One of the first things I did on my arrival in Nottingham was to pay a visit to Virgin Records.
Strange to relate, there was a time when Virgin was a decidedly edgy company releasing all sorts of records by genuinely quirky progressive artists. They had, of course been effectively bankrolled by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which gave them the means to make records with people who were destined not to sell a lot. Things were changing with Punk, Virgin had signed the Sex Pistols and were becoming significant players in the music business.
Virgin records were quite iconic with a major store in London and a few subsidiary’s dotted about the country. The Nottingham store had recently hit the headlines for displaying the Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks prominently in a window display which had led to an obscenity trial.
Being a student, even a 70’s student, I was strapped for cash and Virgin seemed disappointingly low in special offers or second-hand records. And so, my first visit to Virgin ended me purchasing just one single for the bargain price of 50p.
The record in question was ‘Statue of Liberty’ by XTC. I was familiar with the band and liked them a lot. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of life in a small town. It always seemed to me that growing up away from the epicentre led to a certain independence of thought. XTC were famously from Swindon, a place I had yet to visit. Previous musical luminaries of Swindon had been Just Hayward of the Moody Blues and Gilbert O’Sullivan, it’s not a place that inspires a lot of confidence musically.
One of the benefits of being in a cultural backwater is you are thrown into using your own resources and imagination, sometimes all that energy is motivated towards leaving, it’s a classic tale, just ask Bruce Springsteen, but for some, and Andy Partridge was one of them, a hometown can be a magical place.
Partridge has been drawn towards music from an early age and was old enough to have been motivated to play by the Beatles and the Monkees. Inevitably the early 70’s would leave their mark and he developed into a pretty proficient guitarist capable of playing well beyond the confines expected from a punk band. He was helped in his development by the best guitarist in Swindon Dave Gregory who he got to know through the town’s music shop.
But, of course, XTC were never really punk. In the mid 70’s the NME ran a short series giving unknown bands what would these days be called a ‘shout out’. The feature didn’t last long, I don’t know why, but one of the bands who did get a mention were the Heliium Kidz. Four hairy young men from Swindon featuring Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers and another guitarist called Dave.
When Dave showed less than willing to commit to a life on the road he was fired and replaced by keyboard player Barry Andrews and XTC was born.
Like Squeeze or the Police, XTC were thrown into the London Punk scene where they didn’t really belong but where they needed to develop certain attitudes to survive. Some early XTC songs were impossibly fast. Their first LP is a frantic jerky affair, a bit like the Talking Heads played at 78 rpm. Highlights are pub standard ‘All along the watchtower’ deconstructed to sweaty dub rock and the itchy and scratchy ‘Cross Wires’. Despite the surfeit of energy Partridge still maintained a part of his soul that worshiped the Monkees, there are some excellent pop songs to be played ‘Radios in Motion’, ‘This is Pop’ (ha!) and, of course the peerless ‘Statue of Liberty’, a song so full of lyrical and musical ideas I still marvel at it to this day.
The first time I saw you standing in the water
You must have been all of a thousand feet tall
Nearly naked – unashamed like Herod’s daughter
Your love was so big
It made New York look small
You’ve been the subject of so many dreams
Since I climbed your torso
My statue of Liberty
Impaled on your hair
What do you do
Do Do to me
I leaned right over to kiss your stoney book
A little jealous of the ships with whom you flirt
A billion lovers with their cameras
Snap to look and in my fantasy
I sail beneath your skirt
There are stories that the BBC got a bit upset about bit about sailing beneath your skirt which they probably did but believe me, it still got played on the radio.
The band were to follow up with more jerky pop on GO2. A record I had probably not listened to for 35 years until recently. It still sounds pretty good but marked the end of the Barry Andrews era. Andrews had written a lot of songs and wanted them on the record. A lot were omitted for the simple reason they weren’t that good and so Andrews left. Song writing was going to be a lifetime issue, Bassist Colin Moulding wrote occasional songs which all got recorded, Partridge was a lot more prolific but had to concede album space to his band mate. New recruit, best guitarist in Swindon, Dave Gregory posed no song writing challenge but brought a greater sonic palette to the band.
Post Andrews XTC became more musical and less edgy. Their commercial position shifted thanks to one of Moulding’s occasional songs ‘Making Plans for Nigel’. For a short while XTC were one of the new pop breed with Haircut 100 or even Duran Duran. The band always seemed to be on Top of the Pops or some kids show. Partridge was an intelligent and witty interviewee, this was clever pop.
I lost contact with the band round about the time that drummer Chambers left, what little I heard after that smacked a bit of 80’s production. Like the Beatles, XTC had become a studio band, partly due to Partridges stage fright which in turn was probably linked to his addiction to Valium. I missed the energy of 70’s XTC and soon had developed a real aversion to the sound of the Linn Drum.
One day I will just sit down with the band’s back catalogue and see what I missed, but in the meantime, this is what I consider to be their greatest moment.