1,000 Umbrellas Open to Spoil the View: XTC’s English Legacy

Published on November 29th, 2009 in: Culture Shock, Issues, Music, OMG British R Coming |

By James Thurston Davis

I first encountered XTC around 1982, probably their English Settlement album, probably in my friend Marc’s tiny bedroom with the Roger Dean posters on the wall and the cedar chest stuffed with vinyl. I like to think the first thing I remember about that album was Andy Partridge’s snarling vocals on “No Thugs in Our House,” or the aural explosion of “Jason and the Argonauts,” but what really struck me immediately was the overwhelming sense of Englishness that came over me the moment the needle dropped on “Runaways.”

xtc english settlement

I’ve been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember, and growing up, all of my favorite bands were English: Beatles, Moody Blues, Gentle Giant, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson. Most of these bands made music that had little to do with the blues, the primary basis of American rock and roll. These bands had a different set of influences, both lyrically and musically. Progressive rock came out of the English tendency to absorb varied influences, new flavors, weird clothes, and outrageous time signatures. The Beatles made the sitar seem English, and they were one of the primary influences on progressive rock.

Am I saying XTC was a progressive rock band? No, but they were certainly influenced by it. To me, the Englishness I heard so loudly on English Settlement was the same cultural signature I heard in Gentle Giant and Moody Blues. While XTC didn’t have a mellotron, no two songs sounded quite alike. In many ways, their sound was a lot like progressive rock with short hair and skinny ties, especially when I look at the whole of their career. But the XTC sound, no matter the period, is definitively English. It borrows influences widely from home and abroad and mixes its own identity in the shed.

Most people don’t know that XTC—and by that I mean Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding—started as a prog band in 1972, although they quickly switched to a more New York Dolls/glam rock style. That prog influence continued throughout the band’s career. I hear it everywhere: in the songwriting, in the playing, and in the arrangements. It’s no accident that the band’s history mirrors the Beatles’ history, the way XTC stopped touring to work exclusively in the studio, the way their sound evolved from caveman basics to baroque pop symphonies. Some fans today even call them “the Fab Three.”

In 1983, Andy Partridge, the real genius of the group, wanted to concentrate on studio recording, so he drummed up a fluky story about stage fright (later revised to a tale about his wife dumping his supply of drugs down the loo, robbing him of his mojo) to get out of the annoying obligation to perform his music live. But this somewhat perplexing decision (at the time anyway) turned out to be a great gift to music lovers, because pound for pound, XTC was the best band of the last 30 years. Their early music was superb, but every studio creation after they stopped touring is a masterpiece.

Like the Revolver-era Beatles, by 1983 XTC was making records that were too challenging to reproduce faithfully on stage, where they were a great guitar band. The sound palette on English Settlement was already much deeper than merely guitars-bass-drums.

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One Response to “1,000 Umbrellas Open to Spoil the View: XTC’s English Legacy”


  1. JL:
    November 29th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Excellent article!!

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