On Andy Partridge, punk, beauty, madness, and our secret sounds.
There was a time when you thought you could bury your secrets in a music collection. You were young, you were sensitive to judgment, and you weren’t sure how all of it would stack up in the eyes of a potential romantic partner or in the eyes of the mature, sophisticated self you aspired to become. Were you really that needy? That desperate? And would you be crushed if someone else didn’t get it? Music got to places that were so private and strange, it was hard to put them into words, at least until you got older. You supposedly now live in a less lonely world. Now you could find refuge in social media, on a fan site, and discover that your little aural secret belongs to other people too. And if the repressed is returned and you reexamine where those sounds came from, you could find that some of those grown-ups who made the music you hoarded were even less stable and sure of themselves than you were. The band I am speaking of is XTC, who are now, despite their general absence from the conversation, the subject of the recently aired Showtime documentary XTC: This Is Pop. They were perhaps best known for their accidental 1986 hit, “Dear God,” a manifesto of unbelief initially buried on a B side before disc jockeys at college radio stations flipped the record and discovered something that hit a nerve among the young. And yet what was truly terrifying about the song was its harmonic beauty, the way those descending notes and glorious extended vocal lines followed the chords and made its blasphemy somehow numinous and sublime. By the time the record came out, those of us who were following its singer and author, Andy Partridge, knew that while he sounded invincible on the record, he had in fact stopped performing a few years earlier, in 1982, due to a kind of incurable stage fright. This was long before the Internet, and we had to search hard for the information. That voice, filled with angst or tenderness or both, just couldn’t make it to the concert stage anymore. The music that was the most precious to Partridge was also somehow unbearable. A few years ago, he appeared on a BBC documentary singing the praises of another head case, the mighty Judee Sill. But when he began to play her song, “The Kiss,” he had to stop it. “Those notes climbing under her voice … Sorry; I can’t do it … It’s just too beautiful.”
In the early, rowdy days of XTC, it was not obvious that Partridge was one to weep at records. They started as an often dissonant punk band who found their way into melody by way of maturity. In 1982, when the band was on the cusp of mainstream success, Partridge, suffering from sudden Valium withdrawal, walked offstage in the middle of a performance of “Respectable Street” and stopped performing forever. For the rest of their career, they were a studio-only band. The focus would be on playing, listening, digging deep, and truly becoming themselves—including that space of vulnerability that would go straight to your speakers. They would take over a studio like a trio of Stanley Kubricks and not emerge until they poured everything they had into it. There were no shows to prepare for. The records were the shows.
Partridge could have been broken, but he has miraculously survived—a living figure of cult. He spent his career being, at turns, cheeky, angry, edgy, soft, sacrilegious, a father, a drinker, an ex-husband, a weirdo, a crank, an anachronist, an agoraphobe, and so on, etching out, often with great tumult, something that’s just too beautiful. His voice, when edgy, can sound like what he describes as “a seal’s bark.” When it’s sustained, it is a thing of wonder, sometimes taunting, sometimes joking, sometimes a long multitracked journey into desperation, loneliness, or an off-kilter bliss.
In XTC: This Is Pop, the members of the band are there, as are Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police (for whom XTC opened back in the day), and Harry Shearer, who cowrote and starred as the bassist Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap. It is astonishing to see Shearer, bassist for the most legendary parody band ever, gushing over XTC’s “gorgeous songwriting and gorgeous record making.” A running joke through this rock documentary is that Andy Partridge really hates rock documentaries.
XTC is pop that is somehow beyond the limits of pop. There is pop and art, and there is rock and art, and yet the terms Pop art or art-rock don’t quite fit. In the seventies, bands such as Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Genesis; Jethro Tull; and so on were known—with their long solos, long tracks, and grandiose concepts—as art-rock. Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper preceded them, and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool followed. In the middle was punk, which ripped apart the pretensions of the art-rockers and put Andy Partridge in an awkward position. He couldn’t show his soft side, and he couldn’t do anything that stretched the attention span. But from his earliest records, what was unmistakable was chromatic harmony, a concept that sprang from nineteenth-century Germany, starting with Wagner’s Tristan chord. To put it less technically, Partridge’s chords are often weird—stacked, suspended, and eerily cast—and they sound like no one else’s.
Andy Patridge works through metaphor and synesthesia. In XTC: This Is Pop, he walks us through the process in real time. He hasn’t set foot on a concert stage since the year E. T. was released, yet he can still show us how it’s done. He takes us back to when he needed to come up with a verse for “Senses Working Overtime.” The chorus is in E. Searching for something more interesting, he tells us, he threw his hands “on kind of an E-flat place,” but then, without thinking, he wound up with an “an interesting chord-nonchord.” The sound has an eerie dissonance with just a trace of euphony. “This sounds medieval. This is like somebody in a field, tilling,” he says. The song is about being overwhelmed—too much beauty, too much ugliness, too much everything. This was the year of his breakdown. And it was a hit.
On-screen, he explores the guitar frets. “Let me find a chord I’ve never played in my life,” he announces. He doesn’t name it, but it’s C-sharp augmented. Then he floats along the frets. “That to me suggests a pool of muddy water,” he says. And then he starts plonking some distinctly Andy chords, which come with that voice reaching out to us yet again. “There is the muddiest of water / There is the deepest of pools.”
It was those Andy chords that first leapt out to me as a teenager, listening to music in the dark. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quartet were supplemented with XTC’s English Settlement and Skylarking. Those albums were among my first purchases for my CD player. The new technology promised a bright, sparkling future for music, a place beyond the crackles and skips of vinyl. I could hear those stunning intervals, those droning vocals, the metapsychedelia, the anger, the tenderness, and the strangeness that made it hard to transcribe precisely to the piano keys. I was playing jazz, and this pop with harmonic aspirations expanded my eclectic young palate. I was in my first romantic relationships, where pleasure was mixed with pain, joy was laced with acid, and the chords clashed. Music, of course, was often playing through it all.
Some music stays with you for life. It means different things at different times, but it is always with you, like a limb or one of those five senses working overtime. But sometimes it will be years since you last heard, say, “1000 Umbrellas.” You’ve lived several lifetimes since then, and, oh, isn’t it magical that some chords can take you back to who you used to be? Except they can’t. Your life is not a straight road. But the veneer of continuity—through other people’s music, through their feelings, their illusions—keeps the jukeboxes playing. You don’t get that experience back, but you get a reminder that it is gone forever. The reconstruction of the past is an addictive drug. We want that feeling again, even if it’s mixed with inconsolable misery. Andy Partridge had a breakdown for his own reasons, yet we experience it with him every time we listen to him. He went bonkers just for us, didn’t he? XTC have been defunct since the beginning of the new millennium. But for a long time, they existed only on records anyway. Even when they came out with a new album, the music was never live. We are lost to ourselves, lost to our pasts, and yet, when confronted with their archives and our own, there is still something recognizable. That’s me, you think. Or it was. That whelp comes up, those uncanny chords. The dead have been awakened once more. We are at a loss. The tears well up. “It’s just too beautiful.”
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse. His latest book, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, was published by FSG last October.