XTC: Stupidly Happy Ever After

Andy Partridge polishes off Apple Venus' second installment, the mostly electric, totally stress-free Wasp Star

Here's a snatch of overheard conversation, circa 1983, taking place inside a Greenwich Village record store on Bleecker Street called The Golden Disc. At the counter, two men are quietly conferring like doctors around a malignant x-ray. The shopkeeper is holding the sleeve of XTC's latest import single, "Wonderland," now blasting through the store's speakers and filling the aisles with the sounds of gurgling Korgs and chirping birds."I think they're done," the customer says, shaking his head in disgust. "First they stop touring, then their drummer quits. And then they put out," he pauses as he searches for the correct phrase, "this mellow shit. It sounds like fuckin' Yes."

"Yeah," the store owner laughs agreeably. "So I take it you don't want it, then?"

"No, I'll take it," the customer says, grimacing as he tosses out a few crumpled bills from his pocket. "I'm just not gonna play it, that's all. And if the B-side's as bad as this, I may wait for the album to come out domestically before buying it."

God bless completists. Who knows how many more XTC import singles that guy stuffed into a plastic slip cover without a proper hearing before finally giving up the ghost? Or maybe he recanted and grew to love "Wonderland" and Mummer, the album that followed XTC's permanent retirement from touring because of Andy Partridge's nervous exhaustion.

Viewed as something of a disappointment at the time of release, Mummer was devoid of silly songs like "Sgt. Rock" that had heretofore been the band's stock-in-trade and didn't rock out until the last song, "Funk Pop a Roll." That number allowed Andy Partridge to air gripes like, "The music business is a hammer to keep you pegs in your holes" and "I've already been poisoned by this industry," capping off with him happily shouting "bye bye" just before the fade-out. Far from being the farewell note it read like in 1983, Mummer signaled a strange rebirth for XTC.

"A bad record deal and a corrupt manager, life was a bit of a nightmare," admits Partridge, calling long distance from Swindon, England. Partridge is a generous interview subject, and his witty banter can seem caustic and acerbic when it appears in print but sounds downright upbeat in conversation, even when mulling over the direst of subjects. "Stupidly Happy," the band's latest single, captures Partridge in his current state of giddiness, as does much of Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), the new album, out May 23. Even so, 18 years off the road have done little to rekindle his desire for bounding on a stage to play "Senses Working Overtime" ever again.

"I have to say that's really drudgery. It's kind of romantic for the people in the audience who want to see their idols, but not when you're on the stage killing yourself for two hours. I used to lose five pounds every night," says Partridge. The band toured solid for five years and never saw any money from live shows because of the aforementioned mismanager, allegedly the subject of the song "I Bought Myself a Liarbird" from The Big Express.

Without getting into the nuts and bolts of their bad record deal, XTC's contract was so slanted in favor of Virgin Records, it's a wonder Prince wasn't compelled to fly to Swindon and scrawl "SLAVE" on Partridge's cheeks. It was indeed a stinky deal, made worse by the label's indifference. Consider the ho-hum fashion in which Virgin flogged Nonsuch, the last album the band delivered for the label in 1992: "Still Not on Tour (Cheer up, there is a new album)."

"Virgin figured if we'd just played live, they'd leave it to us, but they did no promotion whatsoever," he states. "When I said we don't want to play live anymore, they completely stopped bothering. We were on the label 20 years and we never made a penny from the sale of our albums. We ran on negative equity for 20 years. Two weeks after we left the label in '97, we went into profit for the first time." No wonder every XTC album contains a song like "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," "King for a Day" or "Earn Enough for Us" complaining about a lack of funds. The band members survived financially only by renegotiating their publishing deals and waging themselves from that.

"I think it was a really good thing for us not to be successful," Partridge adds. "I know it sounds perverse, but it's what kept us hungry. We never sold albums in the platinum amounts. Skylarking and Oranges & Lemonspetered out at about half a million each. It's still not the big success I thought we should've had. But so many people get that big success and it's like a big valve is broke and all the steam goes out."

Before XTC got really good and steamed at Virgin, Partridge tried testing the depths of its commitment to the band. In the past, Virgin had at least been game enough to release XTC records under various pseudonyms like The Colonel (Colin Moulding as a solo), The Three Wise Men (the "Thanks for Christmas" single), Mr. Partridge (dub experiments with the band's early albums) and most notably two psychedelic offerings from the Dukes of Stratosphear, issued worldwide with no mention of XTC anywhere on the packaging. But Partridge's 1993 brainstorm -- that XTC pretend to be 12 different bubblegum bands on a fake historical retrospective from the early '70s -- knocked the record label for a loop.

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