Welcome To The Garden Of Earthly Delights!

by Kiko Matsing

I have recently re-discovered one of my favorite New Wave groups of the 80’s–as a psychedelic rock band. Although XTC has long been a darling of the critics, they have never been chart-toppers, due partly to the fact that they have stopped touring in 1982 after front man Andy Partridge collapsed from stage fright. They have since been making music from the studio, sustained by a strong cult following who can’t get enough of their stuff.

XTC’s endlessly clever records and tight, self-contained singles won a following of fans and critics whose fanaticism almost made up for the band’s lackluster sales figures… The band members have become the deans of a group of artists who make what can only be described as unpopular pop music, placing a high premium on melody and solid if idiosyncratic songcraft. Throughout their long career, the members of XTC have made consistently excellent music…

(Michael Azerrad, Rolling Stone, 23 Mar 1989)

I admit to being one of those devotees who genuflect at the altar of XTC. I can still listen to Oranges and Lemons without feeling a generation removed. It still sounds fresh two decades later. On the other hand, I can no longer stand A-Ha’s Take on Me, especially when the frat crowd sings along on 80’s Night at Market Street. Even New Order, The Cure, and Midnight Oil–those staple 80’s innovators–are starting to sound really dated. Perhaps it’s because XTC has really not been New Wave, nor punk, since Making Plans for Nigel, and have carved their own idiosyncratic aesthetic from a melange of 60’s influences like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys. Pink Thing and The Loving (complete with faux Beatlemania screaming), for example, could have been hit singles from the early 60’s, while the pastoral buoyancy of their concept album Skylarking sits well within that era’s flower-child sensibility. This musical anachronism is perhaps another reason the 80’s listeners did not get their music–further cementing their cult status only to fans who are ‘in the know’.

XTC, Oranges and Lemons XTC
English Settlement (1982)
Skylarking (1986)
Oranges & Lemons (1989)
Nonsvch (1992)

Just as straight rock-and-roll and folk bands had turned psychedelic by the late 60’s (Revolver, The Beatles, 1966; Something Else by The Kinks, The Kinks, 1967; Pet Sounds,The Beach Boys, 1966), so did XTC albeit two decades too late with 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987). This was an homage to the period on so many levels: recapitulating the exuberance of melody and lyrics, the amorphous collage-work of the album cover, and moreover, the child-like irreverence of the production. Like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Loneley Heart’s Club Band, where the Fab Four assumed flippant alter-egos, XTC also invented theirs (The Red Curtain, Lord Cornelius Plum, Sir John Johns, E.I.E.I. Owen) and the fictitious band called The Dukes of Stratosphear.

How did I manage to overlook this aspect of XTC’s oeuvre? In any case, it might just be as well: listening to their compilation Chips from the Chocolate Fireball for the first time felt like having unearthed a long lost treasure. It has rekindled my excitement over a band I’ve always loved, and my amazement at the fecundity of their musical production.

Dukes of Stratosphear, 25 O'Clock The Dukes of Stratosphear
25 O’Clock (1985)
Psonic Psunspot (1987)

From the album covers above, it is no secret that XTC often tip their hats to The Beatles. Indeed there are moments in Andy Patridge’s lyric renditions where he is (consciously or unconsciously) channeling Paul McCartney. Have they blurred the lines between giving homage and ripping off? To quote T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. The fact that listening to The Beatles does not diminish my enjoyment of XTC’s music attests that they can hold their own against their muse.

Beatles, Yellow Submarine Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

XTC has perhaps written the most romantic, angst-free lyrics since The Beatles, and by this, I don’t mean the gushing sentimentality of chick flicks, but the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth) and bucolic idylls in Romantic poetry, such as in Byron’s She Walks in Beauty, or in the modern romanticism of E. E. Cummings’ somewhere, i have never travelled, gladly beyond.

Then She Appeared

Then she appeared, apple venus on a half open shell
Then she appeared, the first photograph on Fox Talbots gel
I was a little frightened
Flying with my senses heightened
Cherubim cheered
Then she appeared

Then she appeared, as the giggling crew of Marie Celeste
Then she appeared, pale Atlantis rising out of the west
I was a little dazzled
Catherine wheeled and senses frazzled
Know it sounds weird
Then she appeared

And the sun which formerly shone
In the clearest summer sky
Suddenly just changed address
Now shines from her blue eyes
Then she appeared, brittle shooting star that dropped in my lap
Then she appeared, dressed in tricolour and phrygian cap
I was a little troubled
Hookah with my senses bubbled
All Edward leared
Then she appeared

And the moon which formerly shone
On the marbled midnight mile
Suddenly just packed its bags
Now shines from her bright smile
Then she appeared
Out of nowhere

Your Gold Dress

You gold dress is whirling around
Like a fan it’s lifting you high
High above the ground
Never coming down

You gold dress is burning alight
Deafens me with the sound of the sun
Setting fire to the night
And everything’s all right

Vibrations coming my way
When you’re floating on by
In your gold dress
Vibrations coming to play
When you’re filling the sky
With your gold … dress

Your gold dress is shaming the stars
A thousand melting Dali guitars
Make no sound
And dripping slowly down
Your gold dress is all I can see
Blind my eyes but there it will be
Beacon burning bright
And everything’s all right

Your gold dress!

Pale and Precious

So pale and precious is the light that will shine
Out of the windows in her head
So pale and precious like the sun as it climbs
Up every morning on her bed

If all of her moments were put down in a book
Then I could read it ’til I went blind
If all of the tears she cried flowed into a brook
Well than I’m sure it would taste like wine
Don’t care what the others might say
As far as I’m concerned they can all fall apart
Fade away

So pale and precious is the light that will shine
Out of her perfumed golden hair
So pale and precious are the steps that I climb
Up to her room so bright and bare

If all of the things she said were flowers and trees
Well then her garden would always be green
If all of our time together fell on one day
It would be like every Christmas there’s been

Don’t care what the others might say
As far as I’m concerned they can all fall apart
Fade Away

Up she rises each and every morning
She blows the stars out of the sky
And lights the sun with her bright eyes

The smell of the pinecones
And the sea in her hair
Silver, gentle

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