Listen to this track by tri-cornered melancholically optimistic pop concern XTC. It’s “Wrapped In Grey”, a should-have-been hit single as taken from the band’s 1992 double-LP Nonsuch.
The song displays writer/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s affinity for Brian Wilsonesque pop confectionary, and also (for those in the know) the influence of Judee Sill, whichslowly came to the fore as XTC put out more and more bucolic and elegantly arranged albums. This mix of influences creates a sort of partly-sunny effect, with the Brian Wilson influence providing the endless summery vibe to contrast with Judee Sill’s influence that suggests hopefulness in the presence of gathering gloom. But, like the work of both, it’s Partridge’s own penchant for the childlike and the innocent that really brings this song to life, parrots and lemurs and all.
For all of this song’s defiant optimism, which is yet another selling point, there is a certain level of irony to be appreciated when comparing the tone and tenor of this song to the situation in which it was recorded and released. By the time the record came out, the band were in the throes of a conflict with their record company, Virgin, who cancelled this very song as a single against Partridge’s wishes. This led the band as a whole to take some out of the ordinary, and even drastic, steps in response. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindonian pop perfectionists and Little England observers XTC. It’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a single as taken from their 1982 double album English Settlement. On that record, writers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding explore the English identity as could, and perhaps still can, be found in small towns all over the country.
“No Thugs In Our House” appeared in an historic context, with racially motivated violence and the rise of British national parties characterizing the social landscape in Britain in the early 1980s. The National Front in particular was a high profile group that ignited racially motivated incidents and hate speech at the time that began to seep into the public consciousness, poisoning the political viewpoints of many including the young. They framed incoming immigrants as scapegoats. These “foreigners” were supposedly taking all the good jobs, somehow soaking up a disproportionate percentage of social benefits at the same time, and generally encroaching upon traditional (read: white) British culture. In 2016, this brand of propaganda as it covers up austerity measures of sitting governments, and as it provides traction for fringe single-issue groups still sounds pretty familiar.
But, having said all that, I don’t think that white supremacist groups are the target in this song at all. In many ways, the criticism here in this song has more sinister and wider-reaching implications. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindon new wave representatives and documented America-admirers, XTC. It’s “Statue Of Liberty”, a single as taken from their 1978 debut album White Music.
The line-up to be heard here is the earliest incarnation of the band, with stalwarts Andy Partridge (vocals and guitar) and Colin Moulding (vocals and bass) being joined by drummer Terry Chambers and keyboardist Barry Andrews. Chambers would depart by the time the sessions for 1983’s Mummer were in process. Barry Andrews would leave soon after this record, and go on to form Shriekback.
Starting out, XTC was very much in the vein of their post-punk peers. And this was among their earliest singles, a tune about the iconic lady statue that adorns the New York City skyline, symbolizing the ideals of freedom and liberty for immigrants to a land of opportunity.
But, this song takes a bit more from that equation, with a more erotic attachment to the lady herself, so much so that the line about “sailing beneath your skirt” raised eyebrows at the BBC. But, I think this song says a lot more than just being provocative for its own sake. Read more
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
Listen to this track by former post-punk popsters and neo-psychedelic bucolicist champs XTC. It’s the lushly arranged tale of mythic innocence, “Mermaid Smiled” as taken from their landmark 1986 album Skylarkinga record which came about due to the efforts of at least two musical visionaries. The first being singer/guitarist and songwriter Andy Partridge, and the other being pop music wunderkind Todd Rundgren who served as producer. And when these two guys got together – boy! – did the sparks fly, in more ways than one!
The reason that the record is considered a gem in the band’s catalog is the musical and thematic unity it represented for the group at the time, having abandoned touring by 1982, and having embraced their love of 60s psychedelia and orchestral flourishes as a studio band. And you can certainly hear traces of that in this song, with lyrics concerning mythical creatures and ‘caves of memory’ which may not have flown so straight as lyrical content when the group put out their first few records by 1977-78, when they were more in line with a punk and post punk musical ethos.
In edition, what is evoked here is a Romantic spirit in the capital ‘R’ sense of the word, with the title ‘Skylarking’ referring to Percy Shelley’s “To a Skylark” poem, and the images of an ideal summer firmly at the centre of the record. This is not only true for this song, but is also bolstered by the presence of some of the best work the band had ever done in “Summer’s Cauldron”, “Sacrificial Bonfire”, “Grass”, and “The Meeting Place”. Read more
Listen to this song by a spikily new wave XTC. It’s “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty’ as taken from their shimmering pop album, 1979’sDrums and Wires. There are an awful lot of bands today, at this very minute, who are trying to capture the sounds XTC were making thirty years ago (!). I think this proves something of their worth alone.
This is a nerd song, written about nerds for nerds. Of course this endears it to my heart, for reasons which I think you can guess. But the music behind it is far from shy and awkward, with all of that call and response between singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s yelping vocal, and guitarist Dave Gregory’s ferocious lead work. And I love that they’ve thrown a bit of the edginess of post-punk together with a kind of hyperactive ska, the rhythm being off-the-beat, and very tense sounding while also being fun.
I think too that the lines about being ‘an iceman living in an iceman town’ in the middle-eight section of the song is interesting too. It’s like even though the narrator feels awkward around his object of affection, she is doing him a favour, bringing him out of a state of numbness. This adds a whole dimension for me to the song. It ceases to be just about an awkward guy who’s shy around a woman. It becomes a song of liberation too.
The Drums and Wires album was a big hit for this band, mostly due to how much play bassist Colin Moulding‘s song “Making Plans For Nigel’ got on North American radio. Even though they would gain similar recognition for another song of theirs, 1982’s “Senses Working Overtime”, their popularity would be curtailed by Andy Partridge’s extreme episode of stage fright while touring the English Settlement album, resulting in a permanent decision not to tour. As such, they would be relegated to the status of a cult band, both in their native UK as well as in North America.
For more information about XTC, check out Ape Records Andy Partrige’s label.
Here’s a clip of XTC-driven pen name band The Dukes of Stratosphear with their Beatles-Meet-Brian-Wilson inspired tune “Brainiac’s daughter” as taken from 1987’s Psonic Psunspot. The song brings together two passions of writer Andy Partridge – psychedelic-era music, and comic books.
Where many think of psychedelic music as lofty in approach and at times inaccessible as pop music, this track reminds the listener that a good deal of psychedelia has an endearing child-like quality to it as well. This makes it something of a perfect fit for XTC, who began to embrace the sensibilities of children and childhood from this point onward in their own songs. This tune is clearly a nod to Paul McCartney’s ‘White Album’-era output, in turn with some of McCartney’s Brian Wilson-oriented sunshiny musical worldview woven right in.
Why the guys in XTC decided to disguise themselves as a lost 60s-psych-pop group Dukes of Stratosphear is anyone’s guess, since they were clearly in debt to many of the influences to whom the Dukes were paying homage anyway. But even if they weren’t ready to release the material under the XTC name, the guys threw themselves well into their roles, even taking on pseudonyms. Lead singer and guitarist Andy Partridge was Sir John Johns. Bassist and singer Colin Moulding was simply ‘the Red Curtain’. And lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory played the part of Lord Cornelius Plum. And on the drum kit, Dave’s brother Ian Gregory as E.I.E.I Owens.
The band put out an EP, 25 O’Clock in 1985, while concurrently working on their masterpiece as XTC, the celebrated Skylarking. That album came with a credit to the Dukes in the liner notes for the use of the Dukes’ guitars. They must have been pleased with their own cleverness on the EP, later putting out a full-length Psonic Psunspot on vinyl in 1987. The compilation album Chips from the Chocolate Fireball came out later that year, which pulled in both releases onto one disc.
It seems that XTC is on indefinite hiatus at the moment. Yet, I wonder if we’ll hear from the Dukes any time soon. The outfit, anonymity and all, might be just the thing it takes to remind everyone concerned what inspired them in the first place, and that music is not something to split hairs over.
Read more about what inspired the Dukes of Stratosphear project, and which sounds inspired the songs on XTC fan site Chalkhills.org.
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.
XTC’s 1982 English Settlement album reflects something of English history, starting from its album cover. Here is an aerial photo of a 3000-year old chalk etching called the Uffington white horse as featured on the cover of XTC’s English Settlement album.
It’s actually found in Oxfordshire, and referenced in texts starting from the middle-ages onward. It is rumoured to not actually be a horse at all, but the dragon which (as legend tells it) was defeated by St. George. Others feel that it represents an older figure, Epona the horse goddess from Celtic traditions. Here’s more information about this fantastic piece of history.
Andy Partridge has made a number of references to ancient British history in his songs. As such, I had always assumed that the cover of this album was of Celtic or ancient Briton origin. But, I had no idea that it wasn’t simply a piece of art, but an actual location…
To give you a feel for the record attached to this image, here’s a clip of XTCdoing their track “Yacht Dance”, a rare live track since the group ceased touring around the time this double album came out. This is the record off of which the band’s song “Senses Working Overtime” is featured, and features a range of styles that makes it roughly parallel to XTC’s ‘White Album’.
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.