Earlier this week fell the birthday of one Andrew John Partridge of Swindon, aka Andy Partridge of the band XTC. Or should I say, with some sadness, formerly of the band XTC. Yet being an optimistic sort, I hold that caveat to possibly be a temporary one because not only are all former members of the group still alive, they all seem to be living in Swindon. This may well be incorrect – and someone will correct me if it is – but I rather think that, at least some of the time, Messrs. Partridge, Moulding, Chambers, Gregory and Andrews are all to be found within the town boundary. A most curious situation. But then, XTC were…are…will remain…a beautifully curious proposition.
As noted, I wasn’t going to write about this song this week, until I spotted that last Monday, the 11th of November, was Andy Partridge’s birthday. It seemed to be an ideal moment to praise him – or one of his songs, at least. I haven’t asked him, but it’s seemed to me over the years that he’s never determinedly pursued stadium-sized success – in fact he has just as often run from it. I don’t know whether he now regrets having done so, but my guess is ‘maybe sometimes, but not often’. In this he reminds me of another great favourite of mine (who will no doubt feature here eventually) Kevin Rowland – every time he had a commercial success or breakthrough, rather than capitalise on it he would turn and walk the other way. Now their music could hardly be more different but I like their shared integrity and willingness – or is it need- to stick to their own creative path.
I’ve already written a fair bit about my favourite Andy Partridge song. It’s in a chapter called ‘Fallen From The Garden’ in the estimable Mark Fisher’s first XTC compendium, The XTC Bumper Book Of Fun and the song is ‘Ladybird’, which dwells amongst the groves of my favourite XTC album, Mummer (1983). So in the spirit of Mr. Partridge himself, let’s not repeat ourselves and, instead, let’s see who occupies the Silver Medal position on Pete’s Partridgean Podium. It’s a close thing between two wildly unalike tunes: 1980 b-side ‘The Somnambulist’ (a fuzzy warble for a five minute Samuel Beckett play) and – just edging it, by a beautifully turned nose captured in profile via a photo finish – today’s subject, 1992’s sublime ‘Then She Appeared’ from their final album for Virgin (and thereby hang many tales), Nonsuch.
This album always reminds me of Weymouth because it was in that bonny Dorset seaside town that I bought it in April 1992, from a newsagents shop on the front called Austin’s – as Marty Di Bergi once said, don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore – but equally in the spirit of This Is Spinal Tap here is the CD, and it’s still got the little tagger on it, see?
Unlike Nigel Tufnell’s untouched guitar however I have played this disc. Many, many times. It was years later that I discovered that Weymouth was once nicknamed ‘Swindon-on-Sea’ due to the number of families from XTC’s home town that took their annual holidays there in the post-War era. I now wish in fact that I’d bought the double vinyl LP version of Nonsuch, although I doubt whether Austin’s stocked actual albums alongside the sweets and newspapers; not just because of the sinew-stiffening prices it now fetches but because the music is so good that it just feels like it should be heard four songs a side…but whichever format you equip yourself with, you have chosen well, my friend.
My longing look falls upon Track Three, Side Three, or Track Twelve as we mere CD owners call it. Track Eleven (one lesser) is possibly Partridge’s stormiest and gnarliest contribution to the album – ‘That Wave’ is like a bank of black nimbostratus cloud, glowering down on a boiling sea. Initially I would often be impatient for ‘That Wave’ to crest and break, its unresolved tension making me anxious – I’ve changed my mind in recent years, which tells you more about me than the music of course, but that shift was capably assisted by Fassine’s startling cover which made me recalibrate my whole view of the song. But in the transition between the two songs on the original album – the storm passed and the mountainous seas survived – a safe harbour is reached and a bright new morning seemed to emerge from the deep, summoned up by the circling Byrds of Dave Gregory’s 12-string take on Andy’s riff and Colin Moulding’s exquisitely empathetic Revolveresque bassline. And, lest we forget, the languid insistence of Dave Mattacks’ drumming. All of them bring much to Andy’s songtable – a real ensemble sound, far more than the sum of its parts.
Andy Partridge has often spoken of how his synaesthesia has helped or influenced his songwriting and, in my mind’s ear at least, the opening moments of this song are a sublime example of this, gifting us a musical rendering of Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus. I see and hear it clear: the moment she rises free, fully formed, from the breaking waves. It’s almost like one of those rearrangements of art classics Terry Gilliam would provide between the sketches in the original television episodes of Monty Python, a kind of reverent irreverence: surreal and beautiful, entirely extraordinary and utterly natural. The painting must have been on Andy’s mind at some level : after all, the song’s first line is ‘Then she appeared…Apple Venus on a half-open shell’.
Sandro Botticelli The Birth Of Venus (approx 1480s)
As is often the case with Andy’s songs, the demo of the song which crops up on Fuzzy Warbles Volume 2 is remarkably close to the finished recording, right down to the backing vocals and the shoofy little hints at backward-tapery which belie the song’s roots in one of his compositions for imaginary 60’s groups – this group were called ‘The Golden’. One of Todd Bernhardt’s chats with Andy that didn’t make the invaluable Complicated Game goes deep into the song’s biography, so walk this way.
In that exchange Andy calls the lyrics ‘psychedelically daft’, and I suppose you could say they are, as well as being full of the characteristic AP tumble of pun and extrapolated metaphor, but in common with all his other songs for his imaginary groups, from The Dukes Of Stratosphear onward, he has so fully assimilated and understood the musical shapes and lyrical lexica which define the styles that they end up being, in someone else’s phrase, even better than the real thing. It’s analogous to what someone like Kate Rusby does in folk music – internalising the music to such an extent that you’d swear the ‘new’ song is an unheard ‘old’ one. Beyond all that I think the words are beautiful:
Then she appeared
Brittle shooting star that dropped in my lap
Then she appeared
Dressed in tricolour and phrygian cap
These give us the picture direct: that hinge point in one’s life, the moment in which everything is changed. We see it feelingly. Here the agent of that instant of revolution is rendered truly romantic, ready to both defend and charge across the barricades of life and make the change. Andy has mentioned that he had Marianne – the tricolour-draped embodiment of the French Republic since the 1830 Revolution – in mind here and I wasn’t surprised to hear that. In the song’s second nod to the European art gallery, Delacroix’s famous painting of Marianne leading the charge shows this connection clearly. Tricolour, phrygian cap. As he had already suggested in 1989’s ‘The Loving’, love is the strongest revolutionary force. There’s a link to his own life too, but we each have our own brittle shooting star to think of. If we are lucky.
Eugène Delacroix Liberty Leading The People (1830)
The song remains an obscurity, but has its admirers, aside from me – it popped up on a 2002 episode of American TV show The Gilmore Girls, finding a nice and unexpected little niche for the song’s rapturous mood and unashamed faith in the lightning-bolt of love.
So far so harmonious: but I have A Grievance. This is Angry of Leeds calling, hello, hello? On the 1992 original album, the crossfade transition from the torrid marine turbulence of the final throes of ‘That Wave’ to the clean, new day rising rays of ‘Then She Appeared’ s opening 12-string riff is a contender for one of my favourite moments in all pop music. Not only is it rhetorically effective on the album as a whole, it makes all sorts of sense across the two songs, building a mind’s-eye bridge between them , showing how intuitively XTC understood the significance of sequencing on a record and the adaptive logic of a thrilling segue. Furthermore, your Honour, it is just brilliant. This makes what happened on the 2013 remould of Nonsuch all the more egregious; Steven Wilson’s remake/remodel of the album sacrificed the cross fade. In fairness, he consciously uncoupled all of the crossfades across the album, so wasn’t uniquely persecuting this one. But does that make it all right now? I think not. Those extra details on a canvas that make the difference between a great work and a genius one may well be obscure or opaque but take them away and something is lost. So, like digital enhancements of Van Gogh or colourised versions of Laurel & Hardy, they are nice places to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. The original is where the revolutionary spirit resides.
I’m very grateful to Nonsuch producer, the late Gus Dudgeon, as he loved this song and saved it from the Fuzzy Warble pile, even identifying it as a single. The LP spawned two singles (well, three, sort of , but that’s another story) but not this one. So as it turned out it remains a deep cut tucked away on the last album completed by the three-man XTC. I adore it.
In the spirit of the original album, here’s a trio pertinent to our little chat, giving us ‘Omnibus’ by way of an hors d’oeuvre, with the ‘That Wave’/’Then She Appeared’ segue arriving at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds. You may now Dig It. And a Very Merry Unbirthday, Andy Partridge.