Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #7: XTC

Today’s installment of my ongoing Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series marks some significant cultural and personal transitions. On a macro cultural basis, XTC are the first featured band I’ve considered that emerged in the aftermath of the punk revolution; their early singles and first album could fairly be labeled with the the dreaded “New Wave” tag, though they quickly evolved into something far more significant and formidable than most of their peers in that cohort. On a micro personal basis, my XTC period saw me graduating from high school in North Carolina (I went to four different schools in three different states during my high school years, following my father’s Marine Corps career), and then heading off to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis for four years of fairly brutal military and academic training.

I consider XTC’s fifth album, English Settlement to be their finest moment, by a large margin. And also one of the finest albums ever produced by anyone, ever. A definite Desert Island Disc for me. It was the first XTC record that I purchased, in March of my senior year in high school. I don’t remember exactly what about it grabbed me in the mall record store where I purchased it (presumably I’d read reviews somewhere), but once I got it home, it was an utterly transformative musical experience, brilliantly written and played, quirky and profound in equal measure. It still has a unique sound about it, unlike anything else in the XTC catalog or anywhere else, really, with a sweet blend of fretless bass, semi-acoustic guitars, Prophet 5 synths, drum boxes and booming kit work, and sublime vocal harmonies. Perfect!

I quickly acquired XTC’s four earlier albums, and played them incessantly. The first two featured a line-up of guitarist-singer-songwriter Andy Partridge, bassist-singer-songwriter Colin Moulding, keyboard player Barry Andrews, and drummer Terry Chambers. Their debut, White Music (1978) with its spazzy skinny-tie fare was my least favorite of that first five-album run, but its follow-up, Go 2 (1978) was utterly brilliant. Andrews left XTC after its release to play in Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen and then to form the outstanding Shriekback, who are still knocking about, with a stellar 2020 release (Some Kinds of Light) that’s going to place highly on my Best Albums of the Year list come December. He was replaced by guitarist-keyboardist-arranger Dave Gregory, creating the classic lineup responsible for Drums And Wires (1979), Black Sea (1980), and of course English Settlement.

In July of 1982, mere months after acquiring those five XTC albums, I headed off to Annapolis for my boot camp-style Plebe Summer and subsequent boot camp-plus-technical-college-style Plebe Year, which in the normal world would have been called “college freshman” season. But among the many things that the Naval Academy is, “normal world” is not one of them, and being in that weird space actually contributed directly to XTC having an intense, if short, reign at the top of my Favorite Bands pile. Because one of the rules at the time for Plebes (and maybe still today, though I kinda doubt it) was that stereos, boom boxes and any other music-playing devices were strictly forbidden. So from early July 1982 until late May 1983, I was officially not allowed to listen to music where I lived, studied and worked, except for when I left campus, which was rare. My typical rapid rate of musical assimilation dried up for a year accordingly.

It’s probably not too much of a surprise to those who know me that I considered such a music ban to be onerous and unacceptable, nor that I was authority-defying enough to circumvent those rules by acquiring and stashing a Walkman cassette player and a handful of tapes deep within my locker. I mean, just look at me there. Does that face say “Plays well by the rules”? (A: No, no it does not). I only listened to my illicit music at night, head tucked under covers, for much of the first semester of Plebe Year. During the second semester, my room-mates were rule-bending types like me, so we’d play our Walkmen during evening study hours with the door to our room partially obstructed to slow down unexpected access long enough for us to stash the music machines in our desk drawers should someone barge in. (Plebes were not allowed to lock our doors, as upper class midshipmen barging in unexpectedly to see what infractions they could catch in progress was a key part of the psychological conditioning program there. It kind of boggles the mind in retrospect to consider the absurd-to-heinous nature of the Plebe experience way back when. Built character, I guess. Though perhaps of a broken variety).

Anyway, because I was so deeply into XTC when I headed to Annapolis, their first five albums, with English Settlement leading the charge, were anchors of my listening when I didn’t have many other options. Todd Rundgren’s Healing, The Clash’s Combat Rock, and Neil Young’s re-ac-tor were also among the small number of things I had available to me, and they’re all still on my Top 200 Albums Ever list all these years on in large part because of that year of intense, repetitive exposure. Familiarity didn’t breed contempt in this case, that’s for darn sure. And, again, English Settlement was the most important, most beloved, and most played record of the bunch.

Well, at least the U.S. version of English Settlement, anyway. I didn’t know it at the time, but the record was issued as a two-disc set in its proper U.K. release, but for American audiences, it was cut back to a single album, with five songs lopped off. I didn’t learn about or hear those five songs until years later, so it was fantastic to have one of my favorite things become even better when it was heard in its originally intended format. One of the five lost English Settlement songs is actually on my Top Ten list below, in fact. In another case of record label stupidity, the U.S. version of Drums and Wires (1979) excluded one of XTC’s biggest U.K. hits, “Making Plans for Nigel,” from its Side One, Track One perch atop the original version of the album. The corporate suits apparently thought it was too English for us dumb Yanks, so it was another killer song of the catalog that I did not hear until later, and it’s also on my Top Ten list below.

I opened this post discussing transitions, and English Settlement marked a big one for XTC themselves, after Andy Partridge suffered a breakdown and pulled the band off the road early in the tour that was supposed to support the record’s release. He declared XTC to be a studio-only entity henceforth. Drummer Terry Chambers, who was just dynamite to my ears, decided he wasn’t interested in leaving the road for good, so he exited the group during the recording of their next album, Mummer (1983). He was never properly replaced as a full band member, with the core trio relying on an evolving roster of session drummers. They were all well-known, great players, for sure (Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince, and Pat Mastelotto among them), but they weren’t Terry Chambers, and the cool rhythmic interplay and rapport that Chambers and Moulding had developed as a rhythm section was a lost facet of the group’s music as far as I was concerned.

There’s another transitional aspect to my relationship with XTC: they’re the only group on the Favorite Bands list who I kinda sorta came to hate some years later. That phase began in late 1986 (after I’d graduated from the Naval Academy and moved to Athens, Georgia) with the release of the single “Grass” (a Moulding song)  as the lead teaser from the group’s forthcoming Todd Rundgren-produced album Skylarking. It wasn’t “Grass” that was the problem, mind you. I love that song! The problem was its B-side, Partridge’s “Dear God,” which I spun once and declared to be absolutely the worst thing XTC had ever produced, hands down. Ugh! Never wanted to hear it again! I hate pretty much everything about it. Still. (Note, though, that my hatred is not because of its message, but rather how ham-fistedly it’s delivered, and that singing child, blee-auggh!!)

But then, in another case of U.K. vs U.S. cultural dissonance, American radio stations started playing the detested B-side in lieu of the gorgeous A-side, and “Dear God” became a huge hit on these shores, XTC’s much-belated breakthrough in my apparently taste-deprived nation. Skylarking itself was then quickly reissued in 1987 to include “Dear God” in its track listing, pushing that album up the U.S. charts as well. It frankly made me embarrassed to have been such an avid XTC pusher and junkie among my social cohort. In the years that followed, Partridge also alienated me as a once-fierce listener and defender for a variety of other reasons: some dodgy interview statements, his reported treatment of band mates (Dave Gregory was pushed out for their final two albums), song lyrics that rubbed me the wrong way, a growing swirl of demo and half-baked releases that indicated that he considered everything he ever did to be worthy of public release, etc.

Colin Moulding also eventually had enough of it all and walked away embittered after the final XTC album, 2000’s tepid Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), retiring from music-making for many years. The whole situation eventually poisoned my love for the group, or at least the Partridge portions of it. I  will admit that when I first started using digital systems for music listening around 2010, I only downloaded and spun the Moulding songs from all of the classic era XTC albums, going so far as to re-label them as “XTColin.” How’s that for churlish?

But, of course, you can only really properly hate the things you once loved, and sometimes when the embers of anger and distaste die down, the original feelings of affection can return. That was the case for me. At some point in the past five years or so, I heard one of the classic era Partridge songs somewhere and was reminded of how good it was, and that made me download the complete four-album run from Go2 to English Settlement, in their proper, as-intended formats and sequencing. They were, of course, wonderful still. Maybe even sweeter and better to my older ears after having renounced them for so long.

While I was still active on Twitter, I also started following Partridge there, and most of my residual negative feelings toward him softened and abated from that experience, and from reading his commentary in Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC in 2017 or thereabouts. (I didn’t care for some of Partridge’s reactions to Moulding and Chambers reuniting for their outstanding, but short-lived, TC&I project in 2017-2018, but I’ll let that slide). I also adored the song Partridge wrote (“You Bring The Summer“) for the Monkees’ superb 2015 reunion album Good Times! In the end, it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. Errrr, XTC, rather. Sorry. Lost the thread there for a second.

With regard to my Top Ten XTC tracks, no surprise that seven of them are from the classic Partridge-Moulding-Gregory-Chambers albums, two are from the Andrews-fortified Go2, and only one is from the post-Chambers era: Moulding’s beautiful “Grass,” now widely perceived as the B-side to the yucky “Dear God,” alas. I note that I only considered songs released under the XTC moniker, though Gregory, Moulding and Partridge also pseudonymously released an EP and an album with Ian Gregory on drums as the psychedelic Dukes of Stratosphear. Those records are very fine and worthy in their own rights, and worth investigating, even if I don’t count them as part of the proper XTC catalog. And with that, oh we go!

#10. “Making Plans for Nigel,” from Drums and Wires (1979)

#9. “Knuckle Down,” from English Settlement (1982)

#8. “Complicated Game,” from Drums and Wires (1979)

#7. “Grass,” from Skylarking (1986)

#6. “Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!),” from Go 2 (1978)

#5. “English Roundabout,” from English Settlement (1982)

#4. “Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian),” from Go 2 (1978)

#3. “Melt the Guns,” from English Settlement (1982)

#2. “Respectable Street,” from Black Sea (1980)

#1. “No Thugs in Our House,” from English Settlement (1982)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

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