Home entertainment: Andy Partridge

Andy Partridge

Swindon is, according to one of its most eloquent sons, "Britain's cheap-joke town". Andy Partridge recently spotted mentions of his home town in four comedy programmes over the space of a single week.

Partridge, who with his band XTC, has made a career out of articulating the parochial essence of English culture, lives in a pocket of the old town that actually has some cobble-stone charm to it, unlike the mass of mini-roundabouts and company car-clogged A-roads that dominate the rest of Swindon. Partridge has lived there for most of his life, and it doesn't look like he's going to escape now.

"Actually, the irony of it is that I was born in Malta and beached up here," says Partridge, whose Thames Valley burr proves his long-term residential status. "To be honest with you, Swindon is a shithole. But it's 'Everywheresville' and that can be influential. They test things here because it is so average - community television in the early 70s and mobile phone technology today - and the average can be endlessly inspiring."

Swindon may be lacking in glamour, but the rolling Wiltshire countryside that surrounds it has a pastoral romance and, on an afternoon spent drinking almond tea and listening to whimsical English pop in Partridge's book-furnished living room, the allure of the former market town begins to unfold.

"XTC were clever and came from Swindon, so therefore we were crap," says Partridge, still bitter about the image he has of being a provincial smartarse. "I was always jealous of bands like Talking Heads, who were doing similar things to us but were from New York, and therefore cool. But the English don't like normal people doing intelligent things. They have the love of the poor penniless lord, but if you're a window-cleaner who makes £5m through your own sweat you're scum."

The house, or rather the shed at the bottom of the garden, has become the epicentre of a self-sufficient cottage industry Partridge has set up in order to escape the wider machinations of the record business. The shed contains a recording studio, and it was here that his latest project, a spoken-word version of the Orpheus myth made in collaboration with Peter Blegved, was made.

In an upstairs room of the house is an office for Ape Records, Partridge's own label, which releases his home recordings and CDs by bands he likes. "I've extricated myself from the evil clutches of the record industry," he says. "So I've started up a company with the explicit intention of not being evil."

XTC have not toured since 1982 because of the panic attacks Partridge developed on stage, but a few Swindon locals were recently treated to his first and only live performance since then. "I got unbelievably out of control on Courvoisier and dragged my son out for a walk around town on Saturday night," he explains.

"I looked through a window of a local pub where a band were playing. They saw me and told me to come on in and get on stage, so I did a version of Hey Joe while staggering around like a drunken bull, accidentally turning off all the effects pedals in the process."

Partridge has spent recent years delving ever deeper into the bottomless well of obscure psychedelic bands that mushroomed over Britain in the second half of the 1960s, and he has so many CD box sets of the non-hits of the era that it would take him about a year to listen to them all.

Bands like Wimple Winch, Jason Crest, Wild Silk and the Penny Peeps created brief, brilliant moments of psychedelic nonsense before dissolving back into the ether, only to be rediscovered decades later by people like Partridge.

"I like the fact that there are so many of them. I think it was Stalin who said that quantity has a quality all of its own," he says, ensuring that the 10 CDs in his Rubbles box set are in the correct order. "I can sit for hours and stare at catalogues of all the different things you can get, whether it be gardening tools, or shoes, or psychedelic music."

Many British bands of the late 1960s sang about a candy-coated world of school blazers, gob-stoppers and teacakes, and their childlike, LSD-induced whimsy was a world away from the dark excesses of American rock. "The British bands were aboutAlice in Wonderland, and the American ones were about Vietnam," says Partridge, just as Model Village by the Penny Peeps chimes to a happy end.

"The Americans, especially the Doors, were singing about napalm and heroin. I think the Doors are one of the most overrated bands of all time. Did you know that Jim Morrison had the smelliest trousers in rock? He had appalling BO because he refused to wash."

Let us hope the same could not be said of Syd Barrett, the immensely talented but damaged original lead singer of Pink Floyd. Partridge plays Scream Thy Last Scream, the intended third single by Pink Floyd that was never released, written at a time when Barrett's prodigious LSD intake was beginning to take its toll on his mental wellbeing.

"It's got wonderful nonsense lyrics about an old woman with a casket, it can be played at 33 or 45rpm, and it goes into a collegiate, Cambridge style at the end with church bells and choirs," he says. "It's brilliant."

Our afternoon ends with some quiet moments of reflection from Judee Sill, the Californian singer-songwriter from the 1970s whose tough life - her parents died young, she was a heroin addict and sometime prostitute - only added to the poignancy of her beautiful songs.

"She had about every problem going but she made fantastic music," says Partridge of Sill, who died of an overdose in 1979. "Her music sounds like JS Bach with a 12-string guitar, and her talent is up there with Brian Wilson's. My first girlfriend had her album in 1972 and it never left the turntable. My music would have been very different if it hadn't been for Judee Sill."


Will Hodgkinson

The GuardianTramp

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