The Agony of XTC

England's pop eccentrics make an art of survival

October 1992
By Roger Friedman

Swindon's finest.
XTC's Dave Gregory (left) and Andy Partridge.

Some careers are planned, others are accidents. XTC's has been a comedy of errors. Nothing's worked out quite the way it was supposed to. None of them live in mansions or drive fancy cars. They're not as young and sexy as Color Me Badd. Actually, they're not even as young and sexy as the Dave Clark Five. When discussing their visual appeal, plumpish group leader Andy Partridge has referred to himself as a "potato thing". And worst of all, XTC are cursed by consistently good reviews. "We could build ourselves a complete palace out of critical acclaim", he says, "but we couldn't put together a little hovel out of sales".

XTC, under the stewardship of Partridge and his partner Colin Moulding, have been producing much-admired, well-crafted pop since 1977 yet still labor in a bizarre, financially perilous obscurity. Things have been so bad in the not-so distant past that Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory have resorted to working at a local car rental drop-off between royalty checks. The two seem mildly embarrassed about the experience; others in the XTC camp have grown a bit uncertain of the band's solvency. For their latest album, Nonsuch, Partridge resorted to a clever subterfuge to get session drummer Dave Mattacks to work with the band.

"He said he had always wanted to play on a Joni Mitchell record. So I put on a long wig and some fake teeth and rang him up one night. He saw through my disguise immediately. But he still consented to drum on our album".

Nonsuch is an eclectic, brilliant, appropriately pompous song cycle that tackles the Gulf War, book burning, and P.T. Barnum. "Wrapped in Grey" is a lush homage to the Beach Boys, while "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" is bouncy, fairy-tale pop with a grotesque moral: Champions of the people usually get crucified. Taken in one sitting, it's a little much. But ingested one at a time, most of the songs - like the overly catchy single "Dear Madam Barnum" - are remarkably ornate, occasionally gothic, and always rich with literary references. "I'm in the middle of reading six books", Partridge says, including A History of the art of War in the Sixteenth Century by Charles W. Oman and one of J.R. Hale's Renaissance tomes. Despite such archaic inspirations, Nonsuch sneaked into the Hot 100 immediately, the highest chart debut for any XTC album yet.

Nonetheless, Partridge is skeptical about his chances at superstardom and doesn't plan to quit his day job-as a producer. "I make more money producing other people, like Lilac Time or the Mission U.K.", he says, though he calls the latter gig a "dreadful mistake. I did it for mercenary reasons. I have two children".

But Partridge is also partly responsible for the group's mounting financial trouble. In 1982, he stopped performing live with XTC, thereby joining an exclusive club whose members include Carly Simon, Donald Fagen, and Brian Wilson. "We were a fast, aggressive touring machine with white-hot metal spewing out", Partridge says of the band then. "But you get kind of bored with that after five years. And on top of all that, I was getting more and more frightened of seeing nobody all day and then 10,000 people at one go". The group's big British hit at that time was called "Senses Working Overtime" - a title that Partridge evidently took to heart. He had a breakdown onstage and that was that.

Years before, Partridge had learned to play the guitar when he realized it was "a girl magnet". At first, he and Moulding called their group the Helium Kidz. In 1975, the Helium Kidz metamorphosed into XTC, he says, "because I thought that explained our music more aptly meaning happy, instantaneous wonderfulness, short, sharp, shocking, a kind of shorthand route to wonder". With their first album, White Music, the group capitulated to what was then the punk sound in London.

Partridge admits, "I'm really embarrassed by that early material. It's like naked baby photos. They weren't songs, they were just slabs of energy with words that made good energy pictures in your head. Phrases like 'radios in motion' or 'battery brides' - they were all kind of built around this electric wordplay stuff".

White Music, originally released only in the U.K., sold an anemic 30,000 copies or so, according to Partridge. The group was already losing money. But the situation worsened, even as XTC released new-wave smashups like "Making Plans for Nigel" and classic squiggly pop albums such as Drums and Wires and English Settlement. They were forced to record 1986's Skylarking their eighth album in less than a decade, in the middle of epic, expensive, and protracted legal battles with their former manager. It was a touchy time.

"Then the 'Dear God' thing happened", says Moulding. That song, left off the original release of Skylarking, later became the B-side of a single called "Grass". Then, in a typical XTC happenstance, an American DJ, curious about the title, started playing "Dear God" - not realizing it had been removed from the LP. It was quickly added to subsequent pressings of the record and became a minor hit. After a career of misadventures and happy accidents, Skylarking and the follow-up, 1989's Oranges & Lemons, became the band's most successful records.

"Nonsuch comes out, and we all think it's our last album", muses Partridge. "You have to think, 'O.K., when I get hit by a bus tomorrow this album will be held up as some great tombstone'. Then something bizarre happens like someone flips over a B-side and that keeps us going for another year or two".

Andy Partridge says that he would have made a disco album in 1977 if he wanted to be famous. But, he shrugs, "I'm an ideas man who's trapped with a guitar around my neck".

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[Thanks to David Oh]