I’ve been jonesing on XTC lately. You might have noticed that at BRP. XTC is one of my all-time favorite bands, so they are always on the playlist, but lately I haven’t been able to get enough.
So I’m working out the other morning, watching TV and doing my normal morning routine. I’m flipping through the channels, Showtime has a show called This is Pop. And yup, it’s a rockumentary about XTC. I watched most of it that morning and caught the rest of it last night.
I’ve watched a number of rockumentaries, and unlike Andy Partridge, I’m a fan. Sure, some of them suck, but there are others that give the fan-boy in me the inside story about bands that I like. For instance, there is a great one about the Jam called About the Young Idea, and I actually own the Clash’s Rude Boy. There is a 4 hour (!) Tom Petty one on Netflix, and even one on the Eagles that I enjoyed. Sure, there are gag-worthy flicks as well, but the good ones are, well, good. I lump This is Pop into the “good” category.
Let’s talk XTC for a bit. They had two great songwriters, the aforementioned Mr. Partridge and Colin Moulding. Both are featured prominently in the film (but not together, which is interesting and probably better). Partridge clearly viewed XTC as “his” band, and he is right. He was the original driving force, wrote a number of their great songs, and highly influenced their “golden era” by refusing to continue to tour. But Moulding wrote the more “radio-ready” tunes that satisfy the pop-side of BRP. I like them both.
XTC started out during the great punk and new wave era of Britain, the mid-to-late 70s. And while their early music was fast, it wasn’t the political punk similar to that of the Sex Pistols, Clash and others. In fact, it was quirky, more lyrical, but still kinetic. A couple of tunes from that era still get played by yours truly with some regularity. Here you go – Statue of Liberty and Life Begins at the Hop.
The band originally did the tour thing, but stopped because of a stage fright/sick of touring/valium addiction issue with Partridge. Apparently, Andy had been on valium from the time he was 12, and then one day, his wife just flushed them all down the toilet. Going cold turkey after more than a decade on valium was, let’s say, rugged, and Partridge basically freaked out. This developed into a serious case of stage fright, and with the grind of the road on top of that, the band stopped touring. Of course, this decision was made right on the cusp of their big opportunity, a US tour backed by their record company with heavy promotion of a truly great album, English Settlement. Here are two tracks from that record: Senses Working Overtime and Ball and Chain.
What happened next was that the band went into the studio, no longer fixated on the ability to reproduce their songs live, and went hog wild. I think that, when combined with English Settlement, the next three XTC albums made for a powerhouse quartet of creative genius. Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons, and Nonsuch are all fabulous. It’s hard to characterize the music: it’s just great songwriting, beautiful tunes and poetic lyrics. Here is a sampling: Season Cycle (Skylarking), King For a Day (Oranges and Lemons) and The Disappointed (Nonsuch).
Now the true breakout story for XTC involves a controversial song called Dear God. That was the B side of the first single off of Skylarking, and DJs spun it. In our God-fearing country, it led to either acceptance of its message, or this is religious heresy. It was not planned to be a single nor to attract attention to the band, but it worked out that way and resulted in a lot of recognition and fame/infamy. Watch the film to understand this comment. And watch the video, which is posted below.
One other thing before I leave: Skylarking was produced by none other than Todd Rundgren. XTC was shooting for more of an “American” sound to get the attention of the US, and were told to pick from a list of US producers. They only knew one name on the list (Todd, of course) and picked him. The album turned out fantastic, but Todd and Andy were at each other’s throat the entire time.
Check your Showtime schedule to watch the picture, and let me know what you think. There is a lot of stuff in there about how songs are written, the ups and downs of the rock music business, and some biographical stuff about the members of the band that is interesting. And there is the (somewhat forced, in my opinion) parallel to the Beatles in songcraft, musicianship, development, and studio mastery that is thought provoking.
XTC is not the Beatles, but they were great in their own right. And maybe a comparison is fair between XTC and the post-touring Beatles, much as there is between the early Beatles and Squeeze. But it takes two fantastic post-Beatles bands to cobble together a comparison to just the Beatles output, and that comparison still ultimately falls short.
That shouldn’t dissuade you from diving into the XTC catalog at all. I love ‘em and always will. One last song? Nah, two. Here is Garden of Earthly Delights from Skylarking and The Loving from Oranges and Lemons.
See you all on the flipside – as XTC and DJs found out, you never know how that is going to turn out.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.