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The Alt-Pop Artistry of XTC

Let’s begin!” These two seemingly innocent words gleefully open the 1992 Nonsuch track “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” yet another notch in the sonically pleasing crown of the British new-wave collective known as XTC. Vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge’s opening yelp is quickly followed by a melded burst of melodic harmonica, dramatic drum attack, jangly soundstage-challenging guitar, and somewhat quirky lyrics. Let us all raise a hearty “Hooray!” in unison for dear old “Peter Pumpkinhead,” a song that’s wholly typical of the infectiously clever earworm confectionaries that can be found all across XTC’s still somewhat underrated catalog, now entering its sixth decade of existence.

“Back in the day, if XTC put out an album, I was front and center to check it out and explore it,” admits longtime Beck keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., also a fine solo artist in his own right and a co-founder of the late, great cult-favorite 90s band Jellyfish. “I really enjoy their wordplay, sarcasm, sense of humor, and just witty lyrics. With people like XTC roaming the planet, it’s really been a challenge to get anywhere within that neighborhood creatively—but I’ve sure had fun trying.”

Principally led in tandem by the aforementioned Partridge and his main counterpoint and foil, bassist/guitarist/vocalist Colin Moulding, XTC initially emerged from Swindon in Wiltshire, England as a four-piece during the British punk heyday of the 1970s, choosing instead to spit in the face of youth-culture fashion by proffering a fresh sound consisting of an idiosyncratic mélange of Beatlesque art-rock and new-wave pop. Indeed, the Partridge-penned 1978 single “This Is Pop”—with its opening F chord directly referencing the one George Harrison ever-so-stridently strummed on his 12-string Rickenbacker at the outset of The Beatles’ seminal 1964 classic “A Hard Day’s Night”—served not only as the band’s perpetual aural manifesto, it was also deployed as the name of an insightful, no-punches-pulled 2017 band documentary. 

The core of XTC’s rich catalog was released through Virgin abroad and Geffen in the United States, with their turn-of-the-century indie releases courtesy of Cooking Vinyl/Idea. In 2002, Ape House was formed to better enrich the XTC coffers with higher-quality reissues in multiple formats. To date, six key XTC catalog entries have been given the finest hi-res DTS-HD Master Audio and LPCM stereo and 5.1 24-bit/96kHz upgrade treatment for double-disc CD+Blu-ray release: 1979’s Drums and Wires, 1980’s Black Sea, 1987’s Skylarking, 1989’s Oranges & Lemons, 1992’s Nonsuch, and most recently in late 2019, Psurroundabout Ride, a comprehensive collection of their more psychedelically inclined mid-1980s output originally released under the guise of their notable nom de plume, The Dukes of Stratosphear. (Though the upgraded reissues series remains an ongoing concern, XTC called it quits as a recording entity back in 2006.)

Each of these releases comes housed in double-disc slipcase sleeves with a combination of audio elements that usually include the album-at-hand’s original stereo mix; updated stereo, 5.1, and instrumental mixes; home and working demos and work tapes from Partridge and Moulding respectively; and other extras and outtakes accordingly. Naturally, all the 5.1 duties have been handled with much aplomb by noted surround sound guru, Steven Wilson. 

“Steven’s done a great job with the 5.1,” enthuses Partridge. “It’s excellent. It’s not going to disappoint people who want, for all intents and purposes, the original XTC sound. That’s all still there. Perhaps to the casual listener it’s going to sound the same, but it’s better. It’s wider. It’s more dynamic. The louder bits are louder, and punchier.”

Using “punchier” and “wider” as descriptors are practically understatements here, as Wilson has given these six XTC surround offerings a breadth only hinted at in their two-channel form. Among the myriad highlights are the off-kilter all-channel lurch of “Making Plans for Nigel,” a Drums and Wires track that surely whetted Primus bassist/vocalist Les Claypool’s appetite back in the day (and was quite handily proven via their energetic 1992 “Nigel” cover). Black Sea’s “Generals and Majors” moves along in almost dub-step fashion, complemented by dreamy, fully enveloping whistling monophonic-synth fills. And “25 O’Clock,” the opening track of the Psurroundabout Ride compilation, shimmers in all its uber-trippy, Pink Floydian Syd Barrett-era glory, with organ fills rotating through each channel like a calliope on LSD.

Comparable vinyl reissues for most of the above releases, along with other vital catalog entries—including 1982’s English Settlement, 1999’s Apple Venus Volume I, and 2000’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume II)—have all been pressed onto 200-gram LPs from the original master tapes as overseen by respected Loud Mastering engineer John Dent, who sadly passed away in December 2017. 

“The 200-gram LPs do sound a little steadier, and more solid,” Partridge observes. “I do prefer vinyl, because it’s fuller. It’s got all the sound there, while a CD has three-quarters of the sound missing. A CD is built like a Lego. It’s not all smooth sand dunes—it’s sand dunes made out of large block Legos.”

The late Dent’s main claim to XTC fame: He was the first person to discover the above-noted Skylarking—originally produced by Todd Rundgren with an iron fist, sans any band involvement at the mixing/mastering stages—had actually been recorded and released out of polarity. 

 

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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