XTC versus Adam Ant
Content versus form
Fighting for their place in rock and roll
There is no right or wrong
— They Might Be Giants, “XTC vs. Adam Ant”
I see what they were driving at, but I think XTC do content and form just fine.
The first XTC song I ever heard was “The Mayor of Simpleton,” a literate and catchy song about a not-very-literate guy who figures that even if he never amounted to much in school, at least he knows he loves his girl, and how to make sure she knows it. At the time (1989ish) I assumed it was a character — songwriter Andy Partridge is one of the best lyricists in pop (or rock, or whatever we call this stuff these days), and he sounds educated. But he may very well be self-educated; somewhere along the way I seem to remember hearing or reading he dropped out of school and did his own thing, and like so many other men who did that, he overcompensates, I think. And like so many other overcompensating self-educating types, he’s irritatingly good at it. There’s a reason XTC are in the “content” corner of the ring.
Let’s just cut to the chase: all the XTC albums are fucking great. I was thinking about it the other day and realized there are maybe two that aren’t: Mummer, which I find just a little too precious and unassuming, and Wasp Star, which has some amazing tracks (“Stupidly Happy,” gorgeous) and some jaw-droppingly awful bollocks (mostly by the other XTC songwriter, Colin Moulding). Everything else is either a masterpiece or just shy of it. You can’t go wrong.
It helps that these guys were studio-bound for a lot of their career. Like Kate Bush, Andy Partridge put the kibosh on touring just as they were getting huge. For him it was stage fright (for her, there are theories, but the jury’s still out). This probably freed them up to do ever more elaborate arrangements that didn’t need to be reproduced live, and if the later albums sound ever more baroque, that might be why. No complaints here.
So Drums and Wires is an arbitrary choice, really; it’s just one of about five or six XTC albums I love almost equally, and it happened in a quiet moment as far as my chronology goes. It’s the start of a period when Moulding’s songs were contenders with Partridge’s as the highlights of the album, and indeed if you recognize anything by XTC other than “Dear God” you probably recognize “Making Plans for Nigel.” I also love “Day In Day Out” and “Ten Feet Tall.” In the Partridge camp, I’m into “Roads Girdle the Globe” and “Real by Reel,” but pretty much everything else is just fine except maybe the two longest tracks (the overwrought “Complicated Game” and the ill-advised ode to China “Millions”).
Content and form, man. I like Adam Ant well enough, but XTC have that thing sewn up.
Blondie, Eat to the Beat
Two good Blondie songs: “Dreaming” and “Shayla.” Two great Blondie songs: “The Hardest Part” and “Union City Blue.” One fire-hot amazing Blondie song, maybe the best ever: “Atomic.” And seven other songs, most of which I can barely remember or else this album would be headlining 1979. Oh, and one of the best album titles ever, right?
Talking Heads, Fear of Music
One of the last Talking Heads albums I bought (Little Creatures is the only other one I don’t own), but I don’t know what took me so long. I don’t know what they thought they were doing with “I Zimbra” but I love it, and “Mind” is just as amazing. “Cities” and “Animals” are gloriously suspicious and anxious, and then there’s “Life During Wartime,” one of the smartest things they’ve ever done, and that’s saying something. Only “Heaven” sounds flown in from a duller record, and even that has a point. No wonder they had to take a left turn after this.
The Soft Boys, A Can of Bees
Robyn Hitchcock sneaks quietly into the room with his old mad brilliant band. You think he’s weird now — get a load of this. I’m convinced the Soft Boys were the missing link between Monty Python and The Young Ones. Everything here is awesome, including “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out,” “Leppo and the Jooves,” and “Wading Through a Ventilator,” but there’s always “Human Music” if you want something a bit more sober.
- Devo, Duty Now For the Future
- David Bowie, Lodger
- Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle
- Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures