XTC’s discography is marked by a depressing seven-year gap between Nonsuch, their final album for Virgin that came out in 1992, and the Apple Venus releases for XTC’s label IDEA (TVT in the U.S.) in 1999 and after. In 1997 Keith Phipps of the AV Club asked Andy Partridge why the band had been inactive for so long; with characteristic bluntness, Partridge replied,
Because we’ve been on strike. Because we had the shittiest record deal on planet earth. ... Although we made Virgin Records somewhere in the region of 35 million pounds profit, we were still in debt to them after 15 years on the label.
Eesh, that sucks. After parting ways, an audit conducted at Partridge’s behest revealed that Virgin had withheld substantial royalty payments from the band.
One episode from late in XTC’s Virgin era that surely helped bring their relationship to an end was Partridge’s idea to concoct a fake bubblegum pop label called Zither and perform “excavated” songs in the bubblegum pop idiom. Leave it to the guys who came up with the psych rock tribute band the Dukes of Stratosphear to come up with a notion like this.
In 1998 Karen O’Brien of The Independent on Sunday described the project thus:
Partridge had presented a new project, songs he had written as homage to the bubblegum-pop bands of the late Sixties to early Seventies. He felt the idea was blissfully simple: “I wanted Virgin to say that they’d bought this entire back-catalogue from this [imaginary] label called Zither. They said, ‘So you go on Top of the Pops and play one of these songs?’ I said, ‘No, this is a fake historical document!’ So they said, ‘Okay, we get a young band and dress them up in early Seventies clothes?’ I said, ‘No, no!’ They just didn’t get it.” Cue much shaking of pony-tailed heads.
One can only imagine the reaction of the Virgin execs (even if they are rapacious thieves) upon hearing that XTC would refuse to go on TOTP to support the Zither project. Actually we don’t have work so hard to imagine it because Partridge has already filled in the blanks in the March 1999 issue of MOJO:
“Nicely banal, pitched around 1970, a dozen tracks about sex—Lolly Let’s Suck It And See, Bubbleland, My Red Aeroplane—all in bubblegum form. I played them the demos and it was like the scene from The Producers where they hear Springtime for Hitler. Open jaws. I was virtually offering them this thing for free and they couldn’t grasp it. It was just one more drop in the Virgin pisspot which was really overflowing by now.”
To be clear about this, Partridge doesn’t say it in so many words but it seems clear that the Zither project was intended to be one degree more radical than the Stratosphear side project. Rather than make up a band that had been rediscovered and play songs by that band, Partridge was proposing to make up a label and play songs by many of its acts!
As proof, check out this list of proposed band names connected to the Zither project that has circulated online—Partridge’s fecundity is quite impressive here:
The Lemon Dukes
Knights in Shining Karma
The Captain Cooks
The Ten Commandos
The Twelve Flavours of Hercules
The Barbers of Penzance
The Brighton Peers
The Herbert Fountains
The Four Posters
The Periwig Pack
Funnel Of Love
The Rubber Ducks
The Piccadilly Circus Tent Rip Repair Company
Isambard Kingdom Necessary On A Bicycle?
In 1997 Partridge enthused to Joe Silva of Consumable Online about his love of bubblegum pop:
Partridge: I think everybody in whatever chosen artform-musician or a writer or a film maker, everyone has at least two faces. Why not get joy out of at least a dozen? So those are all musical styles I feel completely at ease working with. There are a lot that I haven’t got into that I would feel completely at ease working with. Bubblegum music, I think I have a huge debt to bubblegum music.
Silva: Could you name an artist, like just off the top of your head?
Partridge: Oh. just all things like a band named the Equals in England. I don’t know if you ever got to hear them. They were originally two white guys and three black guys and the one black fellow that stood in the middle painted half his body white so there were two and a half of each color in the band. They played these really banal, kind of giddy and exciting youth club kind of things. They had some really huge hits in England but I guess they didn’t come over the Atlantic. They were like bubblegum ska. They were very direct. As soon as you put an Equals record, there was an instant party. People like the Equals.. Oh, who was who did that “Yummy Yummy”? The Ohio Express? Lemon Pipers, although they were sort of at the psychedelic end of bubble gum. “Mellow Yellow” meets a Quick Joey Small or “Mony Mony” meets almost anything by the early Troggs. You know, it transcends or descends below all expectations and thus it comes out in another dimension somewhere. It goes faster than the speed of light ale and bursts through into the banal zone. I have a huge debt to bubblegum music. I love it.
Some of these tracks actually got recorded. In 1994 “Candymine” was released as part of Partridge’s contribution to John Flansburgh’s Hello Recording Club project. Here’s a taste of the lyrics:
Candymine, candymine, tunnelling to honey for a girl so fine
Finish every evening when the clock strikes five
Home to my queen bee and our private hive
Digging for her sweet love and I can’t waste time
Working down that candymine
The song richly lives up to Partridge’s description—“nicely banal, pitched around 1970, about sex.” As Tom Ewing pointed out, “Partridge easily recaptures the lunatic blatancy of knock-offs like ‘Captain Groovy And His Bubblegum Army,’ with a dreadful Mid-Atlantic accent, ample nonsensical yelling, and vast thuggish hooks. And of course, in the finest tradition of XTC past, it’s all about genitals.”
Meanwhile, in the same year (1994) “Cherry in Your Tree” made it onto the children’s album Carmen Sandiego Out of This World. Both songs were included on Vol. 7 of Fuzzy Warbles, Partridge’s demo archive project of about a decade ago. “Standing In For Joe” appears on Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 but it only glancingly sounds like bubblegum pop—and its vocal line has reminded a great many listeners of “Barrytown” by Steely Dan.
Me, I’m still waiting for Partridge to record “Lolly Let’s Suck It and See”.........
“Cherry in Your Tree”:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Brilliant fold-out ‘chutes and ladders’ cover for XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ single
Post-punk parody: UK children’s show lampoons XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel,’ 1979