The Alt-Pop Artistry of XTC

Reissues Handled with Precision and Grace

The Alt-Pop Artistry of XTC

Partridge picks up the tale of the out-of-sorts tape. “Polarity—it’s such an important thing that gets overlooked, even in the professional world,” he notes. “Nobody else around the world who had mastered that album throughout all those years had ever said, ‘Hey, the polarity is wrong.’ When John told me Skylarking was out of polarity, I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained it to me as it’s pulling where it should be pushing. If you line up the waveforms, you can see them dipping where they should be pushing out. I said, ‘Well, can you give me a sample of this?’ He cut the album and sent me a sample CD, and I was so impressed. I was like, ‘Wow! That’s how I remember it sounding in the studio!’ I told him, ‘You go ahead, man. You’ve made it sound like it really should have sounded.’”

The Dent-initiated discovery that multiple wires had been connected to the wrong terminals (something Rundgren disputes, but that’s another story entirely), and the subsequent fix thereof, opened up a whole new world for Skylarking. The 2010 LP reissue under the “Corrected Polarity Master” banner (a mix also used for the core content that appears on the 2016-issued CD/Blu-ray set) cleared up many of the elusive sonic mysteries attributed to the conflicts during the recording and mastering phases for the original release. “I must admit, that album was ludicrously difficult for me because I had been told to shut up and be produced by Virgin—otherwise, I’d be off the label,” Partridge acknowledges. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.’ It was very much, ‘We don’t want you producing, Andy, because we know what you’re like.’”

At the time, no one could quite figure out exactly where Skylarking went awry. “We were all disappointed,” Partridge continues. “It sounded so thin to us, which we didn’t know at the time was because of this polarity thing. All three of us in the band [which then included guitarist and keyboard/synth whiz Dave Gregory] were saying, ‘This doesn’t sound like it did in the control room.’ We didn’t know why it sounded so thin and distant. For someone like John Dent to say the reason why is because of the polarity issue and then put it right it was like, ‘Ahh, finally!’”

You can hear the difference in the revitalized clout of Skylarking tracks like the 360-degree Kryptonite whomp of “That’s Really Super Supergirl,” the authentically jazzy template of “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” complete with fine flute flourishes and smooth, Joe Jacksonesque piano riffs, and the lilt of the bridge harmonies and insistent vocal/instrumental thrust during the declarative denouement of “Dear God.”

Following the unexpected singles-chart success of the polarizing (in a different context, that is) “Dear God,” XTC further burrowed into the firmament of the then-burgeoning alt-rock era, as witnessed by 1989’s sonically sweet Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s prior-mentioned masterstroke Nonsuch. “Nonsuch has eloquent, sublime drumming by Dave Mattacks, and great songwriting,” points out Styx drummer Todd Sucherman. “It’s also interesting to hear the Brian Wilson influence coming from that English sour place. They’re like the British Steely Dan with a privileged, upper-crust, dour demeanor.”

That said, XTC can also express their more outré side in tracks like Drums and Wires’ “Roads Girdle the Globe,” a Captain Beefheart descendent if ever I’ve heard one. “I would be the first to agree with that assessment,” Partridge concedes. “It’s an homage to Beefheart in terms of how it was constructed—like a dune buggy built out of Beefheart scraps. And in the 5.1 mix, the volume comes up like 5 dB or something. I wanted the first chord that lands on the B to be louder, and the only way we could do that was to make it physically louder by pushing the fader up.” 

If anything, XTC’s legacy is one of expressing wonderment at and/or disdain with the world at large, and then figuring out how to replicate it in music before the spark of creativity fades. “A lot of that magic can disappear because I know what tube is connected to what tube now. You know too much, and it kills off the naiveté,” Partridge states. 

“When you get to the proficiency of where you know how to make certain sounds, it’s ‘Oh, that’s a Mellotron,’ or ‘Oh, that’s a bowed bass,’ or ‘I can hear now that’s a cello—that’s not a guitar with a tremolo on,’ you start to deconstruct how these things are done. But to me, that’s where the magic is—it’s in the deconstruction. I guess I just enjoy being a music surgeon.” 

Well, to modify a line from the sweet-natured Oranges & Lemons cut “The Mayor of Simpleton,” XTC may not know how to write a big hit song, but the surgical precision both Partridge and Moulding have poured into the band’s oeuvre more than makes up for any chart-topping deficiencies.

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