Dream Setlist: XTC

Dream Setlist: XTC

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Willie takes on the next installment in the Dream Setlist series, where we’ll have to use an imaginary composite of a band that existed in many iterations over many years and practiced many styles. Completely unique and impossible to imitate, it’s XTC!

 

I know what you’re thinking: “This is cruel! XTC famously stopped touring in 1982!” That’s a fair point, but I urge you to think of this as a celebration of the live years rather than a forced confrontation. The group excelled in it’s lives both as a touring band and a studio band, so let’s take a look. XTC was an unclassifiable band that floated between pop, new wave, post-punk, and rock. Singer, guitarist, and main songwriter Andy Partridge as well as bassist and occasional songwriter Colin Moulding were the foundations of the band from 1972 to 2006. Guitarist Dave Gregory completed the trio for most of their active years, drummer Terry Chambers was in the band for their live years, and keyboardist Barry Andrews was part of the first two albums.

XTC is great because its members did so many things and they did them all well, so a time-bending setlist should reveal some of the things that changed--and those that didn’t! For our set, we go to The Affair, a club in the band’s hometown Swindon that they played countless times during the late 70s. I’m almost certain it’s gone now, but to see XTC in their element is too good to pass up. To set the mood, here’s a short tour of Swindon, courtesy of Andy Partridge. He’s a man of infinite confidence and plenty of wit!

 

Andy Partridge - Our Swindon -

 

1. Making Plans For Nigel

There is no start like a loud crash, and this one does the trick. The inside-out, upside down drums and youthful anger bubbling up made it XTC’s first and biggest-ever hit. It makes you want to hit a wall, and it gets it heavy sound from somewhere completely unexpected. It’s not in Moulding’s voice, but it’s everywhere else. The drums are bitter, and Partridge is howling and whispering around him, probably bounding across the stage. Anyone who knows even a little about XTC will know this one, and there’s years of depth in it. If you’re looking to visualize what the band might look like, you’re in luck. It’s from 1979’s Drums and Wires, so live performance videos abound. I’ll say this a lot, but it’s an unlikely hit. It works undeniably, but only XTC could follow it.

XTC - Making Plans For Nigel (Remastered)

 

2. Beating of Hearts

Luckily, XTC does follow it. On the theme of infectious drums, the band moves on to this song from 1983’s Mummer. In many ways, it sounds like the mummers plays that inspired the album: colorful, populist, ancient, and sing-songy. There’s a funk in its step that the band never shied away from. The drums are extremely post-punk, but they’re tempered by all the enthusiasm around them--you won’t find any doom. The strings use the tremolos and slides from the English folk tradition, and it’ll make you dance in a big circle. Before you know what’s going on, it’s Stonehenge all over again! Don’t underestimate the power of a cult-ish beat. XTC has long been called a cult band, but it takes a special type of band to imitate actual cult ritual.

 

3. Life Begins At The Hop

“Life Begins At The Hop” follows the cult of the psychedelic sock hop. There are claps, there’s a refrain, there’s a hook, and the song descends into a fever dream that’s a little scary, but joyful all the same. The band famously loved the psych rock band of the 60s (even releasing a few albums under a false name to play just that sort of music), and this song chases the 50s through that lens. The title refrain is cute, it’s joking, and it’s totalizing. Maybe it’s a double entendre? “Life begins at the hop, boys and girls.” And if life itself begins there, then you better get along and go, right? The outgrowth of all else: health, wealth, the rest of your life… They all originate from this important and singular event. There is no other, so wear yourself out and dance, I suppose.

XTC - Life Begins At The Hop

 

4. This Is Pop?

I defined XTC’s genre earlier, which would irk Andy Partridge. Early on, he got tired of hearing genre speculation, so he started saying “This Is Pop!” Not “mediocre” punk, post-punk, new wave, or anything else. This is anti-genre anthem off their 1978 album White Music. It features a somehow even sillier version of Partridge’s vocals. They’re super new wave (sorry), endearing, and part of a massive chorus. When your friends inevitably ask you what XTC is all about, scream “This is pop!” It’s pop and thank goodness it’s nothing else. And if you’re interested in hearing the band’s oral history, there’s a little documentary called This Is Pop from just a couple of years ago.

 

5. Rocket From a Bottle

Andy Partridge’s nervous energy from the early years hits me right in the chest, and this one takes a direct route to it. His vocals alternate between trembling and bellowing, showing off a rare tonal range. Partridge can be six different characters in a song, and seeing this one done live would “set him off,” so to speak. “Rocket From a Bottle” is a love song about one fraction of a feeling, and it’s right on. Think “What a Difference a Day Makes,” but with loud guitars and pounding drums (which is more emotionally accurate, in many cases). It’s a song that, for me, has become one in the same with the feeling which inspired it. And the guitar solo is clipped as ever, but it squeals with a real bite.

 

6. That’s Really Super, Supergirl

“That’s Really Super, Supergirl,” from a completely different, mid-80s state of mind, might be the apex of Partridge’s songwriting. It has the wonkiest structure and the most unexpected chords, but Partridge forces them to work through sheer power of will (and some excellent production thanks to Todd Rundgren). Partridge has often said that he’s completely self-taught, so he will compose a song by random chord shapes on the neck of a guitar. It’s something that anyone can try and chase good fortune, but Partridge succeeds again and again. His judgment is always spot on and it creates new world out of nothing. So many popular songwriters have failed to make much less challenging song structures cohere (looking at you, Jarvis Cocker), making this knack all the more impressive. “Supergirl” sounds like music from Mars (or Krypton, if you wish), and Dave Gregory’s solo brings it all together. As far as I know, it’s never been performed live, but wouldn’t that be a treat? It’s my second favorite XTC song, and it’s the only one I knew for many years. My mom used to sing it when I was growing up, and I had no idea what or who it was. Thanks for being with-it and getting Skylarking on cassette, Mom.

Andy Partridge, photo by Allan Ballard

 

7. King for a Day

We’re entering a mellower part of the set with “King for a Day,” a Colin Moulding song from the band’s California-inspired 1989 album Oranges and Lemons. The production is unquestionably 1989, but it fights off the elevator music sound in every way. Moulding’s songs were always more accessible, and he uses that to great effect in this anti-capitalist tale. It holds up 30 years later in large part because of the lyrics, especially the line “The loudest mouth will hail the new found way.” Let’s all give a cheer for the things that haven’t changed.

 

8. Love on a Farmboy’s Wages

I’d like to think they’d perform this one entirely acoustic. I’m a sucker for mid-set acoustic breaks, and this song begs it. Partridge accesses his rural past, singing about his ancestors through a pastoral texture. Again, it’s extremely complex and precise in its movements, slotting riffs here and there. It’s the kind of song that only Andy Partridge could write, and I’m glad he did. It also demands a perfect concentration by the band, and XTC is instrumentally solid if nothing else.

XTC - Love on a Farmboy's Wages

 

9. Grass

We stay mellow, but inch slowly back into the electric with this differently-interpreted pastoral song from Colin Moulding. It’s a whistler, with that melody you can’t get out of your head. “Over and over we flatten the clover” is among Moulding’s best zingers. Though written for the song cycle on Skylarking, it works just as well next to Partridge’s natural imaginings. The production is rich with bugs, birds, and strings on the album version, but it really needs a guitar and a little drum to work. It’s a satisfyingly simple composition and makes no demands.

 

10. Wonderland

This is another Moulding song, one I can safely say is unlike any other XTC song. It’s driven by keyboards, but it’s from 1983, which makes it a definite outlier. If it were slightly slower, it could easily be a slow dance song, but instead it sounds like a movie theme for a French teen movie from the time. It’s drenched with love and spotlights Moulding as the crooner. It’s extremely cute, and I love that it embraces its Europop-ness. The music video is a diffusely lit, Alice In Wonderland-inspired trip through a fancy ball. Maybe it’s also a nightmare, but that nighttime ball genre inevitably cuts both ways. It’s something Andy Partridge would never write, and defends the balance between the two songwriters.

 

11. The Mayor of Simpleton

Only the biggest of the big hits from now until the end of the set. The bass jumps ahead on “The Mayor of Simpleton.” You feel an older Andy Partridge pouring out his soul, but that’s not enough! He created a pop hit too, and he has the audacity to say, “Well I don’t know how to write a big hit song.” It’s a half-accurate assessment because the band has never received the acclaim they deserve, but Partridge wrote more catchy hits on just a handful of albums than most top 40 ghostwriters do in a lifetime. This ode to staying humble and not faking it is a piece of classic XTC genius. It has silliness, it has understated brains, and it’ll make you sing along.

 

12. Respectable Street

Damon Albarn who? XTC’s lyrical themes preceded Britpop by a decade, “Respectable Street” being from 1982. It’s angrier and rawer than a majority of Blur and definitely Pulp or Oasis. Partridge spits on nosy neighbors and throws things around. It’s an absolutely venomous song, but it also has little artifacts of Partridge’s talents. One of the little things he does is create runs of syllables that work on their own, regardless of the underlying themes. You can’t ignore the bourgeois-bashing here, but I’ve yet to find a better set of mouth movements than yelling, “Don’t he realize.” Seeing as we’re in Swindon for this imaginary show, I hope the people outside can hear the lyrics loud and clear. There’s about to be a neighborly feud over grass length, I bet! It’s a special thing when Andy Partridge points his lyrical cannon at something hyper specific.

XTC – "Respectable Street"

 

13. Senses Working Overtime

This is XTC’s other massive hit, this time written by Partridge. How did he do it? According to the This Is Pop documentary, he worked backward. Trying to write a single, he thought, “People like counting in songs.” And because there are five senses, there’s the song! It’s an unconventional hit with two conflicting sections, but you get the urge to count out “One, two, three, four, five!” on your hand. You can get the lost in the nooks and crannies of this song, similar to “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages.” You know it’s a pop hit from XTC because it has real dynamics, interlocking sections, and opaque lyrics.

 

14. Dear God

Well, here it is. To end the set, we get Andy Partridge walk up solo with his acoustic. It’s an unconventional one to end on, but I think it’s one of the most balanced songs of XTC’s career. Partridge wrote a song serious enough that it’s not immediately discounted, but also provocative enough that everyone wants to tune in. This song caused massive uproar in America because of its massive middle finger to Christianity, so you’ve got to give credit to Partridge for going through with it. Accordingly, it became a college radio hit and boosted the band’s popularity. It has a circular structure, and makes a fitting end to the set proper. Partridge is at his most expressive vocally, and the ability of the song to connect with so many at an emotional, moral level is astounding.

 

Encore

 

15. River of Orchids

After the band has walked off the stage and there are a few minutes of clapping, we hear water dripping. If you know it, you know it. Followed by pizzicato and looping orchestral parts, it’s the opener from 1999’s Apple Venus Volume 1. It fills up the room with light again gradually, like coming out of a cave after winter. Discovered accidentally by Partridge on a piece of electronic equipment, it’s instrumentally unique and an absolutely impressive piece of work, even for hardcore fans of the band. Partridge’s lyrics are subtle and use suggestion to imply a loose narrative. It’s sketched out and beautiful. Whatever he touches turns to art, obviously.

 

16. Travels in Nihilon

Don’t hate me, though this be an odd choice for an encore. It’s a horrifying song, a tone that the band wouldn’t approach later in its career. With another nudge, it would be in full-on metal territory, but it retains its post-punk edge. It’s a driving, scary headbanger that ends 1980’s Black Sea LP. This is the kind of song that could go on for half an hour, and I would be totally okay with that. For a band that rarely goes over six or seven minutes, this one stands out.

 

17. Complicated Game

If you were wondering, this is my favorite XTC song. I don’t know if I feel any song as deeply as this one. It’s under five minutes, but it feels an hour long. It could refer to anything when it says, “It’s just a complicated game.” Social graces, politicking, thought, looking, eating—anything. It doesn’t matter in the end because it’s a game with a set of made-up rules. Partridge’s rage is at its max. The song’s production is years ahead of its time, and the song supersedes every song in the band’s catalogue. It explains both XTC’s humor and its existence. Music should be unafraid because it all exists within the rules of a game. That’s it. Good night, Swindon!

Dave Gregory and Andy Partridge, photo from Optimism’s Flames

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7pfXp6YnxlnFYiQeVHuz6L

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