XTC: The Never-Ending Obituary

Published on July 30th, 2009 in: Issues, Music, Over the Gadfly's Nest |

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.

oranges and lemons

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.)

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5 Responses to “XTC: The Never-Ending Obituary”

  1. Mister Fusty:
    July 31st, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Great article John! I love XTC and it’s a shame they never quite made it bigger then they deserved. For a long time Skylarking was my favourite too but I recently gave Apple Venus Vol.1 a spin and I have to concede that’s (IMO) their best album.
    I don’t know if you are aware Andy now has his own label Ape Records.
    Here’s a recent interview with Andy

    It’s not very encouraging for those who want more Partridge material..
    “Well, I’m going to be truthful with you. I’ve written so many songs in the last handful of years that I just haven’t felt the need to finish them up. I just have literally about 350 parts of songs that I’m kind of thinking, well, what do I need to finish these up for? I’m wrestling with my attitude to music at the moment. I rather like being an enabler and running the Ape label and being the sleeve designer and the A&R man and all that kind of thing. But as far as my own music goes, I’m really wrestling with: Does anybody need any more songs from me? Do we need a lot of the music that’s out there? We don’t. But it’s that human desire to [dump] everywhere, isn’t it”

  2. JL:
    July 31st, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Thank you, Rob!
    And thanks for the link to the recent Andy interview – sort of sad to read, actually.

    >>PM: Is Colin there? Do you run into each other at the grocery store?

    Partridge: No, he lives about three or four miles out of town in a village outside the town. We just seem to send each other irate e-mails.

  3. Mathew Lane:
    July 31st, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Great piece, bro. Lots of sharp references, my favorite (which you knew as you wrote it) being the buck-toothed record store dude. LOL!

    The story of XTC highlights the timeless love-hate relationship between tyrnants and Bands (capital B). A tyrant needs the Band at first to pose, falsely, as a member rather than as the tyrant. And he needs the Band to go on the road and share the blame. At some point (like the Man Who Would Be King), the tyrant forsakes his Band, and wrests more and more control. Finally, he is alone and effectively dead. The hurtful irony seems to be that he, the tyrant, ultimately cared more for himself than for the illusion that made thousands (we wigh it was MILLIONS) of fans happy.

    Luckily the best of the music remains to speak so well for itself, even as we followers believe there could have been so much more of it had it not been for X, Y or Z.

    It’s hard to take the good with the bad in art, especially when you identify so closely with a work, and wish there was more. After I saw Immortal Beloved – a terrible movie telling a nonetheless important story, I lay awake that night wondering if Beethoven might never have written the 9th symphony if his father hadn’t beat him up. I guess the watered-down XTC version of that would be: if Andy had just stayed commercial in 1982 and not flipped out, would we never have been gifted the riches that so perfectly capped off the XTC collection?

  4. JL:
    August 1st, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Good, prescient points, Mat.

  5. Christian:
    August 9th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks for the post. I only discovered XTC accidentally 2 years ago when a bandmate played Senses Working Overtime on acoustic. I thought that was wicked. I later found out that I have some of their stuffs all along, Skylarking and Apple Venus, but they were labeled Andy Partridge by my dad for some reason. I stayed away thinking it was some country, folk stuffs that I never really dig..
    Do I feel sorry for a super-talented band for not being as huge as they were supposed to? Not really. I never really dig that whole Andy Partridge breakdown, refusing to tour because of stage-fright thing, blah blah blah. As a member of a band, I can be happy to have even just a pinch of Andy’s genius, and for him putting to waste those 350 unfinished songs is just so damn tragic. I really feel sorry for Coulin Molding and co. who obviously do not share Andy’s views. Do I want them to reform? Hell Yeah! It would be nice if they perform even for one last moment just to give closure to their bewildered fans.

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