As coiffed, cocky youths in the 1970s new wave scene, XTC’s Andy Partridge and the Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock mostly passed each other like two ships in the night — only to later team up as men in their sixties.
“I saw [Robyn] more as competition than a potential pal,” Partridge tells Billboard. “Maybe I immediately put him down in the ‘Too much like you, Andy!’ box, to go any further. [But I had] lots of respect.”
Hitchcock, too, saw a potentially simpatico partner even as their aesthetics slightly differed. “They brought their Beatle sensibilities into the 1980s,” he says of XTC. “We in the Soft Boys, however, were busted at the border for being flagrantly retro. Andy and I could sense the similarities between us, but at that stage, but we were too young and insecure to form an alliance.”
This must have seemed like a missed opportunity for British new wave fans, especially ones who miss the defunct XTC and Soft Boys in equal measure. Soon, however, the pair can be heard together on Planet England, a four-track EP released strictly on physical media this month Partridge’s label, Ape House Records. (The duo has no immediate plans to bring the albums to streaming, though they leave the possibility open.) After hearing its Beatlesque visions (“Turn Me On, Deadman”) and dry humor (“Flight Attendants, Please Prepare For Love”), fans may wonder why the ornery pair didn’t team up sooner.
As it turns out, Partridge and Hitchcock been toiling on and off on Planet England for over a decade; the delay wasn’t due to creative differences, but logistical ones. Hitchcock moved to Nashville and “left a crater behind that included [his] own email”; meanwhile, Partridge released nine volumes of demos with his Fuzzy Warbles series and wrote songs for the Monkees on 2016’s Good Times! and 2018’s Christmas Party.
Now, as Partridge puts it, “An email and a phone call later, we did finish it up, and it is great stuff.” Read on for an interview with Partridge and Hitchcock as to how they met in the early days, their “dismal, British” chemistry — Hitchcock’s words — and how they completed the project after 11 years in limbo.
Andy, it's been almost 20 years since the last XTC record, and a long minute since your last solo album. How have you been spending your off-time?
Andy Partridge: XTC is no more, long live XTC. I made Monstrance in 2006, then that lovely album with Peter Blegvad, Gonwards. Of course there's the nine albums of home demos, the Fuzzy Warbles series. There was my take on Syd Barrett's “Apples and Oranges” backed with “Humanoid Boogie” that came out not too long ago [on a 10” record in 2018].
I've mostly been writing unsuccessfully for others since then, but all will be revealed soon enough. I've not been idle. My biggest thrill in the last two years was the Monkees recording three songs of mine. What a great jolt that was. The 13-year-old Andy explodes with glee.
This four-track EP has been over a decade in the making. Why such a long time?
Partridge: It's probably about 11 years in the making. That’s one hell of a long time in pop music cycles. About twice the longevity of your average band, I reckon, or the lifespan of The Beatles.
Robyn Hitchcock: Time accelerates as you move forward, and slows down into clear mist as you go backwards.
Partridge: We set out to make an album, I think, but life got in the way. Robyn was seemingly constantly touring and I was taking on other jobs, writing for others, my failed songwriting career, my other schemes and projects, blah blah. Then his life took a radical change and he moved to Nashville to start again and we lost contact. How did we slip through the net?
Hitchcock: So, I remember starting the project off, catching the train from London to Swindon, and the pair of us composing [the title track] “Planet England” in 2006, I think. Unlike Andy, I’m constantly taking off and landing, being on tour. So after a while, [maybe in] 2009, Andy felt that I might be losing interest, but really, I was just scattered: my self, my focus, everything but the need to earn a living on the road. I left a crater behind me that included my old email.
Partridge: It was producer John Leckie and a confluence of circumstances that got us back in contact.
Hitchcock: John [had] produced both XTC and myself, among many others.
Partridge: John said he had a new email for Robyn and at that time I was moving all my old recordings from one computer to a new one. I played the me-and-Robyn sketches and thought, "Damn, this is great stuff, we really should have finished this up."
Hitchcock: It seemed like Andy and I were both great at starting things but not so great at finishing them off. I ran into John and he gave me Andy’s email and I gave him my current one. Connection re-established!
Partridge: An email and a phone call later, we did finish it up, and it is great stuff.
How did you two originally meet? I imagine XTC and The Soft Boys bumped shoulders once or twice in the early days.
Partridge: We met once or twice for some TV interview things, in a pub in London. Don't ask me what the channel was. I was very wary of him and vice versa. He was tall, good-looking and fronting a fiercely inventive bunch, so I saw him more as competition than a potential pal.
Hitchcock: I think Andy’s right; we probably both felt threatened by each other. XTC were pop stars, and they had somehow evaded the New Wave immigration officers and brought their Beatle sensibilities into the 1980s. We in the Soft Boys, however, were busted at the border for being flagrantly retro, and sent back into the void. To be fair, the void was really where I wanted to be at the time: I could never see myself on Top of the Pops.
Partridge: Maybe I immediately put him down in the "Too much like you, Andy!" box, to go any further. [But I had] lots of respect.
Hitchcock: Andy and I could sense the similarities between us, but at that stage, we were too young and insecure to form an alliance. I do remember him hosting a BBC Radio 1 show on which I was playing live. He was genial and quite fast; he seemed to have a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, like a Spitfire. I was more of a seaplane in those days. Now we are both stored in a shed, wrapped in tarpaulin.
Tell me about your creative dynamic. Does it fit neatly within the “John and Paul” mold — one shooting from the hip, the other a bit more professional and refined?
Partridge: Yeah, he plays the John Lennon to my Paul Daniels. I'm probably more practical and square in tastes, but I have to say, of all the people I’ve ever written with, he fires out the most surreal gibber, which is very spurring on for me. Like I have a cruel giant jockey.
Hitchcock: I suspect that Andy has his own internal cruel giant jockey that forces him into endless creativity. As do I. He’s gifted technically, where I am baffled by machinery. Andy likes what he calls the bells-and-whistles, I’m more of a skeleton guy. But we’re both pretty aware of what a song needs to take to the sky by itself; we can both tell if its wings are getting floppy.
Partridge: Not sure which one of us is more pro or refined? We make each other laugh, which is the best trait. Nothing is too outré. We'll shoot and stuff anything. I think we're both musically honest. Which may not gel with other musicians, but we seem to unlock each other?
Hitchcock: I feel like, left to his own devices, Andy would endlessly remake Sgt. Pepper, where I’d be content with remaking Revolver. Not much of a gulf between us these days.
Who played what on the EP? Did you write together?
Partridge: I tended to edit or program the drums and play the bass. We shared all the guitar chores. The singing is kind of obvious who does what. It's a genuine 50/50 collaboration overall.
Hitchcock: Andy and I are from pounds, shillings and pence; from steam locomotives and trolleybuses, The Beano and Doctor Who; from the Beatles, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart. We probably write easily together because we have so many of the same records, books, films and TV shows stored up in our DNA.
Partridge: He'll fire out a stream-of-subconscious lyric and I might say, "Just change that line, and we've got it," or "Try that word or chord instead?" But he does the same to me. He'll take a spanner to my nonsense equally.
Hitchcock: We’ve had our careers, really, but we both like to keep busy; retirement breeds death.
Give me a line on Planet England that sums up the collaboration for you.
Partridge: "I love to back the losing team.” Robyn's fantastic line that nails the English psyche, where we worship the loser, and wish to emulate them, as we weren't born into the “success” of royalty. The concept of the “Victorian beehive” never went away. Look it up.
Hitchcock: “Carbon copy of mum and dad,” is one of Andy’s lines in “Got My…” which encapsulates the way we pass our shortcomings down through the generations. We’re dismal and we’re British!
Partridge: The writing was just around the kitchen table, the songs were plucked from the air. Such fat fruits, who knew they were hanging in the kitchen?