Parcels from a Patchouli Past: An Interview with Andrew Partridge

The Dukes of the Stratosphear
25 O'Clock
Ape House Ltd.

They had intriguing, daydreaming names like the Move, the Blossom Toes, and Skip Bifferty, song titles suggesting a trip to ‘Itchycoo Park’, warnings about a ‘Night of Fear’, or a suggestion to stop and ‘See Emily Play.’ Unlike their American counterparts, the British psychedelic movement was heavily linked to the studio-bound pop pouring forth from international phenomenons the Beatles. “It was all very English, very tweed and tea with mum” recalls Andrew Partridge in a recent phone interview. As a founding member of and songwriting sage for the long-underrated UK legend XTC, the music of the late ’60s remains an important “part of my childhood, my growing up.” It was also the inspiration for the brilliant band offshoot the Dukes of the Stratosphear.

“I always wanted to be in a psychedelic band”, Partridges muses, reflecting on the recent limited edition re-release of the entire Dukes catalog (currently available from his own Ape House website: vinyl LP versions of the group’s 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot, a commemorative puzzle, 7″ singles, a t-shirt, and something called ‘Dukes Money’, among other treats). “It’s what XTC might have been had the fates determined differently,” he adds. Indeed, throughout most of his formative years, Partridge worshiped at the often eccentric aural altars of such iconoclasts as Syd Barrett, Roy Wood, and Steve Marriott. Yet it remained a secret, private passion. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until keyboardist Barry Andrews left the original incarnation of the group that Partridge found another who shared obsession.

“When [new guitarist] Dave Gregory joined the band, I discovered we shared a similar affinity for the old psychedelic stuff,” Partridge remembers. “We would sit around and talk for hours about the music, the albums and the artists. I’d discovered a kindred spirit. Yeah!” It was also a sublime bit of technical destiny. Gregory loved to challenge himself, and one of his favorite hobbies was recreating favorite songs, note-for-note, sound-for-sound, on his home eight-track studio. “He was a wizard” Partridge proclaims. “He was capable of mimicking those old recordings flawlessly, each part, each bit.” Partridge even participated on Gregory’s near perfect version of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, today found as part of Volume Three of the Fuzzy Warbles demos collection.

From the moment Gregory joined XTC, Partridge desperately wanted to do something psychedelic. Yet creating a collection of songs (that would eventually become 25 O’Clock) was not an option, especially with a record label lamenting the group’s lack of concrete commercial success. “XTC wasn’t free to explore at first,” he offered. Oddly enough, fate stepped in during an abortive attempt to record Canadian artist Mary Margaret O’Hara. As Partridge explains, he was brought on to produce (along with friend and former XTC guide John Leckie). “Virgin thought we could take this lump of clay and mold it into something interesting,” he scoffs. “Yes, they were wrong.”

Things quickly turned surreal, then sour. “I would show up, and the band would be asleep,” he laughs. ‘”Very rock and roll. I’d rouse them, get them to rehearse for an hour or so, and then it was back to bed.” Not impressed with their work habits, Partridge pushed. Before long, O’Hara was rebelling. “She couldn’t work with us because we were God-hating heathens”, Partridge jokes, with an added undercurrent of seriousness. “In her mind, I was a Satanist and John was a sex fiend. We were not ‘morally fit’.” Indeed, O’Hara ‘allegedly’ balked because her staunch religious beliefs did not mesh, personally, with Partridge’s professed atheism and Leckie’s following of the teachings of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

But that wasn’t all. “In the end, Mary said she got ‘bad vibes” from me. That’s right; I was sacked as producer because of fucking ‘vibes’.” Upon being fired, fate stepped in again. “We had all this studio time booked and I managed [some money] out of Virgin. So I rung up the other guys and said ‘Hey, let’s put on a show!’; you know, that kind of thing.” His idea? Resurrect the notion of doing something psychedelic. “I didn’t really have songs ready,” he states, “just ideas. I knew I wanted to do something like Syd Barrett. Perhaps a Beatles-esque track.” Over the course of a few days, Partridge quickly cobbled together his five contributions (the title track, “Bike Ride to the Moon”, “Your Gold Dress”, “Mole from the Ministry”, and “My Love Explodes”) to what would be the first Dukes recording.

For bandmate and fellow songwriter Colin Moulding, things were a little more complicated. “I always felt bad for him,” Partridge sighs. “I’d ring him up and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this project in a couple of days. Got any songs?’ Ha.” Almost always caught off guard, Moulding tried to fit whatever demo he had lying around into whatever was being planned. “Actually, his contribution to 25 0’Clock — ‘What in the World?’ — is one of the best bits on the EP,” Partridge admits. Tossing in a bunch of influences, including Yellow Submarine/’Only a Northern Song’-era tape loops and other audio oddities, it was indicative of how Partridge and the gang approached the material. “We were game for anything,” he admits. “We culled influence from all the bands from the era.” Indeed, all throughout 25 O’Clock you can hear nods to American psychedelia, as well as other less obvious riffs like music hall, folk, and children’s nursery rhymes.

It was the sound of XTC having fun. “We didn’t have to be us,” Partridge beams. “We took on the different personas — Sir John Johns (Partridge), The Red Curtain (Moulding), Lord Cornelius Plum (Gregory) — so that we could simply enjoy ourselves. No expectations. We didn’t have to be ‘those boys from Swindon’.” Partridge is quick to point out the difference between the UK and USA takes on the genre, however. “In the States, it was all about reaction to the Vietnam War. The music was dark and brooding, filled with angry distortion.” In Britain, it was all about peace, paisley, and peculiarity. “We are famous for our eccentrics, present company excluded,” Partridge laughs, insisting that 25 O’Clock was as much a tribute as a celebration of his youth. “All the noises and bits here are part of what the thinkers like to call ‘the soundtrack of your life’. For Dave and I, it was a chance to get it out of our system.”

Except, something unusual happened on the way to the rest of XTC’s career. The Dukes were a hit!

“We sold more copies of 25 O’Clock than anything else we had done so far,” Partridge says, still sounding surprised. Since they had stopped touring in 1983, XTC had fallen out of mainstream favor. While their first two “studio era” albums — 1983’s Mummer and the following year’s The Big Express — were well received critically, the Dukes remained more popular. So naturally, Virgin came looking for a follow-up, and oddly enough, Partridge was initially apprehensive. “I generally don’t like going back and repeating what’s been done before,” he admits. A phone call to Moulding produced the standard hesitation (and lack of songs), but the in-studio atmosphere had been so jovial and friendly that they decided to give it another go. “We went in wanting to go even further, explore more of our sonic past, so to speak,” he states.

For what would eventually become the 1987 album Psonic Psunspot, Partridge hit upon the notion of doing that most hoary of peace-era clichés, the “concept” album, “you know, one of those brilliantly incomprehensible efforts from the time,” he giggles. Looking toward Lewis Carroll for inspiration, each song would be buffered by a spoken word snippet involving anthropomorphic chess pieces, talking cutlery, and other stabs at whimsy. As for the music, more favorites were mined, including the always venerable Pink Floyd (“Have You Seen Jackie”), the Byrds (“You’re My Drug”) and one of Partridge’s personal heroes: Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys (“Pale and Precious”). “Luckily, I had stockpiled a few songs on the chance that we’d have another go,” he says, sheepishly. “Of course, poor Colin had to dig and scrape.”

The results, however, were magical once again. “I am the comic geek’s favorite songwriter”, he beams, pointing to the referencing of DC Comics’ villainous Braniac in the song “Brainac’s Daughter”. “The nerds love me.” There is also another bow to the Fab Four, with “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown” offered up to be, as Partridge puts it, “my ‘Lady Madonna’.” Moulding managed only two contributions, but for his part, they are standouts. “I think ‘Vanishing Girl’ is one of, if not the best thing, he’s ever done.” You can hear the pride in his voice. “And ‘The Affiliated’ has a nice, off-balance feel what with the jazzy, lounge-y part in the middle.” Yet it’s songs like “Collidescope” (“me being overly verbose and cocky”) and “Little Lighthouse” (“another patented Partridge song about sex”) that argues for the project’s liberating spirit. “When I wrote for the Dukes,” he states, “I could do anything I wanted, go anywhere I wanted. That was the great thing about psychedelia. There were no limits.”

For most established fans, the new remasters will be an eye opener, from the polished and improved sound to the amazing packaging of the limited edition set — handled by Partridge personally. “I love that old approach,” he says, “the artwork, the extras.” His only regret? “A fucking poster! A real ’60s psychedelic poster. Now how on Earth did I forget that?” The result is something for both collectors and the uninitiated alike. “It’s the kind of packaging one gets lost in. It’s everything I remember fondly about that whole Disraeli Gears, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake style.” For lovers of the Dukes music, there are some long lost treasures as well. As with the Virgin re-releases of the original XTC albums, demos of the main tunes — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are offered.

Those aware of the many XTC bootlegs available may recognize such minor gemstones as “Susan Revolving” and “Nicely, Nicely Jane” (now available on 25 O’Clock). On Psonic Psunspot, Colin’s initial take on the fabulous “Vanishing Girl” (here titled “No One at Home”) reveals how different the final product can be from the initial attempt. For Partridge, the lack of additional input from Moulding always inspires disbelief. For someone who seems to save everything, his partner’s lack of preservation is appalling. “He wouldn’t buy extra tapes,” he marvels. “I ring him up now and ask for anything — demos, unfinished songs — to add to the reissues and he doesn’t have very much. Why? Because he reuses his tapes. He re-records over them. Imagine all the great treasures lost for the price of 79p.”

There are a few new treasures to unearth as well. “We were asked to do something for a local MS charity,” Partridge recalls, the resulting “reunion” producing the 2003 track “Open a Can of Human Beans”. Another Dukes-like song was inspired by French Transportation Company Eurostar. “The agency handling the account were big fans,” he offers, “and they wanted something about trains.” The result was a promotional single for their Londres à prix hallucinant advertising campaign: the bouncy, likeable “Tin Toy Clockwork Train”. But perhaps the most amazing item is the brooding, Middle Eastern-tinged “Black Jewelled Serpent of Sound (Radio Caroline Edit)”. Also enlightening are two music videos, one for the aforementioned “Albert Brown”, and a rather bizarre and Magical Mystery Tour-like clip for “The Mole from the Ministry”. “It’s my favorite,” Partridge adds, “I think it’s the best one we ever did. Really highlights the mania and ideas in the song.”

As with all the new efforts, the return to psychedelia and a chance to revisit the Dukes catalog more than pleases Partridge. “This, to me, was the most enjoyable of all my time in XTC. It was permission to be someone else, literally. It was experimentation and pleasure all wrapped up in one.” In fact, many would argue that, once tapped into, the boys never really left their ’60s doppelgangers behind. “Oh, I hear it all the time,” Partridge points out, looking at later songs like “Then She Appeared” (from Nonsuch) and almost anything from the pop art masterpieces Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons as examples of the Dukes’ lingering influence. “Once we let that musical monster out of its cage,” he chides, “there was no putting it back.” Lovers of these aural aliases are awfully glad they didn’t.