“I OVERDID CHRISTMAS”, says Andy Partridge by way of explanation. “Hence the bottles”.
The bottles in question are in a cardboard box in the front garden — or, rather, they were, until the box finally succumbed to last month's rain. As a result, the people whose job it is to collect the bottles haven't touched the XTC frontman's glass pile. “Come in, come in”, he says, striding back down the hallway. Possibly because you don't expect successful musicians to live in Edwardian two-up two-downs, Partridge assumes Gulliver-like proportions in his lean-to kitchen. “Tea?” he asks. He boils his water with a kettle that whistles, uses Provamel soya milk in his tea and seems surprised when you ask for sugar. Last night, curiosity compelled him to go online and look for a recent picture of Syd Barrett. “I so wanted to look like him as a teenager, and finally I achieved my ambition. There was a picture that someone took of him walking down the street and finally we have exactly the same hairline and physique! It only took me 50 years!”
What do you do when one famously reclusive musician invokes a self-deprecating comparison between himself and another famously reclusive musician? Like Syd Barrett, Partridge's apparent retreat into anonymity has made him less of a national treasure, more of a rarefied cult. Twenty-two years have elapsed since he fled for home hours before he was due to front a sold-out Hollywood show. With every passing year, the incentives to return to the stage get a little greater. “The last one”, he says, “was in the region of a million”. But there's only one stage that Partridge is willing to mount. At the bottom of the garden, his shed plays host to banks of recording equipment, an electric guitar and a computer. What can you do in a space as small as this? Well, quite a lot actually. It was here that Partridge demoed 1999's Apple Venus — the magnificent album that completed XTC's turbulent journey back from the cover of Smash Hits and pan-European pop to practitioners of baroque pastoral psychedelia.
To those in the know however, reclusiveness has done nothing to diminish Partridge's stock. He's up for collaborations on the proviso that you're willing to make the train journey from Paddington to Swindon. Recent day-return purchasers include songwriter du jour Cathy Dennis and Sophie Ellis-Bextor — both seemingly convinced that the man who sang “I don't know how to write a hit song” on 1988's Mayor Of Simpleton could do just that. None of the sessions, however, appear to have made it on to any CDs.
Partridge says that both Dennis and Bextor used him: “I wrote six songs with Cathy, and after that, she kept me hanging about for months and months. Then the same thing happened with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Later I found out she already had the album sorted out, so maybe it was a vanity exercise by her then-boyfriend/manager who had been a big fan of the band. So, the upshot of all this is that I've recorded an album's worth of songs which may never see the light of day. Fancy hearing one?”
He leans over to a small hook on which hangs a single key. A refreshing spray of drizzle precedes the surreal experience of hearing the 50 year-old XTC frontman's take on Sophie Ellis-Bextor. For all the rough edges and primitive rhythm track, the bell-strewn I Defy Gravity manages to sound quintessentially Ellis-Bextory. And yet, with the chorus, “Isaac Newton's cross with me / 'Cause I defy gravity”, the latter observes a theme that has stayed constant in Partridge songs such as Helicopter and That's Really Super, Supergirl. Women hover above the ground, unbridled by the laws of physics, while men stay rooted to the spot, unable to reach them. All things considered, it seems incredible that she didn't use it.
“Well maybe she does, but if the record company want her to be this cocktail disco diva, then who's going to win?”
That Partridge's record company are happy with his records may have something to do with the fact that he owns it. Just out on his own Ape imprint is a remarkable collaboration with Peter Blegvad that took seven years from conception to execution.
Orpheus — The Lowdown draws from a sonic well that dramatically belies the cramped environs in which it was created. Blegvad's abstract narratives riff around the tale of Orpheus, creating surreal new fragments of myth. On one track, the heartbroken son of Apollo transports himself to Galveston believing it to be hell (he might find Eurydice there) but proceeds to drown his sorrows in a Galveston bowling alley. Here, the world Partridge creates for Orpheus is vast and unforgiving, helping to bring out the suggestion that love is the predicament we endure in exchange for living. If they ever get around to making a record about Icarus, you suspect that Partridge may conclude it with a loop of his own West Country burr, intoning, “I told you so”.
IN FACT, THE ENORMITY of what's Out There has terrified and inspired Andy Partridge for longer than he cares to remember. On the opening lines of XTC's debut single Science Friction, he sings, “I look out of my window at night / I see the stars and I'm filled with fright”. When Partridge was a child he suffered from astrophobia — a fear of looking up at the stars. “I used to go to cubs on a winter's night and on the way back I would run all the way home, looking at the ground, sweating intensely. The vastness of the stars scared the fucking shirt off me. I remember we always used to come in through the coalhouse door — no-one ever used their front door — and I'd shut it behind me and start panting. Then I'd turn back and through the obscure glass with the wire in it, I could look back and see the glow of the stars”.
That inability to come to terms with his own cosmic tininess has never quite left Andy Partridge. Indeed, if you cast your eyes over XTC's back catalogue, you'll notice that it defines several of his finest moments. On Across This Antheap, only man's delusion elevates him above the scurrying insects who live out their repetitive existence: “And the screaming sky won't let me sleep / The stars are laughing at us / As we crawl across this antheap”. On The Wheel And The Maypole, the planets exist merely to feed the stars. Over four decades on, Partridge remains in thrall to cosmic forces. Tonight is a full moon and, as he explains, “I have terrible problems in the run up to a full moon. It happens every month without fail. I go to sleep for an hour and then I'm awake”. Last night, knowing that I would be visiting, Partridge left nothing to chance. He took a sleeping pill — from a “bootleg supply” belonging to his girlfriend Erica — and treated himself to his first decent night's sleep for four days. On top of this, there are the night terrors that have plagued him since childhood: "Those are with me twelve months a year”. He's come to live with these nocturnal panic attacks over the years, but their cumulative effect is a kind of weary fatalism: “You're out of bed again, scraping at the wallpaper, thinking you're going to die. It's very, very frightening”.
Does anyone know why they happen?
“Well, not really. They think it's something to do with dropping too deeply into sleep, so your body releases a surge of adrenalin because it thinks you're dying. It's a drag. In my early 20s, just after we started XTC, I would deal with it by simply not going to bed. I would just stay up all night and paint or draw. I'd go and rip up all the boxes in the flat and paint on them”.
It doesn't require too much imagination to work out what kind of a child the young Partridge must have been — at least not from this charmed vantage point of his kitchen table. The room adjoining his L-shaped kitchen is dominated by books on military history and old annuals — Topper, The Beezer. Every available display space has toy soldiers — most of them carefully painted in their authentic battle colours. In the front room sits an old toy fort built by a French company called Bon Dufort, whose employees later perished in the First World War. On the other side of the brick fireplace, is the television. “It's a new one”, explains Partridge, pre-empting my question, “so the old Pollocks Toy Theatre façade no longer fits around it”.
That he was an only child, he says, explains his propensity for finding out how things work. “I'm one of those people who, if you give me something, I'm very tempted to take it apart. Hahaha! Give me a pet frog and I'm tempted to dissect it, I'm afraid!”
Compromise isn't something that only children have to learn, and Partridge was no exception. In Chris Twomey's 1992 XTC biography Chalkhills And Children, Partridge declares that he was “a brat. A terrible tantrum-thrower. I had to have my own way and be in control. If I didn't, I would throw the contents of the cutlery draw at my mother”. One occasion even saw poor Vera Partridge locked in her son's toy cupboard — freed only when a passing milkman heard her knocking.
Had he been born a little earlier, his childhood may have followed the template you see depicted in Picture Post images of the 1950s: one child with toy soldiers knelt beside pipe-chewing daddy and apron-clad mummy. By the time Partridge had reached puberty, his whole world was thrown into turmoil. His father John embarked on an extra-marital affair — causing Vera to have a nervous breakdown. With his mother briefly institutionalised, Partridge's own behaviour became erratic. At school, he needed to use the toilet every few minutes, a development which led the family GP to put him on Valium tablets. What remained of his childhood innocence was stolen by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. He grew his hair long, which caused his mother to verbally disown him. He fantasised about murdering her, but wisely decided to buy a guitar and get a job in a record shop instead.
PARTRIDGE WASN'T THE ONLY songwriter in XTC, of course. Some of their most lovable tunes, especially on the dreamy psychedelic pop of 1985's Skylarking, were written by Colin Moulding. But they were always Partridge's band. He named them (the name came from a film in which Jimmy Durante finds the lost chord and exclaims, “Dat's it! I'm in X.T.C.!”); he designed the sleeves; he even attempted to take charge of their image, forcing Moulding to fall into line with post-punk sensibilities by cutting his hair.
More to the point, it was Partridge whose mental decline consigned the group to the margins, with a series of increasingly troubled hymns to a terrifying world. Walk through Swindon's Old Town and songs like Red Brick Dream and The Everyday Story Of Smalltown seem to hang in the air. Partridge's Swindon is his muse and his iron lung. It may have somehow trapped him here, but it's also keeping him alive. To imagine him functioning away from here is like separating Philip Larkin from Hull.
If he's come to accept the fact now, he wasn't always blessed with the same self-awareness. Partridge formed a band so that he could travel the world with a gang of like-minded people. Look at early television appearances of XTC and, actually, they shine with the unstyled camaraderie of so many provincial new wavers. On a 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test singing Statue Of Liberty, they all — even Partridge — seem utterly without fear. By this stage, Partridge and Colin Moulding had been playing together for six years. As personalities, they couldn't seem more different. Moulding was phlegmatic, shy, and heartbreakingly pretty. His McCartneyesque melodies were accentuated by the fact that he could actually sing. Partridge the art-school dropout was uptight, dominating and extrovert. The quirkiness of his staccato melodies was accentuated by the fact that he tended to yelp them. If asked which one would be more suited to the paraphernalia of pop stardom, you'd have chosen the blond exhibitionist.
And yet, the first big hit was written and sung by the quiet one. Moulding's Making Plans For Nigel dryly depicted the grim future that its subject's parents had planned for their beloved son. Responding to the line, “He has his future in British Steel”, the yet-to-be-privatised utility arranged for four Nigels from its Sheffield plant to appear in Steel News, waxing about their career prospects.
Moulding's greater facility for melody and the success that followed impacted upon all of Partridge's insecurities. “He never said much”, remembers Partridge, “and yet he got all the shags. He was the Nureyev of the band”.
By the time Making Plans For Nigel had turned them into pop stars, Partridge and Moulding were respectively engaged and married — Moulding to his childhood sweetheart Carol, and Partridge to a local girl Marianne. For Partridge though, the prospect of marriage wasn't so much a grand gesture as an act of contrition. “I had an affair with a woman from Virgin Records, who was so stacked I can't tell you. It was my first time abroad, we were being lauded to the skies and I was intensely excited. It all went to my head. I was in Paris, this woman was paying me far too much attention and I was drinking out of my skull. Then we got to Brussels and the sexual tension was unbearable. Now, every time I see pictures of the Atomium there, the memories come flooding back. We spent an afternoon wandering around it together. Have you seen it? It's like a big molecule of atoms, a big silver thing. I think of those as my testes and the interconnecting walkways as the penis. I fell head over heels for her, but it ended at a gig in Reading when my girlfriend punched her lights out”.
With a world tour pencilled in to capitalise on Nigel's success, Marianne had good reason to feel insecure. Over the next few months, XTC very quickly got themselves a reputation — but it was one from which their chastened frontman thoroughly distanced himself. By the time they reached Australia, a pattern had begun to emerge: “I was always in bed by midnight reading Letters From A Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake, and then five hours later I'd be woken up by the sound of Colin creeping in. I'd say, ‘Colin, is that you?' And he'd whisper, ‘Yeah — she had fantastic tits'”.
Somewhere along the way, the once-reserved Moulding had embraced the excesses of the touring life. Partridge: “I think that was the point at which it became apparent that going on the road takes all your sense of perspective away. We always came back with a souvenir. I had my little Sydney Opera House ashtray, Terry [Chambers, the drummer] had two tobacco pouches made from kangaroo testicles, and Colin brought back an entire woman”.
“She was a reporter from some newspaper. She gave up her home and her job on the promise that they would move into a flat together in London. It was a terrible shame actually. We went to Colin's house to pick him up one evening and found his missus smashing him around the head with an acoustic guitar. He came to his senses and this poor girl was left stranded in London”.
Appropriately, XTC's final Top Of The Pops appearance was with Senses Working Overtime. Everything you needed to know about Partridge's afflictions was laid bare in the song's peculiarly medieval air of foreboding. That he even managed to make it as far as the BBC studios was some achievement. When the band completed the accompanying English Settlement album, the idea of playing it on the road started to give him panic attacks. The rest of the group, he says, were unsympathetic. In the meantime, Partridge and his wife put down a deposit on a house. It took him several days to muster the courage to introduce himself to the neighbours. After Marianne flushed his Valium down the toilet, the mere act of reaching for the front door induced panic. A tour of theatres across Britain was cancelled, incurring colossal debts for the band. He at least made it on to the plane for the ensuing American tour. But hours before the Hollywood Palladium show — he found himself paralysed with fear. He bought a plane ticket and, fearful of reprisals, fled.
With the air of a man who has pored over the facts time and time again, Partridge says that he had to sabotage his career in order to save himself as an artist. Likening his role in the music industry to that of a serf in feudal times — “I was on fifty pounds a week” — he wrote Love On A Farmboy's Wages. The allegory appeared to be lost on his record company, who released the song as a single. In autumn 1983, the elderly convalescents who made up the studio audience of Pebble Mill At One were treated to the sight of Partridge bitterly miming the words, “Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in / Shilling for the fellow who milks the herd / Shilling for the fellow with a wife for keeping / How can we feed love on a farmboy's wages?”
“YOU CAN FLIP between thinking Andy's superb and wanting to kill him in a matter of minutes. Half the time, he doesn't realise the effect he's having on people”. That's what the late Gus Dudgeon had to say about Partridge after his work on XTC's 1991 set Nonsuch. Certainly, diplomacy isn't one of his stronger points. Asked to sum up the effect of his breakdown on the rest of the band, he says he became “dogshit” in the eyes of Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory. I put it to him that there must have been some sense of loyalty towards him. With another writer already in the band, they could conceivably have sacked him. “They didn't break free because they knew who their battery was. And, you know, they look at the person doing all the interviews and writing most of the material and designing the sleeves and they think, ‘No, we'll continue limpeting on to him'”.
What's revealing here is the way the rest of XTC's willingness to yield to Partridge is portrayed by him as a weakness. And yet thrown into a room with an equally strong personality, he is simply unable to function. It took him years to come round to the popularly held view that XTC's 1986 album is the group's masterpiece. With Todd Rundgren at the helm, the sessions saw Partridge's volatility increase to such extremes that Colin Moulding briefly left the band: “Todd's way of working was to be dominant in all matters. As long as you lay down on your back while he puts his foot on your stomach, you'll get along just fine. If you had the temerity to argue with him, he'd just go home and tell you to ‘dick around with it on your own until it doesn't work your way, and then I'll come back and we'll do it my way'”.
Partridge's predicament elicits little sympathy when relayed to The Lilac Time's Stephen Duffy, whose And Love For All album was produced by the XTC frontman. “When we started working together, the Todd experience was still fresh in Andy's mind. He would go on about what a controlling egomaniac Todd was, and then proceeded to do with us what Todd had done to him. He used his genius to push us into things we couldn't do, just so he could prove he could do them better. It was a little detrimental to the group's self-esteem”.
With his seemingly innate inability to compromise, it might just be that Andy Partridge should never: a) have been in a band; and b) have been signed to a major record label. The release of Nonsuch came on the back of renewed momentum for XTC. Skylarking and the two exercises in period psychedelia they released as The Dukes Of Stratosphear had found them a whole new audience in America, ensuring that 1988's Oranges And Lemons and Nonsuch sold in the hundreds of thousands. Incensed by what he saw as Virgin's “sabotage” of XTC's best ever album and their unwillingness to renegotiate the band's contract, he went on strike until his paymasters agreed to free him. For an artist teetering on the brink of paranoia, these were tough times. Virgin refused to relent; Partridge refused to supply them with any more material; Blur junked the sessions that he produced for their Modern Life Is Rubbish album. His life was on pause. Asked what he remembers most about this time and he cites two unlikely records: Sting's Fields Of Gold and REM's Automatic For The People. “My wife would just leave them to go round and round and round all day while we were trying to kill each other”.
Partridge's wife decided she wanted out, although he points out that, what with the sudden change of wardrobe, the new hair colours and the purchase of a motorbike, he knew that something was up. “Marianne had started to mourn the teenagehood she never had. She dumped me, but then I've always been the dumpee in relationships”.
He says he hoped it might be amicable, but when he went to the bank to get some money out and discovered she had withdrawn everything, he went spiralling into despair. Anyone hearing the extraordinary Your Dictionary from Apple Venus will know the impact that the incident had on Partridge: “H-A-T-E / Is that how you spell love in your dictionary?”
In an empty, childless house, locked in a war of attrition with his record company, Partridge had plenty of time to dwell on the circumstances of his solitude. In 1995, he and Peter Blegvad began work on their Orpheus project, but convinced that everyone was out to use him in some way, Partridge froze Blegvad out. Halfway through a phone conversation between the two, the line went dead. Blegvad attempted to get back in touch with Partridge, but to no avail. His grievance stemmed from the fact that Blegvad had erroneously left Partridge's name off the credits of an album on which he had guested. “That's where I was at back then”, he says, “and Peter, bless him, kept in touch. Or at least, tried. He sent me post-cards, presents, you name it. He never stopped”.
At 45, it would probably be unrealistic to expect someone to change the habits of a lifetime. But people can help themselves by creating favourable conditions for those habits. Released from their Virgin contract, XTC released two albums — Apple Venus and Wasp Star — through Cooking Vinyl. Contributions from Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory (who left during the sessions) were minimal — an arrangement which apparently suits both parties perfectly well. Moulding opted not to join his colleague on his next project. Through his own Ape records, Partridge has so far released four albums in an eight-part series of unrecorded XTC material. Fuzzy Warbles may be only of interest to XTC diehards, but there are several thousands of those around the world. With almost all copies sold online, it doesn't take a genius to work out that Partridge has a few shillings in his bank account. The situation is set to improve next year when his theme tune to Wonderfalls — a US sitcom by the creators of Malcolm In The Middle — begins to air.
More importantly, for the first time in his life, there's no-one to answer to. He's got the control he always wanted.
IS HE HAPPY? Right now, he's happy enough to suggest we continue this conversation over lunch. Fusion cuisine never really made its mark on Swindon, although the chef at The King's Head takes it upon himself to serve the Thai Chicken Curry with a poppadum on the side. Partridge suggests a game in which we have to name three good things and three bad things about England. He has no trouble reeling off three complaints about this country: 1) our xenophobia; 2) the way no-one is expected to give an honest answer to the question “How are you?”; and 3) people don't get things fixed when they break.
You suspect that this list has been reeled off a few times before, possibly with a little help from Erica Wexler — a New York singer who terminated a liaison with pop artist Roy Lichtenstein in order to be with Partridge. When he relays this last coup, it's hard to conceal my amazement. “Roy had an open marriage with his wife Dorothy. He referred to Erica as one of his ‘young Tootsies'. In the end I gave her an ultimatum: ‘What's it to be? The millionaire and the flat in the East Village, or me?' I'm still pinching myself. From a city that never sleeps to one that never quite wakes up. Poor thing. She's still coming to terms with the culture shock. In New York, you can go for a Chadian meal at 1.30 am. In Swindon, the only thing you can get at 1.30 am is arrested”.
In fact, as Partridge discovered a couple of years ago, you can't even do that. He tells the sorry tale of Christmas 2001, when he invited his elderly parents over to enjoy a good old fashioned day of festive cheer. Full of good intentions, he hired a Santa costume for the day and attempted to ignore his inner Philip Larkin. “But you know, it's always difficult. I got so drunk, in fact, that I ended up letting my mother know exactly what I thought of her”.
Bad, was it?
“Oh, Jesus. I'd never called my mother a cunt before. That was a Christmas and a half. I just had too much cheap champagne and champagne is the worst thing to get drunk on. My mother just ended up pressing all the wrong psychological buttons, like they do. And that was when I unleashed this tirade”.
What does a paralytic 48 year-old Santa do when he's called his mother a cunt in front of his two children? He walks out into the night, looks up at the stars he was once so afraid of and begs them to swallow him up. Cries unheeded, Partridge made the short journey to the local town gardens and attempted to negotiate the gates. Unable to scale them, he walked on to a small children's playground, where he sank into the mud and wept — “dressed in my Santa suit, swearing at the stars with passing cars honking at me”.
Back at home, a panicking Erica called the police and reported her partner missing. Unsurprisingly, they didn't have too much trouble finding him: “It was exactly as you would have expected. It was all, ‘Come along now sir, I think your lady's worried about you'. They put me in the car and drove me home, but the damage was done. My kids had never seen me in a mess. And what a mess! The mess was Santa. It's terrible really. You love your parents to bits but mixed with it all is the pain from way back when”.
Card swiped, we commence the five minute walk back to Partridge's house. On the way back, he exchanges greetings with Tony, the Old Town barber — although it's been some years since he had cause to go there. “I can just run the clippers over my head and achieve the same effect”. Once again, the ghosts of Partridge past sing in the distance: “Chalkhills and children / Anchor my feet”. Does he ever think he'll leave here? Or is this it now?
He talks about how Erica would love to move to Bath — an idea that he's not averse to. “I've sworn to her that we will move. She finds it really depressing here, but I like this house. There's a great vibe in it. If I ever moved, I've got a good idea of the house where I'd like to live”.
He unlocks the front door, and walks into the kitchen where he keeps a book of sketches and notes. “Here — let me show it to you”. Partridge produces a detailed pencil drawing of his ideal home: “I'd like a walled garden, with these little circular bits in each corner to keep my garden tools and implements. And look, this bit is two storeys. I'd like red brick with white trim. I think I could maybe get it built for half a million. What do you reckon?”
In Bath, the plot alone would cost about half a million.
“No! Look! All these bits here are single storey. And it's only one room deep”.
Well it looks great, I say.
“I'll probably never do it. But it's a scheme I've thought about many a time”. #
Five Partridge Family Favourites
XTC: Senses Working Overtime
(English Settlement, Virgin, 1982)
How mind-boggling to think that, for one week in 1982, only nine singles were more popular than this medieval paean to imminent mental meltdown. Oddly, when Partridge told his record company that he wasn't well enough to tour, they didn't believe him. Hadn't they heard this?
The Dukes Of Stratosphear: Mole From The Ministry
(25 O'clock, Virgin, 1984)
When devout Catholic Mary Margaret O'Hara discovered that her producer John Leckie was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, she dismissed him at the eleventh hour. With the ten grand of compensation given to him by Virgin, Leckie suggested XTC use it to make an album of unabashed ‘60s psychedelia. The pseudonymously-released results were so career-invigoratingly successful that they even scored a hit with this Walrus-scented Fabs pastiche.
(Apple Venus, Cooking Vinyl, 1999)
Apple Venus was the album which saw Partridge take XTC beyond rock's tired discourse and assume the mantle of a millennial Vaughan Williams — replacing the Britain of Blair and Britpop with a baroque mythical land of harvest festivals, Easter theatres and derelict motorways. But even among such rarefied company, there's something breathtaking about the vertical take-off achieved by this euphoric six minute pagan wedding tune.
XTC: The Meeting Place
(Skylarking, Virgin, 1986)
Colin Moulding's role in XTC may have diminished with every passing year, but his big-hearted, gentlemanly compositions have provided a necessary counterpoint to Andy Partridge's perpetually anxious worldview. This exquisitely chiming slice of dreamlike pop was inspired by the Wheat Sheaf pub where the teenage Moulding courted his wife Carol.
XTC: Wrapped In Grey
(Nonsuch, Virgin, 1991)
The poignant Bacharach inflections and transcendent Beach Boys-style harmonies of XTC's final [Virgin] single left the charts untroubled. “Balloons and streamers / Decorate the inside of your heads / Please let some out / Do it today”, sings Partridge on what, one day, will make a most fitting epitaph.