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Another Dose of XTC

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."

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."

As a result, Upsy Daisy Assortment is a pleasant XTC sampler--nineteen fine songs, including every modern-rock semi-smash and album tracks like "Life Begins at the Hop" and "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her." Partridge describes it as "a bit of a mess, but don't complain to me about it. Please forward all letters of complaint to Mr. David Geffen at Geffen Records. Send them written on a powder-blue sweater and he may take notice. In the meantime, I'm going to get one of those little toy dolls made up where you pull the string and it says 'Blame Geffen. Blame Geffen. Blame Geffen.'"

In the meantime, Partridge is already looking forward to the next XTC album, which should appear within a year on a label to be named later. (He says several offers are currently on the table.) He composed most of the material while at war with Virgin, but that was only one of the obstacles he faced during the period. "The last four years have seen the biggest upheaval I've ever experienced," he says.

"Because of Virgin, my career has been in the fridge, and on top of that, I went through a divorce and I blew my eardrum out. Not to get too medical, but pus built up in my ear, and the only way out was to burst through my eardrum. It was the worst thing on earth. It was two o'clock in the morning and I was banging my head on the wall by my bed, because I didn't know what to do about the pain coming from the center of my head. And then, suddenly, bloop--and I touched my neck and there was all of this blood running down it.

"I was completely deaf in my right ear for two or three months, and it was really frightening. The doctors didn't know if it would heal over; they said it was fifty-fifty. But thankfully, it did, and now I have about 60 percent of my hearing in my right ear. Which is better than none."

Partridge says the songs he came up with while all of this was going on fall roughly into two categories: "All the stuff that was written directly after Nonsuch tended to be more acoustic or orchestral--kind of non-rock-and-roll things. And the stuff I've been writing lately has been noisier, just out of the desire to hear electric guitars again. So we're contemplating corralling off these facets and having one style on one record and the other style on the second. I don't think we'll be able to interweave them, because it's like, 'Here's a slice of pork with a dollop of ice cream, and here's some jelly with some chicken.' So we'll probably keep all of the bright, zesty, fluorescent desserts on one end of the table, and the pig's head with the apple in it on the other."

Right now, Partridge is casting about for a producer--or, as he puts it, "We've been putting our taut little buttocks about. It's a bit like flirting." At the same time, this famously stage-shy performer has actually begun to consider the prospect of touring again for the first time since English Settlement. But this time, he says, things would be different. Very different.

"I fancy playing off a truck," he announces. "Which is an old idea, of course--I mean, everyone's played off a truck. Everyone other than us, that is. I don't know why not. But it really appeals to me, probably because it doesn't have all the usual show-business connotations. The idea of being trapped in a phony show-biz zoo really appalls me, but somehow, playing on the back of a truck doesn't seem that fake to me. I don't know how the hell we'd play our orchestral songs like that; we'd probably just play the noisy stuff." He pauses for effect before commenting, "And if things aren't going too well, we could always just kick the cab and drive away.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts