarcastic.
TB: "Hurt like Kryptonite / Put me on my knees"...
AP: Of course. The one thing that can upset the super family is Kryptonite.
TB: "Now that I've found out just what you're doing / With your secret identities."
AP: Yes. [laughs ruefully] Ooh, I'll tell you what, after my divorce, these words really hurt.
TB: "That's really super Supergirl / how you saved yourself in seconds flat."
AP: Exactly -- you didn't save me or the world! You saved yourself. And that's the sarcastic bit -- "Oh, that's really super, that is." That's that disgusted phrase that you use -- "Oh, that's great, that's really super."
TB: "And your friends are going to say / That's really super Supergirl / How you're changing all the world's weather / But you couldn't put us back together"...
AP: Yeah, "you can do something as fantastic as spinning the world backwards, to set time back to save someone, or change the weather, but you can't put us back together because of what you've done here." Ooh, I'm such a sarcastic bitch!
TB: [laughing] "Now I feel like I'm tethered deep / Inside your Fortress of Solitude"...
AP: Fortress of Solitude -- had to get that in. And I managed to sneak in the "bottle city of Kandor" in "Brainiac's Daughter" as well.
TB: And there's that good internal rhyme there, where "you couldn't put us back together / now I feel like I'm tethered..."
AP: Along with "weather," as well.
TB: "Don't mean to be rude / But I don't feel super / Supergirl."
AP: Yep, the play on "super" there.
TB: "I won't call again / Even in a jam / Now I realize you could be on a mission / Saving some other man." And that's the part that you edited, since this verse on the demo is twice as long.
AP: Yeah, and I think that was a good move, that that got chopped out.
TB: Then it goes on from there. Funny that you say, "Well I might be an ape," given your record label!
AP: There you go! And I'll tell you, when I heard that line on headphones yesterday, that hurt. "I might be an ape / but I used to feel super." Oooh...
TB: That's one of the lines that gets me in this song, too, because you're saying, "Dammit, I was happy before I met you."
AP: [laughs] Kind of, yeah. Hindsight hurts. That's a measurement of grief! I guess it's the Hindsight hertz scale.
©2008 Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All rights reserved.