Andy Partridge – circa 1989
“His body’s wriggling like an eel / They got no sense, no touch, no feel / Somebody better go and get a blanket” – ’Wake Up’ (Colin Moulding)
“It was in San Diego [California, U.S.A.] and I was onstage and couldn’t remember how to play the guitar properly. I was in terrible pain and my nervous system was just going wild, like somebody had just run a car over me.” These are the words of Andy Partridge, the leader of British new wave rock band XTC. He is talking about an incident in April 1982. What is wrong with him? It could be described as a severe anxiety attack – but it may be a bit more complicated. Whatever the cause, the show in San Diego in April 1982 is a dividing point in the career of XTC. The band will never appear live on stage again or go on tour – at least not in the conventional ways associated with other rock bands. XTC will continue to exist for a number of years, but only as a recording studio-bound project.
Andrew John Partridge is born 11 November 1953 in Mtarfa, Malta, to English parents. He is the son of John and Vera Partridge. John Partridge is a member of Britain’s Royal Navy.
When the Partridge family return to England, they settle in Swindon, Wiltshire.
Andy Partridge develops an interest in rock music. “I was such a big Beatles fan,” he says, citing Britain’s biggest rock band of the 1960s. The Kinks, another British rock band of the 1960s, and The Beach Boys, an American group of the same era, are also seen as influences. Andy Partridge begins to think about becoming a rock musician. “My parents, especially my mother, were no influence on me whatsoever,” he claims. However, Andy allows that, “I suppose my father was more influential in my starting to play the guitar.” Partridge explains that, “When I first started…it was copying the great stuff [like American guitar hero Jimi] Hendrix.” A mixed grab-bag of influences include Jerry Garcia of U.S. hippie band The Grateful Dead, whose guitar licks Andy Partridge finds easy to copy, and Irish blues-rocker Rory Gallagher. Once he masters some aspects of guitar-playing, Partridge’s focus changes more towards songwriting. “I got much more into chords as the architecture over which your voice skips.”
As a teenager, Andy Partridge is prescribed Valium, an anti-anxiety medication. He is never taken off the drug and grows dependent on it.
“Let me see,” muses Andy Partridge. “Yes, ’72 I got together with Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers – Colin Moulding on bass, Terry Chambers on drums – and we called ourselves The Helium Kidz…which I thought was a fast, modern name…But the music wasn’t faster or modern. It was very turgid.”
Colin Ivor Moulding is born 17 August 1955 in Swindon, Wiltshire, England. He shares this birthplace with Terry Chambers, born 18 July 1955.
From 1972 to 1975 Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers work together. The band tries out other names such as Star Park (which is Rats Krap spelled backwards). Dave Cartner (guitar) brings the group up to a quartet for a while – before he quits.
“We weren’t getting anywhere at all,” Andy Partridge recalls. In 1975 the band reaches a crossroads. Partridge fumes, “We need a complete change of name…A complete music overhaul. This is not how I’m hearing it going.” The Dukes Of Stratosphear is floated as a possible new name, but it is another cognomen which is adopted. “We chose XTC because we thought it would be a marvellously easy thing to see in print,” says Partridge. “I thought [it] was much more modern…We were going to sing about modern things: radios and televisions and electric communication. It’s all gonna be very modern.” The name XTC has no connection to the recreational drug known as ecstasy (or MDMA as it also called). Although that compound was invented around 1910, the name ‘ecstasy’ was not used for it until the mid-1980s, a decade after the christening of Andy Partridge’s band.
XTC goes through a few more membership fluctuations. Steve Hutchins (guitar?) passes through the ranks and in 1976 Johnny Perkins (keyboards) does the same. The band finally achieves a stable line-up in 1976 when Barry Andrews (keyboards) joins. Barry Andrews is born 12 September 1956 in West Norwood, London, England. So the new 1976 line-up of XTC is: Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass), Barry Andrews (keyboards) and Terry Chambers (drums).
“We did a demo session at CBS studios in London and had some cassettes made up of this,” says Andy Partridge. In search of a record contract, the tapes are sent to various record companies. One cassette is posted to John Peel, an influential British radio disc-jockey with a reputation for spotting new talent. Peel attends an XTC gig in London and invites the band to record a session to be broadcast on his radio show. After this, an astounded Andy Partridge notes, “Record companies were literally fighting each other to sign us.” The winner of this contest is Virgin Records.
XTC is usually characterised as a new wave band. In the mid-1970s British popular music is shaped by punk rock. This is a style that strips away built-up pretensions in favour of a back-to-basics approach. By its nature, punk is not built to last. It mutates into new wave in the latter part of the 1970s. Where punk was angry, violent and political, new wave is just quirky. The back-to-basics musical approach is retained but new wave emphasises a certain intentionally weird quality. It is a celebration of individualism. It is difficult to categorise XTC as punk, but they fit into new wave quite neatly.
Andy Partridge is the leader of XTC and their dominant songwriter. “I like a lot of straight pop, [mid-1960s British bands] like Small Faces, [Rolling] Stones, Kinks; on the other hand, I like a lot of avant-garde things,” says Partridge. It is precisely this mix of traditionalism and experimentalism that makes XTC a new wave band. Their music is accurately described as ‘angular yet melodic pop.’ Although Andy Partridge may dominate, bassist Colin Moulding is the alternative voice of XTC. His tunes tend to be sweeter than the more self-consciously acerbic Partridge. To draw a comparison to one of their prime influences, The Beatles, Colin Moulding is the Paul McCartney to Andy Partridge’s John Lennon.
XTC’s first recording for Virgin Records is the EP ‘3-D’, released in October 1977. In the same month, they issue their first single, the nervy and jittery ‘Science Friction’. “The early gigs were pretty panicky,” reports Andy Partridge, adding that they were also “great, sweaty fun.”
‘White Music’ (1978) (UK no. 38), released in January, is the ‘sparkling debut’ album by XTC. The disc is produced by John Leckie, who also produces the band’s second album. Although ‘Science Friction’ is not on this set, ‘White Music’ is home to XTC’s second and third singles. ‘Statue Of Liberty’ is a pervy paean to New York’s famous landmark. The track is enlivened by Barry Andrews’ funhouse keyboards. ‘This Is Pop’ is a vaguely subversive new wave anthem: “Someone leans in, in my direction / Quizzing on my jukebox selection / ‘What do you call that noise / That you put on?’ / This is pop! Yeah, yeah.”
‘Go 2’ (1978) (UK no. 21) comes out in October, nine months after XTC’s first album. Although it is not on the first pressings, the single ‘Are You Receiving Me?’ (AUS no. 86) is added to later editions. It is forceful and fractured: “Are you receiving me? / You are deceiving me, I know / See I know.” ‘Go +’ is a six song EP released the same month that consists of dub remixes of some of the tracks from the album. ‘Dub’ is a style associated with reggae music that mixes a track down to a skeletal backbone with echoing shadows of instruments passing through the song.
By 1978 XTC bassist Colin Moulding is married with two children. One of his offspring is a son named Lee.
“There are a lot of arguments and petty jealousies in XTC,” Barry Andrews ominously tells a reporter in 1978. After a brief U.S. tour by XTC in 1979, the keyboards player leaves the group because ‘Andrews and [Andy] Partridge clash too many times in the recording studio.’
Dave Gregory joins XTC in 1979. David Gregory is born 21 September 1952 in Swindon, Wiltshire, England. He is described as a ‘long-time friend of [XTC leader Andy] Partridge.’ Dave Gregory is primarily a guitarist but sometimes adds keyboard touches as well.
The one-off single ‘Life Begins At The Hop’ (UK no. 54, AUS no. 94) is the first XTC single written by bassist Colin Moulding. It is also Dave Gregory’s debut with the band. The song is a gentle parody of 1950s rock, but this frolic is infused with XTC’s trademark new wave sensibility. “We’ll jive around, make fools of ourselves then stop / We’re back next week with another ridiculous tie knot,” runs part of the lyric to this single released in August 1979.
In August 1979 Andy Partridge marries Marianne Wybourne. The couple go on to have two children, a daughter named Holly and a son named Harry.
‘Drums And Wires’ (1979) (UK no. 34, US no. 174) is the first of two XTC albums produced by Steve Lillywhite. Released in August, this set is Dave Gregory’s first full album with XTC. Colin Moulding’s ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 94) uses an off-kilter tempo to examine issues of career-planning and conformity: “We’re only making plans for Nigel / He has this future in British Steel.” Moulding is also responsible for ‘Ten Feet Tall’, a euphoric, love-struck piece…or is it about a more sexual sense of arousal? ‘Life Begins At The Hop’ is not part of this album in its original configuration but it is added (or substituted for another track) in some international editions of ‘Drums And Wires’ and later reissues.
Dave Gregory looks back over 1979 and comments, “By the end of the year, I’d recorded ‘Drums And Wires’, toured the U.K. three times, gone to Australia and Japan, been on [British television program] ‘Top of the Pops’ three times, and played on a Peter Gabriel record [Gabriel is a British art-rocker]. I thought, ‘I think I’ve grown to like it here’.”
Early in 1980 Andy Partridge releases a solo album, ‘The Lure Of Salvage’ (1980), credited to ‘Mr Partridge’. Like the ‘Go +’ EP, this is a dub record, rearranging and reconstructing pieces of earlier songs by XTC.
‘Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down’ is a choppy sea (sick) shanty released by XTC as a stand-alone single in March 1980.
‘Black Sea’ (1980) (UK no. 16, US no. 41) is released in September. By this time, new wave – the genre with which XTC is identified – is beginning to fade away. XTC proceed to hew their own path through whimsical pop. If there is a discernible difference, it is that their earlier new wave recordings were more aggressive and jagged. From here, XTC’s songs are more often gentle and warm, albeit still pretty warped. There is still plenty of vigour in the tracks from ‘Black Sea’. The best of Andy Partridge’s songs on this album may be ‘Towers Of London’ (UK no. 31), an off-centre history lesson about the construction of the major city in England and the brutal toll it took on the workmen: “Towers of London / When they had built you / Victoria’s gem found in somebody’s hell.” ‘Respectable Street’ documents the hammering pressure of suburbia. ‘Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’ (UK no. 16) is full of witticisms. It takes DC Comics’ war hero (who stood like a rock against the enemy) and turns him into a rock (music) figure. Partridge’s narrator is given strategic advice by Sgt Rock in his campaign to win a girl. ‘Burning With Optimism’s Flame’ is another Partridge piece. He tells an interviewer that, “My own spirit of optimism is absolutely useless,” but it is rather endearing. Colin Moulding continues to flex his melodic muscles with the twitchy, bulging pop of ‘Love At First Sight’. Moulding’s best effort here is the revved-up anti-war tirade ‘Generals And Majors’ (UK no. 32, US no. 104, AUS no. 12): “Generals and majors always seem so unhappy / Unless they got a war.”
‘English Settlement’ (1982) (UK no. 5, US no. 48), released in February, is an ambitious double album co-produced by Hugh Padgham and XTC (though there is a cut-down single disc version made available for the U.S. market). It contains XTC’s single best song, ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (UK no. 10, AUS no. 12). The song alternates between quiet verses woven on ticklish acoustic guitars and a more expansive chorus. Throughout, there is a sense of awestruck wonder about life: “And all the world is biscuit-shaped / It’s just for me to feed my face.” This song sums up XTC’s main characteristics: Andy Partridge’s wit and good humour, a catchy and hummable pop melody, and a charmingly energetic band performance. ‘No Thugs In Our House’ has Partridge playing the parents of a young menace who are living in denial of their youngster’s horrid behaviour. Partridge’s rage is barely contained. Colin Moulding chips in with ‘Ball And Chain’ (UK no. 58, AUS no. 97), a sing-along smack on the wrist to out of control urban development.
“Come ‘English Settlement’, I had it in my head that I didn’t want to tour,” says Andy Partridge. “I felt pressured by constant touring…I don’t like touring and it seemed to be getting on top of me in a big way…I actually got really petrified by the thought of people seeing me.” Compounding the problem, Partridge’s wife, Marianne, throws away his supply of Valium, the drug he had been taking since he was a teenager. Partridge ‘needed the medication to cope with the grinding monotony of concert touring, which he had always disliked, but had endured for the good of the band.’ Without the Valium, XTC’s frontman suffers ‘memory loss and seizures’ as well as ‘anxiety attacks.’ Andy has a ‘mental breakdown’ on 18 March 1982 during one of the first concerts of an XTC tour of Paris. He remembers it this way: “Anyway, I collapsed in France in the middle of a tour. I hadn’t been eating properly, was getting very phobic about audiences, and I collapsed in pure fright.” Andy Partridge and XTC are urged to return to the fray. But when the singer suffers a similar, possibly even more debilitating episode a month later in San Diego, California, in April 1982, it is clear that things cannot go on this way.
XTC give up touring and become a studio-based band. It is not an entirely unprecedented move. In the 1970s, U.S. band Steely Dan gave up touring in 1974, devoting themselves to the recording studio. However, they also gave up being a band, becoming instead a ‘project’ revolving around their two songwriters. In the 1960s, Andy Partridge’s influence, The Beatles, stopped touring after 1966, but continued to record. The difference in that case is that when The Beatles quit touring, they did so from a position of far greater wealth and popularity than XTC.
In November, XTC buy themselves some time with a complementary pair of compilation albums: ‘Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982’ (1982) (UK no. 54) and ‘Beeswax: Some B-Sides 1977-1982’ (1982).
In November 1982 XTC officially announce they will no longer be touring. They also have to announce that, from November 1982, drummer Terry Chambers is leaving the band. By this time Chambers is married to an Australian girl. “Terry said he had this new kid and his wife didn’t want to live in England. He wanted to tour. He hated being in the studio,” says Andy Partridge. Chambers immigrates to Australia in 1983 and serves a stint with a local band called Dragon (though they were originally from New Zealand). XTC never replaces Terry Chambers; ‘A variety of session drummers [are used on their] studio recordings.’
‘Mummer’ (1983) (UK no. 51, US no. 145) in August is the first album in the second half of XTC’s career, the studio-bound years. The disc is co-produced by Steve Nye, XTC and Bob Sargeant. Terry Chambers appears on a couple of tracks recorded before the drummer’s departure, but Peter Phipps plays drums on most of the album. One of the tracks to feature Chambers is Colin Moulding’s ‘Wonderland’ which conjures up a synthetic paradise. Andy Partridge contributes the staccato ‘Great Fire’ which is notable for his gulping lead vocal. His best offering though is ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’ (UK no. 50). This is a warm, acoustic folk track that glows with romance. But is it possible that the financial hardships experienced by the young swain in the song serve as a commentary on Partridge’s own concerns about his lower, non-touring income? “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?” runs part of the lyric.
Using the pseudonym of The Three Wise Men, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory issue a one-off holiday single, ‘Thanks For Christmas’, in time for the 1983 festive season.
‘The Big Express’ (1984) (UK no. 58, US no. 181) is the next XTC album. It is co-produced by David Lord and XTC. ‘All You Pretty Girls’ (UK no. 55, AUS no. 76) is an addictive sea shanty from Andy Partridge, but there is something weird about it – in a pleasant sort of way. Partridge uses a pseudo-reggae rhythm to deliver ‘This World Over’ (UK no. 99), a sighing warning against nuclear war. Colin Moulding’s best offering here, ‘Wake Up’ (UK no. 94), is also a warning, but this spiky alarm is more general in intent, an urging to come to your senses as much as to stop sleeping.
The Dukes Of Stratosphear, a name XTC considered using back in the mid-1970s, is resurrected. This time it becomes an alter ego for XTC. Using this alias, the group records a six song mini-album called ’25 O’Clock’ (1985). This is psychedelic music, an almost forgotten, quaintly eccentric genre from the mid-1960s, just before the hippie culture became dominant. XTC make the most of the gag, creating fictional identities for the members of The Dukes Of Stratosphear: Sir John Johns (Andy Partridge), The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding) and Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregory). The fourth member of the (imaginary) band is drummer E.I.E.I Owen (a.k.a. Ian Gregory, Dave’s brother).
Returning to the guise of XTC, the band issues ‘Skylarking’ (1986) (UK no. 90, US no. 70). This set is produced by Todd Rundgren, an eccentric pop singer-songwriter of some repute. Colin Moulding contributes both the woozy, slyly erotic, ‘Grass’ (UK no. 100) and ‘The Meeting Place’ (UK no. 10), a radiant some about young love. Andy Partridge’s ‘Earn Enough For Us’ revisits the singer’s money worries hinted at on ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’. However, the track that garners the most attention is Partridge’s ‘Dear God’ (UK no. 99). The child’s voice heard at the start and the end of the song is a 10 year old girl named Jasmine Veilette. ‘Dear God’ is confronting because it struggles with religion. “I won’t believe in heaven and hell, no saint, no sinners, no devil as will / No pearly gates, no thorny crown / You’re always letting us humans down / The wars you bring, the babes you drown / Those lost at sea and never found / And it’s the same the whole world ‘round / The hurt I see helps to compound / That father, son and holy ghost / Is just somebody’s unholy hoax / And if you’re up there you’d perceive / That my heart’s here upon my sleeve / If there is one thing I don’t believe in / It’s you / Dear God,” concludes the song. The sentiment alienates some listeners and wins XTC some new fans. Which group is larger is hard to tell.
The Dukes Of Stratosphear alter ego returns for a full-length album, ‘Psonic Psunspot’ (1987).
‘Oranges And Lemons’ (1989) (UK no. 28, US no. 44), released in February, is XTC’s best album. It is a double album produced by Paul Fox. Some of the psychedelic flavour of The Dukes Of Stratosphear washes into this project, but the sense of parody of that sideshow is absent. ‘The Mayor Of Simpleton’ (UK no. 46, US no. 72) finds Andy Partridge feeling self-conscious about his lack of educational qualifications, despite his obvious intelligence. His commercial struggles in the music industry also weigh on him: “Well I don’t know how to write a big hit song / And all crossword puzzles well I just shun / And I may be the Mayor of Simpleton but I know one thing / And that’s I love you.” This is a fun song, despite its serious subject matter and it is delivered in a sharp and engaging manner. Colin Moulding’s ‘King For A Day’ (UK no. 82) is chiming, shining and bright. Andy Partridge’s ‘The Loving’ offers universal warmth in an oddball manner. Other notable efforts from this album include ‘Chalkhills And Children’, ‘Across This Antheap’ and Andy Partridge’s eyebrow-raising tribute to his penis, ‘Pink Thing’.
To promote ‘Oranges And Lemons’, XTC perform live for a number of North American radio stations who broadcast these sessions. This acoustic radio tour occurs in May 1989. Their gig for a radio station in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on 31 May 1989 takes place in front of a studio audience of one hundred people, the biggest crowd XTC have faced since giving up touring.
‘Nonsuch’ (1992) (UK no. 28, US no. 97) is produced by Gus Dudgeon. The best tracks on this album all come from Andy Partridge. ‘The Disappointed’ (UK no. 33, AUS no. 32) is an anthem under which the lonely hearts of the world can unite. The paean to individuality, ‘Wrapped In Grey’, is a piano-based piece that is very reminiscent of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson at the time of that band’s ‘Pet Sounds’ album. The most interesting track here may be the harmonica-laden electric folk of ‘The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead’ (UK no. 71). It reads like an attempted corrective to ‘Dear God’, but though it seems to praise Jesus Christ (“Peter Pumpkinhead was too good / Had him nailed to a chunk of wood”), the irreverent alias given to the subject probably turns off those who would otherwise most value Partridge’s goodwill gesture.
Around this time, Andy Partridge’s marriage to his wife, Marianne, ends in divorce. In 1994 he meets Erica Wexler, the niece of Jerry Wexler, the American record producer long associated with Atlantic Records. From 1998 Erica Wexler becomes Andy Partridge’s partner in a long-term relationship.
‘Nonsuch’ turns out to be XTC’s last album for Virgin Records. They just aren’t selling well enough to retain their record contract. One of the paradoxes of XTC’s career is that although they craft sublime, accessible, pop music they fail to reach the masses usually associated with pop and they remain favourites only with a discerning, smaller audience. “We do this for the art, not the adulation,” says Andy Partridge defiantly.
After a long break, XTC returns with ‘Apple Venus, Volume 1’ (1999) (UK no. 42, US no. 106) on their own Idea Records label distributed by Cooking Vinyl. This proves to be Dave Gregory’s last album with the group. Reduced to the duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC follows up with ‘Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume 2)’ (2000) (UK no. 40, US no. 108).
‘Fuzzy Warbles’ is ‘a collection of demos and sketches from Andy Partridge’s tape archives.’ No Colin Moulding material appears on these discs: ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 1’ (2002), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 2’ (2002), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 3’ (2003), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 4’ (2003), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 5’ (2004), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 6’ (2004), ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 7’ (2006), and ‘Fuzzy Warbles, Volume 8’ (2006).
In 2008 Andy Partridge confirms, “Yes, I believe my musical partnership with Colin Moulding has come to an end, for reasons too personal and varied to go into here, but we had a good run as they say and produced some real good work. No, I won’t be working with him in the future.” It appears likely that any further recordings will be Andy Partridge solo albums rather than being credited to XTC.
Andy Partridge’s health problems came to a head in 1982 and broke the career of XTC in two. From 1976 to 1982, they were a touring band that played (mostly) new wave music. After 1982, they were a studio-bound entity that played an individualistically eccentric brand of pop. Both eras had their charms; neither was clearly superior. The strength of XTC was always in their songs and that quality existed fairly consistently throughout their career. XTC were ‘better known for their long-standing critical acclaim rather than commercial success.’ They were ‘one of the smartest – and catchiest – British pop bands to emerge from the punk and new wave explosion of the late 1970s.’
- brainyquote.com as at 10 September 2014
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 11 September 2014
- wikipedia.org as at 7 July 2014
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 7 July 2014
- allmusic.com, ‘XTC’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 12 November 2003
- guitardotcomvideos – ‘A Guitar Lesson with Andy Partridge, Pt. 1’ (20 March 2009?)
- ‘XTC’ – Eye Film and Television for the John Peel Centre for BBC Creative Arts (30 September 2013?)
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 483
- ‘Fairfield County Advocate’ (U.K. newspaper) Andy Partridge interview conducted by Brett Milano via 10 below
- chalkhills.org by John Relph as at 11 September 2014
- ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) ‘Is There a Place in Rock ‘n’ Roll for a Princess Anne Lookalike’ – A Classic Feature from the Vaults – 35 Years Ago this Month – a 1978 XTC interview conducted by Chas De Whalley (21 January 2013)
- ‘Fossil Fuel – The XTC Singles – 1977-1992’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Virgin Records Ltd, 1996) p. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13
- BBC Radio Wales (U.K. radio station) – Andy Partridge interview conducted by Alan Thompson (3 August 2014)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 253
- ‘Swindon Advertiser’ (U.K. newspaper) ‘Ask Andy’ column by Andy Partridge (30 July 2008) via 3 above
- lyricsfreak.com as at 16 September 2014
Song lyrics copyright EMI Music Publishing
Last revised 25 September 2014