Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

Soundtrack of my Life. (XTC)


It took me over ten years to realize just how deeply I enjoyed the music of XTC, and the path to that revelation may be at least in part why I find the whole experience so fulfilling. My appreciation of the band happened in small increments and happenstance, through tidbits being dropped in my lap until it was finally put together in my head. As if collecting pieces of mosaic tile and placing them on the floor and suddenly realizing what it was coming out of the pattern.

My first exposure to the group was via MTV, specifically MTV’s 120 Minutes–arguably the last great rock show the once-pioneering channel used to air. They aired the video for “Dear God,” (Skylarking) a stark affair that began, as the song does, with a small boy singing the opening lines of the song:

Dear God, hope you got the letter and
I pray you can make it better down here
I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer
But all these people that you made in your image,
see them starving on their feet,
’cause they don’t get enough to eat from God.
I can’t believe in you.

The stark anger in these lyrics, which would only crescendo, was all the more complicated by the fact that it wasn’t a song about atheism. It was a song about humanity’s misuses and abuses of religion.

Dear God, don’t know if you’ve noticed but
your name is on a lot of quotes in this Book.
And us crazy humans wrote it you should take a look!
And all the people that you made in your image,
still believing that junk is true.
Well I know it ain’t and so do you, Dear God.1

Singer/songwriter Andy Partridge2 is speaking to an entity he believes exists, but doesn’t seem to care how easily he’s misinterpreted. There’s love and respect in that anger. At the time, it was perhaps the most complex emotion I had discovered in pop music.

And therein lies the core strength of XTC’s songwriting–the ability to convey difficult emotions and dramatic situations with metaphor and allegory, the sharp wit, and the creation of characters and surrealistic landscapes.

Consider that there have been many songs from a variety of genres dealing with the issue of true love’s hesitation. Although most such songs deal introspectively with the fear and anxiety of admitting one’s feelings to another, XTC throws the emotion into the atmosphere and suddenly there are “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her” (The Big Express).

Consider the humiliated cuckold of “Dear Madam Barnum” (Nonsuch):

Children are laughing
as I fall to the floor
My heart’s torn and broken
and they just scream for more.
If I’m not the sole fool
that pulls his trousers down
then dear Madam Barnum,
I resign as clown.

Consider the cautionary tale of the “Scarecrow People” (Oranges and Lemons):

For we ain’t got no brains
and we ain’t got no hearts
it’s just that wild old wind
that tears us all apart
we’re the Scarecrow People,
have we got lots in common with you!
And if you don’t start living well,
you’re all gonna wind up Scarecrow People too!

There also a great sense of whimsy in this music, such as “All You Pretty Girls,” (The Big Express) which is for all intents and purposes written as a pirate shanty, or the wickedly clever “Pink Thing” (Oranges and Lemons) which is simultaneously a song about Andy Partridge’s newborn son and a song about Andy Partridge’s penis. Alternately, there’s also a large collection of ironic social commentary, such as “No Thugs in Our House” (English Settlement), which describes the blissful ignorance of two parents unable to understand that their son is a criminal menace:

No thugs in our house, are there dear?
We made that clear.
We made little Graham promise us he’d be a good boy.

Or the wry use of ancient puppet shows–“Punch and Judy” (Rag and Bone Buffet) to discuss real-life abusive relationships:

Punch and Judy in a quandary, she’s walked out and he is mad
Now he’s grown up, can’t smash home up, retribution must be had
Punch and Judy had a baby who brought them to married bliss
Mr Punch has drunken hunch that he must punish kid for this
This must be make-believe
This must be make-believe
This must be make-believe
‘Cos who do we know, dear, who acts like that?

There is a point to this combination testimonial and thesis. The connection I feel to this band is largely because the band’s music is very much the sort of storytelling technique that most interests me. I find their work very theatrical. I like the vision of a man confessing to having murdered love (“I’m The Man Who Murdered Love,” Wasp Star).

XTC writes music the way I want to write plays.

1 In later years, Partridge disowned this song, saying he was too young and too simplistic to discuss this topic in a pop song. I respectfully disagree.

2 I don’t mean to give Colin Moulding short shrift, as he’s also a very good songwriter in his own right, with perhaps an even more developed sense of farce than Partridge. However, it’s Partridge who’s done the lion’s share of the songwriting, and it’s his work that I find the most inspiring.

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This entry was posted on December 18, 2003 by in Critique, Music, Soundtrack.
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