Funk Pop a Roll
“XTC is at once smart, silly, pastoral, urban, sacred, profane, carnal, ascetic, angry, forgiving, deliriously happy, exquisitely melancholy, capable of mystical insight and silly sex jokes—often within one song. This is why they unfold as they do: The experience of their music is complex, layered, chewy, subtle, textured.”
—Harrison Sherwood, A Coat of Many Cupboards booklet essay
I’ve already regaled the PopMatters audience with my personal tale of being a slavish fanboy of the pop/rock band XTC in my review of their last album, Wasp Star. I’ll spare you all the experience of hearing me repeat myself and just say that I was completely ecstatic when I heard that Virgin was finally giving XTC its due in box set form. When the set finally hit the shores stateside, I raced down to the Virgin Megastore to purchase my copy post haste, noting the laughable irony of the situation.
You see, Virgin Records is, in many ways, responsible for the general public’s ignorance of what is arguably one of the greatest pop bands of the late twentieth century. Andy Partridge’s decision to stop touring altogether and make XTC a studio-only band certainly didn’t help matters. In part due to the label’s reaction to Partridge’s grounding, and in part due to the label’s inability to see beyond the Top 40 charts as a measure of success, Virgin never really gave XTC much support. In fact, the band was tied to one of those nightmare record contracts that rival the worst stories of industry greed and manipulation. It took a seven year strike with the label, between 1992 and 1998, before XTC was finally released from the contract and was able to record music again. So it’s not without irony that, now that the band has gained its freedom, Virgin has finally decided to cash in some of the chips it held from its fifteen year relationship with XTC.
XTC was one of the original bands to come out of the punk explosion in 1977. Always slightly at odds with the music of their contemporaries, XTC featured more songs about comic books and sci-fi futurism than it did about political rebellion. However, as the furor of punk began to cool, XTC began to truly come into its own. Bolstered by the increasing complexity of the songwriting talents of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC began to emerge as a band that married rock to power pop with sublime results. By 1982’s English Settlement album, featuring the college hit “Senses Working Overtime”, the band was surrounding itself with classic pop arrangements and favoring a pastoral feel that reflected the band’s ties to it’s rural English origins.
In a different world, XTC would be as famous as the Police or U2 as one of the premier acts of the 1980s to take an adult attitude towards modern rock and make it an intelligent medium that could express political strife, the range of human emotion, and the transcendental power of music. Unfortunately, at the very moment of its breakthrough, XTC’s claim to rock’s throne collapsed, quite literally in the form of Andy Partridge’s much-discussed stage fright/emotional breakdown. During the US leg of their English Settlement tour, Partridge had an on-stage breakdown, forcing the cancellation of the show and the rest of the tour. Citing exhaustion and nerves as the cause, XTC’s live component ended abruptly as Partridge refused to take the stage ever again. Years later, Partridge would be able to look back on that step as a defining moment, a point at which he could concentrate on making gorgeous studio albums without the threat of taxing touring schedules and a near-constant act of making oneself a public spectacle hanging over his head. Allowing himself to regain some privacy and normalcy in his life did wonders for Partridge’s future as a person and as a songwriter, but at the time it seemed like the kiss of death for XTC.
Virgin’s reluctance to embrace XTC as the Steely Dan of modern rock was, from a business perspective, understandable. The band had never been as successful as a record label would hope, scoring only one major hit in “Making Plans for Nigel” and having their best chart performance for an album in Black Sea. In addition, not only are tours the most visible means of supporting an album’s sales, they are profitable in themselves. A still relatively unknown studio band was hardly the cash cow that the music industry desired.
To their credit, XTC prevailed. Rebounding with the understated Mummer, Partridge and crew proved that spending more time with the craft and less time on the road would be fruitful. Although possessing nothing that would possibly pass as a single, Mummer marked the band’s immersion into pure musicality. Already renowned for their songcraft, XTC emerged on the other side of “The Collapse” as a musical powerhouse. Although never fully resolved, Partridge also tied up the loose ends of his misgivings about the music industry in Mummer‘s powerful “Funk, Pop a Roll”. That catharsis achieved, XTC began to turn out some of the best and most influential albums of the 1980s.
In 1987, XTC achieved near perfection with their album Skylarking. With the help of producer Todd Rundgren, Skylarking featured XTC in their newest incarnation as pure pop musicians. Rundgren’s influence gave the disc the continuity of a concept album, chronicling the life of a man from youth to maturity to old age to death, and back again with a final triumphant rebirth. As beautifully cyclical as the album was, it was primarily noted by the public as the disc that contained the controversial college hit, “Dear God”. Although now merely a footnote in music history, the video for “Dear God” won Billboard‘s Best Video award for 1987, was nominated for three MTV video awards, and helped propel the song to #15 on Billboard‘s Rock Tracks chart. The song’s anger towards God and religion prompted fundamentalist groups to issue threats of firebombing of radio stations in the US, giving the song an infamy that only helped spread its visibility. Following Skylarking with the glorious musical romps of Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch, XTC firmly established their cult fan base, holding top positions on the college album charts for weeks at a time and cementing their reputation as top-caliber musicians.
Then came the strike. Although the refusal to tour and the difficulty XTC had in achieving higher than cult status may seem like justifiable reasons for a label’s cold shoulder, the problems that XTC had with Virgin are a longer and more complex story than that. Through the abuse of a series of managers, the indifference of the label even prior to Partridge’s anti-live pronouncement, and a general unwillingness to provide much in the way of promotion, XTC wound up with one of the worst recording contracts in history. After fifteen years and earning Virgin a figure that Partridge quotes as somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 million pounds, XTC were still in the red. Not only were they broke (Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory actually worked as rental car collectors for Hertz to make extra cash), but they actually owed their own record label for studio and production costs. Despite stipends and certain royalties, collectively XTC had never turned a profit due to mismanagement, graft, and a certain greedy label. The full story is too long to be reprinted here, but can be found in Chris Twomey’s XTC: Chalkhills and Children, which has been updated for a reprint later this summer.
In a response that makes Prince or George Michael’s record label trials seem trivial, XTC simply refused to continue recording, even while they continued to earn little to nothing from prior royalties. While they continued to write and collect songs for future use, Partridge, Moulding and Gregory demanded to be released from their contract on penalty of giving Virgin no further music to satisfy the niche XTC market. Big business, as it is wont to do, tried not to budge and held out for the better part of the 1990s. This effectively pushed XTC further off the musical map, as obscure bands rely heavily on the flow of product to remain viable. Finally, after nearly seven years of forced hiatus, Virgin released XTC, who promptly went about shopping for a new label, resulting in the brilliant Apple Venus: Volume 1 and Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2 albums of 1999 and 2000 respectively.
Despite the fact that XTC are primarily known for minor successes with singles like “Mayor of Simpleton” and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”, and are most famous for “Dear God”, critics and fans alike have known for a number of years that the body of the XTC opus is among the most clever, inventive and infectious rock and pop ever recorded. Among musicians of a particular pop bent, XTC may be the most famous obscure band in existence. The rabid fans collect everything from memorabilia to live bootlegs to carefully released home demo recordings. The very lack of some kind of commemorative box set for a band with such a vast oeuvre seemed ridiculous.
In some sense this void was filled by what must be acknowledged as the first XTC box set, Transistor Blast, released in late 1998 on TVT, a collection of the band’s BBC recordings, including a full live concert that had been previously released as XTC Live in Concert 1980. While Transistor Blast was a must for collectors and presented a trove of rarities to explore, it wasn’t quite the full retrospective that the band deserved. Now, with A Coat of Many Cupboards, casual fans and collectors alike have a splendid look at XTC (the Virgin Years) that captures a little bit of everything about the band in one brilliant package.
A Coat of Many Cupboards could be labeled a book set rather than a box set, as it’s presented in hardback book form rather than a true box. Designer Andrew Swainson’s muted greytone drawing of a man’s suit jacket with various doors built into it is appropriately Lewis Carroll-like for XTC, and the repeated “doors” that serve as cover flaps for the actual discs are a lovely touch. Then there’s the book insert. Sewn into the spine of the set, it’s an 80-page affair lavishly illustrated with photos of the band from different periods of their career, descriptions of each track written by Partridge, Moulding, and even Barry Andrews in a similar style to Neville Farmer’s book,XTC: Song Stories, and a sweeping, beautifully written essay by Harrison Sherwood.
Reading through Sherwood’s essay will bring back all the feelings that fans have harbored over the years for XTC. Sherwood writes as someone in the fan’s position, someone who understands that XTC inspires in a select few the kind of zeal and dedication that borders on obsession. Yet he’s also an accomplished historian of music, delving into the history of the band as it intersects with the history of rock music itself, digging up parallels and connections where they might otherwise have been missed, and presenting the best case for XTC’s greatness I’ve yet read. Sherwood masterfully blends the fan, the critic, the historian, and the musician in such an easy manner that his essay should be required reading for neophytes just introduced to the XTC fold.
However, it’s the music itself that is the real reason for purchasing any collection, and A Coat of Many Cupboards doesn’t disappoint. With ten proper albums and various singles and collections under XTC’s belt while tenured with Virgin, it would have been impossible, or at least cost-prohibitive, for a band without much commercial success to have released the entire catalog in one collection as well as include rarities. Instead of going overboard, or conversely focusing on the infinitely obtuse, XTC and Virgin wisely walk both lines. The four discs in this collection move chronologically through XTC’s career, from pre-White Music material on up to Nonsuch recordings made before XTC’s strike began.
Disc One covers their earliest, twitchy-punk years from pre-White Music on up through bits of Drums and Wires, while disc Two explores the time following the success of “Making Plans for Nigel” with more Drums and Wires material, through the rock of Black Sea and English Settlement. Disc Three moves in the pastoral vein from English Settlement through Mummer, The Big Express and into tracks from Skylarking. Disc Four begins with two tracks culled from the Dukes of Stratosphear project, and includes further takes from the Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch sessions, highlighting the band’s psychedelic and pure pop blend. The songs included are a mixture of demos, live recordings, and album cuts, freely interspersed with one another as the discs take the listener on a tour of XTC’s career from adolescence to maturity.
In fact, that’s the most striking thing about A Coat of Many Cupboards. Those of us who have followed the band for years are aware that they’ve got as many periods as Picasso, but hearing the steady progression in this format is almost like watching a fast-forward home movie. The personal connection that so many fans have made to the band is maintained even as we watch them grow in a time-lapse historical perspective. You can hear the nervous, hyperkinetic energy that made the band so initially attractive. You can hear the emergence of the full guitar sound as Dave Gregory replaced Barry Andrews. The shift to the pastoral made during the Mummer and The Big Express years sounds like a daisy head opening. The reconciliation of XTC’s psychedelic influences come in like a burst of sunshine in the Dukes of Stratosphear, Skylarking, and Oranges and Lemons tracks. By the time the collection closes out with music from Nonsuch, you’ve experienced the evolution of a group of kids infected with the spirit of rock in the 1970s into a fully-realized band of practically incomparable musical craftsmanship.
As the song selections go, A Coat of Many Cupboards is a mixed bag. Many of the songs on the first two discs are notable as live or outtake versions of the original album cuts. Songs like “This Is Pop”, “Making Plans for Nigel”, “Helicopter”, “Towers of London” and “Senses Working Overtime” are included here only in their rough draft form, giving the fan a sense of how these songs evolved into the polished final cuts. Discs three and four contain various demo recordings instead of studio outtakes, neatly coinciding with XTC’s removal from the live arena. Once they’d removed themselves from touring schedules, Partridge and Moulding found themselves cooking up songs in home studios, and the alternate versions offered on these two discs reflect that change. The discs also each contain various songs that were passed over in the different recording sessions, never making it to actual album pressing. Songs such as “Let’s Have Fun” and “Us Being Us” may exhibit a youthful naivety, but rough cuts of “Let’s Make a Den”, “Terrorism”, “The Troubles” and “Didn’t Hurt a Bit” reveal that even in the rejected tracks XTC produces songs that other bands would kill for. Die-hard fans may already have bootlegs of these tracks, but having the mixed and mastered digital updates will be worth it for any true believer.
For those of us who are wistful of the past when XTC still played live and dream of seeing our heroes perform songs we know by heart, the live tracks here are essential, even if they tug at the heartstrings a little. If you only know XTC as “Dear God” or even “Senses Working Overtime”, it might seem like a mistake that The Book of Rock Lists (1981 edition) once listed XTC as one of the world’s Top 20 Loudest Bands. But one listen to the back to back live recordings of “Paper and Iron” and “Crowded Room” here will quell any doubts. They may have had more in common with Talking Heads than the Sex Pistols, but they were definitely punk once upon a time. Sherwood’s essay supports Partridge’s position on the whole touring issue, warning readers that any desire to see the band perform now misses the point. Although Partridge’s claim that to haul his over-40 “carcass” on stage to wail away would be both pathetic and embarrassing might be true, for those of us who still love a good concert, it will always haunt the edges of our wish lists. And, oh, were they good!
If there’s a detriment to A Coat of Many Cupboards, it’s that the collection is definitely geared towards the fan. For someone who is just hearing of XTC for the first time and is interested in learning more, the 1996 Fossil Fuel collection is your best bet. Coat is designed to fill in the gaps in collections as much as it is to review the band. Really, this isn’t a failing of the set at all, but more of a box set fulfilling its purpose. Buyers shouldn’t pick up Coat hoping for a “Greatest Hits” collection. That was already done in Fossil Fuel and doesn’t need to be repeated. No, this box set is for those of us who already own the albums, who have a favorite song or two on each disc, and who are already counted among the converted.
There’s only one point at which A Coat of Many Cupboards feels too concerned with minutiae. Between Disc 1 and Disc 2 there are three separate versions of “Life Begins at the Hop”. Although this is one of the cornerstone songs of XTC’s early days, indicating the direction the band was about to take with its seminal Drums and Wires album, three versions seems a bit excessive, especially when the first is simply an extract from a rehearsal. But, for the most part, the unused songs presented here for the first time in full digital form, the outtakes, the demo versions, and the live tracks are all useful, revealing the band from the stages of initial song creation to studio work to live performance. Although facile comparisons have been made between the Beatles and XTC all too often by critics over the years, there’s a definite truth that the treatment and arrangement of A Coat of Many Cupboard is similar to the way in which the three Beatles Anthology albums were produced.
Of course, die hard fans are always going to want more. Never fear. Partridge and Moulding got together with Virgin execs to cull out the best, most representative tracks for A Coat of Many Cupboards, but an even larger collection of rarities and unreleased songs, rumored to be as much as an eight-disc set, is slated to follow. Titled Fuzzy Warbles, this collection will be released through XTC’s own label, Idea Records, once the initial release of A Coat of Many Cupboards has run its course. For the moment, however, fans are sure to find much to love in the nearly four hours worth of material found here.
All things considered, A Coat of Many Cupboards is definitely one for the fans. For the initiated, this set is essential. Virgin has finally acknowledged that for a number of years it had one of the best bands in the business working in its midst, and if these songs never sold at the platinum level, they are no less masterpieces. Cult status or no, XTC’s raw deal at the hands of Virgin Records is slightly rectified herein, and helps repair a rift of under-representation that spanned decades and resulted in a bruising industry battle. The fact that XTC is both grateful for the collection and amused by its release is evident in the final dedication of the insert: “XTC would like to warmly thank anybody who has helped us on our way, and also, anybody who has hindered or robbed us. Thank you, you made us stronger”.
// Notes from the Road
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