If There’s A Secret Can I Be Part of It?

100 Albums returns with a new entry over on Haunted Jukebox: XTC’s Nonsuch, proto-Britpop released at the height of grunge (as usual, the trio from Swindon were slightly out-of-step with the times).

XTC, SKYLARKING

Skylarking

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #24 – released October 27, 1986)

Track listing: Summer’s Cauldron / Grass / The Meeting Place / That’s Really Super, Supergirl / Ballet For A Rainy Day / 1,000 Umbrellas / Season Cycle / Earn Enough For Us / Big Day / Another Satellite / Mermaid Smiled / The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul / Dear God / Dying / Sacrificial Bonfire

In the four years between English Settlement and this record, XTC lost a bit of their mojo. Some blamed Andy Partridge’s refusal to tour anymore, rendering the band entirely studio-bound; others cited drummer Terry Chambers’ sudden departure (not unrelated to no longer touring). Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984) have their moments but neither album is as consistent or convincing as the three preceding them. Partridge’s settling for the studio cuts both ways, suitably buffing his newfound pastoral nature into a fine folk-pop sheen (“Love On A Farmboy’s Wages”) while using this retreat as an excuse to spew bitter venom about the music business (“Funk Pop A Roll”, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird”). In either case, the public didn’t buy it—25 O’Clock, an EP of late ’60s pastiches the band released in 1985 under pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear sold more than The Big Express in the UK!

Thus, their label Virgin insisted the band hire an outside producer for their next record and gave them a list of names; they picked Todd Rundgren, a pop polymath best known for his ‘70s singer/songwriter hits “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” but also a seasoned studio wiz, having produced the likes of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, etc.; Not that XTC hadn’t employed producers on their previous albums, but Rundgren took charge to a far greater degree than any of them—supposedly, after the band sent him their demos, he shaped and sequenced the whole album before any of them set foot in his recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Naturally, Rundgren and Partridge (who was used to having more control) clashed throughout the making of Skylarking and never worked together again, but even Partridge now admits the final result is one of their better albums.

I’d go as far to say that most days I think Skylarking is the band’s best album, partially thanks to Rundgren’s overseeing. What immediately sets it apart (and above) the previous two records is a unified structure, its songs passing through two recognizable, interrelated cycles: The Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) and Life itself (birth, death, rebirth). Granted, not every single moment fully adheres to these trajectories (for complex reasons we’ll address later), but the songs more or less superficially fit together in this way, making for arguably the first XTC album as obsessed with the whole enchilada as each individual trinket. In addition to following a tighter structure, Partridge and Colin Moulding also each contribute a strong set of tunes, as if they’ve crossed that threshold from touring to studio band, at last mastering the type of composition best suited to the latter arena.

Skylarking’s unification is further heightened by how some songs are deliberately crafted to either thematically complement each other or literally flow into one another. “Summer’s Cauldron” opens the album in a gauzy, blissful haze of humid but sparkling light psychedelia. As its chorus builds for the final time, gaining momentum, instead of a pause, a new chord and melody immediately announces the next track, “Grass”. With an almost East Asian-like fanfare, the song sustains the previous track’s tone, only wedding it to a lyric about making love out in the open. Concluding “Grass” with a musical callback to the beginning of “Summer’s Cauldron” nourishes the connection between the two tracks even further. Similarly, a few songs later, when the relatively laid-back “Ballet For A Rainy Day” reaches the last word of its final chorus, it ends on a slightly different chord than the previous choruses, instantly going right in to the swirling, string-laden “1,000 Umbrellas”, which sounds not too far off from the quirky psych-orchestral pop Prince was dabbling in on Parade at the time.

“The Meeting Place”, with its playful, faux-mechanical arrangement and crystalline chorus continues the cheerfully idyllic mood of the first two tracks. Some might argue “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” pushes it further, maybe even too far into self-parody. Fortunately, Partridge is a master of imbuing precious and coy subject matter with enough care and ingenuity that it becomes digestible through the sheer force of its melodicism and musicality—just listen to those intricate backing vocal overdubs or how easily and unexpectedly the band arrives at that chord change before the chorus. “Season Cycle” does a similar thing only with the chorus feeling more like a natural extension of each verse. Coming just about right in the middle of Skylarking, it blatantly reiterates the album’s overarching themes; it’s also significant for being the first XTC song with a heavy Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys influence, which will surface repeatedly throughout much of the band’s subsequent work.

The general air of optimism and breeziness gives way to weightier themes and somewhat darker (and more varied) moods on Skylarking’s second half. However, the song that kicks it off is one of XTC’s most triumphant: “Earn Enough For Us” is a socio-economical sketch both musically and lyrically worthy of the Kinks, driven by a classic guitar riff and an impassioned sense of both defiance and pride (“Just because we’re on the bottom of the ladder / we shouldn’t be sadder / than others like us / who have goals for the betterment of life”). It’s certainly one of the catchiest, most urgent working class anthems of the ‘80s (why in the world wasn’t it picked as a single outside Canada and Australia?). Moulding’s “Big Day” takes a few steps back from the previous song’s family-struggling-to-make-a-living to where it all began, pondering getting hitched with equal anticipation and dread as autumnal, chiming 12-string guitars signal colder weather ahead.

At this point, the album’s concept wavers a bit. In contrast to everything preceding it, “Another Satellite” feels like an outlier, a remnant from the band’s prog-rock recent past, although the sweet harmonies rub up nicely against the flanged synth-guitar hook and the song’s spacious, echo-y arrangement. Then, things get a little complicated. Initial pressings of Skylarking included “Mermaid Smiled” a brief, nautical-themed, showtune-ready sigh of a song, followed by “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, a jazzy spy music pastiche that, like “Season Cycle”, introduced another new path the band would develop further on later albums. However, after “Dear God” (the B-side of the “Grass” single) actually started to get radio and MTV airplay, it was added to the album (placed after “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”) and “Mermaid Smiled” was deleted—“something had to go and so I took off the shortest song,” said Partridge. While not especially profound, “Mermaid Smiled” is charming, buoyant and a good lead-in to “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”. It really should’ve remained on Skylarking (with it, the album still clocks in at under 50 minutes), which is why I’ve kept it in the tracking listing here. (If your copy doesn’t have it, you can find it on the band’s 1990 rarities comp Rag and Bone Buffet.)

Although “Dear God” was the album’s biggest hit, it doesn’t fit too comfortably on Skylarking. Despite encouragement from his bandmates and Rundgren to include it, Partridge was never at ease trying to write about his atheism: “such a big subject… in three-and-a-half-minutes,” he lamented. Still, what three-and-a-half minutes! With an eight-year-old girl (played by a boy in the iconic music video) singing the entire first verse, “Dear God” grabs hold of the listener right at the start; then the drums kick in and the minor-key acoustic arrangement turns electric as Partridge sings the second verse. A string quartet slowly creeps in, at times sinister enough to peel paint off the walls (think of the strings in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”). The whole track builds to a ferocious final minute where Partridge lays out his blasphemy with eloquent but intense, blunt force. Arguably the catchiest and most original single in the band’s catalogue since “Senses Working Overtime”, the song repositioned them as both modern rock stars and controversial figures in America, even inspiring a firebomb threat to a Florida radio station and moving one college student to hold his principal hostage at knifepoint, demanding that the song be played over the school’s PA system. To this day, it’s still one of XTC’s best-known songs in the US; although aesthetically Skylarking doesn’t need it, without it, the album might’ve fallen into obscurity.

Thankfully, the band chose to keep the closing sequence intact and not tack “Dear God” on at the end, even if the overlapping transition between it and the penultimate track “Dying” jars a little. But these two final songs, both written by Moulding are essential to Skylarking’s allure. “Dying”, like nearly every other XTC song of this period contains a healthy dose of Beatles-isms: it could be a track off The “White” Album or side two of Abbey Road. However, it’s more of a link to “Sacrificial Bonfire”, one of Moulding’s very best songs and the latest in a long line of spectacular XTC album closers. Over tumbling percussion, an almost classical-sounding guitar riff provides the hook, while deftly employed orchestration carefully draws us further in, the strings eventually mirroring that initial riff. Moulding sings, “Burnt up the old / ring in the new,” and later, “Reign over good / burnish the bad.” Rebirth may be an obvious theme to end on here, but it’s an effective, compelling one for the sense of majesty and sincere awe the melody and arrangement together conjure up. Skylarking is nearly a perfect circle of an album—as “Sacrificial Bonfire” fades out, I recommend utilizing the “repeat all” function on whatever listening format you prefer, for that opening instrumental haze of “Summer’s Cauldron” becomes more enticing and resonant with each passing cycle.

Up next: Lonesome for a place I know.

“Summer’s Cauldron/Grass”:

“Earn Enough For Us”:

XTC, ENGLISH SETTLEMENT

XTC ES

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #17 – released February 12, 1982)

Track listing: Runaways / Ball and Chain / Senses Working Overtime / Jason and the Argonauts / No Thugs In Our House / Yacht Dance / All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late) / Melt The Guns / Leisure / It’s Nearly Africa / Knuckle Down / Fly On the Wall / Down In the Cockpit / English Roundabout / Snowman

“This is one more double album that would make a nifty single” is what Robert Christgau wrote about Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (a record I briefly considered including in this project); I don’t fully agree, but I understand his reasoning. Depending on who you ask, the double album is either one of popular music’s greatest innovations, allowing for extended output from an artist at his or her peak, or the worst thing to ever happen to the format itself, encouraging excess and self indulgence from bands who could barely produce enough solid material for two sides of vinyl, let alone four. Of course, a double album’s effectiveness all comes down to the individual artist, their talent, and whether they’re in a place where they can pull it off—after all, just three years on from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John released another, decidedly less successful double album, Blue Moves, of which Christgau said in his review, “As my wife commented in all innocence of who was on, ‘What is this tripe?’”

Like all terrific single albums, the best double albums are often a snapshot of an artist at a creative high (Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, The Clash’s London Calling) or a commercial one (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life). Such factors aside, it really depends on their ability to hold a listener’s interest for well over an hour instead of the usual 30-45 minute duration. This is easier said than done, as we’ll only encounter a handful of double albums in this project. The first is the fifth album from XTC, a British post-punk group who formed in 1977 and remained active up until 2000. Too revered and well-known to be considered a cult band, but not enough to ever become a household name or score a US top 40 hit, they’re an act whom, at their most accessible moments engages one to question why the heck they were never half as big as The Police, U2 or any of their more recognized contemporaries. Listen to any of their albums and the answer’s immediately apparent: stubbornly foraging their own path through the music industry, XTC rarely shielded their quirks and singularities. They arguably made great pop music, but didn’t particularly worry about making it appeal to everyone. The few “hits” scattered throughout their catalog are those rare, serendipitous instances when their notion of pop nearly aligned with the rest of the world’s.

By 1982, XTC barely resembled the band they were five years before, despite having had only one personnel change in the interim. On their early recordings, which the band’s primarily vocalist/songwriter Andy Partridge has all but disavowed, they spat out herky-jerky, jagged-edged pop punk, their sound deeply colored by Barry Andrews’ cheapo keyboards. Andrews left the band after second album Go2 (1978); his replacement, Dave Gregory, was more of a lead guitarist although he also could play keyboards as well. As a result, six-strings more heavily dominated the band’s sound on Drums and Wires (1979); with Black Sea (1980), Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding (the McCartney to his Lennon) began to loosen up a little, letting such previously downplayed influences as The Kinks, The Beach Boys and yes, The Beatles overtly surface in their songs. “Towers of London”, for instance, is as catchy, solid and affecting as nearly anything by those ‘60s stalwarts, getting a lot out of a clanging hook, a heavy (but not derivative) period flavor, a heart-stopping, key-changing bridge, and, to keep it distinctively XTC, Partridge’s love-it-or-hate-it wail (it should go without saying that I love it.)

Although it was the band’s highest charting album in the UK, English Settlement is less the definitive XTC release and more a transitional one. The first two tracks, both written and sung by Moulding, are departures in sound and subject matter that each reoccur during the album’s remainder and indeed, throughout the rest of the band’s career. “Runaways” slowly fades into focus like a Monet landscape, a mass of shimmering guitars and impressionistic synths, eventually propelled by booming, insistent drums. Partridge aptly described it as “like walking through a forest, getting bigger and bigger until suddenly you’re in it and fighting your way through.” It emanates a sense of awe and wonder unlike anything else the band previously recorded, setting the stage for a more pastoral and mature XTC. Subsequent tracks like “Yacht Dance” and “All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late)” are similarly drenched in acoustic guitars and Gregory’s newly purchased electric 12-string Rickenbacker (the guitar The Byrd’s Roger McGuinn often used). Other songs, such as “Jason And The Argonauts” and “Snowman” favor walls of sound formed by circular, droning arpeggios instead of the alternately angular and melodic riffs the band was previously known for.

As “Runaways” fades out, “Ball and Chain” takes over with its instantly identifiable clipped guitar chords and bouncing martial beat, a sound that, like much of Black Sea, would provide the template for 1990s Britpop. Moulding’s lyrics, however, now hit much closer to home. A screed against devastation and demolition in the band’s industrial hometown of Swindon, “Ball and Chain” is far from XTC’s first political song (see “Generals and Majors” or “Complicated Game”), but it places new emphasis on protecting and holding on to past values much like The Kinks once did on Village Green Preservation Society, but with far less nostalgia. For Moulding and Partridge, holding on to their heritage is as much of a concern as ensuring there will still be a future to do so in. Such themes resurface throughout English Settlement: the purposely abrasive “Melt The Guns” is as insistently blunt as the title suggests, while “Knuckle Down” advocates for nonviolence on an individual level in hope for a collective world peace. If XTC once cloaked any commentary with a healthy dose of satire (“Respectable Street”, “Making Plans For Nigel”), they’re now more sincere in their approach.

What elevates English Settlement and arguably keeps it from falling off a cliff is that Partridge and Moulding aren’t willing to um, settle for being merely pastoral and/or political. This album covers considerable ground or at least as much as one could hope for in a 72-minute opus. With its triumphant count-to-five chorus, “Senses Working Overtime” is at once among the most accessible songs Partridge ever wrote (indeed, XTC’s only top ten UK hit), but also one of his more idiosyncratic tunes as well: the unconventional, barely-there opening measures give no hint that it will build to such majestic heights, and each twist and turn it takes carries a thrill that is effective as but far more complex than the average pop song hook. “No Thugs In Our House” also manages to feel both familiar (the stomping Motown beat, the indelible bridge to the chorus that’s as catchy as a chewing gum commercial) and wildly distinctive (the massive roar Partridge lets out right after the intro, the hyper-specific lyrics about a teen engaging in criminal activity, “dreaming of a world where he can do just what he wanted to” (lucky for him his father’s a judge)). “It’s Nearly Africa” filters world beat motifs through a Partridge-shaped lens, nailing down the expected polyrhythms and vocal cadences while stirring the pot with an out-of-nowhere, multi-tracked and cut-up saxophone solo (nearly making up for the (deliberately?) terrible one in previous track “Leisure”.) “Fly On The Wall” has all the ingredients for a radio hit, then obscures and smothers them in Moulding’s distorted vocals and a buzzing synth that skitters and suitably flies all over the song.

If this diversity gives English Settlement an intriguing shape, the band’s tightness and level of proficiency here make for XTC’s best-sounding album to date. “Down In The Cockpit” is both structurally giddy and light-as-air, combining a ska beat with a lounge-like melodic aura, each one perpetually keeping the other in check. “English Roundabout” retains that beat but quickens the tempo (with a tricky time signature, no less), its five or six hooks circling each other, threatening to collapse into bedlam but thankfully never doing so. “Jason and the Argonauts” is a prog-rock epic you’ll have no trouble staying awake for, as it always seems to keep moving forward and does not suffer from any lack of detail. And closing song “Snowman” cleverly makes a neglected lover metaphor out of the title figure’s wintry disposition and tendency to melt away; it also serves as a bookend to “Runaways” by reimagining that song’s dense, twinkly impressionist glow as a force to be reckoned with and walloped at, as personified by Partridge’s repeated exclamations of “AH!” (not too radically different from that of David Byrne’s.)

Following English Settlement, Partridge retreated, refusing to tour anymore, turning XTC into solely a studio band. Commercially this did little for them in the UK but eventually, they cultivated a new audience in the US and built up an unlikely but rewarding catalog. They will return throughout this tale, both via more of their albums and as influences on other artists.

Up next: an ending, or perhaps a beginning?

“No Thugs In Our House”:

“English Roundabout”

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 10-6

10. XTC, “Towers of London”
XTC might have been as big as The Police if Andy Partridge had wanted to be Sting. Of course, they were great because Partridge had no interest in being anyone but himself. Although not as well-known as “Dear God” or “Senses Working Overtime”, this single contains All Good Things About XTC: a proto-Britpop hook, a heavy (but not derivative) 1960s flavor, a heart-stopping, key-changing bridge and Partridge’s love-it-or-hate-it wail (I love it).

9. Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
Her only hit in the US–it reached # 30 and even now it’s astonishing it went that far. I don’t think I could capably describe this song to someone who hasn’t heard it, because it doesn’t sound like much else. Individual elements, such as that wonky, three-note synth riff or the understated, almost martial beat don’t seem like they’d ever go together in theory, so call Bush an alchemist and marvel that she created something this blindingly original (and so much more) before she turned 30.

8. Cristina, “Is That All There Is?”
Some days I believe this is the best cover version of all time. I mean, Peggy Lee’s original was warped to begin in, but this twisted new wave chanteuse (on the same record label as #18!) deliberately turns it into bratty high camp, rewriting the lyrics to say stuff like “he beat me black and blue AND I LOVED IT” in a voice dripping with sarcasm and spite. It’s a hoot worthy of The B-52’s if they were fronted by a punk Norma Desmond.

7. Talking Heads, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”
One day I’ll post a list of favorite album openers and this one from Remain In Light will be near the top. David Byrne’s abrupt “HAH!” kicks off nearly six minutes of a relentless groove that doesn’t build but arrives fully formed. What’s on top that groove, however, appears piece by piece (think of the band’s gradual entrance in the concert film Stop Making Sense a few years later) until you get a hypnotic, symphonic whole you wish would extend as far as a Fela Kuti number.

6. Erasure, “A Little Respect”
Speaking of great album openers… while “Chains of Love” was technically the bigger hit, this duo’s other best-known song (the first track on The Innocents) has permeated the culture more extensively (even driving the narrative of a Scrubs episode!) and why not: it transcends gimmickry, genre and era with that delicate but disarming melody and Andy Bell’s elastic, yearning, heartfelt vocal.

New Life

As long as the weather’s not horrid, Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays, heralding the beginning of spring and an overall feeling of renewal. Aptly gorgeous and full of life, this track is from XTC’s underrated, alternately orchestral and acoustic penultimate album; it’s a good example of just how far singer/lyricist Andy Partridge’s musical proficiency had evolved since he started the band in the late ’70s. Alas, XTC released one more album after this and now appear to be done. Still waiting for that proper solo pop album, Andy…