By John Lane
I discovered XTC in a rather roundabout way, circa 1985, when I visited my local record shop (anachronistic now, but communal then). The clerk—a Joe-Cocker-esque fellow with buckteeth and rather woolly sideburns threatening to overtake his face—had put on a record by a band called The Dukes of Stratosphear, which played over the store’s sound system. The opening chords of “What In the World” sent me reeling, and I had to find out what group this was. Said clerk snuffled condescendingly and informed me that this was a “joke album” by a group known as XTC. That’s all I needed to know, and I paid the extra money for this import record, 25 O’Clock.
Grabbing hold of XTC then was an elusive, vaporous thing, for they were a band in transition. And now that I think of it, they always were in a sort of stress-and-strain tumult, never really settling down and just getting on blissfully with the work of making music. By 1985, the members were down to Andy Partridge (chief songwriter, guitar), Colin Moulding (bass, contributing songwriter), and Dave Gregory (guitar). Their original drummer Terry Chambers had left in 1983, after about a five-year run, when he discovered that Partridge was going to relegate the band to non-touring status. Chambers left mid-session during recordings for a rather comparatively pastoral record, grabbing his cigarettes and car keys and ultimately taking his pregnant girlfriend out of ashen Swindon and down to sunny Australia.
Pause button. So, who were XTC at that moment in time? They had arrived via the punk boat in 1978, with Partridge coming across as a sort of amphetamine-gobbling, hiccupping Buddy Holly for the next generation. The music was branded “quirky,” just this side of The Talking Heads, and keyboardist Barry Andrews briefly augmented the sound by layering stop-and-start pop songs with fuzzy chromatic runs and glissandos. (See White Music and Go2 for proof of Andrews’ presence.) But then, with Andrews gone, the band started becoming a slightly more sophisticated pop band. Out goes Andrews, and in comes Dave Gregory. Albums like Black Sea and English Settlement reflect a steady maturation in production and attention to diversity, craftsmanship of tune-smithing.
And here’s where the obituary begins to write itself.
The band is playing/touring neck-and-neck with a budding group called The Police, fronted by a fellow who has since become rock and roll’s equivalent of Ikea furniture— pleasant, but ultimately not durable. Tour buses, chartered flights, press conferences, sell-out gigs at prominent forums. . . and Andy Partridge comes to the realization that XTC is deeply in debt and that, oh yes, he seems to have developed stage fright.
How then does a band make a comeback when its chief musical architect fears making public appearances? Well, XTC submits to record company pressure and hires long-in-the-tooth wunderkind Todd Rundgren to produce (in my estimation) their finest album Skylarking (released in 1986). If that isn’t enough, then you re-press the album so it includes a controversial song titled “Dear God,” which is essentially a letter to a God that the narrator says doesn’t exist. Given the thin-skinned nature of certain fringes of American culture, the backlash to such a song equals free publicity. XTC are racing up a new thing titled “the college charts” and it looks like the sky is the limit.
Which leads me to my clumsy theory that XTC, or rather Andy Partridge, has always had a terrible instinct concerning the future. They followed up their previous album’s success with Oranges and Lemons in 1989, but at a funny cost—it was more commercial. Suddenly Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix are hanging out at the studio; the music press is going nuts by making Beatle comparisons (helped in part by shameless Yellow Submarine-esque sleeve art); Suzanne Vega gushes that this album is simply amazing. The album gathers a roman-candle-like following with a new crowd, and somewhat alienates the diehards who can’t wrap their mind around having an XTC album produced by a guy who worked with Boy George previously. (That said, “Chalkhills and Children” remains a stellar song from that record.)
Pages: 1 2