Years ago, I remember picking up a copy of the Dukes of the Stratosphere Chips From the Chocolate Fireball CD from a local record store, and the store clerk, noticing what I was about to buy, became very excited and made me promise to listen to the CD with headphones. “Ah, The Dukes” he said in excited tones and a big smile on his face. A few years later, I would notice that XTC (the same band as Dukes of the Stratosphere) would often have their own separate rack or box in other record stores I visited; like the Beatles or The Rolling Stones. I noticed a few years later when I purchased an original vinyl pressing of Skylarking that the record store clerk, in a different city as the previous mentioned fan, would remark “Wow, original pressing of Skylarking with “Mermaid Smile!” That’s a great find man.” It would seem that XTC, has over the years, become a favorite of record store people across the country.
So what is with this small yet excited fan base? XTC seems to be a band that has enjoyed success on the fringes, to those who especially love music, but they have often been ignored or unknown to the masses; with such excitement from a few, but not from most? One could say that despite their pop genius, incredible musicality, and usually great lyrics, XTC has remained too eccentric for the general public. They have remained darlings of “College Radio” and record store guys, but unknown to the normal causal music person. Even some great music fans turn away when they hear XTC; they just can’t swallow it.
But, despite their lack of recognition, they have, for the few who love what they have done, made a lasting impression and life enriching impact. Why does everyone know David Bowie, who is also eccentric and brilliant and who often also has his own special rack at the record store, but most people have never heard of Andy Partridge (Andy is one of the two chief songwriters for XTC)?
Both my wife and my brother say they would like XTC, or rather they would like their music, but they just cannot stomach Andy Partridge’s voice. My brother goes as far as to keep copies of XTC songs written and sung by Colin Moulding (the other chief songwriter from XTC) on his media player, but not one song written or sung by Andy. My wife, on the other hand, does not care to hear any of it. She respects the lyrics, and some of the musicality, but just can’t take his singing. And she would not know Colin from Adam.
Yes, Andy Partridge has a unique voice, but, his voice is just one part of XTC that makes them just slightly too misfit or maverick for the general public. (Personally, I love Andy’s voice, and his eccentric style. He’s got his own kind of soul; he’s not afraid to offend or to venture into extremities. He’s not afraid to be a bit too emotive at times. Sometimes he’s very angry, and I can’t help but love it.) But, there’s more to it than just his voice or style.
XTC is a pop band; they make pop music. They even have a song called “This is Pop.” But, sometimes, their songs go places that are almost embarrassing. I feel a little embarrassed for them when I hear songs like “Melt the Guns,” “Living Through Another Cuba,” or “Pink Thing.” Really… I mean really!... Andy, are you going to go there? Do you have no sense of what works and what does not work? Even I, who probably enjoy XTC more than most fans, just cannot stomach some of the songs they allowed to get on their albums. But then, there are songs like “Earn Enough for Us,” “The Mayor of Simpleton,” and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” that are as tasteful, catchy, and brilliant as any pop song I have ever heard. Really… I mean really, Andy,..? Did you really write so many incredible pop songs?
And so, XTC is a band of contradictions. Most of their songs are very tasteful, well written, musically unique and catchy, lyrically challenging and cleaver, yet some of their songs are annoying, mean, musically unpleasant, lyrically myopic, and pretentious. They have not been afraid to do what they wanted to do no matter what other people think, or so it seems. Additionally, XTC simultaneously promotes hedonism and love for one’s neighbor. They make songs about self indulgence, and at the same time, human rights. They criticize society like isolationists, but preach cross cultural and multi-ethnic equality and unity. (As an aside, I don’t know if they had a wealthy background, but they do seem to be highly negatively influenced by the broken, and now less powerful, class system in the UK. The evil of the class system is a recurrent theme in their music, (see “Complicated Game” or “Respectable Street.”), and they seem to lump the Church in with the rest of the stuffy, prejudiced, and narrow-minded upper-class groups in their native land. This is speculation, but they may have encountered a broken Church in the UK that put “proper behavior” and “proper etiquette,” above the True Gospel of Christ’s love for the poor and disenfranchised. Or, they may simply have missed the Gospel message and misunderstood the Church. Again, there can only be speculation about this.)
A word about Colin, before I proceed: Colin wrote scientifically fewer recorded songs than Andy. By my count, he did only 2 to 3 songs per album when most of their albums consisted of 10 to 14 songs. But, many of the more well known and respected songs are songs he wrote. He was responsible for great songs like “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Generals and Majors,” and “King for A Day.” So, fewer is not less.
All of this having been said, there is not much else I can say about XTC, at this point, that has not already been said. I am not going to talk about their most respected album, Skylarking, though I love it. (Andy said, about Skylarking, something to the effect that the producer, Todd Rundgrend, “baked summer into a cake.”) I’m not going to talk anymore about the entertaining, funny, and sometimes silly Dukes of the Stratosphere project (though I would encourage you to look into it. It’s some of their best material, despite that they blatantly attempts to mimic John Lennon, Syd Barrett, and even Brian Wilson). I’m not going to talk about what a leap forward Drums and Wires was, though again, I would suggest checking it out. I’m not going to talk about how Oranges & Lemons was a big disappointment despite having 4 or 5 great songs on it. However, I believe I would like to shine some light on a lesser respected and more overlooked album by XTC.
Why do I think Mummer gets a bad rap? Why do I think it’s actually one of XTC’s stronger albums? Mummer comes on the heels of Andy’s Partridge’s famous nervous breakdown. Before, the band had had a strict touring schedule, which proved to be too much for Andy by the end of 1982. They had, before this album, written songs that would be on records but also would be played live. After Andy’s breakdown, the band decided to keep making music, but to never tour or play a live show again. The result was (much like the result when the Beatles decided to stop touring and send the record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, on tour in their stead) XTC was now free to solely focus on trying to make great albums. The first of these is Mummer.
If Skylarking is “Summer baked into a cake,” Mummer is Spring etched into vinyl. It was their most pastoral and agrarian album to date. I first got into the record when I was driving through the Shenandoah Valley in late spring or early summer partially in the rain. The effect of the album together with the seasonal and weather sensations was very powerful. You can fell the earth on this album. You can see the crops, the trees, the green fields, the wind in the trees, the people living off the land, the violence, the struggle, the freshly picked food on the table, and the wet biosphere of springtime.
I mention violence and struggle as the album also brings to mind historical social structures of the anglio-saxon, middle ages, enlightenment and 20th century periods of Britton. While “Love on A Farmboy’s Wages” tells a sweet and sad story of the hardship of farm laborers who don’t own the land they work, “Deliver Us From the Elements” reminds us of our dependency on the yield of the Earth that can often feel fickle and disheartening. The former song mentioned has an acoustic traditional musical sound, while the latter has an amazingly appropriate synth drowning rhythm with crashes of thunder and howling wind. “Deliver” brings to mind the plight of the peasantry in a primeval time. “Great Fire” also has a natural influence in word and sound, though, lyrically it is metaphorical and actually about a relationship.
But, as historical, natural, and agricultural themes go, the most powerful song on the album is “Human Alchemy.” This song might contain some of XTC’s most moving and striking lyrics. It’s one of many of their songs, pined by Andy, that point to a Christian prospective though Andy is a self professed atheist. (see also, “Knuckle Down,” “Balled of Peter Pumpkinhead,” “Reign of Blows,” and “Wrapped in Grey.”) “Human Alchemy” is about slavery. It’s about the horror that some people actually enslaved other people for profit. As the song says, “we turned skins of black into skins of brightest Gold,” or they dehumanized, subjugated, and mistreated people who looked different from them to make money. But, as the song goes on to say, there is a great toll on the human soul when one does such great evil to a fellow human; “Although we held the whip, you know we where the real slaves.” And so, XTC is willing to come right out with it, to go as far as to say, when you do such evil, you become the one who is in bondage. God have mercy on those who mistreat God’s people while the master is away. Watch out, because He is coming back at a time you don’t expect!
One of my brother’s favorite XTC songs is “Wonderland.” This song, pined by Colin Moulding, displays early example of a clever and perfect use of the analogue synthesizer to convey a lush, intricate, beautiful, and fantastical setting. Though “Wonderland” is a clever metaphor for frustration in a relationship, it is also very catchy, smooth, effortless, and beautiful. It continues the pastoral and British themes of Mummer.
“Beating of Hearts” is, again, a song about choosing Love over violence. It’s not the best Andy Partrage song on the subject, but it’s still a powerful anthem. Remember that Love is more powerful than evil. Remember that the Light will overcome the Darkness. Musically, it, like some other songs on the record, has a somewhat traditional sound, almost Indian sounding at times, and the rhythm is almost African or Japanese in style. It’s not pulled off as well as it could be, but it’s not bad.
With “Ladybird,” one can see the spring sun shining in the window and the green meadows of England. Though it’s a love song, again like many of Andy’s songs somewhat metaphorical, it’s musically an attempt to incorporate jazz with the consistent pastoral setting. While with “In Loving Memory of a Name,” Colin conjures images of small villages in the UK with medieval churches, with “Me and The Wind” XTC successfully pulls off another elemental sounding recording, again with metaphors about a relationship, but in 3 beats per measure and without sounding at all like a waltz. “Me and The Wind” is musically possibly one of XTC’s stronger, more pleasant, and more interesting songs.
Lastly, “Funk Pop a Roll” is a straight rock song criticizing the quality of radio songs. As Andy says about pop music, “Swallowing is easy when it has not taste.” And so, we end with XTC’s clam that pop music is shallow, weak, and meaningless, yet they are doing so with a short catchy rock-pop song. Maybe they never meant to make pop music after all. Maybe, though they claim in another song “This is Pop,” they intended to do something else? If so, how do you account for all the Pop hooks, catchy melodies, concise songs, verse/chorus structures? Maybe they are what they criticize. In the same way they criticize those who would make music to make money, making the music weak and “tasteless,” they made money making catchy songs, though not all tasteless, some taste like rubbish. Though they would criticize the social structure and the mistreatment of the poor, they are a part of this same social structure. Though they are on the fringes, they are still on the inside. And, as with all of us, they strive for something better, they long for a better world, but they are not only a part of the broken world, they are active participants, like all of us. The Apostle Paul says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Let us not grow weary in doing good. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”