“The really annoying thing is, the second I die off, people are going to go, ‘Hey, do you know, they were quite good!’ ” That’s Andy Partridge, the principal singer and songwriter of the late, great, quintessentially British pop band XTC, sounding off in his comprehensive new book Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC. A must for fans, this collection of interviews surveys the inspiration behind and the recording of 30 songs across the band’s catalog, ranging from the buzz-punk of 1978’s “This Is Pop” to the symphonic pastorals of later songs like 1999’s “River of Orchids.”
Partridge is funny and discursive, and he deals some surprising musical dish: Did you know he gave David Byrne the title More Songs About Buildings and Food? Sure, sometimes he gets bogged down trying to recall just which bass Colin Moulding might have been playing on “Jason and the Argonauts.” But he’s offering rare from-the-source insight into one of the great runs in all pop music. You can’t imagine Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney dishing for hours about each individual song!
Dylan and McCartney don’t have to. An army of -ologists and -maniacs have made an industry out of pinning down every move, thought, and influence of that first generation of rock and pop greats. (Admittedly, the Kinks remain underserved.) No matter how good its records were, the second generation—exemplified by ’70s and ’80s stalwarts like Elvis Costello—never commanded the center of the culture and has inspired little of that obsessive scholarship.
Without a Beatles Industrial Complex to keep them in the public consciousness, it’s left to performers like Partridge and Costello to do the legacy-securing themselves. First came Costello with last year’s memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which doubles as a clear-eyed work of Costello criticism. (He’s bang-on about which albums of his are keepers—and he cites XTC as the inspiration for the arrangement of Trust’s “White Knuckles.”) In that book and in recent interviews, Costello carps that the idea of album-making is, at this point, a vanity: Nobody bought 2010’s National Ransom, a record that he put everything into. The book, though—people sprung for that.
Partridge’s book has some of the best writing I’ve ever read about XTC. Here he is discussing an extended and glistening instrumental passage in the majestic “Jason and the Argonauts”: “The whole thing is almost as if you’re in an incredibly fast boat, and you’re looking over the prow just staring into the sea for a couple minutes. That’s the whole essence of the song, really. It’s almost as if the little vocal motifs that come up are like dolphins jumping by the prow.”
But, as in the Costello memoir, there’s hurt feelings, too. He speaks often of anxieties over money, the theme of two of XTC’s best singles, the note-perfect Beatles ‘66 pastiche “Earn Enough for Us” and the out-of-time folk marvel “Love on a Farm Boy’s Wages.” He wonders why a Sunday newspaper list of England’s best songwriters didn’t include him. He complains at length that a book of albums you “must hear” mistakenly credits his song “Complicated Game” as one of bandmate Moulding’s. He wonders if XTC might have been taken more seriously by critics and tastemakers if they had been from New York and Talking Heads had hailed from Swindon. He marvels that Costello is so much more wealthy than he is: “You know, I wrote songs as good as he did! I can say that, not facetiously or boastfully.”
He can say that, of course. In the absence of critical interest, he has to—no one else is doing it. Yes, Partridge is hoping to make a little scratch with this book and the many volumes of demos and outtakes he’s self-released, but the project’s urgency seems to lie in his desire to remain visible—and to get onto those best-songwriters lists before he dies.
Meanwhile, as Partridge and Costello tend to their legacies, lesser-touted near-contemporaries They Might Be Giants have banged out and released three new albums in a year, with last month’s Phone Power selling under a pay-what-you-will online model. And Martin Newell of the Cleaners From Venus has managed two strong full-lengths and one killer comp since 2014. These books are welcome and edifying, but there are other ways to win the listmakers’ attentions—how about recording some new songs?