Bless My Soul, I'm Already There!
by Harrison Sherwood
The next two records, Mummer and The Big Express, are albums of recovery, of strength returning.
While one might expect the first album made by XTC after giving up the road to be a sad record, a testimony of failure and dejection, in fact Mummer is hopeful, gentle, full of natural and seasonal imagery you might even call it serene. How much of this is Partridge and Moulding putting on a brave face is not for us to say, but the net effect is the same: a record thats as far removed in atmosphere as you can get from the terrible stresses Partridge was trying to recover from.
Perhaps it was therapy. For a while after the breakdown he was unable to leave the house, afraid of being on display, of having to perform for people even in the simple acts of everyday life. He sat in his back garden with an acoustic guitar and wrote songs of beauty and hope. The hope sprang from a few victories he had won: Now for the first time in his adult life, he was living a reasonably placid existence, having gotten for himself all those things that he used to wake up in the night yearning for a permanent home, the beginnings of a family, stability, artistic freedom to create music that doesnt have to be performed live, the opportunity to investigate new media like video, and the time to produce other acts.
Mummer is suffused throughout with exotic sounds and percussive effects. "Beating of Hearts," an affecting anti-war screed, surprises and frightens with the intensity of the Indian-sounding synthesizers doubling the vocal. Colins "Deliver Us from the Elements," a plaintive cry in the face of an uncertain future, features a cinematic and spooky Mellotron voice. "Love on a Farmboys Wages," a beautiful acoustic guitar piece, feels literally timeless, without era, like a Constable painting of the Wiltshire countryside. Its also the best evidence yet that XTC will never again stray far from the pastoral muse.
Another nature-centered acoustic piece, the jazz-tinged "Ladybird," contains some of Partridges best lyrics to date, with internal rhyme and enjambment thats as deft as anything hes written before or since. "Ladybird" is also the first example of a theme that will recur frequently in Partridges later lyrical output: the symbolism of the changing of the seasons, the arrival of spring and banishment of winter heralding optimism. Its naughty, gossipy fun to compare the sunny, blossomy "Ladybird" with English Settlements frosty "Snowman," especially considering the women who inspired each song.
Mummer did exact one terrible casualty: During an earlier tour, Terry Chambers met and fell in love with a woman from Australia who came back to England to live with him. Unimpressed with the English weather, she began to make noises that she would prefer to live where rain, mud and subpar central heating didnt feature quite so prominently. Faced with a cold and discontented life-mate, membership in a band that has just permanently renounced his four favorite activities (tour, bash drums, drink, repeat), and recording songs he felt were less than completely manly (ladybirds and farmboys being, one supposes, a little infra dig), Terry upped and split.
His loss marked a crossing-the-Rubicon sort of moment in the XTC story: Now they were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a really-o, truly-o, non-touring, non-performing Studio Band.
The Big Express, the clanky-cranky album that followed Mummer, was in odd ways both its mirror image and its complete opposite. Boisterous and noisy where Mummer was ethereal and pastoral, nevertheless its the earlier albums industrial, urban cousin. Starring Historical Swindon, the Great Western Railway, the humble workers of a halcyon prewar time, like Mummer its a celebration of XTCs here-and-now, once again expressing no regret indeed, pride that they had chosen to come back to live in the place of their origin rather than abandon it for the life of the cosmopolite.
Beginning with the most rambunctious, rocking opening on an XTC record since the power chords that begin Black Seas "Respectable Street," the clangorous guitars of Partridge and Gregory play chopped chords in four and three opposite each other to kick-start "Wake Up." This rowdy tone will persist through the record; gone for now are the shimmery acoustic textures of English Settlement and Mummer. This record is about metal striking metal, molten steel pouring from crucibles, factory whistles blowing the smoky Morse code of mortality.
The albums centerpiece is "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," which is a truly ambitious thing, a ten-thousand-foot view looking down at Swindon, taking in the day and night activities of its inhabitants, their workaday concerns and heartaches in the face of advancing "progress." The workers and wives and children in the song will have their familiar homes and comfortable existences torn from them by time and the inevitable ravages that well-intentioned city planners will perpetrate on them.
Disgust for the callous destruction of human-scale works and lives in the name of progress will become a recurring theme for Partridge and Moulding both. Colin already expressed it forcefully in English Settlements "Ball and Chain," and now here in "Smalltown," the matter becomes mystical for Partridge. Consider the implications of these lines, spoken by what appears to be the Spirit of Swindon herself:
And I've sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
And as payment they make love in me
In squeaky beds
In bicycle sheds
Inside of their heads
As singles and weds
As Tories and Reds
And that's how I'm fed
And that's how I'm fed
How far weve come from "Into the Atom Age"! Here it is, the beginning of the theme that will recur again and again in Partridges later songs. This is the sort of thing that you want to throw back into the faces of people who a couple of years later would threaten to firebomb radio stations for playing "Dear God": There are more ways than one to be religious, folks.
The seed that will blossom as the Venus Apple is herein sown.
God, it must have been fun to be the Dukes of Stratosphear!
In 1984, after the release of The Big Express, Virgin Records asked Partridge to produce Mary Margaret OHara (sister of Catherine OHara of SCTV and the Home Alone movies), an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who was how to put it? a few beads short of a rosary. Andy invited as co-producer the now legendary John Leckie, who had not only produced White Music but had other hugely influential production credentials (Bebop Deluxe, Magazine, Public Image Limited, and many others) to his credit.
But it wasnt Leckies professional associations that bothered OHara; it was his religious ones. Leckie was a follower of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, the Rolls-Royce-collecting "free-love" guru. This didnt sit at all well with OHara, a particularly devout Catholic, and before a note had been recorded she fired both Leckie and Andy, who had also made the mistake of revealing to her in casual conversation that he was a lapsed Anglican.
But this failed experiment in musical ecumenicalism had an unforeseen benefit, one that led to one of the funniest, most inventive musical forgeries ever undertaken The Dukes of Stratosphear. At a two-month-long loose end, and with a little money cadged from Virgin as compensation for the OHara disaster, Andy and Leckie gathered Colin, Dave, and Daves brother, Ian, in Chapel Lane Studio in the appropriately named village of Hampton Bishop. The intent was to fulfill a fantasy that had long brewed in Andy Partridges head, and which he first proposed to Dave Gregory in 1978: A tribute to the psychedelic records of their childhood Pink Floyd, the Move, the Beatles.
In two weeks they recorded six cod-psychedelic songs on as much vintage gear as they could find, with goofy adopted comic-book personas to hide their real identities. The EP that ensued, 25 OClock, was released by Virgin on April Fools Day 1985, under the not-very-serious pretext that these "lost" Sixties songs had been only recently "rediscovered" in a warehouse. The records packaging made no reference to XTC, and many were suckered in.
As pastiches, the songs on 25 OClock and the 1987 follow-up Psonic Psunspot, are close to complete perfection. Partridge and Gregory in particular are encyclopedias of psychedelia, and Gregory is an accomplished forger, as anyone can tell you who has heard his note-perfect counterfeits in his Remoulds collection, or his version of "Strawberry Fields Forever," with Andy singing lead, on the 1967 Through the Looking Glass collection.
The 25 OClock EP was a hit in college circles. Its appearance coincided with the first stirrings of a minor psychedelic revival. Within a few years, and for the rest of the Eighties, many diverse acts on both sides of the Atlantic would immerse themselves in psychedelia and Sixties revivalism. Indeed, in many ways the Dukes also revived XTC itself. First, it was a lot of fun, and must have been very cleansing after the tensions of recording Mummer and The Big Express. It must have done a lot of good for a shaky band morale.
But the Dukes had a much more important consequence as well: While it had been grand fun playing musical dressups making the Dukes records, all this delving into Sixties musical lore had the ultimate effect of pointing the way to a new artistic direction a direction that would eventually give way to into the present-day XTC. Certainly it gave Andy and Colin the confidence not to hide or disguise their mining of the past, the great pop music of their childhood and adolescence, for inspiration. After the Dukes, any traces of the Punk notion that history is bunk and that regard for the past is a sign of weakness has itself died the death it deserved.
The Dukes of Stratosphear were a cheerful and slightly unhinged sonic masked ball, not to be taken entirely seriously, of course. But if you discount the humor and the tongue-in-cheek silliness, what youre left with is actually a rather sobersided academic exercise the dissection and very careful study of music of a particular era in order to reproduce it in pastiche form. You cant come up with a perfect Beach Boys take in "Pale and Precious," for example, without a very firm grounding in the original texts, in Pet Sounds and Smile and all that Brian Wilsonery. Likewise, to evoke "Martha My Dear" in "Brainiacs Daughter," you need take a long swim in Lake McCartney.
This sort of thing is going to rub off.
We frequently use the word "formalism" as a pejorative, describing a kind of painting that is stiff, academic, without passion. And in many cases a slavish adherence to a set of compositional rules is indeed a guarantee of Bad Art. But over the next two or three albums, the last of their career with Virgin, XTC appeared to take a page from the Dukes book, and began to deliver songs that paid clear and tangible debts backward in time, to earlier influences. It was certainly possible to find overtones of the Beatles and particularly the Kinks in the touring incarnation of XTC, and when the palette broadened in the studio years, the influences became more overt. But by the time of Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons, they were delivering songs that were very nearly Dukes-like in their homage to XTCs Sixties forebears.
There is absolutely no criticism meant here. Many inferior bands, left to simmer on the critical stove, truly do boil down to nothing more than the sum of their influences. XTC may dabble in the past, may quote from the past, may invoke the past to tickle a certain particular emotional ganglion, but they never simply plunder the past like time-bandit Vandals, stealing this or that lick or progression because they cant think of their own. No, were always invited to be in on the joke. When the cheering crowd noise on Oranges and Lemons "The Loving" strikes us as oddly familiar, Andy sneaks up, digs a conspiratorial elbow into our ribs, winks, and whispers, "Sergeant Pepper Get it?" Or when the middle section of "President Kill" sounds like, in Andys words, "the whole White Album compressed into a few bars," the fact that the source is that most political of Beatle albums comments eloquently on the lyrical meaning of the song.
But homage to the past is by no means the only, or even the defining, characteristic of the XTC of the late Eighties.
What strikes us most forcefully about Skylarking compared to The Big Express is that the band seems to have broken through what we might term the Beauty Barrier. Lush vocal harmonies, layered and complex, full of inner movement and shifting consonance, grace the ear. Andy in particular is beginning to be drawn to techniques borrowed from classical music, and uses canon techniques to give "Ballet for a Rainy Day" a truly memorable vocal luxuriance ("Orange and lemon raincoats "), made only the more beautiful by the warm-as-flannel guitar arpeggios in the middle eight. In "Another Satellite" Andy uses a delay machine to sing a canon a round with himself, a stunning display of compositional skill that recalls and yet completely dwarfs the delay-play in "Complicated Game" from eight years before. Overall, the sheer scope and breadth of musicianship on Skylarking is breathtaking.
Much has been said about the travails of recording Skylarking, and it doesnt bear repeating here. Todd Rundgrens most notable mark on the album is the story-structure, the song sequence, in which a single life is recounted from birth, through youth, uncertain young adulthood, hopeless middle age, through the settled resignation of one who has aged well, to death and back around again. It may have been simply wonderful luck that Partridges own earthy pantheism had been headed into this territory or it may have been Rundgrens own special gift to have recognized it in the candidate demos hed been given to pick and choose from.
The most appealing track on the record (out of many, many appealing tracks) is perhaps the most Dukes-ish one, "Season Cycle." On one level its another note-perfect, affectionate Beach-Boys parody like "Pale and Precious." Its sunny countenance, its optimism, its playfulness, are utterly beguiling. But at its core is the optimistic, nature-centered humanism that will characterize all of XTCs records from this point forward, all the way through Apple Venus and Wasp Star and beyond."Season Cycle" is the center around which Skylarking turns: Just as our Everyman heros life follows its seasons, so does the Earth. The central line, "Everybody says, Join our religion, get to heaven/I say, no thanks, why bless my soul, Im already there!" is as neat a summary of this outlook as you ever need. This nature-worship is the flip side of the home-and-hearth Swindon chauvinism of The Big Express. Love my hometown, love the land it sits on.
It might be tempting (if uncharitable) to ascribe all this new infusion of musical artistry and artisanship to the producing hand of Todd Rundgren, but for the ineluctable fact that while Todd had nothing to do with the next record, the stunning musicianship didnt abate one bit. Recorded in sunny Los Angeles, under circumstances that couldnt have been farther from Swindons red-brick environs or the rustic isolation of Rundgrens Woodstock studio, Oranges and Lemons continues in the same vein as its brilliant predecessor. Its back to Loud and Boisterous mode, with studio sheen and commerciality to the fore. Every song is geared toward radio play, every note polished to a brasswork shine.
Among the many standout tracks, "The Mayor of Simpleton," though derided by Andy for its simplicity, is an absolute gem of a three-minute pop song, the kind of diamond-pure perfection for which most pop songcrafters would gladly trade important reproductive organs to be able to write. The guitar arpeggio that introduces the song becomes a motif upon which the other instruments, in particular the amazing bass, play variations throughout the song. All the shimmering twelve-string arpeggios Dave contributes throughout, all up and down the neck, are themselves all variations on that riff. Reflections and symmetries are everywhere; its a nearly Baroque display of virtuosity that completely belies the songs Im-just-a-simple-guy lyrics.
Colin, when in a certain mode, writes tunes that are timeless literally timeless, outside of history. The minor-key bridges in English Settlements "Ball and Chain" feel this way, the major-minor shifts in "Runaways" too. His contributions to Oranges and Lemons, in particular "One of the Millions," display this quality as well. "Millions" (another great bass song!) has a middle eight ("Im running steady, oh so steady ") that sounds like Colin is standing on a clifftop somewhere, century unknown, the song his only context.
If Oranges and Lemons is a noisy, cantankerous record, full of color and vibrancy, its perhaps appropriate to end it on a quieter, more muted note. Has there ever been a more graceful valedictory than "Chalkhills and Children"? The lyric is deeply confessional, crystallizing so much of what has been occupying Andys mind since the decision to stop touring his chosen role as an artist, his ambivalence about his aspiration to fame, his deep need for stability, his struggle to support his family.
The low, doomy cloudiness of the synthesizer parts, the delayed-snare drumming, the church-organ voice, all set an ethereal, portentous atmosphere. The unsettled chord scheme of the verse has the effect of heightening tension through the verse and the bridge ("But Im getting higher "), so that when the chorus does arrive, it does so in full angelic glory. Beautiful touches abound: the settling-in of the C major chord when the second verse begins, the reflection of the "even I never know where I go" melody by Colins bass in the second verse, the subtlety of the backing vocals (check out whats going on behind the "reluctant cannonball" line, for a particularly gorgeous example) and perhaps the most beautiful moment of all the omission of the tagline in the last chorus: "Rolling up on three empty tires till the [Silence]," letting the listener fill in the blank. It is as sublime a thing as XTC has ever done.
So after the mythic roundedness and pantheist celebration of Skylarking and the candystriped studio luster and whiz-bang window-rattling of Oranges and Lemons, what do you do for an encore?
Well, if youre XTC, you turn in your most nuanced and mature album ever, the sinewy and taut Nonsuch. Though mostly a two-guitars-bass-drums album (with some notable exceptions), Nonsuch presents us with a cornucopia of textures and surfaces, testimony to the skill and finesse of its arrangements. From the jangly, folky open-string strum of "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" through the arpeggiated glory of "Then She Appeared" to the power-ballad "Books Are Burning," with stops at heavy psychedelia (and a searing guitar solo from Dave) in "That Wave" and the big acoustic sound of "Dear Madam Barnum," this record is an extended exploration of the sonic possibilities for a stripped-down rock band.
However, its not all drums and wires. The album also points forward to XTCs post-Virgin incarnation, particularly the orchestrated Apple Venus set. "Humble Daisy" explores the terrain of Brian Wilsons mid-Sixties experiments, all subtle percussion and breathy woodwinds in service of a particularly lovely Partridge lyric. "Rook," a genuinely frightening meditation, worthy of John Donne, on death and the annihilation of the soul, is particularly indicative of the direction the future XTC will take. Musically its a thrilling example of how to go from a whisper to a scream and back again with an orchestra listen to the echoing reverberations of the quieter passages. They speak of absence, of loss, of awful, permanent silence. Small wonder that, after experiencing its awesome power in "Rook," Andy should wish to exploit the orchestral sonic palette to its fullest potential.
That Nonsuch points forward to the Apple Venus cycle shouldnt surprise us, of course. Despite what some folks think, evolution happens, and, as Partridge himself likes to point out, "life begins at forty!" There is, thank the Powers, so much more of the XTC soul left to explore. We cant know how the story ends, of course, until it actually ends. But in the meantime, consider this happy thought: Skylarking, that most cyclical of song-cycles, ends on a note of hope, even in the face of death. "Sacrificial Bonfire," an autumnal song redolent of allspice, cider, and decaying leaves, reminds us that every ending is a beginning, every winter leads to summer, and every death an opportunity for rebirth.
So as our turntables needle traces its way along the last few scratchy inches of the lead-out spiral (for in our fantasy we are, wonder of wonders, forever in vinyls warm embrace) we fear no evil that may befall us. Unlike in the Big Square World, we can, the wreath of an enigmatic smile playing on our lips, lift the tonearm, flip the beautiful black circle, and, blissfully, Ring In the New:
Lying here in summers cauldron ..
Harrison "Dont you ever stop to ponder" Sherwood lives in Virginia, USA, with his wife and two children. He comments frequently in Chalkhills, the XTC Internet mailing list (http://chalkhills.org).