Andy Partridge wrote some of the best songs released by anyone on earth between 1978 and 2000, most of them recorded by XTC, the band he formed in the English comedy town Swindon the same year that the United States celebrated two centuries of independence from the British. XTC has been inactive since Y2K, having released the impeccable Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2 before becoming a specter that doubtless floats above the area chalk hills and maybe haunts the back stairwell of Swindon Community Centre or prank knocks on the rectory door at Christ Church.
Partridge has poked his head out a few times since, with the experimental unit Monstrance, with his Fuzzy Warbles demos collection and releases on his Ape House imprint. He also co-wrote an excellent record with XTC fanatic and good friend Mike Keneally titled, Wing Beat Fantastic, which emerged in 2012, but in many ways it seems his time as an active musician has come to a close.
His absence is a shame, really, because he’s not just a great songwriter but a tremendously funny and thoroughly entertaining conversationalist whose opinions on worldly and artistic matters are more welcome than most. So, it’s with great enthusiasm that one opens the cover of this new collection which takes us inside the songs of XTC. Fans waiting for a tell-all detailing the ways in which Dave Gregory and Colin Moulding squandered per diems and overindulged in black pudding and scrambled eggs will have to look elsewhere. This is, as the title promises, about the music.
Well, mostly. Because Partridge’s personal life has such a strong bearing on many XTC songs, certain episodes in the artist’s life get great play in these pages but it’s never tawdry and never unwarranted in mention. Although the germs for this book were planted probably the moment that co-author Todd Bernhardt first heard the band, a slightly saner arrow can be drawn from the early days of social networking site MySpace to the present day. Sometime around 2005 Bernhardt, who’d already interviewed Partridge for a Modern Drummer article, began posting original AP interviews on a fan page dedicated to the notorious eks-tee-see. There was a tremendously popular one about lyric writing and soon requests for more, more, more began to come in.
Roughly four years after the first interview appeared (and around the time that MySpace’s death rattle set in), Bernhardt and his hero had talked about 83 songs, answered a tipper lorry worth of fan questions, and squeezed in information about guitar playing, influences, and various other odds and ends. A book seemed imminent but the fates would blow the whole shebang off course for a time. By 2014 our co-author was back in action and ready to deliver the goods.
He pruned and may have preened, but whatever he did led to this lovely new volume which features expanded takes on 30 of the MySpace interviews, one brand-new AP interrogation and a loving foreword by the man who may single-handedly save progressive rock, Steven Wilson. There’s even a short essay by John Morrish that takes us for a walk ‘round Swindon town, letting us get a handle on the geography of that most mysterious of places.
Complicated Game isn’t for the casual XTC listener. If you’ve not yet probed the oeuvre it’s likely that some conversations will leave you somewhat baffled. But if you’ve been listening and listening intently for some time now you’ll be rewarded. No matter your level of “X-pertise” you’ll also be warmed by the rapport our authors have. Jokes, silly and otherwise, are served and volleyed and Bernhardt’s ability to think like a fan but ask questions like a pro serves the book well. Bernhardt knows when to play the well-documented tension between the band and producer Todd Rundgren during the sessions for the class Skylarking LP for laughs and when to pursue studio-related minutiae to slake the stalwart’s thirst.
Complicated Game opens with a discussion of a tune that dates to 1978’s White Music, “This Is Pop”, the kind of track written by an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder and an idea in his head and ends with talk about “2 Rainbeau Melt”, from 2006’s Fuzzy Warbles Volume 7. We learn about the origins of “Roads Girdle the Globe” (from 1979’s Drums and Wires) and how its lyrics were inspired by Italian Futurist manifestos. (Partridge suggests that the reader take his/her favorite lyrics and send them through an online translator a few times to get a sense of the experience, or perhaps because it’s just good fun.)
There’s also an account of how boyish Partridge would remain in matters of love well into his adult life as he discusses “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her”, what his former in-laws really thought of him and how that came to inform his lyrics, including the beloved “Love On a Farmboy’s Wages”. There are also tales of gated toms, Colin Moulding’s reclusive brother, and Dave Gregory’s percussively-talented and pub-enthusiastic sibling. There’s more than a hint of what life was like in the early and latter days of the group as Partridge was forced to write in uncomfortable quarters of shabby apartments or in his backyard shed, which is described as being about as posh as you can imagine any place called a shed being.
XTC thrived in part because the listener could imagine himself inside these songs; one need not have spent time tending to cattle or sheep to know the feelings behind the aforementioned “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages”, one need not to have entirely abandoned their faith to identify with the anger behind “Dear God”, and once certainly needn’t to be on information overload to appreciate “Senses Working Overtime”, although all those states certainly help. Since fans can identify with those characters, some of the revelations (such as they are) in these interviews don’t destroy our images of where the songs came from, but rather enhance them. That “Mayor of Simpleton” wasn’t intended as an ironic dig at love songs makes the experience of hearing it that much sweeter and knowing the depths of the structure to “The Disappointed” makes it sweeter, too. (Partridge detests the video, by the way.)
The tale of XTC’s demise isn’t told explicitly in these pages, but there are hints of it in the making of the Apple Venus recordings as disagreements over budgets and frustrations on the part of some members at not being able to play on certain tracks no doubt fomented discontent. But there’s no finger-pointing, really, and we emerge with the idea that XTC remained a harmonious kingdom until there really wasn’t an active kingdom anymore.
The epilogue, which finds Partridge discussing the craft of writing (or his take on it) is especially full of insights and a good bit of what the common folk might call advice. That comes in the form of a suggestion that those who write music or aspire to should aim for the new rather than following trends. Indeed that’s the story of XTC, innit? There may be those who imitate pledge allegiance to Partridge and the gang, but there’ll never be another quite like it.
That might leave us a little sad, but in the end rest easy knowing that we’ll always have Swindon. Glossy pages of handwritten lyrics and album art ideas improve upon an already ace endeavor.