The debut album by Lifetime, featuring former Miles Davis sidemen, drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin, and also featuring organ player Larry Young. This band was basically the start of what became known as fusion. Simply put, they were a monster!
This review was written by XTC leader Andy Partridge for Word magazine for the June 2005 issue (#28) in a feature called “The Most Underrated Albums of Our Time”…
I got this album at about the same time as I bought Trout Mask Replica, a cataclysmic time for my brain to be exposed to where rock was going to end up in 100 years’ time in terms of invention, complexity and poetry — and, dammit, the words of Trout Mask are the very best Americana. And here I was being exposed to where jazz would end up in 100 years’ time.
Look at the personnel — a 23 year-old drummer [Tony Williams] who creates a kind of continuous thunder that ebbs and flows, not so much a rhythm, more as if he’s holding four conversations with himself simultaneously. John McLaughlin’s on guitar, playing this psychedelically painted Fender Jaguar through a series of malfunctioning foot pedals. And the real alien who’s dropped through from the future is their blind Hammond organist Larry Young. No need for a bass player, as Young played the pedals with his feet, and with his hands made music that sounded like someone shoving a screwdriver into a flying saucer engine, or something flying through a wide-mile cloud of swarf.
I’ve never heard music like this, loosely-based songs — with about five O’s in looooosely — and a singing drummer; in fact, when you heard Tony Williams, you realised where a certain other drummer with a disarmingly wispy voice [Robert Wyatt] could have got it from.
When you buy this on CD, the booklet comes with a disclaimer saying it was so badly recorded — two albums in two days! — the original eight-track tape was distorted, but that distortion only adds to their vitality and makes this the most electronic album I’ve ever heard. It turns their fire and desperate playing into an alarmingly fizzy video-focus relief. You feel as though you have been shrunk down to a sub-atomic size and you’re approaching a planet comprised of one atom. And as you enter its ‘scape, this is the sound that you hear. It’s fantastic!
Taken from my personal collection comes this May 1989 article from Musician magazine (#127) on XTC circa Oranges and Lemons, written by Scott Isler…
XTC Does It Their Way, For Better or Worse
First, fly to London. Then catch a train to Swindon, 70 miles west. Then a cab from the station to a house in the Old Town section. Go through the door, up a flight of stairs. (Ignore the dog and two small children; you’re not there yet.) On the landing, ascend a metal ladder through an opening to the attic. Stop. This is it: Andy Partridge’s demo haven.
Whaddayamean, “so what”? Out of this small but fairly clean room have come some of the world’s most cherished songs – “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” “Earn Enough for Us,” “The Mayor of Simpleton” and at least one of the most detested, “Dear God.” This is where Partridge, guitarist and main singer/songwriter of XTC, comes to escape his idyllic family life and plunge into the whirling ferment of his brain that feeds his band’s curious existence. If these walls could talk, how frightening that would be.
In today’s high-powered rock world, XTC stubbornly remains a cottage industry. And like most cottage industries that manage to survive (a dozen years, in this case), the band’s developed its own way of doing things. Their drummer left over six years ago and they never replaced him. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because XTC doesn’t play five. They stopped doing that seven years ago; Partridge realized he had a phobia about appearing onstage, and he’s refused to tour ever since. Still, XTC’s previous album, Skylarking, was its most successful yet, helped by a song that wasn’t on the record; it was a single B-side, and the band’s record company had to reissue the album to include the “hit.” Can’t these guys do anything, er, right?
Well, yes: the music. Partridge’s songs are dizzyingly intoxicating in their felicitous wordplay and sinuous, multiple-strain phrasing – although he can also deliver charmingly straightforward “pop” tunes. Bassist Colin Moulding, the band’s other songwriter, complements Partridge’s giddiness with more delicate melodies and more introspective lyrics about the human condition-though both writers are way beyond the superficial themes of more popular music.
Guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory, the most technically accomplished of the three, helps work up arrangements that at XTC’s baroque best reveal new touches with each listen.
The resulting rich concoction may well be too much for the masses who determine this country’s Top 10. But the band’s attracted a loyal cult that supports three XTC fanzines in as many countries (and two languages), and whose members aren’t afraid to invoke the Beatles in the same breath as Swindon’s finest. They may even have a point: Both groups push the pop song into the realm of art while keeping a sense of humor. Perhaps the only thing the Beatles had that XTC doesn’t was Beatlemania. It couldn’t hurt.
“As a school kid I was totally in awe of groups like the Small Faces and Pink Floyd,” Partridge remembers. “Singles like “See Emily Play,” “Arnold Layne,” “Itchycoo Park” – singles that had a high magic content: a three-minute thing of a very memorable tune but with a big dollop of magic injected, either some strange effect or totally nonsensical lyrics that painted great brain pictures. I did love psychedelic singles.
Oranges and Lemons, XTC’s ninth album of new material, is a brilliant collection of songs that pay homage to Partridge’s influences without slavish paisley revivalism. A nursery rhyme inspired the album title (which also unintentionally recalls Pink Floyd’s “Apples and Oranges”), and a sense of childlike wonder pervades the 15 songs – from the burbling glee of the opening “Garden of Earthly Delights” to the dreamy conclusion of “Chalkhills and Children.” Most amazingly of all, XTC recorded the album in Los Angeles – a mixture as friendly as spring water and strychnine.
“I never went out at all”, Partridge says of his five-month stay. “I’m really anti-sun. Los Angeles is not my idea of a dream place to live. Everything about it I find rather ‘waaaaah!’ – from the weather to the people. I don’t think I can honestly say I believed anything a Los Angeleno told me”.
He seems more in his element sitting in his attic studio on a gray Swindon day in January, comfortably attired in a flannel plaid shirt, blue jeans and moccasins worn through at the big toe. There’s nothing put-up about Andy Partridge; he’s almost aggressively friendly. He’s also the usual bunch of contradictions found in creative artists: a sharply clever individual who left school without papers or tests at age 15; a critic of warmongering political leaders who has shelves full of troops – battalions – whole regiments of toy soldiers; the composer of the sincere “Thanks for Christmas” and the militantly agnostic “Dear God.”
Two years ago “Dear God” gave XTC its biggest publicity boost in the U.S. when some adventurous radio stations (talk about contradictions) discovered the song on the flip of a British single from Skylarking. Partridge says he didn’t want “Dear God” on the album. He was dissatisfied with it because “it wasn’t spikey enough; I thought it’s got to stick in people’s throats. It failed in that respect”. (At least one Florida XTC fan, however, thought enough of “Dear God” to phone in a bomb threat to a local station spinning the song.)
XTC began its musical life in 1976 with much the same agenda. “We really wanted to annoy people, to get up their noses,” Partridge says of White Music, the debut album a year later. Partridge, Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers had been musically terrorizing Swindon under a variety of aliases since 1973. In 1977, with keyboard player Barry Andrews (since replaced by Gregory), they signed with Virgin Records, who probably thought they were getting a new-wave band. Despite a very occasional U.K. hit single over the years, they’ve had a rocky relationship with Virgin ever since.
The situation wasn’t much better in the U.S., where XTC bounced from label to label. The band signed to Geffen Records in late 1983. Three years later Geffen was “rather despondent at the lack of sales,” Partridge says, and tried to unload the band back to Virgin. The British company hadn’t started up its Virgin America division yet, so it “panicked and said, ‘No, keep them’. They didn’t want to farm us around to other labels with a past record of no sales. Skylarking came out and Geffen just patted it on the back and sent it off-put it in a bag and threw it in the river.”
Whether because of “Dear God” or in spite of it, Skylarking became XTC’s best-selling American album, a sleeper that sold almost a quarter-million copies. Its corporate faith in XTC restored, Geffen actually seems excited about Oranges and Lemons. Typically, XTC hasn’t made it easy, delivering an over-budget, hour-long album that needs a double-LP set to do it justice.
“I wanted to make a very simple, banal-sounding record,” Partridge says ingenuously, “and it got lost in translation a little and came out rather multi-layered – in fact, very dense. We just got swept along with the enthusiasm: For the first time since our very first few albums, we were making an album that people actually wanted to hear.”
Partridge wrote many of the songs just before the band went into the studio. Consequently, they tend to reflect his optimism over both his professional turn of luck and his burgeoning family: His daughter Holly is almost four, and a son, Harry, will be two this summer. On the other hand, he’s also capable of scathing topical commentary like “Here Comes President Kill Again,” “Scarecrow People” and “Across This Antheap.”
“There is a bit of split personality,” Partridge acknowledges. “On ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, I’m trying to get a message over to my kids, although they’ll have to wait some years before they can appreciate it: Somebody’s being born and I’m saying welcome – like, ‘Welcome to the Holiday Inn!’ I’m in the foyer: ‘This is life. Come in and do what you want to, but don’t hurt anyone'”. (The song’s lyrics add, with Partridgian wit, “… Less of course they ask you”.) “I’m sure that’s what heaven is, really. Heaven is not hurting anyone.”
So Andy Partridge, nonbeliever, believes in heaven?
“Yes. Here, now. This is heaven and hell. It’s all metaphor stuff.” But don’t get him started on the subject of religion.
On the fatalistic “Here Comes President Kill Again,” “I’m just saying, ‘Go ahead, have your little bit of power and vote for who you want, but there’s no difference’.” Partridge says he “won’t” vote: “I can’t feel part of giving people that sort of power. There’s a certain sort of person that wants to be voted in; it’s almost like, if they’re a politician, that’s the very reason you shouldn’t vote for them.” This might strike some as an evasion of responsibility. Partridge feels, however, that “it’s not like mankind can’t find a better way. But I don’t think mankind is smart enough to control itself yet. I totally distrust mankind, to be truthful.”
The album’s most affecting song may be “Hold Me My Daddy,” a first-person plea for understanding between fathers and sons. “I found it difficult writing that,” Partridge says. “It’s a subject matter men aren’t supposed to think about, loving their fathers. I played it to my father; he insisted on hearing it. We got to that point on the album and I had to leave the room: ‘Hmm! Is that the baby crying? I’ll just go and have a look’. l came back, and I don’t know if he was embarrassed or whether he really didn’t hear the lyrics”. Partridge adopts a gruff lower register: “‘Couldn’t ‘ear a bloody word of that bloody row’. Maybe he did and he didn’t want to say. It’s sort of a primal oink, a sniffle.”
Partridge’s father was a musician himself, a drummer in jazz/dance bands. “I’m sure my parents still think I’m going to get a proper job one of these days. My father’s sort of interested but he thinks it’s too weird, too unusual – noisy pop music and loud guitars. My mother just likes it when people say to her, ‘Oh, I saw your son in such-and-such magazine.
He himself disclaims fame. “I like people to buy the records but I’d be quite happy if we were faceless musicians and it was just the name XTC they bought, like a steak sauce. I always felt uncomfortable with fame. Howard Hughes is my hero”. The self-described “Charles Laughton of the new wave – the last new wave” appreciates XTC’s hard-bitten fans, even if he can’t quite understand them. “It’s like an odd-shaped mirror: very flattering to look into, but very weird ’cause it’s so distorted and unreal”.
Okay, Andy, we understand. Now, how do you write stuff? “Tricky to say. Deadlines can help scare music out of you. I always get this feeling that I’m never going to write another song. I’ll sit up here staring at a blank page. Then some song will come out and it’s complete… rubbish! Then a few more rubbishy ones come out. And then, suddenly, whaa! Something good’ll come out. And whoa! Where’d this come from? It is like crapping; you have to get the blockage out of the way and then it all comes flowing out.
“Each time we finish an album I think that’s the last thing I’m ever going to write. Then somebody says, ‘Time for another record, isn’t it?’ The motors start clicking inside and I think, ‘Hmm, have I got any songs?’ And each time it’s usually better than the last time out. ‘Chalkhills and Children’ is as good as anything I’ve ever done. ‘Here Comes President Kill Again’ is a fine marriage, the way the lyrics fit the music”.
It’s now time to meet Colin Moulding, who’s been very patient. Moulding contributed three songs to Oranges and Lemons – thematic bummers, each and every one of them. (Though Geffen is considering the musically sprightly “King for a Day” as a single pick.) “It’s the winter of discontent”, he laughs. “If you’re in a writing spree for two or three months, usually you don’t feel up and down and up and down. I suppose it was more of a down period for me. I was just feeling really depressed. I think I’ve dragged meself out of it now. I tend to go through these, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen?'”
Moulding apparently labors longer over his songs than Partridge, which accounts for his smaller output. He had an unusually high percentage on Skylarking, a result of producer Todd Rundgren choosing the material. “I caught ‘im and Todd holding hands a few times”, Partridge says with malice towards none. “To be fair,” Moulding quickly interjects, “we sent tapes over for Skylarking – I hadn’t even met Todd – and the album running order was sealed.” “It was a very weird sensation,” Partridge adds, “to have somebody tell you what your album’s gonna be, the order it’s gonna be in, and how the songs will segue together.”
That was just the beginning of a clash of wills that marred Skylarking for Partridge. “The whole Todd experience was frustrating”, he says. “We were obliged to shut up and be produced, or else; ‘it’s your last chance’. That was very difficult to swallow, and it put me in a belligerent mood from day one.
For Oranges and Lemons, Virgin Records was pushing the band to stay with an American producer – for dubious commercial reasons, Partridge believes. They chose the relatively inexperienced Paul Fox on the strength of a complete overhaul he’d done of a Boy George single. “The stuff they heard that I had done,” Fox says, “was a little more mainstream than what they were used to doing.” But Fox, an XTC fan, “knew that they did not exactly have a great time making their last album”, and was determined to give them a better experience. He also had a valuable background in keyboards as a former session musician – and an even more valuable in at Los Angeles’ Summa Music Group Studios, available to XTC for one-sixth the rate of the English studio that was their first choice. Partridge professes satisfaction with the results and Fox’s respect. “It was nice to have somebody who listened to and tried our suggestions, even if they failed. It’s difficult to play tennis on your own. You have to have somebody to whack the ball back; that’s what keeps it going.”
The drummer this time around was Mr. Mister’s Pat Mastelotto, an old session-mate of Fox’s. “I had known he was a big XTC fan,” Fox says of the drummer, and he also thought Mastelotto’s “bandier” approach – that is, less like an L.A. session pro – would fit in well with the group. “I knew that he could already play like Terry Chambers,” Fox adds. Mr. Mister agreed to lend out Mastelotto, who had a blast requesting old XTC songs during the three weeks of rehearsals that preceded recording.
During those rehearsals Fox and the band arranged and restructured the demo recordings, which were in varying stages of completeness. Partridge admits his are pretty rough. “Sometimes you have a definite image of what you want. You hand the song over to other members of the band and say, ‘Do what you will; I’d like this kind of atmosphere’. Sometimes they get it totally wrong and it can be surprisingly rewarding. Sometimes they get it totally wrong and they’ll smother it.”
“The Mayor of Simpleton,” the initial single from Oranges and Lemons, started with lyrics Partridge wrote a few years ago. “It was a much more slow, mournful kind of song; early demos put it somewhere between UB40 and the Wailers, very reggaefied. It had a different tune, with much more of this miserable lope to it. I liked the lyrics, and I thought it needed vitality.” “Across This Antheap” also accelerated from a bluesy tempo to its current “Latin” feel, according to Partridge – “from Tony Joe White to War.” That’s a sampled Partridge shouting “hey!” throughout. “I said, ‘Look, can you make it sound like I’m shouting down a ventilator shaft?’ The engineer said, ‘Why don’t you go and shout down a ventilator shaft?’ The simplicity of ideas sometimes is astounding!” Partridge did, and that’s what you hear.
One pronounced trait of Oranges and Lemons is the crisscrossing of vocal lines. “Countermelody madness!” Partridge exclaims. “It’s just a habit we’ve gotten into – the joy of several songs happening at once. It’s musical masturbation; I can’t leave the thing alone. We feel like we sort of own it. Not many people do that now – not since West Side Story or South Pacific“.
He notes that the three drummers on XTC’s four post-Chambers albums “all have different personalities. Prairie Prince [on Skylarking] had a tight, flicky kind of sound – a very controlled feel. Pat Mastelotto was not afraid to use a lot of electronic bits and pieces, and not afraid to play along with machines; in fact, he encouraged it, which we thought was quite revolutionary in a drummer, ’cause drummers mostly think of machines as putting them out of work. He’s very metronomic, and that underscored the precise feel to a lot of tracks on this album”.
Doesn’t Partridge ever long to have a permanent drummer?
“No, ’cause I wouldn’t know what to do with him – bring him around once a week for a cup of tea and, ‘See ya in seven months’ time when I’ve written some songs, then!’ We’re not like the Monkees; we don’t live in one big house”.
Still, he likes the interplay of a band situation. “I need Colin to upset me, to bring demos around and for me to go, ‘Shit, these are really good’. I need competition. If I was doing it all I’d get really lazy.” He describes Gregory’s role as “icing chef, decorating the cakes that we give him. He knows the chords I’m playing” – unlike Partridge sometimes.
With the album out, Partridge feels he’s due for another bout of arm-twisting from Geffen to get him to tour. “They try that regularly. Someone gets very chummy, a few drinks go down, I get a little bit merry – and then he starts on a touring thing.
“I don’t want to tour because I don’t see that as pleasurable, and I don’t see any reason at my age  to do anything or have anything inflicted on me that I don’t find pleasurable. I should be in complete control of my life at my age, and do what the bell I want to ’cause I’ve earned the right – well”, he reconsiders, “these various roads have led to the point in my head where I don’t feel indebted to anyone; I don’t have to follow any particular orders or instructions”. He’s speaking softly now. “If I don’t find playing live pleasurable, why be given money for something you don’t enjoy doing? You might as well go sweep out the sewers”.
Partridge doesn’t think XTC’s “living death” as a studio band bothers Moulding, another family man. Gregory says he’d like to do more, “but I’m just a lone voice. These two guys are writing the songs and keeping the band afloat – if indeed there is still a band.”
“He likes to play and crank it up,” Partridge says of Gregory, “so I think he’s a little frustrated. I’ve tried to urge him to go on the road with other people so he can get that evil spawn out of himself and come back and be with us.” He switches on a broad west-country twang: “‘You’re not having sex in this marriage so it’s all right to go to a prostitute if you want’.”
He’s suggested that Moulding and Gregory find another singer/guitarist for touring purposes: “I can stay at home and write songs and design stage shows for them. But I think that was a non-starter – we’d probably get all the Beach Boys shit flung at us. I’ve even considered getting a band together, calling them something like Farmboy’s Wages, and they’d go out, like Beatlemania. It probably wouldn’t be quite the same.”
“They’re really great live,” says Fox, who had the privilege of being the entire audience at XTC’s Oranges and Lemons rehearsals. He’d love to see a tour, though “I’m not going to hold my breath. They’re all such good musicians.” (Those with fading memories of exciting XTC shows will vouch for that.)
“I understand his – no, I don’t understand his reasons for not touring”, XTC manager Tarquin Gotch says of his recalcitrant charge. “I work on the assumption there will be no live touring, but secretly hope, in the back of my mind, some miracle might happen.” Until it does, Partridge is likely to remain in Swindon, for which he harbors no great love. “The place is a dump, no romance about it. London is a bigger dump. I’d like to move out to the edge of the countryside, away from people a bit more.”
It’s not so much that adoring locals follow Partridge wherever he goes. “No, they probably resent the fact that we actually did something.”
“Swindon’s quite an apathetic town,” Moulding concurs, “A lot of them think we split up, I think.”
Only Gregory speaks for the defense. “There are pockets of people who are proud of what we’ve done on behalf of the town, I suppose,” the soft-spoken guitarist says. “We put the town on the map.”
Now, if only the public would put XTC on the charts. “It’s sort of like a hobby, a paying hobby,” Partridge says of his shabbily genteel career. He sounds incredulous when he notes that both Virgin and Geffen “are very happy with the songs we’ve given them. It’s nice to have them positive for a change, rather than surly and saying, ‘Well, I don’t hold up much for the future if you don’t get the sales figures up’. But it’s funny: The more positive they get, the more unserious I get. They can sniff cash in it now, it’s losing its appeal to me. If that redresses itself properly, I’ll end up a house painter.”
Speaking of hobbies and house painting, no XTC article would be authoritative without mention of the band’s alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear. XTC almost was the Dukes of Stratosphear, but the shorter, snappier moniker won out the last time the group changed its name, in the mid-’70s. In 1979, Partridge asked Gregory – not yet in XTC, and an even bigger psychedelia nut than himself – “if he would be interested in making a psychedelic album under another name, like Electric Bone Temple.”
That project was shelved until 1985, when Partridge dusted off the “Dukes of Stratosphear” handle for a remarkably authentic-sounding EP of pseudo-psychedelic ptributes. Partridge was pshocked to discover that the tongue-in-cheek 25 O’Clock sold twice as well as the previous XTC album, The Big Express. Virgin insisted “the Dukes” record a follow-up. (Geffen hadn’t released the EP in the U.S.) “I’d told the Dukes joke and that was it,” Partridge says, “But lots of letters came in; ‘Can you ask the Dukes to do another album?’ I relented, and I felt like we were doing The Empire Strikes Back, or something ‘II’.” The full-length Dukes album, Psonic Psunspot, contains better songs than its predecessor, Partridge feels, but with less of a period ambience.
In between these efforts, XTC proper was starting to play for real what the Dukes of Stratosphear did as a studied goof. The ’60s aura of Oranges and Lemons makes it even harder to tell where one “group” stops and the other begins. Partridge hints darkly that he may have to “do in” the Dukes, perhaps “in a bizarre kitchen accident.” Are the Dukes of Stratosphear the real XTC? Since his school days, Partridge had “wanted to be in a group that made that kind of music. It looks like XTC has now turned into that kind of group. We’ll either get a damned good kicking because of that, or people will allow us to be what I always wanted to be. There was a split image and now they’ve merged.”
Maybe the moon is in the right house now for XTC. They’ve got a striking new album, a pushy new manager and even some record-company interest. Too bad Partridge – proud but not conceited – doesn’t share the enthusiasm.
“We’re just like dough,” insists Swindon’s swami of simile. “What can you say about dough? We are the record, and nothing else.”
That’s the way he likes it.
Taken from issue #4 of Freakbeat magazine, 1987. This article on XTC’s psychedelic alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphear was written by Richard Allen…
In 1985 people seeking the ‘weirder’ musical experience first came across The Dukes Of Stratosphear in their local record shop. I remember my first encounter with the Dukes debut mini LP 25 O’Clock which hit me full force from the record rack like some kind of dayglo pop art explosion. The sleeve, an amalgam of every psychedelic art style from the Oz ‘Blowing in the Mind’ Dylan cover to the eye encrusted collage of Creams’ Disraeli Gears was almost irresistable and still is. Moreover the music of 25 O’Clock, I discovered, like many others, was just as colourful and as much as an amalgam as the cover. For those who have not heard 25 O’Clock here follows a brief description:
The most obvious and stunning aspect of the LP is the production which is wide and crystal clear. Side one opens up with an Electric Prunes influenced space rocker that materialises from the ticking of some huge clock. Every effect pans between the speakers (try it on headphones!) and the cheerful(!) song is broken by fuzzed out guitar and swirling good old English mellotron which is Pink Floydish but with a very Caravanish edge. Pink Floyd looms tall on the second track ‘Bike Ride to the Moon’ a tale of cosmic pushbiking with sing along, strum along lyrics and ever-present ‘whizz bang’ noises. The third track totally fuzzes out as the Dukes proclaim that their ‘Love explodes’. This song gives the strongest clue to the true identity of the band which if you did not already know will be revealed shortly. Well side one ends with a firework display (literally) and some maniac shouting down a phone about how bad everything is so far. Side two opens with a great distorted booming piece of psych called ‘What in the World?’ that contains some great wibbly-wobbly sounds and lyrics much as, ‘2033 Cannabis in tea, What in the World? Acid is Free, What in the World?’ — What in the world indeed! The next track ‘Your Gold Dress’ crams virtually every 60’s UK psych effect into the song. There’s Eastern guitar riffs, backwards bits, the obligatory honky-tonk piano, fuzz guitar, demented monk vocals and of course phasing. Phew! In contrast the last track ‘Mole from the Ministry’ is a pure Beatles pastiche. Imagine a cross between ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’ and you’re somewhere near the mark. There’s even the fade-out, fade-in plonking chant hit from the end of ‘Strawberry Fields.’ The lyrical subject of ‘Mole from the Ministry’ seems political (remember the Belgrano Government Mole Shock Horror Scandal in ’85?). Finally as the stylus nears the end of side two lo and behold a backwards message which when deciphered proclaims ‘You can fuck your atom bomb!’ [sic].
25 O’Clock came and went with rumours abounding as to who was behind the Dukes. Anxious psych heads scoured the live gig listings in the vain hope of finding a small ad that announced the Dukes performing live at some drug ridden seedy dive – but no – 1986 passed and the Dukes had been filed under ‘D’. Rumours circulated that they had something to do with XTC and the fact that the Dukes LP was included in the XTC section of a Megapriced superstore in London (beginning with V) confirmed this. It was only this year that it was officially announced that the Dukes of Stratosphear were indeed XTC in disguise lead by discerning Andy Partridge.
The Dukes second LP Psonic Psunspot was released in August of this year and takes the whole concept to its conclusion. However one approaches Psychedelia it cannot be denied that Psunspot captures the essence of the British Psychedelic Sound of 1967. The American sound does also get a slight exposure, but in honesty, only the poppy chart orientated Psych Sound of say The Electric Prunes and some of The Byrds material are included.
Freakbeat asked Andy Partridge, after kindly being invited to his home in deepest Steam engined Swindon, why he decided to make the two Dukes LP’s.
PERSONNEL Sir John Johns – Andy Partridge – Name taken from a ’67 DC comic about a green Martian detective. Red Curtain – Colin Moulding – Name refers to the previous length of his hair which was like a curtain.
Lord Cornelius Plum – Dave Gregory – Was going to call himself ‘US of Arthur’ but a 60’s group had already done it.
E.I.E.I. OWEN – Ian Gregory – Dave’s brother – the non-XTC member.
DISCOGRAPHY LP’s25 O’Clock – Virgin – Wow 1 1985.*Psionic Psunspot [sic] – Virgin – VP2440 1987.CD
CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIRE-BALL – Virgin – Com CD11 1987. (Featuring all of 25 O’Clock and Psionic Psunspot).
The Mole From The Ministry/My Love Explodes – Virgin – VSY982.
*You’re A Good Man Albert Brown/Vanishing Girl – Virgin – VS98212 (Also available as a 12″ VS98212).
*COLOURED VINYL – First few pressings multicoloured as intended – the remainder went out a muddy purple!
‘Well really because I love that kind of music! It’s been creeping into XTCs music over the years. Slowly our album tracks have been getting more and more colourful. I really do love that kind of music. It’s sort of a nostalgia thing, because I just wasn’t old enough to be a hippy. MY parents wouldn’t let me grow my hair long. I was still at school and I could see all these older kids who’d been buying all these brilliant albums and going to Jimi Hendrix gigs and stuff walking past the school wearing all these amazing clothes. This was when I was about 12 or 13. I’d buy singles like ‘My White Bicycle’ and ‘See Emily Play’ with what pocket money I had and record vouchers I was given. Then I got hold of a copy of The ‘Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request which is still be fave psych LP by anyone. It totally did me in at that age. I thought, when XTC started years later, wouldn’t it be great to do an album or albums in the style of that sort of music, you know, pre-dominantly 45 material, very compact not long rambling stuff but three minute slabs. Eventually we got to the position where we’d made several LP’s and I decided it was the right time to pop the question to our record company Virgin. They said ‘mmm I don’t know, who’s going to buy it?’ so I said to them ‘look if we do it for virtually nothing would you finance it?’ and they said yes but only if we could do it for £5000 quid [pounds Sterling]. It’s pretty hard these days to make a good quality LP for less than about £10,000-£15,000 but we eventually did 25 0’Clock for £4000 and gave ‘em £1000 change! I even did the cover on the kitchen table to cut costs! I copied lots of bits out of books on a copier and drew the heads etc. Virgin put the LP out and it sold pretty well especially in America as an import, in fact it sold embarassingly well ‘cos it sold something like 50,000 copies, twice as many as the last XTC album! and it cost nothing! Virgin said to us ‘Well you really must do another!’ So I said it was a one-off thing and I had done it but then all this mail started arriving saying how brilliant people thought the LP was. People were writing to Virgin asking who the group were. Some people had no idea it was us and some people just thought we knew the Dukes. I wanted the Dukes to be an unknown band so that XTCs past career for good or bad did not affect them. I resisted for two years from doing another LP but Dave (Gregory) and Colin (Moulding) said ‘We really should do another one ‘cos we really enjoyed it so much’ and because I’d been writing these tracks in secret (‘Have You Seen Jackie’ — left off 25 O’Clock and ‘Collideascope’) so I said yes.
After listening to one of Dave Gregorys forgeries (a copy of ‘Strawberry Fields’) Andy went on to explain how the Psionic Psunspot LP was put together:
‘Dave is an A1 forger. He’s got quite a good library of Psych and he actually still had all the clothes! Like he found in his cupboard a pair of Jumbo cord hipsters from ’68, a big wide plastic belt and a floppy felt hat with chain ornaments! It was quite frightening ‘cos he turned up at the photo session in all these amazing clothes! Getting back to his forgery, he’s got this set of a four track and a few instruments with which he re-creates his fave music, trying to get it as authentic as possible. He does a spooking job sometimes. He gets into the Dukes in a big way like he has to use the right sort of amplifier and he uses his Rickenbacker 12 string or his really old Fenders and stuff connected to an old fuzzbox to get a really ZZZZZZ kind of sound.’
Andy described how the band had spent hours sifting through old records trying to find out how the sounds were obtained. They would listen to first one channel and then the other and on one song they even put a mic by the fuzz pedal to pick up the ‘click’ of the switch (as heard on the ‘Stones ‘Satisfaction’).
‘We did a lot of conscious forgery, musically and vocally. ‘Vanishing Girl’ is The Hollies (I wanted to add Mellotron but we left it out). ‘Have You Seen Jackie’ is sort of Pink Floyd/Tomorrow/Keith West and a bit of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ by the ‘Stones (with the backward Autoharp). ‘Little Lighthouse’ was an XTC number that was put on the shelf because it was too psychy for XTC thus it was an obvious choice. It’s about someone who’s exceptionally wonderful to be with and it’s like something really fantastic is shining out of their head.’
Andy does not see himself doing another Dukes LP or venturing further into psychedelia.
‘It’s not serious as in ‘it’s gonna save the world’, but what we are serious about is that we do love this sort of music and as I say it’s been bubbling to the surface of XTC for a while now. A lot of critics especially in the US say some of the tracks on Skylarking should have been on 25 O’Clock. However I don’t think we’ll do another Dukes LP. We’ve said thanks to the bands of that era. We might do a beat thing (Ventures/Shadows) or go forward a bit and change to the Stratosphear Gang with like Flares and glitter! I think the Dukes have done their stuff and said thank you (– twice to The Beatles!)’
And with that the Dukes really make their final statement. There are a few odds and ends for the information maniacs. As far as outtakes are concerned a few do exist, e.g., A ludicrously extended jam called ‘Orange Dust’ was recorded at about the same time as the XTC English Settlement LP while the talking section of ‘My Love Explodes’ on 25 O’Clock comes not from a Woody Allen film but from an American radio phone-in chat show. Apparently some Vietnam veteran had just sung a rather obscene and nationally insulting song, so this crank rang up and complained — the whole monologue lasting about 20 minutes!
The Dukes have left us two delightful collages of ’67 sounds, which admittedly are not original but all the same evoke the fairytale naïvety that prevailed within the UK charts for good or bad 20 years ago today.
A Creem article from July 1987 on Swindon, England’s finest, right after they released their masterpiece Skylarking, which unfortunately did not make them the big stars they should have been…oh well…such is life…
An update on the attempted Americanization of XTC. For an eighth full album the trio is told, as reported by stalwart singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Partridge, to “go away and write something that sounds American.” An American producer, Todd Rundgren, is lined up for them and Partridge is told, in no uncertain terms, to “shut up and be produced.”
The result, Skylarking, says Partridge, is probably “more English than [the record company] knows what to do with. I think they got the impression that we were going to do something like Simple Minds or U2, something that you could put your girlfriend on your shoulders to in a stadium somewhere.”
Hadn’t record company execs in charge of dictums listened to previous XTC albums? Partridge laughs. “Probably not. You probably hit the nail exactly on the head there.”
XTC has been, throughout their eclectic 10-year history, perhaps the most British band in existence. Partridge and fellow songwriter/singer/bassist Colin Moulding, with guitarist Dave Gregory, have crafted a unique sound that captures emotion, history and philosophy in a haunting style. And this timeless feel has become stronger as the band’s voice matured: from the delightful jumpy energy of Drums and Wires‘ ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ and ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ to Black Sea‘s ‘Towers of London'; from the pastoral-turning English Settlement‘s ‘Senses Working Overtime’ and the exquisite jewels of Mummer such as ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’ and ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ to The Big Express‘s ‘All You Pretty Girls’ and the current Skylarking, with its recurring themes of seasonal and cyclical rebirth (more songs about weather and girls).
Partridge agrees with the “timeless” description. “We pirate our favorite musical forms: psychedelic music’s in there, jazz is in there, there’s straight-ahead pop stuff, there’s vaudeville, there’s classical – it’s all thrown in, completely unabashed. It could be any time from 1880 to 1980-something, maybe even 2080-something.
“I feel it’s kind of related to Mummer,” he continues. “It seems to do a tangent to what Mummer threatened; it seems to take one of those threats and work it out totally, the lush English countryside, strings, rusticism – if such a word exists; if not, I’ve just invented it – side of things.” Partridge speaks in perfect asides, punctuated often with quick witticisms. And he did just invent a word.
One of the tangents XTC threaded into Skylarking resulted from the trio’s lighthearted, affectionate foray into psychedelia as the Dukes of Stratosphear with the 1985 EP 25 O’ Clock, which Partridge says, ‘was the most fun we ever had making a record. There was no pressure. You didn’t have to be yourself; it was a psychedelic masked ball. It was a chance to say thank you to all those loopy, senseless groups that altered our schooldays. [The Dukes] are what we could have been for five minutes had we been the right age. I’m too young to be a hippie.”
After that heady plunge into paisley, though, the trio had to be careful. “We just became very aware that, with the next thing we recorded, we were just going to have to slap each other’s wrist if somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s put a backward guitar solo…’ I think everyone was alarmingly aware of making a psychedelic album again, and even though we consciously tried not to, [Skylarking] came out rather psychedelic – there’s strings on things and there are no real synthesizers as such, so it sort of sounds pre-’80’s, at least.”
That the LP is a somewhat baroque and ethereally-textured collection is due to Rundgren’s hand. “He wouldn’t do anything vaguely political or noisy,” says Partridge. “He tended to go for personal relationship, small-horizon songs. Todd obviously likes non-harrowing music.”
It’s rather ironic that, even though XTC did not get along at all well with the Woodstock hermit (“The atmosphere was so bad, everyone was getting so argumentative, I thought we were just going to split up and fall apart”), and the resulting LP was so far from the American sound the execs lusted after that Partridge says “initially they didn’t even want to put this album out,” XTC might yet have a hit with the tune ‘Dear God’. And that is an irony within an irony, because at Partridge’s demand, the song was not released on the first pressings of Skylarking.
Seems the young American girl singing on the track was originally envisioned as a young English boy (“It’s like the wrong sex and wrong accent – other than that it was perfect,” laughs Partridge), and Andy felt that another song he had written, ‘Another Satellite’, was better. “So I sort of threw a tantrum and said, ‘This must go on, take ‘Dear God’ off.’ But it looks like ‘Dear God’ will be going back on in any case,” he adds, chuckling.
It would be lovely to hear XTC’s distinctive and intelligent pop songs permeating the radio, although it’s bound to be a sporadic occurrence, since the lads’ sound is probably too different to sit well with contemporary radio programming standards. Another irony, since XTC is constantly being compared to one of the most successful groups in pop history, the Beatles.
“This isn’t something that we work on,” emphasizes Partridge. “We get a lot of mail saying ‘My favorite two bands in all of history are you and the Beatles.’ I think it’s because we have a lot of eclectic tastes in music and we’re not afraid to bung them all in. What comes out is this kind of multi-colored stew that the easiest way to define is: ‘Oh, the last people that maybe did that kind of multi-colored stew thing were the Beatles.’ It’s quite flattering, and it’s very good ego stuff, but it’s not commercially viable in big amounts. I’m beginning to get rather mercenary about art. Nearly 10 years of good albums, come on, can I have some cash please, now,” he says, laughing.
Though the thread of financial depression (and half-joking paranoia at being sentenced to be struggling Cult Faves forever) runs through Partridge’s commentary, he and his compatriots still forge hopefully on, passionately creating music for art’s sake. “We’re sort of idiots, really,” he says cheerfully. “We just love making records. We do tend to get the rough end of the stick, but we’re pretty optimistic. Well, actually, Dave’s an incredible pessimist, but I balance that out by being absolutely, aggressively optimistic.
“You can’t do one thing too much because then you’ll die – life is about 50 percent no and 50 percent yes,” Partridge says. “I hope there is [a balance on the record], ’cause I’d hate to make a record that was all one thing. What’s worse than a wallpaper book with all the same sample on every page? A meal of entirely chocolate. The fun about chocolate is you suffer your Brussels sprouts and then your reward is a bar of chocolate. It’s called balance.”
And possibly good news for fans. Partridge is showing signs of mobility, perhaps leading to something vaguely resembling concert appearances – which the band had sworn off for nearly five years, due to an acute audience-phobia that made him physically ill. A live radio broadcast was being set up in Britain, and, Partridge adds definitely, “I’m sort of kind of semi-interested in doing that kind of thing again. Not for money – a good tour was breaking even. Just maybe it’s time I got up and lost some weight and shook my bum under some lights again…I don’t know.”
Andy Partridge’s side project with former XTC bandmate Barry Andrews. This album shows off their experimental side and is definitely an interesting experiment.
This review comes from Roque Strew, from Pitchfork - May 8, 2007…
Before Andy Partridge locked down his place in the new-wave pantheon as the brain and public face of XTC, he had two loves. One was a famous affair with slightly-off pop and the other was a secret crush on free jazz. Fans may have seen the signs in 1994’s Through the Hill, his record with ambient composer Harold Budd. Partridge finally fully liberates his love for Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler on Monstrance, reuniting with keyboardist Barry Andrews (who left XTC in 1979, later starting Shriekback) and recruiting Martyn Barker (drummer in Andrews’ band). Together they abandon the domain of shimmery pop with a twist for a moody, dissonant netherworld.
It bears repeating: Don’t expect to encounter XTC here. And good luck finding Shriekback. But if you take Monstrance on its own terms — bringing a yen for improvisational, instrumental music — you might feel the strange thrill of eavesdropping on a freewheeling, nonsensical conversation. Culled from roughly eight hours of recordings, we still get to hear the awkward lulls, the autistic blurts, the little foils that often enrich the surrounding noise. Lightly edited and proudly free of overdubbing, Monstrance allows concepts to roam, phrases to drift.
The record’s long prelude, “I Lovely Cosmonaut” unfolds in slow motion, as a rhythm of silences accrues in the potholes, everyone swerving around it, stubbornly, until a fuller rhythm crystallizes. “Winterwerk” is not as coy. On the contrary, Barker turns it into twirling, tropical carnival. Nevertheless, the longer tracks are the richest here. Coming in at 16 minutes, “Priapple” is arguably the centerpiece of the album. Partridge heroically sticks to a pair of fuzzy chords, as Andrews mounts a relentless and chaotic siege, while Barker answers with erratic percussion.
Every song– and not always for the better — seems to be at war with itself. “Chaingang” milks a sense of unease out of two rhythms, Partridge’s ragged Beefheart riffs in 7/4 and Barker in 4/4, that fleetingly lock into place. These blink-and-you’ll-miss-it resolutions, each one a tiny solar eclipse, give the song its thrilling air of flux and incompleteness. During the whole drama, Andrews remains the outsider looking in. He works this same routine in the first half of “Torturetainmen,” while he drills holes — it literally sounds like heavy machinery — into the oddball groove Partridge and Barker crafted together.
Calling this “unlistenable noise” is baffling. This record falls closer to the viscous, chaotic beauty of Swans than the poisonous crunch of Metal Machine Music. All the stretches of darkness have real depth, while at its calmer and more intimate moments, Monstrance evokes the stoic, spacey impressionism of ECM chamber jazz.
XTC’s lysergic alter egos – this is the title track to their 1985 debut EP (later released on the 1987 Chips from the Chocolate Fireball compilation). This is easily the equal to almost any psych classic from the 60s.
Don’t eat the brown rice…
Written for the PopMatters website, Oct. 27, 2006. Long article about XTC mastermind Andy Partridge…
There is no mansion and no country estate. There is no fancy sports car collection, nor luxury yacht, nor private jet. The road to becoming one of alternative rock’s most influential artists of the last 30 years has not been paved with riches and rock and roll status symbols. There is no museum, no shrine. Not even a framed gold or platinum album hanging on the wall (though not for lack of sales).
In fact, rather than being a rags to riches story of musical salvation and material excess, it’s a life story enlivened by managerial fraud and graft, financial ruin, frustrated success, marital collapse, industry restraints, and reclusive defiance.
So why does Andy Partridge seem so calm, so happy, so content?
Perhaps because after thirty years in the music industry, struggling against all manner of odds and potential ends, Partridge is finally comfortably ensconced in the place he has carved out for himself. Perhaps it’s that after a strange career marked equally by praise and indifference, the legacy of his work is finally beginning to speak for itself. It certainly must have something to do with achieving that ideal of artistic independence that has wound its Elysian thread through rock history. No matter how modest, as humble as a daisy, it is a niche that Partridge fought for and fashioned to his design. And after years of conflict, the future is finally his on his own terms.
As Partridge explains in his own words, “My expectations of success are that sort of weird invisible horn that grows out of your head and waves around thinking ‘Wow! Where’s success? Where is it?’ I think it shriveled up and dropped off a long time ago. To me, success is really making enough money to be able to carry on making music. That’s success.”
1. Funk Pop a Roll Beats Up My Soul
By some accounts, the rough journey of Andy Partridge and his band, XTC, is due in no small part to Partridge himself. He was difficult, complicated, and contrary. He didn’t play by the rules, and he didn’t play well with others. He was (and maybe is) headstrong, arrogant, and stubborn. He has no one to blame but himself. And, of course, there is The Incident, and all that came, or didn’t come, afterwards.
Any biography of XTC and Partridge himself must eventually return to The Incident. It is the black hole at the center of the XTC galaxy, exerting its gravitational pull on all the history that swirls around the band and its members, bending and warping each of their lights. Over the years, various explanations and descriptions have been given accounting for the conditions that led up The Incident. Most settle for a lazy explanation that Partridge suffers from crippling stage fright. Others chalk it up to exhaustion. Partridge himself refers to it as a nervous breakdown. Whatever the case, there remains little doubt that The Incident changed XTC’s course forever.
In 1982, XTC had released its fifth album, English Settlement, in as many years, cutting their own path out of the UK punk scene, running briefly through new wave and heading into larger pop territories. Each album since their White Music debut had seen XTC grow in leaps and bounds. 1979’s Drums and Wires yielded XTC’s first chart success in the single “Making Plans for Nigel”, while 1980’s Black Sea sold well on the album charts on the strength of its solid post-punk tracks, including “Respectable Street”, “Towers of London”, and “Generals and Majors”.
And the band was active—intensely so. From the moment that XTC signed to Virgin in 1977, they embarked on a flurry of touring and promotional appearances, hitting television studios, club stages, and progressively larger concert venues in a series of almost endless appearances. The band would be home in its native Swindon, England, for only months out of the year following the release of Drums and Wires, spending most of its time on the road around Europe, and eventually Asia and America, where they performed alongside the likes of the Police and Talking Heads. Those shows were high energy as well, with a grinning Partridge front and center the whole time, churning through versions of their tunes that occasionally reached manic pitch and volumes so loud that XTC made the 1981 edition of Rolling Stone’s Book of Rock Lists‘s list of 17 Loudest Bands in the World (coming in at Number 15 and beating out both Queen and KISS—unsurprisingly, the Who was number 1).
This frenzied pace may have been simply part and parcel of the rock and roll world, but it had dire physical consequences for Partridge. As a child, Partridge was diagnosed as “hyperactive” (in a world before ADD) and placed on a regimen of Valium to calm him down. As the demands of performing and life on the road began to stack up, so too did the demands of the Valium. In 1979, three years before The Incident, Partridge experienced what he believed was a nervous breakdown, essentially blacking out on stage and forgetting who he was and all of XTC’s songs. It was temporary, and he went quickly back to work, but the pressures of performing began to build up more and more from that point on.
The Incident was actually stretched across a small span of time in 1982. On stage at a show in Paris during the first European leg of the English Settlement promotional tour, Partridge relapsed, collapsing on stage and cutting the show short. The collapse prompted the cancellation of the English tour that was to follow, and Partridge began a round of various psychological treatments, which seemed to relieve him of the stress. It was revealed that he’d stopped eating three days before the Paris show. The Valium was fingered as a culprit, and Partridge’s wife Marianne tossed the pills, forcing him to kick a serious dependency.
Believing he was cured, Partridge joined the band in California to kick off a sizable US tour—their first as a headlining act in the States—and took to the stage for the first night’s show in Sand Diego. Once on stage, however, the entire flood of stressors returned, and Partridge fell apart once more, struggling through the show, unable to focus, and collapsing once more. Though the band tried to resurrect him for the second show, a sold out Los Angeles performance, Partridge was physically unable to take the stage, and the tour was cancelled, much to Virgin’s dismay. Partridge resolved to never tour again.
The fallout of Partridge’s refusal to tour was an increasingly impatient and unhappy parent in Virgin Records, who saw XTC as untenable as the studio-only act Partridge declared them to have become. Drummer Terry Chambers no longer saw a place for himself in the group, and abruptly quit as the band was trying to record their next disc, Mummer. And while convalescing at home in the generally more rural Swindon, Partridge’s rediscovered love for the English countryside he grew up in was reflected in the new material he was writing. None of this was a formula for pop-rock success in the mid-1980s.
But it’s also a fallacy to chalk up XTC’s semi-transparency to the simple problem of the band’s refusal to tour and call it stubbornness. While it certainly limited the band’s marketability, and therefore their label support, XTC suffered more from the hands of industry forces than they did from failure to find an audience. While XTC defied expectations by retaining a dedicated fan base that grew with each release, despite their low profile, the most damaging trials came from within the ranks of their own management.
While Partridge and company have a court-enforced gag order preventing them from discussing details, what is known is that their initial manager, Ian Reid, inked a deal with Virgin that wound up working out primarily for Reid, secondarily for Virgin, and not at all for XTC. Throughout their first five years of existence, XTC never saw a penny of profits from either album sales or touring revenue. Reid, on the other hand, took out large loans from Virgin, borrowing against XTC’s royalties, to the tune of millions of pounds by some estimates. Even after the band settled out of court with Reid, because of the terms of the contract, Virgin was able to hold XTC liable for the sum. Because of XTC’s failure to tour, the likelihood of ever repaying Virgin dwindled further and further away. Over the course of a 20-year contract with Virgin Records, and after achieving gold and platinum status in album sales on a number of discs, XTC never saw any publishing royalties.
Moreover, despite of the increasing presence of Partridge in the greater music scene as something of a muse in his own right, working as a co-songwriter and producer with a number of other artists, Virgin continually rejected XTC’s demands for creative control of the group’s output. To the end, Virgin demanded an outside producer be in charge of each release, not trusting the sometimes fanciful and unpredictable whims of Partridge to deliver the album with the best chance of paying back their debt. Recording sessions were followed by tales of resentment settling into resignation, as producers and Partridge butted heads. The time spent recording and producing XTC’s probable masterwork, Skylarking, with Todd Rundgren was famously charged with tempests of clashing visions. Nonsuch was wrapped up with producer Gus Dudgeon and Partridge no longer speaking to one another. And Partridge, a talented visual artist before deciding on music as a teen, was constantly having sleeve designs and packaging concepts rejected by Virgin executives (often later picked up and used in the final output without crediting Andy himself).
So XTC went on strike.
Following the 1992 release of Nonsuch, Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, and guitarist/arranger Dave Gregory demanded to be released from their contract, citing both creative differences and the money they felt was owed them by Virgin. Virgin, still in the red where XTC was concerned, refused to void the contract. And so an industry strike quietly raged past the point of more famous (and publicized) strikes by Prince and George Michael. Partridge and Moulding continued to write and record demos, planning what they hoped would become their first post-Virgin release, but the label dragged the fight out over five long years. In the end, XTC won, despite making some heavy concessions, and 20 years after punk first broke, they were DIY for the first time in their career.
XTC immediately went to work recording their triumphal return, but the strike years had strained relations within the band. Partridge’s new material forced a further evolution of the band’s sound. The incorporation of more symphonic elements led to Partridge arranging those parts, duties that had previously fallen to Gregory. Tensions came to a head and Gregory quit XTC while preparing to record the long-awaited Apple Venus Vol. 1. Still, Partridge and Moulding pushed on, and the album release was met with critical acclaim (and very modest commercial success). The follow-up, Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2, debuted a year later, to similar results. Moving forward, rather than shopping itself around to small independent labels, XTC took the logical step of forming its own label, dubbed Idea Records. Partridge also struck out on his own, resolving both his solo work and his production history into one entity by forming his own APE House Records label.
All of this is not to say that XTC’s is a sad-sack story of a band to be pitied. On the contrary, despite challenging many music industry foundations, XTC managed to continue to record and thrive where many bands failed, split up, and moved on to more respectable jobs. At one point in time, XTC were seen as contemporaries of Public Image Ltd., Wire, Joy Division, the Human League, the Specials, Gang of Four, Blondie, the Cure, Buzzcocks, and the aforementioned Talking Heads and the Police. But by striking out on their own path, rather than merely being lauded as new wave icons, or godfathers of such and such, XTC is also frequently and reverentially compared to larger than life icons like the Who and the Kinks, and most especially the Beatles.
Yet, in looking back on the career of Andy Partridge and XTC, it’s difficult to justify claims of greatness without trying to understand exactly why they never managed to rise above the status of cult band. Respect and recognition are the real validation of such claims, not financial success, and for various reasons that came slowly to Partridge. But perseverance, even stubbornness, pays off, and come it has.
2. Feeling Extrovert
Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles series certainly encourages us to look back on that past. Whereas the recorded output of Idea Records has been fairly limited to demo albums of the Apple Venus discs, culminating in last year’s beautifully rendered Apple Box collection, APE House has been busier in true label fashion. In addition to signing and releasing work by pop bands new to the scene, Partridge quickly went to work on a long-discussed project to release all of the home demos, outtakes, and unused songs that had piled up over the last two decades. In a nod to the rough and tumble quality of home recordings, Partridge dubbed the project Fuzzy Warbles. But the motivation for the series doesn’t lie in nostalgia.
“It’s going to sound really banal if I tell you the truth, but the truth is that I was sick of bootleggers,” Partridge explains. “I kept hearing from people, ‘Hey, yeah, I bought a disc of your demos.’ Or, ‘Hey, I got a 3 CD set of your demos from somebody,’ or you’d see them advertised on the Net, or people would tell me about them. And sometimes even bootleggers would send me a free one and they’d say ‘Well, I had a 1,000 of these pressed, and they’re selling really well, and I thought you might like one, ha ha.’ And I was just going insane with rage at this, because, you know, I never made a lot of money at this game. And the thought that my music was being stolen from me… and, you know, bad quality copies of it, because you hear some of it and it’s obviously taken from tenth generation cassette dubs and it’s all the wrong speed and it’s all full of flut-tt-tterrr and stuff like that.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Look, if anyone’s going to bootleg me, it has to be me.’ Because I’ve got first generations of these recordings, I can clean up some of the older stuff, I can remix if they’re not good mixes, I’ve got stuff they’re never gonna have because it never left my possession, I’ve got stuff that, you know, just stuff that bootleggers could never get hold of. So it was just a case of, I’m going to bootleg me really, really well.”
Originally envisioned as a ten-disc series that collected all the castaways from XTC’s past, the project quickly became an Andy Partridge solo venture when Moulding decided that he wasn’t interested in adding his songs to the series.
“He’s been a bit cagey about all this. It’s a combination of things… I think he’s uncomfortable with people hearing him scrabbling around for ideas,” Partridge says. “I’m the opposite. That thrills me. If I can see the sketchbooks, visual or aural or whatever, of the people I really admire, I find that incredibly thrilling. I like to see the germs of ideas, I like to see where they came from, and the failures… I guess it’s the stuff that makes them human.”
“But Colin feels a little difficult about that. That was one reason. Another reason was that maybe he didn’t want to get involved in something where the mass of material was going to be mine.”
Going it alone and releasing Fuzzy Warbles through the APE House imprint, Partridge has been putting out two volumes a year since 2002. With the release of Volumes 7 and 8 this year, the series comes to a close. To commemorate, APE has put together an elaborately packaged “Collector’s Album” that turns the Fuzzy Warbles discs into a box set. As a bonus feature it includes a booklet penned by Partridge (“Hit Record and Play, or a Brief History of Home Sound Capture”) and a CD of bonus tracks, Hinges, that culls a few remaining home recordings that didn’t make it onto the proper eight volumes. And like last year’s Apple Box, this collection revels in the newfound freedom Partridge has in making packaging designs.
Discussing it, he lights up. “Oh, I love it! I’m a complete packaging whore! I just lay on my back and open my legs… package me, baby! I just love packaging. You know, sexy, good packaging is, it’s… whaa, yeah, you just want to eat it!”
In keeping with the stamp collection motif used on the Fuzzy Warbles discs, the box itself is designed to mimic a stamp album, and even includes a sheet of stamps using the cover art from the eight discs. In a clever marketing maneuver, APE has also made the collector’s box available as its own separate purchase, complete with bonus materials, allowing fans who’ve spent the last four years purchasing Fuzzy Warbles discs as single items not to have to re-purchase the whole series just for the collector’s item. It’s the reflection of a musician with the soul of a collector, a true bag to keep life’s souvenirs in.
“I think the ‘Collectors Album’ is possibly my favorite piece of packaging. Actually, that’s a tough one. It may be a tie between this and the three-dimensional ammonite cover for Fossil Fuel,” Partridge enthuses.
There’s no doubt that XTC has inspired some serious collecting among it’s most ardent fans, including fan magazines and conventions. And that collector’s spirit is a drive shared by the band’s leader. Partridge readily admits, “I’m a collector. I just can’t resist it.” In fact, while the Fuzzy Warbles series was being produced, Partridge confesses to finding himself getting pulled into the world of stamp collecting as well. Of course, when asked whether it would replace his reported passion for toy soldiers, the answer was an emphatic denial.
“No, no, it mustn’t. There’s gonna be war if it happens. No, that’s really my first love. That’s my cocaine: toy soldiers.”
As a collection itself, Fuzzy Warbles offers an interesting assortment of treasures, each arranged onto its own album-length collection, leaving the whole collection a scattered, seemingly disorganized hopscotch through 20 years of recordings. Unlike a more historically minded box set, this collection as a whole (and each disc in it) deliberately does away with any sense of linear progression or chronological sequencing.
“That would be awful,” he says bluntly. Explaining how the songs were picked and arranged on each volume, Partridge says, “It’s the balance thing. The older I get I really feel very strongly about the kind of ‘middle of the road’ attitude. I don’t want to be upsetting right or left, I want to be bang on that fulcrum in the middle… I guess it’s the balance principle of composing any album. You need a great opening song, great closing song. You need to look at the sort of… the orgasms within an album; you need to look at the shapes where it gets excited and then calm it down a bit. It’s a bit like… I’m gonna sound like such a cheesy Frenchman: It’z a beet like making love to a beautiful woman.”
“Or like, you know, cooking a big banquet or something, where you’ve got a great starter, and then you have a little palette cleanser, and then we hit ‘em with a very flavorable so-and-so, so then you’ve gotta take it down a bit and have a little bland something after that so the too-strong flavor things don’t kill each other. So maybe planning a banquet is more of an adequate metaphor.”
In that sense, Fuzzy Warbles is a set of eight distinct albums. And yet, assembled in one place, it also acts as a collection of Partridge’s songwriting history. Some of the best known tracks and near-hits from XTC’s albums aren’t included here, the album versions are not buried in the mix, and no album cuts are found here. Aside from attempts to collect the usable scraps that haven’t made it onto previously commercially available releases, this collection does not pretend to a sense of comprehensiveness. Such attempts tend to fail anyway, and Partridge clearly thinks little of them to begin with, including Virgin’s assemblage of XTC’s own Coat of Many Cupboards box set.
But what we do gain in total is a sense of Partridge in the home studio over the years, and some insight into the songwriting process—though, in his typically straightforward manner, Partridge states in the “Hit Record and Play” booklet, “Don’t even start me on ‘how does one acquire songwriting wherewithal?’. All the time you are moving down the road to good quality home recording, every time you click the ‘on’ switch, you are taking another learning step, and it never stops. But you still have to do the walking yourself.” And rather than being a plodding travelogue of each step that Partridge has taken along that path, Fuzzy Warbles is instead a collection of some of the marvelous discoveries made along the way.
Casual fans of XTC will recognize some of the familiar album tracks that make demo appearances here. “Merely a Man” and “Complicated Game” are strange bedfellows across time on Volume 1, and clusters of songs from studio albums appear on various discs, such a Volume 5‘s handful of Skylarking songs, or Volume 7’s concentration of songs from Oranges and Lemons. Tracks like “You’re the Wish You Are I Had”, “Human Alchemy”, and “Helicopter” are all revealed in their toddler years, before being polished into their flashy adult lives by mixing and mastering. And for these tracks, there is a sense of looking at the baby albums of these songs, revealing what chord progressions and hooks made up the central creative core around which all the other instrumentation and arrangement was built. Sometimes lyrics have obviously been changed, with the intricacy of Partridge’s expected wordiness still being worked out in the rough. These tracks don’t replace the studio versions, but they certainly enrich their appreciation, giving a back door into what makes them work.
For fans with the glint of obsession in their eyes, the Fuzzy Warbles series is yet more familiar, and more rewarding. This collection helps replace the seventh-generation cassette tape copies of Jules Verne’s Sketchbook, The Bull with the Golden Guts, and Window Box—fan-club releases put together by Partridge and XTC over the years—with improved sound quality on such gems as “Young Cleopatra” and “Goodbye Humanosaurus”. There’s also a fair number of tracks written for XTC’s psychedelic alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear, including a back-to-back run through XTC’s “That’s Really Super Supergirl” and the Dukes’ “Braniac’s Daughter” that shows the songs to be clear sisters. Plenty of rarities make appearances as well, such as “Cherry in Your Tree” from the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? soundtrack, “I Don’t Want to Be Here” and other songs donated to charity benefits, tracks written and recorded for the unused James and the Giant Peach soundtrack (decidedly better than Randy Newman’s), and more. Unfortunately, there’s no “Wonderfalls” here, though diehards have probably already bought the DVD just for the music video. And there is plenty of music here that is brand new to all but the most rabid and well-connected XTC fans, giving Fuzzy Warbles enough of that taste of new experience to keep older fans satisfied.
But it’s also a series that could, under the right circumstances, be a hallmark of Partridge’s career. Perhaps, for those who’ve never heard XTC and don’t have prior interest, this set will seem off-putting, like doing some navel gazing and gathering up the lint collected there. On the other hand, without prior expectations, it’s possible that the vast amount of variety, styles, and interests collected here under one umbrella (rather than 1,000 umbrellas) could serve to introduce the novice to a singular songwriter with a deep and rich history to explore. With 180 tracks covering decades of recording, the Fuzzy Warbles series makes the case for Partridge as a consistently engaging and often brilliant pop talent too often ignored. In that sense, it may work as well as (and in some respects better than) the entire XTC discography.
This set also carries the danger of feeling like a final closure. Partridge claims that this set represents the majority of the previously unheard or unreleased Andy Partridge library. “People say, ‘Oh, what’s the Andy Partridge archive?’ They expect it to be cupboards of tapes and stuff, or a vault. No, it’s two shoeboxes.”
As a piece of reflection, Partridge is rather sanguine about whether it’s really closing the door on the past, however. “Yeah, in a way. But only for now. Because what’s going to happen is, if I keep recording, another ten years down the line, the kitchen drawer is going to be full up with more weird shaped bottle openers, strange corks, and weird bits of plastic out of Christmas crackers, pieces of string, and strange cutlery… That’s like my musical brain. If I keep recording, in the next ten years I’m gonna have enough stuff in the musical kitchen drawer to probably do another… another ten volumes of Fuzzy Warbles.”
But for now, this represents nearly all the usable remainders of the past two-plus decades of Partridge’s work: “I guess it is closing the lid on my home recording to date.”
Even if perceived by some as marking the passage of time, it comes at a moment when XTC’s bike ride to the moon is finally being hailed as the quiet-but-important musical legacy that it is. Asked the loaded question of what mark Partridge feels like he’s left on music, he pauses, considering the answer before saying “Am I allowed to be immodest? I think we’re pretty, largely influential.”
XTC’s later material has been monumentally praised by those who carry on the power pop tradition. Bands like Jellyfish and the Apples in Stereo nodded to XTC publicly, they were one of the motivating factors for mid-’90s Britpop (Partridge was, in fact, initially slated to produce Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish), and the entire pop underground recognizes Partridge as one of the icons of contemporary songwriting in the field. And, of course, the current resurgence of post-punk formula has led to XTC being revered in association with the groundbreakers of that era, being name-dropped by everyone from Dogs Die in Hot Cars to the Futureheads. And while Partridge doesn’t make a huge deal out of this level of accomplishment, he acknowledges that it’s something that he takes some measure of pride in.
“It’s only now, rather, that people in England start to recognize this, certainly,” Partridge says, pointing to the frequency with which XTC’s name has been popping up in the British press. “I feel like a benchmark or something. So, I guess there’s some sort of legacy there. But I think we may be one of the most influential groups—quietly influential—to come out of Britain. That does sound a little pompous, but from the stuff I’ve been seeing in recent years, I don’t think that’s too wide of the mark.”
“In the last four or five years in England, every band that comes up gets compared to us, whether it’s the Kaiser Chiefs, or Franz Ferdinand, or the Futureheads. It’s like a band a week, and an awful lot of them do get compared to us. And it doesn’t annoy me or anything like that, because I’m not interested in the place where they are musically now. It’s a place that I’ve sort of been through on the journey, and I wouldn’t want to go back there. But it does mean that we’ve been quietly, largely influential for a band that hasn’t had hits.”
Partridge acknowledges that this is unlikely to ever turn into sudden wealth, but he seems to be accepting of this fate, so long as he can continue to make the music he cares about.
3. Eternally and Ever Ermine Street
While Fuzzy Warbles may have effectively cleaned out the closet for older material, and hopefully achieved its goal of thwarting bootleggers from capitalizing on Partridge’s work, the present and future remain busy for Partridge as he continues his work building APE House into an artist-friendly home for new acts. Currently developing the Milk and Honey Band and singer-songwriter Veda Hille, Partridge’s goal is to use the intensely negative experiences that XTC went through in the Virgin years to reverse the relationship of ownership and provide a label that works positively to the benefit of bands.
“Most record companies give artists very poor deals. That’s one thing with APE, that taking on other artists at APE, I wanted to give them the best deal possible. In fact, the artists make a lot more than we do, which is, you know, that’s completely brobdingnag of an idea. Swift would be proud of that. It’s completely upside down of an idea, because most record companies, they’re grasping and grabbing, and the artists are the last ones to see any money.”
In addition to his work as an independent label head, Partridge remains an active songwriter on his own. Recent years have found him in a primarily collaborative role, working and recording with a number of artists. With Peter Blegvad, he co-wrote and recorded the synesthetic Orpheus: The Lowdown in 2004. He’s also co-written songs appearing on a number of discs, working with Mitch Friedman, Dave Yazbek, Pugwash, and the Nines. Most recently, Partridge worked on a song collaboration for Robyn Hitchcock’s new album Ole! Tarantula, a pairing that seemed particularly fruitful and was unfortunately cut short by a sound engineer’s studio mistake that left Partridge battling a severe case of tinnitus.
Partridge reports that Hitchcock sent him word that “when he comes off tour, he’d very much like to get back with me and carry on writing. Which I’d like to do as well, because we came up with about half a dozen things. A couple of them I thought were pretty damned good, actually.”
Partridge seems the most excited about a new project that’s just wrapping up and nearing a release date. Labeled Monstrance, this project brought him back into the recording studio with founding XTC member Barry Andrews, who quit the band after its second album, Go 2, following some creative differences with Partridge in particular, and went on to form Shriekback. Having long since patched up old wounds, Partridge even adding his guitar to last year’s Shriekback release, Partridge approached Andrews about working on a non-pop album, scratching the itch he’d long suppressed to explore jazz-influenced improv music.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do forever. A lot of my background is a bit of a schizoid split thing. As a kid I loved pretty much straight pop music. I mean, my real love was slightly psychedelic pop music. But it would be thing like Beatles, Stones, Small Faces, Kinks, early Floyd. Pretty straight pop music. And then, just a year or two after that, a friend of mine who was like two years older than me, he was really big on avant-garde jazz music and he used to get these import records from New York and Scandinavia and he kept inflicting them on me.”
“At first I resisted, ‘cuz I had a very straight sort of background. And then suddenly something kind of snapped where I became as addicted to these things as he did,” Partridge explains. “I’ve always wanted to make albums of purely improvised music.”
This project promises to be a new direction for Partridge, whose reputation has always been recognized as musically diverse, yet still based squarely in the pop tradition. Such free-form experimentation requires an entirely different set of sensibilities, and Partridge laughs about the effect it might have on his core fan base.
“It’s probably going to piss off a lot of XTC fans. Because they can be a bit conservative, you know.”
Unfortunately, a larger question mark hangs in the air as to the precise status of XTC. While Partridge is quick to say that XTC’s long journey isn’t over, he explains that Moulding’s heart is no longer in music.
“He’s going through the change. He said to me a couple of months back, he’s not interested in writing any more songs. And he’s, in fact, not interested in listening to music full stop. He’s stopped listening to music and stopped wanting to write it.” Partridge encouraged Moulding to view it as a potential writer’s block, and not treat it as final, but rather to wait and see if the urge to write surprises him in the next few years, and to put things on hold until it does.
It’s certain that fans hope, along with Partridge, that Moulding finds his muse once more, and connects with Partridge in the studio once more. Partridge acknowledges that XTC is not, and should not be, a moniker being exploited for a Partridge solo show. “It’s no good making a record and calling it XTC, certainly, if Colin isn’t involved. I wouldn’t want to do that; he wouldn’t want me doing that.” However, he remains hopeful that the situation is indeed temporary, and is unwilling to say that XTC the band is done for good.
“We’ve not killed off the XTC head. I mean, we still have the head cryogenically frozen. It’s up next to Walt on the shelf.”
But for the immediate future, Partridge will continue to work in his quiet, semi-hermetic way. Partridge notes that working on Monstrance has been an invigorating process, and that if successful enough, he’d like to repeat it. Additionally, having spent the last several months recuperating from a series of injuries, Partridge seems to be itching to return to his garden shed recording studio, hit record, and play some new material.
“I think I’m gonna have to make a solo record just to get rid of all these songs I’m amassing. And, also, lots of other projects, things that I fancy trying, and areas I would like to go into,” Partridge asserts. “But it’s difficult to stop music. Not being able to play the guitar for six months, and not being able to hear any loud noises or put on headphones and stuff with my hearing, that’s been tough. It’s sort of made me want to do it even more now.”
With the completion of the Fuzzy Warbles series, another layer has been added to the ziggurat of Partridge’s monument in music history. The role XTC has played in defining pop excellence and inspiring other musicians to pick up instruments and attempt to write songs of their own seems to have become clearer over each passing year, and Partridge is finally being given the respect that he has earned. And while modest by some standards, Partridge’s life affords him the opportunity to continue to explore new avenues and write more songs. Partridge says that his only rule as a songwriter has been to better himself continuously. If he succeeds at this, then the future has a rich tapestry yet to offer. So if chalkhills and children truly do anchor Andy Partridge’s feet, he seems content with it.
Written by Fran Fried for the Waterbury Republican, March 19, 1989. This is posted here due to the kind permission of Mr. Fried. He got me listening to XTC (the Skylarking album) and The Dukes of Stratosphear (their psych alter egos) through earlier reviews in my local newspaper. And this review was of their follow-up to Skylarking – the almost-as-equally-brilliant Oranges and Lemons.
Thanks Fran – I appreciate it…
XTC’s New, Catchy Offering May End Group’s U.S. Neglect
Ah, such a dilemma; every music-lover should have this one.
We’re not even three months through the year and I have seven strong probabilities for my Top 10 album list already: Roy Orbison, Lou Reed, The Proclaimers, Fine Young Cannibals, The Brood, The Untamed Youth, – and now, XTC.
Finally, justice is ready to prevail in the case of this trio of Englishmen.
It is unfair that the body of their earlier work – the snappy, quirky pop such as “Respectable Street” and “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Generals and Majors” – didn’t become hits on this side of the Atlantic. It is an obscenity that their last LP, Skylarking – probably the decade’s finest album – wasn’t widely accepted as the masterpiece it is. (And if you want to stretch the point a little further, the above goes for their work under the Dukes of Stratosphear moniker as well.)
But at last, with this album’s release, and after over a decade of the band slogging and struggling away, the general American public will find out about Andy Partridge (and, of course, ask stupid questions like “Wasn’t he in the Partridge family?”) and realize that he and Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are among the world’s premier pop musicians.
After Skylarking, I was wondering which direction they would go in. There really can’t be a comparison; Skylarking was a single concept – a whole life-death story broken into little segments – that could never be duplicated. Returning to an album in the more conventional sense, they’ve gone in just about every direction at once.
Overdue recognition is often the sweetest, and it should be delicious, since this album is a synthesis of all the neat stuff they’ve given us before: power pop, psychedelic flavorings, signature offbeat individuality, Partridge’s intense, finely-woven, whimsy-embroidered lyrics (and that unmistakable voice), and Moulding’s sharp, straightforward cynicism.
For those of you who haven’t a clue as to what I’m talking about, the first side will answer your questions more than sufficiently.
That’s where you’ll find the two singles, bound to be their first certified American successes. “The Mayor of Simpleton,” an unabashed, starry-eyed love song, is a ’60s-influenced pop tune that ranks right along with the best of their ’77-’82 period. Moulding’s “King for a Day” has the same swaying, soul-bent, infectious sound (and subject material) that made Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” such a big hit four years ago.
No, the rest of the record doesn’t match those two songs, but it comes awfully close. The opening song, the tropic “Garden of Earthly Delights,” could have been off the first side of the last Talking Heads album (and Partridge does resemble David Byrne on the high notes). “The Loving” is another catchy one, a swaying, sing-songy ditty you’ll have a hard time avoiding. “Merely a Man” is simple in statement but a little more complex in musical structure, leaving you dazed in its wake of pop, psychedelia and animal metal guitar noises.
“Cynical Days,” which falls into no set category, effectively conveys the confusing tug-of-war between dark and light that sometimes hits people. Another heart-hitting song is “Hold Me My Daddy,” bound to reach any son who ever had a hard time with his father along the line. And “Chalkhills and Children” has the fine, man-child texture of an overlooked late-’60s/early ’70s Beach Boys piece.
No, don’t let the brilliant cover fool you; this album isn’t a ’60s reissue or a prolonged Sgt. Pepper acid trip. True to XTC’s form, it’s got some of those trappings, but also true to their nature, it’s got plenty more.
This ridiculous low budget puppet show (I kid you not) was actually made by Andy, Colin & Dave to promote their Oranges & Lemons album. It told their “career story.” They are clearly making it up as they go along.
Is it any wonder they have never become as big as they should?? Andy Partridge obviously must have felt that this took the place of touring, to sell their records. Ha!