Today’s song is a minor masterpiece by the British new wave band XTC, contained on their 7th LP, The Big Express, from 1984. That was the first LP I bought by the band, which is a way of saying that I was rather dilatory in picking up on “new” bands. I knew of them since “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime,” but hadn’t gotten around to them. Then, in 1984, I seemed to have a little more spending money, so I went out and acquired a wealth of new releases and The Big Express was among them. It’s still probably my favorite XTC LP, though I might rate English Settlement (1982) higher, and probably Nonsuch (1992) as well. Ok, so Express is in the top 3, at least.
Andy Partridge, who wrote this song, is one of those minds with no end (it seemed) of musical ideas. XTC—which eventually became only him and collaborator Colin Moulding—stopped playing live, then, because of contractual woes, stopped releasing new music (throughout the Nineties). In 1999 and 2000, they came back with two great records, Apple Venus and Wasp Star. Then, gone again. (Those interested can certainly track down internet info on the ongoing relations and lack thereof of Partridge/Moulding and the fortunes of XTC).
This song, to me, said something about all that—the “career” side of rock/pop music—with great aplomb. Partridge, like most people around my age (he was born in 1953), have a perhaps exalted idea of what “success” in that genre of music means. Something comparable to The Beatles, or at least The Kinks. I mention the latter to show something of the disparity in that mindset. For, while The Kinks were highly successful in terms of the songs they wrote and recorded, it’s a joke to put them beside The Beatles, in terms of sales, name-recognition, etc., to the general public. And that’s what this song is about.
|Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory|
What I love about this song, among other things, is how it plays out its structure—verse, verse, refrain, chorus / verse, verse, refrain, chorus / coda—with significant variations in the lyrics. It begins with buying a liarbird in the summer, and ends with giving away the liarbird in the winter. In between is the “struggle” (if you like) of playing host to the liarbird with its constant refrain (stated twice, identically): “all he would say is ‘I can make you famous . . . just like a household name is.’” This is the key lie of the liarbird. An idea of fame that, for most workers in song, is just not going to happen. And yet…
The verses do tell a tale of success, up to a point: the liarbird becomes “a cuckoo”—a bird known, in some varieties, for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, and generally associated with the epithet “cuckold”—someone whose chosen romantic partner does it with others. In the song, the bird “expanded, filling up with all I gave”; the parasitic aspect of the cuckoo seems to be stressed. It “grew too greedy” and, when the bough breaks, the telling line “we will find that liarbirds are really flightless on their own” arrives as, in some ways, the culmination of the song (it takes a village . . . ). What Partridge has just described is the process of ego-inflation that any kind of success in the arts seems to bring with it (a phenomenon that Tim Parks addresses here in regard to novelists).
Then, after the refrain and chorus, the song comes to its ending, with the liarbird given away and the truth shining out. The chorus, which is not only eminently hummable, and almost sotto voce (seeming the “flip” of the very demonstrative refrain), makes some interesting lyrical changes: “methinks world is for you / made of what you believe”—this is Partridge’s philosophical position, we might say, that the world is “what you make it” and that that’s more likely to be true if the world is “made for you.” The ones who rise to the top, it seems, can make both claims, whether false or true—and then the brilliant pairing of finding the truth in one’s bible, “or on the back of this record sleeve.” That simple equation speaks volumes about an entire generation that sought more truth in the latter than the former: The Beatles and their ilk weren’t just highly successful purveyors of pop/rock. They were seers!
The second time the chorus sounds, after the disillusionment with the liarbird, we get: “Methinks world is for you / There’s no handing it back.” A sense of fatedness comes into play, as with Stephen Dedalus, perhaps, asking himself “are you condemned to do this?” when teasing out the meaning of Shakespeare, say. Yes, in a sense, one is. Now the rhyme of “believe / sleeve” is replaced by “back / pack” where the latter is a lowly cornflakes pack: underscoring how those record sleeves are simply commodities which may or may not be “good for you.”
And all this to a lively little tune with the quirky syncopations one comes to expect from Partridge (and yes maybe that was what made me take a while to warm to him) and that lovely little sequence, right after the coda, that does indeed sound like sun breaking out “on an average English winter’s afternoon” for average Englishmen everywhere.