2. Feeling Extrovert
Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles series certainly encourages us to look back on that past. Whereas the recorded output of Idea Records has been fairly limited to demo albums of the Apple Venus discs, culminating in last year’s beautifully rendered Apple Box collection, APE House has been busier in true label fashion. In addition to signing and releasing work by pop bands new to the scene, Partridge quickly went to work on a long-discussed project to release all of the home demos, outtakes, and unused songs that had piled up over the last two decades. In a nod to the rough and tumble quality of home recordings, Partridge dubbed the project Fuzzy Warbles. But the motivation for the series doesn’t lie in nostalgia.
“It’s going to sound really banal if I tell you the truth, but the truth is that I was sick of bootleggers,” Partridge explains. “I kept hearing from people, ‘Hey, yeah, I bought a disc of your demos.’ Or, ‘Hey, I got a 3 CD set of your demos from somebody,’ or you’d see them advertised on the Net, or people would tell me about them. And sometimes even bootleggers would send me a free one and they’d say ‘Well, I had a 1,000 of these pressed, and they’re selling really well, and I thought you might like one, ha ha.’ And I was just going insane with rage at this, because, you know, I never made a lot of money at this game. And the thought that my music was being stolen from me… and, you know, bad quality copies of it, because you hear some of it and it’s obviously taken from tenth generation cassette dubs and it’s all the wrong speed and it’s all full of flut-tt-tterrr and stuff like that.”
Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Box
(APE House Records)
US: Available as import
UK: 16 Oct 2006
“I thought to myself, ‘Look, if anyone’s going to bootleg me, it has to be me.’ Because I’ve got first generations of these recordings, I can clean up some of the older stuff, I can remix if they’re not good mixes, I’ve got stuff they’re never gonna have because it never left my possession, I’ve got stuff that, you know, just stuff that bootleggers could never get hold of. So it was just a case of, I’m going to bootleg me really, really well.”
Originally envisioned as a ten-disc series that collected all the castaways from XTC’s past, the project quickly became an Andy Partridge solo venture when Moulding decided that he wasn’t interested in adding his songs to the series.
“He’s been a bit cagey about all this. It’s a combination of things… I think he’s uncomfortable with people hearing him scrabbling around for ideas,” Partridge says. “I’m the opposite. That thrills me. If I can see the sketchbooks, visual or aural or whatever, of the people I really admire, I find that incredibly thrilling. I like to see the germs of ideas, I like to see where they came from, and the failures… I guess it’s the stuff that makes them human.”
“But Colin feels a little difficult about that. That was one reason. Another reason was that maybe he didn’t want to get involved in something where the mass of material was going to be mine.”
Going it alone and releasing Fuzzy Warbles through the APE House imprint, Partridge has been putting out two volumes a year since 2002. With the release of Volumes 7 and 8 this year, the series comes to a close. To commemorate, APE has put together an elaborately packaged “Collector’s Album” that turns the Fuzzy Warbles discs into a box set. As a bonus feature it includes a booklet penned by Partridge (“Hit Record and Play, or a Brief History of Home Sound Capture”) and a CD of bonus tracks, Hinges, that culls a few remaining home recordings that didn’t make it onto the proper eight volumes. And like last year’s Apple Box, this collection revels in the newfound freedom Partridge has in making packaging designs.
Discussing it, he lights up. “Oh, I love it! I’m a complete packaging whore! I just lay on my back and open my legs… package me, baby! I just love packaging. You know, sexy, good packaging is, it’s… whaa, yeah, you just want to eat it!”
In keeping with the stamp collection motif used on the Fuzzy Warbles discs, the box itself is designed to mimic a stamp album, and even includes a sheet of stamps using the cover art from the eight discs. In a clever marketing maneuver, APE has also made the collector’s box available as its own separate purchase, complete with bonus materials, allowing fans who’ve spent the last four years purchasing Fuzzy Warbles discs as single items not to have to re-purchase the whole series just for the collector’s item. It’s the reflection of a musician with the soul of a collector, a true bag to keep life’s souvenirs in.
“I think the ‘Collectors Album’ is possibly my favorite piece of packaging. Actually, that’s a tough one. It may be a tie between this and the three-dimensional ammonite cover for Fossil Fuel,” Partridge enthuses.
There’s no doubt that XTC has inspired some serious collecting among it’s most ardent fans, including fan magazines and conventions. And that collector’s spirit is a drive shared by the band’s leader. Partridge readily admits, “I’m a collector. I just can’t resist it.” In fact, while the Fuzzy Warbles series was being produced, Partridge confesses to finding himself getting pulled into the world of stamp collecting as well. Of course, when asked whether it would replace his reported passion for toy soldiers, the answer was an emphatic denial.
“No, no, it mustn’t. There’s gonna be war if it happens. No, that’s really my first love. That’s my cocaine: toy soldiers.”
As a collection itself, Fuzzy Warbles offers an interesting assortment of treasures, each arranged onto its own album-length collection, leaving the whole collection a scattered, seemingly disorganized hopscotch through 20 years of recordings. Unlike a more historically minded box set, this collection as a whole (and each disc in it) deliberately does away with any sense of linear progression or chronological sequencing.
“That would be awful,” he says bluntly. Explaining how the songs were picked and arranged on each volume, Partridge says, “It’s the balance thing. The older I get I really feel very strongly about the kind of ‘middle of the road’ attitude. I don’t want to be upsetting right or left, I want to be bang on that fulcrum in the middle… I guess it’s the balance principle of composing any album. You need a great opening song, great closing song. You need to look at the sort of… the orgasms within an album; you need to look at the shapes where it gets excited and then calm it down a bit. It’s a bit like… I’m gonna sound like such a cheesy Frenchman: It’z a beet like making love to a beautiful woman.”
“Or like, you know, cooking a big banquet or something, where you’ve got a great starter, and then you have a little palette cleanser, and then we hit ‘em with a very flavorable so-and-so, so then you’ve gotta take it down a bit and have a little bland something after that so the too-strong flavor things don’t kill each other. So maybe planning a banquet is more of an adequate metaphor.”
In that sense, Fuzzy Warbles is a set of eight distinct albums. And yet, assembled in one place, it also acts as a collection of Partridge’s songwriting history. Some of the best known tracks and near-hits from XTC’s albums aren’t included here, the album versions are not buried in the mix, and no album cuts are found here. Aside from attempts to collect the usable scraps that haven’t made it onto previously commercially available releases, this collection does not pretend to a sense of comprehensiveness. Such attempts tend to fail anyway, and Partridge clearly thinks little of them to begin with, including Virgin’s assemblage of XTC’s own Coat of Many Cupboards box set.
But what we do gain in total is a sense of Partridge in the home studio over the years, and some insight into the songwriting process—though, in his typically straightforward manner, Partridge states in the “Hit Record and Play” booklet, “Don’t even start me on ‘how does one acquire songwriting wherewithal?’. All the time you are moving down the road to good quality home recording, every time you click the ‘on’ switch, you are taking another learning step, and it never stops. But you still have to do the walking yourself.” And rather than being a plodding travelogue of each step that Partridge has taken along that path, Fuzzy Warbles is instead a collection of some of the marvelous discoveries made along the way.
Casual fans of XTC will recognize some of the familiar album tracks that make demo appearances here. “Merely a Man” and “Complicated Game” are strange bedfellows across time on Volume 1, and clusters of songs from studio albums appear on various discs, such a Volume 5‘s handful of Skylarking songs, or Volume 7’s concentration of songs from Oranges and Lemons. Tracks like “You’re the Wish You Are I Had”, “Human Alchemy”, and “Helicopter” are all revealed in their toddler years, before being polished into their flashy adult lives by mixing and mastering. And for these tracks, there is a sense of looking at the baby albums of these songs, revealing what chord progressions and hooks made up the central creative core around which all the other instrumentation and arrangement was built. Sometimes lyrics have obviously been changed, with the intricacy of Partridge’s expected wordiness still being worked out in the rough. These tracks don’t replace the studio versions, but they certainly enrich their appreciation, giving a back door into what makes them work.
For fans with the glint of obsession in their eyes, the Fuzzy Warbles series is yet more familiar, and more rewarding. This collection helps replace the seventh-generation cassette tape copies of Jules Verne’s Sketchbook, The Bull with the Golden Guts, and Window Box—fan-club releases put together by Partridge and XTC over the years—with improved sound quality on such gems as “Young Cleopatra” and “Goodbye Humanosaurus”. There’s also a fair number of tracks written for XTC’s psychedelic alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear, including a back-to-back run through XTC’s “That’s Really Super Supergirl” and the Dukes’ “Braniac’s Daughter” that shows the songs to be clear sisters. Plenty of rarities make appearances as well, such as “Cherry in Your Tree” from the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? soundtrack, “I Don’t Want to Be Here” and other songs donated to charity benefits, tracks written and recorded for the unused James and the Giant Peach soundtrack (decidedly better than Randy Newman’s), and more. Unfortunately, there’s no “Wonderfalls” here, though diehards have probably already bought the DVD just for the music video. And there is plenty of music here that is brand new to all but the most rabid and well-connected XTC fans, giving Fuzzy Warbles enough of that taste of new experience to keep older fans satisfied.
But it’s also a series that could, under the right circumstances, be a hallmark of Partridge’s career. Perhaps, for those who’ve never heard XTC and don’t have prior interest, this set will seem off-putting, like doing some navel gazing and gathering up the lint collected there. On the other hand, without prior expectations, it’s possible that the vast amount of variety, styles, and interests collected here under one umbrella (rather than 1,000 umbrellas) could serve to introduce the novice to a singular songwriter with a deep and rich history to explore. With 180 tracks covering decades of recording, the Fuzzy Warbles series makes the case for Partridge as a consistently engaging and often brilliant pop talent too often ignored. In that sense, it may work as well as (and in some respects better than) the entire XTC discography.
This set also carries the danger of feeling like a final closure. Partridge claims that this set represents the majority of the previously unheard or unreleased Andy Partridge library. “People say, ‘Oh, what’s the Andy Partridge archive?’ They expect it to be cupboards of tapes and stuff, or a vault. No, it’s two shoeboxes.”
As a piece of reflection, Partridge is rather sanguine about whether it’s really closing the door on the past, however. “Yeah, in a way. But only for now. Because what’s going to happen is, if I keep recording, another ten years down the line, the kitchen drawer is going to be full up with more weird shaped bottle openers, strange corks, and weird bits of plastic out of Christmas crackers, pieces of string, and strange cutlery… That’s like my musical brain. If I keep recording, in the next ten years I’m gonna have enough stuff in the musical kitchen drawer to probably do another… another ten volumes of Fuzzy Warbles.”
But for now, this represents nearly all the usable remainders of the past two-plus decades of Partridge’s work: “I guess it is closing the lid on my home recording to date.”
Even if perceived by some as marking the passage of time, it comes at a moment when XTC’s bike ride to the moon is finally being hailed as the quiet-but-important musical legacy that it is. Asked the loaded question of what mark Partridge feels like he’s left on music, he pauses, considering the answer before saying “Am I allowed to be immodest? I think we’re pretty, largely influential.”
XTC’s later material has been monumentally praised by those who carry on the power pop tradition. Bands like Jellyfish and the Apples in Stereo nodded to XTC publicly, they were one of the motivating factors for mid-‘90s Britpop (Partridge was, in fact, initially slated to produce Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish), and the entire pop underground recognizes Partridge as one of the icons of contemporary songwriting in the field. And, of course, the current resurgence of post-punk formula has led to XTC being revered in association with the groundbreakers of that era, being name-dropped by everyone from Dogs Die in Hot Cars to the Futureheads. And while Partridge doesn’t make a huge deal out of this level of accomplishment, he acknowledges that it’s something that he takes some measure of pride in.
“It’s only now, rather, that people in England start to recognize this, certainly,” Partridge says, pointing to the frequency with which XTC’s name has been popping up in the British press. “I feel like a benchmark or something. So, I guess there’s some sort of legacy there. But I think we may be one of the most influential groups—quietly influential—to come out of Britain. That does sound a little pompous, but from the stuff I’ve been seeing in recent years, I don’t think that’s too wide of the mark.”
“In the last four or five years in England, every band that comes up gets compared to us, whether it’s the Kaiser Chiefs, or Franz Ferdinand, or the Futureheads. It’s like a band a week, and an awful lot of them do get compared to us. And it doesn’t annoy me or anything like that, because I’m not interested in the place where they are musically now. It’s a place that I’ve sort of been through on the journey, and I wouldn’t want to go back there. But it does mean that we’ve been quietly, largely influential for a band that hasn’t had hits.”
Partridge acknowledges that this is unlikely to ever turn into sudden wealth, but he seems to be accepting of this fate, so long as he can continue to make the music he cares about.
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// Notes from the Road
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