I remember accompanying a mate of mine who worked for the Virgin label to see XTC in Manchester about 1980 in a completely inappropriate venue called Rotters at the top end of Oxford Road. It was actually a disco and there was no real stage, so if you were in the front row(which, thankfully, I wasn’t), watching the band was a bit like standing next to them in a bus queue. In fact, as I recall, the whole experience was a bit like standing in a bus queue. The house PA was awful, so XTC responded in time-honoured fashion by turning everything up to 11, on the basis that if you’re going to sound horrible, you might as well be loud and horrible, just so that no-one is in any doubt.
XTC on stage, circa 1980
Not a great night and I can only remember tapping my foot vaguely to a distorted version of ‘Making plans for Nigel’ that was probably audible in North Wales. At least the ‘Briton’s Protection’ was only just round the corner and it was a relief to retreat there and have a few pints of Robinson’s as our eardrums slowly recovered.
I was never convinced by XTC in the early days; I thought that they were trying to produce the same type of ‘herky-jerky’ clever pop as Talking Heads, but just not executing it as well. ‘Nigel’ was a great single and the lyric at least revealed that there was wit and intelligence at work in there somewhere, but the albums just struck me as being too self-consciously arty and, after the rotten Rotters gig, I tuned out for a good while. After that, I can recall only Andy Partridge’s hilarious 20-second take on ‘The History of Rock and Roll’ on the first ‘Miniatures‘ album, but nothing much more.
Then, someone gave me a copy of ‘English Settlement’ (Virgin, 1982) a double album that immediately demonstrated that the band had decided to celebrate their ‘Englishness’ instead of masquerading as refugees from Berlin or New York. The arrangements were much more ‘organic’ and there were some flat-out excellent songs. I’ve just listened to the album for the first time in about six months and even after all these years, I really can’t find a bad track on it.
After that, it was as though they’d got over all the self-consciously arty stuff and though ensuing releases weren’t always of quite the same standard, there were still enough good tracks to keep me interested. The media began to try to reinvent Andy Partridge as a latter-day Ray Davies, witty chronicler of small-town English life in all its mind-numbing detail. Partridge’s world was one of rainswept shopping precincts, failing relationships and incipient middle age. Seemed to fit my circumstances pretty well……
Ultimately, the best was yet to come from Andy Partridge though by that point, it was debatable whether XTC really existed any more. Whatever the case, I think I’m now going to have to revisit ‘Skylarking‘ and the 2 ‘Apple Venus’ albums. Have to get back to you on those….