1. It’s becoming harder and harder to take seriously announcements that bands are breaking up. The new economics of the music business call for most artists to be consistently ‘active’, always ready to generate new products and content, or dare risk slipping from prominence. This extends to bands supposedly declared kaputt, because if you’re still being listened to and remain in the conversation in a definable sense, there will always be demand to play live and reunite – either to bury the hatchet or complete unfinished business. If you made a list of canonical British bands of the past thirty years, most could be marked off as having embarked on some kind of retrospective reunion. As long as Morrissey and Marr are still alive and well, the clamour for a Smiths comeback, for instance, will not cease. For some, impending accounting crises make the decision a prudent one. For others, the lure of the spotlight is irrepressible.
And yet some fall through the digital cracks. For XTC, although I may have been looking in the wrong places, I haven’t heard a wisp of anything beckoning them to return to musical ways. The two primary members, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, proud Swindonians both, have no obvious roadblocks preventing a reunion, and their early 00s breakup was far from acrimonious as these things go. This is a hugely important British pop band, and it’s puzzling to me that so many of their genuine contemporaries from the post-punk and new wave scene are either seen as tenured grandmasters of their realm (Talking Heads, Brian Eno), or celebrated with stadium gigs as ‘national songwriters’ or living legends, most obviously Blur. But beyond the indignities of musical recognition, perhaps I have to be honest with myself and accept that they were, and always will be, a cult interest – a curio with a small but fervent and wholly dedicated following, flirting with wider acceptance, but always, ultimately, frustratingly, denied it. They weren’t particularly photogenic, and they didn’t indulge in any kind of flamboyant rock star behavior which can make certain artists very presentable and easy to publicise.
2. Let’s try and define what XTC actually sounded like. One of my favourite ways of describing them to the curiously inclined is as a ‘new wave’ Beatles: deceptively frivolous, hyperactive and bounding with energy to start, in an exciting new musical form – a consummate live act – and then forgoing the demands of the stage to retreat into a private space of studio-bound daydreaming. The Beatles, fatigued by the screaming überfans that drowned out their live shows, arguably played into their own narcissism by becoming so closed-off in their Abbey-Road bauble. But XTC, in a key contrast, were virtually strong-armed into this shift by forces beyond their control: Partridge suffered from acute stage-fright, which came to the head in the form of a nervous breakdown on the eve of their 1982 European tour. They would never play a live show again. Perhaps it was this that had the gravest impact on their wider visibility, borne out in their legacy.
Their early music had the sonic grammar of the post-punks – wild slashes of guitar, chanted and often politicised vocals, tinges of world music in the rhythms – yet they were rarely confrontational or frightening – Partridge would have churned with fear at the thought of exercising the tenacity of a John Lydon or Mark E. Smith. And as their career moved on into their post-live phase, XTC albums became increasingly pastoral, lovingly detailed and really quite beautiful, a lively update of 60s sunshine pop with the sound-design possibilities afforded by high-tech 80s studio recording. The live energy and percussive talents of drummer Terry Chambers were missed, but this period marks most of my favourite XTC music, and amounts to a masterclass in the art of classicist rock and pop songwriting and craftsmanship. Call them pop auteurs.
3. In another unmistakable parallel to The Beatles, part of the energy and torsion in XTC’s musical arsenal comes from the alternating cadences of their two primary songwriters, Partridge and Moulding. This can’t be delineated in terms of personality clashes, like emphasising Lennon’s transgressive bent by his early willingness to experiment with psychedelic drugs, set against McCartney’s apparent (but often inaccurately tagged) conservatism. Rather, the difference between Partridge and Moulding is one of agitation versus serenity, or rough unsettling the smooth. The archetypal Partridge songs, like ‘Senses Working Overtime’ or ‘Respectable Street‘ are characterised by scatter and frenzy both lyrical and instrumental, something hyper-sensitive to physical and emotional details, each song like a desperate effort to capture lightning in a bottle. As Moulding’s bass playing anchors and defines the direction of each composition, (like all good post-punk-bred bassists are wont to do), his songs provide the most immediate melodic gratification; ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ is still their most well-known single, and ‘Grass’ from Skylarking revels in elegant simplicity both in sentiment and structure, a hymn of domestic contentment as Partridge’s songs gradually began to chart the collapse of his marriage.
4. As a child of first-generation immigrants who’ve clung hard to their cultural identity, I’ve often felt slightly sidelined when faced with some elements of traditional British culture. Nothing potentially life-defining, just little things like food customs, certain public events – a kind of assorted UK cultural miscellanea. This brings in one of the small, but crucial aspects in how I relate to XTC most: they are such an undeniably ‘British’, or rather ‘English’ band in the way they feel, that much of how they express this feels weirdly inviting and inclusive. Cult-beloved bands create their own distinct universe: I feel slightly daunted by, say, The Smiths’ urban Mancunian miserablism, their evocation of Britain’s rich literary tradition, and their world of fops and dandys expressed in writerly heartbreak like a freeze-frame from a British New Wave film. XTC, on the other hand, summon up this effortless Englishness in a way that feels so airy and natural and unpretentious; their British isles is populated by church ‘hops’ as expressed in ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ – “there’s nuts and there’s crisps and the there’s c-c-c-cola on tap”, ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’ (one of their finest), and nods to a kind of benign paganism in a few of their later tracks, ‘River of Orchids’, ‘Greenman’ and ‘The Wheel and the Maypole’. Not that I always instinctively cower away from the loaded referencing of an act like The Smiths; it’s just that XTC help me come to terms with this form of parochial Britishness that can feel vaguely fossilised from a certain perspective.
5. If I haven’t scared you away yet, here’s a brief suggestion as how to best explore their back catalogue. Start vaguely chronologically with Drums and Wires and Black Sea, which equate pop with problem solving – you have to return to each song like a dedicated student, aiming to fit each jagged composite song-fragment in place. If you’re hooked, the game is first addictive, and eventually revelatory as everything clicks together. From here, feel your way as the band uncoil their tension with English Settlement, Skylarking and Nonsuch, all harmonious, beautifully composed psychedelic confections. Advanced players will be satiated by The Big Express and Apple Venus. Good luck, and see you on the other side.