That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC Part 3

For our next installment of the journey through the XTC catalogue, I thought I’d skip to a low point in their chronology.

Well, sales-wise, anyway. Right when the timing was perfect and all the ducks were lined up in a row for the band to break big…. the beginning of what would have been an American concert tour to promote their most popular & best record to date in English Settlement…. Andy Partridge went cold turkey on the valium he’d been taking since childhood thanks to his wife flushing it all down the toilet, and this led to a total breakdown. Partridge fell to pieces, developed enormous stage fright. The tour was canceled, and Partridge resolved never to tour again. After a time but actually during his slow recovery (and you can hear it evolve on the album I’m about to discuss) the band retreated into the studio to begin their evolution towards production wizardry. But their first effort, 1983’s Mummer, would show the growing pains in taking this approach.

Those early 80s music years were frustrating ones for listeners/fans of the energetic burst of punk and new wave that splashed across everywhere in the late 1970s. 1983 marked a year when it seemed that EVERY sharp ‘n’ angry young rockernewwavepunk act with a debut in 1977 decided to change their sound, and ALWAYS in a more mellow direction. Paul Weller went from fronting The Jam to The Style Council. Elvis Costello released the aptly titled Punch The Clock, a record that…. well, let’s just be honest, it doesn’t hold a candle to This Year’s Model, now does it? Or how about Graham Parker, who released his mellow and happily married The Real Macaw, a decent record, but certainly no Squeezing Out Sparks or Howlin’ Wind. Or perhaps you prefer Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds and Rockpile? Well, in 1983 they both released solo albums post-Rockpile breakup. Edmunds Information, a decent record, although his backup band is basically ELO and the synth/tech sound was not exactly what we’d hear before. Lowe released what’s arguably his weakest solo album, The Abominable Showman, a record that never really seems to get going and moves in way too many directions (or tries to) stylistically. Talking Heads put out Speaking In Tongues, probably the peak of their “funk” sound period and probably the best 1983 album I’ve mentioned on this look-at-all-of-us-get-mellow list.

Or they could break up, like Blondie did.

Back in ’83, my fellow music geeks and I referred to it as “Paul McCartney’s Disease” when any musical act that once rocked out decided to get quiet ‘n’ mellow ‘n’ reflective and switch to wuss mode. And all of the let’s-be-mellow-for-1983 club I went through above were barely in their thirties! I mean, come on…. you’re still young! Show some friggin’ energy!

Ah, but no… 1983 was the year for British bands to poof up their hair and get Spandau Ballet fashionable, all coming together for a “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” charity recording by year’s end. We’d reached the polar opposite of The Sex Pistols’ “No Feelings,” that was for damn sure.

For XTC, their mellowing on Mummer reflects the PTSD Partridge was going through at the time. The more I listen to the record, it feels like a record of how playing around in the studio became therapeutic for him. The songs are very quiet and easy except for a jolt in the final track. The lack of drumming became the turning point for Terry Chambers, who simply got up and quit the band during an early recording session. He’d be replaced with session drummers and computers afterwards. I wasn’t crazy about the record when it came out, save for a pair of singles: “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” is a pleasant acoustic pastoral number with a I-have-no-money theme Partridge would return to time and time again, and “Great Fire,” a catchy song, albeit one played, like nearly the rest of the album, quietly.

Some of the quiet stuff that left me cold in ’83 grew warmer in later years. “Ladybird” strikes me as a GREAT soft McCartney-esque number, the GOOD way of getting Paul McCartney disease. Moulding’s “Wonderland” still just lays there, though.

Listening to it all again along with the numerous bonus tracks added to the CD release of the early 90s (a mixed bag with very uneven production tricks… some like “Toys” and “Gold” nearly manage to sound like a different band imitating XTC and badly… the only track I could see making the album and not being a B-side cutout would be “Desert Island”), I’ve grown to like it somewhat more. Unlike in 1983, I can place it within the context of what came before and after, as opposed to wondering if it would be their last record (a theory floated back in ’83 with the final track “Funk Pop A Roll” ripping into the music biz a la Costello’s Radio Radio, only with a cryptic “Bye Bye!” from Andy as the song ended.)

Thankfully it was not bye-bye, and though I believe it had the lowest sales of any XTC record, their next effort, 1984’s The Big Express is a great album. While overproduced in spots and with too much reliance on programmable drum machines, the song collection is much stronger than Mummer’s. When it came out, a lot of the arrangements and production made it seem like they were going too far out of their way to mix up the production wizardry that they had grown more adept with, but listening to it again now, with the benefit of context, you can hear their studio method really developing and falling into place. You can hear how from then on, the songs would get arrangements depending on their meaning and intended emotional impact… going all the way back to Partridge’s synethesia creating the production map for them. All the weird sounding synth keyboards in “All You Pretty Girls” or “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her” don’t detract from the catchy melody and hooks, the McCartney vibe comes through in “You’re The Wish You Are I Had” big time, only this time channeling the vibe of McCartney’s late Beatles material. I have to agree with what Dave Gregory said about “Smalltown” being overproduced. It’s still one of my favorite songs on the album, an oh-so-British pop tune celebrating (along with much of the rest of the album) the railroad town of Swindon where the band is from, but a real drum and instruments instead of synth would have sounded much better here.

Moulding’s opener, “Wake Up,” almost seems like an affirmation to the rest of the band, kicking the record off with some clang-bangy guitar riffs. We also get a wonderful its-1984 moment with “This World Over,” Partridge’s Reagan-era anti-nuke Cold War tune, the sort of stuff Sting filled the radio dial with around this time to show us his sensitive side. (Ironically, the other way to get an instant radio hit in 1984 was simply to have the word “America” in the title or in the refrain). The closing song, “Train Running Low On Soul Coal,” puts all of it together – Andy’s breakdown, the train motif running through the album, the “industrial” sound of the band, wonderful lyrics, offbeat jarring chords interspersed with catchy pop melodies and hooks… this song does everything the band did at the time, all at once.

It’s too bad this record wasn’t appreciated more when it came out, but then again, you can say that about XTC in general, can’t you?

Up next: Getting in touch with their love of psychadelia, 1985-1992.

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