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XTC, It's Good to Have Ya Back

December 20, 2005

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We now return to our previously scheduled column...

This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back...
U2's Bono, referring to the song Helter Skelter

It’s not too often that I write about music, at least not critically. My thought, and perhaps yours as well, is that I’m a grown up and I can form my own decisions about what I like and dislike. There are few things that irk me more than being told by Rolling Stone, Spin, or the myriad of reviewers who publish reviews of what’s good and what’s bad in city papers nationwide and based on their own subjective feelings on the material.

Perhaps Jeff Bridges said it best in The Big Lebowski when he stated, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” It seems that, if you put 100 persons into a room and chain them to 100 typewriters and assign them the task of writing music reviews, you’ll end up with 100 differing opinions though certainly nothing on par with Shakespeare. Sure, there’s going to be opinion overlap. A majority may think that Coldplay’s X&Y is the greatest thing since PB&J, or that Jessica Simpson is a talented artist with an important message to deliver, but in general you’re going to wind up with a lot of varying thoughts. It’s all subjective.

In general, I’m not breaking new ground here by stating on record that we are, to a great extent, being told what to listen to. Certainly anyone who listens to commercial radio is hearing the music that the station’s management is insisting you hear. This control extends further, of course, and includes things like the music we hear in TV commercials and TV shows, film scores, and, of course, ring tones. Thus, with any luck I get to hear the Beastie Boys “ringing” on the Nokia of the UCLA student seated next to me on the bus. Trust me, I doubt I’ll be hearing any Angelo Badalamenti ring tones in the near future.

Lately I’ve been listening to XTC again. I say “again” because I’d stopped listening to XTC for many years. I’d come to associate the band with a part of my life I wanted to leave in the past. So I sold off my vinyl, my fan club material, and my CDs and pretty much forgot about a band I originally started to appreciate in 1980. Two things lead me to an XTC rebirth—first, I am blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with a terribly poor memory. I’d blame it on drugs or alcohol, but I don’t consume drugs or alcohol. Most likely it’s early onset Alzheimer disease. So the bad memory association was fading. Second, I missed hearing their music.

Still, I was reluctant to jump back onto the XTC big express. A corner of my mind was afraid to play them; it thought, “Oh, this really is going to be more pain than fun.” So I started to download a lot of their catalog. I downloaded and downloaded and before long I’d amassed a few hundred songs. But still I didn’t play them. Still I felt a bit of nervous reservation.

Not long ago I plunged on in. I figured it would be best to start with material that was new to me, since I'd have no conscious or unconscious association to it, and so I began playing more recent releases like Apple Venus and Wasp Star. Not surprising, XTC’s 21st-century efforts are as inventive and enthusiastic as their recordings from the previous three decades. Apple Venus is an acoustic treat for the new millennium; it is reminiscent of English Settlement though a lot softer. Wasp Star finds XTC back to electric rock. After becoming acquainted with these recordings, I began absorbing other material, from the main catalog releases to compilations like Coat of Many Cupboards, Transistor Blast, and Andy Partridge’s brilliant Fuzzy Warbles series. Clearly, the band has been quite busy in the eight or so years that I’d stopped listening to them.

Last week I had a weird Amoeba moment. For those outside of LA, I’m referring to Amoeba Music, a colossal warehouse of new and old vinyl, compact disk, VHS, dvd, and esoterica on Sunset Boulevard. Amoeba is the Disneyland of record shops. Its hugeness is dwarfed only by its immeasurable store stock. In a word, it’s impressive. I’d gone to Amoeba to trade in a few CDs and purchase another volume of Brendan Small’s brilliant Home Movies series. When I walked into the store, I was quite pleased and surprised to hear track three (Senses Working Overtime) of XTC’s English Settlement playing on the overhead audio system. This was followed by tracks four (Jason and the Argonauts) and five (No Thugs in Our House) by which point I knew I’d be getting to hear all 13 tracks while shopping.

About five minutes into my shopping excursion I noticed a gal wearing a green shirt with white screen-printed graphics. It was, in fact, an XTC English Settlement shirt. She was smiling and chatting on her cell. I walked over to her, pointed at her shirt, and then pointed to the ceiling speakers. She smiled and told the caller she was speaking with, “Another XTC fan just pointed out my shirt!” It was one of those weird moments, really. I mean, this album was released in 1982 and I’ve never seen anyone wearing a Settlement t-shirt nor have I ever heard the music being played in a record store. It was just one of those weird moments of synchronicity that make you realize you’re awake. It also got Settlement stuck in my head again.

That’s the downside of XTC. Their music is addictive. It’s like brainwashing. Once the song gets into your mind it’s stuck there for a long, long time. I literally had Young Cleopatra (a track from the Fuzzy Warbles series) stuck in my head for three consecutive days. So listening to XTC is kind of risky. Like the poppy sounds of Fountains of Wayne, XTC’s quirky, up tempo music grabs hold of the mind and refuses to let go. It can be quite maddening but mostly it’s refreshing. Anyway, following the double-coincidence at Amoeba I decided to rediscover English Settlement all over again. I won’t waste your time or mine by telling you how great and enjoyable this acoustic release is. I’m not going to quote excerpts of lyrics to denote how clever and intelligent a songwriter Andy Partridge is (though comic fans may be interested in knowing the words “Justice League of America” are featured in one song). But I will state that this is a damn solid album. It was originally released on vinyl as a double album but is available as a single CD. And if I were to tell you there’s one or two bad songs on the album I’d be lying to you. For me at least, some of the memories the album conjures up include cold winter nights, my first year at the University of Pittsburgh, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg series, and Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on Moon Knight.

You might like XTC or you might dislike them. There’s a great They Might Be Giants tune entitled “XTC Versus Adam Ant” that examines the two genres of sound these artists incorporated. The TMBG song describes XTC as “Beatle-based pop” and to a large extent they quite succinctly nailed it. Although XTC has a much wider variety of sound and influence, it all stems for a love of the Beatles and the music of that era (not a bad thing though, in my opinion). To me, listening to XTC reminds me of the first time I really started listening to artists like Dexter Gordon, Paul Desmond, Art Pepper, and other jazz greats; it was exciting, it was unpredictable, and it was really, really fun.

I could go on, but it’s late. Besides, no one likes a critic.

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