|July 19, 1994 – the day I was introduced to the music of XTC – remains the most important day in my musical life. My older brother had given me a cassette tape for my birthday that year. Elvis Costello's “Spike” was on side A, and XTC's “Nonsuch” was on side B. I will always remember my brother telling me, “Check this song out!” and then playing “The Smartest Monkeys.” Then “My Bird Performs.” Then “The Disappointed.” I was hooked.
I wore that tape out that summer. Now, 12 years later, my XTC collection numbers more than 60 CDs (studio albums, authorized live performances, bootlegs, and two box sets); seven poorly-copied VHS tapes (in safekeeping in a box in the basement); an original “Nonsuch” poster (framed and hanging in my living room); two books about the band (Chalkhills and Children and Song Stories); and a handful of LPs, EPs, and promotional singles. The license plate on my old Volkswagen? “XTC.” The most I've ever spent for an XTC album? $60 for the bootleg “Nonsuch” demos, which I bought in May of 1997. The number of songs I have recorded for XTC tribute albums? Two: “Making Plans for Nigel” and “One of the Millions.” I've been a member of Chalkhills, the XTC e-mail list, for ten years. I've e-mailed former guitarist Dave Gregory, sent one of my own CDs to Andy Partridge, and had my songs played for Terry Chambers (thanks, Paul!). Through the XTC fan community, I have been introduced to the vast majority of the music that now makes up my collection of more than 1,200 CDs: Elvis Costello, Martin Newell, Jason Falkner, The Lilac Time, The Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, Talking Heads...the list goes on.
As a self-described XTC fanatic, I looked forward with great interest to Andy Partridge's “Fuzzy Warbles” collection. When he first announced the project a few years ago, XTC fans were ecstatic: here was our hero, about to release nine discs of demos, outtakes, alternate versions, and throwaways. We had high hopes for the entire project.
Individually, the “Fuzzy Warbles” discs served as interesting pieces of the puzzle, but they didn't really tell a complete story. Now, though, with all the albums released, “Fuzzy Warbles” suddenly comes together. This set paints a picture of a musician who, over almost 30 years, has crafted some of the finest pop music of the 20th century. XTC's proper albums – from the punk-influenced “Drums and Wires” to the orchestral/electric double-albums “Apple Venus: Volume One” and “Wasp Star” -- showcased a band that was years ahead of its time. “Fuzzy Warbles” shows us how they got there. Although I would love to have heard all of bass player Colin Moulding's contributions during this time period, the fact remains that Andy Partridge is the band's principal vocalist and songwriter, and it is his songs, sensibilities, and infamous perfectionism that have propelled the band forward throughout their career. The departures of Barry Andrews and Terry Chambers (in the late 1970's and early 1980's, respectively) and the introduction of Dave Gregory (in 1979) and his subsequent departure (in 1997) certainly changed the way the band did business. But Andy was, is, and will always be the boss.
And what a boss he is. There's not enough room to catalog the throwaway songs on “Fuzzy Warbles” that are better than most bands' best. I have lived with so many of these tunes on hissy Maxell cassettes for so many years that to finally hear the carnivalesque “Prince of Orange,” the catchy “Now We're All Dead,” and the haunting “Dame Fortune” on one pristine-sounding collection is almost too much to bear. (You may think that I'm overreacting; if you do, you don't know how rabid we XTC fans are.)
The memories that these songs conjure up are overwhelming, too. I can remember shoveling snow off our damned flat roof in the winter of 1995 while listening to “Bumpercars” and driving to college in my old Saab with “Young Cleopatra” (drum machines and all) cranked up until I thought my ears would bleed. This set is worthwhile even for a completist like me, for I didn't yet have a copy of Andy's fantastic “Song for Wes Long” (written for a fellow Chalkhillian), the melancholy “I Gave My Suitcase Away” (which would have fit perfectly on “Nonsuch” or “Oranges and Lemons”), or the strange “R.E.M. Producer Inquiry,” where Andy is interrupted in the midst of recording a vocal track by a phone call about producing an R.E.M. album. Everything is here, and not even the completist in me can think of any B-side, demo, or song sketch that has been left out (although I'm sure that Andy has enough for “Fuzzy Warbles” volumes 10-30).
I know it's been said before, but Andy Partridge is a musical genius -- a fucking musical genius, if I may be so bold as to say so. And even though it seems less and less likely each day that XTC will release a new album (it's been six years since their last), their catalog stands as one of the finest in popular music. Period. Some may give Andy the blame; some may give him the credit. I'm just grateful that, for the last twelve years, I have been lucky enough to go along for the ride.
I'm sure there's no way that Andy will actually read this review, but in case he does, I have a message from all of us: thank you, my friend. Thank you so very much. Your music means so much to so many people.
Keep on playing.