Andy Partridge: A trip to the countryside

January 1987, Köln, Germany

I added information on specific german phrases and stuff, marked with [-ed.trans.].

residing in The Lemon Lounge

A n d y  P a r t r i d g e
A trip to the countryside

Andy Partridge, Duke of the Stratosphear, the Madam Pompadour of the world's second-most loved critics band after the Beatles, is letting Diedrich Diederichsen [head of Spex - ed. trans.] and an army of tin soldiers march up. The christmas special for all our XTC fans who always write letters to us.

Pure coincidence, that XTC in their history were from time to time up to date, pure coincidence. Actually they were only up to date in 77, says Mr. Partridge, only to be continually developing backwards afterwards.

Today Andy Partridge is still living in Swindon, an hour on the train west of London-Paddington, with wife, kid and dog. The house is furnitured in a queer - swedish style, with some Biedermeier elements, very clean and has a little garden with groceries which you can access via the kitchen. Andy Partridge is serving large amounts of excellent coffee, because not long ago someone gave him a coffee machine. Before that he had never drunk coffee: "It's just like that with music today, because these machines exist, a certain sound is produced, and they all sound the same. I am against perfection, I'm for ugliness, inperfect bits, handcraft."

In this moment, as in many more to come, a frightening barking fills the tape. That's the voice of "Charlie Parker", Andy Partridge's race dog. I know a WG [short german for Wohngemeinschaft, meaning several people sharing a flat/house - ed.trans.] cat called "Heidegger", so I know this kind of humour. But Andy Partridge wanted to register his race dog in a race-dog club and they didn't accept "Charlie Parker" as a name, since all the dogs had to have these pseudo-aristocratic names, since they are of high blood. So he invented the name "Charles Parker of Birdland", which was okay for the dog club folks. "Apparently there were no jazz fans in that club."

But apart from there there are enough around now?
"Yes, Jazz is en vogue now, which I have nothing against, it's always good, when the bandwith of music gets greater and wider, but I think, the youth should not only plunder the recent past. I want street gangs, that look like Beethoven." XTC on the other hand are not en vogue. A circle of true and good friends holds their banner up, new friends of delicate songcrafting, which haven't been born at the time of the real Beatles, are now being interested in 60's-influenced, artistically woven songs, as our last readers' letter's page proves. Few years back there had been a driving, aggressive side to XTC's music, which had been driven back since English Settlement, the reason partially being that Andy Partridge, the more aggressive songwriter in XTC, has stopped all secular activities, especially live concerts, which "stressed me physically and psychically." As is known, he had had breakdowns on stage. But not only John Lennon, but Captain Beefheart has always been an idol for him: "Yes, that's true. A record like Trout Mask Replica is in my opinion music for the 90's. But XTC has developed back into pop history in a way, that we have now arrived at a time, where Captain Beefheart didn't exist. We left Sergeant Pepper and Revolver behind, and are now somewhere at Rubber Soul. When we'll arrive somewhere at Tommy Steele, we'll probably explode and vanish into air." Because the world of pop music has, without anyone noticing, been splitting up in two hostile, contradicted blocks, the craftsmen and the technocrats. The question, if you can use sampled sounds, the whole technical aspects of music, hadn't interested the music journalists. But now, five years after Depeche Mode, and ten years after Kraftwerk, there's a deep dissent in the pop world, far from stylistic, political or musical problems, which I could very strongly feel during my stay in England. Instruments or machines, that's supposed to be the question here.

Andy Partridge, a 100% craftsman, approaches this problem emotionless, as he does most things: being accused of something, he takes it as a compliment, declares, that just now another interesting facet of his personality was discovered. But of course he dislikes all computer music, as it strives towards perfection and does not allow eccentrism. So he and XTC guitarist Dave Gregory often listen to old stereo records, turn the balance to one side and discover wonderful things. For an example, in "All You Need Is Love" you can hear the string section discuss the partiture, while at the end of "A Day In The Life" a chair is making noises and someone goes: "Shhh!", and in a Beach Boys song a cup of coffee is spilled and someone says: "Sorry!". Andy Partridge wishes, there were more things like that today, and says he loves the Shaggs. He says: "Music nowadays has reached the point where the arts were when photography was invented. The whole computer/sampling technology is similar to photography."

So the next step would now be to make abstract music. But Andy Partridge, when you see how he keeps his 3-person-household ("Ah, the milkman. Where was that cheque for the milkman again?"), how he's a real privateer and doesn't have much interest in great debates, has decided for a different way: "You could see me as an old-fashioned carpenter. The people are all buying this industry furniture, while I continue with the good old carpenting traditions. And someday the people will come back and see what artistry we have developed. Since English Settlement we have always dug deeper into the song form, always making it finer. And someday the people will appreciate that the more." The studies of song form go as far as with Dave Gregory, who tries to reproduce any somehow complicated, twisted song in pop history, from "Gypsy Eyes" to "21st Century Schizoid Man" on his 4-track, so you can't hear the difference to the original. I could hear a very impressive demonstration of that with "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Someone who has done that before, and long before pop music rotted into its postmodernist phase, is Todd Rundgren on his LP Faithful. "Only Dave does it much better", says Andy Partridge. XTC were not happy with their last producer Rundgren. Virgin presented them a list of American producers, because they believed it was the only way to get onto the US market. Todd Rundgren offered himself, because Dave Gregory was an old fan of his and Andy Partridge had heard that Rundgren liked "a certain Englishness". Which is important to him, XTC's "Englishness". "Then we flew to Woodstock, where he has his studio, and were put into the guesthouse, an old shed, where we were stuck. Yes, it was an expensive lesson. All he said was the contrary to what I thought. In the end we gave in. I'm still happy with the songs that are on the record, although we had many more good songs recorded. Rundgren choose the songs - but this was the first XTC record which wasn't made under our control." Now Rundgren has to be paid off the profits for Skylarking, which will lead to the fact, that it's not going to win any money for the band, according to Rundgren's price.

To cheer Andy Partridge up, I told him about the true fans in Germany, and he fetched his favourite fan letter from his archive, from Phoenix, Arizona. An anonymous redneck writes to "Andy Partridge, c/o Virgin Records/fanmail" a strong insulting tirade on some of the songs from Black Sea. If Partridge would now make vows for niggers and if he didn't fear the British Empire going down through foreigners. The writer preferred to stay anonymous, since Partridge otherwise would surely send some monsters from Brixton down to Phoenix, who would then rape the white women in his neighborhood. The interesting bit about this document of authentic, dangerous bullshit is the fact, that the author has apparently well studied some XTC songs. Strange audience has this band. "Yes, I think, actually only few people have followed us all the way. We have changed quite a lot. Some time ago I saw a TV programme about ten years of Punk, and we were in it. Strange to watch this young guy, with more hair on his head, aggressive, trying to annoy his audience. Most people know us since our third LP Drums and Wires, since ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, but on our fifth album was our biggest hit,‘Senses Working Overtime’, that was on English Settlement, our best-selling album. Afterwards we stopped playing live and went for Technicolor sound. Until then we only had two colors, black and white with a bit of red for the effect, but since English Settlement we do albums in Technicolor."

Technicolor may be, but where is the interesting dimension, I mean, an artist does want to have an effect? (At least that's what you think, but then you forget all the musicians who work silently on their music, don't care for nothing and wait that someone discovers them, takes their music away and throws it onto the market, or don't even wait for that, simply have enough to do with themselves. Inherent to this attitude often is a degree of frigidity.) Partridge: "We don't want to take music somewhere, we want to leave it where it was, and do our craft get better in it. Especially by not touring, by leaving the outside world, my eyes were opened and this new Technicolor world appeared." I'd say no, just in dialogue with world it is possible to put it into music, and not by circling around oneself all the time. Wasn't the Dukes of Stratosphear album an extrovert act, a statement to, a parody of the Psychedelic revival? "No, not at all. The record was meant to be a ‘Thank You !’ to all the heroes of the psychedelic era, to a youth in the 60's, especially 67, where everything was uselessly pschedelic, stupidly pschedelic, just like 77 everything was uselessly punk, maybe we should do such a 77 album one day. I wanted to say thank you for a life that consisted of listening to ‘See Emily Play’ and peek under girls' skirts. Hot, lazy nostalgia! Furthermore we tried to reconstruct the sounds, the elements of certain idols like Syd Barrett, Yardbirds or Electric Prunes as exact as possible. ‘Bike Ride to the Moon’ is obviously Syd Barrett, Colin's singing was more Manfred Mann than anything else. We hung psychedelic record covers in the studio, burnt scent sticks and John Leckie, our producer, now really calls himself Swami Anand Nagara, since he joined the orange ones, this Indian guru - what's his name again? - and he sat there hippie like, very relaxed and cool and was the right guy for the job. Also we have this photo on the cover, that shows him at the age of 17, when he had his first job as an engineer at Abbey Road studios. His job was to cleansweep a tape with a session of John Lennon and Eric Clapton, and we said: ‘That's the qualification we want!’ We produced the album in a former church, that was important, too, the whole sick bombastic pathos of that era, I mean: ‘Mass in F Minor’, that's what pop albums were seriously called back then. And we wanted that nonsense in the lyrics, too. With the album we did a movie, in the fashion of short pop movies, as they were shown in the cinemas before the main film started, like Pink Floyd did in the 60's."

There is this joyful rebuilding, decorating, fixing again. We begin to wander round the house. To climb the stairs we have to get over two little fences, babysafe, then you climb a small ladder and are under the roof, in Andy Partridge's play room. Here he really acts his childlike attitudes out. I had heard before about his love for tin soldiers, but this truly was a bit mad. The armies of every wars and nations were standing, originally painted, in authentic battle situations, in other shelves fantasy armies in Partridge - designed fantasy uniforms were fighting fantasy wars, to that there's the collected history of several fantasy states, written by Andy Partridge and documentated since the 30 year war 1618-48. With that he followed the idea, that the European borders had formed differently at that time, and from there speculated on over the centuries. He fights the battles in a system not unlike that in fantasy role games, with dice. On a huge green table he sometimes mixes all kinds of soldiers, the wonderful Airfix plastic soldiers with cultivated tin armies and selfmade mini-regiments that he does from curling forms for women's hair; then they get painted uniforms and oversized banners with crests, national flags and military symbols put inbetween. In another corner of the room lie a bunch of self-developed table games of high finesse, not all prototypes are there, some are in London waiting for industrial production in a game company. In the basement there are even more shelves with fought out battles ("But I'm a pacifist" he says from time to time), original chewing gum pictures from the 50's, telling the story of WW II, hanging there, and a collection of flags from all over the world completes the impression of a kid's room from an upperclass family from the turn of the century. In another room a collection of masks, Andy Partridge poses as Madame Pompadour. Now he is in his element: we make photos. His costume ideas are numerous, but then my train leaves.

He is the nicest guy I have met in pop business. I guess you can only be like that when you leave the outside world outside.

That there's not much left from that old XTC parole "This Is POP!" in such a world, where pop is what the Trash Groove Girls are, is clear, but then maybe such a nice infantility is pop, who knows?

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