Listen to this track by superlative Swindonian pop trio XTC. It’s “Chalkhills and Children”, the closing track as taken from their 1989 record Oranges & Lemons, which was their official follow-up to the high-watermark Skylarking album, and their ninth overall not counting the Dukes of Stratosphear releases, their alter-ego band.
The new record was to be released after a stunning Stateside success with the “Dear God” single, which had been added to US versions of Skylarking. It was crunch time for the band to come up with the next big thing. That’s the deal for the not-quite-widely-accepted band. It’s not much of a draw for someone like singer-guitarist and songwriter Andy Partridge who writes great songs, but isn’t interested in getting caught up in the gears of the star-maker machinery.
“Chalkhills and Children” catches Partridge right in the middle of this situation. Partridge and the rest of the band were on a journey further upward toward the next echelon of fame after a successful single in “Dear God”. All the while, they were still on tenterhooks when it came to being secure in the world of showbiz commerce.
So, how does this song reflect all of that? And what does it deliver outside of the life of its writer?
One of the draws of Partridge’s songwriting is that it touches on the fantastical, and the child-like. This song is one of the best examples of that admirable quality, with the addition of other complementary ingredients thrown in. It’s slightly melancholy, but is also infused with a sense of contentment and restfulness, too. It is dreamlike, like a Little Nemo strip in pop song form.
And yet one of its internal contradictions is that even if this song strikes a dream-like tone around the idea of being carried away by unreality, it is ultimately about staying firmly footed in what’s real. It’s really a song about perspective, and how it can guard against delusions, many of which are perpetuated by fame or the promise of it, which Partridge and the band found themselves dealing with at the time the song was written.
The band had been brought into Los Angeles, families in tow, by the record company to complete a new record which was beginning to amass costs to the point where the project itself was in danger of having its plug pulled. And along with that threat, any potential of success attached to it would be dashed. The stakes were high to maintain momentum, which is the real currency in the music business. But, so is hanging onto what’s real in one’s life while riding the roller coaster.
In an interview conducted by Todd Bernhardt specifically discussing the song, Andy Partridge expands on this idea:
What do I see when I look out my window? Chalk hills. What do I see when I look down in the kitchen, or look in the garden? I see children. They’re real things. They’re the real countryside around here, they’re the reason you’re responsible old dad — it’s the stuff that keeps your feet on the ground. It keeps you level — there’s no fakery involved.
You can’t be fake for the kids — I mean, okay, you can dress up like a space monster from the Planet X and scare the shit out of them by chasing them around the garden, but that’s not fake — it’s not like show business. Show business is all fake. Being a father is not fake, and the hills around here are not fake. [Read the whole interview]
Balanced off with “getting higher” are the things that we can be sure of on the ground; our roles as a parent, and the place we call home. This goes beyond the circumstances under which this song was written. This is a balance that everyone has to strike; to know what it really important in one’s life, and to place energy and time according to that importance.
XTC never became U2 with this record. But the single “Mayor of Simpleton” off of it would crack the Billboard top 100 with a number seventy-two. They’d get a number one showing on the Modern Rock chart with that song too. Subsequent singles “King For A Day” and “The Loving” would all feature in the top ten on the modern rock charts. The album as a whole would score a number 44 on the Billboard Top 200. They even appeared on Letterman! Their efforts paid off.
They would go on to create three more great records, one of them being their best (in my opinion), Apple Venus, Vol. 1. After the follow-up to that album, they’d fade away.
Andy Partridge still lives in Swindon, surrounded by the very hills he sings about here. And since this song was written, one of the titular children of Andy Partridge’s has become a musician herself. Check out Holly Partridge on Soundcloud to check out the tuneage.
In the last decade, Partridge has taken to the curation of XTC’s back catalogue on his Ape Records label. Check out the Ape House site to catch up to what he’s up to, including the promotion of other artists and their releases on that boutique label, as well as his blog and podcast.