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The Partridge Season


Virgin veterans XTC are under pressure to pull off a Pop success with their latest album, Skywalking. So is it open season on Andy Partridge? Chris Maillard takes aim...

XTC's new album, Skylarking, isn't a big hit with the band, the label — or, as yet the public. Andy Partridge feels under fire...

There are storm clouds gathering over Swindon. XTC, the West's secret weapon, have just released their eighth album Skylarking. But they're not entirely happy with it. And their label is not entirely happy with them. All in all, things in the XTC camp are not entirely happy.

"I think we're coming to a humpbacked bridge here," says Andy Partridge depressedly. "I think this humpbacked bridge is Virgin's frustration at us not selling mega-quantities, just reasonable quantities. So I think we could be in for a damn good kicking off of the label if this record doesn't make a big leap in their idea of what sales should be. I wouldn't personally be worried if we just managed to keep our heads above the water for a bit more time to go on with the enjoyable process of making records.

"But I can see this humpbacked bridge coming up, and if a side road doesn't appear labelled 'big hit' that we can go down then we could be in for a bumpy ride."

In some ways, you can see how bemused the record company's moneyman must be at XTC's determinedly round-the-houses approach to the 'business' of making music. Even in such a usually simple area as packaging, they relish the extraordinary; they've talked Virgin into putting out a round album (The Big Express), a double album in a single-style sleeve embossed to resemble grass (English Settlement), an album in a brown paper bag (Black Sea) and sundry other weird ideas including a free set of postcards (This World Over) and an album entirely covered in tiny print which you had to juxtapose carefully with the insert to read (White Music). Even such a simple idea as a collection of singles had attached to it another LP, Beeswax, containing the B-sides. One project, Andy Partridge's solo album The Lure Of Salvage was nothing more or less than Black Sea, remixed and fiddled with so drastically that it ended up completely unrecognisable. Bass drums were eq'd until they sounded like cowbells, guitar lines were reversed, bass replaced vocals and vice versa... yet another example of the Partridge perversity.

But if XTC are to find that side road and sell enough records to keep Virgin happy, they have to straighten themselves up, stick to the straight and narrow and produce a proper record. So to that end, the company (after all, it is managed by Richard Branson) sent them to Woodstock. And to the Bearsville studio of American Pop producer and renowned reclusive weirdo Todd Rundgren.

"Woodstock... a funny place," mused Partridge. "Highly touristy. Funny thing is, it's absolutely nowhere near where the festival was. The people who organised the festival didn't know what to call it, and they all came from Woodstock, so they called it the Woodstock festival. It was actually held 60 miles away. I suppose that's a pinprick in American terms, but in British terms it's like holding the Birmingham Pop Festival in Cheltenham. All these busloads of hippies turn to go 'oh wow, man' and there are 24-hour scented candle shops, tie-dye tee-shirt shops, and shops selling little squishy monsters made from playdo stuck together quickly..."

And talking of little squishy monsters, there was also Todd Rundgren.

"He was, yes, definitely a little squishy monster. To be polite, I haven't got a nice word to say about the bloke, actually."

It was, of course, Virgin's idea.

"I feel sorry for Virgin, because they've had us for nearly 10 years now. If I was them I wouldn't know how to sell XTC. We don't exactly help our own case, being a non-touring thing, and being sort of lowbrow people anyway. We're doing a photo session tomorrow and it'll be the first time we've been photographed for nearly five years. If we were any more low profile we'd be Peking Man or something.

"So I can't blame them for getting itchy fingers a bit. They can see our contemporaries like U2 and Simple Minds selling megabucks units in America, filling stadia all over the place while we're still only selling to 50-year-old Mexican artists out of their skulls on peyote who might have accidentally bought one of our albums in a cutout bin.

"Anyway, they said to us that we must start selling records in the States. And I think they thought that the big secret was to get an American producer to produce us and I was told to just shut up and be produced.

"Mind you, we had a bit of an underground resistance movement going — it was, like 'Quick, Todd's gone, let's re-record the piano and he'll smoke so much dope tonight he'll never notice.'

"He's a very clever bloke, Todd Rundgren, but his personality is just totally contradictory to mine. If I said 'that would sound great with a piano on it' he'd say 'no, I think it should have a mandolin' and I'd think 'shit, that was the last instrument I'd have in there'. His tastes were totally contradictory to mine, too.

"He did put an interesting angle on to the band, in that he magnified one particular facet, our smoother side if you like. It did crop up occasionally, but this album is very much of that style all the way through.

"When we started with Virgin they were much more the Rough Trade type of operation, now they're more EMI. Or MFI."

"The way he worked was that we gave him demos of loads of songs and he chose the ones he wanted and the order they were going in. There were loads of tracks I would have liked to put on which he said were 'outside the circle' — in other words they were political, or about religion, or whatever. He didn't want to do anything that dealt with bigger issues than boy-girl stuff.

"We gave him nearly three albums worth of material and he picked the songs and deliberately arranged them so it goes from day into night, or life into death, or spring into summer into autumn, or light into dark... or whatever, that kind of cycle idea. He actually put the demos into an order, so from the first day we went over we started working on the intro of song number one, and so on. A very strange but highly organised way of working.

"Funnily enough, his studio really isn't that great. I mean, he's got a few nice things, like he was given a Fairlight as a sort of promotional deal. But otherwise, it's stuck in kind of early '70s technology. It should have made big leaps by now, but it hadn't. He gets some quite good things out of it, mind, but I was a bit disappointed when I saw it. We wandered in and I thought 'God, is this it? Actually, it was a week before we even saw him, we were left hanging around for ages. But the studio — cheapo mixing desk, bits of old carpet and sitars hanging on the walls; like a demo studio. Still, it had a nice atmosphere. When we went out.

"This is the most we've ever spent on an album, as well. All the money went to Todd Rundgren of course, and his overheads must be very low because it's his own studio. But it did cost a bloody fortune."

So what happens if this album does become the massive success that Virgin want?

"I'll get myself out of the shit financially... and we'll be thrust into the limelight. Which, to be honest, I don't really fancy. All that stuff with Swedes in rucksacks appearing outside your window — 'hallo, we haf come all ze way from Gothenburg to see Andy' and they want to sleep on your floor and stuff. That really gives me the willies. I don't like to have my private life dented at all. That's one of the things that I fear; postal-working Cult fans or Killing Joke fans writing rude things on your mail because they know who you are; all that kind of thing I hate. I could do with the cash, though.

"Our up-and-down career has resulted in the money side of it being only just head-above-water. We actually made some money two years ago which was nice, but it's all gone again now because we had to pay this fortune to Todd Rundgren.

"I do a few little producing jobs to pay the rent; I did the Woodentops' first two singles on Rough Trade, and Doctor and the Medics I did, and an album for Peter Blegvad, who was another sad case of the company deciding he could sell in America. The second album was very straightened out, like bleeding Spandau Ballet or something, straight down the middle. A great shame, because he's a very intelligent bloke."

It seems very much as though Andy Partridge deliberately aims for left field, emphasising the quirky wherever possible.

"Yes, I would probably agree. I don't like the popular things, soap opera, the shit that's in the top 20, all that. I prefer things that you have to dig for a bit, like treasure. If you dig through all the muck there's one or two most amazing gems. And it's the most astonishing feeling of discovery when you find something like that, it's great.

"Of course the record industry doesn't work like that at all. But then I don't feel part of it. I see things on Top Of The Pops and I think 'oh my God'. That's the horrid end of it, the selling it. That might as well be ICI or Bata Shoes, any industry which sells its products.

"The good end of it is the making of music, the making sounds bit. The other stuff is the leechy bit. I make music because I like to make it, not because I'm designing a product to fit the market. I couldn't do that — and even if I could physically sit down and write a guaranteed number one, I wouldn't because I don't like the prostitution of it.

"Virgin, of course, don't see it quite like that. They've smelt blood with their huge successes — Culture Club, Phil Collins, Simple Minds — and they're getting itchy about XTC. When we started with them they were much more the 'Rough Trade'-type of operation, now they're more EMI. Or MFI. They obviously don't want to take risks, because risks don't make steady cash.

"That's not to say we're not straight. I think we're tremendously straight. Play one of our records next to a Sun Ra album and see which one sounds weird. Or for that matter, any of the stuff on the John Peel show, or 60 percent of the stuff on the Janice Long show. Next to that we sound like Hermans Hermits."

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Feelers On The Dealers

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The Famous Five

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Nov 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman





Related Artists:

Andy Partridge

Interview by Chris Maillard

Previous article in this issue:

> Feelers On The Dealers

Next article in this issue:

> The Famous Five

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