XTC Oranges and Lemons

This Is Your Life: XTC’s ‘Oranges & Lemons’ at 35

In 1989, XTC released Oranges & Lemons, one of their finest. There are nods to trippy 1960s touchstones, but it’s more of a lush, power-pop celebration.

Oranges & Lemons
27 February 1989

It’s difficult to imagine how different the career trajectory of XTC would have been if not for that fateful night in 1982 when singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Partridge stumbled off stage during the first song of a gig in Paris in support of their fifth album, English Settlement. Partridge’s massive stage fright – exacerbated by the fact that his then-wife threw away his Valium, which helped him manage his fears – came to a head. Although they managed to eke out a shaky gig in San Diego the following month, XTC were officially done touring, never stepping on a stage again, except for a handful of taped TV spots.

The silver lining is that – like the Beatles before them – the lack of a commitment to touring allowed the band to experiment much more with their studio recordings, unconcerned with how to accomplish performing the songs onstage. This is certainly the case with their 11th album, Oranges & Lemons, a brash, widescreen double album released in February 1989. Coming off the heels of their critically acclaimed, Todd Rundgren-produced 1986 album Skylarking (as well as two albums recorded under their psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear), Oranges & Lemons is often referred to as a nod to psychedelia, although that’s not entirely accurate. There are nods to trippy 1960s touchstones, but it’s more of a lush, power-pop celebration.

XTC originated in the UK town of Swindon, with Partridge sharing singing and songwriting duties with bassist Colin Moulding. After releasing a slew of angular, articulate, sophisticated post-punk albums from 1978 to 1982 (White Music, Go 2, Drums and Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement), they were eventually pared down to a trio with guitarist Dave Gregory. XTC began recording albums that owed as much to the Zombies and Nick Drake as Elvis Costello and the Jam. Mummer (1983) was a bit of pastoral splendor (with drummer Terry Chambers already one foot out the door, later replaced by a revolving door of studio drummers), followed by The Big Express (1984), Skylarking (1986), and the Dukes of Stratosphear romps – 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987). Power pop mixed with Beach Boys-influenced harmonies, unique chord sequences, and Partridge’s ever-present skewed sense of humor. XTC were making music on their own terms, unconcerned with how it would all convert to the nonexistent stage.

Entering a California studio in the summer of 1988, XTC went to work on what would become Oranges & Lemons with a young, relatively untested producer named Paul Fox. Unsurprisingly, Fox would later gain a reputation as a producer who could coax accessible yet oddball albums out of artists such as the Sugarcubes (Stick Around for Joy), Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (Perspex Island), Phish (Hoist) and They Might Be Giants (John Henry). Joining them on drums was Pat Mastelotto of Mr. Mister (who would later join King Crimson).

While there are certainly echoes of the guitar-centered college rock of English Settlement – as well as arrangements reminiscent of more textured albums like Mummer and Skylarking – Oranges & Lemons was a leap forward in that XTC tried so many different things this time around and almost always succeeded. The album is a stylistic bouillabaisse but rarely loses focus. The sound is “big”, owing a little bit to the fact that this was, after all, the 1980s – but it always seems to serve Partridge and Moulding’s sophisticated songwriting. Fox seemed to take on the mantle of Phil Spector, retrofitting his Wall of Sound for late 1980s alternative rock.

Oranges & Lemons leaps out of the gate with “Garden of Earthly Delights”, a head-spinning, frenetic fantasy piece that Partridge likened to “a big ornate Eastern rug come to life”, featuring Arabic modalities and an effects-stuffed guitar solo. “Kid,” Partridge sings, “Is this your first time here / Some can’t stand the beauty / So they cut off one ear / But you’ll be OK.” In the chorus, he sets the ground rules for this utopia he’s singing about: “This is your life, and you do what you want to do / Just don’t hurt nobody.”

Oranges & Lemons also has the benefit of featuring the closest thing XTC ever had to a US top 40 pop song, as the single “Mayor of Simpleton” – one of the most perfect pop songs every written – cracked the lower echelon of the pop charts. With complex guitar fingerpicking, Moulding’s jaw-dropping basslines, and vocal harmonies that would make Brian Wilson swoon, Partridge’s tale of a man pining for a woman but not ashamed to admit his lack of intellect is the complete package. Always a lyricist of the highest order, Partridge croons lines like “I don’t know how many pounds make up a ton / Of all the Nobel Prizes that I’ve never won,” as well as the unforgettable chorus tag “I may be the Mayor of Simpleton / But I know one thing / And that’s I love you.”

While Partridge wrote 12 of Oranges & Lemons‘ 15 songs, Moulding’s work is highly commendable here, as he contributes the bouncy single “King for a Day”, as well as the lively, folk-infused “One of the Millions” and thorny, Beatlesque “Cynical Days”. On one hand, Moulding’s songs seem somewhat cut from the same cloth as his bandmate but have a slightly more sober, less jocular feel. At first, it seems like Partridge’s “Across This Antheap” has a similar downbeat flavor, aided by Mark Isham’s plaintive trumpet. But it eventually morphs into a more manic tempo, driven by heavy percussion effects and Partridge’s cries for humanity in a technology-crazed world. “The dough is rising, but no bread will be baked,” he sings, “The fur is genuine, but the orgasm’s faked / We’re spending millions to learn to speak porpoise / When human loneliness is still a deafening noise.” Partridge certainly has a way with elegant balladry, but it’s hard to remove the wild-eyed punk from his persona altogether.

That’s OK. The achingly melodic “Hold Me My Daddy”, a song about a son desiring love and acceptance from his father, crashes its emotional intentions against brash guitar chords before ending in a bouncy, Afropop coda. But that’s followed by the typically silly – yet gorgeously arranged – “Pink Thing”, Partridge’s ode to his penis: “You make me want to laugh / You make me want to cry / And when I stroke your head / I feel a hundred heartbeats high.” The fact that, musically, it sounds like a long-lost Paul McCartney song only adds to the puzzling weirdness.

While peace and love seem to be the order of the day on Oranges & Lemons – particularly with songs like the guitar-heavy, 1960s pop pastiche “The Loving” – Partridge doesn’t shy away from sociopolitical issues, never more so on the biting “Here Comes President Kill Again”, which is a tad heavy-handed (“Here comes President Kill again / Broadcasting from his killing den / Dressed in pounds and dollars and yen / President Kill wants killing again”) but is musically bolstered by the theatrics of Mastelotto’s drumming and Isham’s trumpet. For a protest song, it’s almost painfully generic, but that’s tempered by the goofy namechecking in the frenetic, hook-stuffed “Merely a Man” – “I’m all religious figures rolled into one / Gaddafi Duck propelled from Jimmy Swaggart’s tommy gun” – another song about the power of love, aided by lots of unabashed guitar mania from Gregory and Partridge.

XTC take a breather in Oranges & Lemons‘ final song, the ethereal, trippy “Chalkhills and Children”, another ode to defending a life of peace and harmony over the madness of modernity. “Chalkhills and children anchor my feet,” Partridge sings over a bed of keyboards and lazy percussion. “Chalkhills and children, oddly complete.” Oranges & Lemons is all over the map, but above all, it’s a celebration. Guitars, trumpets, clanging percussion, studio effects, and multi-part harmonies all coexist to create what’s represented on the cover: a bright, day-glo explosion.

XTC made a few more albums after Oranges & Lemons. Nonesuch, released in 1992, continues along the same path as its predecessor to some degree (it’s a bit more restrained). Gregory left the group while making the primarily orchestral Apple Venus Vol. 1 (1999), and Partridge and Moulding soldiered on as a duo for the compact, power-pop gem Wasp Star (2000). There doesn’t seem to be any form of XTC reuniting on the horizon, but that’s perfectly fine: albums like Oranges & Lemons are preserved for generations to hear them, unconcerned with any sequel. The music of XTC is timeless and is thankfully immune to nostalgia tour packages and Coachella reunions.