Making Plans for XTC

The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ontario
Monday, March 15, 1999
By Simona Chiose
Special to The Globe and Mail

Andy Partridge shows no sign of letting his bitter wit dull with age.

XTC fans are a lot like Andy Partridge, the British art-pop band's lead singer and songwriter: perennial outsiders.

Are there any other kind of fans who would stand in line waiting for their hero to appear without speaking to each other? Only ones who, like Partridge, are deeply conversant with being out of sorts in the world.

They look shifty, these fans amassing quietly, very quietly, in the basement of Toronto's Tower Records. Some of the men there -- and they are mostly men in their mid-to-late 30s -- are wearing little round glasses just like the ones Partridge wears. Some are clutching vinyl albums released earlier in the band's 20-plus-year career; others have copies of Apple Venus Volume I, the band's first new album in seven years, an eclectic 11-song collection featuring a 40-piece orchestra.

Perhaps they are wondering just what exactly they are doing participating in an autograph session, this most conventional of rock traditions. After all, Partridge is an eccentric Brit; his lyrics over the course of 12 albums are often intellectual word plays, and his music is as experimental as pop can be while still being hummable.

If the fans aren't comfortable, the discomfort is more than shared by the object of their adoration.

"The fans are rabid," Partridge says. "I think they need injections. I don't know if it's a final injection."

As he says this, his eyes appear to twinkle. Actually, sitting on a hotel couch, looking cheerfully expansive in checkered pants, a vintage brown-leather jacket and green T-shirt, all of the 46-year-old seems to twinkle, especially when he says something particularly nasty.

Perhaps more than most other musicians, Partridge can afford to be provocative about everything: former bandmates, producers, the music business, and one of his favourite whipping boys, religion. With songs like The Mayor of Simpleton, Dear God, Making Plans for Nigel, Senses Working Overtime, The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead -- the latter of which was covered by Canada's Crash Test Dummies on a 1995 XTC tribute album and which also appeared on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack -- he has established himself as more of an acerbic poet than a pop star.

Most important, he has little left to lose. In 1982, after a series of severe panic attacks on stage, he vowed never to play live again, a promise he will keep for this album. For the past seven years, the band was on strike as a result of a contractual dispute with Virgin Records. Virgin eventually released them from their contract. His wife left him. (Partridge recorded the experience -- and now regrets including it on the album -- in Your Dictionary, a perfectly chilling and bitter tune that will surely become a classic in the library of pop's jilted songs.) For a while, he was afflicted by an ear problem that wreaked havoc on his ability to write. When the band finally made it to the studio, they repeatedly ran out of money and lost a producer. Perhaps most important, Dave Gregory, the guitarist who had been with them for 20 years, walked. XTC is now made up of Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding.

"The funny thing is, the worse things got, the more I wanted to write songs," Partridge said. "It filled me with this religious fervour, this jihad, to get the record out. . . It's the bloody-mindedness. Anything is possible if you keep banging your head against a wall. One day the wall will fall down."

Partridge is nothing if not bloody-minded. He is not a "selfish" person, he says, but he is selfish creatively. Not only can nothing stand in his way; if it does, Partridge will find a way to sting back.

Gregory was quite outspoken when the band was making the album. He wanted the current album to include both electric and acoustic tracks, as opposed to waiting until Apple Venus Volume II (due out later this year) for the electric songs. Partridge said no.

"It became impossibly negative to go into the studio every day with Dave there shaking his head, going 'It's all crap.' I was rehearsing a way to fire him, which was incredibly hard after 20 years, you know. And he left. So he saved me from doing that," Partridge says.

Partridge also doesn't mince any words when talking about his much-publicized clashes with Todd Rundgren, who produced 1986's Skylarking. "When you put matter and antimatter together, you get a big bang, but you don't necessarily get along. It was one little bunker with two Hitlers in it. I just didn't want to be Goering."

As a young lad, Partridge must have been less aggravated. Indeed, his childhood sounds quite proper and quaint. It also served as the inspiration for much of the current album.

"The reason I think I had a real jones to work with an orchestra is because of this musical stuff I was exposed to as a kid. You'd sit there drawing on your butcher paper, drawing Spitfires or whatever, and listen to comedy rock 'n' roll. And while you'd sit there, you'd think 'Oh, I'd wish they would play that new Anthony Newley record' or some goofy thing. But you'd have to sit through My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Oklahoma, not really registering it. But boy, it went in deep."

Even now, Partridge says he thinks of songs as colours -- Apple Venus is browns and greens -- and as stage sets. For this release, a lot of the stage sets in his mind were those of pagan celebrations. Partridge is well-acquainted with the controversy his religious comments can generate. Skylarking, for example, sold a half-million copies in the United States on the strength of Dear God. A classic crisis-of-faith song, it was pummelled by religious groups and embraced by college radio stations.

On the new album, Greenman and Easter Theatre are specifically rewritings of Christian myths. The Greenman, Partridge says, is a pre-Christian spirit of the trees representing the eternal male. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you want to worship something, it would be something more natural.' I would rather worship a tree than the image of someone being tortured with nails through them."

Perhaps now, more than in their heyday, when their brand of complicated pop lived side by side with the whole New Wave of art-school songwriting, XTC have few competitors.

Still, Partridge is suspicious. "I was mentally preparing for a kicking and everyone is saying, 'It's great.' . . . I think, 'Is it a ploy? Are they going to lop my head off if I come out?' "

Quite predictably, he's rather annoyed by the tone of the acclaim. "Several people have used the word 'comeback' and there's nothing to come back to, you know. We haven't exactly been allowed in to warm ourselves by the fire.

"As far as I'm concerned, we were always looking in the window."

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[Thanks to Wes Hanks]