July 17 - 24, 1997
[Music Reviews]
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Limbo race

Catching up with XTC

by Brett Milano

[XTC] Fans can get understandably cynical when rock bands start griping about their problems with record labels. (Trent Reznor's genius wasn't understood properly by the folks at TVT? Prince felt like a slave while making millions on Warners? The heart just bleeds.) Fans of the great pop band XTC have undoubtedly felt that kind of cynicism in recent years. The trio's dislike of Virgin, their international label since 1977, is well known to anyone who's followed their saga. But they never dealt with it as drastically as they have since the release of 1992's Nonsuch -- by declaring themselves "on strike" and not releasing a note of music in the past five years.

The move couldn't have worked wonders for XTC's career, since they wound up sitting out the entirety of the Brit-pop revival. And as singer/guitarist and main songwriter Andy Partridge explains over the phone from his home in Swindon, England, it hasn't been great on the band's psyches either.

"I miss us -- it's like looking in the mirror and there's no reflection. I'd get together once in a while with Dave and Colin [guitarist Dave Gregory and bassist Colin Moulding] and we'd try to bash a few things through. They were sad sessions; we knew we couldn't get excited because we couldn't record it. If we did, Virgin would own it. So even playing together felt like a prick tease. It was like watching a porn film with boxing gloves on."

Still, Partridge insists the move was necessary to dissolve their Virgin contract. "It was a crap deal, we were on the label 18 years before we were out of debt. The final straw came when they allowed us to release the single `Wrapped in Grey' [from Nonsuch] and immediately got cold feet. It was one of the first singles we've ever done that I was musically proud of, and they basically killed it. We said, `Right, you're not getting any more music.' We believed it was time to do the right thing, and I know that sounds crazy because most bands don't even last five years. But we really wanted to shame them into releasing us."

The release finally came about last year, and XTC are now negotiating with various labels, one of which is rumored to be the Salem-based Rykodisc. "We've talked to all the majors, and it's always the same: they stroke your ego to zeppelin size and give you the same deal they give bands who don't know their ass from their plectrum. The indie labels are much more sensible. We may win at this game eventually."

Meanwhile Geffen (which holds the US distribution license on the Virgin UK albums) has released Upsy Daisy Assortment, which combines their small handful of US hits with a bunch of seemingly random album tracks ("It seems like they just stuck all our song titles on the Geffen dartboard," Partridge concedes). Although a redundant package -- by my count it's XTC's fifth compilation -- it combines obvious choices like "Dear God" and "Mayor of Simpleton" with fannish picks like "Funk Pop a Roll" and "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" (both from 1983's Mummer, the album that diehards think is the best and everyone else thinks is too weird). And it traces XTC's career from the new-wave giddiness of 1979's "Life Begins at the Hop" to the textured pop charms of 1992's "The Disappointed."

Since the layoff, Partridge figures he's made demos of "enough songs for five albums if we scrape it, four passable ones, or two really good ones. But wouldn't you know it, you send these demo tapes to record labels and they go vanishing; then they get out to everyone on the Internet."

The recent Partridge demo tape I've heard -- through the Internet, of course -- takes the melodic side of Nonsuch a couple steps forward. "That's one side of it," admits Partridge. "But I have a mental picture of the album we want to make, and it will be two discs with two different characters. One will be the acoustic orchestral things; the other will be all the loud guitar stuff."

The return to action can't come too soon for Partridge, who's had a miserable few years, what with the break-up of his marriage and recent health problems (an ear infection made him temporarily deaf -- he still lacks 30 percent hearing in his right ear). After temporarily relocating to New York to be with a girlfriend, he's now back to living in his native England.

"It's funny, I can't get arrested in England," he admits. "But in the East Village I'd get stopped every 50 yards -- `Hello Mr. Partridge, do you mind if I pull up my little leprosy-ridden son for you to cure?' The divorce was rough; I felt incredibly bitter and betrayed, but I tried not to let that get into the songs. I didn't want to make a Phil Collins `Songs for Swinging Divorcees' kind of record -- please take me out and shoot me if I ever do that."

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