‘Yeah, well, you write these little playlets or something. It’s the same as if you were writing a script or a book. You have to put yourself in the place, and if you can draw on any of your experiences – I mean, I did paint pictures, I did carve wood, and the parents of my girlfriend, who then became my wife, did tell me I was no good. In fact, they used to call me a “jumped-up, tuppenny, ha’penny ticket writer”!’ – Andy Partridge discusses ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ with Todd Bernhardt
Andy Partridge is one of the great storytellers of pop, English or otherwise. As with Ray Davies before him, the narrative technique took a while to appear in his work, but – stung into action as a result of the success of Colin Moulding’s ‘Making plans for Nigel’ – by the time of Black Sea it was beginning to show in earnest in the form of songs like ‘Towers of London’ and ‘Respectable Street’. After that there was no stopping him. Think of the Under Milk Wood-esque ‘The everyday story of Smalltown’, in which Andy plays the roles of both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton, detailing lives in a town not unlike the Swindon in which he still lives.
‘I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more
and I’ve sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
and as payment they make love in me
in squeaky old beds, in bicycle sheds
inside of their heads, as singles and weds
as Tories and Reds, and that’s how I’m fed’
But before that, there was ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’.
The third single from the appropriately named Mummer LP, it remains my favourite of all of Andy Partridge’s many story songs. After the wiriness and experimentalism of earlier records, a new pastoral, lyrical and acoustic side to both Andy’s and Colin’s writing was coming through, exemplified by the latter’s ‘Wonderland’, and by ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’, Andy’s re-imagining of his own financial hardships. Despite being in a group which the year before had had a top ten single, money was not coming their way. No accident then that Andy’s idea for the sleeve was to reproduce his wallet, which he had specially embossed with song title and group name. (Subsequently he was too embarrassed to pull the embossed wallet out of his pocket in the pub, and so retired it from use.)
The song is beguiling in its simplicity, and the instrumentation perfectly chosen to flesh out the pastoral picture. Drawn in by it, the listener empathises with – perhaps would even like to be – the farmboy or his girl, despite their struggle to make ends meet, to earn money enough to marry. The beauty of a story song with a just-so amount of detail is that you can extend outward from it, imagining – for example – the girl sitting on a five bar gate, the kind of five bar gate the tall and muscular boy might easily swing himself over were it not for the fact that she is atop of it. But there she is waiting for him, as he strides home across the fields where he has been wild-oating, or burning the stubble after harvest. He knows how her skin will smell – warm-ripe from the sun, with a damp earth scent at the nape of her neck. Her tongue will be apple-sweet and greedy. All this is in the song, and not in it.
Perhaps the song means as much to me as it does because at the time that ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’ was released, and for several summers, winters and springs afterwards, I really was a farmboy, trying to earn enough to pay my way. Also, I had a girl who waited for me atop a five bar gate, though we did not go on to marry. But that is not to diminish the inventive songwriting craft which make this one of my very favourite 45s.