XTC: A De/A-ppreciation
By Jack Chang
Shattuck Avenue. 58th, 55th streets. 10:15 Monday night. Station hopping by radio. Driving home after stopping by Shannon's apartment. She and a friend head to San Francisco for a weekday night out. I'm going home to nurse a sore back, a slight headache, general weariness. I nudge-click a button on the car stereo...and I am transported.
Peter Gabriel-ish insistent, galloping, big drums. Very 80s art rock. The syncopated, guitar riff chops up the rhythm. I recognize it and am happy with what I have found on this ass end of a weary day. XTC. "Making Plans for Nigel." One of the three or so XTC songs that mainstream radio embraces. I wait for the whiny, piercing voice of Colin Moulding to enter like a witty, fun friend you can only take so much of. When it does, I am pleasantly surprised. This is early in XTC's trajectory, their second album Drums and Wires, when it was still about the sound and fury, not about personality or the band's ability or inability to live up to its image. Colin's vocals are patient, detached...creating. I haven't listened to XTC in a long while and am struck anew by the insideness of the song. What's this line about Nigel's future lying in British steel? Who's making these plans? Where's the chorus? The song doesn't help the listener figure it out. It's just there and doesn't care whether you like it or not. I happen to like it, although its distance doesn't make me want to exactly buy it an ice cream cone and hang out with its parents.
But I remember. Rog wanted me to remember for Built Boyle readers. So I do as Rog commands.
At several times in my life, XTC held sway over my restless musical periscope. Especially their albums English Settlement, Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons and their side projects released under the name the Dukes of Stratosphear. When the listener falls under XTC's spell, especially after drug intake, the band can sound like genius, sorcery, inhumanly perfect works of art demonstrating utmost control and musical intuition. If you listen closely, stoned or frying, especially to psychedelia like the Dukes or "Save Us From the Elements" on Mummer, it's easy to conclude you are in the sonic presence of pop gods. The currents of swirling sound bits in stereo, the lyrics intentionally taking on two or three layers of meaning, and, at times, the utterly delicious poppiness of the melodies exactly fitting a bit of English Alice in Wonderland lyrical nonsense. There's just so many ideas happening. If you're in the mood, you want to listen over and over and make sense of it all.
But it works the other way too. Not on drugs, in a frazzled mood, needing peace, the strains of a particularly antic XTC song can push even the best of us to coprophagia. I remember my freshman year in college, putting on Skylarking with my roommate Nate, his girlfriend and another friend or two of his in the room, trying to relax and suddenly Nate exclaiming, "Now, I know why I feel grumpy. It's this fucking music!" Apparently, a lushly-produced, insistently melodic pop masterwork about the inequity of the 19th century English class system, "Earn Enough For Us," just wasn't what he wanted to hear then. And I realized at that moment that I too didn't want to hear this. I threw in Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins, which had just come out(!). Nate attempted to erase all memory of the pop masterwork he had just been subjected to.
Such has been my relationship with this band. Their songs encourage nerdy admiration. They sing about bike rides to the moon, mayors of simpleton, generals and majors. Stock characters from the British psychedelia grab bag, for sure. But they give it a state-of-the-art push into cinematic insanity that probably could have only been accomplished with modern recording equipment. Their layers rock. But, especially in the later albums, that creative overdrive can wither into preciousness, abrasive bleating, no fun. That may be why I rarely listen to XTC anymore. The swirliness of it all gets annoying. It's like trying to read On the Road now. Too self-important, too eager, not enough patience for sublimity to reveal itself as it will sooner or later in one form or another.
And, starting with their Nonsuch album released in 1992, the band started to believe their own hype. Dangerous for rock stars to do. It has sunk lots of them, especially arty 1980s rock stars with acronyms as names such as REM and U2. They get some press, some adoration, magazines call them important artists and they start believing it all. Thus, Bono recently getting into the habit of dedicating songs live to Salman Rushdie and that dissident in Burma living in house arrest. Or Peter Buck idly complaining in interviews that people make too big of a fuss of REM putting one song first on their latest record rather than another song. Like anyone cares. You're just a rock band. Remember that. Music is absolutely crucial to meaningful existence, sure, but a lot of people make it. One less band won't make anyone cry.
I realized XTC had fallen into the same trap when I read a little catalog of past releases included with Nonsuch. In it, Andy Partridge writes about the rare songs and B-sides compilation Rag and Bone Buffet: "Suddenly someone says, but what about all those vinyl B-sides, pseudo-name singles, film tracks and giveaways that are going to be lost forever? Embarrassed that this is the only reason the Rag And Bone compilation exists, it then goes and gets great critical reviews. Sometimes I can't figure you folks out!"
You see, Andy can't help it if he's a genius. You silly people out there can't help but love him. He farts out some bullshit and you eat it up with big grins. Why? Because he's a gifted, important artist! Capiche?
Many of his subsequent songs reflect this ass-taking attitude. They have no coolness, no noble reason for being. Art exists ultimately for the audience, not for the creator. Very few people, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, maybe, have made great art while full of the smug knowledge that they're great artists. On the disastrous side, look at Paul McCartney. As soon as it's about the important artist's next important statement, that's what you get. McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt album. Steven Spielberg. Kevin Spacey's last two movies. Point taken? Or do I have to pry your eyes open "Clockwork Orange"-style and force you to watch repeated screenings of "Pay It Forward"? How about making you listen to XTC's latest, extremely disappointing, dead on arrival record, Wasp Star? Talk about irrelevant crap. Christ. I need a drink. Fucky fucky?
But enough. Let's remember. Stoned out of my mind. In the back of Rog's car while he chauffeurs me around Temple City. 10th grade. The Dukes' "What in the World?" reaching its heavenly climax on the car speakers behind my head. Me with my eyes closed, head tilted back, and I swear to you the music is becoming visual. Each little sound blip fluttering skyward becomes an angel of light in my imagination. A throbbing, swelling layer of synthesizers emerges from the mix, and in my mind-screen, I see heaven. An effusive, golden glow surrounded by angels. The song has ceased to become music. It is the soundtrack to a vision. That's the power XTC once had over me.
Jack Chang is a writer living in Oakland, California. He has been a Minister of Clownmorphicfluxification and Built Boyle contributor ever since its first issue.