Bless My Soul, I'm Already There!

by Harrison Sherwood

If you want to obtain a certain thing, you must first be a certain man. Once you have become a certain man, obtaining that certain thing won't be a concern of yours any more. -- Zen Master Dogen

I'm propelled up here by long-dead dreams. . . -- Andy Partridge


Let us now consider the Head and the Heart.

Different belief systems have different code-names for them -- Rationality and Intuition, Apollo and Dionysus, Yang and Yin -- but whatever you call them, the life of any one of us Pink Things the world over can be retold as an eternal game of ping-pong between these two poles.

That the two extremes have been at war for as long as humanity has occupied this mossy rock in space is plainly evident from even the shallowest study of history. And since Universal Verities are nothing if not, you know, universal, they occupy the personal plane as well:

Another slice of cheesecake? Luddite or Technocrat? Spare the rod or spoil the child? Faith or Works? Work or take the morning off? Industrial or Agrarian? Have another beer or call it quits? Proletarian or Bourgeois?

One lump or (C'mon! Live a little!) two?

It's with us every day, this little tango-that-takes-two. It influences our tastes in everything from buildings to food, and in no aspect of our decision-making lives is it entirely absent.

But let's be sure of this: In no other arena is it more evident than in our feelings about music.

Music is directed at the brain, the ears, the heart, the libido, the pelvis, the thighs, the Id, the eyes -- every ever-loving part of the human body and mind, in fact. And just as some of us lean far more Yang than Yin, and others are bent the opposite way, there are different musics for different temperaments. Some music is so carnal as to be embarrassing (but as with many carnal things, exactly what the doctor ordered, natch). Other music seems to erect a sort of edifice of Pure Rationality, balanced and counterbalanced to the point where a skillfully directed spitball might bring the entire baroque pile crashing down of its own dead-but-admit-it-magnificent weight.

And then, dammit, there's XTC.

I've seen rock-crit types wonder in print why we XTC fans are such a strangely besotted bunch. Few indeed are the non-touring, non-performing, reclusive, not-particularly-photogenic rock bands that can boast fans that so often move observers to use terms like "cult following," "weirdly entranced," and "obsessive." We get accused of overdoing the superlatives, of denigrating other music because, well, it might be very good indeed, but you see. . .it just isn't XTC.

I suppose there are two possibilities at work here. One is that, yes indeed, XTC attracts idiots. I suppose this shouldn't be ruled out. However, as the nice lady said on the TV the other night, "Mama didn't raise no fools," and I consider myself a pretty decent judge of horseflesh. I've met quite a few XTC fans, and talked with many, many more through the Internet, and I've found them to be as fine a bunch as you'd ever care to meet -- well read, polite, decent folks from all parts of the world and from all walks of life. Not a bunch particularly bent on blithering, on the whole.

One common observation among these folks is that XTC unfolds for you. What you perceive about the music when you're twenty or twenty-five, for instance, will evolve to a completely different perception when you're ten years older, and even from day to day the music will say different things to you. Albums reveal different things after, ten, thirty, fifty listens. It's common knowledge among the cognoscienti that you must always give any new XTC album at least two listens before even considering passing judgment on it -- because if you didn't like it the first time though, you might not have been ready for it. That second listen will always reveal what you missed the first time. And likewise, the eighty-fifth will illuminate the eighty-fourth.

This brings us to the other possibility: That XTC draws such fierce loyalty from its fans because a familiarity with their music and their career produces an expectation (to us, a not unreasonable one) that all music should be as perfectly balanced on the knife-edge between Reason and Passion, so emotionally accessible while musically so intriguing, so effortlessly compelling. XTC is at once smart, silly, pastoral, urban, sacred, profane, carnal, ascetic, angry, forgiving, deliriously happy, exquisitely melancholy, capable of mystical insight and silly sex jokes -- often within one song. This is why they unfold as they do: The experience of their music is complex, layered, chewy, subtle, textured. One day you're Galileo scoping the stars. The next you're a Cro-Magnon sporting a club. The songs are the same. You have changed.

Head and Heart. Reason and Emotion. Logic and Passion.

Their career, spanning four decades now and showing no signs of letting up, has been an interesting balance of two forces. On one hand, there is change from year to year, stylistic evolution from a youthful, aggressive Seventies angularity through to its complete opposite -- the exquisite lyricism of their maturity. On the other hand, there is a certain indefinable something that is a constant presence on all their recordings -- a personality, a soul, that invests every song and makes XTC immediately recognizable to even the most casual listener.

Perhaps it's this ever-present soul that is the meeting place of the Head and Heart, that balance of musical acuity and emotional openness that makes XTC's music so ineffably appealing. And perhaps this soul is what we fans have been aware of across the years, watching its birth, its dawning self-awareness, its gawky adolescence, and its self-assured adulthood.

Part of this soul is easy to pinpoint: One thing Partridge, Moulding & Co. have never wavered from, from that day to this, is a willingness to elevate melody above all things. XTC melodies are always challenging in some unexpected way -- angular and twisty, full of unpredictable jumps and odd rhythms -- but, paradoxically, they're also immediately accessible, emotionally resonant, and always affecting beyond reason.

But melody alone doesn't explain it. Great tunes inspire respect, inspire whistling and humming, inspire emulation -- but there's more to the equation than that.

We live in the time of the Secret Smirk, a time when sincerity is viewed with suspicion, and the sincere with derision. To be sure, the heart can be a sensitive thing that, once roughly handled, seeks to protect itself in callousness and sarcasm. We know only too well -- the rawness of our own scoured souls reminding us only too effectively --the pain that mere living can bring. How easy it is, how much more convenient, to snigger at those who seek to tell us, in plain language--words of one syllable and less --just how they feel. But the songs of Partridge and Moulding have never sought to misdirect with cheap irony: When Colin pleads for help to get through these cynical days, we are to take him at his word --there is no ironic subtext to his sincerely expressed plea, no "gotcha" waiting to trigger the Secret Smirk. Unashamed humanists, these men say what they mean and mean what they say.

It's in the marriage, then, of great tunes and genuine human emotion, unfiltered through crass irony, that gives this music such depth. Marry Partridge's sublime poetical wordplay to the stately pace and beautifully melancholy resignation of the melody of "Chalkhills and Children" and you come close to nailing the soul of XTC. In the same vein, consider Colin's "Ten Feet Tall": The euphoric chorus, "I feel like I'm walking 'round ten feet tall" is sung on a fading, dying-away melodic line that suggests an emotional nuance -- that the euphoria may be less than complete. The tune glosses the words, and vice versa. Far more lurks below the surface than is immediately visible. But the soul suffuses throughout.


What a great name XTC is.

An angular and spiky rebus, a Brutalist shorthand, a personalized license plate for smartasses of all ages, it has a buzzsaw toughness that appeals to the punk while wearing its loving heart on its sleeve. It's both a perfect representation of the square-wave Spirit of '77 and its perfect repudiation. It is both Cool and the opposite of Cool.

(It's pronounced eks-tee-see, in case you're wondering. And it predates the trance-out raver drug by at least seven years--so get that thought out of your silly, muzzy little head. It's been appropriated by every porn web site in existence and quite a few techno deejays, as well as a brand of condoms, a personal lubricant and an "energy" drink. Why the hell the makers of the caffeinated guaraná XTC drink didn't call it an "NRG" drink is beyond me. I guess we can't all be geniuses.)

We're told that it came from Andy Partridge's sketchy West Country interpretation of a Jimmy Durante outburst on finding the Lost Chord -- "Dat's it, I'm in ecstasy!" Andy's ear, unattuned to Durante's heavy Brooklynese, heard the syllables as letters, and thus transcribed the word.

But regardless of Andy's imperfect interpretation, the fact remains that the members of XTC chose and stuck with a name that unblushingly evokes the most intense human happiness, the state of rapture. It's randy, yes, it's carnal, yes, it conjures the swiveled hips and the tightened flesh, yes, and yet too it bespeaks mystical frenzy, Dervish beatitude -- try Bernini's "The XTC of Saint Theresa" on for size, see how that fits. (And oh hey, is that Andy's punky-cherubic form we see, there, grinning like a horny fool, readying that arrow at the lovely lady's chest, a lady who is herself obviously having at least the teensiest bit of difficulty res-pie-rating?)

It's chewy and flavorful, this name, embodying both futuristic severity and eternal pudgy humanity, both the "wire writing" of the "Fifties Kitchen Curtain" and religious rapture. It's only one of scores of inspired Gordian knots, thought-puzzles, Chinese boxes, to spring from the minds of its progenitors over four decades and counting.

The weeks surrounding the appearance of the name saw some other highly noteworthy musical events. Small enough when considered by themselves, these occurrences -- but when he ponders their cumulative significance, the sharp-eyed historian can't help but wonder: What the hell did they put in the water during the summer of 1975?

The Helium Kidz changed their name to XTC on July 7th of that year. Another candidate for the new name was "The Dukes of the Stratosphear," but they wisely went with the one that fit on marquees.

They gave themselves this perfectly emblematic New Wave name at a time when the term "New Wave," referring to music, had not yet even been coined. In fact, about three weeks after XTC acquired its new moniker, a half-starved John Lydon roared "School's Out" for Malcolm McLaren and earned himself a spot of dubious futurity in the Sex Pistols. Two weeks before the adoption of the XTC name, the Ramones, still unsigned to a record deal, had taken the stage at CBGB in New York. Their opening act, a trio, was performing before a live audience for the first time ever. Its own newly self-bestowed name: Talking Heads. A few weeks later, Television put out its riveting first single, "Little Johnny Jewel." Three weeks later, Squeeze contracted with RCA to record "Take Me I'm Yours." And two weeks after that, Devo cleared its first auditorium, playing "Jocko Homo" for a highly unappreciative audience of Sun Ra fans.

Plainly, something was going on.

If you squint at the Helium Kidz of 1975 it's not difficult to hear the XTC of 1977 trying hard to emerge. Already present was the goofy "Janet, Janet, come back to my planet" comic-book whimsy that would characterize early signature XTC songs like "Science Friction" and "Into the Atom Age." Soon to be lost was the slightly boozy backbeat that characterized so much of the disposable glam-boogie of the mid-Seventies. Replacing it were the ultra-clean accents of Terry Chambers' drumming, which always conjures in my mind a sweaty forehead with a distended vein popping out of it, so hypertense that if you flicked it with a finger, you'd hear the ping of an overfilled basketball.

One listen to the often-bootlegged "Neon Shuffle" of 1975 (recorded a few months before the Great Name Change) against the same song on White Music will tell you everything you need to know about how New Wave music came to be. The later version boasts vastly lighter-footed drumming, Barry Andrews' buzzy, tonality-torturing organ, Partridge's scratchy, treble-heavy skanking guitar, and Moulding's bass, already showing unmistakable signs of the majesty it will achieve in its maturity.

Present too is Partridge's hiccuppy arfing, a characteristic he now disparages as a youthful blunder, but an affectation that was adopted by so many proto-New Wave singers simultaneously in so many corners of the globe that it must be considered a sort of mid-Seventies meme. Think of it: Andy Partridge, David Byrne, Mark Mothersbaugh, David Thomas -- none of them knew each other in the mid-Seventies, yet all of them adopted some variant of that barking-seal singing style.

Andy explains that the Partridge Voice evolved as a combination of conscious choice and invention born of necessity. On one side, he loved the slapback-echo-drenched voice of Buddy Holly, the howl of Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley, and staccato jazz scat singing, and consciously emulated them. (Probably the best expression of all three of these influences together is in the wonderfully bug-eyed ending of "Complicated Game," which signals the beginning of Andy's lifelong love affair with the delay effect.) On the other side was the true awfulness of the PA systems through which XTC had to play in the early days, which prohibited even a semblance of subtlety in singing. He learned to avoid long "e" sounds, for instance, because he knew their thinness would get lost in the vocal PA mud. Likewise he learned to emphasize "or" and "er" sounds, because they punched through. (Think about how many "er" sounds there are in a loud song like "Helicopter," for instance: "whirlybird " "obheard," "Just like a helicopter! Copter!") Later, he says, when PA systems got better, he no longer needed to tailor the language and the delivery to punch through the murk, and that characteristic bark began to fade away. By English Settlement it was largely gone.

Now genre definitions are of course terribly alienating things, and they mainly exist for the convenience of the lazy critic who needs to glom a lot of artists of disparate forms and idioms into one easy-to-use but often meaningless category. If you canvassed a thousand rock historians (and Lord knows what an amusing activity that would be -- perhaps you could finish the job with a little cellophane and gaffer's tape), you'd probably come up with a thousand definitions of the term "New Wave." Probably it's one of those things that (like pornography for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart) you can't define, but you know it when you see it.

Partridge once asked: "What do you call that noise that you put on?" and answered his own question with another joke -- one that, like all good jokes, raises more questions than it answers: "This is Pop!" Even at this early stage of their existence, XTC already understood that their future lay outside. Outside the strictures of genre. Outside critical expectations. Outside the conventional verities of the music business's hidebound formulas for what constitutes success. Outside the law, if you like -- where, according to Bob Dylan, if one intends to live, one must be honest.

Let's look at this term, honesty, which was present on every lip in 1977, a badge of validation desperately sought by every participant in the Punk Thing. Punk foundered on the reef of honesty; in its insistence on stripping away frippery and ornament in the name of honesty it revolved, like Marx's prediction for capitalism, in ever-tightening circles until it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture. One hears of bewilderingly enraged civil wars over the validity of two-part vocal harmonies over-against the artificiality and pretentiousness of three-part arrangements, and of the (admittedly less easily ridiculed) "rule" that any guitar solo longer than eight bars is wanking.

XTC in the early days met the honesty bugbear head-on like the budding formalists they were: by thumbing their noses at it. Perhaps this was the legacy of Andy's early infatuation with The New York Dolls and the Ramones: When someone tells you not to do something, that's exactly the best time to do it. In XTC's case, the Punk Honesty Cops were demanding that they kibosh the impulse toward accessibility, that they make fashionable archness the sum of their aspirations.

White Music and, to a lesser extent, Go2, exhibit every sign of trying to toe the Punk Company Line, but even here a certain recherché melodicism and an unbecoming respect for their historical roots (so not Punk!) show through. While "Into the Atom Age" exhibits a fun-n-kitschy sort of PoMo sensibility (and, God knows, I'd still love a "contemporary house that's all the rage"!), at its heart beats that anthemic Glam spirit, revved up and filtered through The Dolls, Mott the Hoople, Ziggy Stardust.

Come 1979, it became pretty plain to everyone that the reverse snobbery of Punk had relinquished its stranglehold. It had done what it was meant to do, and admirably: Dusty corridors had been given a long-needed airing, the fat-and-sassy complacency of mid-Seventies dino-rock had been given a thorough buttock-bruising, and a new audience of youngsters had been primed to expect great things to arise from the honorable failure of Punk.

We were not to be disappointed.


Out with Barry Andrews, in with Dave Gregory. The Heyday of Live XTC, the Time of XTC with Broad Shoulders, began.

That zippy Egyptian organ was all very well, but for my money the true test of chops for a rock arranger is two-guitars-bass-and-drums, and anything else is dilettantism. The early Beatles broke so much ground with so little; the rock-n-roll vein they began to mine in 1963 -- shifting textures, deep arrangements, sophisticated chord structures -- still, all these years later, hasn't tapped out. The Live XTC explored that lode as far and as thrillingly as anyone ever did, and what they came up with was. . .. Well. I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1979, both Partridge and Moulding, after a long journeymanship, blossomed as songwriters, lyricists, and arrangers. The raw materials that they had to work with, the songs, were now of infinitely higher quality. While the arrival of Gregory certainly didn't cause this sudden fecundity, it can't be a coincidence that the departure of the ambitious Andrews coincided with the sudden maturation of the two principal songwriters. Gregory's arrival -- bringing as he did his impeccable professionalism and musicianship -- must have been great relief after the songwriting turf wars of the Go2 period.

Me, I think that one very important reason that XTC's sound changed so radically when Dave arrived is because of the very nature of the guitar itself.

The advantage that the electric guitar has over so many other instruments, and one of the reasons for its preeminence among rock instruments, is that it can play highly percussive accents -- like a second snare drum -- while playing chords that provide a tonal skeleton for the song. Think of a reggae skank, percussive strokes on the second and fourth beat of the measure: The rhythmic aspect of the playing tells you where the accents are, where to tap your foot and nod your head. But unlike a drum, the guitar has a polyphonic aspect as well, that interacts with the bass, the voices, and the other non-percussion instruments to tell you where you are in the harmonic progression.

Partridge, describing the process by which he worked out arrangements in those days says that the key was to establish where the drumming accents were going to be: Often he worked with a drum machine (a 70's-vintage Hammond AutoVari 64 -- a quaintly primitive, completely unprogrammable device that would rapidly induce the shrieking fantods in today's instant-grat techno-geeks). As he internalized the rhythms of the song, he would seek out the holes in the beat, to see where his "guitar-drum" might fit. Then, after working out the drum parts with Terry Chambers, he would play the stabbing guitar rhythms in the spaces between the drums. The more traditional, less angular rock parts, he would give to Gregory, along with, of course, lead and solo parts.

His reason was simple: In a live setting, he was the one who sang the increasingly tricky parts he was writing for himself. Shunting off the more painstaking, more difficult guitar parts to the eminently able Gregory allowed him to concentrate his mind on delivering lyrics and that particular manic dervish-twirl that was Partridge onstage. This working philosophy was to become the blueprint by which the later, studio-only incarnation of XTC would arrange songs -- even long after they came off the road.

Want to see the method at work? Have a good listen to "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty" from the first Gregory-era album, Drums and Wires. There's no trace of "traditional" swing here, true (the quality of swing being decidedly Not New Wave -- and remember how the Helium Kidz banished the Glammish backbeat of swing when they evolved into XTC in the first place). But listen to the two guitars under the verse, "When you're near me I have difficulty concentrating": Gregory's guitar is playing long syncopated chords, establishing the harmonic structure along with the bass. Partridge is playing a double-time ska rhythm, ducking in and out of the holes in Terry Chambers' drumming.

The arrangement looks both forward and backward in time; it honors the Prime Directive of pop music (it must make us want to dance), while finding radically new roles for the instruments within the rock-group framework. Notice that Chambers doesn't play a "traditional" rock rhythm that a earlier arranger would have specified (boom-bap, boom-boom-bap), but a much more nimble and light-footed pattern, a pattern so complex and so far out of the song's root pulse that it nearly fades into the woodwork -- hardly what one has come to expect of rock drumming. It's Partridge's skanking guitar that really provides the rhythmic center for the song. Meanwhile, Colin's bass performs more nearly like a lead guitar than the usual tuba-like lower-register farting that was usual for a rock bass of earlier times.

(This new, more prominent role for the bass was a distinguishing characteristic of the New Wave era. While Paul McCartney had had to fight like hell to even get his bass heard before such breakthroughs as "Paperback Writer," new amplification technologies and improved compression and equalization gear made it possible for the electric bass to compete with and duet with guitars as a lead instrument. Bassists like Colin Moulding, Joy Division's Peter Hook, and Gang of Four's Dave Allen, benefited from this new tech, and the 1979-80 period saw the beginning of a new, much more prominent role for the bass.)

What's most remarkable about this double-rhythm-guitar lineup is that it melds into a completely seamless rhythmic whole -- a single unit that coheres smoothly, no one instrument dominating, nothing to the fore to compete with the vocals. Under this exoskeleton percolate stabbing polyrhythms -- far more aggressive and complex than those you hear under a reggae band, for instance, and much, much lighter on its feet. The twin guitars also play against each other harmonically, introducing subtle atonalities (Partridge calls them "rubs") that constitute a trademark XTC characteristic that's never left them. They're still there as late as "Wake Up" on The Big Express and "That Wave" on Nonsuch. This aspect of XTC most often brings to mind the completely cockeyed and utterly spellbinding car-wrecks of Captain Beefheart, and seems to result from Partridge's proud disregard for, and refusal to follow, formal rules and theory.

The guitar-floggers among us who like work out XTC guitar parts will notice that quite a few of the most characteristic riffs from all over the XTC songbook appear to have sprung from happy accidents on the guitar fretboard. They're visually satisfying, in the sense that they make neat observable patterns in space, as if their composers had been thinking not in terms of musical theory (What happens if I modulate to the relative minor of the subdominant?) but rather in spacial relationships (What happens if I just move this whole chord-shape up two frets?). I'm convinced that many of the great guitar riffs of history came about because they looked cool on the fretboard.

The introductory music-theory curriculum dictates that there are "right" ways and "wrong" ways of arranging noises in time. If you follow all the rules laid down by teachers of music in introductory composition classes, you will pretty much invariably wind up writing eighteenth-century European polyphony -- that's when those rules were formulated. But if you don't know those rules in the first place, and you compose on the guitar, you're going to introduce those "rubs," those atonalities. It's the particular XTC genius to recognize which rubs are OK and which aren't, that in the service of the arrangement any two notes can sound good together. It doesn't matter a damn if they "work" in the academic sense.

The pair of albums that mark the peak of the Big-Shouldered period, Drums and Wires and Black Sea, showcase a band that has finally mastered the Owner's Manual of Rock -- Two-Guitars-Bass-Drums and How to Make Them Interesting -- and have become effortlessly fluent and astonishingly tight. The result is a fierce little rock band capable of undermining any vernacular you'd care to name. The key to it all, the wonderful rhythmic and harmonic interplay between Andy and Dave's guitars, provides them a playground on which they can explore in wider and wider circles.

It is at this point in XTC's career that one begins to read in the press the first favorable comparisons between Partridge/Moulding and Lennon/McCartney. True, between the two of them, Andy and Colin have already produced a fairly stunning number of groundbreaking, adventurous songs that suggest developing skill and maturity, and show signs of writing many more. There is a pleasantly familiar pattern to their output, too: Colin writes hits, like "Making Plans for Nigel," and "Generals and Majors" that evince a pop groundedness, a feet-on-the-floor quality that recalls a certain strain of McCartney's output. Partridge, on the other hand, is the Lennonesque adventurer, the arty, witty one who goes out of his way to thumb his nose at convention. (Those of us who have followed the band since then know how silly and facile these comparisons are, but in 1979, believe me, everyone was clutching at straw)

The live XTC was a truly fiery thing to behold. Recordings of the time rarely do the thing justice: What's lacking in many of the available documents is the element of recklessness that this band was capable of exuding: there was a sense of a complex and well-honed machine operating far beyond Manufacturer's Recommended Specifications, veering and careening along, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Terry Chambers' snare/cymbal hits shook entire rooms with their violence. Whole stages would oscillate frighteningly from the fury of the kick drum.

And it was so fast! These unbelievably advanced and rhythmically sophisticated arrangements zoomed by, all these complex tonal structures, strange and unintuitive guitar chords, diminisheds, elevenths, thirteenths, ingenious atonalities appearing and resolving themselves with effortless nonchalance, tensions and releases, balances and counterbalances -- all of it played at blinding, breakneck speed. Plenty of other New Wave bands played fast, and a few played with a similar degree of musical sophistication, but rare indeed was the band that put both of those qualities together in a live setting.

XTC, during this time, began to establish that quality, that soul, that we spoke of earlier: that truly remarkable ability they have always had to speak to both the head and the heart at once. One of their most stunning songs of that period, "No Language in Our Lungs," still packs a wallop of sinus-clearing intensity that feels utterly contemporary even now, more than twenty years on. Chambers' drumming is at the height of its power, Colin's bass is full of dread and portent, the guitars intermingle throughout in High XTC Live Style, so much so that it's impossible at points to tell them apart. Partsy's singing is frighteningly intense (could it be that this is a topic near to his heart?), and Dave's guitar solos are utterly without peer. A perfect recording in every way: It's equal parts complete silence and distilled fury. Even if, instead of the lyrics, Partridge sang a database lookup table, it still would make you want to find the nearest brick wall and slam your head into it a few times, just to relieve the tension.

But he isn't singing a database lookup table, and that's really the point. He's singing about singing, if you like -- or singing about how useless it is to sing about anything but singing. There are no words that we can say, he tells us (using, uh, words), that can adequately express what's in our hearts. So there's no point in singing, is there?

Ah, but he keeps singing anyway, doesn't he. . .

. . .Because when we get to the middle eight, beginning with "I thought I had the whole world in my mouth," he reveals the way out of the problem -- he unleashes a firestorm of metaphors, poetical images that contrast sharply with the unadorned language of the verse. This, he tells us, is the language that's in our lungs. We have metaphor. We have poetry. We have art. He would have made it instrumental. . .

But-but-but-but-but. . . .

So there you are with that mindbending middle eight in full cry, you're tucked way up inside your own brain, thinking hard about all these abstruse concepts in the lyrics, when suddenly you notice that under the line "I felt just like a Crusader," the band has kicked into fourth gear, both guitars are roaring away in full-throated Overdrive Glory, and you're gobsmacked once again by the "distilled fury" of the music itself. . .. God Damn. Thinking and Feeling, Yin and Yang, Rationality and Intuition.

Head and Heart.


Have you ever noticed that rock stars tend to scowl a lot?

What's up with that? Why so angry, big fella?

The scowl is always directed outward, not toward us the audience, but toward some third party, some persecutor offstage. The scowl doesn't disappear when an artist becomes successful and comfortable -- it's not a class-conscious sort of expression. The persecuted scowl is understandable enough in a very young and hungry artist, who may very well have experienced enough hard knocks from a notoriously uncaring industry to have some justification for a persecution complex. But it begins to look a little contrived on the face of an artist who's making enough to eat, and it looks just silly on a Rolling Stone.

But what is the source of this facial expression? Could we suggest that the Scowl is a means to establish a sort of sympathy from an audience who might be inclined to root for the Little Guy, the Little Persecuted Guy, if the punters can be made to think that that's what they're looking at? It's really helpful when the Little Guy really is persecuted by some demonstrably unjust system. Nothing establishes rock-n-roll credentials better than getting rousted by The Man for Willful Commission of Acts Against the State. . .

Partridge once explained it this way: "I [wanted] to become rich and famous and screw the whole world. One half figurative and the other half literal. Don't look at me so surprised, because that's what everyone wants that has the mentality of a member of a teenage gang.... That's why you start a band." The Scowl acts as a sort of Gang Sign, a facial version of the Secret Handshake that cements solidarity among a band of brothers in arms against the world.

So what happens when you realize you've outgrown the Scowl?

To put it another way, what happens when you realize that you've figured out what you really want to do when you grow up, when you realize that being the adult leader of a teenage gang is, well, childish? Not to mention a little abnormal?

What happens when you realize that you've been sold a bill of rock-n-roll goods, and that continuing to try to find your way through the mangrove swamp of cognitive dissonance, bad faith, and false consciousness that has grown up around you. . . just. . . might. . .

. . .kill you. . . .

What do you do?

Well, it depends on who you are, I suppose. Some rock-n-roll patriots just might soldier on regardless -- bills to pay, you know -- their skin growing barnacles, the light dying in their eyes, their creativity and zest and humor long gone. Others might just go ahead and let it kill them. It might not be a literal death, but it's as real as real needs to be.

But if you're Andy Partridge, you call in Sane. You call in Normal. You call in Adult.

It's ironic, I suppose, that Andy had to assert his sanity by going slightly nuts, but that seems to have been the way of it. Exhausted by years of the hamster-wheel existence of a touring rock band, eating poorly, living on handfuls of peanuts grabbed off music-club bars, obliged to support and be eclipsed in popularity by musicians that he knew were inferior to XTC, having his artiness, his "quirkiness" (lazy-rock-journalist-code for "I have absolutely no idea how to describe XTC,") thrown back in his face -- all this compounded by the gradual realization that absolutely no money was coming in from all this effort and probably never would -- Partridge's body rebelled. His mind would soon follow.

In his early teenaged years, in reaction to some fairly hideous family strife, the young Partridge had begun to exhibit neurotic behaviors. An idiotic medical establishment, then in the first blush of its ongoing love affair with chemical straitjackets of one kind or another, prescribed Valium, to which the youngster became solidly addicted. For thirteen years he took Valium regularly, all through his development as a musician, through the formation and maturing of XTC, through touring, through the gradual onset of fame. He took Valium, in fact, until his wife, Marianne, in a fit of something we're not privileged to speculate about, flushed his tablets down the toilet in February of 1980, 13 years after he'd begun to take them, two years before he broke down.

Partridge now realizes that he spent the next two years recovering from a Valium-induced haze. He describes waking up in the middle of the night not long after withdrawing from the drug, thinking more deeply and more honestly than ever before about himself and his life, yearning for normality, for a place of his own, for stability and predictability and children, and about how the constant touring was keeping these things from him. He began a process of reclaiming for himself the parts of his life that rock-and-roll had stolen from him -- indeed, that he had allowed it to steal. The process would culminate in the events surrounding the aborted tour of 1982, when Andy well and truly crashed and burned, and in his recovery over the next few years.

A vocal minority of XTC fans like to imagine an alternate universe where None of That Bad Stuff Ever Happened, where Andy, Colin, and the Gang never came off the road, where they continue to play live gigs forever -- frozen in time in the theater of their imaginations -- mainly, I think, out of nostalgia for that sweet shudder of anticipation that all True Believers know when they open their local alt-paper and see the ad announcing the gig: "Hey, honey! Guess who's playing New Wave Night down at the Dungeon this weekend! It's XTC. . .! Let's ship the kids to Grandma's and board the dogs! Where'd I store those leopard-print leggings?"

Partridge has broached this often in interviews: Why watch him lug his carcass up on a stage to play inferior versions of XTC songs, when you can have perfection itself, their songs played exactly the way they intended them to be played, on the record? The True Believer will respond that there's more to a concert than that, that there are matters of Community and Spirit and Fellowship at stake, but this is where the question breaks down: Are you really here for the music? Or is it perhaps more accurate to say that you're pursuing the psychic state you achieve when grooving to music in a room with a lot of like-minded fans? And if that state is what you're truly after, is it really XTC's responsibility to help you achieve it? And should they want to?

I think that even before the overt road-rejection of 1982, the spirit was upon the XTC land as well, the desire to make music that can't be reproduced live by a rock band, music that eschews artificially (and cheaply) induced excitement in favor of texture, nuance and subtlety. English Settlement (the favorite of many XTC fans), simultaneously the last album of the old era and the first album of the new, introduces a variety of new textures: nylon- and steel-string acoustic guitars, the fretless bass, the twelve-string Rickenbacker. The new incarnation of the band adds a lightness, a jangling, acoustic quality, to the tough-as-nails Black Sea sound -- you would be hard-pressed to imagine a "Snowman" on an earlier album, or a "Yacht Dance," or an "English Roundabout." There's also a spaciousness, a willingness to meander, to give songs breathing space, that's another indicator that the rigid Punk equation between song length and self-indulgence has run its course. After four XTC albums of tightly controlled, sub-four-minute pop songs (fantastic records though they may have been)this is a refreshing departure.

English Settlement also marks the first tentative appearance of that pastoral earthiness, that Englishness, mingled with their characteristic defiant pride in their humble Swindon origins, that became, to one extent or another, a hallmark of each subsequent album. The Uffington Horse on the cover, the 3,000-year-old figure routed into the chalk hills near Swindon, serves as a sort of signpost for the rest of XTC's career: Here is where we belong. It took endless years of globetrotting from city to cosmopolitan city to understand just how English they were. From this point forward they would embrace hearth and home with a loyalty born of dire experience.

Home at last!


The next two records, Mummer and The Big Express, are albums of recovery, of strength returning.

While one might expect the first album made by XTC after giving up the road to be a sad record, a testimony of failure and dejection, in fact Mummer is hopeful, gentle, full of natural and seasonal imagery -- you might even call it serene. How much of this is Partridge and Moulding putting on a brave face is not for us to say, but the net effect is the same: a record that's as far removed in atmosphere as you can get from the terrible stresses Partridge was trying to recover from.

Perhaps it was therapy. For a while after the breakdown he was unable to leave the house, afraid of being on display, of having to perform for people even in the simple acts of everyday life. He sat in his back garden with an acoustic guitar and wrote songs of beauty and hope. The hope sprang from a few victories he had won: Now for the first time in his adult life, he was living a reasonably placid existence, having gotten for himself all those things that he used to wake up in the night yearning for -- a permanent home, the beginnings of a family, stability, artistic freedom to create music that doesn't have to be performed live, the opportunity to investigate new media like video, and the time to produce other acts.

Mummer is suffused throughout with exotic sounds and percussive effects. "Beating of Hearts," an affecting anti-war screed, surprises and frightens with the intensity of the Indian-sounding synthesizers doubling the vocal. Colin's "Deliver Us from the Elements," a plaintive cry in the face of an uncertain future, features a cinematic and spooky Mellotron voice. "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," a beautiful acoustic guitar piece, feels literally timeless, without era, like a Constable painting of the Wiltshire countryside. It's also the best evidence yet that XTC will never again stray far from the pastoral muse.

Another nature-centered acoustic piece, the jazz-tinged "Ladybird," contains some of Partridge's best lyrics to date, with internal rhyme and enjambment that's as deft as anything he's written before or since. "Ladybird" is also the first example of a theme that will recur frequently in Partridge's later lyrical output: the symbolism of the changing of the seasons, the arrival of spring and banishment of winter heralding optimism. It's naughty, gossipy fun to compare the sunny, blossomy "Ladybird" with English Settlement's frosty "Snowman," especially considering the women who inspired each song.

Mummer did exact one terrible casualty: During an earlier tour, Terry Chambers met and fell in love with a woman from Australia who came back to England to live with him. Unimpressed with the English weather, she began to make noises that she would prefer to live where rain, mud and subpar central heating didn't feature quite so prominently. Faced with a cold and discontented life-mate, membership in a band that has just permanently renounced his four favorite activities (tour, bash drums, drink, repeat), and recording songs he felt were less than completely manly (ladybirds and farmboys being, one supposes, a little infra dig), Terry upped and split.

His loss marked a crossing-the-Rubicon sort of moment in the XTC story: Now they were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a really-o, truly-o, non-touring, non-performing Studio Band.

The Big Express, the clanky-cranky album that followed Mummer, was in odd ways both its mirror image and its complete opposite. Boisterous and noisy where Mummer was ethereal and pastoral, nevertheless it's the earlier album's industrial, urban cousin. Starring Historical Swindon, the Great Western Railway, the humble workers of a halcyon prewar time, like Mummer it's a celebration of XTC's here-and-now, once again expressing no regret -- indeed, pride -- that they had chosen to come back to live in the place of their origin rather than abandon it for the life of the cosmopolite.

Beginning with the most rambunctious, rocking opening on an XTC record since the power chords that begin Black Sea's "Respectable Street," the clangorous guitars of Partridge and Gregory play chopped chords in four and three opposite each other to kick-start "Wake Up." This rowdy tone will persist through the record; gone for now are the shimmery acoustic textures of English Settlement and Mummer. This record is about metal striking metal, molten steel pouring from crucibles, factory whistles blowing the smoky Morse code of mortality.

The album's centerpiece is "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," which is a truly ambitious thing, a ten-thousand-foot view looking down at Swindon, taking in the day and night activities of its inhabitants, their workaday concerns and heartaches in the face of advancing "progress." The workers and wives and children in the song will have their familiar homes and comfortable existences torn from them by time and the inevitable ravages that well-intentioned city planners will perpetrate on them.

Disgust for the callous destruction of human-scale works and lives in the name of progress will become a recurring theme for Partridge and Moulding both. Colin already expressed it forcefully in English Settlement's "Ball and Chain," and now here in "Smalltown," the matter becomes mystical for Partridge. Consider the implications of these lines, spoken by what appears to be the Spirit of Swindon herself:

And I've sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
And as payment they make love in me
In squeaky beds
In bicycle sheds
Inside of their heads
As singles and weds
As Tories and Reds
And that's how I'm fed
And that's how I'm fed

How far we've come from "Into the Atom Age"! Here it is, the beginning of the theme that will recur again and again in Partridge's later songs. This is the sort of thing that you want to throw back into the faces of people who a couple of years later would threaten to firebomb radio stations for playing "Dear God": There are more ways than one to be religious, folks.

The seed that will blossom as the Venus Apple is herein sown.


God, it must have been fun to be the Dukes of Stratosphear!

In 1984, after the release of The Big Express, Virgin Records asked Partridge to produce Mary Margaret O'Hara (sister of Catherine O'Hara of SCTV and the Home Alone movies), an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who was -- how to put it? -- a few beads short of a rosary. Andy invited as co-producer the now legendary John Leckie, who had not only produced White Music but had other hugely influential production credentials (Bebop Deluxe, Magazine, Public Image Limited, and many others) to his credit.

But it wasn't Leckie's professional associations that bothered O'Hara; it was his religious ones. Leckie was a follower of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, the Rolls-Royce-collecting "free-love" guru. This didn't sit at all well with O'Hara, a particularly devout Catholic, and before a note had been recorded she fired both Leckie and Andy, who had also made the mistake of revealing to her in casual conversation that he was a lapsed Anglican.

But this failed experiment in musical ecumenicalism had an unforeseen benefit, one that led to one of the funniest, most inventive musical forgeries ever undertaken -- The Dukes of Stratosphear. At a two-month-long loose end, and with a little money cadged from Virgin as compensation for the O'Hara disaster, Andy and Leckie gathered Colin, Dave, and Dave's brother, Ian, in Chapel Lane Studio in the appropriately named village of Hampton Bishop. The intent was to fulfill a fantasy that had long brewed in Andy Partridge's head, and which he first proposed to Dave Gregory in 1978: A tribute to the psychedelic records of their childhood -- Pink Floyd, the Move, the Beatles.

In two weeks they recorded six cod-psychedelic songs on as much vintage gear as they could find, with goofy adopted comic-book personas to hide their real identities. The EP that ensued, 25 O'Clock, was released by Virgin on April Fool's Day 1985, under the not-very-serious pretext that these "lost" Sixties songs had been only recently "rediscovered" in a warehouse. The record's packaging made no reference to XTC, and many were suckered in.

As pastiches, the songs on 25 O'Clock and the 1987 follow-up Psonic Psunspot, are close to complete perfection. Partridge and Gregory in particular are encyclopedias of psychedelia, and Gregory is an accomplished forger, as anyone can tell you who has heard his note-perfect counterfeits in his Remoulds collection, or his version of "Strawberry Fields Forever," with Andy singing lead, on the 1967 -- Through the Looking Glass collection.

The 25 O'Clock EP was a hit in college circles. Its appearance coincided with the first stirrings of a minor psychedelic revival. Within a few years, and for the rest of the Eighties, many diverse acts on both sides of the Atlantic would immerse themselves in psychedelia and Sixties revivalism. Indeed, in many ways the Dukes also revived XTC itself. First, it was a lot of fun, and must have been very cleansing after the tensions of recording Mummer and The Big Express. It must have done a lot of good for a shaky band morale.

But the Dukes had a much more important consequence as well: While it had been grand fun playing musical dressups making the Dukes records,all this delving into Sixties musical lore had the ultimate effect of pointing the way to a new artistic direction -- a direction that would eventually give way to into the present-day XTC. Certainly it gave Andy and Colin the confidence not to hide or disguise their mining of the past, the great pop music of their childhood and adolescence, for inspiration. After the Dukes, any traces of the Punk notion that history is bunk and that regard for the past is a sign of weakness has itself died the death it deserved.


The Dukes of Stratosphear were a cheerful and slightly unhinged sonic masked ball, not to be taken entirely seriously, of course. But if you discount the humor and the tongue-in-cheek silliness, what you're left with is actually a rather sobersided academic exercise -- the dissection and very careful study of music of a particular era in order to reproduce it in pastiche form. You can't come up with a perfect Beach Boys take in "Pale and Precious," for example, without a very firm grounding in the original texts, in Pet Sounds and Smile and all that Brian Wilsonery. Likewise, to evoke "Martha My Dear" in "Brainiac's Daughter," you need take a long swim in Lake McCartney.

This sort of thing is going to rub off.

We frequently use the word "formalism" as a pejorative, describing a kind of painting that is stiff, academic, without passion. And in many cases a slavish adherence to a set of compositional rules is indeed a guarantee of Bad Art. But over the next two or three albums, the last of their career with Virgin, XTC appeared to take a page from the Dukes' book, and began to deliver songs that paid clear and tangible debts backward in time, to earlier influences. It was certainly possible to find overtones of the Beatles and particularly the Kinks in the touring incarnation of XTC, and when the palette broadened in the studio years, the influences became more overt. But by the time of Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons, they were delivering songs that were very nearly Dukes-like in their homage to XTC's Sixties forebears.

There is absolutely no criticism meant here. Many inferior bands, left to simmer on the critical stove, truly do boil down to nothing more than the sum of their influences. XTC may dabble in the past, may quote from the past, may invoke the past to tickle a certain particular emotional ganglion, but they never simply plunder the past like time-bandit Vandals, stealing this or that lick or progression because they can't think of their own. No, we're always invited to be in on the joke. When the cheering crowd noise on Oranges and Lemons' "The Loving" strikes us as oddly familiar, Andy sneaks up, digs a conspiratorial elbow into our ribs, winks, and whispers, "Sergeant Pepper. . . Get it?" Or when the middle section of "President Kill" sounds like, in Andy's words, "the whole White Album compressed into a few bars," the fact that the source is that most political of Beatle albums comments eloquently on the lyrical meaning of the song.

But homage to the past is by no means the only, or even the defining, characteristic of the XTC of the late Eighties.

What strikes us most forcefully about Skylarking compared to The Big Express is that the band seems to have broken through what we might term the Beauty Barrier. Lush vocal harmonies, layered and complex, full of inner movement and shifting consonance, grace the ear. Andy in particular is beginning to be drawn to techniques borrowed from classical music, and uses canon techniques to give "Ballet for a Rainy Day" a truly memorable vocal luxuriance ("Orange and lemon raincoats. . ."), made only the more beautiful by the warm-as-flannel guitar arpeggios in the middle eight. In "Another Satellite" Andy uses a delay machine to sing a canon -- a round -- with himself, a stunning display of compositional skill that recalls and yet completely dwarfs the delay-play in "Complicated Game" from eight years before. Overall, the sheer scope and breadth of musicianship on Skylarking is breathtaking.

Much has been said about the travails of recording Skylarking, and it doesn't bear repeating here. Todd Rundgren's most notable mark on the album is the story-structure, the song sequence, in which a single life is recounted from birth, through youth, uncertain young adulthood, hopeless middle age, through the settled resignation of one who has aged well, to death and back around again. It may have been simply wonderful luck that Partridge's own earthy pantheism had been headed into this territory -- or it may have been Rundgren's own special gift to have recognized it in the candidate demos he'd been given to pick and choose from.

The most appealing track on the record (out of many, many appealing tracks) is perhaps the most Dukes-ish one, "Season Cycle." On one level it's another note-perfect, affectionate Beach-Boys parody like "Pale and Precious." Its sunny countenance, its optimism, its playfulness, are utterly beguiling. But at its core is the optimistic, nature-centered humanism that will characterize all of XTC's records from this point forward, all the way through Apple Venus and Wasp Star and beyond. "Season Cycle" is the center around which Skylarking turns: Just as our Everyman hero's life follows its seasons, so does the Earth. The central line, "Everybody says, Join our religion, get to heaven/I say, no thanks, why bless my soul, I'm already there!" is as neat a summary of this outlook as you ever need. This nature-worship is the flip side of the home-and-hearth Swindon chauvinism of The Big Express. Love my hometown, love the land it sits on.

It might be tempting (if uncharitable) to ascribe all this new infusion of musical artistry and artisanship to the producing hand of Todd Rundgren, but for the ineluctable fact that while Todd had nothing to do with the next record, the stunning musicianship didn't abate one bit. Recorded in sunny Los Angeles, under circumstances that couldn't have been farther from Swindon's red-brick environs or the rustic isolation of Rundgren's Woodstock studio, Oranges and Lemons continues in the same vein as its brilliant predecessor. It's back to Loud and Boisterous mode, with studio sheen and commerciality to the fore. Every song is geared toward radio play, every note polished to a brasswork shine.

Among the many standout tracks, "The Mayor of Simpleton," though derided by Andy for its simplicity, is an absolute gem of a three-minute pop song, the kind of diamond-pure perfection for which most pop songcrafters would gladly trade important reproductive organs to be able to write. The guitar arpeggio that introduces the song becomes a motif upon which the other instruments, in particular the amazing bass, play variations throughout the song. All the shimmering twelve-string arpeggios Dave contributes throughout, all up and down the neck, are themselves all variations on that riff. Reflections and symmetries are everywhere; it's a nearly Baroque display of virtuosity that completely belies the song's I'm-just-a-simple-guy lyrics.

Colin, when in a certain mode, writes tunes that are timeless -- literally timeless, outside of history. The minor-key bridges in English Settlement's "Ball and Chain" feel this way, the major-minor shifts in "Runaways" too. His contributions to Oranges and Lemons, in particular "One of the Millions," display this quality as well. "Millions" (another great bass song!) has a middle eight ("I'm running steady, oh so steady. . .") that sounds like Colin is standing on a clifftop somewhere, century unknown, the song his only context.

If Oranges and Lemons is a noisy, cantankerous record, full of color and vibrancy, it's perhaps appropriate to end it on a quieter, more muted note. Has there ever been a more graceful valedictory than "Chalkhills and Children"? The lyric is deeply confessional, crystallizing so much of what has been occupying Andy's mind since the decision to stop touring -- his chosen role as an artist, his ambivalence about his aspiration to fame, his deep need for stability, his struggle to support his family.

The low, doomy cloudiness of the synthesizer parts, the delayed-snare drumming, the church-organ voice, all set an ethereal, portentous atmosphere. The unsettled chord scheme of the verse has the effect of heightening tension through the verse and the bridge ("But I'm getting higher. . ."), so that when the chorus does arrive, it does so in full angelic glory. Beautiful touches abound: the settling-in of the C major chord when the second verse begins, the reflection of the "even I never know where I go" melody by Colin's bass in the second verse, the subtlety of the backing vocals (check out what's going on behind the "reluctant cannonball" line, for a particularly gorgeous example) and -- perhaps the most beautiful moment of all -- the omission of the tagline in the last chorus: "Rolling up on three empty tires till the . . . [Silence]," letting the listener fill in the blank. It is as sublime a thing as XTC has ever done.


So after the mythic roundedness and pantheist celebration of Skylarking and the candystriped studio luster and whiz-bang window-rattling of Oranges and Lemons, what do you do for an encore?

Well, if you're XTC, you turn in your most nuanced and mature album ever, the sinewy and taut Nonsuch. Though mostly a two-guitars-bass-drums album (with some notable exceptions), Nonsuch presents us with a cornucopia of textures and surfaces, testimony to the skill and finesse of its arrangements. From the jangly, folky open-string strum of "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" through the arpeggiated glory of "Then She Appeared" to the power-ballad "Books Are Burning," with stops at heavy psychedelia (and a searing guitar solo from Dave) in "That Wave" and the big acoustic sound of "Dear Madam Barnum," this record is an extended exploration of the sonic possibilities for a stripped-down rock band.

However, it's not all drums and wires. The album also points forward to XTC's post-Virgin incarnation, particularly the orchestrated Apple Venus set. "Humble Daisy" explores the terrain of Brian Wilson's mid-Sixties experiments, all subtle percussion and breathy woodwinds in service of a particularly lovely Partridge lyric. "Rook," a genuinely frightening meditation, worthy of John Donne, on death and the annihilation of the soul, is particularly indicative of the direction the future XTC will take. Musically it's a thrilling example of how to go from a whisper to a scream and back again with an orchestra -- listen to the echoing reverberations of the quieter passages. They speak of absence, of loss, of awful, permanent silence. Small wonder that, after experiencing its awesome power in "Rook," Andy should wish to exploit the orchestral sonic palette to its fullest potential.

That Nonsuch points forward to the Apple Venus cycle shouldn't surprise us, of course. Despite what some folks think, evolution happens, and, as Partridge himself likes to point out, "life begins at forty!" There is, thank the Powers, so much more of the XTC soul left to explore. We can't know how the story ends, of course, until it actually ends. But in the meantime, consider this happy thought: Skylarking, that most cyclical of song-cycles, ends on a note of hope, even in the face of death. "Sacrificial Bonfire," an autumnal song redolent of allspice, cider, and decaying leaves, reminds us that every ending is a beginning, every winter leads to summer, and every death an opportunity for rebirth.

So as our turntable's needle traces its way along the last few scratchy inches of the lead-out spiral (for in our fantasy we are, wonder of wonders, forever in vinyl's warm embrace) we fear no evil that may befall us. Unlike in the Big Square World, we can, the wreath of an enigmatic smile playing on our lips, lift the tonearm, flip the beautiful black circle, and, blissfully, Ring In the New:

Lying here in summer's cauldron. . ...

Harrison "Don't you ever stop to ponder" Sherwood lives in Virginia, USA, with his wife and two children. He comments frequently in Chalkhills, the XTC Internet mailing list (

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Copyright © 2002 Harrison Sherwood. The author of this work reserves all intellectual-property rights.