30 years of XTC’s Oranges & Lemons
30 years ago, British post-new-wavers XTC released Oranges & Lemons, the album that introduced me to what would become my favorite band of all time.
Thirty years? My back just groaned and hunched another two degrees while typing that, but what can I do besides accept this step in my journey to incontinence pads and four o’clock dinners?
In 1989, I was a dewy youth with the sarcastic streak of a middle-aged Irish uncle and glasses you could incinerate ants with on a sunny day. After school each day, I studied the daily offerings of MTV like a monk poring over a sacred text – as most of my cohorts did.
VIDEO: “The Mayor of Simpleton” XTC
I didn’t know what to make of XTC when “The Mayor of Simpleton” fell into medium rotation. “Who are these nerds?” I thought, without of hint of irony, considering my own inglorious geektastic appearance. I was knee-deep in Paula Abdul songs (don’t balk – “Straight Up” was a bangin’ tune at the time) and lusting after hair metal boys like Def Leppard and Ratt.
Andy Partridge’s adult-looking blazer and John Lennon glasses, the sparse sets and black and white photography, the Phil-Collins-style silly humor (Yeah, remember he used to be funny?) – it was all so different from what I was seeing in pop culture at that moment. And that the song was a perfect earworm. The relentless repetition of the bassline and tiny guitar riff had me singing it non-stop. I loved the subtle lyrical wink and nod in not being smart enough to write a “big hit song.” By the time I made my mother drive me to the mall to buy the entire album, I was hooked.
Oranges & Lemons was a revelation. I’ve never been much for sincere singer/songwriter types who sing about very important things in meaningful ways. My eye roll has a hair trigger. Listening to XTC made me appreciate what I call ‘side door narratives’ – tackling big ideas through narrow, off-center perspectives. In “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” Andy takes the (clichéd) idea that we’re all the same inside, zooms in to an extreme close-up, then takes it to its logical conclusion – we’ve all enslaved these fantastic creatures (our skeletons) inside our savage flesh and organs and they yearn to be liberated from us. Even 14-year old me could appreciate the metaphor.
The album was a grab bag tone-wise – big, expansive sounds (Across This Antheap) paired with relaxed, pared down shoegazing (Cynical Days). Moving from the menacing drums of “Here Comes President Kill Again” to the screaming-teen adoration of “The Loving” is sonic whiplash of the highest order.
This first taste of XTC launched me into a backwards journey through their history. I fell in love with the lush arrangements of Skylarking. “1000 Umbrellas” is one of the happiest misery songs I’ve ever heard and the lyrics are better than any poem I’ve read. Years later, I became a fan of Skylarking’s uber-producer Todd Rundgren and learned about the epic personality clashes he and Andy had during the recording sessions. It somehow made me adore them both more.
PHOTO: XTC on KROQ 1989
As I worked my way through their back catalog, I heard the trappings of budgets and maturity fall away as they became younger and rawer. The powerful, simple pop of “Senses Working Overtime,” the rhythmic storytelling of “No Thugs in Our House,” and the other great XTC earworm, “Making Plans for Nigel” earned permanent places in my heart. I recognized their humor and unique subject matters in the early songs, but sophisticated lyrics were replaced with frenetic energy. “Are You Receiving Me,” “Science Friction,” and “Helicopter” were definitely written by teenagers with ants in their pants. I enjoy them with equal fervor, just in a different way.
By the time I’d amassed all their albums, it was 1992 and Nonsuch dropped. On a routine trip to my favorite record shop the week before its release, I found an advance copy in the used cassette bin for $1.99 and nearly dropped dead from sheer ecstasy.
Viewed as an entire work, I prefer Nonsuch to Oranges & Lemons. I find the user experience is smoothed out – songs flow together more naturally. “Wrapped in Grey” and “The Ugly Underneath” feel straight out of Skylarking. And I learned my favorite vocabulary word – jingoistic – from “War Dance.”
Things went a bit offroad for me after Nonsuch. While Apple Venus, Vol. 1 had some wonderful cuts – “Easter Theatre” and “Greenman” are absolutely gorgeous – it didn’t grab me like the previous three had. Wasp Star didn’t really grab me at all, which is tragic, considering it wound up being their last studio album. But who can bow out exactly at their creative peak? (Other than Jellyfish, of course.)
So, Andy, Colin, Dave, Terry and Barry, thank you for 30 years (in my time) of superb music.
VIDEO: XTC on MTV