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Is XTC's Andy Partridge the most underrated songwriter of the past 50 years?

Andy Partridge of XTC makes a strong claim for being one of the most consistently overlooked songwriters of all time. In XTC, he soundtracked the modern human condition brilliantly, and his songs frequently touched upon politics, financial shortages, factory work, insects, comic books, war and religion. A creative visionary with a totally unique style, it is strange that he is often overlooked in favour of his new wave contemporaries.

In terms of songwriting, he went further than Squeeze ever did in soundtracking the neoliberal existence of modern Britain, touched on subjects equally as dark as Joy Division, and in many ways, set the precedent for a band he would end up having an ill-fated producing stint with, Blur.  

Dynamically, his songs were varied, making XTC one of the most consistently surprising bands of the ’70s and ’80s. Forward-thinking, and totally ahead of their time, XTC are a peculiar outfit. They seem to be a must-have amongst musicians of worth, a prerequisite for anyone wanting to create music that is in any way creative, but outside of that, his influence has crept into the realms of proxy, rather than his skill being acknowledged directly at the source.

Everyone from Danny Elfman to John Frusciante and even Keiichi Suzuki have named him as a key influence. Alongside some of his contemporaries such as Magazine and Sparks, Partridge was a key influence behind Red Hot Chili Peppers’ smash hit album, 2002’s By the Way.

As a guitar player, he’s also highly underrated. He has a busy, angular style, similar to the one that Graham Coxon would become known for over the course of the ’90s and beyond. “I have a very split background,” Partridge explained to Guitar Player in June 1992. “One half of me wanted to be in the Monkees and use the guitar as a fishing rod to get girls out of the water.”

The other half of his songwriting and guitar playing was influenced by the likes of Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart and John McLaughlin. In that same interview, he explained: “It split me pretty badly, because I was trying to learn from the pop technicians – the Jimi Hendrixes, the Jimmy Pages, the Rory Gallaghers – mixed in suddenly with this enormous dollop of melodic jazz scribbling. XTC came out of that, eventually.”

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This internal juxtaposition is what characterises Partridge’s songwriting. Thematically, he’s afraid of no subject, and musically he can blend the darker themes with sugary pop melodies and vice versa. With a penchant for writing an earworm, ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’ and ‘Senses Working Overtime’, are just two of his best-known tracks that show how versatile of a songwriter he is. Furthermore, ‘Dear God’ is one of the most cutting, and overlooked musical critiques of religion ever written.

In XTC, he penned some of the best albums of the ’80s. 1982’s English Settlement is a bonafide classic and 1986’s Todd Rundgren produced Skylarking is a masterpiece. It is perhaps the most consistently overlooked record of the ’80s, and it saw the band build on their more experimental edge. In terms of standing in XTC’s back catalogue, think what The Colour of Spring was to Talk Talk, which just so happened to be released that same year.

There must have been something in the air. Reflecting his terribly British, sardonic lyrics, the couplet from ‘Season Cycle’ is one of his best: “Everybody says, Join our religion, get to heaven / I say, no thanks, why bless my soul, I’m already there!”

So, perhaps we can all agree that, aside from Mark Hollis, Andy Partridge is the most underrated British songwriter of the last 50 years. Interesting, fluid and with a knack for melody, you don’t really get songwriters such as him anymore. He’s very much the songwriter of the pre-internet era, and many of his songs are time capsules to when life was simpler, but nonetheless shit. 

British art-rock started with him, and it’s about time the mainstream paid him more respect. Next time you’re watching an angular and sardonic band, remember that they would be nowhere without the likes of Partridge and Jarvis Cocker, and are a terrible inverted pastiche of something that holds so much density.

Listen to Skylarking below.