“Once in a long rare while you get a band that starts out pretty good and gets better and better and better and I have to be immodest and say, we’re the other band that did that.”
So says singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Partridge of XTC, the band that over a 25-year career moved from oddball punk rock outfit to muscular postpunk powerhouse to elder statesmen of “gently exploratory pop,” as Partridge himself puts it.
“I hate rock documentaries,” Partridge scoffs, before listing a number of well-worn tropes of the form. “The XTC story doesn’t have any of that stuff because we’re not rock and roll people.” So begins XTC: This is Pop, a long-overdue retrospective that aired this past fall in Britain and was, thankfully for American fans of this most English of bands, scooped up for U.S. broadcast by Showtime, which is premiering it at 7pm ET Thursday.
XTC fans (and few others) know that the band made a few great records in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, quit touring because of a supposed case of severe-onset stage fright by Partridge around 1982, and, like their obviously prime inspiration The Beatles, graduated to increasingly elaborate, meticulously composed and arranged studio creations before finally petering out around 2005. But the lack of lurid stories of depraved decadence in the XTC story, typically de rigeur in rock mythology, have seen to the fact that there’s not much more than that to the story. This is Pop fills in some blanks on how Partridge’s joined forces with bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers in the South English town of Swindon, first to become the Helium Kidz and then, with the addition of frantic keyboardist Barry Andrews, XTC; how Moulding’s beginning to contribute songwriting led to Andrews’ replacement with guitarist Dave Gregory; how Partridge strictly forbade Gregory playing anything resembling a blues cliche, calling it “Ernieing”; how Moulding quickly came to be seen as the real commercial force in the band in the eyes of the record label; producer Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham coming up with what became ‘the drum sound of the ‘80s’ for the Drums and Wires album; and, most interesting of all, how Partridge went from confident frontman leading a powerfully precise live band to a blubbering wreck allergic to the stage.
The other big piece of XTC lore — Partridge’s oil-and-water working relationship with American virtuoso and producer-for-hire Todd Rundgren during the making of the band’s most successful album, 1986’s Skylarking, is touched on quickly; other more personal stuff, like the dissolution of Partridge’s marriage when he fell in love with a particularly attentive groupie (a situation that inspired one of his best songs) and the band’s particularly sour relationship with the record companies (first Virgin, then Geffen) are not. This is a rock doc that stubbornly keeps the focus on the rock.
Particular attention is paid to the creation of Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” the band’s first legit chart hit, and Partridge’s “Respectable Street,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” and “Dear God,” a B-side that accidentally became a (controversial) U.S. hit. Due respect is also paid to the two-EP run of the Dukes of Stratosphear, the mid-80s neo-psychedelic side project that gave the band the creative shot in the arm that led to their biggest triumph, Skylarking.
Though Partridge is no longer speaking with Moulding and has publicly dismissed any notion of a reunion, all the former members of the band (save Andrews) talk warmly about their time together and give a lot of good insights into their songwriting process, their internal chemistry, and the evolution of their style. Partridge’s comments on his own inspiration coming up with songs, and how they relate to “synaesthesia,” or the association of sounds with images, are particularly interesting, and are augmented by remarks by famous fans like Stewart Copeland of the Police, Clem Burke of Blondie, producer John Leckie, engineer Hugh Padgham, and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons.
This film is a can’t-miss for American XTC fans — admittedly, a minority: “How can you market a band where it’s hard to get a handle on what kind of band they are?” as one talking head muses — but provides a great primer for anyone who’s caught wind of their considerable “musician’s musician” reputation and wants to know if the band is well worth checking out.
XTC: This is Pop premieres at 7pm ET Thursday on Showtime, and will be available on-demand.