XTC's Pop Paradox

Monday, March 22, 1999


Reclusive Brits continue on path of brilliance

Jacqueline Boone. Jacqueline Boone is a freelance writer.

IN THE SOMEWHAT shabby, post-industrial town of Swindon, England - the British cultural equivalent of, perhaps, Elizabeth, N.J. - reside two modest, middle-aged family men.

Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, the two unassuming musician-composers who comprise the core of XTC, have amassed more than 20 years of material that makes them one of rock's most innovative songwriting duos since Lennon and McCartney.

But if the Beatles were pop's ultimate success story, fortune and the music industry did not smile on XTC. After a promising debut in 1977 - and several years of nonstop touring and recording - frontman Partridge developed debilitating stage fright, suffering panic attacks of such severity that they culminated in a nervous breakdown in 1982.

XTC has not performed live since. Although its post-touring period resulted in some of its most commercially viable singles, including "Mayor of Simpleton" and "Dear God," XTC, unhappy with its lot at Virgin Records, went on strike following the 1992 release of Nonsuch, its 10th studio album. After Virgin released the band from its contract, XTC faced another major turning point when longtime guitarist Dave Gregory quit.

The paradox of XTC, and perhaps the secret behind its longevity and creative evolution, has been its ability to turn what many would consider a misfortune - namely, a lack of commercial success - into a perverse advantage. As with the Beatles, the end of touring marked the beginning of some of XTC's most elaborately produced and brilliant studio work.

Consequently, although XTC has sold more than 3 million albums to date, the group's reclusiveness has ensured that many die-hard XTC record buyers have never seen the band perform live.

Nevertheless, for those who have discovered XTC, there is no turning back. The band's inaccessibility has helped fuel a cult-like reverence, and "Chalkhills," the band's official fan Web site, is one of the most visited music sites on the Internet.

The music of XTC incorporates such influences as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, English pastoral elements, psychedelia, punk and British music hall. Its material has been covered by artists as diverse as Joe Jackson, Sarah McLachlan, Ruben Blades and the Verve Pipe.

For those fans who have eagerly awaited an end to the XTC drought, there is finally a feast of material to compensate for the seven-year creative famine. XTC Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music (Hyperion), co-written by the band and journalist Neville Farmer, was published last fall. Following the formation of its own label, Idea Records, XTC's Transistor Blast, a four-CD box set featuring BBC sessions, live performances and rarities from 1977-1989 was released in November, distributed in the States by TVT Records.

And late last month, Apple Venus Volume 1 (TVT / Idea Records), XTC's collection of new orchestral / acoustic compositions, was released. Partially recorded at Londson's Abbey Road Studios and at Moulding's home studio in Wiltshire, Volume 1 will be followed later this year by electric material now being compiled for Apple Venus Volume 2.

During a recent visit to New York, Partridge reminisced about the long-ago touring life of the youthful XTC, as reflected in some of the exuberant early performances captured on Transistor Blast.

Partridge said he initially found it "very enjoyable to walk on stage . . . like walking into your living room." But, he said, "It really started to get to me around 1981, 1982 . . . I felt terribly trapped by it all."

Each performance "seemed choreographed: every move, everything we said or did - even the chat between the songs, until my mind was off in a different place . . . I was on auto pilot. And I thought of the weirdest things, like: 'I wonder what kind of furniture I'll like when I'm 50,' or 'How many pairs of socks have I got that I really, really like wearing at the moment.' "

The disillusionment of touring on "25 pounds a week wages" and the desire for a "normal life, kids, and a house" were what finally compelled Partridge to abandon live performance - which he now humorously equates with "corralling people into huge barns like a Nuremberg rally" - for the sedate seclusion of "backward old hayseed Swindon."

Ironically, it is this very seclusion that has seemingly freed Partridge to produce some of his most intensely revelatory music. While on the outs with Virgin, Partridge and Moulding amassed 42 songs - 11 of which were ultimately selected for inclusion on Apple Venus Volume 1 - including two that Partridge originally balked at recording.

One was "Your Dictionary," a brilliant deconstruction of his disintegrating marriage, which he wrote in 1993, "in a real angry bitter mood after being the wronged husband; Mr. Champion Cuckold." The second song Partridge reluctantly included was "I Can't Own Her." Written about the impossibility of truly possessing another person in a relationship, Partridge now admits the song "brings a lump to my eyeballs whenever I hear it."

XTC's decidedly modest slice of fame has also served the band well in coming to terms with the paradox of being pop maestros who have reached a graceful, albeit still-lean, middle age. Despite the fact that the Beatles have infused XTC's compositional and musical style to such an extent that XTC's latest effort could be the product of Paul McCartney's evil twin, Partridge is quick to voice his disillusionment with "people I admire" - including McCartney - "who've lost it splendidly. I lay in the dark sometimes and think, Jesus, if I could meet this person, [I'd] grab him by the lapels and smack him in the face and say: 'What's the matter with you?' "

Although Partridge is the first to ruefully admit that "I'm not a has-been, I'm a never-been," XTC's lack of commercial success has helped him to jealously retain the quality that he feels other aging pop musicians have relinquished: namely, "a voracious hunger, but not for the standard rock and roll feast, I'm afraid."

Although XTC may never achieve success in Beatlesesque dimensions, Partridge's artistic goals remain both personally modest and aesthetically ambitious: namely, to "do music until I'm on my deathbed" and "die at the age of 100 with a song on my lips."

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

Copyright Newsday Inc., 1999
[Thanks to Wesley Hanks]