5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
Perhaps befitting a band that had a colossally strong affection for the era of the Beatles built on densely layered psychedlia, XTC played their last tour date in the spring of 1982. While the Fab Four had retreated from live shows because they felt they had greater latitude to be creative in the recording studio, a setting of rapid technological development that they definitively mastered, XTC eschewed performing in front of audiences because of crippling stage fright endured by lead singer Andy Partridge. Whatever the motivation, the end result was largely the same: the band became impresarios of the recording process. When XTC started, they were practitioners of a jittery brand of post-punk that may have been good, but also made them similar to any number of bands pogoing their way through U.K. record stores. By the time they’d gotten to the late-nineteen-eighties, and the release of the album Oranges & Lemons, they’d moved a vast distance from their origins and come remarkably close to being the sort of band that Partridge once said he’d give his right arm to be in.
Actually, the first sonic sampling of the band came a few years earlier when XTC released an EP under the name The Dukes of Stratosphear. Operating under the assumed names Sir John Johns (for Partridge), The Red Curtain (bassist Colin Moulding) and Lord Cornelius Plum (guitarist David Gregory), the group indulged in their every whim of recreating the lush soundscapes of the swirling sixties. Like their revered predecessors, they were creating music that didn’t need to be duplicated in a live setting, allowing them to build in layers upon layers and set the whole thing reeling with an array of studio effects. It was like trying to provide the soundtrack to Heaven, albeit a very particular version of it that existed inside the bubbling colors of a lava lamp. Probably intended as a mere diversion intended to get those musical instincts out of Patridge’s system, the side project instead seems now like the opening salvo in a new direction for the band.
The next record for XTC was 1986’s Skylarking–probably the album that stands as the band’s masterpiece–with producer Todd Rundgren. The album was devlishly delectable and strikingly full-bodied with pop songs so ingeniously constructed it felt like they could venture anywhere and be properly appreciated. Partridge’s sense of songcraft was always strong, but it was beginning to reach a whole other level, defined forcefully by thrilling overtones of endless possibility. There was one more Dukes record on the offing, and then the album that brought all the instincts of the band together.
Running at just about an hour, Oranges & Lemons was released as double album on vinyl. That seemed just right given the album’s leanings back towards the day when coming up with a wild inner gatefold was a vital part of the album cover design process. The music on the record soared and cascaded, pinwheeling luxuriously in an attempt to find its proper place and time. “Garden of Earthly Delights” starts the album out perfectly, sounding like a distillation of everything XTC had ever been. It’s agitated, buoyant and blooming with plush sounds. Partridge’s pointed political opinions show up repeatedly on the album, always couched in pop song grandiloquence, luring in the listener with almost tactile sounds that prevent any of the material from lapsing into unappealing didactic lectures. Partridge may have had fierce things to say, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was trying to say it through song, and his chosen medium required a certain kind of finesse. He had a cautionary tale to tell, but he always knew he was a musician and not a preacher or a politician.
He also wasn’t an elected official, although that’s the metaphor he adopted on the lead single, which is the only XTC song to cross into the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart. “The Mayor of Simpleton” is as good as a pop single gets, with a slick hook, engrossing beat and exceedingly clever lyrics that make a person feel wittier just by singing along. (Please note that the version of the music video found by clicking the preceding hyperlink is the proper version and worth cherishing for many reasons, chief among them that the Internet is flooded with a different edit that manages to drain most of the humor and charm out of it.) When Partridge sings “Well I don’t know how to write a big hit song,” he’s technically correct, although the band’s relative lack of chart success is more of an indictment of the music industry than any choices XTC ever made. A music business model that can’t make a song like “Mayor of Simpleton” into a massive hit is a model that’s doing something deeply, disastrously wrong.
To a degree, the band members had similar feelings of dismay about the mismanagement by their record company overlords. The group’s uneasy relationship with their label, Virgin Records, reached a boiling point after the release of their next album, 1992’s Nonsuch. Angry over the perceived lack of support for the album, including label indecisiveness over how much to support individual singles, the band asked to be released from their contract. The label bosses denied the request and the band, in turn, refused to record any more music. The impasses lasted several years before Virgin finally gave in. By the time XTC was again releasing new material, the band was largely an afterthought for an alternative music scene that had skyrocketed then exploded on the tainted fuel of grunge rock. Once a cornerstone of college radio, there was no real place for them any longer. There was one more album, and that was it. A final and seemingly irrevocable break-up followed, largely because of disagreements between Partridge and Moulding.
Whatever the squabbles, it also must have felt like their time had simply passed. They’d never fit as neatly into a genre box as the taste-makers wanted and the stratification of music had continued to such a degree that the inability to hang an overly reductive label on the band had to be a further impediment. If the studio is where they’re bound, then its got be disheartening when there are fewer and fewer listeners anxious for the resulting recordings. There’s only so much pleasure in perfect pop if there aren’t people lined up to snap their fingers to the beat.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul