FOR XTC’s Andy Partridge, the Monkees were childhood heroes. He even won a competition in Monkees Monthly for his caricature of Micky Dolenz. A dream came true in 2016 when he wrote for the band’s 50th-anniversary comeback album Good Times! His song You Bring the Summer was one of that record’s highlights – as was the bonus track Love’s What I Want. Two years later, he proves he can do winter just as well as summer with Unwrap You at Christmas, the lead single from the newly released Christmas Party.
Mark Fisher, editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls, pulls out the crackers, pours a sherry and asks Andy some festive questions.
Our new single “Unwrap You at Christmas” is now available on #Spotify…written for us by the great Andy Partridge of XTC!https://t.co/ipnUDN1VWo pic.twitter.com/MhHeNddeKZ
— Micky Dolenz (@TheMickyDolenz1) 9 October 2018
When I was down in Swindon 18 months ago you played me your demo of Unwrap You at Christmas and I thought it sounded fantastic. Now I’ve been listening to the finished version, it’s like one of those songs you think you’ve always known.
Andy: It’s a very old-fashioned chord change and the melody is very old-fashioned. That was intentional. Christmas is not a time for the avant garde. Christmas is old-timey and ancient. It’s older than Christmas – it’s Yule and it’s farther back than Yule, no doubt. So if I get asked, “Could you write a Christmas song for a potential Christmas album?” by somebody as big in my make-up as the Monkees, well, I wrote seven songs! Or, actually, I wrote six songs and I already had Unwrap You. It was lovely to be asked and, lo and behold, my song is not only the lead track but they’re going to make it a single, so you might be getting sick of it on Radio 2…
Well, you’ve written it in a way that’s designed to be played over and over again in supermarkets around the world for ever.
Andy: I actually wrote it as an exercise. I was trying to make a Phil Spector kind of Christmas thing, something from the late 50s/early 60s. I wrote it for a female voice, which is why Holly sings it on my demo. They had to change the key for the Monkees because Micky doesn’t sing up there any more.
Given your history of writing for XTC, was it painful to go as square as you did?
Andy: No, because I love square music. I love out-there music, I love square music, I love all the stuff in the middle. I have no worries and, certainly at this age, I have zero musical ghettos. I can listen to Doris Day and really enjoy it. I can listen to Sun Ra and really enjoy it. I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no such thing as bad music.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that when you wrote This Is Pop, you weren’t joking, you were serious and you’ve been loyal to that.
Andy: Yes. For me, it’s either popular with you or it’s not. That’s what the nature of music is. It’s your personal taste. If you like it, you like it and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but you might come round to it. If you like it now, you might not like it in 20 years’ time.
But you can’t go out of your way to write a bland song. You’ve still got to make it interesting in some way.
Andy: If you’re writing in a style, it’s like impersonating somebody. The Dukes have done that. With the Dukes it was, “OK, I’ve got to write X amount of songs that could sound like they’re mostly British bands from 1967, maybe a bit of 1968 thrown in, and it’s got to have that kind of feel to it, those kind of chords and that subject matter.” Unwrap You at Christmas is not a million miles away from Thanks for Christmas, which is pretty square as well. But I don’t think of Christmas as being free-form jazz or noise thrash. Christmas is a cosy, old-fashioned sensation – and visions of Noddy Holder burning in an open fire.
There have been so many Christmas songs written (you wrote seven of them just for this) and I remember thinking, “Has nobody ever come up with that title before?” To come up with a new take on Christmas must be difficult.
Andy: Because I was quite heavily involved in getting a remix of Unwrap You for the single to armour it a bit more for the arena, I thought to myself, “Is unwrapping you at Christmas so unique a concept?” I intended it to be a little bit saucy as well: “What – he’s unwrapping her or she’s unwrapping him under the tree? Phwoar!” I went and had a trawl around, which I should have done before I wrote the song, and it was one of those cheesy, ghetto-y boy bands [New Kids on the Block’s Unwrap You, released in 2017, after Andy had written his song.] I’ve not heard it – I can imagine what it’s like.
But it’s surprising that there are not 50 songs with that title. There have been so many billions of Christmas songs written and only a very small area to write about.
Andy: Exactly. Most people don’t go far back. They stop at Christmas. They don’t go back to the pagan Yule thing, which I’d love to do – something Wicker Man-esque.
What happened to the other six songs?
Andy: I sent them all over, including one called Santa Claus Says Can He Borrow the Monkeemobile. I thought, “No, this is the joke one. I won’t even finish the demo.” I just wrote the verse and chorus and said, “This is kind of a gag, but if you think it could work, I’ll finish it off.” And they didn’t go for the gag!
How different was the Monkees’ version of Unwrap You at Christmas from your demo?
Andy: My demo was more Spector-esque. It has upright bass on it, lots of reverb, which was Spector’s thing and the drums weren’t so rocky, they were more subtle. Where the middle “solo” section is, I had a baritone sax playing a figure that followed the chords around. I thought, “This is cheesy – what’s cheesy is a key change.” I disguised the key change with this baritone sax. But apart from changing the key to Micky’s voice, they’ve pretty much kept the shape of it identical. It’s a tight song. It’s not, “We’re going to groove here for 16 bars.” It’s a no-spare-flesh song with no room for padding.
Back after 25 years, the classic 1980s fanzine about XTC is on sale again. The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls is a 256-page edition of Limelight, featuring the original copies published between 1982 and 1992 plus new material, including interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers.
“The most comprehensive and incisive book about XTC yet published” Dom Lawson, Prog Magazine.
“A delicious thing to dive in and out of” Iain Lee, Talk Radio.
“Music publication of the year” Dave Jennings, Louder than War