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In Partridge's opinion, XTC's work consistently improved from this point on, but that view is not universally held. Mummer, from 1983, contained several alluring songs, not the least of which was "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," but it was rather uneven, and 1984's The Big Express was weaker yet; it's probably the group's worst recording. Far stronger was Skylarking, which mingled songcraft of a very high order with a fondness for Sixties psychedelia championed in more overt fashion on the three platters credited to the XTC side project Dukes of Stratosphear. Nonetheless, Partridge remembers the project as somewhat painful, in large part because of his constant battles with Todd Rundgren, who produced Skylarking. Partridge traces his reputation for bad relationships with producers to these well-documented scraps.
"That entire thing has been blown out of proportion," he argues. "It's true that Todd Rundgren and I didn't get along, but he doesn't get along with anyone. He's very talented, but the area he falls down in is human relations. He's like Mister Spock from Star Trek on stilts: He's painfully logical and painfully sensible and really sorted out, but he just doesn't know how to get on with folks.
"I don't enjoy butting heads when I'm working on a record. I like it when the producer is on my side. It's too expensive and life is too short, and it's kind of pointless to be in conflict with somebody who's supposedly helping you to create a work of art, to use a grandiose, unnecessary term. You need help bringing this thing out of your guts, and the last thing in the world you want is someone who's going to say, 'No, I'm going to push it all back in.' You need someone who's going to oil the passage and get you all freed up. I understand that producers are people and they're going to have attitudes and input, but they have to concede at the end of the day that it's your baby. We're going to do the pushing; we need them to do the pulling and the greasing."
Despite the difficulties inherent in its birth, Skylarking became XTC's biggest-selling U.S. album--so, of course, the XTC cohorts took three years to follow it up. Oranges and Lemons, another double-album set, finally arrived in 1989, and while Partridge steadfastly refused to embark on a standard tour, he did agree to play acoustic versions of the songs live at various U.S. radio stations. "That was a new thing at the time," he notes, "but unfortunately, it led to MTV Unplugged--and I'm sorry about that. I didn't realize I'd be starting that whole thing off."
As for Oranges itself, it was a suitably sunny package that somehow failed to connect with anyone outside the ranks of the previously committed. Part of the reason for this sad state of affairs, strangely enough, may be Partridge's smarts. To put it bluntly, simplicity doesn't come easily to him. The epic's lead single is, at its roots, a love song in which the narrator professes his devotion to the love of his life even as he apologizes for his slow wits--but instead of stating this premise in a straightforward fashion, Partridge delivers a series of densely clotted, overtly literary lines yoked to the clumsy title "The Mayor of Simpleton." Even when claiming to be a dolt, he can't help but seem like a brainiac--and in the American music industry, intellectualism is the kiss of death.
Both Oranges and Nonsuch (led by the wordy single "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead") perished from this malady, but Partridge held Virgin responsible for their demises. "After we stopped touring, they never really knew what to do with us," he says. "And I don't think they really expected us to last as long as we have--or to get better with age, either. That was the rub. Most bands do one or two albums and then it's back to the building site or back stacking supermarket shelves, and the people involved never stop to think, 'Hey, where was all the money from so and so?' or 'Why didn't I get a slice of the cash from such and such?'"
Such questions began to dominate Partridge's thoughts. According to him, Virgin made 35 million pounds off XTC between 1977 and 1992 yet persisted in stating that the band remained in the red. After Nonsuch, Partridge attempted to renegotiate XTC's contract to make the situation more equitable, but Virgin responded with an offer that he found insulting. "I told them, 'We know you're making good enough profits, and we're not eating properly. We have to get out of this deal.' But contractually, they had us by the balls. And since I didn't want to give them another XTC record at the same awful, pathetic rate we were at, we told them they weren't getting any more recordings. We went on strike."
This obstinacy ultimately paid off: After four years, both Virgin and Geffen raised the white flag, agreeing to release XTC from its obligations in return for one last hits package. In England, Virgin did things the way Partridge wanted: It put out Fossil Fuel, a pair of CDs that document every XTC single in chronological order. But Geffen refused to take the same tack, allegedly because some of the numbers would be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. "We were asked what we wanted to do, and then we'd write a list and they'd say, 'No, that's not quite right,'" Partridge recounts. "They'd accept one or two things from it, and then they'd change all the others." He adds in a stage whisper, "I'm not supposed to say this, but I think this is the record that the people at Geffen liked that particular week."
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