Life at 33 1/3: XTC: Swindon’s only pride

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XTC, Waxworks (Some Singles 1977-1982) (Virgin)

When I did an interview with Andy Partridge back in 1985 he started talking about his home town Swindon.  According to Partridge, Swindon was a dump, it had nothing to show for itself, it was so dead they might as well turn off the city lights at 9 p.m. and go to bed.  He even claimed that the Swindon football team were once up against 11 garbage cans and lost.  29 years later Swindon Town is top 3 in League 1, so the days of garbage can humiliations are long gone.  

Anyway, his Swindon bashing covered the fact that the city gave birth to one of the most remarkable bands in British rock since The Beatles.  I am of course talking about the unpredictable, highly original and wonderfully quirky XTC.

Even if you’d be quick to spot the Beatles-references and a continuation of The Kinks’ drowsy  snapshots of everyday life, their songs took so many left turns they would make both Frank Zappa and the early 10cc proud.

They debuted back in 1977, the year of punk.  Trying to sound punk-like, even deliberately reducing themselves to a two chord racket, they still couldn’t hide the art school playfulness that was holding its breath in the background, just waiting for a chance to bounce out of the speakers like a thousand multicoloured rubber balls.

Already on their breakthrough single “Life Begins At The Hop” (no. 54 in 1979), XTC had great difficulty sticking to the din.  The song was simply too starry eyed and full of life’s wonders.  Then came “Making Plans For Nigel”, and XTC never looked back.  “Nigel” is weird and twisted, the melody line so insisting it almost gets on your nerves, but not quite, thanks to that strange, accentuated beat that gives the impression of a song nonchalantly dragging its feet.

To call XTC a band is a bit misleading.  Andy Partridge took control very early on, and his only challenger, Colin Moulding (the man behind “Nigel …”), simply failed to match Partridge’s productivity.  He also lacks his boss’ intellectual way with words (Partridge’s lyrics are clever, precise and often ironic).  But Moulding is important for the overall mix on the XTC-albums.  45 minutes with Andy Partridge alone would simply be too much.

In spite of their potential XTC never achieved world domination.  Their only TOP 10 hit, “Senses Working Overtime”, came as early as 1982, and they have hardly been near the charts since.

The reasons for this are certainly numerous.  In the heydays of punk and new wave XTC stood out as lively, funny, brave and colourful.  But then came the 80’s, the poseurs, the hair styles, the cheap and synthetic dance-pop, and XTC suddenly both looked and sounded irrelevant.  They simply required too much of the listener, even if they were working in the pop factory.

One can also argue that yes, Partridge & Moulding  share the Beatles’ unorthodox views regarding how a pop song should sound.  But they lack the Liverpudlians’ gift of creating melodies that are so strong that they can sneak all sorts of weird antics into the brains of the millions.  They don’t have the Beatles’ singing voices either.  But then who has?

This does not diminish the group’s rich and diverse catalogue however.  It only explains why they never achieved stardom.

So where to start if you want a taste of the multi coloured world of XTC?  Most people would go for a compilation, I guess.  And as this column focuses on vinyl, the answer might be “Waxworks: Some Singles 1977–1982”, a 12 track album released back in 1982.  But then you would miss out on some of their greatest albums.  I’d add “Skylarking” (1986) and “Nonsuch” (1992), that’s for sure, and the stunning “Black Sea” (1980).

If you are not a vinyl junkie, the double CD “Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-92” (includes all 12 tracks from “Waxworks”) is an impressive document of Swindon’s only pride.  31 songs that should have been the world wide hits, if God had wanted it to happen.  But He didn’t, so He was awarded with His own song “Dear God”, which definitely is not on the playlist in Heaven.

Released: November 1982

(All songs written by Andy Partridge, except where noted)

Contents: Science Friction/Statue of Liberty/This is Pop?/Are You Receiving Me?/Life Begins at the Hop” (Moulding)/Making Plans for Nigel (Moulding)/Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down/Generals and Majors (Moulding)/Towers of London/Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)/Senses Working Overtime/Ball and Chain (Moulding)