The XTC X-Perience
XTC, Andy Partridge
an audience with andy partridge, frontman for one of britain’s most original-sounding pop bands
AFTER MORE THAN A DECADE OF PROVIDING BRITISH POP WITH SOME OF ITS BRIGHTEST MOMENTS, XTC REMAIN A MYSTERY. HERE FRONTMAN ANDY PARTRIDGE GIVES HIS VIEWS ON FAME, FORTUNE, AND FIGHTING YOUR EX-MANAGER.
ISN'T IT FUNNY how you get images of people you've never met? Take Andy Partridge, for instance. Alter his abrupt retirement from the live stage, his self-imposed songwriting exile in Swindon, and a series of albums that showcased his penchant for pastorally English pop pieces, I always imagined him be living on a farm, talking to himself a great deal, and possibly raising sheep... or goats... or something of the like. Is this the man, or is this the myth?
As I clamber out of my taxi Partridge is already at the door. It's a normal looking semi in a quiet suburb of Swindon - the sort of street that Ray Davies could quite easily have written a song about... or maybe a rock opera. Partridge makes the coffee and talks colourfully about XTC's new album, 'Oranges and Lemons'. He doesn't strike me as the Brian Wilson-style recluse that I'd always pictured him to be, more the genuinely nice man that, as an XTC fan of odd, I had always hoped he'd be. Nice man, perhaps, but an eccentric songwriting genius nevertheless, forever out of step with the purveyors of modern mainstream pop.
"Oh yeah, old spazzy Partridge who can't quite keep in step with everyone else marching along", he jokes. But this begs the age-old question: Why do artistically sensitive "nice" people end up in rock 'n' roll bands. Why, all those years ago, did Andy Partridge pick up a guitar and play?
"Oh, blimey", he exclaims. "For the most banal reasons really - it was just the desire to be rich and famous and throw televisions out of hotel windows and do all the standard rock 'n' roll stuff... We were just young and stupid and drunk, and wanted to get up people's noses. The classic reasons."
The Andy Partridge seated opposite me has become the total antithesis of his teen ambition. Now 35 years old, he sits in the converted attic of his Swindon house, surrounded by enough toy soldiers to start a mini war. His four-track and keyboard, on which he wrote and demoed 'Oranges and Lemons', stand as mere afterthoughts in this toyshop heaven. Downstairs are the mainstays of Mr Partridge's life: his lovely wife Marianne and his brace of adorable children. Andy Partridge is very much the family man. And like the head of every household, Andy Partridge has one enormous problem: money!
"The situation is atrocious", he admits. "Up until about a month ago I had about £300 in the bank, which is really heavy when you've got a family and everyone thinks you're 'Mr Rich and Famous'. All the money we've made so far has gone into fighting litigations with our ex-manager. But hopefully that'll be cleared up soon and... I'm obliged not to talk about it too much but we just had a lot of trouble with our ex-manager who was very naughty and ran up, on first estimate, something like £300,000 unpaid VAT which we got lumbered with."
With his £30,000 life savings and an additional £250,000 advance on royalties from Virgin tied up in fighting a four-year court battle, isn't it about time for a major international hit to make the Partridge cash register start singing? Apparently not.
"I've tried and I can't do it. It can be done. I mean, it's not hard to write a hit single. But how can you close the bedroom door at the end of the day and go to bed with your conscience saying: 'You're making a load of shit on purpose and you know it!'. You can't do it! There are plenty of people that can but I can't do it. I can't sit there in bed and think: 'These songs are really crap and your name's on them'. I've got to believe in the songs or else they don't get recorded, let alone made into records and in the charts. The stuff we do, we do because we believe in it and if people happen to like it - wonderful accident!"
XTC first emerged as the smart-assed art-rockers riding on the second wave of punk - a revolution that Partridge still sees as an inevitable reaction to what had gone before.
"Something like that had to happen to clear away all the pompous cack that had grown up", he reasons. "It just about needs something like that now. Not the same sort of thing, but something with a lot of guts and gusto, and something non-mechanical. Everything in the Top 40 is mechanical now. Even though you see drummers and bass players on 'Top of the Pops', it's all computers; you can tell, you can hear! It's all sequenced and sampled, even vocals. The singer might do two or three lines and they resample it and shuffle it about and make a song out of it. It's a shame really, because I like what people do."
And now, as Andy Partridge sits amid his toy soldiers, what does he think the 18-year-old Andy would have thought of the current model?
"Now I would have hated me; I would have given me a good kicking. But then again, now I wouldn't be able to put up with me at 18: long hair, make-up and leather jacket, gold lame jacket, stack-heeled shoes, leopard-skin guitar, permanently drunk, 'everything on number 11' as the phrase goes. I just wanted to annoy people as most kids do. But now, a family man, getting into songwriting as the years have gone by, I really get off on writing better and better songs."
This change of outlook wasn't sudden - just a gradual realisation of life's priorities.
"It was like a teabag going in, a slow infusion of realising that fame was a load of rubbish and not at all what it was cracked up to be", Andy opines. "It was just an inconvenience to doing what we really wanted to do.
"I still fancy some cash, because I haven't had any cash at this game yet, but I certainly don't want the fame. My behaviour over the last five or six years has been decidedly anti-star and anti-anything that's going to make me a famous personality..." He laughs as he considers the paradox of his statement in terms of its destination - to be printed in a national magazine. "But I really don't like that star thing", he continues. "I think that's for admiring in other people when you're a kid."
Andy Partridge chats with the fluidity of the man who talked himself famous. Even in XTC's latest press release, he describes himself as being "aggressively optimistic". That doesn't really tally with the Andy Partridge who won't go on stage, the recluse in Swindon, does it?
"The one that won't go on stage is the one that's got all of that out of his system. I don't find shaking my beefy hulk in front of several thousand an attractive proposition any more. I really did get it out of my system in a big way. It just became no fun..."
The end of "the road" for Partridge came rather suddenly in 1982. At the height of XTC's popularity in England, with their Top Five album 'English Settlement' just recorded and their biggest hit single, 'Senses Working Overtime', just released, and at a peak of five years of non-stop touring around the globe, Andy Partridge collapsed on-stage in Paris.
"I JUST WANTED TO ANNOY PEOPLE, AS MOST KIDS DO. BUT NOW I'M A FAMILY MAN, I REALLY JUST GET OFF ON WRITING BETTER AND BETTER SONGS."
"I think it had been building up for a couple of years", he says without a twinge of pain. "Around about the time of 'English Settlement' I didn't want to go out on tour any more and I made 'English Settlement' with that in mind. And I think that's why it was a better album...
"We were rather bullied onto the road by management and record companies as soon as we'd made it. It started to upset me a lot because I didn't want to be doing it. I'd be there on-stage thinking: 'I'm really not enjoying this'. And to add to that, I started to get stagefright which I'd never had in my life. It started to get really serious - a serious kind of paranoia. The idea of having to entertain someone became a real upset. I couldn't even go out of the front door, I was so upset at the thought that people might know who I was. Being on display became a big pain for me."
Was this just a question of bad preparation for success? Was there no way Partridge could have armed himself for the experience of rock 'n' roll stardom?
"It's gotta stay fun", he says with the kind of positive insistence that you'd expect from a man who's found the root of his life problem and cured it for himself. "If it stops becoming fun, try and find out why. Try and find out what it is, because if you still want to enjoy it and it's going down, you've got to try and find what side of it you can repair.
"For me it was just that the whole live process got to be a pain, after five years of solid gigging nearly every day, doing a gig somewhere in the world and not seeing any kind of comeback for it. The only break we got was to go and write and record an album and then it was straight back. You'd play the last chord and the last fader would be moved in the mix and it would be... off to Japan or Australia or New Zealand or Venezuela or America or wherever.
"You can't turn the clock back, unfortunately. It's very difficult to go up to big stadiums and ice-hockey rinks and play all these big gigs, and be like number one and number two in various countries around the world, and then go back to 100 people in a pub. It's almost impossible, because it almost spoils it. It's like losing your virginity - you can't say 'I'll go back to being a virgin now'. I really used to like the early small gigs, clubs like the Hope and Anchor and the Marquee. They were nice and intimate and everyone was having a good time, there was no consideration about what money was being made or whether it was furthering your career, or how the hell you were going to fly to your next show the next night. But when it became seriously professional it became a job - and an unpleasant one. I might as well have gone to work as a bank clerk.
"So I thought: 'I'm going to bonk this side of it on the head, and do some more of what I really enjoy doing'. Which is writing songs and working in the studio. I really fancy having the cake and pigging out on it as well."
Since faltering at the height of their chart success, XTC have been largely out of favour in their homeland. To a nation that judges success in terms of tabloid coverage and appearances on 'Top Of The Pops', the retiring bards of rural olde England just didn't strike too loud a chord. XTC had just become "too weird" for their own good.
But if they were too antique for acceptance in the biggest antique shop of them all, their traditional Englishness and the sheer unavailability of the band have turned XTC into big sellers in the States. Their last album notched up over 250,000 sales, and the new release is expected to top the half-million mark.
But the XTC renaissance had its origins in the most peculiar of guises - a flamboyant four-piece named the Dukes of Stratosphere. Andy Partridge's art-school love of "packaging" was, in 1985, combined with his fondness for the kind of psychedelic pop he grew up with. And so XTC's alter-egos were born. The Dukes of Stratosphere hit the record racks cloaked in paisley and anonymity, and a perfect pastiche of late '60s pop excess, as exemplified by the likes of The Small Faces, The Kinks, and the pre-recluse Syd Barrett.
"As a schoolboy I'd be spending my pocket money on those singles thinking: 'Cor! When I grow up I'd like to be in a group just like this'. Somehow things got mixed up with XTC on the way, but when we got to a certain point and the record company was prepared to let us do a few out-of-the-ordinary things, I thought it was about time to say thank-you to them bands, to do like a musical tribute. But instead of doing old songs, to write songs that were brand new interesting tunes but were in the style of those bands."
Even before Virgin let it leak that the Dukes Of Stratosphere were, in fact, XTC, the Dukes' '25 o' Clock' album had become a big seller, doing well in America and selling twice as many in England as the then current XTC album 'Big Express'. The second Dukes album, 'Psonic Psunspot' likewise outsold XTC's 'Skylarking' album in the UK.
"It was a bit upsetting to think that people preferred these pretend personalities to our own personalities", Andy muses. "They're trying to tell us something! But I don't mind because we have turned into the Dukes slowly over the years... there won't be any more Dukes records, we'll just be the Dukes. We'll come to an agreement."
It would appear that this has become the case, as 'Oranges And Lemons' nears the Beatlesque pop eccentricities of 'Psonic Psunspot', even down to its 'Yellow Submarine'-style cover. And in terms of critical acclaim, 'Mayor Of Simpleton' - the first single to be lifted from the new album - became XTC's most successful chart stab for a number of years. Could it be that the most English of bands are finally due for a reappraisal by their own country?
"It would nice to make a big dent again in the British Isles", says Andy, "but I shan't slash my wrists if it's not... You know, how much cold shoulder can you take? I do get that from Britain. There's still this big hangover, we're still this smart-assed punk band - clever punks from '77. That was true in '77 - we were like that, but we haven't been like that since '77. Everyone in England has this elephantine long memory and we don't get forgiven."
The slight bitterness in his voice implies that Andy Partridge is a man sensitive to the pen of the critic. Does he worry about the press reaction to his new masterwork?
"I don't give a toss about how they take it in England", he says, "because no-one will buy it any case - except for one or two devoted fans. That's who we're making it for in England. It'll sell more in America so I'm kinda more worried about what they think about it. How can I worry about the people who aren't going to buy it? It's like a butcher worrying: 'I wish that vegetarian would come in, that vegetarian never spends any money in my shop'. He never is because he doesn't like what you have to offer. But a few do, so fine, those are the people I worry about. The ones that like us - they're what friends are. Friends are people that like you. I'm more worried about keeping the friends. I don't give a damn about what the enemy thinks - I didn't say 'NME'", he laughs, "but I may as well have done."
Whether XTC do achieve a reappraisal in "Nick Cave's fanzine" (Andy's words for the NME, not mine) or not, 'Oranges And Lemons' marks a fantastic return for the band. Not that they've ever really been away. Observant fans of the carefully-crafted song will have noticed pop gems flowing from the Partridge pen with encouraging regularity over the years. And now that XTC seem to becoming back into vogue, Britain will again be able to rejoice in the work of what is, after all, one of this country's finest bands.
Interview by Chris Hunt
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