XTC: Stupidly Happy Ever After

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

Although Wasp Star is quite upbeat, there are a few miserable songs on it as well, none more so than "Boarded Up," where Colin almost sounds like he's crying in his pint about the sad state of nightlife in Swindon.

"Swindon? It's pretty awful," agrees Partridge. "It's a town that doesn't like the arts. It's rather violent. There's actually a blacklist of entertainers, comedians and bands that just refuse to come here because they never get a decent reception. It's got this kind of depressing non-aura. I'd like to escape, but I have to say that it has affected my songwriting, sort of for the positive. But it's a pretty shitty place."

Much of the press for Apple Venus 1 concerned itself with the demise of Partridge's marriage, a tale preserved for posterity on such burnt offerings as "I Can't Own Her" and especially "Your Dictionary," where he literally spells out the vitriol for you.

The two wise mwn: XTC's Partridge (left) and Moulding follow the Wasp Star
Steve Gullick
The two wise mwn: XTC's Partridge (left) and Moulding follow the Wasp Star

"People were ringing radio stations to see could we spell F-U-C-K and S-H-I-T if we don't say it -- some stations said they couldn't play it, some did. I don't know where the law stands on that. I had to be cajoled into recording it. Because I did feel upset and I did want to write a nasty song because of the situation," he says. "And finishing the demo pretty quickly got that out of my system. By the time we got to record it three years later, given a bit of hindsight, it seems a bit petulant. Like stamping your foot."

Partridge's only bitter pill on Wasp Star is "Wounded Horse," delivered in a drunken-sailor slur and about as close to the blues idiom as XTC is ever likely to get. He agonizes over lyrics, partly because he doesn't want to give too much or too little away, or come off like Kathie Lee Gifford, using her matrimonial problems as a perverse marketing strategy. Or worse, Phil Collins, whose confessional album, Face Value, Partridge wickedly dubbed Songs for Swinging Divorcees.

"Can you think of anything more boringly adult with a lower-case "a'? I hate that sort of thing. But," he adds, "it is a great topic because it hurts so much. I think good music is made from extreme joy and extreme pain. They're great stimulants for writing. It's just the way you do it. You can write about a marriage going wrong and it just sounds really fucking tacky! Or you can write about it and it sounds kind of noble and honest and perhaps a little painful to see it, too. But as long as it's not chicken-in-a-basket, cabaret-circuit sort of stuff."

Certainly, a single as joyous as "Stupidly Happy" is far removed from the thematic darkness of the material that emerged in the wake of Partridge's matrimonial woes. It rolls on open E tuning throughout like a delirious Keith Richards with his needle stuck in the groove. Like other one-chord Partridge sonatas, "Travels in Nihilon" and "River of Orchids," it's one of those songs that will either delight you no end or terribly annoy you, depending on the severity of your mood. Fans of old XTC will certainly find their pleasure in "Playground," the opening track, which rings in with "Tower of London" authority and has what sounds like Bananarama singing back-up vocals.

"It's my 14-year-old daughter Holly," beams big daddy Partridge, who prompted her to sing out of tune to resemble a bunch of kids in a playground or Bananarama, take your pick. "She's got really good pitch because she sings along to her Foo Fighters albums continuously. I said, "Can you sing wrong? It's still not bad enough.' So we used 10 passes of her shouting and singing out of tune."

Now having seen to the completion of both volumes of Apple Venus, Partridge, true to form, has no desire ever to listen to it again. Or revisit any other old material, for that matter. None of that "these songs are my children" shit.

"It's like any art form. Why do you want to futz around with it over and over? You do your art, you finish it and it's out in the world. I don't want to know about it then. I want to move on to the next new thing. It's like a dog returning to his vomit."

Oddly enough, XTC was interviewed for a book where longtime friend Neville Farmer asked the band to do just that. Despite it being authorized, Partridge doesn't think Song Stories is a particularly good volume. "He interviewed us about every song on every album. Despite the fact that he edited it very badly and used the crappiest quotes, we gave him 10,000 words on everything and he had to use 250 on each song. We had to listen to all the albums to comment on them and all in one sort of hit, two and a half years ago, and that's the last time I've heard our albums."

So what did he think? "White Music is charming because it's naive, very young and very goofy. We were just kids desperately looking for a style of our own. And it sounds kind of forced in a goofy, pre-Devo sort of way. Go is the worst album just in terms of the songs aren't very good. Then Barry Andrews left and we changed direction. Dave came in and we became more of a guitar band. Drums and Wires wasn't half bad. Black Sea I thought was pretty damn good and English Settlement. I think we've gone uphill since then.

"But the early ones," he grudgingly gushes, "yeaaah, ya gotta love 'em. They're just charming naive art. We didn't know what we were doing, but we just wanted to do it loud."

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