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 & Lemons petered 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.
"The liner notes would say these are the greatest hits of all the bands that recorded for the Zither label, which was a make-believe label. We had all the names -- The Four Posters, The Sopwith Caramels, Anonymous Bosh, Kit and Caboodle. The best one was The Twelve Flavors of Hercules," howls Partridge. "And all of the lyrics were heavily sexual. There was a song called "Lolly (Suck It and See),' and there was another one called "Visit to the Doctor,' which was vaguely molesting. The cleanest one was called "Cherry in Your Tree,' which we eventually got to record for an American kids' album called Out of This World With Carmen Santiago. It's the same crass song with a few cleaned-up lyrics.
"So I played Virgin the demos and they just didn't get it," he recalls, semi-ruefully. "Their jaws just hung open like that scene in The Producers when people see Springtime for Hitler the first time. There was a horrible silence for what seemed like an hour. And the project didn't get done and the songs atrophied on the back burner."
One has to mourn the loss of such randy morsels as "Candy Mine," "Cave Girl" and especially "I Am the Kaiser," which Partridge happily performed on the phone without prodding, a rock 'n' roll clicking rhythm like "Yummy Yummy Yummy" sung in a crass redneck, country-and-western voice.
Instead, fans got seven long years of silence without a new XTC album. Rather than furnish Virgin with any more recorded material it would own in perpetuity, the band went on strike. During those five years of legal wrangling, Partridge and partner Colin Moulding were stockpiling songs in their respective sheds.
"There was about 42 at the last count. The first batch of stuff seemed to come out acoustic/orchestrally with a few electric things, and that sort of petered out. As I kept writing, it got more electric. So I said if we ever get to record this stuff, let's corral the best of the more acoustic orchestral stuff to one disc and the more electric stuff to another disc and put it out as Apple Venus and it would've been two discs in one box. Rather than wait for the second record to be recorded, TVT Records opted to release them separately.
"You can always pretend it's a double set and it's a year later and you just flipped up the plastic tray and found another disc in the back," he enthuses. "And that's Wasp Star, it's really the other side of the same coin."
Although spared from having to spend the rest of their lives wearing "I'm With Stupid" tee shirts bearing Richard Branson's likeness, Apple Venus Volume 1 was not without its woes. Guitarist Dave Gregory was still in the band, unhappy with what XTC had planned. Partridge isn't coy when describing the events that led to his exit from the group.
"It just got to the point where he was negative about everything. He didn't want to make an orchestral/acoustic album, he didn't want to wait and then do the electric one next time around. He wanted to tour. I think he was jealous that Colin and I wrote the songs and he never wrote any songs. And he'd just come out of a love affair with Aimee Mann 'cause she'd thrown him. He had a brief fling with her and he was too negative for her and she told him to fuck off and get a life, I think was her closing phrase.
"One day I just said, "Why don't you take a break, I've got some vocals to do, there's nothing for you to do at the moment, take a little holiday.' And he saw that as the starting pistol. That was it. He hasn't spoken to me in two years since I said that."
The remaining twosome could only afford to book the 50-piece orchestra for one day at Abbey Road studios to do all the orchestral parts, then spent three months editing it up because it was such a rush job. By that time, Apple Venus' original producer, Haydn Bendall, ran out of time and XTC was stuck with a half-finished album.
"We had to employ another engineer/producer, Nick Davis, and buy some equipment to finish it off with because we couldn't afford a conventional studio at 1,000 pounds a day. I think it cost about 190,000 pounds where we planned on it costing 90,000. Prior to that, Oranges & Lemons cost the most, nearly a quarter of a million pounds."
With Wasp Star, the band converted Moulding's double garage into a studio and saved a small fortune and a lot of headaches.
"The whole approach to making this album was really positive, the least problems we've ever had making any album. Nobody left the band, nobody threw tantrums, nobody was ill, the producer didn't leave the project or cause continuous arguments. No nuclear weapons were detonated in the making of it."
Colin Moulding contributes an even third of Wasp Star, with the more prolific Partridge carrying the balance. "If I wrote 20 songs, we might gravitate to recording 10 of them. If Colin wrote six, we might gravitate to recording three of them," he clarifies, sounding very much like a textbook math problem. "This is the first time I've ever said this, but I think out of being nice to the fellow and not trying to elbow him out, I think pro rata we record more of what he writes than more of what I write. When people say [switching into a Monty Python housewife's voice], "Why don't you let Colin have more songs on the album?' Well, he doesn't write more."
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.
"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.
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"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."