Tuesday, January 30, 2007


25 years ago: Feb. 1982
By 1982, musical artists born in the '50s were coming into their own, creating what I referred to as the second Golden Age (or Silver Age?) of New Wave. Some of those who were a bit older than me I took to right away: David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer. Others took awhile to overwhelm my resistence; eventually I would accept them in their own rights, but at the time there was still -- to my mind at least -- a lingering feel of "wanna-be" status to those who came too late to be part of the real Golden Age. Belated in more ways than one.

XTC is a good case in point. English Settlement was their fifth album; in those days when four albums in four years was not uncommon, fourth albums had a way of being the end of the initial impetus or the transition to the fully empowered status of veterans. English Settlement indicates full empowerment (and was a double album). But I didn't get around to listening seriously to Andy Partridge and company until their seventh album in 1984. Maybe I was finally convinced by the fact that they had staying power that some of their contemporaries -- like The Jam and The Clash and others who crapped out before mid-decade -- didn't have. But my early avoidance stemmed from my sense that, unlike the Heads, The Clash and Costello, XTC seemed predicated too readily on "the aesthetic regime" that had come to be passé. Partridge still strikes me as a combination of Lennon and McCartney in one person: his lyrics tend to the acerbic, at times preachy, bent of John Ono, while his musical imagination is as delightfully irrepressible as Sir Paul at his most inventive. In other words, Partridge was so hepped to be the Second Coming that it struck my early 20s self as too willful, too mannered. It took me awhile to overcome this prejudice.

But it's also a fact that XTC never achieved much stature in the US of A, and, given the band's status, musically, as a New Wave Beatles (they even stopped touring the way the Fab Four did after Revolver) it's somewhat curious. One way to explain it is that the effects of disco and punk and their aftershocks had dissipated any mainstream rock/pop consensus such as the bands of the initial British invasion and the subsequent era of arena rock had commanded. By the early '80s arena rock was for the dinosaurs and for head-banger balls. Bands with New Wave savvy were aimed at a smaller, more ironic coterie. And the underground begat alternative.

XTC, with songs like "Melt the Guns," which singled out the US as the main brokers of the arms race, and "Nearly Africa," which gave a boost to non-white superiority, and "Down in the Cockpit," which waved the flag for female autonomy, and "No Thugs in Our House," which satirized bourgeois complacency and youthful Nazi-wanna-bes, was always ready to comment on the inequities and chicanery of the day in ways that the up-and-coming young conservatives couldn't dance to, and which the old-time hippies turned yuppies found naive or irrelevant. And the songs were way too tuneful for the punks' scorn of musicianship and professional standards.

Thus XTC, like much of New Wave, remains barely a blip on the big radar screen of what was happening in this era of music. These days when I listen to English Settlement I can't help thinking of the friends from that era who were hipper than I was and who sussed that Partridge was God's gift to English pop. The songs have all the crisp, sonic newness of the Heads at their best, but also feature the kinds of melodies British popsters are rightly famous for. And Partridge and the much less prolific Colin Moulding are nothing if not clever -- not quite with the sneering aggression of Elvis Costello's amazing wordplay, nor with the storytelling pathos of someone like Ray Davies; songs like "Senses Working Overtime" (which saw a smidgen of airplay in the first year of MTV), "Jason and the Argonauts," "Snowman," "Fly on the Wall," "Leisure," and "(All of a Sudden) It's too Late" are idiosyncratic, musically complex, observant and emotionally candid in ways that few others could be so exuberantly. Partridge and Moulding are simply brilliant and this is probably their best album -- at least until, ten years later, 1992's glorious Nonsuch.

Life's like a jig-saw,
You get the straight bits,
But there's something missing in the middle.

--Andy Partridge, "(All of a Sudden) It's Too Late" (1982)


Andrew Shields said...

A friend introduced me to "Knuckle Down" in the spring of 82; she was hip enough to have the import double LP, with its five extra songs.

Then I had tickets for XTC in San Francisco. My friend Stewart went to the show in San Diego: brilliant. Then Andy P. collapsed on stage in Hollywood (drugs? stage fright, supposedly), and the rest of the tour was cancelled.

There version of "All Along the Watchtower" is utterly unique!

Donald Brown said...

Lucky you to have tickets, unlucky you to not get to see them!

The friend who got me to listen to "The Big Express" gave me their "Watchtower" -- amazing! I've been wanting to go back to hear those first two albums since I've never heard them in their entirety (oops -- just now realized that ES is their fifth LP!).