English Settlement


The Rise and Fall and Rise of XTC

Raygun magazine
Nº 63 january 1999
by Joe Silva

After surviving legal entanglement, personnel losses and numerous bouts of bad luck, XTC return with their first new album in seven years. Joe Silva ventures to the pop legends' hometown of Swindon, England to find out what went wrong and what's right again.

There's not much that's particularly pastoral about Swindon until you've been hurled through one of its busy traffic circles and out into the surrounding countryside. But at that point, not 10 minutes from the city center and just a little more than an hour's train ride northwest of London, you are at once hemmed in by an endless parade of green hills that roam on either side of the pavement.

While all the members of XTC of lived among Swindon's soot-scarred buildings at one time or another, bassist Colin Moulding now lives well outside the grimy borders of what was once the beating heart of the nation's railway industry. When Moulding opens the door in casual athletic gear, he looks less like a semi-obscure musician than a footballer on holiday. The only visible distinctions that can be applied to Moulding is that just past his threshold there is a sizable amount of recording gear in place. The band have staked out the two front rooms of his cozy home to finish up what will be their first collection of original material in over six years. This extended lull of activity is just another of the professional hiccups that have customarily plagued this band.

Since first joining the fray of post-punk outfits that swarmed across this sceptered isle over 20 years ago, their career has been marred by bad fortune and simultaneously blessed with some of the most exquisite pop to be laid to tape. Never quite configured for the mainstream, however, XTC only experienced brief brushes with commercial success. After swapping the original keyboard player Barry Andrews (later with Shriekback) for guitarist Dave Gregory in 1979, the band began to chart in the UK. But by 1982, with a top 10 hit on their home turf ("Senses Working Overtime") and a top five album to boot (the extraordinary English Settlement), everything went horribly wrong. Andy Partridge, the band's chief singer/songwriter, began to succumb to an extreme bout of road weariness, which eventually morphed into an uncontrollable case of stage fright. The situation levied a terminal blow to the band's live career and any hopes of their breaking the US market. Original drummer Terry Chambers, who furnished a fair portion of XTC's signature sound from behind his kit, left and never returned.

The band continued to produce stunning material, but fell largely into pop oblivion as far as the British press and record buying public were concerned. And despite regaining some ground when they masqueraded as the psychedelic band the Dukes of the Stratosphere [sic], it wasn't until 1986's Skylarking LP that a good portion of the music industry took notice of the band again. Propelled by the mild controversy of the deity-bashing single "Dear God", it seemed as if the band had accidentally been handed a second shot at some notoriety. But Partridge's firm stance against touring resulted in only respectable sales for Skylarking and their subsequent LP's.

But now there's fresh coal in XTC's engine. As Colin carefully steps into the makeshift control room and over a thick snake of cabling, he introduces producer/engineer Nick Davis who is sitting behind a large mixing console busily preparing to digitally transfer several reels tape into his computer workstation.

"And this," he says, pushing back the open door a little further, "is Andy."

For just a moment the words ring like those of the seasoned curator who regularly admits passing scholars in his home to view an exotic blossom or some sort of crumbling scroll. Looking up from a thick book, visibly detached from the proceedings around him, is the Wizard himself. Dressed in olive-drab T-shirt and an odd pair of pants that look as if they were cut from upholster's cloth, Andy Partridge is obviously no longer "pop-shaped." The hair has drastically receded, his frame looks fragile and concave at certain points, and he has paled to a precious snowy-white.

Davis begins to fiddle with a track, and only then does Partridge's attention come away from the book. The song that comes through the monitor is Moulding's "Fruit Nut," a catchy ode to the garden shed where he went to pass the tedium during the band's self-imposed exile from Virgin records. After a few moments, Andy leans over to begin politely relating some of the soul-killing experiences that XTC had to endure before they arrived at this stage of production.

Despite surviving longer than the other act on the Virgin roster (including founder Richard Branson himself), the band could not get the mega-label to give them a more equitable deal. Even though the band has sold millions of records over the last 21 years, they have only recently begun to see some profit. As told in the new book by Neville Farmer, XTC: Song Stories, The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music, Virgin had legal ownership over everything that Andy recorded -- and for time the demos he'd presented them for the new album were snared in their clutches.

The band even presented Virgin with the idea for concept album involving the mythical "Zither" label catalogue that Virgin had supposedly secured the rights to. XTC had written up an album's worth of "lost hits" they could record while disguised as mock bands such as the Captain Cooks or The Twelve Flavours of Hercules. But despite all the success the label and XTC received with the Dukes, Virgin balked at the new concept, and the idea was shelved. Matters arrived at a complete impasse. But after five years of legal wrangling and much frustration, Andy's demos were finally retrieved and XTC were freed from Virgin's grasp.

XTC immediately set upon reconstructing their withered career by forming their own label, Idea Records. Idea put a shiny new corporate face on the group, and Andy was able to shop his wares as a businessman with a marketable product instead of an obscure pop quantity. Deals were struck with Pony Canyon in Asia and Cooking Vinyl in Europe and the UK. In the States the bidding came down to two labels, and TVT -- known as the former home to nine inch nails and Underworld as well as a slew of soundtrack material -- got the unlikely nod. Work began on the long-awaited album at last and XTC finally seem to be back on the rails.

But their troubles were far from over.

"This album is so horribly jinxed," Andy says as Davis brings in a semi-psychedelic bit of feedback by guitarist Dave Gregory. "It's going to be a great record because of the shit we've had to wade through to get thus far."

As they traveled the long and twisty route to their resurrection, the band unfortunately wound up depositing several carcasses (metaphorically speaking, of course) by the roadside. They've shed at least one manager, a producer and one studio.

"We started in a nice studio in Kent that belonged to [Squeeze's] Chris Difford. But technically it was a nightmare. He was very embarrassed about it and said, ‘Look, you can have the remaining time for free.’ So when we took the remaining time, he tried to charge us, and when we didn't want to pay him, he stole our tapes. He's still got them.

So until the money ran out, work began again from scratch at Chipping Norton Studios in January '98 with longtime Abbey Road house engineer-turned-producer Haydn Bendall. By the time XTC arrived at Abbey Road themselves to record orchestral parts for the new album, the famed studio seemed like a luxury resort.

But perhaps more critically, Colin and Andy ended their musical partnership with long-standing guitarist Dave Gregory when he decided to pack it in during the recent sessions. By all accounts, the split was not particularly happy one, and hard-core fans responded with shock and dismay.

"Now the three-way tension is down to me and him and it's lessened off somewhat," Partridge says, looking towards Moulding. "The dynamic has changed. It was getting very difficult to work with Dave because it was ‘No!’ to everything. I had to say to him at one point, ‘Can you take a break? Because I want to do some vocals and I can't do them with you just shaking your head all the time.’ That day he packed up all his gear and left the studio."

But for the moment, there's nothing but hope and grinning satisfaction beaming from Andy's face. After a few moments of having a stranger around, he becomes much more involved in the ambient chit chat. His wit is brilliant and irrepressible, and eventually you realize that, for someone who's often viewed as one of pop's reigning introverts, he can hardly keep himself from being engaged in conversation. At the mixing console, Davis seems momentarily satisfied with the proceedings, and as he lowers the faders, Dave Gregory's guitar becomes the last sound to fade from the room.

Like the rest of Swindon, the pizza/Indian takeaway place where Dave Gregory huddles over coffee is swaddled in gray drizzle. It's been acknowledged everywhere throughout the realm that this may possibly be the worst summer of the British century. The cloud cover is so dense that the pretty weather lady on the television has nothing more to point at than a large cotton ball sitting off the coast of France.

Gregory, who's been with XTC over the last 19 years, is a tall and lanky man who is perhaps more quintessentially British than his former bandmates. He speaks in a high, hoarse whisper behind a Pepper-esque mustache that obscures the fact that he was actually the band's eldest member. Despite the acrimonious split, he is somewhat reluctant to register any complaints he has regarding his "mates" to the press, and he is visibly pained and uncomfortable speaking to anyone from behind such a fresh wound.

"The reason I left the band wasn't so much musical as it was personal-slash-political," he begins. "I don't what I'm going to be doing now. I'm 45 years old and I'm redundant. I'm not really qualified to do anything else but play my guitar."

Throughout the time that they were "on strike" from Virgin, Andy's comfort zone with computer-based production software grew to the degree that the demos he presented to the band were largely finished. This left little for Dave to tend to in the way of arranging or contributing parts once recording was set to begin.

But things truly began to sour when the band were deciding how to fashion their comeback. Despite being voted down by producer Bendall and the rest of the band, Partridge insisted that the new material be spread across two separate LPs -- the first volume to be largely orchestral and acoustic (or "orchoustic" as Andy refers to it) and the second to be more uptempo and centered around loud electric guitars.

When Gregory recounts all of this, his emotions become almost visibly knotted and his tone turns quietly evangelical.

"I know for a fact -- well, I mean, I'll go to my grave knowing -- that if we took three or four of the guitar songs mixed with seven or eight of the orchestral songs, it would've been XTC's finest hour. I absolutely believe that. I had to decide, ‘Do I want to do things Andy's way for the rest of my career or have I had enough?’ Sadly, I've had enough. My wanting to have my name on this record is basically what it came down to really and since there's nothing of me on it -- there's none of my input like there has been on previous records -- what's it going to come to? Am I going to take a third of the profits that this record makes? No, I wouldn't feel comfortable about that. The best thing to do is say, ‘Look, sorry, but I've got to go.’"

Gregory pauses in a moment of keen frustration and in his polite British manner, quietly wrings his hands rather than immediately airing his thoughts.

"Basically, I'm like an old-fashioned laborer that's been replaced by new machinery."

Not too long after Partridge and Moulding settle down to recount their take on this album' s cursed history, Davis lets go a few choice expletives from the control room. Apparently one of the tapes has not had the proper time coding written to it and cannot be synched with his computer. This means that there'll be a significant delay in today's work until this can be attended to. After some discussion, the turns out that the only remedy is to cart the tapes back to Haydn (who is some 200 miles away) to have them righted. This job will eventually fault to Colin, who before leaving, has enough time to tell his side of Dave's departure.

"Dave just wasn't happy with anything that was proposed," says Colin. "He really wouldn't come up with any counter-proposals as to what we should do. So in the end, I think we just got fed up with hearing ‘No’ all the time. And he said upon leaving that he thought that the songs we were choosing wouldn't make a very good collection."

And from Andy's viewpoint, at least, there's no hope for reconciliation.

"Never go back. Never go back. I couldn't work with him," Partridge says emphatically.

"I don't think he [Dave] would be interested." Colin adds, but you can tell there's something a bit more non-partisan in his stance.

"When I asked him to go home," Andy says, "and this sounds really cruel -- I thought, 'How can I think of a way to tell them I can't work with him anymore?' So I'm glad that he jumped and I didn't have to push him. He saved me the pain of having to ring up a friend of more than 20 years and [do that]."

The tapes and all the recording logs must now be loaded into Colin's car so that he can make the round-trip before it gets too late. But once he's on his way, several electric green glasses of Carol Mouldings excellent homemade ginger beer ("an ancient English psychedelic beverage" according to Andy) are tossed back and Andy begins to discuss some of the architecture behind the LP's design. To begin with, some well-loved artwork that featured peacock feathers had to be disposed of once he discovered the bird's plumage was thought to bring bad luck.

"I'm very superstitious and I've no idea [where that comes from] because I'm not religious at all. But religion and superstition are like yogurt -- it makes itself. Superstition makes religion and vice-versa. It's some folk-voodoo I caught way back when, but I still won't go under ladders or anything like that."

Considering all that Partridge has weathered in the gap between albums, it would seem that he's obviously been short a lucky charm or two for quite a while.

"For me, personally over the last five years, I've been through more of the mill than ever before. You know, your life goes on its path and suddenly a load of shit happens. For me it's been these last five years."

Aside from the trials of separating from Virgin, Partridges decade-plus marriage came apart, his prostate gland went awry and he actually went temporarily deaf in one ear after he blew out an ear drum. But physically and psychologically, he feels he's finally bounced back. Unlike Moulding, whose total output during their time off came to only a handful of songs, Andy's kept his songwriting muscles flexed by co-writing material with the likes of Stephen Duffy (Tin Tin), Harold Budd, Martin Newell, Terry Hall, Cathy Dennis, and several others. And while there may not be any particular visible scars from all the upheaval in his life's routine, he did not let his marital split creep into at least one of the songs on the upcoming record.

"I didn't want to do a whole thing of betrayal songs, but I allowed myself the luxury of one real bitter thing called ‘Your Dictionary.’ It's a little on the corny side, but everyone that's heard it says, ‘Wow! I really like the way that you've done that.’ A lot of divorced men have heard it said, ‘That's me!’ It's like I've written a little ‘Dear God’ for the divorced man."

Since he name-drops the left field US hit that largely salvaged their career, the talk turns to what sort of real democracy he actually affords his co-conspirators. Initially he insisted on abandoning "Dear God" as a B-side, not want to draw too much attention to what he considered to be a flawed song.

"I still think I'm pretty benevolent. If I catch myself being dictatorial, I feel terrible about it and try to then spend so many hours or days backpedaling and saying, ‘Look, I'm sorry. I was kind of a bit forceful there.’ But because we had so much time on our hands, because we couldn't work, these demos for this record were probably the most finished demos ever. So you find yourself spending a week doing a scratch string arrangement where before I would say, ‘Well, Dave can do that.’ Instead of leaving stuff to chance, you can get the electron microscope out and really zoom in. There are still areas where they get to come up with donations and ideas, but the older I get, the clearer I feel about the music. To some extent, I can go deeper in myself to find what's needed. Which is sort of a solo activity, I know. Some people think that's sad, but it's inevitable really. You just get good at your craft and you don't want anyone else fucking up your vision."

And right now his vision is as expansive as it's probably ever been. The first batch songs to appear rest on a canvas that encompasses cyclical composition ("River of Orchids"), cinematic classical stretches ("Easter Theatre") and bits of endearing whimsy ("I'd Like That"). The chorus of "Harvest Festival" is textbook McCartney; Moulding's "Frivolous Tonight" opens with shades of Brian Wilson. Partridge's use of the orchestra on tracks like "Greenman" is so well founded and astutely executed, it's not too difficult to see why he pressed Moulding and Gregory so hard to once again follow his lead.

He does admit, however, to having been somewhat dogmatic when it came to parceling out the songs for the new albums.

"We tried to do it as democratically as possible," he says. "But I did have gentle tantrums."

He also firmly contends that he tried to illustrate to Gregory that he was as involved, if not more involved, than the others when it came to the less guitar-oriented material.

"I tried to demonstrate to Dave that it wasn't about scoring personal points with how many instruments you're playing on any particular song," he maintains. "It's whatever's right for the song. If it needs a bass clarinet, which none of us can play, we'll get a bass clarinet player in. If it needs electric guitar, then we've got that covered. But he had this personal thing about going, ‘I'm not on this track!’ ‘Well, I'm not either, I'm just doing the vocal. The rest is the orchestra.’ ‘But you wrote it!’ ‘Well, somebody's got to write these fucking things! You write some!’

But beyond doling out the workload, or ancient history like the "Dear God" oversight, the principal reason that the band has wound up in the very un-rock 'n' roll circumstances of finishing up their record in someone's living room is because somewhere along the line the vision-thing overtook the budget-thing. And what of XTC's decision to sign to TVT, a label that's not known for its traditional pop catalog? Andy insists that TVT are "really passionate" about the new songs. They've agreed to the two volume concept for the new record and they've tried to prime the public's interest in the band again by releasing a boxed set of BBC sessions entitled Transistor Blast. The label may face a tough time when attempting to work the material beyond the band's core audience, nonetheless, since Andy is still not interested in any live performance situation. Unless the forthcoming videos draw sufficient attention, those who drive the airwaves may not be swayed to pay much attention.

"Well, neither of us has a clitoris or anything, so I don't think we'll wind up on American radio," says Andy. "That's not sour ovaries or anything, but it seems like a lot of [these] girl singers are just flavor of the week to me."

The uncertainties for this record's success don't appear to fluster Andy much, or add any weight in his eyes to Dave Gregory's argument that he's not competent enough to solely steer XTC's ship.

"He's got to trust me. What else is going to do? He's made a career of not totally trusting me. He surfed on this wave of discontentment and mistrust. But it's got him a house and guitar collection, so why should he moan?"

Andy asserts that he would have been supportive of Dave taking up other roles like sleeve design or video ideas but he brought little to the table outside of his guitar.

"It's like trying to sharpen a piece of iron on putty. You need another piece of iron to make sharp. And Dave just gives off these ultra-sad vibes [like he's] really upset about life. I do know how to carry him along anymore and I've given up on wanting or trying to change him. He's just set on this self-destruction course."

Whether Partridge is sensitive enough to Dave's frustrations after all this time may be hard to gauge, but ultimately he and Colin have always been the kernel of the operation.

"We're two songwriters that like to make records. And that's okay. It doesn't mean that I'm a bad person."

When we returned to Davis' mixing desk, he's running through bits and pieces of the song called "I Can't Own Her." Over the surrounding fields, the clouds have begun to pull apart and the sun begins to push past the drab afternoon sky. The track, when laid to its bare components, features a steady throb of Wilson-esque harmonicas against a pack of harmoniously sawing cellos. Over the top is the guide vocal that Partridge has recorded for the sake of the 40-odd piece orchestra that they airlifted into Abbey Road's famous Number Two studio.

With the volume completely filling the room, the cows in the field that closely neighbor the Moulding's drive have come to stand stoically by the big bay windows and listen. And just as Davis punches up the entire string section as they move throughout a loud and sweeping crescendo, the sun, as if cued by some unseen director, comes booming into the room. At this particular moment it's easy to imagine that the reason God made England's weather so dismal is so that, given the right soundtrack, he could create a wholly bucolic coincidence like this one.

And just then, somewhere right below his nose, a small but dreamy smirk begins to creep onto Andy Partridge's face.

Reproduced by permission.

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to John Thomson]