XTC: Confessions of a Studio Monk

October 1992
By Jack Rabid

XTC's Andy Partridge is a most unlikely "alternative" bandleader. He's 38, married with two kids, and never moved from the nowheresville of Swindon, England, where his group started twenty years ago as the Helium Kids. He possesses a sharply receding hairline; is bubbly, friendly, and talkative with a wickedly quick and self-mocking sense of humor. Bright and well read as well, he's half wise uncle and half madcap, a merry child in a man's body.

Partridge has kept XTC going since 1977, transcending and surviving the death of the original punk/new wave era that sired them - despite one of the most monstrous cases of stage fright ever. XTC have not played a single live gig since Partridge blacked out on stage in Paris during a 1982 tour, making them - along with Steely Dan - one of the few reasonably successful studio-only pop groups since their heroes, the '66-'69 Beatles (and even that group played on the roof of their Apple building for a lucky lunchtime crowd.

With current drummer Dave Mattacks in tow, the band did play recently in England for a BBC broadcast, and with the release of their tenth LP, Nonsuch, their American label Geffen is after them to make a similar appearance on MTV. But since MTV requires a studio audience, our singer is likely to bag it.

"My nervous system took a bit of a beating recently, in which we supposed to play acoustically around Europe in radio theatres, which are radio stations with big auditoria connected to them. I thought I was over the phobia of audiences, and said, 'Yeah, it'll be great, we'll do forty-five minutes for them. We'll play all these in-stores too'.

"But a few weeks before we were due to do it, I began to get rather crippled with fear again and pulled the plug on the whole thing. We then had what I considered might be an apocalyptic meeting with the rest of the band (bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory) where I said, 'Look, I'm holding you back, I'm not to be trusted, because if I keep going, putting things like this in and then canceling them, no one will ever believe me. I don't think I want to do this MTV thing now. So if you think I need to leave the band, feel free to sack me'". Their reply? "They said, 'We'd be two house painters if it wasn't for you"'. Crisis averted.

Good thing too. Nonsuch is hardly the work of washed-up, over-the-hill punch-in pals trading on past glories. While not as stunning as their spectacular 1986 LP, Skylarking (which Partridge now agrees was their best LP despite the traumatic experience of producer Todd Rundgren's iron grip on the project, an attitude he describes as "atmosphere pissing-on"), it has many of the same qualities: lovely melodies, breathy Beach Boys-like grace, pungent harmonies, and a comprehensive grounding in the '60s pop aesthetic unclouded by false nostalgia. All this plus lyrics dealing with love, jealousy, children, seaside vacations, censorship and Baghdad (see the acerbic "War Dance"). XTC shine in the craft of songwriting where so many contenders half their age are still stringing chords together.

Such quality music hasn't gone unnoticed. Both Skylarking and '89's flawed but decent Oranges and Lemons went gold in the U.S., and their highly regarded back catalog is still in print and selling: ten proper LPs; five collections of singles and B-sides; a fan club-only outtakes cassette; a Partridge solo record of dub experiments (re-released under the XTC moniker); and two brilliantly conceived '60s psychedelia pastiche albums under the pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear. (The group has also disguised releases as The Three Wise Men, The Colonel, Johnny Japes and His Jesticies, Colin's Hermits, and David Dreams). All the while, XTC still influence other groups, having been covered recently by such disparate artists as Primus, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart and the Trash Can Sinatras.

Partridge is unique in other ways too. An avid comic book collector until his collection was ravaged by mice, he now collects toy soldiers just as enthusiastically. The day of our interview, MTV wanted to interview him in a toy store surrounded by the tiny collectibles, which he called "a hell of a tease". When his lyrics aren't referring to comic characters such as Sgt. Rock or Supergirl, they're often cast as nursery rhymes about worldly topics; witness the childlike lost innocence of "Dear God". Or the ace first single from Nonsuch, "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead", an ode to JFK/MLK conspiracy martyrdom. One could imagine little girls singing while jumping rope.

"That's a pet subject of mine", he admits. "A lot of nursery rhymes were originally political ditties. That was a way of passing around the nation - in the streets, in the halls and drinking places - political comment and sexual songs. Seemingly, innocent things like the 'Goosey Goosey Gander' one arose from the English Civil War, about the storm troopers of the Parliamentarian side, the Roundheads, who were sometimes called 'geese' because of the way they dressed. People were in fear of their lives from them, 'cause if you wouldn't come over to the Protestant way of thinking, they'd 'take you by the left leg and throw you down the stairs' as the rhyme suggests. Heavy political connotations were thus once hidden in children's rhymes. The notion of it is a very powerful spoken communication, before radio or TV or even books. It was like the MTV of the Middle Ages!"

"Dear God" was his finest use of this approach. Oddly enough, the song was originally released only as a B-side, but he controversial stance forced the band to make it a single in its own right and include the song thereafter on Skylarking. But why was it ever a B-side? "I was killing off the last shreds of doubt in my mind about the existence of God, and that song was really seeing it off for me. But it didn't think I'd done it well. I'd thought I'd failed, I really did. How do you fit into a three-and-a-half minute nursery rhyme/political idea such a massive subject? So we left it off the LP until I gave in [during] a moment of weakness.

"When the radio started playing it over here, they had so many calls either saying, 'You're going to die, pagan scum' or 'You're going to rot in Hell!' Or the other side of the coin, people rang up and said, 'Yes, I've always thought that!'

"Americans think they invented Christianity... and they probably have, in a weird sort of way. Fundamentalism over here is real scary. There's a thing up the middle of America, which is like Iran with McDonalds'. There's slightly more burger stands but it's still like Iran; it's fundamental Hell. It's all anti-knowledge, anti-learning and anti-love. It's extremely oppressive".

How much, I wonder, is the pretty "Books Are Burning" from Nonsuch inspired by that very idea, considering the Salman Rushdie affair? Partridge is clearly pleased. "Good tie-in!" he blurts, like a man weary of too many interviews. "'Cause you know the Christian right are asking you to destroy C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They say they provoke devil worship". Ironically, the late Lewis was himself a rabid Christian.

'They have a banned books list, this Christian Reich. Frightening stuff. It's the same sentiment that burned all those books in Germany during the '30s, and is the same sentiment used by Muslims marching around London destroying the Satanic Verses. This is the medieval age. The more knowledge, open learning, logic and reason we get which moves us away from the superstition of religion, the more the people with the superstition are going to get more militant and right about the fact that you're going to have to believe what they say or you're going to die. The Commandos for Christ are going to get you". Sounds like the Roundheads to me.

"Religion to me is anti-learning, anti-knowing. They can say anything, you know, God is shaped like a cockroach and he sent down his only blancmange to Earth, and we're all supposed to say 'Hallelujah!' Ifs a terrible word-twisting fascism you're supposed to accept".

Finally, Partridge can truthfully say of his career that "it's all been for art's sake". XTC are deeply in debt to their English label Virgin, a result of recently concluded litigation against their first manager. 'We were up against the wall", explains Partridge, the band needing $730,000 in legal fees just to prove that he was patently crooked". So the group signed what Partridge angrily calls a "really crap deal" extension of their recording contract. Not surprisingly, XTC are now one of the few bands on their level without a manager, nor are they seeking one.

How broke are they? "I told a few people this and they don't believe it, but it's a good illustration. Before the rehearsals for this album, Dave and Colin were collecting abandoned rental cars for a job, to make some money. I can't drive so I couldn't join them".

It just doesn't seem right, does it?

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[Thanks to David Oh]