What is Pop? XTC is NRG

by Diedrich Diederichsen

Sounds, April 1980

An unauthorized translation by volunteer James Poulakos for the Internet listserv group Chalkhills. June 23, 1996. Any parts where I doubted my translation are linked to direct quotes of the original German text.

It is 2:30 a.m. We've been sitting for 2 hours in a sinister Hamburg subculture hideout. The smoke finds no escape, the alcoholics fade into narcotic clouds of fog. My companion, who has only drunk milk and mineral water this night, takes his leave. I remain sitting a moment. Behind me lie 6 hours of trying to pin down one of the most fascinating phenomena of contemporary music: XTC. And there, outside waving down a taxi, is the man at least 60% responsible for it all: Andy Partridge.

Before the concert I was in the dressing room. Everyone was occupied and laughing. From out of the travel bag of one of the musicians or roadies peeked the newest American Playboy. Dave Gregory came up to me and asked whether I'd like to interview him.


Dave Gregory plays guitar. He's been with XTC since 1979 and he replaced Barry Andrews. If you listen to old XTC records (WHITE MUSIC, GO2), you'd figure that Barry Andrews's unorthodox keyboard playing would be responsible, for the most part, for XTC's originality. XTC is strangeness in familiar forms. Through Barry Andrews's odd playing you can localize this strangeness in the contrast of apparent irreconcilable elements, as in the arrangements (the keyboards don't blend with the rest of the music).

This impression reduces XTC's music to a gimmick, a trick, and distracts from the compositions. On DRUMS AND WIRES you can see how Barry Andrews's alienating playing style touches upon difficulties: the three others had been together a while already, and Andrews, as fourth man, had to contribute something of his own or adapt. Eventually he positioned himself alongside the music and engaged in self-presentation. He's not on DRUMS AND WIRES, where you hear a fourth man who doesn't break out of the Collective, but in spite of this knows how to utilize the space given him. His solos and fills on guitar aren't clownish or demonstrative. They don't stress the exalted, which is inherent in the band anyway, but rather bind, compress -- bringing to music the precision it had been missing, in classic rock and jazz alike, as it threatened to obscure the soloists and individuals [1]. The composition stands once again in the foreground, and thus so does the Collective.

Dave Gregory comes across, too, as somewhat logical, modest and calm. He's no showoff, wouldn't let himself be photographed hoisting a beer in greeting. He explains, that for him, too, working together collectively is important. The imagelessness of the band is also due to the fact that they want to be the sort of band that makes special music and special lyrics yet renounce non-musical stylings, which differentiates them from the Ramones or Devo or other "Anti-Ego" bands. Dave Gregory wouldn't necessarily want to compose; to fulfill himself he dives into the musical task at hand, for within him there still dwells a musical spirit inculcated by jazz. That could, in fact, be somewhat old-fashioned, yet it suits XTC excellently.

And the first question I ask Andy Patridge in the lobby of the Atlantic Hotel after the concert is the one about the foundation, the roots.

Where did he come from, where does he want to go?

He raises his eyebrows and pokes indifferently at his roast beef. "Pop songs!"

What's that?

"We still like the Small Faces, the Kinks, the Monkees, the Beatles; we like songs."

But XTC has developed that further; XTC is not exactly one of these bands which copy 60s material thoughtlessly and without vision nowadays, serving up slimy new boredoms for us. XTC, rather, is as contemporary as they are innovative. How can there still be a foundation for the Pop Song? How far can you go with songs?

"The songs on the Residents' LP DUCKSTAB / BUSTER & GLEN are a measure; that's exactly how the Beatles would sound today if Lennon/McCartney could have kept working together the way they did in the 60s."


What's with a Pop group that has preserved, amid excessive application of dub, atonal passages and electronic alienation, something like song structure, a group that certainly aren't named what they're named for nothing (even though it's meant ironically)?

"The Pop group, that's serious young men, like most of the new bands, who take themselves and their feelings so seriously that it becomes rigid."

XTC described their philosophy of Pop in a lyric once: "We come the long way / We come the wrong way / We play our songs much too loud / ... / How do you call that noise / ... / This is Pop."

The Pop Song is sort of an expression of vitality and humor that oversteps the bounds of the ordinary and of "good taste" to the point of obliqueness (in this sense the Monkees were perhaps true forerunners of XTC), yet still not dumb or imitative; that would be only the "Revivals." Astonishing that one of the few bands that Andy views positively is Cowboys International. Like XTC, Cowboys International make no secret of their traditions; they don't imitate the achievements of their examplars but rather adopt their methods in order to apply them to their own experience, life and times. Inevitably a new music arises from all this.

Everything smacking of "attitude" or showing off is a horror to Andy. His stage presence is energy, expression, but it stands for itself and doesn't refer back to myths and images well known to Pop; his amibition is to be Andy Partridge and nothing else. Thus he jokes about the new Talking Heads LP, although he used to like the band once and toured with them. Now David Byrne stands front and center and talks of only one thing: "This ain't no party ... is this a party ... this could be a party ... this should be a party ... there's a party in my mind ... everybody leaves the party ... and so on."

Meanwhile we've been driven out of the Atlantic somewhat roughly and we drive to a pub of the intelligentsia, the students, the artists and the hang-outers: the other side of Germany. We're in a car, in the cassette deck U-Roy is playing, whom Andy likes, and he asks me how come there are grand, multi-lane avenues all around but no cars driving on them and reminds himself of his own song, "Roads Girdle the Globe," and says that he hates cars.

Arriving at the pub and settling at the last table, I hack around again at the Collective Question. I ask Andy to explain his relationship to the rest of the band. He goes way back. The schism with Barry began as he began to compose. For GO2 they recorded 5 of his songs, but could only use 2, and these are for Andy the worst on the record. "Back then it was like this (he puts an index finger on one end of the table): Here was Barry, (he sticks his other index finger on the opposite side), there was I; Colin and Terry in the middle."

Of the present, he doesn't say much: "In America they put all Colin Moulding's songs on the first side, mine on the second, so that the album will get more airplay. "Making Plans for Nigel" is Colin's and was our first chart success; he's McCartney, I'm Lennon."

As a kid, I also used to identify with Lennon. Really likeable, that Andy. I try to determine if he's right: He wears John Lennon glasses, slightly tinted, and at important points in his conversation he raises his right eyebrow over the edge of his glasses; he's plainly dressed, unadorned, in a brown student's parka and nondescript english trousers; he speaks softly and clearly and certainly, it could be true, there's the same British cynicism, but with a John Lennon in the band there is no Collective.


What he wants to say via this comparison is naturally nothing more than that he, Andy Partridge, is the Avant Garde in the band while Colin Moulding is the crowd-pleasing one whose songs bring in the dough. Andy Partridge has definite ideas, where the further development of XTC's music should lead and which style elements should be enforced. On WHITE MUSIC, the first LP, there was a cover of "All Along The Watchtower" in which Andy's singing sounded chopped up and estranged to the point where the lyrics were unintelligible. That suited him fine, but he wouldn't stand for it in his own compositions if not one soul could make out the lyrics, whereas in "All Along The Watchtower" everybody knows them. "Complicated Game" moves in this direction, moreso the dub version of "Meccanik Dancing": "Dance With Me, Germany!" This dub Ep, which came inserted into a limited run of GO2 and contains experiments singular in the history of rock music, was in no sense a one-time gag. Partridge, who is as much interested in white Avant Gardists (Philip Glass -- everyone's talking about him these days) as in reggae, has just remixed the tracks from DRUMS AND WIRES and in some places overdubbed some new vocal tracks. The first white dub LP is forthcoming, which should be more than dub in Jamaica often is: instrumental versions of songs, enriched with a couple studio effects.

TAKE AWAY, as the record will presumably be called, should instead tread new paths within the boundaries of XTC music that can't be realized in live performance. The first dub experiments have already had an effect on the "normal" XTC repertoire. Whoever has seen how they do "Complicated Game" or "Battery Brides" in their present set (which, by the way, is said to change every night) knows how far they go with atonality, complicated rhythms, detunings -- and in spite of all this they remain the loud Pop band and the punks in the public pogo onward undiminished.

In XTC, dub plays a completely different role than in the case of bands like the Slits, or of a pop group where a reggae producer introduces particular effects and even integrates them very well, to a degree, although they'll still clearly betray their Jamaican heritage. One of XTC's biggest strengths is their capacity to completely transform foreign influences and appropriate them for themselves.

Eventually Andy goes, leaving me with the impression that he's the head honcho. I completely accepted his presentation of the Barry Andrews affair and the impression of the faceless Collective has yielded to that of the Andy Partridge Band, even though as early as their first record Colin had also written somewhat avant-gardish things and GO2 has some very nice, musically-conducive contributions from Barry Andrews. I ask a friend of Andy's, who's been sitting there the whole time, what kind of person Andy is. He begins his answer with "He's an intellectual!"

[1]"Seine Solis und Fill-Ins auf der Gitarre haben nichts clowneskes und demonstratives, betonen nicht das Exaltierte, das der Band ja ohnehin anhaftet, sondern verbinden, verdichtet, bringen der Musik die Präzision, die ihr fehlte, als sie sich im Klassischen Rock und Jazz-Nebeneinander der Solisten und Individuen zu verlieren drohte."

This translation is provided solely for the scholarly use of members of the Chalkhills group. It is not intended to be reproduced, redistributed, or sold at any price.

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23 June 1996 / James Poulakos