Partridge is the very definition of affable, a chatterbox with a wicked sense of humor -- equal parts erudite and ribald -- and charmingly clever. One minute he'll be telling Paul McCartney-Heather Mills jokes or talking about Walt Disney's (supposedly) cryogenically frozen head, and the next he'll speak with authority on the Fleischer Brothers' 1940s Superman cartoons or imitate the lothario French cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew.
But it's interesting that Partridge uses the term "blunder" to describe his motivations, since that's hardly the adjective that conjures XTC's meticulously orchestrated albums -- from the calculated lushness of the Beach Boys-esque Skylarking and political new wave of Black Sea, to the taut post-punk mania of Drums and Wires and the complex instrumentation of Apple Venus, Volume 1.
Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, Partridge's latest endeavor, is even more ambitious: a lavish compendium of eight previously released volumes of outtakes, demos, rarities and half-formed thoughts. (A bonus disc, Hinges, is worth it for the jaunty soundtrack rarity "Happy Families.") It's a must for XTC completists and those obsessed with found sounds. For every nearly fully formed single ("Chalkhills and Children," "Earn Enough for Us") or beatific discovery (the watery folk strum "Mermaid Smiled"), there's plenty of silliness (a one-minute skiffle version of "Dear God"), lost gems (the disco-silly "I Defy You Gravity") and glimmers of beauty (Partridge's lovely instrumental snippets for the late TV show Wonderfalls).
In contrast to most collections, though, Fuzzy's songs aren't arranged from earliest to most recent, so it's hard to tell what era each came from.
"People have said, 'Why didn't you do it chronologically?'" Partridge says. "And that's very easy: The reason I didn't do that [is] 'cause all the crap stuff would be at one end, and people would've thought, 'Oh, my God, what am I wading through all this primitive, badly recorded stuff for?'
"Constructing a listening experience is something I enjoy doing," he goes on. "It's like planning a meal: You have great openers, a little palate cleanser; you have spicy things followed by something a little bland so you can appreciate the spicy thing you've just had."
Partridge's insistence on sequencing and arranging reflects his perfectionist tendencies as much as it does his traditionalist, old-school bent. He laments the death of the vinyl gatefold and has tape recorders scattered around his house for immediate access when ideas strike. But Warbles is also a throwback to simpler times in other ways: It's lovingly modeled after a children's sticker book and comes decorated with ornate drawings, pictures of smiling children and a sheet of stickers.
"I love packaging! I'm a complete packaging slut!" Partridge exclaims. "I love it all. I lay there with my legs in the air, saying, 'Fill me with packaging!'" (There's that ribald British humor again.)
As he talks, his voice betrays an obvious grin. "I just love the stuff. As a kid, I actually cut out the mustache from Sgt. Pepper's, the sheet of stuff you were sort of supposed to cut out but nobody in the world did. But I did. I had the little picture of Sgt. Pepper by the side of my bed. I cut out the mustache, and I clipped it on and looked at myself in the mirror."
"We're much more appreciated in America than we were in England," he says. "In England, we were considered this joke group. That was rather tough for us."
Still suffering the effects of this today clearly frustrates Partridge, but it's something he's unfortunately gotten used to (if not resigned to) after more than thirty years making music in the spotlight. And while it's more than a little criminal that he gets no respect for his deft lyrics, crisp melodies and dazzling wit, he does have his music, his guitars, his racing mind -- and, perhaps most important, balance.
"I'm not rich, but I'm occasionally happy, and I think that's the best you can hope for," he says. "I think anyone who's happy all the time just needs locking up. People will say, 'Oh, I'm always happy!' No you're not! You must be insane if you're always happy!
I admit I have only heard some of the Fuzzy Warbles stuff--well, there's a lot of it. Now that my life is settling down somewhat, it's something I mean to catch up on.
Tinnutus and broken tendons--ouch. But how can you not love this guy? It sounds like he's creative and happy, and that's all that really matters.
(Look for more on The Shebeats later in this space.)
And just because I can: