This article originally appeared in the April 1989 issue of SPIN.
XTC are sitting around the butcher block in Andy Partridge‘s eat-in kitchen, sipping imaginary tea. Bassist Colin Moulding, a tame Heathcliff, wears a black turtleneck and jeans faded to a stormy ocean blue. Guitarist Dave Gregory, soft brown hair brushing his shoulders, passes around a photo album open to a picture of a teenage Partridge in an early band, circa 1969. “Strings were quite a distance away from the frets, then, eh?” Gregory ribs.
Platinum-haired, 3-year-old Holly, hostess of this make-believe tea party, in comic slippers and rhinestone jewelry, pours another cup around and joins her younger brother Harry on their father’s lap. “Sorry Lummox, you don’t get any,” partridge apologizes to the Irish setter, Charles Parker of Birdland. “Your harmonica playing is horrendous.”
It’s too picturesque: sun streaming through the windows, children’s Crayola scribblings on the wall, bunches of dried flowers hanging from the beams, Dr. Dolittle on the living room VCR. The sunny feel of Oranges and Lemons, XTC’s ninth and latest record, was, Partridge says, inspired by his children. On record it sounds like Partridge is a man who values family and home, and it shows when he meets you.
Energetic, baby-faced, balding slightly, he bounces down the walk as you pull up in front of the house, and users you in as if you were a distant cousin stopping by for a visit on the advice of American relatives. Inside, a family, all smiles and dress, 1-year-old Henry sliding down in his high chair, Holly scooting from room to room. Except Dad doesn’t work at the office, or the shop, pushing paper or lifting iron. Dad is in a rock’n’roll band.
Since meeting in their teens 20 years ago, XTC have scribbled cartoons over arty rock miniatures and clunked metal against English manor music haunted by the ghost of Syd Barrett. A brainy Village Green Preservation Society, they cloak vicious lyrics in velvet melodies, tricking us into humming condemnations of God, war and respectable neighborhoods.
Just when the vitriol becomes apparent, they turn around and toss off sun-king jewels refracting pure all-you-need-is-love light. This domestically inclined “threepew” crosswire noise, novelty, gent-folk, protest lyrics, ska, space-rock and psychedelic parody; cutting and pasting and cramming them all into slightly askew pop single frameworks. Imagine Peter Gabriel tied to Captain Beefheart, powered by Peter Sellers. “Shock the Monkey,” “Safe As Milk,” “Please, Mr. Custer,” Horrible? Wonderful? Yes.
XTC grew up together—”same art school, same council estates, same vegetable delivery man”—in Swindon, a steely light industrial city surrounded by downy Wiltshire county. The town incorporated at the turn of the century, when the clapboard shanties and storefronts near the train year’s spilled into the tony village on the hill. Partridge lives there still, in a right decent rowhouse on a tree-lined street. There are no clubs in Swindon, no sweet cherry aceeed smoke seeping out into the alleys at night, no hips swaying to flamenco-house. Swindon is cobblestone, brock, rail yards, a civic center of sorts, and of course, the pubs. The mom-and-pop record shops there stock only the Top 20. “If you want to buy our albums,” guesses Dave Gregory, “you’d probably have to special-order them.”
Partridge unlocks the gates that block little Holly and Henry from the steps leading up to the second floor. “All these contraptions. Sort of makes you feel like you’re in a William Burroughs novel, eh?” Flash. The place of the dead roads begins strobing against the pine paneling. Dr. Doolittle’s voice begins to waver. Partridge tribes on paradox: it’s impossible for him to look at anything, even himself, without a healthy jolt of irony. He’s always cracking wise, and this is a great joke. Long as you know who Williams Burroughs is.
Pop sociologist Simon Frith called it “superior consumption.” It’s a crash course in high culture, a legacy of 1001 String art rock; a cult thing, even if it sells a million copies. The band’s up there on the pedestal and you’re down here, and for eight quid you can buy the pleasure of communing on that higher plane. All you’ve got to do is use your head. Get the references. Read the road signs. You learned the rules of the game when you deciphered Sgt. Pepper’s cryptic cover, looking for clues that proved Paul is dead.
Frith blamed it on England’s art schools, which promote difference, spontaneity and pastiche, instead of academy discipline. Imagine what happens when a kid who’s been collaging Homer, Donne, and Duchamp hears an electric guitar. Or an adult—Partridge—who reads combat history, sci-fi, VIZ comics and love sonnets, gets behind a rack of synthesizers.
Twenty years ago, even steady Swindon couldn’t escape the tremors from London, exploding 75 miles to the south. Partridge remembers “Hard Day’s Night” as a breakthrough. “I was sitting there in the dark wondering whether to scream or not. Do boys scream? And I thought, ‘Yeah, go on.'” Soon after, XTC’s vocalist and principal songwriter bought his first two albums, Meet The Monkees and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “I couldn’t play yet. My dad had an old guitar that he used in a Navy skiffle band stashed behind the couch. I’d drag it out and try to figure out chords by watching the Monkees on TVV. By the time I went zzzzzzng zzzzzzng, the song was over.”
Psychedelic singles—”anything three minutes and weird, with surreal lyrics”—followed. As a teenager Partridge would stay awake at night listening to every strange noise, trying to figure out how they did it: “Was it gravel being thrown up in the air? Drumsticks against a car fender? A coat hanger in a blender?” Partridge fixed on more artful cacophony at about age 14, when a local beatnik offered to swap records. “Fair enough, I thought. I’d give him something like Satanic Majesties Request, and he’d hand me Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. I just hated the stuff. But then I found out I couldn’t get my records back, because he’d sold them and I ended up getting into it all in a big way.”
Between the two, he absorbed his first lessons in the ashcan school of rock, which equated a 2×4 with a Mellotron, an eggbeater with an E-bow. XTC still weave all manner of effects through their tunes, wrapping a mike in paper towels and placing it at the bottom of a tin barrel and then beating on it; taping ambient nature noises, adding swooshes of synthesizer; Partridge singing through a can while holding his nose—anything goes. The intricacies add density and jocularity to the pop, leaving listeners offering accolades like: “They stand up to repeated listening,” and, “I always hear something new in the songs.”
Partridge and Moulding first got together in the Helium Kids in the early 70s. In glaring shoes and cheeky sideburns, they began playing originals copied from Bowie, the Dolls, anything on the trashy side of glam: “We were too pompous to do covers. Instead of ‘Jet Boy,’ I’d write something horrible like ‘Jet Shoes,’ in homage to platforms. It was horrible.”
Soft-spoken Colin Moulding remains fond of his metal upbringing. “Deep Purple, Free, Cream. A lot of Jethro Tull still really stands up today.” By 1976 they’d changed their name to XTC (“because it looked good on the posters and we were into onomatopoeia”), cut their hair and donned kung-fu mechanic outfits (“a look like Devo did much better a few years later”).
The ridiculous costumes continued, even after the band quit the road when Partridge took ill at the beginning of the English Settlement tour in 1982. “We had been at it for years” he explains. “I’m a wimp. It’s just not me to be up there beating my chest and roaring, ‘Dundee let’s rock.'”
Not that he doesn’t have a theatrical flair or doesn’t appreciate attention on a less grand scale. Ask Moulding or Gregory a question, and Partridge inevitably ends up interjecting, like a little kid who can never get enough of the spotlight.
“We mishmash our image so people will think of us as anything but rock’n’roll idols.” He conceives absurd tableaux—schoolmarm skirts, vegetable heads—that poke fun at rock star heroics. “I think the Murmmer‘s getups,” which accompanied the 1983 acoustic LP, Mummer, “came closest to what we’re about,” he explains. For this English New Year tradition, “an anonymous costumed troupe went from house to house, performing ritualistic theater skirts to celebrate the new year. The next day they’d go back to their ordinary jobs. There was no star thing. Nobody knew if it was the butcher, the baker or who.”
Moulding and Gregory climb the rickety aluminum later up to Partridge’s attic studio. Partridge is sitting there surrounded by the thousand of plastic toy soldiers he collects, which stand neatly on shelves behind his keyboards and tape machines. He leaps up, swipes, a sickle-wielding monk starts waving around. “Remember when you used to chop off their heads with a hot wire?” asks Moulding recalling boyhood perversities.
A master of amusement, Partridge instigates constantly, clowning for the class. He breaks into mimes and whizzes when he talks, coining words and generating sound effects when English as we know it won’t do. He’s had his own comedy show on British radio, and designed board games, like “Damn and Blast.”
But XTC remains his favorite creation. Do you want to play hey hey day in the life ooma guma? You’re in for a few exceptional rounds. Follow the road signs. Connect the Victorian diving suits on the cover of Black Sea to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” via your copy of the Jules Verne’s Sketchbook bootleg. Bonus points. Read Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calendar after hearing Skylarking‘s “Season’s Cycle.” Home.
There are hazards. Forget this is a game—some people do—and you’re in trouble, you’re a fanatic. Do you read one, or maybe all four, of the ‘zines devoted exclusively to XTC? (O.K., confess, The Little Express, Box 1072, Barrie, Ontario, Canada L4M 5EI.) Back three spaces. Have you hunted for the video—yes, it exists!—of Partridge’s last live performance? Lose a turn. “The Beatles were nothing compared to this,” you claim, straight-faced. Go directly to jail.
Partridge is laughing, rocking back on his chair, an easy interview, smart, witty, wind him up and he goes. He breaks into a song composed by his daughter Holly: “I’m up in the air with a rhinoceros and a flower, I’m in bed and my friends are coming round for tea.”
He applauds, “Surreal!” It’s a word that keeps coming up, not unusual, perhaps, for a guy who grew up in a country that generates cryptic maxims like, “Chalk is church, while cheese is chapel.” (A Wiltshire farm phrase which delineated the differences between chalk-eating peasants and the cheese-consuming aristocracy.) Partridge dubs his first songs “surrealistically bad” and says The Dukes of Stratosphere, the trip alter ego under which XTC has made two records, was created to thank “all the bands that made my boyhood so purple and surreal.”
Surrealism never really caught on in stalwart England after WWI, when it was breaking big in France, Italy and Spain. But when 60s UK art school students began dropping acid and picking up instruments, a loony kind of surrealism surfaced in the music of Pink Floyd, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Soft Machine, and later the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock. Nonsense that made sense, music for music’s sake, with no hidden “hook the consumer” agenda.
Partridge, who lauds psychedelic pioneers Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, isn’t the type who would adhere to any -ism. But I don’t think he’d argue with French multi-media avant-garde artist Jean Cocteau, one of the early surrealist pioneers: “What people call thinking consists of discovering relations between objects to one another, never discovering relations between objects remote from one another.”
Surrealism, like psychedelia, is romantic, optimistic, humorous. Both suggest perception is subjective, hallucinatory, the opposing elements are continuously colliding haphazardly, but instead of standing off, holding energy in perpetual tension, or grinding it down into entropy, they see conflicts evolving toward nonsensically profound conclusions.
XTC, for example, often push your mind in a different direction then they’re pulling your leg. The beat of “Majors and Generals,” the hit off Black Sea, is irresistible. But when you start to hear the words, you understand you’ve been conned into experiencing the giddy power surge of kooky commandos whapping their pointers against a map. Partridge describes himself as “violently optimistic,” implying that his cheerfulness, his pranks, are an act of will, celebration of the chaos.
A response to industrialism, a result of the increased interaction between commerce and creativity, surrealism and acid heads generally clung to the Romantic notion of art for art’s sake. (Another XTC theme: “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Respectable Street” are songs chastising souls pursuit of the almighty pound.) Pop-popularity was fine, even profit was no problem, as long as the impulse that earned it remained pure.
“We were at a lower point in our decade with Virgin Records. We weren’t selling many records in England, America or anywhere else. They said, ‘You’re going to shut up and be produced or else you’re off the label and we want you to use an American producer because an American will find something in your music that Americans will like,'” recounts Partridge.
(XTC insist London has never forgiven them for “1977.” “Most fans then gravitated toward bands with loutish backgrounds like the Clash or the Sex Pistols. Coming from Swindon, we had no street credibility. We were yokel scientists.” They still see the UK market, where Cliff Richard, Bros and Erasure are topping the charts, as, without malice, “anti-XTC.”)
“We were very despondent about it. I wrote 35 songs, thinking surely there’s something here someone will like. They handed us a long list of producers. I didn’t recognize any of the names except Todd Rundgren.”
Andy Partridge has led the ring ever since skinheads pelted him with shillings during an early band-debut and he decided, “If I was going to suffer it would be doing my own thing.” He wasn’t happy assigning someone else to take over the circus. Mocking Rundgren, Patridge’s lively tenor drops an octave and slows ominously. “T-a-a-d here. I really don’t think it’s going to work your way. You can dick around with if for a few hours your way if you like. I’m going up to my house. When you find out it doesn’t work your way, give me a call and we’ll record it my way.’ And so we did.”
T-a-a-d was right. Rundgren, an American convert to country living, brought the band to his Woodstock studio, diced their demo into a “continuity concept,” computer-sequenced nature noises and calmed Partridge’s “barking seal” voice with echo and harmonizers. Coming off The Dukes of Stratosphere‘s paisley prance, 1986’s Skylarking dripped vivid color, Jewel-toned guitars and Moulding’s shimmering, melodic bass shaded the pastoral imagery—secret meetings, seasons in cycle, making love in the grass. On some songs, suburban settings added the requisite reality gag. The greenery parts on “Earn Enough For Us” revealing a young man with a very unromantic worry: how to support his pregnant girlfriend.
Americans escape readily into English pastoral myth, with its royal overtones (the Stones‘ “Lady Jane”), medieval grandeur (Genesis‘ “Waiting for Supper”), sexy imagery (“Strawberry Fields”) and faerie queens (Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins). But the cheeky double-entendre “Grass” (which links rolling in the clover and a marijuana high), or the profound “Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” didn’t sell Skylarking. “Dear God,” a Partridge wild card, did that trick.
Originally a non-LP B-side to “Grass,” “Dear God”‘s chiaroscuro of innocence and active disbelief charmed the ears of radio programmers; many didn’t recognize they had abetted a desecration until it was too late. No other rock song has philosophically repudiated religious power with such pop facility.
But its angelic opening vocals, sterling acoustic guitar and brimstone preacher’s list of world ill ended up testifying more strongly than “Dear God” reneged. Partridge, a committed agnostic, regrets that “Dear God’s” dagger wasn’t thrust more bluntly. “If anyone got offended by that song they must have such tiny brains. It wasn’t chewy enough. I only had three minutes to take on such a big subject—don’t get me started talking about religion,” he warns.
“It plays on basic spinal column superstitions and fears, saying there’s an aging English actor up here in a sheet and he’s going to zap you with his rod if you don’t put something in the collection plate and behave yourself. God is manmade. We invented this to keep other members of mankind and especially womankind under control. It’s a protectionist racket. Humans can’t live without magic—gods, pop stars, clowns, UFOs.”
The sun falls over Swindon, and a pale pink green light slants down from the Wiltshire hills, softening the city’s sharp corners. “I can hear the local papers already, decrying how Andy Partridge has insulted Swindon again. But this place really is a dump. Swindon is known throughout England as an awful, apathetic, unloving, cold, hearless black hole.” Partridge zestful condemnation contradicts a 33-year residency; he sounds like an old man berating the spouse he can’t live without. The rest of XTC take hometown life in easier stride. While in Los Angeles recording Oranges and Lemons, Gregory commented, “The inspiration is still Swindon, Wilts, and we’re not going to get away from that.”
Marianne, the statuesque teenage sweetheart Partridge married years ago, scoops Holly away from the table and off to dinner. “Discipline, Andy,” she reminds. In the next room, Harry kerplunks dad’s guitar. Moulding and Gregory glance over the phonebook of 19th-century firing range targets that inspired the sleeve for “The Mayor of Simpleton,” Oranges and Lemons‘ first single. The new record takes its name from a traditional English nursery rhyme Partridge probably taught to his children.
“It made me feel that’s what I’m here for—kids, to put them on a good path in life,” Partridge allows. “It’s a much more fantastic feeling than ever playing Madison Square Garden or getting gold albums. It don’t walk around here with ostrich boots throwing cocaine around. I shuffle into the pub with my slippers on and drink a brew like anyone and they say, ‘Well ‘e’s normal e’tent’e. I can’t think of anything worse than having jets and fleets of cars. That’s nothing, forget it. This is real. When I walk the dog, I get ideas.”