'I hate Rock'n'Roll'. Quite a
brash statement from someone who's putting out his eighth album in nine
years. I can almost hear the reaction already - 'What, you mean XTC are
still around?'. Not only are they still around but this month sees the
release of their latest LP, 'Skylarking', a work that proves Swindon's
finest remain a vital musical force.
By the industry's standards, nearly a decade in the
business qualifies for a gold watch and, when that career has been as
tortuous as XTC's, a commendation for devotion above and beyound the
call of duty.
'Virgin must be tearing their hair
out'. Andy Partridge fends off his dog Charlie as we sit in the front
room of his modest suburban town house in Swindon Old Town.
'Our career's been like a donkey's
hind leg, one single will do well, then another barely makes the Top 40,
the next one gets to Number 132, and the one after gets in the Top Ten,
then we start all over again,'
Virgin have never known quite how to
promote XTC, a band who have recorded some of the best pop music of the
post-punk era and yet, apart from two brief interludes (the hits 'Making
Plans For Nigel' and 'Senses Working Overtime') have never been more
than a sizeable cult act. To be fair, the band haven't helped themselves.
'Yes, we're pretty terrible. The
problem is that none of us has a streak of showbiz in them. 'Fellow
ordinary people Colin Moulding (bassist and angler) and Dave Gregory (guitar
collector) aren't even around to do interviews.
'We're perfectly comfortable in
private, but it's the cultivation of a public image that we're not cut
out for, that's really difficult. The private image is fine, because
that comes naturally when the bedroom door shuts at the end of the
night, you lay there on the bed farting and reading your comics and
that's you. But a farting fat comic collector doesn't make for centre
spreads in the glossies.'
The public and performance aspect of
being in a band has taken its toll because XTC have not toured since
1982, when life on the road became too much to bear for Mr Partridge.
'I threw a wobbler upon wobbler in
Los Angeles, my nerves got so bad that I felt physically ill. I was sick,
I couldn't stand up, I was just frightening myself to death.'
In retrospect he can now view it all calmly, but
at the time it must have been horrendous.
'I thought I was going mad. It went
beyond stage fright, as soon as I thought about performing I'd get ill,
and then it became that I was scared to go down the pub, even go past
the garden gate because I thought people would see me and expect me to
be like show-biz or something. I even went to a hypnotist who made me
re-live a load of gigs under hypnosis. It was really weird.'
At that point, just after the'English
Settlement' LP, XTC ceased to be a touring band and slimmed down to a
three-piece (drummer Terry Chambers high-tailed it down under to be with
his Australian girlfriend). Three albums have been recorded since then,
but because the band haven't been on the road, they have maintained a
terribly low profile, presenting their label with a tricky promotional
problem. In that time, XTC have changed a great deal, have become
peculiarly rural English and rnellow. A far cry from the jagged, angular
pop of the late '70s and early '80s. Partridge is well aware of the
'I saw myself on the telly the other
night on a punk retrospective programme and I was giggling with
embarrassment. We looked so young in '77, so mannered. Now we sound more
like John Denver. l'm sure that if I could have heard then the kind of
music that we're doing now, I could have just chucked my guitar and said
"shit they've turned into the Strawbs",'
Prompted by the the success of label
mates Simple Minds in America, Virgin's answer to XTC's problem was to
insist they write songs with a US audience in mind. Anyone familiar with
XTC's material will know that that idea was obviously a non-starter,
songwriters Partridge and Moulding are simply not cut out for that sort
of thing. So the only alternative was an American producer. Enter Todd
Rundgren, and a whole new truck-load of problems. Partridge and Rundgren,
to put it simply, hated eachother.
'I haven't got a good word to say
about the man. It was dreadful from day one. Geffen, our label in
America, insisted that I wasn't to interfere, that we were going to be
produced. Don't get me wrong, l'm very proud of the music and to be
fair, the production's not bad, but you will never know how unpleasant
an experience it was for me.'
Rundgren's influence on the album is
very strong, even before they had set foot in the studio, as when he was
presented with three albums worth of material, he chose the tracks (fourteen,
it's a long album) and the running order, totally autonomously. It
turned out to be an ominous sign of things to come.
'He was totally at the other of the
creative universe to me. I'd say "great let's put some fuzz guitar
on here" and he would say [assumes deep american voice] "my
God that's the last thing I'd ever put on that track, I don't hear a
fuzz guitar, I hear a mandolin". And it was like that all the time.
His tastes were completely contradictory to mine.'
The problems didn't stop there. When
it came to the design of the album cover, Partridge (an art school
graduate, aren't they always?) had put together a concept of the male
and female pubic area (just the hair, no wobbly bits) arranged with a
floral decoration. Virgin vetoed it on the spot.
'I couldn't believe it because it was
so inoffensive, just body hair, nothing else, so I insisted that they
continue with it, but they made me agree to them taking a mock-up round
the record retail chains to see what sort of reaction it would get.'
As it turned out, Our Price, in their
infinite wisdom, said they would stock it but wouldn't display it in the
shops, customers could only ask for it at the counter, but that if there
was any fuss or publicity, they wouldn't even stock it. I leave you to
draw your own conclusions about the perversity of the puritan lobby in
this country. Obviously Virgin had no choice but to shelve the idea, but
it's ironic that this came from a company that went to court to defend
the use of the word 'bollocks', Partridge put the same thing to the
Virgin big boys.
'They told me that you can show a
nipple, say anything you like, but you can't show a pube!'
Poor lads. Even when that was sorted
out, when it came to filming the video for the single 'Grass', a very
summery, pastoral number, on Wimbledon Common, it pissed down all day.
Despite all this,'Skylarking' has
turned out to be a pretty fab slab. The creative tension between Mr P
and Mr R has produced something rather special, and in the Brecht/Weill-inspired
track 'The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul', conspired to create a song
that would never otherwise have been possible for XTC. And wait 'til you
see the video. You'd never have believed it was filmed in the pouring