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?'"