(Review) XTC: This Is Pop

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(Review) XTC: This Is Pop

By John Ruberry

Synes­the­sia: “A sen­sa­tion pro­duced in one modal­ity when a stim­u­lus is applied to another modal­ity, as when the hear­ing of a cer­tain sound induces the visu­al­iza­tion of a cer­tain color,” so says Dic​tio​nary​.com.

If there is a void in your musi­cal life and you are a fan of the Kinks and the Bea­t­les, or per­haps Oasis, then I sug­gest you explore the career of XTC, the most unap­pre­ci­ated band of its time.

And what a time it was. XTC was part of the Class of 1977, rock and roll’s last great year in my opinon, when the Clash, Blondie, Talk­ing Heads, Elvis Costello and many more burst onto the musi­cal scene. By 1999, after a seven year strike against its British label, when they released their penul­ti­mate album, Apple Venus Vol­ume 1, only Costello and XTC remained as active acts.

Like the Bea­t­les, XTC evolved musi­cally into a much dif­fer­ent group when it was all over.

Late last year in Great Britain and early this year in the United States, the doc­u­men­tary, yes, rock­u­men­tarty, XTC: This Is Pop was released. It’s avail­able where I live on Show­time and Xfin­ity OnDemand.

What became XTC began in the south­west­ern Eng­lish city of Swin­don, the one­time home of the Swin­don Works of the Great West­ern Rail­way, with a band started by its de facto leader, Andy Par­tridge. Bassist Colin Mould­ing and drum­mer Terry Cham­bers rounded out the nucleus of the group. Lon­don key­boardist Barry Andrews, the only XTCer who is not inter­viewed for This Is Pop, later joined; he appears on the band’s first two albums, White Music and GO2, which com­prise the band’s punk period. After Andrews’ depar­ture he was replaced by another Swin­don­ian, gui­tarist Dave Gregory.

I actu­ally think we started pretty damn good and then got a lot bet­ter. And there’s not too many bands can say that’s their arc,” Par­tridge immod­estly but cor­rectly boasts about XTC.

Yet there is some humor in This Is Pop that off­sets the braggadocio.

Don’t you dare have-​into this doc­u­men­tary,” Par­tridge waves off “that lugubri­ous key­board player from that prog-​rock group,” Rick Wake­man of Yes, who makes a hilar­i­ous cameo.

Par­tridge says of his trou­bled child­hood, “I never thought I was good at any­thing until I got more and more into draw­ing and painting.”

Imag­ine if leg­endary film­maker Akira Kuro­sawa, who early in his life aspired to be a painter, formed a rock group instead. It just might have sounded like XTC.

The band’s break­through in 1979 came not from a Partridge-​penned tune but one by Mould­ing, “We’re Only Mak­ing Plans For Nigel” from their third album, Drums and Wires, which Lit­tle Marathon Pun­dit said of the other day, “That’s one song I like.” If its sonorous drum pat­terns seem famil­iar, that’s because engi­neer Hugh Pad­ham dis­cov­ered that effect while recod­ing “Nigel” before bring­ing the tech­nique to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Many other 1980s acts swiped that sound.

The next two albums, Black Sea and Eng­lish Set­tle­ment, brought more – albeit mod­est – suc­cess and momen­tum to XTC as it rounded out its New Wave period. But as the Kinks often bun­gled their career, XTC’ sab­o­taged things too, although not inten­tion­ally as I’ve always sus­pected the Kinks did. The effects of Partridge’s Val­ium addic­tion, which went back to when he was 12, and the with­drawal effects, led to a ner­vous break­down dur­ing a Paris con­cert – which is shown in This Is Pop. The lads from Swin­don still trav­eled to the United States for their first tour as a head­liner. But what should have been an Amer­i­can vic­tory lap lasted just one show. Out­side of a smat­ter­ing of radio and tele­vi­sion appear­ances, they never per­formed live again.

XTC’s pas­toral era brought three albums, Mum­mer, The Big Express, and Sky­lark­ing. But within that period XTC’s psy­che­delic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosp­hear, released two col­lec­tions that out­sold those last two in the UK.

Before record­ing Sky­lark­ing, Par­tridge tells us, their record label issued an ulti­ma­tum: You need to grow your Amer­i­can audi­ence and hire an Amer­i­can pro­ducer. Pre­sented with a list of unfa­mil­iar names, Par­tridge chose the only one he had heard of: Todd Rund­gren. The result was the band’s mas­ter­piece, Sky­lark­ing. On it you find the con­cep­tual orches­tral great­ness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But because Par­tridge and “Runt” butted heads – they prob­a­bly had too much in com­mon – the stu­dio atmos­phere mir­rored the angst of the Bea­t­les’ White Album record­ing ses­sions. XTC came close to blow­ing this moment too as the orig­i­nal press­ings of Sky­lark­ing omit­ted the best song from the Rund­gren ses­sions, the con­tro­ver­sial athe­ist anthem “Dear God.” It was the B-​side of the “Grass” sin­gle. Amer­i­can dee­jays ele­vated “Dear God” to promi­nence. Their record com­pany was right, XTC needed a jump start from America.

Ear­lier I men­tioned synes­the­sia. “How I write a lot of the songs, I will find a chord or a chord change on a gui­tar or on a key­board,” Par­tridge describes his song­writ­ing tech­nique, “and I’m play­ing those but not I’m not hear­ing music – I’m see­ing pic­tures. That’s how I write songs, it comes usu­ally from the synes­thesic level.”

And I wager you thought I was over­reach­ing with the Akira Kuro­sawa comparison.

Synes­the­sia is where you get stuff mixed up,” Par­tridge expands on his thoughts, “some­one will say a num­ber and you’ll hear a noise, or some­one will show you a color and you’ll think of a num­ber, or you’ll hear a peace of music or a chord and to me it makes a picture.”

And that is why XTC’s music is different.

The follow-​up to Sky­lark­ing was 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, another suc­cess as XTC entered its proto–Brit­pop era.

Cham­bers left dur­ing the pas­toral period and Gre­gory departed shortly after XTC’s record­ing strike ended. Their band’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol­ume 2), was released in 2000.

An eclec­tic group of com­men­ta­tors con­tribute con­text to This Is Pop, includ­ing Stew­art Copeland of the Police, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and a vet­eran mock­u­men­tary per­former, Harry Shearer, who, unlike Wake­man, plays it straight here.

Woven into This Is Pop is the coun­try­side of south­west­ern Eng­land and a model train set wind­ing through an intricately-​reconstructed Swin­don, because it doesn’t seem pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate XTC from their home­town.

XTC: This Is Pop is an essen­tial film about an essen­tial band, a group that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The doc­u­men­tary can be streamed on Ama­zon.

John Ruberry, who has been an XTC fan since 1979 after hear­ing “We’re Only Mak­ing Plans for Nigel” on WXRT-​FM in Chicago, reg­u­larly blogs at Marathon Pun­dit.

By John Ruberry

Synesthesia: “A sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color,” so says Dictionary.com.

If there is a void in your musical life and you are a fan of the Kinks and the Beatles, or perhaps Oasis, then I suggest you explore the career of XTC, the most unappreciated band of its time.

And what a time it was. XTC was part of the Class of 1977, rock and roll’s last great year in my opinon, when the Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and many more burst onto the musical scene. By 1999, after a seven year strike against its British label, when they released their penultimate album, Apple Venus Volume 1, only Costello and XTC remained as active acts.

Like the Beatles, XTC evolved musically into a much different group when it was all over.

Late last year in Great Britain and early this year in the United States, the documentary, yes, rockumentarty, XTC: This Is Pop was released. It’s available where I live on Showtime and Xfinity OnDemand.

What became XTC began in the southwestern English city of Swindon, the onetime home of the Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway, with a band started by its de facto leader, Andy Partridge. Bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers rounded out the nucleus of the group. London keyboardist Barry Andrews, the only XTCer who is not interviewed for This Is Pop, later joined; he appears on the band’s first two albums, White Music and GO2, which comprise the band’s punk period. After Andrews’ departure he was replaced by another Swindonian, guitarist Dave Gregory.

“I actually think we started pretty damn good and then got a lot better. And there’s not too many bands can say that’s their arc,” Partridge immodestly but correctly boasts about XTC.

Yet there is some humor in This Is Pop that offsets the braggadocio.

“Don’t you dare have-into this documentary,” Partridge waves off “that lugubrious keyboard player from that prog-rock group,” Rick Wakeman of Yes, who makes a hilarious cameo.

Partridge says of his troubled childhood, “I never thought I was good at anything until I got more and more into drawing and painting.”

Imagine if legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who early in his life aspired to be a painter, formed a rock group instead. It just might have sounded like XTC.

The band’s breakthrough in 1979 came not from a Partridge-penned tune but one by Moulding, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel” from their third album, Drums and Wires, which Little Marathon Pundit said of the other day, “That’s one song I like.” If its sonorous drum patterns seem familiar, that’s because engineer Hugh Padham discovered that effect while recoding “Nigel” before bringing the technique to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Many other 1980s acts swiped that sound.

The next two albums, Black Sea and English Settlement, brought more–albeit modest–success and momentum to XTC as it rounded out its New Wave period. But as the Kinks often bungled their career, XTC’ sabotaged things too, although not intentionally as I’ve always suspected the Kinks did. The effects of Partridge’s Valium addiction, which went back to when he was 12, and the withdrawal effects, led to a nervous breakdown during a Paris concert–which is shown in This Is Pop. The lads from Swindon still traveled to the United States for their first tour as a headliner. But what should have been an American victory lap lasted just one show. Outside of a smattering of radio and television appearances, they never performed live again.

XTC’s pastoral era brought three albums, Mummer, The Big Express, and Skylarking. But within that period XTC’s psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, released two collections that outsold those last two in the UK.

Before recording Skylarking, Partridge tells us, their record label issued an ultimatum: You need to grow your American audience and hire an American producer. Presented with a list of unfamiliar names, Partridge chose the only one he had heard of: Todd Rundgren. The result was the band’s masterpiece, Skylarking. On it you find the conceptual orchestral greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But because Partridge and “Runt” butted heads–they probably had too much in common–the studio atmosphere mirrored the angst of the Beatles’ White Album recording sessions. XTC came close to blowing this moment too as the original pressings of Skylarking omitted the best song from the Rundgren sessions, the controversial atheist anthem “Dear God.” It was the B-side of the “Grass” single. American deejays elevated “Dear God” to prominence. Their record company was right, XTC needed a jump start from America.

Earlier I mentioned synesthesia. “How I write a lot of the songs, I will find a chord or a chord change on a guitar or on a keyboard,” Partridge describes his songwriting technique, “and I’m playing those but not I’m not hearing music–I’m seeing pictures. That’s how I write songs, it comes usually from the synesthesic level.”

And I wager you thought I was overreaching with the Akira Kurosawa comparison.

“Synesthesia is where you get stuff mixed up,” Partridge expands on his thoughts, “someone will say a number and you’ll hear a noise, or someone will show you a color and you’ll think of a number, or you’ll hear a peace of music or a chord and to me it makes a picture.”

And that is why XTC’s music is different.

The follow-up to Skylarking was 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, another success as XTC entered its proto-Britpop era.

Chambers left during the pastoral period and Gregory departed shortly after XTC’s recording strike ended. Their band’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), was released in 2000.

An eclectic group of commentators contribute context to This Is Pop, including Stewart Copeland of the Police, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and a veteran mockumentary performer, Harry Shearer, who, unlike Wakeman, plays it straight here.

Woven into This Is Pop is the countryside of southwestern England and a model train set winding through an intricately-reconstructed Swindon, because it doesn’t seem possible to separate XTC from their hometown.

XTC: This Is Pop is an essential film about an essential band, a group that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The documentary can be streamed on Amazon.

John Ruberry, who has been an XTC fan since 1979 after hearing “We’re Only Making Plans for Nigel” on WXRT-FM in Chicago, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.