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A Watershed Moment: XTC's Andy Partridge On English Settlement
Jim Keoghan , February 6th, 2012 04:33

'Hail to the provinces!' says Jim Keoghan while talking to Andy Partridge of XTC, 30 years after the release of English Settlement

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It sometimes gets forgotten that it’s the small, unassuming places that can produce great bands and sounds. A lot of attention gets focused on the big cities, their cultural vibrancy and inherent tension seen as vital components in the creation of music. But not everyone can come from London or Manchester and across the years our collective small towns have yielded many great bands, despite the fact that those same towns might regard am-dram as culturally relevant and still have visiting performances from The Barron Knights.

Swindon exports XTC are a case in point. Not always seen as the coolest of groups and one for whom commercial success deserted them for much of their later career, they were nevertheless a band that were rarely content to stand still; possessed of a back catalogue that embraced many different sounds and genres, including a stint as their neo-psychedelic side-project, The Dukes Of Stratosphear.

Thirty years ago, XTC released English Settlement, an album that many critics, both then and since, have regarded as their finest. It’s a release that holds a special place in their discography; but not just for the critical acclaim it garnered. It was an album that marked a specific turning point for the band. Not only did it see them abandon the muscular sound that they had spent nearly a decade honing but its release would also see them stop life as a touring entity all together.

The driving force behind this change of direction was the band’s frontman and principle songwriter, Andy Partridge, who a few months ago was kind enough to give me the story behind this transformative album.

How would you characterise the change in the band’s musical direction that took place on English Settlement?

Andy Partridge: We’d spent the best part of a decade developing quite a thumping sound, one best exemplified on our previous album, Black Sea. With English Settlement I wanted to move in a more pastoral, more acoustic direction. I remember taking some time off, locked away in a flat above a shop in Swindon, to work on how to capture this. Although I’d been writing in a certain way and style for years it actually came quite naturally.

What was the motivation for the change?

AP: I had a new guitar, (I’d given away my old one on swap shop) so there was a touch of new gear syndrome. But more than anything else I wanted to produce a sound less geared to touring, which the muscular sound that we had developed was perfect for. The problem for me was that I was beginning to absolutely hate touring. I wasn’t a young man anymore and my body was starting to rebel against the lifestyle. We’d been doing it pretty much non-stop for nearly a decade and I was sick of it all: the crap food, the hours stuck on a bus with the same faces and the general soul-destroying tediousness of it. I got it into my head that if I wrote an album with a sound less geared towards touring then maybe there would be less pressure to tour.

How was the change of direction greeted by the other members of the band?

AP: There wasn’t a problem; they all seemed to welcome the new stuff and what I’d written seemed to complement the few tracks that Colin (Moulding) had done for the album. The time felt right for a bit of a change anyway and I think this was a feeling shared by the other members of the band. The recording experience was actually one of the best I ever had. We did it in this massive manor house that Virgin had bought out in the Oxfordshire countryside, all four-poster beds and roaring fires. I remember that we spent a bit too much of our time there playing conkers when we should have been recording. That just shows you the heady excesses of our ‘rock & roll’ lifestyle.

Although your previous albums had done well, English Settlement was a much bigger seller, did this surprise you?

AP: No because I recognised that it was a good collection of songs that should do well. We’d been slowly inching our way into the public’s consciousness and there was every reason to believe the album would inch us on a bit further. The high charting of the single that preceded the album’s release, ‘Senses Working Overtime’, also buoyed-up our confidence a bit.

Following the album’s release was there pressure from the record company on the band to tour?

AP: Sadly yes, nothing had changed; my musical rebellion going virtually unnoticed. We were bullied back onto the road and that really started to wind me up. I’d be there onstage thinking: ‘I hate doing this.' The anger towards being made to tour and the mental stress it was causing me began to manifest itself in stage fright, which I’d never had in my life. It didn’t help that my mental state was being exacerbated by the impact of Valium withdrawal, which I’d been on since my early teens.

It all came to a head on our US tour. I managed to get through the first show, but it was an awful experience. 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 me over in a car. Then on the second night, this was in LA, I cracked-up completely. I really believed that I was going to die, it was that bad. I just had to get off the stage. And that was the end for me and touring. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

How did the other members of the band react to your problem?

AP: A band with a singer who can’t be a get on stage and perform in front of a big audience doesn’t sound like a great idea but as a group we adapted. The other members were supportive and together we were committed to continuing things even if that meant we’d only ever be a studio entity from then on. It wasn’t ideal and I think that not being able to tour definitely affected our popularity later on but at the time we couldn’t really see any other way around things.

English Settlement was something of a watershed moment for XTC; an album that seemed to promise your progression up the music world’s greasy poll, yet untimely marked the point where the band’s popularity started to ebb. How do you look back on it today?

AP: I still think it’s a great album, although not my favourite. It was a joy to write and to record and despite what happened I still look back on some of that period fondly. We might have missed our chance at making it really big but in the years that followed we still made some great, critically acclaimed albums and expanded our sound to include other genres.

I do still listen to the album now and then. It sounds especially good when I listen to it when very drunk because then it’s like I’m someone else and I’m hearing it for the first time. And when I do that I realise just how fucking great it really is.

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Rooksby
Feb 6, 2012 10:20am

As a kid, I won a (signed!) copy of English Settlement in a Smash HIts competition... was that REALLY 30 years ago? Ugh.

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Hayley Parvin
Feb 6, 2012 10:39am

Nice to see one of my favourite albums getting some love here on tQ. This album got me through my teen years - only 15+ years after it came out, which speaks to how well it's aged and how relevant it still is. Interview seems a bit short.

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Andy C
Feb 6, 2012 10:54am

Sorry, you lost me at "despite the fact that those same towns might regard am-dram as culturally relevant".

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Humperdinck
Feb 6, 2012 11:08am

This was one of the first ever records I bought aged 10 after hearing Senses Working Overtime. Beats fucking Bucks Fizz!

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PostPunkMonk
Feb 6, 2012 1:23pm

As a long-time XTC fan, I have to say that this is not a personal favorite album, despite the inclusion of the wonderful "Senses Working Overtime." It would benefit from judicious pruning; just like many other albums which overstay their welcome. A list that includes every Cure album after "The Head On The Door" as well as XTC albums I like better than this, say for example, "Oranges + Lemons." The album that really caught my ear was the post-breakdown album where one can really hear the difference - "Mummer!" Now that was an amazing piece of work.

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com

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kwhitehead
Feb 6, 2012 2:35pm

This was the band's last bit of greatness. The record's that followed, at least up to "Skylarking" we're fine but a bit too precious for my liking. I had tickets to see the band on this tour (with the Teardrop Explodes as openers) and am still sad to this day that it never happened. Agreed that the interview seemed a bit on the short side.

It might be interesting to hear from D.Gregory and T. Chambers about this record (and Black Sea). They were the best parts of the band, if you ask me.

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Morey
Feb 6, 2012 4:17pm

In reply to PostPunkMonk:

Agreed. Mummer is THE under-appreciated album in the catalogue, I suspect because the production is somewhat muted and cold. But those songs! I never understood the buzz over Skylarking. Over-produced and obvious. Give my Ladybird or Deliver Us from the Elements, any day!

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Paul Vincent
Feb 6, 2012 7:29pm

My favourite album from my favourite band. The pastoral shift broadened out the band's palette, and shifted focus onto the songs - a scrutiny which they could bear with ease! This reminds me, I need to replace my "English Settlement" T-Shirt, which is just about worn out now, so I hope Andy gets some size XL stock back on the Apehouse website soon!

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Reggie P
Feb 6, 2012 7:42pm

XTC getting love from The Quietus...this has made my day.

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Reggie P
Feb 6, 2012 9:14pm

In reply to Morey:

Skylarking goes on a bit (in Todd they trust) but when it's good it's very, very good in my humble and irrelevant opinion. A total move away from their post-punk sound and even the rustic whimsey of Mummer into that much maligned genre, Power-Pop...(with a bucolic bent!)

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PostPunkMonk
Feb 6, 2012 10:06pm

In reply to Morey:

Ha ha! Actually Morey, I immediately took to "Skylarking" on first listen like a duck to water, and it's remained my favorite XTC album ever since. I still appreciate the powerful pull of "Mummer" as it's the most rewarding album to revisit. It never seems to wear out its welcome and unfolds its secrets with a reluctant hand; making it all the more intriguing. Still, my jaw drops whenever I pop on "Skylarking." It's an engine with all cylinders firing in unison like few others.

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com

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Aaron Curran
Feb 7, 2012 11:31pm

I've vivid memories of watching XTC perform 'Senses Working Overtime' on Top of the Pops and that inspired me to ask my mum for English Settlement on cassette for Christmas! Love it to bits. Oh and sorry to be pedantic but I figure that's kind of expected of XTC fans - it's actually spelt Dukes of Stratosphear.

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Michael Versaci
Feb 8, 2012 7:39pm

Fantastic album that continues to improve with age.

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Neil
Feb 8, 2012 7:41pm

I'm a relative newcomer to XTC. I never really listened to them much until 2000, when the new bass player in my band at the time urged me to check them out. I bought a copy of English Settlement, never having heard a note of the music. I loved it from almost the first listen. Today I own the entire XTC catalog, and ES is probably my fave of all their records.

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David West-Mullen
Feb 8, 2012 10:26pm

absolutely one of the more interesting Albums of its day but I also believe that was just the beginning as Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch are great collections of some clever songwriting as well....I have most of what the band have done in my collection

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Joe Holmes
Feb 9, 2012 12:28pm

First XTC tune I ever heard was "It's Nearly Africa," which completely blew me away. I'd never heard anything quite like it. I immediately bought English Settlement and listened to it incessantly for a couple weeks, then caught up with the rest of their work on earlier albums. I was hooked forever. Still love listening to the whole catalog — it all holds up so well.

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Big Daddy
Feb 10, 2012 10:20pm

In reply to Rooksby:

And here's the copy of Smash Hits the competition was in
http://www.flickr.com/photos/51106326@N00/sets/72157628248867111/

Page 37.

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jackd
Feb 11, 2012 2:48pm

English Settlement also is probably my favorite tho in my life I've loved them all especially the last song on their last album (Wasp Star) ....The Wheel and the Maypole so completely illustrates their genius!!!

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Feb 12, 2012 1:41am

became part of my life

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Don Pennington
Feb 12, 2012 11:06am

30 years ... sounds like yesterday.
Critical success continues for this and the rest of the XTC recordings.
Money isn't everything? ... ok, it does help.

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jeff knowler
Feb 13, 2012 8:41am

It was (and still is) a very good album, and conjures up an era. Still well played on the vestax....("..Have you ever heard vinyl like THIS...?!)

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Matthew Seery
Feb 14, 2012 12:20pm

Not their best album but certainly in the top half. This album however, perhaps more than any other they recorded, characterises their unique style and sound. If you wanted to explain what differentiates XTC (at least Andy's contributions anyway) from anything before or since then this would probably be the album you would play. Totally original and unquestionably their best album up to that point of their career.

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Nick Gallop
Mar 2, 2012 9:06pm

Every time I hear the album I'm transported to the Wiltshire countryside, and reminded once more of the greatest under-rated band of all time. One of these days a soundtrack scout will use XTC to underscore a major movie and finaly allow the Great Unwashed into our collective (and protective) clique. The greatest three little words I'd like to hear? New XTC Album. Studio-based will suffice.

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tony ring
Mar 16, 2012 12:08am

catchy

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Gordon Russell
Apr 3, 2012 11:59am

I was an XTC fan from the start. Drums And Wires was (and probably still is) my favourite.
I wasn't into ES when I first heard it. I apreciate it a lot more 30 years on.
Their entire back catalogue is memorable.
Long live Partridge and Moulding.

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Thi Dumont
Apr 15, 2012 6:07am

Still modern after 30 years ,i hope mrpargridge still gets the incombe he
Deserves by stupid record companies cause we don t hear mu h of
Him

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Steve Wilson (Ex-Liverpool now in Oz)
Nov 22, 2013 10:59am

Great interview; sorry to hear AP had a Valium problem. Fantastic band. I got into them from Day 1 but English Settlement is the best album for me. They epitomise what music should be - clever, thought-provoking, slicing lyrics with edgy melodies and great musicianship. I often thought the Beatles were continued on in this band in a weird sort of quirky way. I also often sing "Oh well that's this world over....." to myself - one of the cleverest songs of the last quarter of the 20th C. Love it

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aL in La
Mar 24, 2014 8:05pm

I remember I was listening to No Thugs on KROQ and trying to find a ride to see XTC in concert. Drunk, sober, I can hear English Settlement over and over again. A unique, great, fresh-sounding effort that makes me thankful for Partridge, Moulding and all the merry bandmates.

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hans de vente
Nov 12, 2015 3:38pm

my proudest moment:i sing backup on its nearly africa

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