The Great XTC Problem

September 2001
by Craig Thomas

1. Entrée

In the past twelve months having done a lot of thinking and a lot of talking to people about XTC, two hugely salient facts have emerged: 1. on both sides of the Atlantic, nobody knows who the fuck XTC are. Thus, the market for the XTC back catalogue and future albums is huge. 2. When I have introduced people to this music, without exception, they love it. In fact, it has become an absurdity to me that this wonderful music is unknown to people, and not merely ‘people’, but music people, folk who have collections of albums running into hundreds. It's bizarre, surreal, practically a tragedy, because this is very much not what the two guys left in the band wants.

This is The XTC Problem.

2. The Scene Is Dead/Long Live The Scene

2001. Scattered around the country in what, drawing rooms in country houses in the Cotswolds ? elegant kitchens with oak farmhouse kitchen tables in bright, chic, city Islington homes? in swish converted barns in rural France? are the bright, fashionable people who literally made the scene in London in ‘67 and ‘68. At least occasionally they must find themselves considering the state of things now in the world of grown up pop and rock music and either piss themselves laughing or get very, very depressed. Back then, Jimi was inventing modern electric guitar playing down the Bag O' Nails where Paul met Linda, Cream were setting things ablaze, The Beatles were still Gods making starlight out of thin air, and there, right there, a new music - rock music was being formed and fashioned into being. And if it didn't change ‘The World’ then ‘The World’ is the big square one where fuddy-duddies in suits listen to Radio 3 and refuse to accept life as ninety-five per cent rest of us know it.

It has been much documented by the actors, artists, writers, record producers, photographers, singers and swingers, that the world of the mid-to-late Sixties had been re-spun on its axis to make it full of endless possibilities: youth was taking over as a new social, and maybe political order threatened to be born. Jagger himself marched on the American Embassy and wrote ‘Street Fighting Man’, man. The story goes that these dreams died at Altamont in ‘69, but this one was created by fake intellectuals who didn't know their history and took an easy way out. So the revolution wasn't political. Tell it to the Seventies feminists. You think the arrival on the scene of Germaine Greer and the clitoris would have happened without The Beatles and The Stones? Let me tell you, the zeitgeist was still being made by the music of the Sixties through the next decade to the dog days of Reagan and Thatcher, by which time there was punk. This wasn't political? So, The Stranglers, Elvis Costello and, now lookit, XTC were never political? Let's say things were still exciting up to 1980, give or take Supertramp and The Eagles. The revolution went on, brother, only it was in speech, thought and the written word, not, seemingly, in Westminster (we'll put aside the lowering of the voting age, homosexual consent and the abortion laws for now, shall we?).

But just look at it now. Channel 4 makes a documentary about the ex-Stones lead singer as he makes another studio album. Well it should be ‘ex-Stones’ but he still, pushing 60, Sixty!, cavorts around gargantuan stages in outdoor sports arenas with the same old band singing the same old stuff, trying to recreate Jumpin' Jack Flash. Across the way, Roger Daltrey is still declaiming to the multitude his desire to die before he gets old. McCartney, now a knight of the realm, records a song for a noble charity, Ray Davies' one-man-music and raconteur show is a year ago now, but the successors to the first family line troop on in a way that would make Dickie Henderson proud: Elton wears a wig and performs; Waters still plays the hits of the Floyd; Yes and Tull still knock ‘em dead while an unholy host of others: Purple, Heep, Groundhogs, Lindisfarne, Gong, and Caravan to name but a few, plough a greying, balding middle-aged furrow and refuse, musically, to die. Clapton is, of course, Clapton. Even Quo cannot be stopped from looming out of the Rockbroker Belt to perform somewhere or other. And this is just the English.

Even those who came to destroy and bury those effete, pampered stars who existed to smash hotel rooms, do vast amounts of drugs, get up on stage with dry ice and lasers as a backdrop to serious two hour sets and those who would do brown rice instead of coke, have failed to burn violently and fade. You can still get out there and see Paul Weller, the remains of The Clash, Nick Lowe and Dr Feelgood, John Otway (by God!) and Graham Parker, though it's true, one doubts whether The Pistols will doing a Christmas tour this time around.

What a farce. We all knew by 1980 that the dazzling, orgasmic, life changing animal that was ‘rock’, whatever form you took it in, had become just a commodity like cars and clothes. But whoever would have thought that you would still be able to buy a ticket to see Curved Air in the twenty-first century. There is no longer anything remotely approaching a scene for the Woodstock generation of Britain - ‘Isle Of Wight Generation’ just don't have the same ring - just a long, trail of disaster as literally hundreds of singers and musicians from the great days attempt embarrassingly to recreate the past for a living. How on earth can we expect our children and all too soon, grandchildren, to respect the music we loved when we were young, now it's cold remains are being heated up in, surely, chicken-in-a-basket circuit of clubs and old, clapped out venues.

And yet, guess what: it isn't like that. There is a scene, only it's nothing like the Sixties. And anyway, almost all us who loved our pop, our rock, our blues and our progressive music weren't actually at The Bag O' Nails or The Marquee. O that we had been. Not all of us can be born around 1950 and live within reach of the throbbing pulse of the capital. We live in Worksop or Reddich, not Chelsea and we work nine-to-five to pay the mortgage. And here's what we do in 2001 if the lifeblood in us hasn't dried up completely: we go see Tull and Yes and Nils Lofgren, Bowie, Neil Young, John Cale and get this: Brian Wilson, and we realise that the music we listened to as teenagers and young men is and always has been indisputably great and is still a great joy to hear live. We may be shocked, but we listen and we thrill to understand that a 50 year old can still sing in tune and his (or her) voice can still send you into transports of delight and move you after all this bloody time.

It gets better. We have aged. We have grown lines of wisdom and experience. The lyrics which flew over our heads at 19 have taken on an unsuspected resonance at 39 and 49. The melodies flow and the riffs electrify the spine and somehow, our brains interpret the messages with a depth and a profundity we didn't suspect for a second might one day sustain us as we ran hell for leather for the last train through Finsbury Park. Hell, at 17 we couldn't even grasp that one day flares would be as obsolete as Bird's Instant Whip. It might be absurd when Nils sings,

"Just another room, just another town,

same old crazy people hanging around",

and a bunch of lame looking middle aged Sheffield blokes cheer like mad when they're about as crazy as a bag of Sainsbury's Continental Four Leaf Salad, but when it all comes down, they have it right: twenty-odd years on, the music is still the music and played right through decent sound systems it sounds wonderful: not nostalgically wonderful, just sublimely, excitingly, aaah, beautifully wonderful. What's happening is that Rock-Pop Music is growing a proper history, and just as the paintings of Picasso, the plays of Brecht and the stories of Raymond Chandler glow with the richness of age, so does ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, The Abbey Road Medley, Trout Mask Replica and Supper's Ready.

But here's what I came to say: in the light of all this, what are we going to do about the XTC problem?

In the midst of the astonishing endurance and enduring magic of the music of the Sixties and Seventies, the literature which reflects back on the history of this music is going to grow on both sides of the Atlantic. Which of course is wonderful. But the one thing I truly worry about is the place of XTC in it. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry about us" said Andy Partridge when I went to interview him in October 2001. How could anyone, when they know they sit in the presence of - and this is a commonplace to those in the know - a truly great artist? I just get to feeling bad sometimes at the unfairness of it all. The music of this band is as important as anyone's in the History of Modern Music save perhaps, historically Elvis and The Beatles, and yet they remain completely anonymous in national and international terms.

Though Andy wouldn't have it when I spoke to him, the fact that Andy won't play his and his partner Colin Moulding's songs live goes a mighty long way to explaining this. ‘If only you would, Andy, if only you would’ it's easy to wail to yourself as you're shaving, or driving to work or listening to one of their many superlative song productions. And yet the problem, as I think I've discovered, is not that Andy Partridge won't, but that Andy Partridge can't.

As Andy unfolds the story of his traumatic early life: absent father, psychologically disturbed then absent mother, then addiction to valium practically before being old enough to smoke his first cigarette, and being cognisant of the chronic exploitation of the band in which he was a key member and his inability to cope with it, the penny drops. Of course he can't tour. How could he possibly go back to a regime which may trigger flashbacks to anxiety attacks and lying in a snowbound field in upstate New York suddenly not knowing who you are? Reminders of times when spasms of intense physical pain gripped the stomach, links to a time in your history when a man's worst imaginable fear stares you down daily, hourly? You're sitting in this man's warm, comfortable front room on a sunny autumn afternoon trying to empathise with a human being tormented and made miserable by the insane rituals of the rock-pop industry and being forced off the stabilising chemical by a supposed loved one in the midst of this tempest and you think, fuck. What am I doing even selfishly thinking about this guy standing upon a platform for my pleasure and convenience? Fans. We expect so much of our heroes, don't we. We buy their works, admire them and think they owe us as if we own them. Aren't we thoughtless bastards. XTC touring, forget it, it'll never happen. Be grateful the bloke's still standing. Well, sitting actually. No, later, standing while you're sitting, in his shed, listening to songs of his which never made it on to albums - terrific sounding material full of those characteristically splendid layered harmonies of clear soft steel and even at the demo stage, imaginatively and consummately laid out guitar and keyboard colour parts, percussion coming into the mix somewhere on the side to accompany really decent drum parts. This is enough. Fuck the peerage, this is immense privilege. Partridge you have my 21 gun salute and I promise you I'll never mention touring again.

3. Almost Christmas Shopping

Then in the pause between a full stop and an asterisk I went among the Christmas shoppers on a darkening Derby Saturday afternoon and bought myself a copy of Transistor Blast.

4. The Problem With Friends

One of the problems of living among friends whose normal response to the word XTC is ‘oh, weren't they.....?’ or ‘oh, didn't they used to....?’ and worst of all, a surprised, ‘Oh, are they still....?’ is that you have no-one to get hold of you by the arms the minute you realise you've become a confirmed XTC fan and say, ‘right: first things first: you have got to get hold of a decent bootleg of the band playing live. Better still, I'll lend you one of mine.’

I came into collision with this 4 CD set of XTC in BBC studios and live in concert after being a fan of sorts for ten years only four days ago and I am still beating my head against my wall in time with the mantra, ‘Thomas how could you be so stupid, Thomas how could you be so stupid’ (Not very rhythmic, but I don't deserve it to be). About 40 seconds into the first song I ever heard them play live - ‘Life Begins At The Hop’ (CD4) - the point hit me hard in the solar plexus: you cannot understand the complexity of the XTC story without having an appreciation of what they were like as a live outfit. And the thing is, if the 1980 Hammersmith Palais disc is anything remotely approaching an accurate aural representation of them fully 21 years ago, they were obviously absolutely fucking fantastic. Sitting in a cold winter office under a pair of headphones about a minute into ‘..The Hop’ gives you the surge of adrenalin and some diamorphine-like substance, only natural, rising from the gut that you normally only get actually being in an audience and suddenly realising that a piece of music you already know and really like suddenly sounds as if it's coming through the supernatural electric circuits of heaven. This, whether we like it or have to lump it, is how music, I guess, is meant to be: sound communicated directly to an audience standing in the same room. Anything else, however magnificent it may sound controlled in the laboratory conditions of the finest home entertainment system, is only, in the end, a counterfeit. The fact that this ageing body could respond biochemically to the XTC thing only faux-live, tells me what I needed to know about how great they were performing to crowds of people on a stage.

Which has only served to pull the rug from under my total sympathy for Andy Partridge domestic and foreign policy: so XTC were just about the best thing you could go see live circa 1981; right, so, then the main man has a breakdown - totally, totally understandable; right, so, for the rest of the 80s the band are still mired up to the armpits in the most nasty, cynical contract since Adolf signed on our Nev's dotted line in ‘38, and I suppose Andy'd be right to say, fuck this, I'm going to back on the boards just to make a sackful of bucks for those brainless sharks and the management deal is also a disaster so he's determined not to go out and make a penny for him. Mm-hmm, so, this goes on forever and we're in the 90s now and then the conflict with Virgin gets really serious and the band are in the litigation game with Ian Reid and it tips over into a strike. Okay so I've got that and I can see that although the post-stage retirement period has now lasted for 12 years or so, he's not going to change his stance, even though Colin and Dave want him to. Then the strike ends, 1999 sees the first album for seven years and it's great and still no tour. Surely now they can make a sound financial deal, no? Now tours can be made in comfort. For the first time XTC would have pretty much total control over the whole deal. The money would be great. And the band would rise in the esteem of the waiting musical world; unless Partridge couldn't cut it on stage any more of course? Nah, I don't believe that for a second. As many tiny warm up gigs as the Man wants to ease him back into singing and playing in front of people. Then, hurrah, here we go: Apple Venus Volume 1, The Tour, surely! Well no, actually. Then Apple Venus Volume 2 and still no change of heart and no sign of one. So to get this straight: Andy Partridge is a musical artist of enormous stature, used to lead a great band on stage with a passion and verve almost unequalled in the annals of the genre, needs the dough and the recognition, makes great records and still sings like a fucking chief angel and yet, still won't tour after twenty years of retirement. I'm sorry, I just don't get it. Not when Brian Wilson just sold out 3 nights at the Festival Hall. Brian Fucking Wilson!

So that's it. Over. It's like the dream of The Beatles playing live again. We were only kidding ourselves and wasting valuable thinking time. Except, Andy told me on the phone that he often thinks about what songs he'd want to do if he ever did decide to do it.....

5. Another Argument In Favour....

The Andy Partridge Story would be a deeply depressing one were it not for the fact that it has produced a man who has given birth to a body of work growing in quality and profundity to an unrivalled supremacy. The battle with Virgin Records, perhaps unrivalled also in its selfishness, greed and stupidity in an industry which excels in all these qualities, which culminated in the five year strike by XTC in the mid-nineties, ended with the eventual release of one of the great records of all time, Apple Venus Volume 1. Though the motivation and skill which fired Colin Moulding's fine body of work through the l979 to 1992 period had apparently dimmed, Partridge's songwriting reached a new, commanding height, way above his rivals, an extraordinary event in the annals of popular music with the man now in his forties.

The album is tightly packed end to end with treasure. Only three songs into the collection, it emerges that this is music that is, to quote a phrase, miles ahead. The opening ‘Rivers Of Orchids’, lyrically fanciful, but noble, and brilliant in its circular interlocking musical themes and ‘Easter Theatre’ the clever but quasi-mystical crafting of two separate musical ideas, the latter a chorus of unparalleled glory, to name an early two. Both are virtually landmark pieces. Rare is music of this level of sophistication and intelligence. Rare too is the completeness of the aural package. Not only does the listener get outstanding songwriting in terms of melodic and harmonic invention, but the arrangements are object lessons in good taste, the singing of Partridge outstanding in its clarity, feeling and overall musicality and the production impeccably clean and cool. In the midst of this Orchid-Easter sandwich, there is a whiff of anti-climax surrounding I'd Like That, yet still this is a song beyond the capability of virtually everyone who would go by the appellation ‘songwriter’ and in any other company would be a treat to listen to. Such is the price of genius.

Andy Partridge himself would likely enough blush at these encomiums and call them ‘ludicrous’. Further, an outsider might also aver that music, whatever the claims of the writer, is a matter of taste. So it is. However, those familiar with their work in the trade have showered XTC with extravagant praise like this down the years, and though the music industry is stuffed full of duff music-making mediocrities these past twenty years especially, there are too many notables in the list for the a serious writing fan to feel confident about unleashing what might be sickeningly gushing praise in the case of almost any other artist. Quite simply, here at the end of 2001, the late music of XTC is the best there is.

As Apple Venus Volume 1 develops through the deeply introspective ‘Knights In Shining Karma’, the quirky attractions of Moulding's ‘Frivolous Tonight’ and the earthy passions of ‘Greenman’, clearly a tremendous album is unfolding. Three songs are left hanging somewhat, wedged between the overhang from the cerebral orgasm of Easter Theatre and the great gemstones among the five songs still to come, yet they each have their own distinct personalities and stellar quality.

‘Frivolous Tonight’ is a mighty hard song to place. Essentially the listener shouldn't think too hard or too often about pidgeon-holding music (those who choose to write about it have little choice, I would plead), but to try the exercise on this outing of CM's leaves one scratching the pate. On paper the lyrics might place it as a Kinks update on suburban man, a furrow they expertly ploughed in the mid-sixties with the likes of ‘Autumn Almanac’ and ‘Well Respected Man’, and I suppose there is a musical resemblance in terms of its easygoing armchair style and amiably plodding rhythm. However, the density of Moulding's vocal and the warmth and depth of the texture via modern studio technology causes it to sound nothing like the band XTC have acknowledged as an influence.

Neither does it sound like a Colin Moulding XTC song. This assessment alone warrants an essay of considerable length on the unexpected developments in his writing; suffice it to say here that the writer's decision to grace the song with a pleasingly unusual chord sequence (a shift to Eflat from an opening key of C [if one plays the song through in C]) steers it well away from Radio 2 comfy-cosy ordinariness. The lyrical theme of middle aged decline, acknowledged and accepted is alone enough to give the song its own distinctive flavour and one which needs many playings to be properly considered. Moulding has always had a flair for loading up his songs with attractive melody, as has his partner, only in a less overtly pop-orientated way*, and FT is no exception. There is tenderness in the melodic line over the verses' descending chord pattern and real strength comes through on the melody line of ‘let's chew the fat/go to pot’. Real ability with melody comes seeping through also in the songs fine supporting wordless vocals.

Much as I would like to agree with the writer's argument in the liner notes to the ‘Homespun’ demo album that the song is essential backward-looking, "I am intensely aware of the song's old fashionedness", I really can't. Moulding's dream of leg-kicking with Barrymore as he sings about Raelbrook shirts probably reflects his fear of the song being negatively received. Much as ‘Frivolous Tonight’ could more easily be dressed up with a naff orchestral arrangement to fit it into a chronic Brucie and Tarbie tails and cane routine than say, ‘Grass’ or ‘King For A Day’, on Apple Venus Volume 1 the song is eccentric alright, but though it isn't exactly cutting edge, it doesn't whiff of a past we'd all rather forget. The mellotron-sounding strings only propel us back as far as about 1971 so Colin can relax. In the final analysis, it's a very strong piece indeed and remarkable for its depth of personality. It may sound nothing remotely like any othersong by XTC, but that is quite another matter.

*Making Plans For Nigel and Funk Pop A Roll notwithstanding.

Like ‘Karma’, ‘Greenman’ is quite superb, but somehow - and this may indeed be a matter of taste - it is dwarfed by the company we're about to learn it's keeping here. With seconds of its fade, ‘Your Dictionary’ arrives.

One of the extraordinary facts about this song is that Partridge did not want it to appear on Apple Venus Volume 1, or to be more precise, he didn't want it to appear, period. Too personal. Too confessional. Paradoxically, Andy Partridge is the most loquacious of interviewees and is apt to reveal close personal revelations to the lucky interviewer and relevant readers the like of which you or I might be reluctant to tell a shrink. On the evidence of the seventh song on Apple Venus and the later track ‘I Can't Own Her’, a terror looms for the XTC aficionado in the form of this question: what songs might Partridge have written over the past twenty years had he been able to let go of his fear of pouring his heart into personal lyrics. This is perhaps tragically so when one considers the fact that the only predecessor to ‘Your Dictionary’ and ‘I Can't Own Her’ in the XTC canon would appear to be ‘Chalkhills And Children’, comfortably one of the finest songs and indeed pieces of music written by any human being, any time.

‘Your Dictionary’ is one of many successes on the album in terms of happy marriage between skilful, thoughtful lyric and effortlessly excellent music. Only in this case the raw pain, anger and bitterness of the lyricist, allied to a suitably downbeat yet suitably restless and, if you will, resolute melodic pattern (play this through on a guitar in Em/G and feel the whole song moving uncomfortably under your fingers in tune with the frantic pacing the floor of the scorned and abused lover) produces an emotional force from the piece which is both moving and hugely impressive at one and the same time. Emotional honesty is a topic often mooted by critics, but, though the harmony in the piece is easier on the brain, the raw emotion is redolent of Springsteen or Tom Waits and their rawest. The song is all red meat, make no mistake, until the release of the coda where the poet, having left blood, bile and poison all over the floor, releases himself with his now smiling, relieved spirit crying, "let the marriage be undone." The change of mood and completion here is rare in songwriting and lifts it into an extra dimension as well as allowing the listener to breath more comfortably in the silence that greets the last chord.

Seven songs in, then, a tour de force. The album has reached further heights. Fruit Nut though nice and full of interest, especially for the confirmed Moulding admirer, is light. However, the album needs to come down to shallower emotional waters as two of the last three songs are soon to punch heavy in all respects except level of decibels. ‘I Can't Own Her’ is more deep emotion only dealing with poignancy this time instead of the vicious laceration of the heart, ‘Harvest Festival’ is deeply evocative of childhood and ‘The Last Balloon’ elegiacal, exquisitely painful and of considerable musical depth. By the end even of the first playing, it was clear that Partridge and Moulding had produced a work of profundity and depth and one full of harmonic and melodic grace, beauty and sublime skill. Two years on, anyone in love with music which moves the heart and soul will probably be feeling that Apple Venus Volume 1 is one of the greatest albums ever made. Which it undoubtedly is.

Reflecting on the whole cast of ten songs, it is the sheer flair and skill of the writers, especially Partridge, obviously - 90% of the songs are his - which strikes the writer trying to analyse. Chord sequences regularly crop up which tap a vein of maturity and complexity which are beyond just about all modern songwriters. No-one at the start of the new century (as far as I know) is writing songs with key shifts of the jaw-dropping perfection as the one we hear in ‘The Last Balloon’. If anyone is attempting the technical ambition of the circular construction of ‘River Of Orchids’ they aren't finding the depth, soul and brilliance of Partridge. No-one is writing choruses of such supreme and sublime heights of ecstacy as that in ‘Easter Theatre’. Neither are they getting there mesmerically or beguilingly. No-one is layering vocals with the intelligence and intuitive brilliance as he is, and he's able to do this flawlessly time after time after time. No-one seems to be hearing what Partridge is hearing nor pushing into the empty spaces of artistic freedom from commercial restraints as he is.

Put simply, he bestrides the modern songwriting world like a colusssus.

6. The Destiny That Beckons

There doesn't seem to be any doubt about the fact that Andy Partridge feels that his band has been cheated of its destiny. What this destiny is in Andy's head is hard to fathom, even when talking to him about the subject. He will tell you that XTC has had its day, that the game, if there ever was one, is over. Twenty years ago they had their brief time in the sun, but now the music biz has lost interest in them. Well, obviously. The biz is some ball of fire consuming, using up artists, songs, tours, talent (and mediocrity) as it roars through time seeking, essentially, the sexy, the gorgeous, the fashionable and the ephemeral. Most of all it relentlessly seeks the openly and explicitly commercial. Once upon a time, virtually an eon ago, XTC were some of these things. And as all serious fans of the band know, they were used up and chewed up and all but spat out. A few top 20 singles, a big buzz around an album and a fizzing reputation as a great live act, but, in the machine that was Virgin Records and an appalling management, they, or more to the point, their singer and writer in chief was mangled and all but left for dead. Commercially dead, at least.

That they continued to make great records is, I suppose, fairly remarkable. Time has passed, fads have waxed and waned, but by and large, because musically music time has not moved forward inexorably but rather sat on a roundabout and swung round and round, XTC's music has, for the most part, always sounded contemporary, and always does. While Glenn Miller was the thing in 1943, twenty two years later The Beatles were making Rubber Soul. Twenty two years after Drums and Wires Soft Cell are gigging again to great reviews and Abba's God awful singles don't sound out of place in the modern market. Therefore, it is too pat, too simplistic to take the Partridge line on the band's history. The days of the New Wave can't be brought back, any more than can Andy's hairline. But the time that has moved forward has transformed popular music as a cultural phenomenon. It is no longer just a young man's game. And not only is there still an audiences for the greats and the famous of the late Sixties and Seventies, young critics still love Neil Young and David Bowie. All those bands, singers and players mentioned earlier are still chugging away, thriving even, and who on earth would have thought it.

XTC might still have ‘their day.’ Whether they do depends upon what day they want. In a sense they are having it. Their music is practically revered among artists and their writing is hugely, hugely respected. Both Apple Venus albums received ample plaudits around the world. Partridge's talent as a songwriter is considered so vast in one quarter at least for him to be in the front running to partner Brian Wilson's latest attempt to recapture past glories. Yet all this does not seem to be enough for the king of Swindon Old Town. Perhaps if MTV wanted to make hour long specials on the band, rather than our cosy own Radio 2, like Sting or U2 perhaps he'd be content. Maybe if they'd won a Grammy in America for their revival album, as did Steely Dan last year, he'd feel vindicated. But to do so, though Andy won't want to hear it, XTC will have to hit the road again.

The logic is watertight. XTC go out on tour, it gets written about. It gets written about, people go see the gig. The gig is great, they tell their friends. Who borrow a CD. They like it, they buy one. The CDs circulate. The back catalogue gets explored. The two Apple Venuses start shifting units again. Fuzzy Warbles comes out. All the diehards will buy it but the outer rim of the fan circle also get it on the strength of the tour and hey, you do keep seeing more about the band in print these days and they were even on the telly the other week. Oh yeah? Yeah, on Later. Which is watched by all the hardcore record buying public of the UK. Some of whom think, ‘blimey, XTC. Never heard of them but that song is really good.....’

Next tour, inevitably, more folk go see XTC. It's a great gig. The new album is out and guess what, it sells more than double the amount the two Apple Venuses sold combined! It gets lent out: CD copies are sent to friends who actually would prefer it with the real sleeve. And what a fine album! And again the back catalogue is plundered. Thus does the magic of the word of mouth work.

I suppose - not that XTC fans could possibly ever be regarded as cynical (if we were like that we wouldn't be bothering with the music, would we?) - it could be asked whether XTC live, after all this time, would actually work. To which this writer would reply: are you kidding? Can you imagine this music, live, through a modern sound system? With a great, well rehearsed band - and I can't see this not being the case - how could the return of XTC be anything other than a triumph? Andy's voice live? The songs living and breathing at last? How many concerts have we seen where the music, taken off the plastic and pushed out there into the ether of the living moment hasn't taken majestic flight with the audience hanging on the wingtips faces full of ecstasy? Some. Wouldn't it be like this to see XTC? Can you imagine the atmosphere in the halls waiting for the band to come on? The audiences would be so ‘with’ the band and the event, that if Andy and Colin were up for it, this would be one of the greatest events of the many fans' concert going careers. Wouldn't it, though?

Therefore, in terms of whacking great holes in the barred doors of The Problem, the gelegnite foundations are laid: great music spread over half a dozen truly wonderful records with wide muso appeal: Apple Venus Volume 1, Wasp Star, Nonsuch, Oranges And Lemons, Skylarking, English Settlement, Drums and Wires and the essential BBC quads. Inevitably too, thousands would scoop up a new or re-marketed Singles album or Best Of compilation. Let's face it: the foundations are more than laid: the XTC canon represents undoubtedly the best body of work committed to tape by any band anywhere over the last twenty years, much of it absolutely still fresh-sounding and relevant. The critical support is in place, ready and waiting to for the chance to place the garlands of the champion around their necks. All known logic tells us that on paper the band should be triumphant. The only reason they aren't now is because they haven't been visible enough these past years, just as now they're not visible enough. To be visible........

....Yep, the only way around this thing is, you got to get out there boys, and play.

CT@ September 2001

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