We had a gig in Liverpool the night he was shot… well, the night we heard the news,” says XTC’s Andy Partridge, plunging immediately into the two topics I was warned he might not want to talk about—performing live and the inevitable comparisons of his band to The Beatles. “When we did ‘Towers of London’ we turned the coda into ‘Rain,’ which is my favorite Beatles song, and I cried my eyes out onstage,” he says. “Nobody could tell, because my tears were mixed with sweat, but I cried my eyes out.”
Much has been made of Partridge’s refusal to tour, following a nervous breakdown on French national television that left him curled in the fetal position on the floor of his dressing room. Subsequent flirtations with the stage have been met with an almost Pavlovian response—anxiety, stomach cramps and temporary amnesia which, some have suggested, may have cost the band a larger measure of success.
“These days, you have to have a ringtone or be in a soap to make it in the music biz,” Partridge quips. “Back then you had to perform live. When we quit touring, people thought we’d either died, split up or moved into a nunnery.”
Radios in Motion
Partridge spent the summer following his breakdown recuperating in his backyard garden with the help of his guitar. Stagefright was just one of a laundry list of concerns. XTC’s management was siphoning money from the band, drummer Terry Chambers had vanished to Australia in frustration and Virgin Records was suggesting the band adopt a sound like ZZ Top to sell more records. It was under these conditions that Partridge steered XTC into vibrant new territory.
“Quitting touring allowed us to go Technicolor,” he says of the shift that revealed a McCartney-esque gift for melody that he and the band’s other writer, Colin Moulding, share. “I think Colin’s songs are melodically more instantaneous than mine, whereas I focus a little more on the words,” he says. “I sweat bullets over lyrics.” The interplay has given post-touring XTC albums like Nonsuch, Apple Venus Vol. 1, The Big Express and the gorgeously verdant Skylarking their sprawling, succulent flavor. Like a popping sunburst or an incredibly sweet nib of bubblegum, XTC’s is a pure pop sensibility that delights the senses in a full panorama of psychedelic bliss.
Contrary to what listeners might infer from the mind-trips-on-tape by XTC side project The Dukes of Stratosphear, Partridge claims that novelty songs and showtunes gave him his psychedelic perspective, not drugs. “Weird-sounding tape loops, reverb, loads of echo and spoken-word pieces … that was the stock-in-trade of the novelty record,” he says. They’re also the tools Partridge uses to create a mood—from the paranoid, angular rhythms that set afloat “Seagulls Screaming, Kiss Her! Kiss Her!” to the warped organs and warbling insects that drown “Summer’s Cauldron” in a sweltering, humid press, leaving the listener feeling like a bug in brandy.
Wrapped in Grey
“I blunder into music and try to describe what it sounds like with my lyrics,” Partridge says. “I’ll strum a chord and think ‘oooh, this sounds smooth—like eggshells,’ and suddenly I’m writing a song about eggs, or ‘this chord sounds like dirt,’ and suddenly ‘Easter Theater’ is coming out.” More often than not, what Partridge ends up describing is England—but not the roundabouts and blue suburban skies of Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane” or the foggy subway stops of Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” Partridge’s songs usually find him in a pagan England of rolling hills, harvest festivals and early English settlements. And he’s unapologetic about where his feet land.
“It’s probably always England as I wish it was rather than the England that is, because England—the sort of un-messed-with England—can be incredibly beautiful,” he says. “I can’t say anything particularly attractive about modern-day England. It’s just motorways, mobile-phone masts and McDonald’s. But I guess it’s nostalgia, isn’t it?” He muses for a moment.
“Someone once said that nostalgia is the heroin of the old,” he continues. “You start using that stuff after about the age of 30 and you just drift off. You nod out into a nostalgic bliss, which can be dangerous. But my music is English, because I’m English. And as much as I deal with a sort of imported, American style of music, by the time it gets worked through my bowels and hits the other end, it’s going to come out rather English.”