It’s mid-morning when Prog calls Andy Partridge at his home in Swindon. He’s still debating what to have for breakfast, he explains, though it’s instructive to note that he’s already been strumming away on a guitar for the past hour or so. It’s the kind of thing that offers a neat illustration of the songwriters’ lot, more intent on feeding their creativity than their stomach.
This diligent, often painstaking approach to his art has sustained him for some 40 years now, from his time as co-founder, guitarist, singer and primary songwriter of XTC through to a solo career that continues to throw up its fair share of gold. XTC’s arty post-punk, informed by a whole spectrum of colours from The Beatles to Beefheart, only seems to grow more influential with time. Their songs are self-contained worlds of dazzling inventiveness and subtle sophistication, given extra weight by Partridge’s erudite lyrics.
It’s been 10 years since the band split for good, amid a certain amount of antipathy between Partridge and fellow songwriter Colin Moulding, but XTC’s flame continues to burn via an ongoing reissue series of classics like Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, Nonsuch and English Settlement. This remix project has been overseen by prog’s go-to guy Steven Wilson, an XTC enthusiast since the 80s.
Like many admirers, Wilson has voiced his puzzlement at the fact the band never became household names. Maybe it’s the unclassifiable nature of the songs, or maybe because they quit touring in 1982, just as XTC were finding some commercial traction. Maybe it’s down to their reputation within the industry as being somewhat ‘difficult’.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying the sheer quality of their recorded output, from 1978’s White Music to 2000’s studio send-off, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2). XTC are consummate proof that creative excellence and longevity need not be mutually exclusive.
“I would say that only The Beatles made a similar journey with such consistently brilliant results,” contends Wilson.
Ever one with a unique slant on things, Partridge himself puts it down to the effects of failure: “If XTC only sold 30,000 copies of an album we’d honestly believe that the next one was going to be better. We were always thinking about how we could make the songs greater. Failure is brilliant for that – it’s the best lesson-teacher there is.”
Written in conjunction with Todd Bernhardt, Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC throws a spotlight on 30 of Partridge’s finest moments with the band, revealing how his best-loved songs – among them Respectable Street, Senses Working Overtime, Dear God and The Disappointed – were written.
2016 has been a busy year for Partridge. Aside from his involvement in the XTC reissues, he’s issued a fresh compendium of his Fuzzy Warbles series (an orphan selection of demos, including songs later recorded by XTC) and has contributed a new tune, You Bring The Summer to Good Times!, the first new Monkees album in two decades. Plenty to go at then…
How did you end up with a song on the new Monkees album?
Beats me! In the 80s, XTC were making Oranges & Lemons in LA, and The Monkees’ archivist and producer Andrew Sandoval asked us for an interview for something or other. He knew they were big for me as a kid. Then he went on to manage what was left of their career. When the three living ones reformed, he contacted me and asked if I’d write some songs for them. I told him: “I hope it’s going to sound like classic ’66/’67 Monkees.” And he said: “Yeah, if we can.” So I wrote him about eight songs in that vein. I’d be happy to write a whole album’s worth for The Monkees because they gave me a lot of joy as a kid.
Moving on to the book, how did Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC develop?
It started off as a fan thing for Todd a decade or so ago. He said: “Would you agree to do an interview every couple of weeks on a certain song, if I got a MySpace page, and tell me everything you can remember about it?” So he’d prepare questions and I’d go away and relisten to whatever song it was, then he’d ring me up and we’d do these things and put them up on MySpace. And people seemed to like them. When he approached [publisher] Jawbone with the idea of compiling them in a book, they chose 30 songs. I’ve always been interested in how certain people make great art, whether it’s painting or literature or music. So it’s the sort of thing I would like if I was a fan of me. If it sells well, they’ve promised another volume.
How did you whittle it down to 30 songs?
I think the publishers went for stuff that was probably more well-known in the XTC online community. Incidentally, it’s not true some of the shit you read online, about Colin and I parting ways, and when Dave Gregory left the band. I didn’t force these people out. Nobody left XTC that didn’t want to. They left because they wanted to do other things or had other emotional ties. I shouldn’t read the internet about XTC, actually, because there’s a lot of Chinese whispers. There’s a lot of, “Andy must be awful in the studio.” I’m not, I’m mister fucking nice! At least I try to be, because I realise you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
The book also stresses the importance of allowing yourself permission to make mistakes when it comes to songwriting…
That’s creativity, isn’t it? You have to make a complete and utter tit of yourself. And stop thinking along accepted lines, otherwise you’ll never be able to create. You have to develop your own language.
Do you think that too many songwriters are fearful of taking the unexpected route?
I think most other songwriters are pretty shit, actually. I’m not going to name names, but I’m constantly appalled at how many of them are hailed as gods. Songwriting standards have plummeted since the advent of the computer, because it becomes a drag-and-drop mentality. Song‑building has got like prefabricated crappy architecture, because everyone thinks they can do it with a computer. They forget the rule: you’ll never be a master at whatever you choose unless you’ve given it at least 10,000 hours.
Your own approach to writing songs often appears to be a painstaking one…
I’m one of those people who never throws anything out, mentally. I’m a real hoarder. In my brain, it’s like I’m some sad old git who lives in a house with cardboard boxes up to the ceiling. And I’m a good imitator – I can make a carbon copy of pretty much most bands you can mention. I loved other bands and musicians and to understand their songs you have to pull them to pieces to find out how they work. It’s actually killed off all my favourite music and has made me into a complete gynaecologist. You have to be prepared to get in there, lose the sex and get anatomical. Get the scalpel out and find out which tube is connected to what.
It’s killed off Good Vibrations for me. And Strawberry Fields Forever and 21st Century Schizoid Man. I know how they do all that shit now, whereas at one time it was unimaginable.
Is that a process you perfected with The Dukes Of Stratosphear in the mid-80s?
Yeah. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio. I’d actually wanted to do that since the late 70s. I remember having a party in my flat for a playback of the Go 2 album in 1978. Most everyone eventually drifted home and Dave Gregory was still there. I knew he loved 60s music and all his kind of guitar heroes were the Peter Greens and Eric Claptons of this world. So at one or two in the morning I said to him: “I’ve got a proposition for you. Would you fancy doing an album that sounds like every band and every artist from 1967 to 1968?”
He said he’d love that, but I ended up not having the spare time to do it until 1985. I just wanted to give an affectionate musical hug to all the people that made my later school years psychedelically interesting.
Going back to the formative days of XTC, 1978’s This Is Pop seemed to be both a manifesto of sorts and a commentary on the kind of snobbery that existed in the music press back then…
Especially the NME. I saw they were trying to find labels for this new kind of music. I didn’t get all the shit about The Clash. It was just fast pub rock that was a bit more edgy than usual, and they were pretending to say a load of political crap. I loved the energy of punk, but I didn’t like the year-one, Pol Pot bullshit that said there’d been no music until then. You knew people like Captain Sensible were the biggest Soft Machine nuts. And John Lydon was massive on Can and Van der Graaf Generator. So you thought, “Hang on a minute, are these people really telling the truth?”
To me it was all pop music, whether you heard it on Top Of The Pops or went round to a mate’s house, put a record on and sat there in the dark for two or three hours. It was all there to be pushed. It’s elastic; it’s not a set of rigid walls. Prog is just longer pop songs. Something I’ve learned over the years is that music ghettos are pointless. It’s just a state of mind.
Music ghettos aside, 1982’s Senses Working Overtime is often cited as a prime example of prog pop. What do you recall about writing it?
It’s like a little prog operetta. The verses sound like medieval reggae, before it opens up like The Who and the chorus is almost The Strawbs-meets-Manfred Mann. Then it goes sideways into something else for the middle section. I’m notorious for sticking bits together. You can only be the fucking sum total of how you mash up all your influences. There’s no such thing as originality.
You’ve called 1984’s The Big Express a concept album by stealth. What stopped you from making an entire Swindon-centric record?
In the eyes of 99.9 per cent of people in England, Swindon has been a comical millstone around our necks that has stopped us from ever being considered cool in any shape or form. I listen to a lot of comedy programmes on Radio Four and almost once a week you can guarantee that somebody will slip in the word ‘Swindon’ when they need a cheap laugh. It’s England’s comedy town, along with either Slough or Staines. It’s no mistake that The Office was based in Slough. And when the other team joined, where did they come from? Swindon.
Did that reputation ever hold XTC back?
Absolutely. It totally held us back in the eyes of the cool-makers in England. In the States they didn’t know what Swindon was or its naff connotations. So to them, and to the Japanese, we were an exotic beast. Whereas in England, nothing we could ever do would be seen as useful. Our management in the late 70s actually begged us to change our accents.
Our managers, who spoke like upper-class twits, would say, “When you do this interview with the NME, I don’t want you speaking all countrified. If they ask you where you’re from, I want you to say you’re from London or Manchester or Liverpool or Mars. Any-bloody-where. Just don’t say Swindon.”
But we thought it was a badge of honour, coming from the comedy town: “Eat fucking comedy shit, I don’t care what you think!”
Dear God, from 1986, is a pivotal XTC song. Why did you consider it a failure at the time?
It’s such a vast subject. How do you distil all of your thoughts about human belief into three minutes? It’s impossible. You’ve set yourself up to fail. I remember Jeremy Lascelles, the A&R man at Virgin Records, calling me into the office and saying: “This album [Skylarking] is too long. We’ve got to lose something and I recommend taking off Dear God. You know it’s going to piss off the Americans.”
Has your relationship to the song changed over the years?
I had the usual C of E school upbringing, with hymns and having to say grace. But I would really think deeply about it. I was out playing in front of our council house one summer’s day and I felt the compulsion to look up into the sky. There were a couple of clouds up there. I hallucinated that they parted and there was this Renaissance-type painting of God in heaven, with all the angels looking down at me. I didn’t tell anyone, even though it freaked me out.
I think it was all down to extreme worry about all this religious nonsense. And Dear God was me kicking over the dying embers one last time to see if I could get to grips with it. Of course, it was taken off the album so it ended up as a B-side of one of Colin’s songs, Grass. He was deemed the good-looking one who wrote the singalong stuff, so he mostly got the A-sides. And because I was the weird specky twat, I used to get the B-sides.
But some radio stations in the States did start playing it, knowing it would upset some people. One station in Florida received bomb threats over Dear God. And I got a lot of heavy-duty hate mail from Americans: “You English piece of Commie shit, you’re gonna fry! The devil’s gonna have your ass!”
It eventually turned up on later editions of Skylarking. Is your memory of that album tainted by the fact that the band weren’t getting along so well?
No, that’s all gone now. And let’s get it straight for the record: Todd Rundgren is a brilliant arranger, but he’s not a very good engineer and has a very difficult-to-handle bedside manner as a producer. You end up thinking, “Has he taken a personal dislike to me? Is it me being Mr. Difficult here?” Then you talk to everyone else that he’s worked with and nine times out of ten they’ll say, “Fuckin’ hell, he was like that with us!” But you have to swallow that if you want to work with Todd. He made a great album, but it was not easy to make.
The Disappointed, from 1992’s Nonsuch, partly addresses your difficult relationship with the music business. Was it liberating to start your own label and be more removed from that whole industry cycle?
Stopping touring was liberating, because I had more time to create music. When you’re on tour, you haven’t even got time to wash out your fucking pants in the hotel sink, let alone come up with a concept album. It’s really weird, it’s a roving prison sentence. You’re stuck for months at a time, seeing nothing but the same half a dozen faces. And what stuck in my craw was that the other three, inevitably, would go off sightseeing while muggins here would be needed for radio, TV and magazine interviews. I was so thankful to get off that treadmill.
Is there anything you miss about playing live?
The adrenalin rush is very addictive. For some people, riding that bull is fantastic, because you feel in control of the world. But I was always a victim of it. I had no love for the audience, even though they were probably sending love up onto the stage at us. Instead, I was at war with my nerves. I was addicted to Valium from the age of 12 or 13 until I was 26. A junkie kid. I was a prescription drugs addict and didn’t recognise that fact. I see now that it helped me get through those battles on stage.
My then-wife, in her attempt to get me off valium halfway through an American tour, just tipped them down the toilet. You’re supposed to come off it gradually, over the course of two years, because it’s heavier than coming off heroin, for fuck’s sake. And when I got back to the hotel, having been out drinking after a gig, I was so angry that I smashed the room up. And I’m so ashamed. It was not fun rock’n’roll behaviour, I was really furious. I had no grasp of cold turkey, so over the next year or so I went into brain melt. It caused a lot of problems, but I also started thinking clearly as well.
What was the upshot of that?
We’d seen zero money in five years of solid touring, even though we were selling out 2,000-seater and 5,000-seater venues, so I knew we had to get out of our management deal. We were being robbed blind. For every three or four gigs that we’d do, the management would turn up and collect all the cash in a brown paper bag. And once you tried to examine what had happened to it, you just got bullshit and so on.
Will XTC ever happen again?
I don’t think so. We made a lot of good albums, and became one of the very few bands in existence to get better as we went along. In fact, we got really fucking good. It’s a shame that we were never recognised in our own country for that.
How is your relationship with Colin Moulding these days?
It’s non-existent, actually. We’re in communication, occasionally, with emails. When it comes to this whole thing about reforming, my attitude is, “Where were you when we were touring? Where were you when we were putting out the albums originally?” And rock’n’roll is like football, it’s a young man’s game. C’mon, do you really want to see 60-year-old footballers?
XTC’s Steven Wilson-mixed reissues are available now from Burning Shed.