Pure XTC - Art for Art's Sake


By Michael Amicone

photo by Greg Allen

How dare they?” shouts XTC's Andy Partridge in mock fury at the audacity of the American record-buying public not affording XTC the amount of commercial success commensurate with their talents.

An amusing display of English puckishness, but not all that far from the truth. Since their first LP in 1978, this British art-rock outfit has been making consistently high quality records, filled with bright pop hooks, insightful and clever wordplay and always imaginative arrangements. Why then has the band not been a permanent fixture on the U.S. record charts?

“I really can't complain about anyone's lack of knowledge about us,” explains Partridge. “I don't mind that. It's getting better. What does irk me is our situation in England where we're banging our head against a brick wall persistently, and they completely ignore us. They just don't like us in England.”

Early U.S. chart returns on their new two-record set, Oranges & Lemons, are encouraging (as of presstime, it was #52 on the Billboard album charts). With the single, “The Mayor Of Simpleton,” picking up substantial alternative radio airplay, XTC may finally be on the verge of some real American chart success.

The band can point to their last album, Skylarking as the turning point. A few years ago, in addition to their diminishing British returns, their U.S. audience was shrinking to a commercial nadir. Two excellent albums—Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984) met with little or no U.S. reaction, the former reaching #145 and the latter, #178. It wasn't until 1986's Skylarking, produced by Todd Rundgren, that XTC reversed their sagging American career.

“Morale-wise, we were at a very low point with Virgin Records in England and with Geffen Records in America when it came time to make Skylarking,” remembers Partridge. “And Virgin said, ‘We really want you to have a producer who will produce you, and we want you to shut up and be produced.’ And we got well produced, but I couldn't shut up about it,” quips Partridge. “Todd gave Andy a damn good producing,” says XTC's Colin Moulding in stern English schoolmaster tones, adding his two pence to the Rundgren experience.

The Sgt. Pepper-spiced Skylarking blended swirling sound collages with image-rich Sixties song sensibilities. It was a pop masterpiece that helped frame XTC's art-for-art's-sake purism in a more commercial setting, and was a mid-sized hit for the band in the U.S.—quite an achievement for a band whose previous two albums failed to even crack Billboard's 100.

“Dear God,” a Todd Rundgren-produced song not included on the original issue of the LP, helped XTC right their stateside career fortunes. Written by Partridge as a snide putdown of religion, it sparked so much controversy and radio airplay when it first appeared on an English EP that Geffen hastily inserted it and rush-released a second edition of the album.

Though “Dear God” and Skylarking resurrected their American career, butting heads with a strong-willed producer like Rundgren obviously didn't sit well with the band. “It depends on what you'd call a producer,” offers Colin Moulding, bassist, songwriter and co-conspirator with Partridge. “In the old school of producers, like George Martin, they wanted to be almost the fifth or fourth member of the group; they wanted to share the musical experience. But all the producers that we've had through the years have mainly been glorified tape operators, really.”

Andy thinks that Skylarking is one of the band's most fully realized LPs, but the clash of musical wills between Rundgren and Partridge still leaves a bad taste in the songwriter's memory. “I never got on with him from the very second I met him,” states Partridge. “He's a control freak, and he has to do it his way, or you won't do it.”

While the band is quick to praise Rundgren's song sense and producing skills, it's quite another matter when assessing Rundgren's sound expertise. “He's a wonderful producer,” says Partridge, “but he's a wretched engineer.” “He's got the weirdest ears,” adds Colin. “All the records that he makes have no bottom and no top, just sort of a middly sound. When we got back to London, and we went to cut the album, we had to put on an enormous amount of bottom. And the mastering engineer was saying, ‘Who made this record?’”

For Oranges & Lemons, the band—singer-guitarist Andy Partridge, singer-bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist-resident instrumentalist Dave Gregory—set about finding a more compatible producer, and perhaps one that they could rein in when necessary. They finally settled on Paul Fox. “He came down to meet us,” recalls Partridge, “and we had a few beers and a couple of sandwiches. And he was so stupidly enthusiastic, we thought he's got the job.”

Formed in the industrial town of Swindon, England, XTC began their career in 1977 during the height of the punk explosion. Though the band—then a four-piece consisting of Partridge, Moulding, keyboardist Barry Andrews and drummer Terry Chambers—was lumped in with the punk explosion, they had little in common musically with their spiked-haired fellow Brits. “It was around 1977 that the music business started going ‘Hey, what else is there?’” states Andy of the burgeoning punk movement that helped puncture the bloated Seventies musical scene. “And record companies just snapped up everything—good, bad, ugly—they had the lot. If you had an acoustic guitar, you suddenly became punk-folk. In '77, they thought everything was punk. If you had dinner in '77, it was a punk dinner.”

Following two auspicious LPs, White Music and Go 2, the band scored a Top 20 hit in England with “Making Plans For Nigel,” a song from their 1979 album, Drums & Wires. Some U.S. success followed: 1980's Black Sea (still one of the band's finest) reached #41, and the 1982 two-record set English Settlement truncated onto a single record by their then-U.S. label Epic) reached #48—the latter including another English hit for the band, “Senses Working Overtime.”

During these years, the band's American label affiliation was in a constant stateside flux. Though they're signed to Virgin in England, their records have been licensed to or distributed by various American labels including RSO, Epic, Atlantic, and finally, Geffen. “We felt like a ping pong ball,” says Partridge. “You'd come here one week and you had one company, and suddenly, you'd get a telephone call and you'd be on another company.”

In addition to playing record company musical chairs, they were dealing with a less-than-healthy managerial situation—something they only recently legally extricated themselves from. “I Bought Myself A Liar Bird,” a song from The Big Express, was Partridge's way of venting his anger over the situation. “That was about our manager, the only manager that we've had to date, who we've just finished a ludicrously expensive litigation with. According to the conditions of the settlement, we mustn't slander him or expose him for the complete thief that he is.”

Also not helping their U.S. visibility was the band's decision, in early l982, to retire from live performing. The decision was a result of a nightmarish case of stage jitters. “You're supposed to start your career with stage fright and the more gigs you do, the better you get,” relates Partridge. “But it got worse. We were reproducing the same stuff night after night really badly. And I thought, ‘I'm not enjoying this. I'm scaring myself shitless every night, and causing myself physical problems as well as mental problems. We're losing money hand over fist, and we don't seem to be getting any more popular because of this.’”

In early 1982, XTC retired to the insular confines of the recording studio a la The Beatles, and shrank from a foursome to a three-piece when drummer Terry Chambers dropped out; earlier, keyboardist Barry Andrews had been replaced by Dave Gregory. Each of XTC's succeeding studio albums—Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984)—showed a band maturing in confidence, studio technique and songwriting skills, but losing ground commercially.

For Partridge, today's hit formulas are far too restricting. “Modern day single requirements are just too damn industrial,” laments Partridge. “It's gotta be 120 beats per minute. It's gotta have a huge bass drum and a big backbeat, and it's gotta have a sequencer going dadadadada...”

(L-R) Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (photo by Greg Allen)

Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding divide the songwriting chores. Partridge, who handles the bulk of the writing, describes how he painstakingly (with the emphasis on the pain) crafts material when it comes time to record a new album. “Every time that mystical phone call comes from the record company saying, ‘We're thinking about you doing an album shortly, do you hate any more songs?’— I think oh, no. And then I sit in front of a white exercise book, with a guitar on my lap, for day and days and days. And there's self-doubt and trauma, and bouts of drinking. And I think that's it. I throw the guitar in the corner, and say, “I'm not bloody going near that again. I've had it with this, I'm getting a bloody job working for me brother-in-law. Bugger the whole thing.’ And there's weeks and weeks of this, in which I'm ringing people up and saying, ‘Look, I don't want to tell Virgin, but I cant write anymore.’ This happens every time. And then a little song will pop out. And it'll be awful, but it's that first bit of solidified shit out of the way. And then, blah (as if throwing up), all the meal comes out after that.”

After the arduous process of assembling material is completed, the band wastes little time during the recording process. “I don't think that we could be one of those bands,” explains Partridge, “that sits there and says, ‘Right, here we are in the studio. What is it, a thousand pounds a second? Anyone got any ideas, then?’”

No one can accuse this band of running out of ideas. In addition to their XTC moniker, the band gave their late Sixties psychedelia-posturings full reign on the English EP 25 O'Clock (1985) and the LP Psonic Psunspot (1987) both of which they made under the auspices of their musical alterego, The Dukes Of Stratosphear (one of the band's original name choices).

What musical outlet do The Dukes afford the band that XTC doesn't? “You don't have to be yourself,” explains Partridge. “In the case of the Dukes, you can be any group from '66 to '68, doing any kind of style of song from that era. You don't have to be you. The pressure is completely gone. It's like getting musically drunk. Have a tin of Dukes Of Stratosphear beer, guaranteed to give you that authentic, late Sixties feel.”

Jokingly referring to the band as “single ignorant,” Partridge may one day have to eat his own words if their American success keeps snowballing. A few XTC hit singles on the charts would definitely be a pleasant and welcome change from the currently stagnating musical scene.

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[Thanks to Graeme Wong See]