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The year was 1982, and Andy Partridge should have been on the cusp of stardom. Although the albums Drums and Wires and Black Sea (issued in 1979 and 1980, respectively) did not earn planetary fame for his band, XTC, they attracted a sizable cult following that seemed likely to grow exponentially with each subsequent offering. Moreover, the group's then-new double album, English Settlements, was more immediately accessible than its predecessors: It was filled with magnetic melodies, luscious harmonies and relentlessly clever imagery, yet its rhythms banged and boomed loudly enough to satisfy punk and new-wave purists.
Clearly, Partridge had a hit on his hands--and that scared him to death. He walked out in the middle of a live show in Paris, necessitating the cancellation of a widely anticipated European tour, and managed to make only one appearance in the United States before flipping out entirely. "Nervous breakdown" was the term most frequently used to describe his behavior, but Partridge resists using it. Today, speaking from his London home over a steaming mug of hot chocolate, he explains, "I was pissed off with what was happening to me on tour and the whole band situation and the ripoffs and so on." But, he confesses, "My state of mind was not great."
What he doesn't say, but what many XTC fans believe in their hearts, is that Partridge has a fear of fame--or at least a profound unwillingness to do what needs to be done to bring his music to the masses. After all, they point out, the success of his band's best-known song, 1986's "Dear God," was a complete fluke; it wasn't even included on Skylarking, the piece for which it was made, until radio airplay forced Geffen Records, XTC's domestic imprint, to place it on re-pressings. And while Partridge asserts that he's largely conquered his allergy to performing in public places, the fact remains that XTC hasn't played in front of paying customers in the U.S. for fifteen years. And that's not exactly the best way to inform the latest generation of British pop fanciers that Oasis, Blur, Pulp and loads of others have earned riches and praise for basically following in XTC's very large footsteps.
Fortunately, Partridge finally seems ready to emerge from exile. Geffen has just put out Upsy Daisy Assortment, a compilation that, despite its superficiality, serves as a reminder that XTC continues to exist. More important, Partridge and XTC brethren Dave Gregory and Colin Moulding are on the brink of ending a five-year vacuum of new work that followed their last effort, 1992's Nonsuch, by issuing not one but two CDs filled with never-before-heard ditties. "A hell of a lot of music has gathered up over the past four years," he says in the rolling syllables of an instinctive raconteur, "and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that we have our best two albums ready to record."
This assertion would sound like braggadocio coming from most people, but not from Partridge, a man not given to self-promotion. A native of the English town of Swindon, he formed the Helium Kidz, the combo that would evolve into XTC, in 1975. Two years later, XTC, featuring bassist Moulding, drummer Terry Chambers and keyboardist Barry Andrews (who went on to become a key member of Shriekback), signed with Virgin Records. The first fruit of this relationship, 1978's White Music, was a cheeky, post-Beatles hook-a-rama: It included charmingly dorky tracks such as "Radios in Motion," "This Is Pop," "Statue of Liberty" (Partridge's admission of lust for the lady in the harbor) and a cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" that managed to give the old warhorse new life. Go2, which came along mere months later, was even more eccentric, and if the arrangements were sometimes too tricky for their own good, cuts like "Battery Brides" and "Meccanik Dancing" made a considerable impact. They still sound good all this time later--unless you're Andy Partridge, that is.
"I don't think the early stuff stands up at all," he insists. "It's intensely embarrassing for me, perhaps because I was in the eye of the hurricane producing it. Those albums to me are like naked-baby photographs--or maybe photos of you at thirteen in really bad clothing and really awful, layered hair, so that you look like all the members of Slade rolled into one, and terrible acne. It's like, sure, I was like that then, but I don't want to see it now.
"You just can't start out on day one and be fantastic. We certainly weren't; we were crap. We were noisy, and the best thing we had going for us was a kind of naive, nerdy energy. You know, nerd power. We were somewhere between the Monkees and Devo--we had all this energy and we didn't know what to do with it. And we were young and stupid, too."
If that's true, Partridge and company wised up fast. Drums and Wires, produced by Steve Lillywhite and featuring guitarist Gregory in the place of Andrews, was among the choicest records of the period thanks to the single "Making Plans for Nigel" and the curveballs "Real by Reel" and "Complicated Game." Black Sea was rougher and edgier but no less worthy: "Respectable Street," "Tower of London" and "Generals & Majors," among others, are proof of that. And while English Settlement was a more subtle piece of work by comparison, it was overstuffed with first-raters like "Senses Working Overtime" and "No Thugs in Our House." Even the notoriously self-critical Partridge acknowledges as much. "Drums and Wires was the start of our halfway-decent records," he allows. "Black Sea was a lot better. And English Settlement, I think, really found a good, level runway to take off from."