Andy Partridge is a genius. There’s no way around it. As not only a founding member of XTC but also as a renowned solo artist and producer, Partridge has ensured that his legacy will be enjoyed for generations to come. The man has always been a bit of a mystery to me, as I’m certain I’m not the only one in that particular boat. And I recently found out that he is a mystery but also very down to earth, approachable and painfully honest.
“It’s pretty non-existent,” Partridge replies candidly when asked about his relationship with XTC co-founder and bassist Colin Moulding and others from the band; a statement which almost brought me to tears. “We email now and then is the height of it. We fell out pretty bad, but I’m not going to tell you why. No face to face relationship with Dave (Gregory, XTC guitarist) but we are on much better terms and our emails have much more levity and light about them. If Terry (Chambers, XTC co-founder and drummer) comes back to England I always go out on a session with him, he makes me laugh … great sense of humor.”
Drawn to his eventual vocation young, Partridge remembers there being music in the house from an early age. “I reckon it must have been a drip-drip process from birth,” Partridge ponders. “Whatever was on the radio, as we didn’t have a record player until I was about 13. My favorites, along with most kids, were the novelty records; discs with goofy noises, sped up vocals, echo, reverb – that sort of thing. This was transplanted onto psychedelic music, which was the same thing for teens really. Then I discovered jazz of the avant variety, due to a friend called Michael Taylor and the ceiling got blown off.”
Still, despite an attraction to the avant garde, pop sensibilities presented early as well; something that would eventually define Partridge’s songwriting … and all for the sake of winning the attention of the fairer sex.
“The guitar was the key,” Partridge recalls. “It came from the Beatles … ‘Oh! They hold guitars. I’d better hold one too.’ I was never interested in other instruments. I am now, but then it had to be guitar. Girls never screamed at an oboe player, or a trombonist, or cellist. The raw sexual abandon was triggered by that six-stringed red phallus … and I wanted one.”
As Beatles nuts, Partridge and his mates ‘played’ at being their favorite band; deciding who was going to be who and standing around with tennis rackets or planks or whatever was handy and pretend to give a concert.
“This usually happened on the bit of grass near the telephone box,” Partridge says amused. “This sort of group concept was given a further shot in the arm when the Monkees series hit our TV screens and you could top up your group thirst every week (‘Yep, they’ve got the guitars – check’). I realized slowly that if I could learn the guitar and write songs then I could escape the council estate life, get out and be screamed at by girls. Getting girls to go for you was a big reason to learn music. That was the primary reason … well that and to find the missing praise from parents.”
Along the way, other groups caught his attention … the Kinks, the Small Faces and the like. And then the psychedelic singles on the radio gave Partridge a connection. “Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ or ‘Tomorrow with my White Bicycle’,” Partridge recalls. “Novelty rock, really – a continuation of my likes as a young kid.”
As he honed his craft he likes to joke that “finding that bloody rhyme” was the driver, when in reality the mechanics were the easy part and his focus was much deeper.
“Looking to surprise yourself, which is increasingly hard as you get older [i.e. been there, done that]; as the element of surprise is VERY important for me, as I’m still a kid” Partridge intimates. “It’s good to get rid of the naive notion that music is going to make you rich and famous. That persisted for quite a while. I now know it’s all about the joy. If a thing gives you joy, do it. If it doesn’t, stop. Ultimately it’s to have the praise that you never got as a kid, I reckon; to find a tiny slice of ‘that’s good son, well done’. I’m sure folks who get lots of that sentiment as a kid never grow up wanting to be in the arts. I never got that praise, so I have to do this.”
And do it he did, to great response and accolade. Partridge, Moulding and Chambers formed XTC in 1976 and within four years had released four albums. The schedule was grueling and Partridge took the worst of it, something that would eventually change the course of the band.
“I was getting sick of touring, as we were flogged to death by the manager with no time off and zero money,” Partridge acknowledged. “It’s no exaggeration to say that we never saw a penny for any of our live shows in 5 years. THEN, in the middle of a long US tour, my then wife threw away my stock of valium, which I had unknowingly become addicted to since being put on the stuff at the age of 12 or 13, due to my mother’s mental health issues and all the problems that caused. I’d rather not go too much into my mother’s problems. Suffice to say that she struggled with mental problems and could be very destructive to home life, VERY. Anyway, I was an addict and never knew, Of course the worse thing to do was just go cold turkey like that. Over the course of the next 6 months my brain sharpened and I decided to get off the treadmill. Trouble was; the manager and record company wouldn’t let that happen.”
“I didn’t want to tour,” said Partridge, “but we were forced out, with rather obvious results … my body gave out. (1982’s English) Settlement was written and recorded with, in my mind, no need to go out on tour. I was thinking more clearly. I wouldn’t have minded a Brian Wilson like situation where I wrote and recorded and the other chaps went on the road with a stand-in, but they wouldn’t entertain that idea. I’ve no doubt that stopping touring improved our music as we had time to think and record, not rush jobs.”
And so, Partridge gained a reputation for being difficult, for being tour averse. None of which is entirely true.
“I don’t have a huge thing against live performance. I just choose not to do it as it’s too stressful. Home is where my heart is. I detest hotels, planes, buses, dressing rooms etc. Thing is, I never liked gigs of other peoples either. Any music shows I went to I was always disappointed, they never lived up to my expectations. Their songs weren’t as good as they could be or the lights were crap, or the sound or just the way they dressed, I don’t know ‘live’ always let me down in some way. Maybe my standards were unreasonably high.”
Andy Partridge is a complex man with a simple focus, he’s seemingly steadfast in his need for a stable home base. Born and raised in Swindon, a town approximately 80 miles west of London, Partridge has lived there his entire life without consequence.
“No obstacles, unless you count being taken the piss out of for being a ‘yokel’ who comes from a ‘joke’ town,” Partridge says with a smile. “I wouldn’t live in London. In the early days our manager tried to convince me to move there, but I had no money and I didn’t like the pace of the place. In Swindon I don’t feel trapped, the countryside is only a few minutes away and I can see the chalkhills from my attic. Also I don’t get pestered in Swindon. Nobody gives a toss, I’m just a sad git like them who lives in England’s joke town. Swindon is very far from perfect, in fact it can be a shithole…but at least it’s MY shithole. Having said all that for the Swindon tourist board I do spend more time in Bath these days, a town of great beauty and joy.”
He’s also the eternal student who chases his interests and looks for diversity and challenge in projects. Some are things he’s never done, but always wanted to do; like POWERS and purely electronic music or MONSTRANCE and the improv form.
“I do like to try different musical things from time to time,” Partridge says, “but realize my strength is probably the ‘song’. Sometimes it’s just the money that might lure me in. Those occasions usually go wrong, though, as my heart isn’t in that project … just my wallet … and I can’t be arsed sorting things out if anything goes wrong. The production thing was fun for a while but I tired of that; as I don’t have the social worker gene, you know. No patience when the bass player and drummer fight or if the guitarist is an alcoholic who can’t be bothered to turn up to the sessions. No patience with all that now. What I’m trying to say is follow your heart and you’ll make it work out of love.”
Here is a man who has always been ahead of his time and played by his own rules, whether consciously or otherwise. His time is currently spent writing the occasion song for hire, taking on interesting projects and as acting as the curator of the XTC catalog, which EMI has given him limited lease. He formed APE (Andy Partridge Enterprises) for just that reason and also to cultivate new talent. Recently APE released Skylarking – Corrected Polarity Edition, a tremendous improvement on the already stellar 1986 release, with more to come.
“Everything will be given the 5.1 treatment by Steven Wilson and look and sound as best as possible,” Partridge enthused, “as long as EMI can find the tapes. Oddly XTC are more successful now than in a lot of their functioning career. Maybe the world is finally catching up?”