NO EXIT: XTC's Andy Partridge

by Bill Crandall

Andy Partridge has always been hopelessly uncooperative. He and his mates, XTC, burst on the British music scene in the late '70s and refused to make the "punk or rock" choice. XTC was both and neither. They played jerky start-and-stop pop songs with lyrics that would have made Mr. Roget proud. Dumbfounded, critics branded XTC "art rock" (read: rock we don't understand).

In 1982, while touring California, on the verge of finally attracting a U.S. audience behind the underground hit "Senses Working Overtime," XTC frontman Andy Partridge suffered from stage fright and an ensuing nervous breakdown. XTC has yet to play live again.

[Andy Partridge]

In 1985, following two unsuccessful albums, XTC released a psychedelic EP, 25 O'Clock, under the alias the Dukes of Stratosphere [sic]. Recorded for only 5,000 pounds, 25 O'Clock outsold The Big Express, XTC's previous album, which cost over 90,000 pounds.

In a last-ditch effort to break XTC in the States, Virgin Records paired XTC with American musician/producer extraordinaire Todd Rundgren. Partridge battled incessantly with Rundgren during the Skylarking sessions and got his way on the "Dear God" issue when the "embarrassing" song was left off the album. However, the song was released as a B-side, became an alterna-radio hit and Virgin recalled the album to insert the song.

In 1992, when alterna-pop had actually become popular, Partridge and crew, feeling stifled by their record company, went on strike.

Fresh off the release off XTC's new compilation, Upsy Daisy Assortment (The Sweetest Hits), and in the midst of sifting through record-deal offers, Partridge spoke to me from his home in Swindon, the small industrial town west of London ("Imagine Akron having a nose job") that he has always refused to leave.

Who chose the songs for Upsy Daisy?

Geffen bought a dart board and wrote all the songs that we'd ever done and they just threw a couple of dozen darts [laughs]. Somebody who put together some of those Rolling Stones compilations for Decca, like Flowers and Metamorphosis and things like that. We're out of the label now. It's kind of like a contractual farewell, because we've been on strike since '92 and it just ended before Christmas, which is great.

What was the principle disagreement?

Our deal was so appalling. Basically our deal was with Virgin Records; it was sub-licensing thing with Geffen. We were making Virgin plenty of money -- we guess conservatively about 35 million pounds and we were still in debt to them after 15 years, so something was radically wrong with our contract. We were never going to make any money and they never promoted us because they never knew which bag to put us in. The last straw was them really suffocating the single "Wrapped in Grey." They pressed up a couple thousand copies and immediately withdrew it. They suddenly thought it wasn't gonna be a single. And, to me, that was one of the proudest songs to have been made a single, because usually the singles are like the ice cream, like, "Hey, let's have the dessert first." I finally woke up and said, "Look, you've got to let us go or make our deal sensible." We were broke, and they wouldn't let us go, so I had to instigate the only thing that we could do -- go on strike. They finally let us out.

I hear you have about two albums worth of material done.

We have about four albums worth of stuff, but by the time we really cream the best of it, I think they're two great albums. The agonizing thing is, in all this time, we've written what amounts to the best two albums that we never made.

Since you have two songwriters, do you guys ever dispute over song selection?

Occasionally. But unless you can convince the others that your song is the best thing since sliced atoms, it doesn't get done. Colin wouldn't want to force me and Dave into playing something that was really, really bad and vice versa. There have been songs which I really felt were good songs and the other two went, "Ehh, I don't know." I'm considering doing our own bootleg and recording in my garden shed with the band a lot of songs that I thought were the better of the ones that we never did.

When do you hope to have a record out?

As soon as possible. I can't really say. Because I want to record a lot of material, I kind of want to do a bona fide double record. I know that sounds weird in CD terms, because why not put it all on one disc? But I feel like the new material falls into two distinctly different camps. The bunch of stuff that was written after Nonsuch came out was mostly orchestral or acoustic stuff, kind of like where some of Nonsuch was going with things like "Wrapped in Grey," "Rook," Colin's "Bungalow," "Humble Daisy" and "Omnibus." The stuff I've been doing lately is kind of back to noisy guitars, so I can't really see them sitting very comfortably together.

Whenever I mention XTC to people, they immediately think of the Skylarking sound. Do you get that?

I suppose. In England, they tend of think of us as the art-punk band from 1977. They never got out of that. I suppose it's down to what exposure you get. Maybe a lot of people picked up on Skylarking, because that was the first record that Americans really paid attention to. But I wouldn't say either of those types is definitively the band. The band is a continuously living, growing thing. If we stayed still and did one style, I'd be bored by the end of the album. I'd just want to hang my guitar up for good. I'm just too much of a flibbertigibbet.

Your spoken intro to "This Is Pop" on the BBC Radio live album ["The music press nowadays seems to have it in its head that it must categorize people...I want to give 'em one big label that categorizes everything"] sounds like it could have been spoken today.

I think ghettoizing styles is dangerous; it's much healthier when it's all smashed together. Ghettoizing styles of music is not for the music's sake; it's to target the buyer. That song was written because people were asking us what sort of music we played. I thought, "Well, this is stupid; we're a pop group. We play guitars and I want the music we play to be popular." At the time, I thought it was an unpretentious category, because everyone was saying things like, "Oh, we're post-industrial modern art-punk" or "We're psycho-opera-billy." I thought, "Oh, fuck it. We're just a pop group, for Christ sake!"

Would you agree that today bands are not rewarded for innovation?

Yeah, that's one thing I find a little sad about bands now. I'm gonna sound really old now, but bands aren't being snotty enough and arrogant enough to find their own sound. All the bands in England sound like they could be something off of [the Beatles] "White Album", or something from one of our first four albums. It's strange because we did the reverse of a lot of bands. A lot of bands start with someone else's voice and find their own. I think we started with something we made up as we went along and then gravitated more to the sum total of all of our influences. I think we got more like the Beatles or whatever the older we got. I know that sounds perverse, but I think it was a case of getting more in touch with what inspired us as kids to get into music in the first place.

What do you listen to now?

The last three or four discs I have bought for myself have all been music recorded in the '20s and '30s. I'm really fascinated with it because I don't know how they did it. I recently bought a Robert Johnson double album. It's so appealing and it's so different from anything I've ever owned. I know how you do pop music; I can make that sort of magic. To delight my senses coming the other way, I need stuff that I can't grasp how it's done. I don't really listen to pop music. Most of it really bores me shitless.

Does your boredom with pop put extra pressure on you to come up with something different in the studio?

No, I just like to go places that I've never been; it is a delight to stumble onto new ground. Most of the orchestral things were composed on keyboard, which I can't play, so I have no habits. Somebody who's proficient at keyboard, you just know they're gonna knock out the same old thing. But take the keyboard genius and give him a guitar and say, "Go, write some songs," and [makes screechy guitar noises] you get some great, different things coming out because they don't have guitar habits.

So proficiency can stifle creativity?

I think it can. Also, people who crave proficiency are not necessarily songwriters. In fact, I'd say that the more proficient that they are at any given instrument, the farther away they get from songwriting. Songwriting is something you do with an instrument in your hand, and it's nothing to do with how great you play. Proficiency, whether you're Jimi Hendrix or Charlie Parker, goes into different areas. I don't necessarily think that Hendrix's own songs were that great, but as a player he was phenomenal.

Do people pressure you into playing live?

Playing live is not really a big issue for us anymore. When we played live I was out of control, my career was really out of control. We spent five years on the road and the only time off was spent making albums, so it wasn't really time off. We never saw a penny from our live shows -- we had a really corrupt manager in those days. I must have known in my subconscious that I didn't want to play anymore, but my conscious didn't have the courage to say anything. So, eventually I had two or three nervous breakdowns.

For the release of Oranges and Lemons [1989] you played on the Letterman show and a few years ago you joined Aimee Mann onstage to sing [the Dukes of Stratosphere song] "Kaleidoscope" [sic]. Were those frightening?

The Letterman thing was easy; the Aimee Mann thing terrified me. Dave Gregory was playing in Aimee's band -- [whispers] she was his girlfriend. And I was out with my girlfriend at the time -- I was going through a divorce. Aimee was a really big Dukes fan and they talked me into singing "Kaleidoscope". So I spent two weeks on the lavatory and then shook my way through "Kaleidoscope."

What do you think of "Dear God" now?

That's a tricky one. I was wrestling with the last bits of my religious beliefs, all that stuff they punched into me as a kid. I liked the idea of a kid writing to God telling him that he doesn't believe in him, but I could have made 10 albums dealing with this topic. Instead, I squeezed it into three minutes and 30 seconds. I didn't say one fraction of what I wanted to or what the topic deserves, so, in that sense, I think I failed.

Were you surprised that so many people got so bent out of shape about that song?

Yeah, I don't think I was deserving of those death threats.

There were death threats?

Yeah, from those lovable, forgiving Christians. They were the only ones who got their crucifixes bent out of shape. Some people wrote to tell me I was going to hell. Others sent Bibles. One person sent me something called "You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth." I've marked several passages with a fluorescent highlighter for when I want to save my soul.

What did you think of the XTC tribute album [A Testimonial Dinner -- The Songs of XTC]?

Uhh, really interesting. A nice, flattering idea. Sarah McLachlan's "Dear God" made me spit when I first heard it, thinking that's how we should have recorded it. I also really liked Ruben Blades' "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul." Some of the others were just straight readings and rather stiff recordings. I also thought it was nicely uncool that we appeared on our own tribute album. I'm really interested in the uncool. If it wears a cardigan and buys the James Last album, I'm interested in it. If it buys an Ice Cube album and wears its hat backwards, it doesn't interest me.

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© 1997 BAM Media