Bless My Soul, I'm Already There!

by Harrison Sherwood

PAGE 2

III.

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.

IV.

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!




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