Back in 1987, my wife and I took a one-month tour by car through the UK. (Scary as hell, it turns out, to drive on the “wrong” side.) We went from London up to Scotland and back. Great trip, fond memories. We had enough mushy peas and fish and chips for a lifetime. But clearly nowhere near enough pints of bitter.
But I tell you this not to advise you what world travelers we think we are but to let you know that, seemingly, we heard only three songs the entire trip: “Pump Up the Volume,” “La Bamba,” (Los Lobos version) and “Making Plans for Nigel,” by XTC.
The original band was Colin Moulding (bass, vocals) and Terry Chambers (drums). They quickly asked Andy Partridge (guitars, vocals) to join. After cycling through a bunch of band names, and acquiring keyboardist Barry Andrews, they came up with XTC. (Get it?)
I can’t remember if I was that familiar with XTC at the time but “Nigel” really stuck out in my head. It tells the story of a boy whose parents want him to be happy working for the British Steel conglomerate. Clearly the song is ironic.
According to Wikipedia however, British Steel, apparently in their zeal to show what a fun place it was to work, gathered four employees named Nigel to talk about job satisfaction for a trade publication. Clueless. And while Partridge wrote much of the band’s output, this song is Moulding’s:
Their first album, White Music, was released in 1978, somewhere in that punk/new wave era. I don’t think the band really fit into either category. One of their first songs was “This Is Pop,” called that so they could – according to Partridge – define themselves before the press did. They were a relatively minor hit on alternative radio in the US but I think they had quite a bit bigger UK following.
But I fucking loved them. Maybe it’s because of the Kinks but I love quirky, tuneful (think Squeeze) British pop. There’s really nothing quite like it. That said I find some of their earlier stuff a little too oddball with strange hiccuping vocals. Some of that stuff reminds me remarkably of The Cars.
Partridge talks in his book about what a tight well-rehearsed rhythm section Moulding and Chambers were and it shows. Their albums sound great too, some having been produced by Steve Lillywhite who later did such great work with everyone from Peter Gabriel to U2 to the Pogues, Talking Heads, Dave Matthews and Phish. For just a few.
Partridge says he was trying to write a single and based “Senses Working Overtime’s” “1,2,3,4,5” on the Manfred Mann song “5-4-3-2-1.” He wanted something that would pop right into your head. Then he thought, five what? Fingers? Seasons? No, senses. And he thought about the wonder of experiencing life sensorially and was off and running. Thus are songs sometimes made:
By the time I became familiar with them, XTC had stopped touring. I wondered about this and read an interview with Partridge. Turns out he has massive stage fright and had had a breakdown just prior to a show in the early ’80’s. (Opening act was Jools Holland, lately of Squeeze, currently host of a wildly popular music show.)
They went on for a while as a studio band, and later had a hit with the Todd Rundgren-produced “Dear God,” which now that I think about it, is probably the song I most recall hearing by them on the radio. It basically questions why God would allow so much suffering.
And, as uplifting as that sounds, I’m going to finish with the song that inspired this post in the first place, the totally exuberant pure pop confection “Mayor of Simpleton,” from their 1989 CD, Oranges and Lemons.
Andy Partridge says he was trying to figure out the chords to the Blue Oyster Cult song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (!) and stumbled on the progression for this song. He wanted an upbeat, propulsive song and even wrote the exact bass line so that “each note was the perfect counterpoint to where the chords are and where the melody is.”
So if you think songwriting is just throwing a couple of chords and some lyrics together, think again:
Interestingly, Partridge – who became the band’s chief songwriter – has been cited as an influence by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, especially on their By The Way album.
If you’re curious as to what XTC have been up to all these years later, here’s their web site. As to Partridge, apparently he was a big Monkees fan and actually wrote a track for their recent well-reviewed album Good Times! I was somewhat of a Monkees fan in my youth, but eh, I’m over them.
I hereby nominate XTC for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One day.
Sources: Wikipedia; Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC. Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt.