That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 1

I got treated to the 2017 documentary XTC: This Is Pop via a free promo weekend of Showtime. It’s a solidly made doc following the history of the band from its earlier Helium Kidz incarnations to its 1977 album debut, personnel changes, rise, fall, re-rise, strike, sputtered comeback and eventual demise. It’s a great intro to the band if you’re not at all familiar with them or only know them via “Dear God” or wonder whatever happened to that offbeat sounding band with the odd sounding lead singer who sang “Senses Working Overtime.” Lots of music and old wonderfully cheap-styled circa 1980 rock video is presented, along with interviews with musicians, critics, and principal band members, notably Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding, and Andy Partridge.

The band’s history, song by song, is covered in Neville Farmer’s authorized 1998 band bio XTC Song Stories (a book evidently later trashed by Partridge, can’t say I’m surprised for reasons I’ll go into shortly). A lot of the same material is covered in the film visually, but the film adds one amazing scene that’s a true revelation for longtime fans of the band like me.

Andy Partridge has synethesia, where perceptions get mixed up – colors become tastes, sounds become pictures and so on – and this mixed up/associative way of seeing the world is how he writes songs. He strums a guitar and finds a strange sounding chord he claims he’s never heard before…. starts strumming it… says it makes him think of the color brown, but sad, like a brown puddle… and then comes up with lyrics about a sad brown puddle and it all comes together. And all at once the seemingly limitless styles of arrangements, sounds and tones of the vast catalogue of XTC’s music suddenly made perfect sense to me. This scene alone makes the movie worth seeing.

So I thought I’d go back and listen to it all again, bearing in mind Partridge’s synesthesia and seeing (well, hearing…. I don’t have synesthesia) if I could pick elements of it out of his songs. The Moulding songs? No problem, I’ll go along for the ride with ’em… I always liked his stuff too.

Partridge is a fascinating figure in music. To me, he really epitomizes the self-sabotaging genius. A look at the history of the band reveals so many moments where his artistic abilities elevate the band beyond so many other acts out there. One of my favorite critic’s liner notes from a collection of old b-sides and outtakes XTC put out in 1991 called “Rag & Bone Buffet” said “Some of the songs these guys throw away are better than some bands’ entire careers.”

Partridge led the band towards decisions that often hurt – keeping them from touring even after his recovery from a breakdown resulting from a cold turkey abandonment of his valium addiction, endless problems with record company weasels & management that essentially stole practically all the money earned by the band throughout a majority of its run, championing weak songs for singles and ignoring others with hit potential (Dear God was a b-side left off the original Skylarking album and became a radio hit in the USA when some DJs started playing it instead of the A-side. And as Moulding repeatedly admits in the film, it saved their career.) going on strike against their record label for a long enough time to essentially make people think they’d just hung it up, and then mis-managing the return, splitting up what might have been one of their best single albums into a merely-okay two album release over 2 years, costing them Dave Gregory’s band membership in the process…oh, it goes on and on.

But then there’s the music – always interesting, catchy, clever and thoughtful. It follows the same sort of development/evolutionary type feel from early albums to late ones as the Beatles’ music does – changing styles, growing production wizardry. And much like the Beatles, personalities eventually pulling the band apart. They become a band, like the Beatles, where fans compare different eras of their work and pick out their favorites, even when they like the entire output.

At least I do. For me, my favorite Beatles material is the middle period stuff – from Beatles For Sale through Revolver. For XTC, their Skylarking/Dukes of Stratosphear/Oranges & Lemons psychadelic Britpop period is probably my favorite. But I still like it all.

I started out with their final 2 CDs, Apple Venus and Wasp Star, which came out in 1999 and 2000 respectively after their 7 year long strike against their old record label. It’s the unnamed future album discussed song by song in Farmer’s book, which got written in the midst of Dave Gregory leaving the band during the production of both of them.

Gregory had traditionally done most of the arranging of songs for the band over the years. A lot of the ideas would be Andy’s and Dave would figure out ways to enhance, hone and embellish them in the studio. It worked well, you can hear it on every album back to Drums & Wires. But this time, Partridge insisted on dividing the material between the orchestral/acoustic (dubbing it “orchustic”) and the traditional rock-guitar. Gregory felt at sea with computers & synthesizers doing the orchestra. The first CD would be all of that material, basically leaving Gregory out.

So he took himself out. He quit the band.

And going back and listening to them both, it only reminded me of how I felt when they first got released – each record has some very good songs on it, and some others that feel more like b-sides and what used to be the “extra” material, some of it good enough to make us wonder why it didn’t make the album – but that only added to the allure of the band! Leaving great material like Tissue Tigers or Heaven is Paved With Broken Glass off of English Settlement made it feel like these guys write too many great songs, that they can’t be contained…. the two-cd set up of Apple Venus/Wasp Star produced the opposite sentiment: these guys need a producer to edit the list. Combining the best acoustic, orchestral and rock tracks from the 2 CDs into a 16-18 track showcase single CD would have marked an amazing comeback for the band after its seven year absence. But Partridge insisted there’d be two. Gregory left, and neither CD got a lot of radio play or sold well beyond their already-established fan base.

And then, they were done.

And it’s too bad. Both CDs have some wonderful stuff on ’em. I think the first CD has the stronger songs, stuff like Green Man, Easter Theater, Harvest Festival, The Last Balloon… but punctuating those tracks with livelier rockier material from Wasp Star like Playground, We’re All Light (a song that inspired a bit of dialogue in my Phigg & Clyde book, by the way), Standing In For Joe or The Man Who Murdered Love (a track that badly misses Gregory’s usual guitar flourishes)… would have left us with an album that showcased the enormous gamut of what this band could do, a record that could have rivaled the enjoyably eclectic experience of listening to their best work, like English Settlement or Oranges & Lemons. Fans like me would have liked to see that launch them forward to a half dozen more just like it.

But it was not to be.

Listening to them again, I could hear the synesthesia though… but I was also reminded of the self-sabotage. I’d go back and bounce around their catalogue, I thought, and see what the rest of it felt like.

Up next: From the end to the beginning, a listen to their earliest material.

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