Karen Schlosberg – “XTC: Celestial Postcards” (1987)

June 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, XTC)

A Creem article from July 1987 on Swindon, England’s finest, right after they released their masterpiece Skylarking, which unfortunately did not make them the big stars they should have been…oh well…such is life… 

 

An update on the attempted Americanization of XTC. For an eighth full album the trio is told, as reported by stalwart singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Partridge, to “go away and write something that sounds American.” An American producer, Todd Rundgren, is lined up for them and Partridge is told, in no uncertain terms, to “shut up and be produced.”

The result, Skylarking, says Partridge, is probably “more English than [the record company] knows what to do with. I think they got the impression that we were going to do something like Simple Minds or U2, something that you could put your girlfriend on your shoulders to in a stadium somewhere.”

Hadn’t record company execs in charge of dictums listened to previous XTC albums? Partridge laughs. “Probably not. You probably hit the nail exactly on the head there.”

XTC has been, throughout their eclectic 10-year history, perhaps the most British band in existence. Partridge and fellow songwriter/singer/bassist Colin Moulding, with guitarist Dave Gregory, have crafted a unique sound that captures emotion, history and philosophy in a haunting style. And this timeless feel has become stronger as the band’s voice matured: from the delightful jumpy energy of Drums and Wires‘ ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ and ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ to Black Sea‘s ‘Towers of London’; from the pastoral-turning English Settlement‘s ‘Senses Working Overtime’ and the exquisite jewels of Mummer such as ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’ and ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ to The Big Express‘s ‘All You Pretty Girls’ and the current Skylarking, with its recurring themes of seasonal and cyclical rebirth (more songs about weather and girls).

Partridge agrees with the “timeless” description. “We pirate our favorite musical forms: psychedelic music’s in there, jazz is in there, there’s straight-ahead pop stuff, there’s vaudeville, there’s classical – it’s all thrown in, completely unabashed. It could be any time from 1880 to 1980-something, maybe even 2080-something.

“I feel it’s kind of related to Mummer,” he continues. “It seems to do a tangent to what Mummer threatened; it seems to take one of those threats and work it out totally, the lush English countryside, strings, rusticism – if such a word exists; if not, I’ve just invented it – side of things.” Partridge speaks in perfect asides, punctuated often with quick witticisms. And he did just invent a word.

One of the tangents XTC threaded into Skylarking resulted from the trio’s lighthearted, affectionate foray into psychedelia as the Dukes of Stratosphear with the 1985 EP 25 O’ Clock, which Partridge says, ‘was the most fun we ever had making a record. There was no pressure. You didn’t have to be yourself; it was a psychedelic masked ball. It was a chance to say thank you to all those loopy, senseless groups that altered our schooldays. [The Dukes] are what we could have been for five minutes had we been the right age. I’m too young to be a hippie.”

After that heady plunge into paisley, though, the trio had to be careful. “We just became very aware that, with the next thing we recorded, we were just going to have to slap each other’s wrist if somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s put a backward guitar solo…’ I think everyone was alarmingly aware of making a psychedelic album again, and even though we consciously tried not to, [Skylarking] came out rather psychedelic – there’s strings on things and there are no real synthesizers as such, so it sort of sounds pre-’80’s, at least.”

That the LP is a somewhat baroque and ethereally-textured collection is due to Rundgren’s hand. “He wouldn’t do anything vaguely political or noisy,” says Partridge. “He tended to go for personal relationship, small-horizon songs. Todd obviously likes non-harrowing music.”

It’s rather ironic that, even though XTC did not get along at all well with the Woodstock hermit (“The atmosphere was so bad, everyone was getting so argumentative, I thought we were just going to split up and fall apart”), and the resulting LP was so far from the American sound the execs lusted after that Partridge says “initially they didn’t even want to put this album out,” XTC might yet have a hit with the tune ‘Dear God’. And that is an irony within an irony, because at Partridge’s demand, the song was not released on the first pressings of Skylarking.

Seems the young American girl singing on the track was originally envisioned as a young English boy (“It’s like the wrong sex and wrong accent – other than that it was perfect,” laughs Partridge), and Andy felt that another song he had written, ‘Another Satellite’, was better. “So I sort of threw a tantrum and said, ‘This must go on, take ‘Dear God’ off.’ But it looks like ‘Dear God’ will be going back on in any case,” he adds, chuckling.

It would be lovely to hear XTC’s distinctive and intelligent pop songs permeating the radio, although it’s bound to be a sporadic occurrence, since the lads’ sound is probably too different to sit well with contemporary radio programming standards. Another irony, since XTC is constantly being compared to one of the most successful groups in pop history, the Beatles.

“This isn’t something that we work on,” emphasizes Partridge. “We get a lot of mail saying ‘My favorite two bands in all of history are you and the Beatles.’ I think it’s because we have a lot of eclectic tastes in music and we’re not afraid to bung them all in. What comes out is this kind of multi-colored stew that the easiest way to define is: ‘Oh, the last people that maybe did that kind of multi-colored stew thing were the Beatles.’ It’s quite flattering, and it’s very good ego stuff, but it’s not commercially viable in big amounts. I’m beginning to get rather mercenary about art. Nearly 10 years of good albums, come on, can I have some cash please, now,” he says, laughing.

Though the thread of financial depression (and half-joking paranoia at being sentenced to be struggling Cult Faves forever) runs through Partridge’s commentary, he and his compatriots still forge hopefully on, passionately creating music for art’s sake. “We’re sort of idiots, really,” he says cheerfully. “We just love making records. We do tend to get the rough end of the stick, but we’re pretty optimistic. Well, actually, Dave’s an incredible pessimist, but I balance that out by being absolutely, aggressively optimistic.

“You can’t do one thing too much because then you’ll die – life is about 50 percent no and 50 percent yes,” Partridge says. “I hope there is [a balance on the record], ’cause I’d hate to make a record that was all one thing. What’s worse than a wallpaper book with all the same sample on every page? A meal of entirely chocolate. The fun about chocolate is you suffer your Brussels sprouts and then your reward is a bar of chocolate. It’s called balance.”

And possibly good news for fans. Partridge is showing signs of mobility, perhaps leading to something vaguely resembling concert appearances – which the band had sworn off for nearly five years, due to an acute audience-phobia that made him physically ill. A live radio broadcast was being set up in Britain, and, Partridge adds definitely, “I’m sort of kind of semi-interested in doing that kind of thing again. Not for money – a good tour was breaking even. Just maybe it’s time I got up and lost some weight and shook my bum under some lights again…I don’t know.”

Karen Schlosberg

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