Interview - Andy Partridge: Andy's plans work out but there's no room for Nigel

Quintessential Englishman Andy Partridge, front man of Eighties band, XTC, talks to Karen O'Brien about rebirth, recording contracts and the value of hindsight

Great Rock Misconceptions Part One: XTC, the punk popster band of the Seventies and Eighties, split years ago. It did not. Great Rock Misconceptions Part Two: XTC front man, Andy Partridge, is an angsty, reclusive old miserabilist. He is not.

Misconceptions have followed XTC from its early incarnations as punks in Swindon, a town deemed so uncool that it merits one line in the British Tourist Authority's Rock and Pop Map of Britain: "Oasis take their name from the local Oasis Leisure Centre." The misconceptions followed me to Swindon along with the words "Andy", "bad mood", and "difficult", from a mutual acquaintance.

What I find is a slim, bespectacled boffin type sprawled on the couch eating lunch and indulging in a wicked deconstruction of the local TV news. We discuss digestive problems (his, not mine) then he shows me how to make a percussion instrument out of a washing-up liquid bottle. I like him immediately; if the agonising panic attacks that once made live performance torture left any mark, there is no obvious sign in this relaxed and droll man. He gives few interviews but loves language, and is a master of wordplay in conversation and song.

Within minutes of meeting Andy Partridge I learn two other things: the female-friendly etymology of a four-letter c-word and the intricacies of fortifications built by the indigenous New Zealand Maori. Partridge is the kind of person who knows these things; the nerd who would be great fun to hang out with. He explains the first point to me because I mention an anecdote from XTC: Song Stories, the new book by Partridge, XTC bassist Colin Moulding, guitarist Dave Gregory (who recently left the band) and a journalist friend, Neville Farmer.

Partridge explains the second point when he finds out I am a New Zealander. His guitar was stolen during an early XTC tour there; he does not bear a grudge - except possibly, in low moments, against record companies and band managers. Even for an industry that is legendary for its exploitation of talent and the chew-em-up, spit-em-out, unit-shifting obsessions of the chart-worshipping suits in boardrooms, the experiences of XTC provide a salutary lesson for any new band. It is not enough to glimpse the small print on the contract presented to you by a manager - you must understand it.

XTC was the band which rode the crest of punk and New Wave. The pop world embraced its radio-friendly songs like Senses Working Overtime, Sgt Rock and Making Plans for Nigel. But the pop hits were atypical and XTC's humour and irony often got lost in translation. "Nigel" was a lad whose parents wanted him to get a nice, sensible job with British Steel. The company did not get the joke and summoned four employees called Nigel to affirm publicly how happy they were in their work. By coincidence, 100,000 British steel workers went on strike soon after. The wry look at religion that was Dear God prompted bomb threats in Bible-belt America and encouraged one US student to take hostages unless the song was played over the school's loud-speaker system.

Partridge is now a sanguine 44-year-old, looking back with a mix of affection and mild exasperation at the weedy artistic lad who just wanted to play guitar and write songs. "We signed those contracts when we were kids. We had no legal advice. We knew nothing. We were just incredibly excited at the thought of being in a studio and putting our music on to record. It was like the sorceror's apprentice. We were being allowed in to this alchemic kitchen, to play with all the ingredients, and do our own alchemy. It was incredibly thrilling. And it was `sign this; have you read it; do you know what it means?' Well... no."

For the 20 years it was on the Virgin label, XTC was bound by what it saw as a draconian contract which came to exacerbate the financial woes stemming from a dispute with a previous management company. The band believed it made millions for Virgin at a time when it was playing sold-out gigs and had Top Ten hits and yet it was subsisting on pounds 25 a week. In 1992, high hopes for its Nonsuch album were dashed when a single was released and then withdrawn immediately.

XTC rebelled. When Virgin refused to release it from its contract, the band followed a proud tradition of bloodied but unbowed workers - it went on strike. Partridge worked with other musicians including Blur, Lilac Time, The Residents and Ryuichi Sakamoto. He went through a traumatic divorce and was later reunited with long-time love Erica Wexler.

In 1997, "out of severe embarrassment", says Partridge, Virgin let the band go. But Virgin, too, must have had its share of woes. Here was a successful but idiosyncratic band that had refused to tour since 1982 when Partridge's crippling stage fright became too much to bear. And shortly before its final contretemps, Partridge had presented a new project, songs he had written as homage to the bubblegum-pop bands of the late Sixties to early Seventies. He felt the idea was blissfully simple: "I wanted Virgin to say that they'd bought this entire back-catalogue from this [imaginary] label called Zither. They said, `So you go on Top of the Pops and play one of these songs?' I said, `No, this is a fake historical document!' So they said, `Okay, we get a young band and dress them up in early Seventies clothes?' I said `No, no!' They just didn't get it." Cue much shaking of pony-tailed heads.

XTC has now started its own company, Idea Records, and will release the first of two volumes of new work in January. Partridge describes it as "alternately Victorian or from the Fifties or medieval, and it's all smashed together. It's so not what you're supposed to be doing in 1998. A lot of people think that our music is just too damn baroque and too detailed. But we do make much more rococo, actually that's rock-cocoa, stuff. It's not to everyone's taste." Your noisy, basic electric rock follows in volume two. Partridge has anticipated the response. "I just know that everyone's going to be saying, `Now that you've made your comeback...' I detest that word. We never went away! We just legally weren't allowed to work. Comebacks always have such awful glittery-suit, Fablon, working-men's clubs connotations."

XTC will not tour again, although Partridge has come to terms with stage fright. "I feel more normal about it now. I don't feel such a freak. But I'm too damn old for all of that. I just felt like a performing animal, I was the monkey on the barrel organ." The reality of live performance holds no fascination. But the idea of a fake reality, a secret history, does. It's one of the reasons why Partridge loved the bubblegum idea, and why XTC has recorded under different guises, including the Dukes of Stratosphear, Johnny Japes and his Jesticles, and as Terry and the Lovemen, which featured on the XTC tribute album, A Testimonial Dinner. "I love the idea of people who work secretly, of authors writing books under other names, musicians making records under other names. You can liberate yourself, you don't have to be you. You wipe the slate clean of any preconceptions. Certainly in England people have preconceptions about us. Here, most people now would say `who?' They probably just think we're a couple of middle- aged gnomes - really rich gnomes. `Weren't they smart-arsed art-rockers from the Seventies? Leave them in the quirky drawer'."

The man who is rivalled only by Ray Davies as the chronicler of a quintessential Englishness, sighs. "It would be nice for English people to say, `We love this!' but I'm not holding my breath. I'm convinced that when wooing England, we're the suitor, and she's the unwilling bride."

This Maltese-born English eccentric describes himself as a man who loves sex and hates violence; he laments the English antipathy to the former and affection for the latter. "We're so closed up about a lot of things; that's why the English get so violent when they drink. The French get romantic, the Italians cry about their mothers, the Germans sing, but what do the English do? They want to smash your face in."

Yet for one so vehemently anti-violence, Partridge has a craftsman's passion and skill for toy soldiers. He loves military history but only as it is encapsulated in the tiny, controllable world of the miniature battlefield. "I must be a tender little Napoleon, a benevolent Mussolini," muses the man who describes himself as "very optimistic, repulsively so". But it is the shabby, badly made, naive, folk-art toy soldier that truly engages him. He draws parallels for this with his passion for naive, "moronic" music; it may be fitting, then, that a cover of XTC's The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead featured in the cinematic ode to stupidity, Dumb and Dumber.

Partridge has no illusions about mega-stardom in the next millennium. He does not want to be a Spice Girl, "a great piece of crisp-packet placement. I don't fancy being that, or a talcum-powder tin". Although he's very chuffed to have been a lampshade once. Eons ago, Melody Maker advertised lamp shades bearing the likeness of 10 top icons. Andy Partridge was one of them. This PG Wodehouse of pop, who describes his sax-playing as more Dorothy Parker than Charlie Parker, regrets he didn't buy one. He laughs at the thought that he's infiltrated bedside tables the world over.

Either that, or a single warehouse somewhere, where thousands of Andy lamp-shades are just waiting for that one ironic, illuminating moment.

`XTC: Song Stories' by XTC and Neville Farmer,

Helter Skelter, pounds 12

PARTRIDGE PARLANCE

On XTC first entering a studio:

"It was like the sorceror's apprentice. We were being allowed in to this alchemic kitchen, to play with the ingredients, and do our own alchemy. It was incredibly thrilling"

On the new album:

"It's alternately Victorian or from the Fifties or medieval, and it's all smashed together. It's so not what you're supposed to be doing in 1998"

On what it is not:

"Comeback... I detest that word. We never went away! We just weren't legally allowed to work. Comebacks always have such glittery-suit, Fablon, working- men's clubs connotations"

On concerts past:

"I was just like a performing animal; I was the monkey on the barrel organ"

On audiences today:

"It would be nice for English people to say `We love this!' but I'm not holding my breath. I'm convinced that when wooing England, we're the suitor and she's the unwilling bride"

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