The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul

by Patrick Schabe

27 October 2006


1. Funk Pop a Roll Beats Up My Soul

By some accounts, the rough journey of Andy Partridge and his band, XTC, is due in no small part to Partridge himself.  He was difficult, complicated, and contrary.  He didn’t play by the rules, and he didn’t play well with others.  He was (and maybe is) headstrong, arrogant, and stubborn.  He has no one to blame but himself.  And, of course, there is The Incident, and all that came, or didn’t come, afterwards.

Any biography of XTC and Partridge himself must eventually return to The Incident.  It is the black hole at the center of the XTC galaxy, exerting its gravitational pull on all the history that swirls around the band and its members, bending and warping each of their lights.  Over the years, various explanations and descriptions have been given accounting for the conditions that led up The Incident.  Most settle for a lazy explanation that Partridge suffers from crippling stage fright.  Others chalk it up to exhaustion.  Partridge himself refers to it as a nervous breakdown.  Whatever the case, there remains little doubt that The Incident changed XTC’s course forever. 

In 1982, XTC had released its fifth album, English Settlement, in as many years, cutting their own path out of the UK punk scene, running briefly through new wave and heading into larger pop territories.  Each album since their White Music debut had seen XTC grow in leaps and bounds.  1979’s Drums and Wires yielded XTC’s first chart success in the single “Making Plans for Nigel”, while 1980’s Black Sea sold well on the album charts on the strength of its solid post-punk tracks, including “Respectable Street”, “Towers of London”, and “Generals and Majors”.

And the band was active—intensely so.  From the moment that XTC signed to Virgin in 1977, they embarked on a flurry of touring and promotional appearances, hitting television studios, club stages, and progressively larger concert venues in a series of almost endless appearances.  The band would be home in its native Swindon, England, for only months out of the year following the release of Drums and Wires, spending most of its time on the road around Europe, and eventually Asia and America, where they performed alongside the likes of the Police and Talking Heads.  Those shows were high energy as well, with a grinning Partridge front and center the whole time, churning through versions of their tunes that occasionally reached manic pitch and volumes so loud that XTC made the 1981 edition of Rolling Stone’s Book of Rock Lists‘s list of 17 Loudest Bands in the World (coming in at Number 15 and beating out both Queen and KISS—unsurprisingly, the Who was number 1).

This frenzied pace may have been simply part and parcel of the rock and roll world, but it had dire physical consequences for Partridge.  As a child, Partridge was diagnosed as “hyperactive” (in a world before ADD) and placed on a regimen of Valium to calm him down.  As the demands of performing and life on the road began to stack up, so too did the demands of the Valium.  In 1979, three years before The Incident, Partridge experienced what he believed was a nervous breakdown, essentially blacking out on stage and forgetting who he was and all of XTC’s songs.  It was temporary, and he went quickly back to work, but the pressures of performing began to build up more and more from that point on.

The Incident was actually stretched across a small span of time in 1982. On stage at a show in Paris during the first European leg of the English Settlement promotional tour, Partridge relapsed, collapsing on stage and cutting the show short.  The collapse prompted the cancellation of the English tour that was to follow, and Partridge began a round of various psychological treatments, which seemed to relieve him of the stress.  It was revealed that he’d stopped eating three days before the Paris show.  The Valium was fingered as a culprit, and Partridge’s wife Marianne tossed the pills, forcing him to kick a serious dependency.

Believing he was cured, Partridge joined the band in California to kick off a sizable US tour—their first as a headlining act in the States—and took to the stage for the first night’s show in Sand Diego.  Once on stage, however, the entire flood of stressors returned, and Partridge fell apart once more, struggling through the show, unable to focus, and collapsing once more.  Though the band tried to resurrect him for the second show, a sold out Los Angeles performance, Partridge was physically unable to take the stage, and the tour was cancelled, much to Virgin’s dismay.  Partridge resolved to never tour again.

The fallout of Partridge’s refusal to tour was an increasingly impatient and unhappy parent in Virgin Records, who saw XTC as untenable as the studio-only act Partridge declared them to have become.  Drummer Terry Chambers no longer saw a place for himself in the group, and abruptly quit as the band was trying to record their next disc, Mummer.  And while convalescing at home in the generally more rural Swindon, Partridge’s rediscovered love for the English countryside he grew up in was reflected in the new material he was writing.  None of this was a formula for pop-rock success in the mid-1980s.

But it’s also a fallacy to chalk up XTC’s semi-transparency to the simple problem of the band’s refusal to tour and call it stubbornness.  While it certainly limited the band’s marketability, and therefore their label support, XTC suffered more from the hands of industry forces than they did from failure to find an audience.  While XTC defied expectations by retaining a dedicated fan base that grew with each release, despite their low profile, the most damaging trials came from within the ranks of their own management. 

While Partridge and company have a court-enforced gag order preventing them from discussing details, what is known is that their initial manager, Ian Reid, inked a deal with Virgin that wound up working out primarily for Reid, secondarily for Virgin, and not at all for XTC.  Throughout their first five years of existence, XTC never saw a penny of profits from either album sales or touring revenue.  Reid, on the other hand, took out large loans from Virgin, borrowing against XTC’s royalties, to the tune of millions of pounds by some estimates.  Even after the band settled out of court with Reid, because of the terms of the contract, Virgin was able to hold XTC liable for the sum.  Because of XTC’s failure to tour, the likelihood of ever repaying Virgin dwindled further and further away.  Over the course of a 20-year contract with Virgin Records, and after achieving gold and platinum status in album sales on a number of discs, XTC never saw any publishing royalties.

Moreover, despite of the increasing presence of Partridge in the greater music scene as something of a muse in his own right, working as a co-songwriter and producer with a number of other artists, Virgin continually rejected XTC’s demands for creative control of the group’s output.  To the end, Virgin demanded an outside producer be in charge of each release, not trusting the sometimes fanciful and unpredictable whims of Partridge to deliver the album with the best chance of paying back their debt.  Recording sessions were followed by tales of resentment settling into resignation, as producers and Partridge butted heads.  The time spent recording and producing XTC’s probable masterwork, Skylarking, with Todd Rundgren was famously charged with tempests of clashing visions.  Nonsuch was wrapped up with producer Gus Dudgeon and Partridge no longer speaking to one another.  And Partridge, a talented visual artist before deciding on music as a teen, was constantly having sleeve designs and packaging concepts rejected by Virgin executives (often later picked up and used in the final output without crediting Andy himself).

So XTC went on strike.

Following the 1992 release of Nonsuch, Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, and guitarist/arranger Dave Gregory demanded to be released from their contract, citing both creative differences and the money they felt was owed them by Virgin.  Virgin, still in the red where XTC was concerned, refused to void the contract.  And so an industry strike quietly raged past the point of more famous (and publicized) strikes by Prince and George Michael.  Partridge and Moulding continued to write and record demos, planning what they hoped would become their first post-Virgin release, but the label dragged the fight out over five long years.  In the end, XTC won, despite making some heavy concessions, and 20 years after punk first broke, they were DIY for the first time in their career. 

XTC immediately went to work recording their triumphal return, but the strike years had strained relations within the band.  Partridge’s new material forced a further evolution of the band’s sound.  The incorporation of more symphonic elements led to Partridge arranging those parts, duties that had previously fallen to Gregory.  Tensions came to a head and Gregory quit XTC while preparing to record the long-awaited Apple Venus Vol. 1.  Still, Partridge and Moulding pushed on, and the album release was met with critical acclaim (and very modest commercial success).  The follow-up, Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2, debuted a year later, to similar results.  Moving forward, rather than shopping itself around to small independent labels, XTC took the logical step of forming its own label, dubbed Idea Records.  Partridge also struck out on his own, resolving both his solo work and his production history into one entity by forming his own APE House Records label.

All of this is not to say that XTC’s is a sad-sack story of a band to be pitied.  On the contrary, despite challenging many music industry foundations, XTC managed to continue to record and thrive where many bands failed, split up, and moved on to more respectable jobs.  At one point in time, XTC were seen as contemporaries of Public Image Ltd., Wire, Joy Division, the Human League, the Specials, Gang of Four, Blondie, the Cure, Buzzcocks, and the aforementioned Talking Heads and the Police.  But by striking out on their own path, rather than merely being lauded as new wave icons, or godfathers of such and such, XTC is also frequently and reverentially compared to larger than life icons like the Who and the Kinks, and most especially the Beatles.

Yet, in looking back on the career of Andy Partridge and XTC, it’s difficult to justify claims of greatness without trying to understand exactly why they never managed to rise above the status of cult band.  Respect and recognition are the real validation of such claims, not financial success, and for various reasons that came slowly to Partridge. But perseverance, even stubbornness, pays off, and come it has.

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