IT'S a case of are you receiving me? A legend stuck in a storeroom full of memories.

Andy Partridge, awfully funny bloke and principal songwriter with Brit quasi-psychedelic rustic pop essentials, XTC, is having one of those days. He's quick on the monologue and probably could have made it as stand-up comic if he didn't have the ability to write the kind of peerless pop song that insinuates its way in the subconscious and there loops in an endless refrain of blissful harmony and melody.

“I'm nailed here at Virgin Records in London in a salubrious storeroom filing cabinet cum room,” he moans. “Truth is, I'm squatting here with damaged gold discs and boxes.

“This is what comes of being not famous, you realise. They lock you away with the other stuff they don't want to think about. Now, let's see, if we can just move a little — there's enough gold discs here, one must be yours. I'm sure we're owed a few.

“Over here, what's this? Peter Gabriel. And over there it's let's see Whitney Houston, no sorry, Michael Jackson, no, actually it's Diana Ross — before the transplants. Who else is here? You can see that I am in good company. Who's this? Oasis . . . oops, sorry it's The Beatles.

“Why am I in this cupboard? Well, actually, that is a good question, especially considering I've just realised I could have done these interviews from home. Why I didn't is also a good question.”

That Partridge finds himself in a tricky situation is an understatement. A man of few past words when it comes to chatting with the press, he's agreed to do just 13 interviews worldwide to promote the release of the thoroughly excellent and commendable Fossil Fuel: the XTC Collection — 31 utterly memorable brainy songs about ‘Nigels’, Peter Pumpkinhead, God, farmboys, pretty girls, boats, trains, the Statue of Liberty and the Tower Of London, the dark side of the psyche, sex al fresco, illicit romance and life's great monopoly game, all delivered with the kind of literary ability that had 'em clobbered as being “swots”, “too clever by half” and “intellectual smart-arses”.

Partridge dealt such euphemisms a quick swat on 1989's “Mayor Of Simpleton” from the sprawling Oranges and Lemons double, dismissing intelligence as a romantic necessity while in the same breathe reaffirming the old hippie faith in “The Loving”.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Flashback to Swindon, Wiltshire, sometime in the mid-1970s. Swindon is not a centre of cultural learning — well, actually it's not much at all. The local outfit is called The Helium Kidz, a Midlands imitation of the by-now legendary New York Dolls. They don't last — it isn't surprising. But from their rapidly forgotten remains rises a band who will not only last two decades but will also survive new wave, old wave, retro and being on strike for four years.

That's right, XTC have been on strike for the past four years — and it ended just six weeks ago. A label thing with Virgin from whom they have now finally parted company with this collection of their singles (and a couple of bonus tracks).

“Actually, it's kind of ironic. I'm very glad they picked “Wrapped In Grey” for a single (it was their last). That was the final straw with Virgin because they withdrew it from the shelves immediately after they released it, which made us go on strike. It's kind of a symbolic thing. It ends the album and the relationship.”

That relationship began in 1977 when Virgin were the new kids on the independent block, locked into the Brit punk and new wave moment and headed by the also awfully clever Richard Branson.

Amidst a stormy sea of speed riffing, dyed hair, pierced every bit possible, mohawks, motormouths, pogoing and pained anarchy, XTC — Partridge, co-songwriter Colin Moulding, Barry Andrews and Terry Chambers — were a sci-fi quartet that somehow came across like a rose from an English garden while managing to sound like a collision of Syd Barrett psychedelic Floydianisms with Roxy Music tendencies and The Stranglers post-Doors keyboard mantra. They weren't “Down In The Sewer” and they weren't “Country Life” but they understood “Careful With That Axe Eugene” and “Emily Layne” — and if you stuck 'em all together and added a splash of punky hyperactivity for good measure it sort of made sense.

Their debut White Music meshed dissonance and unresolved melodic lines with a blatant attack on rock conventions while their second Go 2 was a helter skelter of menace and jerky rhythms — and it offered the wonderful “Are You Receiving Me”. By their near-classic Drums And Wires, they'd got the buzzsaw out of their system and proceeded to dish out such timeless wonders as “Life Begins At The Hop”, “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Ten Feet Tall”.

As the '80s progressed so did XTC — always around the core of Partridge and Moulding — with two classics, Black Sea — a rich and diverse landscape of undanceable rhythms, intricate interplay and gloriously smart lyricism that included the marvellous “Generals And Majors”, “Towers Of London” and “Sgt Rock”, and the poetic, song-cycle Skylarking that embraced rural Britain, its romance and history and brought the very essence of D.H. Lawrence to music. In its atmospheres his Sons And Lovers and Lady Chatterley and her lover could be found taking afternoon tea by the River Avon and sharing dinner down the pit.

“I can't listen to the early stuff anymore,” says Partridge shuffling for a better resting space. “It's like a photo of yourself as teenager with acne and a haircut like a member of Slade (“Cum On Feel The Noize”) — the gaucheness of youth.

“Our early records are mines, museums, cosmos's, packed full of the naive gaucheness of youth and I can't take it anymore. It's my youth we're talking about here. It's like anybody pulling out their worst clothes and showing everybody.

“On our early records we didn't know what we were doing. We were just naïvely, noisily energetic and thankful to be making records. Our songs were about the stubbly, pimply, yelling stuff that youth is about.

“We had to grow up in public. Our songwriting is halfway decent now but it took a lot of time.

“Our songwriting back then was semen stained — you know, crispy and slightly pearly and you don't want to have it on the sheets in a guest house.

“We had to do our learning in public; most bands do if they hold together — and most don't, they fold after two albums. But if they do hold together and grow, the songwriting hits a curve where it starts getting better and better. When Neil Young started out he was bloody awful but he got better and better. Elvis Costello was very silly at first but he got better and better. At first though he didn't half prattle on about a load of nonsense. We all do.

“A lot of people when we started out thought we were a comedy band. We weren't, we were just a band that wasn't afraid to smile. I can still see the terrible poise of most young bands — petrified to be seen as anything but serious. One of our strengths was we weren't afraid to let in the humour vein.

“I think it's essential if you are going to have a balanced output. Some of the most sinister people you hear about — Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler — liked a laugh. You need contrast. There is nothing worse than putting an album on and its monotone. Black is black only if white is next to it.”

What it all boils down to is a man who steps straight out of the great tradition of British pop — the old tradition, that is; the new leaves him cold and despairing for real passion. Punk revivalism, techno and technology are all symptoms of a malaise that Partridge sees strickening an art form — and to him songwriting is an Art.

Green Day are “only a fancy dress version of the real thing. That lasted just a short time. Anything else is an imitation. But that's okay, you know. Britain has this disease — it takes things far too seriously.

“Rancid and co are probably raiding their mum's dress box. They're probably clean living lads having a bit of a lark.”

Brit pop he explains away as a reaction to the “tyranny of the groove”.

“The mechanical oppression of music in the late '80s,” he moans, “is the worst thing that has happened to British music, any music. It dehumanises music. It's like having a row of adding machines talking to each other.

“I'm very old-fashioned. I like songs. So it's good to see kids have discovered songs again. It's sort of a return to . . . remember the '60s big thing for '20s and '30s music. Kids skipped a couple of generations then and discovered the '20s through bands like the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (now we're talking — there's an eccentric blast from the past. Who of you remembers the legendary Viv Stanshall?) and those old and dirty albums.

“Most mechanical music is very oppressive. It depresses one's brain to try and grasp it. People make mistakes, have dynamics and embarrass you. Machines don't.

“There's not a lot, if any, musicality in machine music because it's made by people who have no grasp of chords, melodies, how you can make somebody tearful with a certain chord. They just get the family cat to walk across a keyboard, then the computer samples the sound and selects a tractor and a rocket launcher to go with it. The mechanics are simple. I've got a computer at home and getting a mechanical guitar is easy. It's also horrible.”

What the world desperately needs, then, is a dose of XTC. Fossil Fuel will fire up the interest and Partridge is positively brimming with songs after the four-year enforced lay off. “Some of the best things we've come up with I have to say, immodestly. Now all we need is a record contract.” Are you receiving him?

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