That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 2

After starting off with XTC’s final two albums, I thought I’d go all the way back to the beginning of their career and focus on their first few records.

It’s a lot like listening to Abbey Road and then going back to Please Please Me and reminding yourself it’s the same band, although the difference between early/late XTC and early/late Beatles is fairly stark. XTC evolved a LOT over a longer period of time.

Other than the distinctive quality of Andy Partridge’s voice, the debut album White Music sounds like a completely different band than the XTC of Apple Venus/Wasp Star. And to a large degree, it was a completely different band, also featuring the keyboards of Barry Andrews and the drums of Terry Chambers, but mostly featuring an earlier and rawer Partridge and Moulding at the center.

While there are hints of the literate quality of Partridge’s lyrics to come, the songs here are simple and quick. Some of them seem rushed and unfinished. But it doesn’t matter – White Music from 1978 overflows with energy, fast nervous beats, overdone affected singing styles and a lot of really good songs. It matches up nicely with the first/early albums of their contemporaries in the New Wave/Postpunk material that certainly flooded my record collection at the time – debut albums from Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Cars, Joe Jackson, Devo, Blondie, The Jam and others all came out around this time. And like White Music, they all stand as bursts of energy from acts that evolved, developed, mellowed and altered their sounds and styles over the years, some more than others, and some more successfully than others. The brash we-don’t-care youthful attitude of the brand new rock band permeates this record, and it’s a wonderful listening exercise in tracing the band’s evolution, finding the little hints of what was to come, and hearing a lot of what got left behind. A lot of it is quick and forgettable, but the better cuts like Radios In Motion, This Is Pop, or Statue of Liberty stand out, as well as the lone cover in XTC’s catalogue, an odd version of All Along The Watchtower.

Continue reading “That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 2”

Fuzzy Warbles From The Swindon Beatles

The long and bumpy story of XTC, one of my favorite bands, is certainly filled with drama. Most of it hinges on the immense talent and immense self-destructive streak running through Andy Partridge, who suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork in 1982 and refused to tour afterwards. The band confined itself to the studio and continued to turn out great (probably a lot of its best) material, but endless fights with management and their-then Virgin record label ground them down, all without concert gate to make it up. Tensions within the band grew over the lack of commercial recognition, despite a seemingly endless period on the cusp of such a breakthrough around the time of hit singles Dear God and The Mayor Of Simpleton. An EXCELLENT journey through all of this can be found in XTC: Songs & Stories, which gives accounts on the background of every XTC song and also a very revealing look inside the studio battles that Andy always seemed to win – and little by little, we can see almost a subconscious desire by Partridge to sabotage the greater possibilities of success for the band, as if he’s avoiding the same path of quickly rising and mega-touring that led to his 1982 breakdown (which was supposedly also attributable to his then wife throwing out his valium – Partridge’s domestic problems and joys also figure heavily into his music).

In any event, XTC put out a shelf load of material during their time together, all of which is wonderfully catalogued & OCD’d over at the wonderful Chalkhills fan site maintained by John Relph. And in keeping with my own OCD, I have finished listening to the must-have-for-fans Fuzzy Warbles Collection, nine CDs worth of home recordings from Partridge from over the years, including demos of songs eventually recorded, songs eventually given up on & thrown away, and assorted fragments & ephemera.

This collection is a rich & wonderful assortment of the wide gamut of musical stylings that XTC produced over the years – from their rough/industrial/clangy sound through softer, often Brian Wilson-esque material, through their knock-offs of psychadelia and bubblegum, and through an assortment of ear candy from some of the best Brit poprock of the past thirty years.

I’m interested in listening to the demo versions of slickly produced songs Partridge originally recorded in his garden shed, since it provides a window into the actual process of putting a record together, a subject that the Songs & Stories book tackles very well, and can also be glimpsed in the wonderful Chuck Berry documentary Hail Hail Rock & Roll by Taylor Hackford. Sometimes lyrics get changed, bridges get re-arranged, songs are restructured, and so forth. It’s basically the rock and roll version of comparing the early & revised versions of symphonies. But what mystifies me when listening to a lot of this material is just how damn good the songs they threw away are. I remember someone reviewing a previously released collection of forgotten XTC B-sides Rag & Bone Buffet remarked “The songs these guys throw away are better than some bands’ careers.” I heartily concur, especially now that I’ve heard a boatload of material Partridge gave up on for whatever reason and wonder why. Partridge’s commentary on this material can be found here, and while it provides some insight into this, I guess there’s really no way to truly explain artistic temperament, especially with someone as volatile as Partridge.

Listening to all of this material, however, makes me wonder if Andy is done cleaning out his mental closet. There always seems to be news of new recordings in the works (most recently with Robyn Hitchcock) that never seem to materialize. With the present day technologies allowing him to record, mix & distribute his music without the money boys or record company weasels intervening, I’m hoping that someone who has been as prolific in the past as Partridge has been will continue to pump out top-notch material, with the clever lyrics and mix of musical styles to fit the idea behind each song. My eager ears await more!

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