That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 4

XTC enjoyed a resurgence in popularity building up to their biggest radio hits in the late 1980s, only to retreat back into niche-cult band status by the early 1990s and then nearly vanishing altogether. An interesting thing happened… they unleashed what Andy Partridge describes as their pent-up love of 1960s psychadelic rock and it altered them artistically, somewhat. It burst out all at once in 1985 for what seemed like a gag EP record, but then continued to flow intermittently across their catalog afterwards.

After the commercial (but certainly not artistic) flop of their 1984 disc The Big Express, they switched gears and put out an April Fool’s novelty record, pretending to be a long-lost 1960s psychedelic band called The Dukes of Stratosphear. Andy & Colin either wrote newly designed ’60s style psychedelia or retooled rejected songs to fit the bill and came up with a wonderfully fun 6 song EP released on April 1, 1985. Their actual names were nowhere to be found, and only the familiar sound of their voices and the tell-tale sign of their early producer John Leckie at the helm were the clues as to who they really were.

It’s a great record, where they knock off the styles of The Electric Prunes or Syd Barrett and others. Sound effects, backward tracks, random spoken recordings and whatnot dropped into the production evoke the sorts of pot and acid induced studio wizardry from 1967 that they’re going for. Bottom line is that the songs are catchy and fun. They sound like they’re having fun, too – what a mood/vibe 180 turnaround from the PTSD feel of Mummer or the bargaining/reckoning stage of The Big Express. Listening to “My Love Explodes” or the Lennon-esque “Mole From The Ministry” made me think that that maybe Andy Partridge actually enjoyed being a musician again.

The 1960s influence would become more clearly defined when it got used over their next three records – mostly a continuation of the Beatle-esque material that had been evident from The Big Express onwards, but now much more Brian Wilson would turn up, harmony and arrangement wise. Most of it would be in Andy’s songs, but Colin’s entries would also show the same tell-tale signs. Colin gets more songs on 1986’s Skylarking than on any other album, after the band sent a bunch of demos to Todd Rundgren to choose from. Rundgren was their choice after being told by Virgin that they needed an American producer to reach American audiences. A great producer, yes… (and certainly no stranger to the Beatlesque) but a personality clash (to say the least) with Partridge. A great record emerged from contentious sessions, and we can hear the Revolver-era Beatles in “Supergirl” and “1000 Umbrellas” and Brian Wilson on “Season Cycle,” but the b-side to the Colin Moulding single “Grass” would get all the radio play and launch the band back into heavy rotation. “Dear God,” one of Andy’s “message” songs as I like to call them, became a smash hit, drew publicity-getting controversy, and caused a re-release of the album so that the song could be included. Sales rocketed.

They’d follow it up with an entire Dukes album in 1987, Psonic Psunspot, this time throwing together songs that evoke The Hollies (Moulding’s wonderful “Vanishing Girl”), The Lovin’ Spoonful (You’re My Drug), Paul McCartney “Ringo song” writing (“Brainiac’s Daughter”), more Brian Wilson (“Pale and Precious”) or a mix of styles in material like “Collideascope” or re-tooled rejected XTC songs like “Little Lighthouse” or “Shiny Cage.” A great record, fun from start to finish. This time they didn’t bother distorting their voices either, since the joke had long since been revealed. And considering how the material under the XTC name had begun to intertwine with this stuff, it didn’t matter anymore.

Lest you think they got all the 1960s out of their system, 1989 saw the release of my favorite album of theirs, really, Oranges & Lemons. They recorded it out here in LA working with a very young/fresh producer, Paul Fox, who Andy described as an eager fan willing to work with the band on anything. Some years back I got to meet Paul Fox and talked about this album with him. He had fond memories of it and loved working with the band, calling the arguments “interesting” with his seemingly permanent mellow smile. He mentioned he still had hours of outtake tapes featuring the discussions that he’d let me listen to someday…. and unfortunately, that day has never come.

Bah.

Want ANOTHER story of disappointment? In the fall of 1988 when the band lived in LA at celebrity apartments while the album got recorded and mixed, one of LA’s now sadly gone used bookstores, Dutton’s, stood a few blocks down the street from where I taught. At lunch, some students came in to the office and said “Hey Jim, I think that guy from that band you like is down at Dutton’s.” I ask what they’re talking about, get a physical description that certainly sounds like Andy Partridge: “He’s got these little round glasses on, sort of a stocky guy with a British accent… he was looking through books on Medieval history…” So I’m thinking JACKPOT! and I dash out of the office, run down the street to the bookstore…. and the clerk tells me I just missed him by a couple of minutes.

Double Bah.

Anyway, Oranges and Lemons comes across as a nice blend between late Dukes material – songs like “Merely A Man,” “The Loving” or the Brian Wilson meets jazz fusion feel of “Miniature Sun” – with the more traditional sorts of eclectic songs the band began producing back on The Big Express. Songs where the arrangement and production fits the song as opposed to each song sounding like the exact same band – “Across this Antheap” or Moulding’s wonderful “One of the Millions” or “Chalkhills and Children,” three songs that sound like three different bands, yet they all feel at home with each other on this record.

And it produced a couple of hit singles – Partridge’s guitar-poppy “Mayor of Simpleton” and Moulding’s easy beat more electric “King For A Day.”

It felt like they were truly back – they even convinced Partridge to do an acoustic tour of radio stations to play & chat on the air live… not quite a live performance (though they did appear on Letterman), but maybe they were getting back to 100% strength after all these years?

Well, no. They took a long (for them) three years to produce their next and final album for Virgin, Nonsuch in 1992. Another new producer that they weren’t crazy about. More fights with the label over what songs to pick for singles. Andy’s personal favorite of “Wrapped in Grey” got withdrawn as a single by the label right before release. The first single, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” another Andy message song, fizzled. According to Partridge, it had the most negative reaction of any video in the history of MTV. Not sure why it’s THAT hated, but the video certainly ups the ante of what can often be the fatal flaw in Andy’s message songs, and that’s clunky obvious pretentious metaphor/imagery.

Subtle it ain’t, huh? The read-between-the-lines poetry of strongly meaningful songs like “I Bought Myself A Liarbird” or even the Benny Hill-reads-a-poem subtle silliness of “Pink Thing” in Andy’s lyrics isn’t to be found here. I remember the Rolling Stone reviewer of the album praising it, but then adding that XTC’s style of music locked them into a niche market that they could not break out of without destroying the essence of what makes their music who they are… he called it “a fabulous golden cage.”

Nonsuch has some wonderful songs for the inside of that cage – Moulding’s “My Bird Performs” or Partridge’s “Holly Up On Poppy” or “That Wave.” There’s a nice mix of pop songs like “Dear Madam Barnum” (a fun upbeat song about…. Andy’s failing marriage) or “The Disappointed” (an upbeat earworm of a tune about….. failure in love) as well as the remnants of the psychadelia that got us here, in cuts like “Then She Appeared” and the Wilson-esque “Humble Daisy.”

But Nonsuch also contains the clues for the future of the band – not that it would only be 2 more albums released a whopping seven years later after a giant legal fight and band strike against Virgin, but a different musical direction Partridge was moving in that meant, in all honesty, weaker songs. And weaker songs that Andy was in LOVE with, ones he’d go to the wall for – like “Wrapped In Grey,” the withdrawn single that sparked the fight with Virgin. The message songs were growing, the lyrics growing more preachy and obvious… what had been easy to ignore in “This World Over” or had worked so brilliantly on “Dear God” or “Across This Antheap” had now become hit-me-over-the-head messaging on “The Ugly Underneath” or “Omnibus” or what we saw above on “Peter Pumpkinhead.” “Books are Burning,” the album closer, comes to the edge of roll-your-eye-at-this lyrics, but musically it saves itself by being a great sounding tune. And it builds up to the only dueling guitar solos by Partridge and Gregory on ANY of their records. And much of Moulding’s other material grew progressively weird like “Bungalow” or seemed like toss-off unrefined messaging like “The Smartest Monkeys.”

I have mixed feelings about Nonsuch. I love maybe half of it, and the other half I can simply do without. And coming after Oranges & Lemons, and after all that time…. well, it was sort of a letdown. And then the years of nothing, where only hunting down bootleg tapes (yes, tapes) of the demos that would eventually comprise the Fuzzy Warbles set would sustain me.

Bands are more fun to follow in their glory years, that’s for sure… like a winning team in sports, the next thing they do every time seems wonderful and like it’s never gonna end…. and that will be our final installment on XTC coming up for next time.

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