Another of Andy Partridge’s acerbic little pop masterpieces, off the excellent 1992 album Nonsuch. The inspiration for The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead was, believe it or not, provided by an actual pumpkin, a carved Hallowe’en Jack-O-Lantern that Andy had set on a fencepost outside his home. As the days went by, the sagging gourd decayed to the point that he started to feel sorry for it, as if he’d personally victimized the poor, innocent thing, and he began thinking of a song about somebody who’d be cruelly mistreated, somebody about as harmless as that pumpkin had been before he cut an ugly face into its side and left it outdoors to rot like a crucified victim of Roman justice. What sort of person might suffer such a fate? Well, being Andy, he figured that the surest way to attract the deadly wrath of entrenched powerful interests would be to show up somewhere and start doing good works, helping the needy, spreading the truth, preaching charity and kindness, that sort of thing – a guy like that would be utterly intolerable to the key beneficiaries of the status quo, and they’d move quickly to crush him before people started getting bright ideas about equity and consent of the governed, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they just, and they’d be quick about it, too.
So, in comes Peter, like a new sort of Messiah, spreading wealth, happiness, and God’s truth, with no apparent axe to grind, and of course folks eat it up:
Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all
Emptied churches and shopping malls
Where he spoke, it would raise the roof
Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
…and, after various attempts to discredit and smear him (including by cooking up a phony sex scandal, impliedly one involving homosexuality, which Peter defuses by declaring, simply, that any kind of love is all right ), they go for the big hammer solution and “nail him to a chunk of wood”, crucifying him on live TV, thus putting a stop to the subversive nonsense.
There’s nothing more quintessentially XTC-like in their entire oeuvre than that spare, brutal little couplet about making enemies “of the people who would keep us on our knees”. That’s Andy Partridge in a nutshell, right there.
It’s perhaps surprising to hear such upsetting themes and acid observations delivered in such a glossy, jaunty, tuneful little package, but you know, that’s XTC all over too. Just ’cause you’re telling it like it is doesn’t mean you can’t sugar-coat the bitter pills, right?