Andy Partridge of XTC spoke to me by phone from his home in Swindon recently, here's the second part of our interview. Read part one here.
What happened after 1982?
Top of the Pops was the only real pop show on TV. (The serious rock show where you had to play live after a while was The Old Grey Whistle Test, which we did in time.) But to keep you bubbling in Mr. and Mrs. Joe Soap's consciousness, you had to get on Top of the Pops. I feel that we were literally barred after an argument with a very drunken producer of Top of the Pops one afternoon.
He turned up extremely refreshed after a long lunch and it was the run-through. No audience—just for cameras and lights. Nobody was particularly bothering to mime; we just stood in the right positions. Suddenly we heard from 100 feet away this yelling, shouting, screaming, and this very, very red-faced, very drunken bloke came down the gantry and crossed the floor: "You fuckers!" He was really, really screaming and swearing. We learned that he was the producer. Because we weren't bothering to mime for the run-through, he was quite willing to throw us off the show. I noticed we were never, ever allowed back on the program after that event. And because we weren't touring around as well, in the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Average in England, we ceased to exist.
That's so awful. It's strange to even think of you in the context of that period, because to my mind, your records got so much better and more interesting as the '80s wore on, when a lot of your post-punk/new-wave cohort were either breaking up or turning stale.
I agree. We got better in the public eye. I think the standard group shape is usually they're pretty good at the start and then get off the boil. Rarely you get a band that's pretty good and gets better and better. In fact, in a few interviews in recent years, I've actually started facetiously saying, "We're the other band that got better with each album." It's a rare thing.
I think most people are pretty good to start with, and then they just go off the boil. The history of most bands is if they're really good, they get maybe five years. That also true for really quite famous bands. The Rolling Stones I think are fantastic between 1965 and '70, and then I think went off the boil really badly—probably when they could afford drugs.
I think we got better. Our first couple of albums were a certain sort of thing. Then we got some experience of making albums. We're going to get better and better and better. I think each album was helped by unspectacular sales. That's another topic I'll get onto in a minute. Each album I think genuinely got better and better because the songwriting got better, and we got mentally and physically better at making records. It was helped by failure. You really have to embrace failure. It's your best friend. There are so many musicians and artists at whatever caliber who think failure is failure. No, it's not. It's fantastic. You can't buy that help to your career. It's great because it really teaches you what you need to know. If you never fail, you never learn.
Or you quit, right? If you're sensitive, it's possible to take the failure as pure discouragement.
I think if you're sensitive, or maybe not too bright, you'd take it as a signal from the gods to quit now. I just saw it as a great battery in my back. I just thought it was fantastic. "Wot? They don't love this great album? Wow, that means the next one is going to have to be even better! The songs will be better! It's got to sound better! It's got to be better in every way!" Then you go on and you do an album that you genuinely think is a lot better than the previous one, and they still don't fucking buy it. But I really thought like that.
Was that down to unshakeable confidence in your talent?
Not at all. It was bloody mindedness. I don't know, artistic knuckleheadedness? "You folks are going to eat these songs if it kills me." I think we made some great albums. I really do. The frustrating thing is not a lot of people know about it. An awful lot more people know about R.E.M. or U2 or the Smiths or the Clash or anybody you care to name. But you say XTC, and the majority of people just say, "Who? Who's that?"
Well, maybe in terms of the very wide audience in their millions. But in the world of people who pay attention to bands and songs and records, XTC are incredibly well respected and deeply loved by the people who know.
You don't have this stuff in the United States. We call it a "Marmite thing." It's this quite foul tasting—I love it, personally but—
I've tried it.
Right, tried it. It's extremely salty and it's like vegetables reduced down to none-more-atomically-dense vegetables. You're either raised on it from being a baby and you love it as an adult, or you don't get raised on it and then you come to it as an adult and it's disgusting. So XTC is a Marmite thing. You either love it or loathe it. I don't know why that would be, because to my mind, we're just a pop group. I put us in the same exploratory—I shan't say progressive, because that's got so many dodgy overtones—so let's say exploratory pop in the same vein that the Beatles were or the Kinks were.
There's a perception of your lyrics in particular as being that horrible phrase "too clever by half." I remember an argument I once had with someone who singled out the line "We talk about abortions / in cosmopolitan proportions" (from "Respectable Street") as if it were the perfect illustration of lyrics going wrong. I argued it was exactly the opposite. But the idea of rock music being conspicuously smart is alienating to people. Not actual intelligence reflected in a composition, but the idea that a song is somehow flaunting its intelligence.
That's a weird one—we suffered an awful lot in the early days because we could play our instruments and we had a certain pride in our tightness of playing together. We'd go and see other bands and stuff and think, "These are really sloppy." They had no personal pride in playing together as a band. Did they not see that it's good to be a tight band and it's good to work out the arrangement instead of looking at each other and thinking, oh, what's going to happen next? "He played the wrong chord. The drummer's really sloppy."
That kind of stuff appalled us. We weren't the best musicians in the world, but we were certainly good enough to play anything that any given song required. None of us were Steve Vais, but we didn't need that. We had enough ability to be able to accompany the songs well. We did that a lot. I remember in the very early days, someone from Virgin saying to me, "Would you like to go to a 'jam session' this afternoon? There's going to be a lot of punk and new wave bands there and food." I said, "Sure."
I hop on this stage at this venue, and I recognize oh, that's the fellow from X-Ray Spex and that's the chap from blah, blah, blah whatever. We started playing. It was horrible. It was truly horrible. And I thought, "As soon as this stops, I'll just hand the guitar to someone else and leave. This is as horrible as I thought it was going to be." I remember the drummer, who was from X-Ray Spex, sort of yelling at me and saying, "Oh, you can fucking play, can you? Oh, listen to him, he can play." He sounded truly disgusted that I'd learned to play my instrument in the five years previous to this jam session.
Robyn Hitchcock told me that his experience of coming to London with the Soft Boys during the punk era was like, if you liked the Beatles or the Byrds in any way, you just had to hold your nose and wait for that period to end.
Totally! It was like Pol Pot and Year Zero. You couldn't wear glasses—oh no, that means you're an intellectual. Therefore, you're going to be executed. You can't wear flares because people wore flares last week. If you've got flares on, you're going to have die socially. It was really Pol Pot—Pol Punk—and it was Year Zero. I said it was foolish at the time, and I made a few enemies because of that. It really was foolish.