And the band did not play on

The Daily Telegraph
Thursday, 6 February 1997
Issue 624
etcetera | Rock

The English rock band XTC have just emerged from a four-year strike. David Gritten hears why they did it

THE notion of pop stars going on strike is an amusing one. If nurses, train drivers or teachers decide to withhold their labour, the effect on us is obvious. But pop stars? It's hardly holding the nation to ransom.

"Seems strange, doesn't it?" muses Andy Partridge, of XTC, the quirky, melodic English group who have survived the vagaries of musical fashion for two decades. "I can see the funny side. I mean, going on strike is something you aren't supposed to do in this business."

Yet XTC did just that - and won. They told their long-time label, Virgin, that they would make no more records for it back in 1992, and demanded a release from their contract. Virgin refused to comply - so XTC, as it were, downed tools. Only now has Virgin finally agreed to let them go and find a new label.

What made the trio take such a tough stance against Virgin, for whom they had recorded since 1977? "Something was very amiss," says Partridge. "We estimate Virgin made in excess of £30 million from us over the years - yet we never went into profit for the first 18 years of our career."

Partridge, a droll man of 42 and an unlikely pop star with his cropped hair, tinted glasses, baggy sweater and Hush Puppies, is in the living-room of his terraced house in Swindon, XTC's home town. His colleagues, bassist Colin Moulding (who along with Partridge writes XTC's songs) and guitarist Dave Gregory, live in comparable homes locally. "Tells you everything, doesn't it?" says Partridge. "We've been going this long, and we live like this. It's a nice enough house. But it's terraced. And it is in Swindon."

Certainly it's far from the stately Home Counties piles you associate with rock's aristocracy. Consider that XTC have made 15 albums, enjoying several hits (Making Plans for Nigel, Senses Working Overtime, Sgt Rock, The Mayor of Simpleton) and the disparity is more glaring.

How did it happen? Partridge insists XTC's contract with Virgin was badly structured from the outset: "It was a low percentage for us, and even from that they cut away more. We'd have to pay for our own recording sessions - which we then didn't own." In the end, he said, the group earned "fractions of a penny" for each record sold.

They had wanted to extricate themselves from Virgin since the late 1980s, when they were also fighting a former manager in the courts. "Our contract was up, but our legal bills were around £400,000. Virgin loaned us money to pay off those debts, but insisted we sign a new contract on the same terms for another six years. They had us over a barrel."

But then XTC and Virgin had long had their differences. "They have never known quite what to do with us," Partridge says. "We didn't fit into the punk mould at first, which was an annoyance for them. Then we weren't New Romantics. Nor were we Power Pop. We have this strange, English, almost rustic edge."

It's true. XTC lyrics are littered with English references, many from a more innocent era: Oxo, Happy Families, Avon ladies, England's Glory matches, church bells, caravans parked in front gardens. Few other pop groups would title a song Grass, and write about the green stuff found on lawns. If the music industry is a family gathering, Partridge says, "XTC are like the clumsy cousins, sitting in the corner shyly with their specs on".

Their albums sell 500,000 apiece in the US, but Virgin wanted more, and asked them to make their music simpler, harder-driving, more friendly to American radio. One executive rejected an XTC album and suggested they emulate the prodigiously bearded American rockers ZZ Top. The idea mystified them. "I can't even grow facial hair," says Partridge.

The final straw came with their 1992 single Wrapped in Grey - a lush Partridge ballad which anticipated the recent Burt Bacharach vogue. "It's one of my best songs ever, but Virgin put out a few thousand copies then took it off the shelves as soon as possible," he mourns. "They stifled it in the crib. So we had a label not prepared to let us earn anything, and also dabbling in infanticide."

XTC announced strike action. "It was all we had over them, to withhold our talents." By now they were pleading poverty: Moulding and Gregory were working collecting abandoned rental cars, while Partridge was producing other artists, including Blur's second album.

They suffered four hard years. Most fans assumed XTC had split up. Partridge went through a painful divorce, and a middle-ear infection left him deaf for several months. "I'm glad we struck," he says. "It was absolutely necessary."

Virgin was invited to reply to Partridge's complaints, but declined. In fairness to the company, XTC are not easy to handle; they have not toured since 1982, when Partridge announced that live concerts caused him to suffer panic attacks and other ailments. XTC are not alone in squaring up to record companies. George Michael and Prince have had battles with Sony and Warner Bros respectively: Michael took his case through the courts in a blaze of publicity, while Prince never ceased recording.

The case closest to XTC is American singer-composer Michelle Shocked, who last year ended a four-year strike against Mercury Records. The company finally agreed to tear up her contract. Her fight triggered a debate in America about music business practices.

"Do you ever hear of an actor who has to give up his first million dollars pay from a movie to get it made?" says music attorney Don Engel. "Yet all artists pay recording costs from their advances. It's counterproductive and unfair." Songwriter Van Dyke Parks has written of the "abusive nature" of recording contracts, and calls music industry bosses "robber barons".

Partridge agrees. "The industry runs on signing young bands with a short shelf-life. There's an assumption they'll soon argue among themselves and go back to the building site. Ninety per cent of the groups you see on Top of the Pops aren't making a penny, and never will. Record companies dislike bands with longevity, because eventually they want to know where the money's going. Hang around long enough and your eyes get opened."

Still, XTC are content after their strike. "We're free and we've stored up 40 songs to record," Partridge says. "What we want now is a profit-sharing deal, preferably on a small label who respect what we do and love us for what we are."

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Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997.
[Thanks to Stephen Varga]