Reviews of XTC: Song Stories

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The Comics Journal
Raging Bullpen
June 23, 1999

Sunshine Superman and Other Strange Tales

by Larry Rodman

There's an intense linkage between comics and rock music, one in fact so ubiquitous as to render a list of examples redundant. They meet at equivalent points on the high/low art scale. Both media operate as vehicles for either true artistic expression or gutter-level crap; are venerated for their anti-authoritarianism, or regarded as reactionary crud; and are beloved by the masses as escapism, or blamed by experts for the downfall of civilization. The intersection of alternative comics and alt pop music is itself particularly rife with examples -- but then, is this anything new? It's lucky for me that music and/or comics fan-oriented essays are often simply periodic reworkings of the oral histories of our respective, integrated clans. 

It might be constructive here to major in the study of the aesthetics of pop-cultural media crossovers, and minor in a more simplistic "six degrees of separation" game based on the various comics artists who dabble in rock (you know who you are). 

For my purposes, the six degrees framework is useful in illustrating legitimate associations. If there's anyone unaware of this precept, supposedly everyone on earth is interrelated within an infinite skein of encounters or blood-ties. By tracing any single path, it's possible to find how any of us is removed from any other person by a mere six of these connections. Since the music industry is pretty tightly contained -- also built around collaborative effort -- there's tons of flow within that community. Interestingly, I find significant crossover between the music people and comics people. 

I happen to have a brochure here from the Pocono Bikers Music Rally (August 14th & 15th, Poconos, Pennsylvania). Anyone wondering about the current whereabouts of Ray Sawyer, aka Dr. Hook, or Big Brother and the Holding Company -- and many, many more -- look no further! Sawyer is only a few jumps, by way of the departed Shel "Sylvia's Mother" Silverstein, to Hugh Hefner, to Harvey Kurtzman. Any original member of Big Brother is, in an abstract sense, linked to Robert Crumb via the Cheap Thrills album cover. This brings to mind several notable regional musical/comix matrixes: Austin, Seattle and San Francisco. The undergrounds might not have flourished without printing cooperatives and the head shop distribution system established by rock poster entrepreneurs.  

Check it out: Edgar Winter's gonna be at the Poconos. It wasn't long ago that he was suing the creative team of a DC comic for defamation over being portrayed as an albino ghoul. Molly Hatchet (!) is playing. I'm fairly certain that they once used Frazetta's Death Dealer on an album cover. (If this catalogue outlines anything beyond general cross-media pollination, it may be to demonstrate how fucking silly pop-culture is.) Comics are to music as tattoos are to biker chicks.  

Extra credit examples of actual comic strip art in album covers: Neal Adams on The Groundhogs' Who Will Save the World? and Dave Gibbons in the fold out of Jethro Tull's Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die. The instances of comics artists doing single illustrations for covers are as common as dirt.  

When it comes to inspiration, comics artists have frequently been upfront about the energy they get from spinning a big beat or a spacey excursion. I remember an artists profile feature from a fanzine in the early to mid-'70s. At the time, fantasy art was God, in a post-psychedelic sense. Vaughn Bode had gone from looking like a button-down Kennedy to Marc Bolan. I forget just which aforesaid fanzine I refer to; maybe it was Infinity or Ariel: The Book of Fantasy. The guy in the article related what it took to put him in a creative frame of mind. "I dig firing up a joint and cranking the Hendrix tunes while I paint."  

Pop tune fun fact: Andy Warhol is said to have habitually holed up in The Factory and just let the needle play the same 45 rpm single repeatedly, all day long. Probably, it was "Georgie Girl."  

So -- having firmly laid the above groundwork -- it doesn't seem presumptuous to me to rhetorically characterize comics as the rock music of visual art. For anyone already way ahead of me, saying, "like DUH," or something, let me point out that the reflexive cross-referencing of dissimilar arts media is something of a recent development -- one coming increasingly into play as our jammed brains desperately attempt to process continual stimulation -- in isolation from hitherto acceptable attitudes within non-pop, that is, high culture.  

You may have heard the phrase used in a recent film -- applied as a metaphor about the deficiency of language in expressing emotional nuances -- "dancing about architecture." Never mind that word-image's preciousness. It shows a general attitude that the studio arts; drawing, painting, sculpture, or what have you, aren't meant to be integrated, and there's only so much egalitarian overlapping to be allowed. I personally don't see the problem in a dadaesque exercise of dancing about architecture -- in theory, anyway. That sort of creative miscegenation could stir things up a bit. 

At this point in time, crossover definitely exists to a degree that can hardly be contained. Again with the examples: It's well documented that droves of career rockers are art school alumni. These are people who were essentially trained to be unsystematic. Visual art-making methods may be too bogged down and process-oriented for those in whom the sap is really running.  

While it's been fun advocating my holistic arts agenda, it's time to move from the general to the specific. My main concern is with a recent book of rock journalism; one which features a minor theme of comics as part of the whole creative-writing tool kit. The author -- and, in collaboration the band XTC--acknowledge, no, even better, take for granted, the comic medium's position in the pop-art spectrum. 

Incidentally, music criticism is in itself a case of dancing about architecture, in which one disparate medium is used to delineate the basically ineffable qualities of another. Once a standard technical and compositional vocabulary is exhausted, writers have to try and bridge descriptive gaps in terminology with what amounts to tactile, expressionistic poetry.

The book whereof I speak is XTC Song Stories, by Neville Farmer (Hyperion). A much-loved group which happened along during the last gasps of UK punkdom, XTC has essentially done the non-touring recording studio experimental thing forever, now. You may know them from late-'70s and '80s near hits like "Making Plans for Nigel," "Senses Working Overtime," or the infamous "Dear God." At any rate, owing to their virtual seclusion, their public has had to cultishly interpret the significance of song lyrics on their own. XTC has ended their most recent hiatus with the release of a new album, and is celebrating with the Farmer retrospective. 

Principal songwriter Andy Partridge -- and to a lesser extent, first lieutenant Colin Moulding -- have an even more pronounced comic book fixation that I had realized. They've always left plenty of lyrical clues around to poke at; so I'm sure its second nature for them. There have been distinct, yet parallel traditions in American and English comics publishing, with more similarities than differences in recent times. It's pretty likely that XTC misspent their youths hunkered down with Beano and Wham! comics, to name two idiosyncratically British long-running humor magazines. Or, adventure strips in the tabloid Eagle, if they were more precocious. By the mid-'60s, Smash! had started importing Marvel strips. It was The Hulk who spearheaded a second American invasion -- Fawcett's Captain Marvel and Whiz Comics had been mainstays of post WW II Britain until the '60s -- and Spider-Man, and Nick Fury comics alternated with the domestically produced material. Stateside, the Marvel title Strange Tales returned the favor, with Ben Grimm decked out in a Beatle wig. Adam West Batmania  ruled on both sides of the Atlantic, whetting the British schoolboy appetite for DC's reprints. Of course, all this stuff was in addition to a plethora of domestic entertainments. There are also far broader cultural touchstones which surface throughout the songs and intrumental arrangements; ones clearly shared by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman; Punch and Judy shows; pantomime and music hall stage traditions; Dickens and Lewis Carroll.  

Rock musicians are not ordinarily known to be as cloistered as cartoonists, but by the same token, there's an eccentric breed of Brit gentleman farmer with a sod-lined shed out back housing state of the art recording equipment. Any self-respecting profiler could tell you without looking that there's a stack of comics stashed in there, behind the canned preserves. According to Song Stories, Partridge has a "passion for comics, books, and toys, both American and English... (and) a love of mechanics of theatre, music hall, circus, and the traditions of English entertainment." 

So, Partridge and Moulding are essentially shut-ins, outwardly staid yet happy to subvert mid-life behavioral codes with that immature elasticity of mind common among book-worms everywhere. To paraphrase another grand old anti-rock star, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, "Me in an armchair and a book is a party. With a cup of coffee, it's an orgy." 

XTC Song Stories is liberally sprinkled with drawing and comics pages which were used as points of departure for the song lyrics, as jacket design doodles or as proposed storyboards for proposed videos. There were used as thumbnails to convey vague notions and abstract concepts to the official producers and designers. Most of these graphics were rendered unrecognizable by the time the product hit the shelves. But, seeing a rudimentary draft of the design for a familiar finished album graphic -- one which has since taken on an associated aural dimension -- reinforces the sense of the synchronicity of sound and vision.  

Here, graphics provide form and focus for a working autodidact. It becomes clear that Partridge's pictorial sequences are an exercise for the instinctive, musical notation-impaired, composer; a solid structure over which to free-associate. A roughly comparative example from the comics world would be R. Crumb's sketchbook drawings, some of which seem to dance to their own mute soundtrack. There's a difference in outcome in that the Crumb work exists for itself, while Partridge's drawings augment his songwriting efforts. The pop/rock aesthetic allows a musician freedom to devise his own systems; that's also the case for the more adventuresome comics creators. My sense is that Partridge's drawings -- sketches, idea fragments and comics -- help shape not only the lyric imagery, but also strive to establish the overall ambience of a song. 

As for the lyrics in the XTC songbook, I don't have to even bother stretching the point to categorize the overt comic references. They simply are. I know from personal experience how Partridge and Moulding must relate to the empirical world in brackets set forth by Ditko and Kirby; a mindset within which a serious comics fan cross-references all things.  

In the 1982 release, English Settlement, the song "Melt the Guns" was instigated by a "Steve Ditko sci-fi comic strip about a man who is considered contaminated because he carries a gun." In the finest punk soapbox manner, the vocals dissolve into semi-coherent scatting: mostly Yoda-speak, with some lesser declamations thrown in. Neville Farmer writes, "The Justice League of America, mentioned in this rant, is a comic book and the writers were so pleased with the mention that they actually gave Andy a cameo role in one issue, at the controls of a space ship." 

The pattern was already well in place by XTC's first album, 1978's White Music, which opens with "Science Friction," a "rapid, catchy...piece of pop gibberish, apparently about pacifying invading aliens, a side effect of Andy's (affection) for comic books." The XTC invented, vigilante character Scissor Man ("snipping, snipping, snipping, he's the Scissor Man, puts an end to evil-doers games...") was derived from the Victorian scary tale Struwwel Peter, a book which warned children about the ghastly consequences of lapses in personal hygiene. In a similar vein, Colin Moulding's tune "Officer Blue" appears to have been inspired by Judge Dredd, though it's actually about the "policemen who would pop up in Yellow Submarine," combined with the beat cops Moulding would encounter after an all-nighter, bleary and paranoid that they might regard him as suspicious. Then there's the throwaway riff "Strange Tales," which Farmer says is "merely a play on words based around Andy and Colin's love of the American Strange Tales comics." Unfortunately, it remains for someone else to write the definitive song invoking Dr. Strange's mumbo-jumbo -- the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto, and Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth -- as well as the high-tech he-man intrigues of Nick Fury.  

I'm perfectly willing to beat this line of inquiry into the ground, if that hasn't already happened. It should be totally apparent that there's a pop sensibility, an energy, if you will, that entitles these guys to a key to our virtual Con Hospitality Suite. It's not over, though. There are still two more examples of comic book songwriting that I'm obligated to mention. 1980's Black Sea features the song "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" -- a spoof on male social Darwinism as leverage in the war between the sexes. The singer conjures the spirit of Kubert's dogface, much the same way as Woody Allen called on Bogart in Play it Again, Sam. It's the tough guy who knows the way to a woman's heart. With the lyrics, "Sgt. Rock is going to help me, make the girl mine, keep her stood in line..." this Brit hit single didn't endear Mr. Partridge to feminists, sad to say.  

Also written from the standpoint of sexual frustration -- a theme as frequently used as that of boasting male dominance, when you think about it -- is a song on the Skylarking album (1986), "That's Really Super, Supergirl." Farmer notes, "British irony rarely goes over in America, and didn't for many people in this case... this was a song about a woman, nobody in particular, who thinks the world of herself and treats her man badly." It goes: 

That's really super, Supergirl,
how you saved the world in seconds flat,
and your friends are gonna say
That's really super, Supergirl. 

But here in my Fortress of Solitude,
don't mean to be rude,
but I don't feel super,

It's a tale rife with abandonment, and includes an inference equating Kryptonite with impotence. 

So, that's it. I suppose this seems excessive as an attempt to demonstrate the special relationship between the two bastard children of pop-culture. It's probably not going to make you look at the world any differently. Just consider, though,  that if Gary Groth had made a more effective stab at rock 'n' roll journalism in Sounds Fine, his Seventies attempt to crack that market, or if he and Mike Catron had gotten their "cash cow" rock convention to go alright -- as revealed in Groth's interview in Peter Bagge's I Like Comics -- we might not be here today, analyzing every brush stroke in every comic strip ever done.  

Bagge: What would constitute a rock convention? Did you have live acts? 

Groth: We had a lot of local bands, and we got speakers and we had a dealers' room. Basically we were doing the same thing that we did with a comic convention, just transferring it to rock n' roll. 

Rock and comics are bonded, and are more than just junk media of last resort by, and for, misfits. I guess that they're saddled with a misguided notion that the arts must be inaccessible to be meaningful. Though humble in their inception, they can be a channel for pure, raw expression in the hands of an inventive and imaginative creator.

© 1999

The Calgary Sun

Sunday, December 20, 1998

XTC blasts off again

The Calgary Sun

British pop group returns with a box set and a new biography

The 1990s haven't been a particularly good decade for fans of XTC.

The British pop band's only studio album of the '90s, Nonsuch, was released six years ago. After that, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and the recently departed guitarist Dave Gregory fought to break their less-than-lucrative contract with Virgin. They finally succeeded, but only after years of self-imposed inactivity -- a painfully long stretch for fans of the band's Beatlesque tunesmithery.

Now set up with their own label, distributed in North America by New York-based TVT, there are finally stirrings in the XTC camp. The long-awaited new studio album, Apple Venus Vol. 1, should be out in late February or early March. In the meantime, XTC has released a four-CD box-set of their BBC recordings, titled Transistor Blast, and an insightful authorized biography written by journalist friend Neville Farmer, Song Stories.

The 317-page tome (Hyperion, $19.95) is a fascinating read for committed fans. Farmer chronicles the group's development from four hard-touring Swindon lads playing noisy New Wave to what they are today, a mature, studio-only entity making the finest pastoral-pop records this side of Rubber Soul and Smiley Smile.

In the process, Farmer gets the band members to spill the beans about studios, producers (Todd Rundgren's a tyrant; Steve Nye had bad gas, apparently) and each other. The interviews between Farmer and XTC are often transcribed verbatim and prove to be as revelatory for the band as for the reader. For fans, though, having Partridge and Moulding discuss the inspiration behind every one of their songs -- comics and drinking early on; family, fidelity and finances later on -- is the book's real selling point.

XTC's decision in 1982 to stop touring -- a result of Partridge's debilitating stage fright -- meant many fans never had the chance to see the band in concert. Transistor Blast offers proof XTC was a potent live act. Two CDs contain essentially two separate gigs in 1978 and 1980, both nervy and exciting though the latter show showed a marked improvement in songwriting and presentation. (By 1980, XTC wisely replaced Barry Andrews and his gothic keyboard style with Brit-pop classicist Gregory.) The other two CDs feature 25 studio performances for the BBC from 1977 to 1989. These tracks just skim XTC's canon yet contain an endless supply of inventive ideas, clever lyrics and unforgettable melodies.

One only wishes the tracks were arranged chronologically, so XTC's exquisite, latter-day songs didn't segue into their early, amphetamine-fuelled bursts of herky-jerky pop. A minor quibble, though, for a set that'll surely satiate loyalists and wow casual fans and the uninitiated.

XTC: Song Stories

[Thanks to Wes Hanks and with permission of David Veitch]

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
November 29, 1998, Sunday FINAL AM EDITION
by Dave Ferman, Star-Telegram Writer

Books about music can be a big hit on gift list

Christmas plus music equals, for a lot of people, the new Celine Dion or Babyface CDs.

Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't have to be that way. Some of the best Christmas gifts you can give your favorite music lover aren't music at all, but rather books about music.

That's particularly true in 1998, which saw the publication of a number of underpublicized books about, variously, swing music in Texas; zydeco and its place in Louisiana culture; an obscure jazz musician with an incredible secret; and a well-regarded but never riotously popular English band.

. . . And then there's XTC: Song Stories (Hyperion; $ 14.95), an account of the famous (and criminally underappreciated) English band told by the band itself and author Neville Farmer. XTC, you'll recall, has made sublime pop music since the '70s, but they rarely perform because of leader Andy Partridge's stage fright and his on-tour breakdown in California in 1982. After that, they devoted more time to crafting studio CDs.

Much of the book's narrative hinges on band members talking about individual songs. This doesn't sound like it would work, but it does.

Along the way, an interesting portrait of a unique band is drawn.

TOP Magazine
October 1998

by XTC and Neville Farmer (Helter Skelter Publishing £12.99). Thorough examination of the personalities, and lyrical inspirations behind XTC's quintessentally arch and much-missed English pop, with the group members continuing to play their part to the full. (Ruth Morris)

Issue 58, September 1998

The Good Life?

The discreet charm of Swindon's longest-running and barmiest combo. By Chris Ingham

XTC: Song Stories
Neville Farmer And XTC
Helter Skelter £12.00

If you love XTC, hearing them grow from the brightest sparks of the New Wave School Of '78 into masters of Mature Pop has been one of the more heartening rock stories. In And Partridge they have a maverick songwriter of remarkable gifts, the trio of songs closing 1989's Oranges And Lemons alone being an extraordinary achievement; the effortless juggling of the baby/penis metaphor ion the sly and breezy Pink Thing, the life-giving/destructive evolution of himself as a Miniature Sun and the jawdropping beauty of Chalkhills And Children, all operating at rarely attained levels of musical sophistication and lyrical invention. Completing the band is Colin Moulding, a quietly excellent foil who long ago accepted his Harrison-esque proportion of credits (though, much to Partridge's dismay, Moulding managed to take the lion's share of single A-sides at one point), and Dave Gregory, the proper musician helping his Swindon chums achieve the sort of rigorously creative music very few grown-ups with guitars are capable of, some of the best music that pop has to offer.

However, the business side of XTC has been a disaster which has not yet ended. Always low on funds, the band were at a breakthrough point in their career when Partridge's terminal stage-fright ended their touring career in 1981; money went missing, management was sued, debts were accrued that even sales of half-a-million couldn't clear, a five-year deadlock ensued as Virgin refused to release them and XTC refused to work. When they did escape and record, studio bills were unpaid and tapes were confiscated. 20 years on, it appears the band who often worried in song about domestic finances (Love On A Farmboy's Wages, Earn Enough For Us) are struggling to finish their eleventh album, their first in six years, because, unbelievably they have no money.

This sorry tale runs behind the main thrust of Farmer's book which, in its cheerful celebration of the minutiae surrounding XTC's music and with the band's musical passion intact, doesn't wallow for a second. It's essentially a band-driven project for the fans, so if the song-by-song stuff is low of Revolution In The Head-style perception, it's high on setting-the-record-straight anecdote.

Farmer's chummy asides ("Trust Andy to find the oblique view...") and Partridge's neat summaries (on Moulding's beautiful Bungalow, "A bit of Mike Leigh-On-Sea" on No Thugs In Our House, "Violent Motown meets Johnny Winter") set the tone. We learn much about recording circumstances (hours programming Linn drums, Dave Gregory objecting to Partridge's "atonal rub") and songs' inspirations, both musical (Terry Riley, dub, Blue Nile, "dicking around with the chords of Blackbird") and personal (Cold War paranoia, schoolyard crushes, wobbly marriages, Swindon).

The best sections are the disarmingly entertaining transcriptions of three-way reminiscences. On Andy's inability to appear live:

AP: "You must have been disappointed, though."

CM: "No, not really"

AP: "Well, that's very warming. Because I felt I was just public enemy number one..."

DG: "I felt sorry for you. It wasn't a conscious decisions made out of spite."

Hadn't they talked about this before?

The personality of Partridge dominates the book as it does XTC's music. Superbright. Funny, commanding, hurtful, there are many Andy Being Difficult stories. He's either crying (with stage fright, suing his manager/writing the fantastic Rook) or arguing, usually with producers. His run-ins with Todd Rundgren (or Herman Munster to the band) on what turned out to be their masterpiece, 1986's Skylarking, are hilariously terrifying.

It becomes clear that it's only thought the accommodating personalities of Moulding and Gregory (both of whom have been bruised by Andy but obviously love him, the latter at least considering him a genius) that XTC still exist. During Oranges And Lemons, Partridge made a cap decorated with pictures of female genitalia so when "anyone was being difficult they had to put on the Colonel Cunt Hat."

"I think it was made for you," remembers Colin.

"Strange. It fitted perfectly," says Andy.

Hurry back, chaps.

[Thanks to Simon Sleightholm]

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