Is XTC too Competent to Be Cool?
Showtime's XTC: This Is Pop draws worthy attention to this underrated band. But does their music still hold up?
XTC: This Is Pop
05 Mar 2018
Underrated. Such was the synopsis a friend gave of the UK pop band XTC as we chatted one afternoon in 1992. Nonsuch, the band's 10th studio album proper, had just been released—and my friend and I, despite being friends for years, were delighted to discover that we were both great devotees. Unfortunately, 26 years later, his single-word assessment still accurately describes the band and their place in the history of pop music. How does it happen that such a creative, original band, with a career that lasted over 20 years and an output of more than 12 full-length albums, earn so little mention?
Forty years ago, in 1978, Virgin released two albums by XTC, a newly signed band from Swindon. White Music, released that January, was their full-length debut (3D-EP, containing three songs, appeared the year before)—and Go 2, their second, came out in October. The band at the time was comprised of Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass), Terry Chambers (drums), and Barry Andrews (keyboards). Musically, they were post-punk at a time when punk had not yet ended. White Music contains short songs -- the longest cut, at 5:43, is a squared-off cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" -- but the lyrics are not political enough to be "punk", and the musicianship -- complex rhythms, time signature changes, unusual chords and pairings -- is too competent to be cool. Perhaps this was the first indication that XTC would never quite fit in.
Listening today to White Music (and its quickly written and recorded follow-up, Go 2), one is struck not so much by the music having aged well but rather by Barry Andrews' keyboards. Andrews left the band shortly after Go 2 (he would go on to co-found Shriekback; guitarist and arranger David Gregory would replace him in XTC), so his keyboard playing—which Andy Partridge described, with affection, as "the sound of someone repairing a flying saucer engine"—often feels like a part of the music on the verge of sailing off. His eclectic, frightened keyboards never particularly defined the band's sound.
Still, White Music is of a time: manic, overflowing—yet contained by rhythms comparable to Devo, Oingo Boingo, or early Wall of Voodoo: mechanistic, tensed-up. Go 2, by comparison, and despite rating low on "Best of XTC" lists, feels more fleshed out, roomy. It also features one of the great segues in rock music, "Battery Brides / Buzzcity Talking" (Partridge / Moulding, respectively penned), as memorable and essential to this ear as The Cars' "Shoo Bee Doo / Candy-O" (1979). Together, White Music and Go 2 include songs no XTC fan would dare imagine the world without: "This is Pop", "Statue of Liberty" (curiously, the BBC would ban the single, "Statue of Liberty"—yes, that Statue of Liberty—for the "suggestive" lyric, "In my fantasy/ I sail beneath your skirt" but controversy never would be, with the exception of 1986's "Dear God" angering the US Christian faithful, part of XTC's make-up), "Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go)", the aforementioned "Battery Brides / Buzzcity Talking" and, from the same era, released as a non-album single, "Are You Receiving Me?"
I found my way to XTC, probably like many other listeners, slowly. FM radio in my formative neck of New Jersey in the late '70s and early '80s was hardly daring. Punk had no airplay at all, and by the time New Wave trickled in, the genre was scattered and slotted into formula radio. One could hear, for example, The Police on a certain type of station, the Go-Gos on another, but never X, the Surf Punks, or The Cramps. XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" (from 1979's Drums and Wires), as well as "Generals and Majors" (from 1980's Black Sea), both written by Colin Moulding, amazingly saw airplay beside the likes of Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers" (1980) and Rush's "Tom Sawyer" (1981)—but XTC songs were little more than curiosities, never charting particularly high in the singles-driven radio wasteland. ("Generals and Majors" briefly reached #28 on Billboard's Album Rock Tracks.)
However, XTC is the kind of band that sneaks up on you. It wasn't until much later, after their appearance in the 1982 concert film, Urgh! A Music War (how could the subtle brilliance of Partridge's "Respectable Street" compete, upon first viewing, with the audacity of Dead Kennedys or the wonderful strangeness of Klaus Nomi?), after English Settlement (1982) and Andy Partridge's breakdown (more on that in a minute), after Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984), and even after Skylarking (1986), that XTC would arrive at my doorstep and let itself in.
Rattling off the years of XTC's albums, it's important to note what was happening, musically, in the US. After New Wave, the scene completely shifted: by 1983 Heavy Metal became commercially-viable, and a proliferation of those bands, seemingly pre-packaged and microwaved into three-minute MTV videos, dominated airplay—and MTV itself became the arbiter of trends: Michael Jackson, Wham!, Madonna, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis and the News. In a peculiar mainstream split into Ray Parker, Jrs and Judas Priests, it was difficult to find XTC or the Smiths—or even to find one's way back to Tom Waits. Consider that Partridge's fabulously pastoral "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" (from Mummer) or the darkly up-tempo "All You Pretty Girls" (The Big Express) seem of a different time altogether from Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" or Van Halen's "Jump" from the same respective years. XTC's music is marked by a certain timelessness that never did find a time among its contemporaries.
Perhaps we might owe that to Andy Partridge, XTC's primary songwriter. Partridge—even from song to song—defies the ordinary, the straight up and down. There's nothing one expects in his compositions, excepting some structure of verse/chorus/bridge—and it's difficult to say just what makes an Andy-song Andy's. Sometimes I think it's his vocalizing (try "Living Through Another Cuba" from Black Sea or "Leisure" from English Settlement), other times his striking song titles ("Holly Up on Poppy", "Shake You Donkey Up") or the variety of subject matter in his lyrics. No matter, it's his evolution as a songwriter—and his uncanny ability to be both sui generis and accessible at precisely the same time.
Then, somewhere along the US leg of the 1982 tour for English Settlement, Partridge's wife-at-the-time flushed his supply of Valium down the toilet. Partridge had been taking Valium since he was 12 or 13 years old. As Valium had become part and parcel of his body chemistry, the sudden withdrawal manifested into physical ailments, panic attacks, and an incurable stage fright—and the rest of the tour had to be cancelled. XTC never toured again. (Or Partridge hated touring and never wanted to tour again. Choose your favorite story.) It's been posited that the 1982 tour, buffered by the single "Senses Working Overtime", would have pushed XTC into superstardom, but let's not kid ourselves.
What's crucial about Partridge's breakdown, however, is its outcome: XTC became a studio band. Although Terry Chambers would leave, XTC evolved into a band ever more lush and multilayered. What's crucial, too, is that Partridge, who could not control his stage fright, began to exert control over the process of songmaking and studio recording. Mummer and The Big Express mark this shift to the studio-as-instrument. Virgin/Geffen, however, was never so generous to allow Partridge full control and, perhaps as an insurance policy or punishment, always paired the band with a producer. Partridge, rather infamously and without victory, butted heads with producer Todd Rundgren during the making of Skylarking, arguably XTC's best album. But without touring, could XTC ever really break through?
Despite numerous high chart placing on Billboard (the perfect pop song "Mayor of Simpleton" from 1989's Oranges and Lemons, hit #1 on the Modern Rock Chart, and Nonsuch's bizarre "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" was also #1), XTC never had a gold record in America. (Drums and Wires went gold in Canada, Black Sea and English Settlement silver in the UK.) XTC's relationship with Virgin, especially after they quit touring, seems to have been a tenuous one. (Had Skylarking not done well, said Colin Moulding in Showtime's recent documentary, XTC: This Is Pop, Virgin would have dropped them.) No one could quite figure out how to market a band that had no sex appeal or adherence to a specific category. Andy Partridge said that XTC, in their struggles with the label, "crusaded for no image," a successful crusade at that. But without an image, without predictable and shiny music videos, and without albums that all pretty much sounded the same, XTC never could achieve mass popularity.
Underrated? Don't let XTC's absence from serious conversation about pop music deter you from discovering, or rediscovering, their catalog. From the post-punk beginnings of White Music and Go 2 to the great musical leaps of Drums and Wires and two subsquent, stage-friendly rock albums, Black Sea and English Settlement, to the multi-track middle-period of Mummer and The Big Express, and onward to their great homage to '60s psychedelia as The Dukes of Stratosphear, through Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons, Nonsuch, and their last two albums, Apple Venus Vol. 1 (1999) and Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 (2000), XTC amassed an impressive and varied oeuvre, including a number of B-side compliations, experimental EPs, Peel Sessions, and a terrific live album, BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert.
Could they do no wrong? Admirers have their least favorites ( Mummer, for me, was a dud sonically, until a remaster brought out its charms; later albums, specifically formatted for CD rather than album sides, always feel a couple of songs too many; and Wasp Star, bearing the absence of David Gregory, who left after the masterful Apple Venus Vol. 1, is painfully hit or miss), but for a career so lengthy and diverse, the magic is surprisingly consistent.
The magic is in the songwriting. Partridge is incomparable: his sense of melody, and his talent for writing so damn many good songs seems both natural and considered. Partridge, in XTC: This Is Pop, explains his approach to composition a product of synesthesia—and certainly this mixing of the senses brings to the music a poetic sensibility. Like well-made poems, the music means as much as the words do and, as a lyricist, Partridge is so often ain't bad: "Now the son has died / the father can be born" ("Easter Theater"), "See the children with baskets / See their hair cut like corn / Neatly combed in their rows" ("Harvest Festival"), "River of orchids winding my way / want to walk into London on my hands one day" ("River of Orchids"), "It's down in my pocket with the sunlight folded there" ("I Can't Own Her")—this just a random handful from one album, Apple Venus Vol. 1. Colin Moulding, the other songwriter in XTC, wrote much less, usually two or threes songs per album, but his contributions are no less than Partridge's, but rather gorgeously astride.
One hopes that XTC, at some point, will achieve a more prominent place, or for that matter any place at all, in the pop rock canon. But for those of us already in the know, even if we don't talk about it with each other, XTC's music is deeply sacred stuff: discovered and rediscoverable, and arriving, after long having already arrived.