Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mensas Working Overtime

If you don't know the story, it goes like this.

1986, Todd Rundgren is hired to produce XTC. As my old bass player at the time put it, "God is producing God."

1987, "Skylarking" is released and most everyone really loves it, especially the inadvertent hit, "Dear God." Suddenly, people care about XTC again. Thanks, Todd.

The exact time frame is unclear to me, but over the next three years, we find out that Andy Partridge hates "Skylarking" and hates Todd Rundgren even more, or at least the experience he had recording the record. (Unclear how Colin and Dave felt about it, but I do recall Dave Gregory being thrilled about the prospect of Todd producing and telling Andy and Colin to just let it happen.)

1992, XTC release "Nonsuch" and in initial pressings of the CD, Andy writes a small blurb about all of the XTC records up until that point. It seems he has come around to "Skylarking," admitting Rundgren did a fantastic job.

Okay, that should be it. Now, unless I missed something in the last 25 years, I don't recall Rundgren saying much else about the feud. I don't think the same could be said about AP, who recently released a book called "Complicated Game," and in the chapter about "Skylarking," refers to Todd as "Herr Rundgren," among other things.

It seems unlikely that Rundgren read the book and immediately booked the spot on Marc Maron's WTF podcast to specifically tear Andy Partridge a new one. (Links to the Podcast are in the chat box.) As a matter of fact, the pull quotes of Todd calling Andy a "pussy" and a "prick" need to be heard in context. Neither sound as mean-spirited during the show, where Rundgren repeatedly mentions being a fan.

As a lifelong fan of both parties, I will not defend either. I am the first one to call Todd Rundgren a prick when appropriate, and quite frankly, Andy Partridge, like Rundgren, doesn't ever seem to be happy with anyone. But listening to Rundgren speak about Partridge on the podcast, I wonder if just maybe his account is more accurate than Andy's. His points seem plausible and while Rundgren does have a history in the studio, known to crack the whip and not take any bullshit, I don't think anyone can complain about the finished product. Of course, not everyone agrees that Rundgren is a great producer or that "Skylarking" is XTC's best album, but neither the producer nor the record sucks.

It seems like Andy Partridge had his feelings hurt in 1987 and has not gotten over it. His relentless Tweeting on the subject caused my iPhone to smoke. It was an epic session of picking nits, if you ask me. And Rundgren, who has gotten over it, really just wants credit where credit is due. At least that's my take. Of course, I've been wrong before.

What the fuck happened in that studio in 1986? Jeezaloooo!


William Repsher said...

Well, trying to listen to the podcast, but I'm 15 minutes in and it's been nothing but Maron reading ads! I guess this is how you make money podcasting.

But I'm assuming Todd will be his usual thorny self. In this scenario? I'd take his side in a heartbeat. XTC is one of those bands I never fully warmed up to (while certainly grasping flashes of greatness along the way). Simply stated, Andy Partridge reminded me too much of the twerpy power-pop guys I've known who spent a lot of time singing sweetly about love and girlfriends while being anywhere from passive aggressive to flat-out nasty in their personal dealings. I have no idea if Partridge is like that in real life ... but I get the vibe.

"Dear God" hit me the wrong way; it felt sophomoric. It sounded like a nasty, insecure kid lashing out at a parent, which I suspect is why it was a hit as so many kids identified with the emotion. Of course, it was a great-sounding pop song, too! But I tend to find Partridge precious as a lyricist, going back to "Generals and Majors" ... written by a guy who collects and plays with toy soldiers. Sorry, that sort of stuff just hits me the wrong way. It's my distrust of Partridge that distances me from most of XTC's music. I don't know why as I distrust so many artists and can divorce their assholicness from their music. But in his case, it bothers me.

I'm not sure why Rundgren gets such a bad rap. He's smart, talented, and if you put him in charge, he'll be in charge. I suspect if you challenge him, he'll hear you out, but you're going to have to rise to his level.

Just listening to him now talking about Bowie ... and he's dead on! There's one thing we should all appreciate about Rundgren: listen to the dozens of albums he's produced for other artists. How many of them sound "the same"? Or have his "production style" like, say, Daniel Lanois would? Not one. That's someone who knows how to work with artists to bring out their essence. Translate that quality into other facets of life, and that's someone who's about as far away as any definition of "asshole" as you can get.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Colin Moulding would be a good one to ask.

I think Todd undermined Andy's authority in the band. Andy is thin skinned. At least he recognizes "Skylarking" for what it is. XTC's finest moment.
I got the first pressing without "Dear God", so I prefer the original sequence.

Sal Nunziato said...

Todd has said time and time again, when he goes into the studio with a band, it's time to record, not rehearse. That work ethic may not be for all, especially the thin-skinned, or a wavering sort like Andy Partridge.

Anything Should Happen said...

Great article Sal. My thoughts entirely. As I've said before, both can be as bad as each other, but it does appear that one mentions it a lot and one mentions it little. Just celebrate Skylarking. It's also interesting that Colin will not tolerate Andy now and Dave's leaving left a lot to be desired. It can't be everybody else.

Still love both of 'em though.

Noam Sane said...

There's a great book called "A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In the Studio," that covers this recording/production, if I recall correctly much of it straight from Rundgren's mouth. It's a fun subject, and obviously a great, great record. It's a regular first-nice-day-of-spring listen for me.

Andy's a weird dude, as many geniuses are. As Todd once wrote, "seems like people worship pain."

Looking forward to hearing this podcast.

Dermot Meehan said...

Don't really have a dog in this fight, but AP has been talking about it on twitter. See for yourselves -

Shriner said...

I would tend to go with the artist more than the producer in cases like this. The songs were strong. The production was strong.

But the truth of the matter (to my ears) is that the "corrected polarity" version of Skylarking *does* have a lot more punch in the bass -- so AP is right on that that TR messed up (or whomever engineered it) messed up. A song like "Grass" sounds so much better on the fixed version than the original release version.

Besides, we should be talking about "English Settlement" -- that's the *best* XTC album, bar none! ;-)

And, personally, I can not wait to hear that new Monkees album to get some new AP pop songs!

Sal Nunziato said...

Shriner, I agree. The "new" version of the record does have more bottom and now, my $% RPM vinyl is my go-to version when I listen. But the point is, for 30 years, no one cared. No one said, "Skylarking is an okay record but needs more bass." The album had become a modern classic and the polarity issue only came up a few years ago. I didn't know. Did anyone?

Anything Should Happen said...

Not Me. I always thought the sound was done purposely as a 60's Pop sort of thing, which is what the album was aiming at. I never complained once about the sound. In fact after my first listen to Oranges And Lemons, I thought wow what an album, but it's a bit loud and over produced.

BTW Oranges And Lemons remains the true XTC gem, but who cares.

@whut said...

That interview could have gone on for longer. When Todd started talkin bout the Hall&Oates timeline, Marc cut it short. Maron is usually good on circling back, but there are just too many avenues for Todd to comment on and so many of the interesting detours got cut off.

The story of how they marketed "We Gotta Get You a Woman" would have made a nice complement to the Bat Out Of Hell marketing story.

Or even the exploration of the whole online internet experience, where Todd if anything got on the bandwagon way too early. Yes, there is always too early, as timing is everything.

But there are always a lot of coulda shoulda's in these interviews.

Anonymous said...

"What the fuck happened in that studio in 1986?"

I wouldn't say that I don't care, because I like a good musical backstory as much as the next guy, and I really love reading about music and musicians. But mostly I'm just grateful they toughed it out, and that we get to enjoy the fruit of their infamously tense labors for all eternity.

I'm in the "Skylarking is tops" camp, and I think the corrected polarity version sounds MUCH better than the original release. After all that sparring, to end up with that lousy-sounding version certainly must have contributed to AP's bitterness and longrunning anti-Todd feelings. After all, it took decades for someone to find and fix the problem with the sound.

I love "Settlement" and "Oranges" too but to me, part of the reason Skylarking is so wonderful is that it is more easily digested than the other two. I think the topic of "the longer running time of CD's led to some overly-long albums" is one that has been discussed here before. More isn't always better.

Sal, it might be interesting to list some albums with long running times in a future post, and see which songs BW readers would have left for the out-takes reel. My guess? We'll disagree... but its food/fodder for thought.

Back to the topic at hand... sometimes great, great art can arise from acrimony. Skylarking is that for me... a tremendously satisfying listening experience.

Thanks XTC, and thanks Todd.


Sal Nunziato said...

JB, as I mentioned earlier, responding to Shriner, in 30 years I don't ever recall anyone ever criticizing "Skylarking" for its sound. It was an instant classic and remains so, even now. I'd bet the majority of the people who bought it, don't even realize there is a corrected polarity version. Seems more like it took 30 years for AP to find a reason to start in with Todd again, like getting Capone for tax evasion.

I do like your idea! Burning Wood Readers Edit The Classics!!

Shriner said...

If you believe the comments from when the corrected polarity version was announced, a common quote was "The band themselves always had a nagging doubt that the album sounded a little too thin and bass light, not like they remembered it sounding from the recording process."

Which -- considering how much Colin's bass playing is part of XTC -- I noticed about that album the first time I heard it. An argument could certainly be made that everybody thought it was supposed to sound that way.

Sal Nunziato said...

To be clear, Shriner, I really like the way new version sounds. I'm simply making a point as to what seems like a really convenient issue to go at it with Todd again. I just want to know why they didn't "correct the polarity" in 1994, or 2002, or whenever. No one cared, at least not in public.

Anonymous said...

I love it - get's us all talking about music again. Too bad TR didn't weigh in on XTC vs Adam Ant. Two geniuses with huge egos, a classic album - of course there is a backstory. I'm glad there is. Love XTC and felt TR's production was phenomenal. A previous comment was spot on re his value as a producer.

Keep up the great work!

- Andy

Signtopia said...

True Todd fans should be able to tell you that up until maybe No World Order and his albums that followed, all of his records were rather thin in regards to bass. The same goes for all of his productions of others. Personally, I believe that it is a part of what makes the Todd sound the Todd sound. It is as much a part of the Todd sound as his usage of the "Todd chords". Therefore, often when Todd produces others, critics comment that it "sounds" like a Rundgren record. I once read that Todd had invited another well known musician friend to his apartment afte he had just finished Something/Amything for a preview. The friend sat down and Todd proceeded to playback the completed work on what was a cheap lousy piece of equipment. The friend asked "why" and Todd told him that this was how MOST people would be hearing it. Of course sound quality is much better these days and more affordable for the masses. Apparently Todd never made a record just to tickle the ears of a few audiophiles. It would be interesting for an interviewer to actually ask him "why".

buzzbabyjesus said...

I've watched all of "Maron", but this is the first of his podcasts I've listened to.
They were both pretty harsh on Andy.
Interesting that Todd was a fan, but knew what was wrong with their records.
In the XTC book I read, Andy makes Todd sound like a bully.
He quotes Todd: (sarcastically) "Oh, you're going to play that?"
My favorite part was Todd explaining his relationship to songcraft and "deliverable product".

Sal Nunziato said...

"Interesting that Todd was a fan, but knew what was wrong with their records."

BBJ, we are both fans of Todd and we know what's wrong with his records.

Anonymous said...

I discussed this baffling war with a buddy of mine last night and he had a very wise theory.
He said "Andy Partridge was always the smartest, wittiest, snarkiest, most musically talented guy in the room. But with Rundgren in that same room, he met his match. He was faced with an even smarter guy and bigger musical genius, and he couldn't handle it."
I think I side with Todd on this. Andy Partridge had a falling out with Colin Moulding as well.
And the success of Dear God kind of ends the argument right there."

Imagine what would've happened if the album was an unlistenable flop?