#19 – XTC

[Note: This spot was going to LL Cool J until I inadvertently re-defined this series in a post on Facebook. I’m going to focus only on artists not in their first year of eligibility – artists that the HoF should have voted in by now. LL’s on the ballot now for the first time, and should be a lock. Same with the Beastie Boys (who were going to be #10). Maybe, though, I’ll do a retrospective on them next year when the HoF fails to nominate the Flaming Lips on their first year of eligibility.]

A lot of you appreciated Dire Straits’ selection a few days ago. I was pleasantly surprised that so many of you love them so much, since they seem to be forgotten or ignored by many critics and historians. I am skeptical that XTC will receive the same popular response, though. They seem to be more revered in the UK, but still never enjoyed the same commercial success as Dire Straits in any locale. Ultimately, this is a shame. In many ways, XTC is the quintessential post-punk/new-wave/world/psychedelic/pop/rock band of the 1980s. Or maybe the only band that truly embodied all of the cutting edge subgenres of the time.

Early environmentalists, XTC frequently walked to their gigs.

XTC released their first LP in 1978, but it was 1979’s Drums and Wires that put them on the map. Between that and 1980’s Black Sea, they embodied a multitude of contemporary styles. In their early music, you can hear Pere Ubu, Devo, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, The Police, the Cars – basically any influential band of the era. Yet their music was more than just synthesis; they crafted a cohesive and appealing sound that was simultaneously accessible and innovative.

Drums and Wires leads off with one of their more commercially successful tracks, “Making Plans for Nigel.” Not only is it a brilliant song (check out those pounding drums and restrained rhythm guitar), but it laid out XTC’s lyrical aesthetic. Throughout their catalogue, there are very few lyrics that could be described as self-absorbed or introspective. Instead, they attack geopolitics (“Living Through Another Cuba” from Black Sea) and accepted social mores (“Respectable Street” also from Black Sea). “Nigel” is a quintessential British protest song. However, it immediately followed by “Helicopter,” a more dance-friendly new wave track. I hadn’t heard that one until I started research for this entry a few days ago, and it is easily one of my favorite tracks of theirs now. Yet, tracks like “Complicated Game” indicated a cynicism both lyrically and musically that challenged audiences beyond any typical new wave band of the time.

English Settlement in 1982 saw them expanding their sound dramatically. It contains their biggest hit to date, “Senses Working Overtime,” but “Runaways,” “Melt the Guns” and “It’s Nearly Africa” all push the boundaries of pop music. It was almost as if they couldn’t decide which direction they wanted to go in, so they want all over the place. Unfortunately, at the start of the tour to support Settlement, singer/guitarist Andy Partridge suffered a mental breakdown and they had to cancel the remainder of the tour. They never performed live again.

From the cover, you know this album has some freaky shit going on.

However, this led to a wider variety of experimentation within the studio, and the release of the seminal Skylarking from 1986 (co-produced by Todd Rundgren). This is the album that cements their status as one of the all-time great bands. For example, consider “1000 Umbrellas.” This song introduced personal politics into the band’s lyrical repertoire in a striking fashion, “1000 umbrellas upturned couldn’t catch all the rain that drained out of my head when you said we were over and over; I cried ’til I floated downstream to a town they call Misery.” Backed by only an acoustic guitar and string ensemble, they also reach new musical heights, crafting what some call their “Eleanor Rigby.” (This has long been one of my favorite songs.) Yet they make the personal political on “Earn Enough for Us,” which looks at the individual ramifications of broader economic policies. They craft distinct psychedelic baroque pop on “Grass” while declaring “It shocked me too, the things we used to do on grass” – a song that leads to multiple readings, all of which are risque. Perhaps the most enduring song from the album, though, is “Dear God,” which is a straightforward mid-tempo rock song that asks heavy philosophical questions like “Did you make mankind after we made you?” without ever coming across as pedantic. Instead, it sounds like an individual earnestly grappling with his faith; wanting to believe but finding himself unable to.

XTC continued to find commercial success with songs like “Mayor of Simpleton” and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” But they never attained the same level of critical success (though 1989’s Oranges and Lemons and 1999’s Apple Venus Volume 1 were still well-received critically). So, what about the Hall of Fame’s criteria?

Musical Influence on other Artists. As with Dire Straits, this may be the trickiest one to prove with XTC. They are so eclectic, that one could say many artists were influenced by them without ever being certain if that was the case. However a 1995 tribute album called A Testimonial Dinner saw tracks done by Sarah McLachlan, Freedy Johnston, They Might Be Giants, British alternative band Spacehog, Latin jazz musician Ruben Blades, and new wave classic Joe Jackson.

These are ecstasy pills. In case you hadn't gotten the pun in the band's name...

Length and Depth of Career and Body of Work. Between 1978 and 2000, XTC released 12 studio albums and 39 singles. At least three of those albums continue to be seen as true classics (see above). I hope you also already got a sense of the depth of their work, which is unparalleled by any of their contemporaries.

Innovation and Superiority in Style and Technique. They don’t have the flair that Mark Knopfler does that easily demonstrates technical superiority. However, their compositional style and technique is clearly demonstrable through the breadth of their songwriting.

Musical Excellence. So far I haven’t even mentioned my favorite XTC track, Generals and Majorsoff of 1980’s Black Sea. It sums up their whole band philosophy in an incredibly infectious song. Additionally, see “Making Plans for Nigel,” 1000 Umbrellas” and “Dear God” to comprise their essential tracks. Skylarking is easily one of the great albums of the 1980s.

Current HoF inductee who is worse than them. The Hollies. This British predecessor of XTC’s was much more commercially successful, but hasn’t even come close in terms of critical reception or influence of other artists. Even their Rock Hall bio says, “They were never taken as seriously as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who…” and it sounds silly to even make the comparison. XTC pushed many more boundaries, took many more risks, and ultimately made the pop music landscape a more interesting place.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sara on October 4, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    I did not get the pun — thanks. and those are what ecstasy pills look like?! preeeeeetty!!!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Lindsay on October 6, 2010 at 4:20 am

    Skylarking was a high school go-to for me… thanks for the blog and memory revival!

    Reply

  3. Posted by sam on October 6, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I’m looking forward to the picture of anti-depressants that will accompany your entry on Alanis Morissette somewhere down the line…

    Reply

  4. Thanks so much for writing about XTC – surely one of the most under-appreciated bands of all time.

    XTC is flat-out one of the greatest bands ever. For me, XTC is ranked in my top ten ever along with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, etc. Anyone with a deep appreciation for quality music who gives XTC a serious listen – especially fans of acoustic guitar – will probably add XTC to a similar personal list.

    I am still not quite finished with this post, but it is probably only the first of many about great songs from XTC:

    http://www.stephenfrasier.com/blog/music/dear-god-one-of-many-great-songs-by-xtc/

    Reply

  5. I love XTC ! From the loopy songs like Sgt. Rock to I’m the Man who Murdered Love , quirky lyrics, quirky hooks, what’s not to love ? They probably could have been bigger if they hid their ” Britishness” but hey, they’re British ! Great stuff !

    Reply

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