Ordinary People

One Two Testing - Zigzag
October 1986
by Don Perretta


'I hate Rock'n'Roll'. Quite a brash statement from someone who's putting out his eighth album in nine years. I can almost hear the reaction already - 'What, you mean XTC are still around?'. Not only are they still around but this month sees the release of their latest LP, Skylarking, a work that proves Swindon's finest remain a vital musical force. By the industry's standards, nearly a decade in the business qualifies for a gold watch and, when that career has been as tortuous as XTC's, a commendation for devotion above and beyond the call of duty.

'Virgin must be tearing their hair out'. Andy Partridge fends off his dog Charlie as we sit in the front room of his modest suburban town house in Swindon Old Town. 'Our career's been like a donkey's hind leg, one single will do well, then another barely makes the Top 40, the next one gets to Number 132, and the one after gets in the Top Ten, then we start all over again. Virgin have never known quite how to promote XTC, a band who have recorded some of the best pop music of the post-punk era and yet, apart from two brief interludes (the hits 'Making Plans For Nigel' and 'Senses Working Overtime') have never been more than a sizeable cult act. To be fair. the band haven't helped themselves. 'Yes, we're pretty terrible. The problem is that none of us has a streak of showbiz in them.' Fellow ordinary people Colin Moulding (bassist and angler) and Dave Gregory (guitar collector) aren't even around to do interviews. 'We're perfectly comfortable in private, but it's the cultivation of a public image that we're nor cut out for, that's really difficult. The private image is fine, because that comes naturally when the bedroom door shuts at the end of the night, you lay there on the bed farting and reading your comics and that's you. But a farting fat comic collector doesn't make for centre spreads in the glossies.'

The public and performance aspect of being in a band has taken its toll because XTC have not toured since 1982, when life on the road became too much to bear for Mr Partridge. 'I threw a wobbler upon wobbler in Los Angeles, my nerves got so bad that I felt physically ill. I was sick. I couldn't stand up. I was just frightening myself to death.' In retrospect he can now view it all calmly, but at the time it must have been horrendous. 'I thought I was going mad. It went beyond stage fright, as soon as I thought about performing I'd get ill, and then it became that I was scared to go down the pub, even go past the garden gate because I thought people would see me and expect me to be like showbiz or something. I even went to a hypnotist who made me re-live a load of gigs under hypnosis. It was really weird.

At that point, just after the English Settlement LP, XTC ceased to be a touring band and slimmed down to a three-piece (drummer Terry Chambers high-tailed it down under to be with his Australian girlfriend). Three albums have been recorded since then, but because the band haven't been on the road, they have maintained a terribly low profile, presenting their label with a tricky promotional problem. In that time, XTC have changed a great deal, have become peculiarly rural English and mellow. A far cry from the jagged. angular pop of the late '70s and early '80s. Partridge is well aware of the change.

'I saw myself on the telly the other night on a punk retrospective programme and I was giggling with embarrassment. We looked so young in '77, so mannered. Now we sound more like John Denver. I'm sure that if I could have heard then the kind of music that we're doing now, I could have just chucked my guitar and said "shit they've turned into the Strawbs".'

Prompted by the success of label mates Simple Minds in America, Virgin's answer to XTC's problem was to insist they write songs with a US audience in mind. Anyone familiar with XTC's material will know that that idea was obviously a non-starter. Songwriters Partridge and Moulding are simply not cut out for that sort of thing. So the only alternative was an American producer. Enter Todd Rundgren, and a whole new truck-load of problems. Partridge and Rundgren, to put it simply, hated each other.

'I haven't got a good word to say about the man. It was dreadful from day one. Geffen, our label in America, insisted that I wasn't to interfere, that we were going to be produced. Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of the music and to be fair, the production's not bad, but you will never know how unpleasant an experience it was for me. Rundgren's influence on the album is very strong, even before they had set foot in the studio, as when he was presented with three albums worth of material, he chose the tracks (fourteen, it's a long album) and the running order, totally autonomously. It turned out to be an ominous sign of things to come.

'He was totally at the other of the creative universe to me. I'd say "great let's put some fuzz guitar on here" and he would say [assumes deep American voice] "my God that's the last thing I'd ever put on that track. I don't hear a fuzz guitar, I hear a mandolin". And it was like that all the time. His tastes were completely contradictory to mine.

The problems didn't stop there. When it came to the design of the album cover, Partridge (an art school graduate, aren't they always?) had put together a concept of the male and female pubic area (just the hair, no wobbly bits) arranged with a floral decoration. Virgin vetoed it on the spot. 'I couldn't believe it because it was so inoffensive, just body hair, nothing else, but they made me agree to them taking a mock-up round the retail record chains to see what sort of reaction it would get.'

As it turned out, Our Price, in their infinite wisdom, said they would stock it but wouldn't display it in the shops, customers could only ask for it at the counter, but that if there was any fuss or publicity, they wouldn't even stock it. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about the perversity of the puritan lobby in this country. Obviously Virgin had no choice but to shelve the idea, but it's ironic that this came from a company that went to court to defend the use of the word 'bollocks', Partridge put the same thing to the Virgin big boys.

'They told me that you can show a nipple, say anything you like, but you can't show a pube!' Poor lads. Even when that was sorted out, when it came to filming the video for the single 'Grass', a very summery. pastoral number, on Wimbledon Common, it pissed down all day.

Despite all this, Skylarking has turned out to be a pretty fab slab. The creative tension between Mr P and Mr R has produced something rather special, and in the Brecht/Weill-inspired track 'The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul', conspired to create a song that would never otherwise have been possible for XTC. And wait 'til you see the video. You'd never have believed it was filmed in the pouring rain.

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Transcribed by Stefano De Astis.