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? Read more
Here’s a clip of Swindon-based orchestral pop boffins XTC with their 1999 track “Green Man” taken from my favourite album of theirs Apple Venus Volume 1. The band had come out of a seven year ‘strike’ when the album was released, after a dispute with their record company. ‘Return to form’ doesn’t quite cover the quality of this album, or each individual song on it, especially this one.
Songwriter Andy Partridge has used pagan imagery in his songs before, most notably on the group’s most highly respected record Skylarking from 1986 on songs like “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Season Cycle”. For the group’s comeback record, he does what that earlier record hinted at – a sumptuously orchestral take on British heritage, as well as a few love songs thrown in for good measure. And of course, the pagan imagery remains. And what is more pagan than the Green Man, a mythical figure in British mythology who makes his appearances in the architecture of the middle ages too, as well as in the literature of the time – remember reading Sir Gawain & the Green Knight in high school? Well, there you go. If you haven’t read that particular work, stop reading this and go find a copy.
For someone who has been a pretty vocal atheist (“Dear God”), this tune is infused with spiritual joy, which I suppose shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive to a belief in a personal god. My favourite line in this song is:
“See the Green Man blow his kiss from high church wall/And a knowing church will amplify his call”
In this song, spirituality has to do with embracing one’s own identity, not trying to get away from it. This to me makes the ideas in it more wonderful, that is full of wonder. This is what spirituality is supposed to be in my book.
The song is danceable too, like a celebration. This is a joyful record, one that makes the petty squabbles often associated with religious thought into what I think it is – an excercise in missing the point. I think this song is saying that we have a rich history, one which is full of imagination and wonder, not just greed and bloodshed. Our heritage is to be embraced, because we’re tied to the Green Man – we are a part of nature, as common to each other as any other part of the natural world.
As an ironic element when compared against the universal harmony communicated in “Green Man”, the recording of the album cost the band a guitarist in long time member Dave Gregory, who was at odds with Partridge through out the sessions. Further, some of Partridge’s most pointed bitterness is also on this album in the song “Your Dictionary”, which is about the acrimonious end to a marriage. Yet the songs really hang together as a whole, even more than ever before. Unfortunately, after the band followed it up with Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) the next year, they went on hiatus, with bassist/singer Colin Moulding having lost interest in the music business, and Partridge allegedly lamenting the loss of Gregory as a collaborator within the group.
Since then, Partridge has released an album with former XTC member and founding member of 80s cult-pop band Shriekback, keyboardist Barry Andrews. The record is an improvisational instrumental album under the name Monstrance.
Here’s a clip of Judee Sill singing her song ‘The Kiss’ in 1973, a standout track from the album Heart Food, released that year.
Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ button. Enlarge the viewing window by clicking on the magnifying glass icon.
Judee Sill is looked upon by many as a sort of female Nick Drake, being somewhat of a tragic figure who completed only a small body of work before passing away. Sill made two records which were given a release during her lifetime; 1971’s Judee Silland the aforementioned Heart Food. A third album, the existence of which was little more than a rumour at one time, was only recently released under the name Dreams Come Truewhich incorporates songs intended for the original release along with bonus tracks.
Although her music is similar in feel to Nick Drake’s in some ways – lots of strings, acoustic guitar, and melancholy to match – Sill’s is distinctly more American-sounding, incorporating a lot of Western music (as in country and…) and choral music (achieved with choirs of multitracked Judees), while featuring lyrics with some fairly overt references to spiritual concerns. She was championed by Graham Nash, who was a big fan after hearing her music on the then-fledgling Asylum label, the home of a lot of singer-songwriters at the time. He produced her hit ‘Jesus Was a Crossmaker’.
My favourite track of hers is “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos”; a poignant, and beautiful rumination on being in a state of spiritual longing. I actually discovered her through an unlikely (on the surface at least) source. I read an interview with Andy Partridge of XTC, who is also a fan. When you hear some of the orchestral arrangements on the XTC album Apple Venus, Vol. 1, the connection with Sill becomes pretty clear. This is particularly true on a song like ‘Knights in Shining Karma‘ and ‘The Last Balloon’ on that album.
One of the things which makes Judee Sill’s music so compelling is understanding the background of the artist herself. Her heavy involvement in hard drugs offset her more tender spiritual yearnings as reflected in her music. The contrast between the two worlds she inhabited – music and heroin – give you the sense that these songs meant more than just a career for her. It must have been part of her struggle to remain in the light too.
Despite her efforts, she disappeared into the LA underground by the end of the 70s and died of an overdose. But, we’ve got her music now.