XTC was originally a four-piece punk group from Swindon,
England, signed in the first industry rush to capitalize on the growing punk fascination of ‘77-’78. Their inherent
sense of pop melody never fit them in to this bag, and their first two records, WHITE MUSIC and GO 2, while interesting, are
dissonant and full of clangor, and seem to get more so the more you listen.
Things get more tuneful with the very good BLACK SEA (B+)
and DRUMS AND WIRES (B+), but they’re not to the magic just yet. They were gaining in popularity around this time and
were road contemporaries of The Police, The Attractions, Talking Heads, all the new wavers of the time. Andy Partridge was
quite the performer back in the day, it’s been said. And then with the release of their first excellent record, ENGLISH
SETTLEMENT (A-) (featuring the wonderful “Senses Working Overtime”) XTC looked poised on the brink of stardom.
Their lead singer and chief songwriter had a virtual meltdown on the road, got deathly ill, and vowed to never ever play live
again. And he never has. Instead, he’s made some of the greatest studio recordings ever in a constant outpouring of
exceptionally unique and individual music, inspiring a legion of dedicated fans the world over.
This fantastic stretch of albums begins with 1982’s
MUMMER (B+), the weakest and most mellow of them all, but fine all the same (“Love On A Farmboy's Wages”). The
group pared down to a trio, featuring Andy, his good friend and excellent bassist Colin Moulding, and the exceptional Dave
Gregory on lead guitar and keyboards. Every XTC record has a different drummer and thus, each one has a distinct identity.
The quality of writing begins to pick up on 1984’s
THE BIG EXPRESS (A). It’s a strange sounding record, very English, because Andy is strange sounding and very English.
They are in fact the last truly great English pop group. Most of ’90’s Brit pop is based on XTC and yet most young
people don’t know who they are. Strange and fitting fate for a reclusive genius.
Andy Partridge doesn’t make overtly commercial music
and his songs are intricate and busy; thus, XTC was almost out of luck when Virgin records gave them a list of producers to
choose from to make their next record with. Todd Rundgren was on the list, and they picked him; a choice that would go on
to both save the group’s future and annoy Andy to this very day. He has never had a completely happy, civil or satisfying
experience with a record producer, and thus, like drummers, there’s a different one on every one of his records. The
making of what might be their best album, SKYLARKING (A+) was, according to Andy, the worst of them all.
They butted heads from the beginning, both severe control
freaks, and it seems Todd won out. For one, there are more Colin Moulding songs on SKYLARKING than any other XTC record (the
ratio usually being about five to one in favor of Andy). Todd liked a lot of Colin’s stuff and put the record in sequence
accordingly. They’re not nearly as strong as Andy’s (never really are) but rank among his best, giving the album
a refreshing Beatlesque feel because of the alternating lead singers. Andy’s material is uniformly excellent, especially
the political maelstrom that is “Dear God,” the most significant song of his career. He didn’t even want
it on the record, but the company made them put it on, and the controversy that accompanied its release literally saved the
band and gave the album legs that catapulted the group into major cult status. “Dear God” is a great song and
triumph, although Andy said directly to me when I sought him out in the summer of ’94 that he thought it was a failure
of expression and did not get it right. We should all get it wrong like that a few times. Either way, SKYLARKING is a triumph,
and worth hearing in its entirety. Even Andy says Todd Rundgren did a great job on it, although he was a bit of a egotistic
controlling jerk. Sometimes you need that, it seems.
In 1989, they put out another masterwork in the tart and
tuneful ORANGES AND LEMONS (A+) and I will not deny the pleasure I got hearing “The Mayor Of Simpleton” on the
radio all that spring and summer. Radio seemed good again, valid, interesting. Who’d have thought? The rest of the record
is a revelation of originality. There’s never been anything like it in Pop. Colin’s in fine form also, as the
second single “King For A Day” proves in spades and diamonds. There are fifteen great songs on this album, including
the stellar “Scarecrow People,” “Across This Antheap,” “Hold Me My Daddy” and perhaps
Andy’s best song, “Chalkhills And Children,” a paean to his beloved English countryside. Pop music does
not get much better than this.
Produced by of all people Gus Dudgeon, another clash for
Andy, NONESUCH appeared in 1992 with barely a reaction from anyone other than the faithful, a sad reality commented on by
the old english title. It means work of great worth never to be appreciated in its own time. Nonesuch indeed. Still, for anyone
willing to go looking, there are umpteen gems here, including the mind-trip of “Humble Daisy,” the piano brilliance
of “Rook,” the multi-colored romp of “Omnibus” and the surreal rock and roll of “That Wave.”
APPLE VENUS, VOL. 1 (A+)
It had been two years since NONESUCH when I sought Andy Partridge
out in the summer of 1994. He came to the door and peeked out through his Lennon spectacles. He was charming and welcoming
and made me and my Dad and Pam tea. We sat in his English kitchen with the shed in the backyard and talked about religion,
music, women, and the evil that is the record industry. He said, and I quote, “Stay independent as long as you can,
Steve.” He said he and Colin were working on new songs and that maybe there would be a new record in the next year or
two. We left on Cloud 9 and the next thing I knew, APPLE VENUS came out another four years later. A nightmare of legal hassles
with Virgin and Geffen, some very bad prostate trouble, a burgeoning love affair with a young American woman who happened
to be there at his house when I came calling, and you’ve got a new label, a batch of brilliant new love songs, and a
new sense of purpose. The faithful were happy, and no one else cared. It’s a great record, maybe his best. “Green
Man” alone is worth knowing about this guy. Check out the way Colin outdoes the Davies brothers on “Frivolous
Tonight.” “I Can’t Own Her,” “Easter Theatre” and “Harvest Festival” is orchestral
Pop music, the likes of which has not been heard since the heady days of ‘66-’67. These guys make living in a
small unknown English town two hours north of London seem like the way to go. Actually, it was not unlike the American northeast,
or should I say that the other way around? Their music is charming and wonderful, as was the auteur when I had the great honor
of meeting him.
WASP STAR, APPLE VENUS VOL. 2 (A)
APPLE VENUS was originally intended as a double album, one
half Orchestra, one half Guitar. Andy cut it in two and the second half is just as good, only a bit more Stonesy, if you can
stretch your mind to allow that kind of claim of someone so Poppy and English. Again, it’s an album of great Pop music,
especially the startling “Playground” and the mini-suite “The Wheel And The Maypole.” When a great
artist falls in love, it’s fun to hear the sparks fly. Apple Venus, Wasp Star, come out, come out wherever you are.
At its purest form, living and breathing and loving and being alive in the presence of God is a musical thing. God wants music,
God wants to be celebrated and thanked by His/Her children. When I hear music like this, I know this is true. That’s
why I love Andy Partridge and music in the first place. It’s clear evidence to the mind of man of the greatness of the
Mind of God. I think babies are in that category also. And God knows they’re musical in their essence, breathing and
sound. XTC, XTC, XTC.