This is only the second time that XTC has appeared in Songs of the Day (the other being when I presented the sublime We’re All Light ):
…which doesn’t seem right, given the high esteem with which I (and, dare I say it, right-thinking pop music aficionados everywhere) regard them. After all, I tended to agree with band leader Andy Partridge when he impressed me with the statement that “there aren’t many groups who get better and better with every album, and I like to think we’re the other one”. So, long overdue, here’s another delightful one from Partridge, which appeared on the 1989 album Oranges and Lemons.
The title itself is such a quintessentially English play on words, and the lyrics comprise a long series of clever, funny, and often genuinely heart-warming rhyming couplets, as the narrator admits he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but argues that his heart is full of love, and doesn’t that matter just as much? Like:
Well I don’t know how to tell the weight of the sun
and of Mathematics well I want none
I can’t have been there when brains were handed round
or get past the cover of your books profound
Well I don’t know how many pounds make up a ton
of all the Nobel Prizes that I’ve never won
before making his pitch:
and I may be the Mayor of Simpleton
But I know one thing and that’s I love you
When all logic grows cold and all thinking gets done,
You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton
…all wrapped in clever melody while bouncing along at a brisk, happy pace. It’s wonderful.
The song is particularly noteworthy for the agile, melodically contrapuntal, thoroughly McCartneyesque bass line provided by Colin Moulding (who himself wrote some gems I’ll have to discuss at some point), and features a chord progression that Partridge thought sounded a bit like Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, which probably makes sense to musicians and other songwriters, but is nothing the average listener would ever notice. Said Partridge of Moulding’s contribution:
Colin had to work very hard to get that bass line. It’s very precise. It took me a long time to work it out, because I wanted to get into the J.S. Bach mode of each note being the perfect counterpoint to where the chords are and where the melody is. The bass is the third part in the puzzle.*
By now you’ll have guessed one of his primary musical influences, besides Bach.
Strange to think that XTC, whose nuanced and highly polished songcraft involved a conscious effort to revive the glories of Sixties pop, started out as a rather noisy post-punk outfit that some thought would be carrying the torch passed by the likes of the Sex Pistols. Some of their early records are pretty loud and fierce. It wasn’t long, though, before they switched to a much more accessible style of writing, with Moulding and Partridge both supplying songs that would sit well in mix tapes amid those by the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who. Conventional wisdom has it that of the two, Moulding was the more melodic, while Partridge was more hard-edged and lyrically sophisticated, though really these generalizations don’t work any better for them than they do for Lennon and McCartney.
A distinctive feature of a number of Partridge’s pieces is a sound pulled straight from the modalities of Medieval music (listen to the verses of Senses Working Overtime), and Indian influence is also sometimes discernible (as in Beating of Hearts, and Green Man). The pulling of all these threads together very often resulted in exhilarating, thoughtful stuff, full of social commentary and keen observation of the human condition in all its foibles and cruelties. There were songs about the vain and pointless acquisition of status symbols like expensive cars, about being bullied in school, about the predatory excesses of religious fundamentalism, about mindless warfare, the tragedies of the distant past, even cosmology – and so much more. Making Plans for Nigel concerned a mentally disturbed kid, Towers of London was a tribute to all the nameless workers who died constructing the landmarks of the great city, All You Pretty Girls was a rousing sea shanty (!), Earn Enough for Us was about the stress of never quite making a decent living wage, Love on a Farm Boy’s Wages was the lament of a downtrodden rural labourer wondering how he can possibly afford to get married and support a wife, and Ball and Chain, amazingly, was about urban planning and the lamentably ruthless destruction of people’s houses and grand old buildings to make way for towers of steel and glass. That’s just scratching the surface! It was quite the banquet they laid out from the late Seventies on to the last year of the 20th Century, when they bowed out with the terrific two part collection Apple Venus/Wasp Star. They never sold a ton of records, but they moved enough product to keep their recording contract, and what a body of work they have now to look back upon. If you want music that’s terrifically enjoyable, and composed on the assumption that its listeners are intelligent and sufficiently learned to grasp all the allusions and nuances, look no further.
*Sorry to be tedious on this score, but what Partridge describes is something McCartney would have done off the top of his head.