Long Summer Days Spent in XTC
If you had the pleasurable misfortune of being an English major, you probably threw your hands up in despair at some point at having to wade through the tall grass of the pastoral tradition in English poetry: “Enough with the (expletive) shepherds already!” (And that’s a hundred years before you even get to Wordsworth’s paeans to Nature.) It wasn’t until I spent three weeks in the English countryside a few years ago that the seeming obsession with flowers, flouncing, and flowing, babbling-on-and-on brooks at last became clear: it really is “This other Eden, demi-paradise,/This fortress built by Nature for herself,” an overwhelming profusion of greenery and immaculate, lovely gardens (when it isn’t, of course, the gray, cracked asphalt of an industrial wasteland).
But when I reflect on that summer, it isn’t Sidney or Shakespeare or Keats who provides the soundtrack, but a few lads from the railway town of Swindon who were one of the great bands of the 1980s, XTC; specifically their triumphant double album from 1982, “English Settlement,” and their disputed (by the band themselves, no less) masterpiece of 1986, “Skylarking.” You kids can be forgiven for perhaps having only hazy knowledge of the band; thanks to a protracted contract dispute with their label, Virgin, the band went on strike from 1992 to 1999, releasing no new material during those years, a kiss of oblivion for a studio band that didn’t tour (thanks to band leader Andy Partridge’s stage fright). By the time the band came out of hiatus, their cultural momentum had dissipated, and XTC more or less ceased to exist in 2005.
Fans of XTC might direct the uninitiated to one of their singles collections, or to early albums like “Drums and Wires,” and that’s fine. But to get the full pastoral punch of Andy Partridge’s and Colin Moulding’s songs, “English Settlement” and “Skylarking” are the best portals. Both albums display the essential Englishness of the band, an Englishness less like, say, the high Victorian nostalgia of The Kinks and more in line with the cynical, joyous arcadias of the first Elizabeth’s reign: it is what humble but knowing shepherds might have piped if they’d had keyboards, electric guitars and four-tracks.
“English Settlement” is a sort of “White Album” of this sensibility, ranging from the literal sensuousness of the hit “Senses Working Overtime”; the pop plea for liberty, “Ball and Chain”; the comic hooliganism of “No Thugs in Our House”; and charming rondeau of “Yacht Dance”; and the claustrophobic anti-auto “English Roundabout.” Everywhere the simple life is under threat, and everywhere Partridge’s and Moulding’s lyrics push back, making great pop songs out of lefty political pleas for non-violence (“Knuckle Down”), gender equality (“Down in the Cockpit”), and anti-materialism (“Jason and the Argonauts”) that follow in the grand, counter-cultural English tradition of Levellers and Lollards.
“Skylarking” hits some of the same notes, but condenses them into an ice cream cone of cosmic pop loveliness that’s already melting before you can even get a lick. Or, as Partridge put it long after the fact, the album is “a summer’s day baked into one cake.” It was long after the fact because the band was famously unhappy with ceding control to producer Todd Rundgren, and disdained the final product; ironic, given that “Skylarking” is the height of the band’s achievement. The album begins in summer’s cauldron and cycles through all seasons, human and terrestrial, in an array of glittering, perfectly crafted pop gems.
I put “Skylarking” on at least once every June — no album quite kicks off the promise and melancholy of summer the way it does, from the sexy romp of “Grass” through the over-the-top heartache of “1000 Umbrellas” to the jazzy, existential terror of “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul.” As a bonus, the 2000 re-issue of the CD includes the single “Dear God,” the unofficial anthem of angry (and very English) atheism.
If you’ve never delved into XTC, you can do worse as the coming weeks heat up then play “English Settlement” while sipping Guinness and manning the grill; then slip on “Skylarking” as the twilight settles and the citronella candles flicker.