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

I.

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.

II.

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.




CONTINUED