by Jon Hunt
Author’s Note: This is the second year a group of Minneapolis musicians, led by erstwhile scene vet Paul Boblett, have gathered together for “Senses Working Overtime 2,” an evening-long celebration of the music of Swindon geniuses XTC to benefit the Pay It Forward Cancer Fund. Disclaimer: it is also the second year I have conned them into letting me, clearly the least-talented member of this group, sing backup vocals for them. And so, since it would be a conflict of interest for me to actually plug the show — er, sort of — more than I just did, I guess, cough cough — I have compiled instead a list of my 20 favorite XTC songs. If you’ve never heard the band, you need to fix this right now — and this list is a pretty good jumping-on point. And Click here for more information about “Senses Working Overtime 2,” tonight at Icehouse.
1. “Respectable Street” (off of Black Sea) — I thought long and hard about which song was not only my favorite XTC song but also possibly the most representational of the group’s sound, and I lit upon this, one of their most well-known singles. It has everything you expect from XTC: the angular arrangement (“angular” is the adjective you will hear most often to describe the group), the catchy melody, the cynical ruralism (bonus points for mention of “hedgerows”), not to mention the snotty, smart delivery of main man Andy Partridge. Plus: this is the group when they were actually still a group that played out in public, and it shows — it actually slams pretty hard for a bunch of pop geeks.
2. “Garden of Earthly Delight” (off of Oranges and Lemons) — I am, mostly by dint of my age, more of a “later XTC” fan than an “early XTC” fan. I remember when Oranges and Lemons came out so clearly — the first year of college for me, and I spun this thing in my dorm so often my next door neighbor finally complained. This song, the kickoff tune on the album, is a densely-packed kaleidoscope indeed, sounding like Sgt. Pepper played by Steve Reich’s 17 Musicians.
3. “Summer’s Cauldron” (off of Skylarking) – Skylarking is not only my favorite XTC album, it’s my favorite album of the entire 80s. This song, the first on the album (actually — come to it, this is the third kickoff track in a row in my top three!), is possibly the finest distillation of the summer months that has ever been penned, a remarkably languid song that evokes hot days and backyards and laziness. You can, in fact, as the lyrics suggest, drown in the sweetly thick arrangement.
4. “Dear Madam Barnum” (off of Nonsuch) – I found Nonsuch disappointing when it came out — it was such a straight-up pop record, especially coming off the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink psychedelia of their last three (Skylarking, Oranges and Lemons and Psonic Psunspot, released as the Dukes of Stratosphear). And while time has not been kind to the album’s brittle production, the songs are another story — the more time passes, the more I appreciate the simple beauty of them, especially this gorgeous little head-bobber, likening a relationship to a circus.
5. “Vanishing Girl” (off of Psonic Psunspot) – The only way to follow up an album as 60s-influenced as Skylarking was to release an album as an actual (though mythical) band from the 60s, throwing every possible 60s cliche into the mix to boot. You can point to almost every song on the album and pinpoint the 60s touchstone they’re stealing from, but this one is just sort of “general 60s” — maybe a little Hollies, a little Beatles, and a whole lot of Andy Partridge, with a striking melody and a perfect-as-punch chiming guitar part.
6. “Green Man” (off of Apple Venus Vol. 1) – People forget about the two Apple Venus albums when assessing the group — they came so late in their run, and both after the departure of Dave Gregory, that it almost seems like they don’t count. I’m so damn fond of them both, though, especially the first, all drenched with strings and super-thick arrangements. This song is one of the most pagan songs ever recorded, basically The Wicker Man (the good one) in song form, with a melody that’s so gorgeous it can make the goosebumps stand up at fifty paces. If you can remain dry-eyed all the way through, then mister, you’re a better man than I.
7. “All You Pretty Girls” (off of Big Express) — Big Express is seen as the kind of black sheep of XTC albums — it’s full of weird synths and represents a point in the group’s evolution between their earlier post-punk sound and their later Beatles-influenced stuff. This song sticks in my head like no other on this list — I find myself singing it at weird times of night when I wake up from a dead sleep. I’m not sure what that says about it other than that it’s enormously catchy and a little Freudian, maybe. It’s a silly tune on the face of it, but I love the sea-shantiness of it.
8. “Playground” (off of Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2) – If I had to pick a “most underrated XTC song,” it would be this one. I remember when this album came out, arguing with hardcore fans that it stood up nicely with their other stuff. Their argument: how could it, three decades into the group’s career? My argument: this song. That guitar riff is one of Andy’s best ever, and damned if the modulation into the chorus doesn’t knock me on my ass every single time it happens. In a perfect would, this would have been a huge hit, or at least get a ton of alt-radio play. In the real world, time had moved past the group, which bummed me right the hell out — remember, this was the era of the boy band and the Strokes. Sigh. You can’t get the buttons these days.
9. “Cherry In Your Tree” (off of the Carmen Sandiego LP / unreleased Bubblegum Project) — This marvelous little rarity was meant for a Dukes-like project which would have found the group playing the part of several mythical bubblegum bands from the early 70s. It is one of the great rock tragedies that the album didn’t come out, as it contained some of the group’s silliest and niftiest little numbers — and Andy has only seen fit to release a couple of songs from it on his massive Fuzzy Warbles series of demo albums (my other favorite: “Candymine,” featuring a very bubblegummish double entendre). Worth tracking down.
10. “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” (off of Skylarking) – The biggest strength of Skylarking is how it manages to balance the group’s tendency to write bizarre, tangled, maze-like songs with their other tendency to want to be a straight-up pop band. This song is possibly the finest amalgam of both, originally written as a pair with another superhero-related tune (“Brainiac’s Daughter,” which ended up on the Dukes album) — it has a niftily angular verse (there’s that word again!) and a sweetly perfect chorus, all propelled by some keen synthy percussion.
11. “This Is Pop” (off of White Music) – The group’s early career as a kind of Police-ish post-punk group isn’t necessarily my favorite era of the band, but there are some tunes in there that presage what would come later. This angular (!!!) song pretty much sums it up, too, with the verses being about as chaotically dissonant as you could possibly get, with a chorus as pop as the song’s title suggests. This dichotomy is basically the band in a nutshell.
12. “I’m The Man Who Murdered Love” (off of Apple Venus Vol. 2) – Ah yes, more Apple Venus 2 for people to underrate. This is the album’s absolutely perfect pop single, complete with “Yeah!” shouts, a marvelous “murdering cupid” metaphor, and some coolly understated guitar riffing, not to mention one of the group’s finest middle-eights. Eventually this album will retain its rightful place in the band’s catalog, and I will be vindicated.
13. “Collideascope” (off of Psonic Psunspot) – The cousin of John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” as well as the Move’s “Blackberry Way,” this archetypally 60s song sounds about as stoned as you want it to sound, with Partridge adopting Lennon’s nasal whine and the group falling into the laid back vibe of the Beatles’ mid-60s era. And don’t miss the out-of-the-blue sawing sound effects smack in the middle of the thing.
14. “No Thugs In Our House” (off of English Settlement) – The double-album English Settlement is kind of the band’s big-ass White Album move, whipping through just about every possible genre of music across it. I’m not even sure what genre this thing is, though, other than “particularly slamming XTC from their still-live era.” It pounds with the best of ’em, and Partridge growls his way through this little suburban ode like he had something to prove.
15. “Towers of London” (off of Black Sea) – I’d call Black Sea the early live version of the group’s finest album — there’s not a duff song on it, and half the damn thing is singles. This nicely swinging tune only suffers by comparison to #1 on this list — it’s one of the group’s finest, and hits pretty damn hard (the anvil-swinging is a fine little touch). And again, a terrific middle-eight that switches things up magnificently.
16. “River of Orchids” (off of Apple Venus Vol. 1) – The string- (or string-synth-) laden Apple Venus Vol. 1 is kind of an oddity in the group’s catalog — never before were they as baroque. This song, though, if you scored it with angular guitars and big drums, could have sat nicely on Black Sea — it’s the kind of tangled, dissonant, word-crammy song Partridge favored in that era. The layers of strings and horns, though, give the song a niftily neoclassical touch that lend it a kind of mysterious chamber-pop weight. Plus, I love how the phrase “Peckham rose” sings. It just rolls off the tongue.
17. “Wake Up” (off of Big Express) – “Wake Up” sounds straightforward, but I’ve now heard people trying to play it accurately — people who make their living playing super-complex music! — and it is actually unbelievably tangled and polyrhythmic and far more weird than it sounds at first blush. Like listen to the way the guitars ping-pong off of each other or the way the drums stop and start and stop and start, all whilst Partridge reels off one of his most complex and wordy melodies. Holy cow. Almost Beefheartian in its rough complexity.
18. “The Loving” (off of Oranges and Lemons) – In sheer contrast to #17, this one is about as straightforward a pop song as you can get, and about as Beatlesque as the group got, too, complete with fake live-audience cheers and beautifully phased guitars. It’s a neat little melody, though, bolstered by some sheerly perfect harmonies across the chorus. And the coda is absolutely a knockout — one of those thrilling moments that make you wish the song was a few minutes longer!
19. “Making Plans for Nigel” (off of Drums and Wires) – If you’ve only heard one or two XTC songs before, chances are good that one of them was this one. Weirdly, the only Colin Moulding song on my list — I do love Colin’s songs lots, so don’t think I have some kind of grudge against him, it’s really just that I tend to prefer Andy’s worldview. This one might be his best — it’s got a cool melody, an odd little lyric, and a wicked dubby ending that puts the whole thing in early Police territory. A cool tune.
20. “Life Begins at the Hop” (off of Drums and Wires) – A pair of Drums and Wires singles closing off the list, and it shows — it’s got that angular, crazy, tangled verse and one of his typically ingratiating choruses. If you don’t find yourself singing this one three days later, then you’re doing it wrong.