Four Years on Strike and Locked in a Cupboard

On The Street, Sydney
16th October 1996
by Mike Gee


Andy Partridge, funny bloke and principal songwriter with Brit quasi-psychedelic rustic pop essentials, XTC, is having one of those days.

"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 here - there's enough gold discs here, one must be ours. 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 I'm 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, 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 Fossil Fuel: The XTC Collection, a ‘best of’ from the last twenty years.

Flashback to Swindon, Wiltshire sometime in the mid 1970s. The local outfit is called The Helium Kidz, a Midlands imitation of the by-now legendary New York Dolls. They don't last but from their rapidly forgotten remains rises XTC who will not only survive 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. 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 up 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 a kind of symbolic thing. It ends the album and the relationship."

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

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. By 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, songcycle Skylarking.

"I can't listen to the early stuff anymore," says Partridge shuffling for a better resting place. "Its like a photo of yourself as a teenager with acne and a haircut like a member of Slade (‘Cum on Feel the Noise’) - the gaucheness of youth.

"Our early records are mines, full of the naïve gaucheness of youth. I can't take it anymore. It's like anybody pulling out their worst clothes and showing everybody. 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. The 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 it on the sheets in the 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 songwriter hits a curve where it starts getting better and better. When Neil Young started out he was bloody awful but he got better. Elvis Costello too. At first 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 it's monotone. Black is black only if white is next to it."

Andy Partridge is a man who steps 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.

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. (Who 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 to make someone 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."

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[Thanks to Colin Wright / Helen Murray]