XTC is often categorized with the post-punk and new wave movements, though the ambiguity of both those categories leaves a lot open to interpretation. XTC’s sound is not quite straight ahead rock, though it definitely fits into a wider categorization of rock and roll. College radio tried to claim the band as its own in the 1980s, the 1990s alternative pop kids found the band strange and charming, but really, let’s not split hairs here. XTC is a pop rock band with a sound all its own — perhaps the best distinction of all. The songs are mostly beat driven, with a few slower tracks to balance out the albums, and there’s always something curiously and refreshingly different about their sound. What is that sound? Well, it’s less arty than the Talking Heads, less angry than the Clash, less dancey than Duran Duran, and definitely not as sexy as Debbie Harry
Hailing from Swindon in the south west of England, XTC was made up of singer-songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, with a few revolving members through the years. Keyboardist and guitarist David Gregory stuck around until 1999, when the band’s major recording efforts halted, and drummer Terry Chambers left in 1983 after the band, for all intents and purposes, quit touring; the band recorded with studio drummers for the rest of their albums.
If you wanted to see XTC perform live after 1982, though, you were out of luck. Andy Partridge had a nervous breakdown in ‘82, and it lead to paralyzing stage fright. So, sparing a handful of TV appearances over the years, XTC has been a studio band, and it seems to be what they do best. Of all their songs, here’s our pick for the top 10 XTC songs.
# 10 –Dear Madam Barnum
XTC’s 1992 album, the Grammy-nominated Nonsuch, benefitted from the early 1990s popularity of quote unquote “alternative” music, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the music as a whole. Many will point to “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” as the standout on Nonsuch, but this writer would like to respectfully disagree and instead suggest the excellence of “Dear Madam Barnum.” It kicks off with a marching band-esque drum roll, then hurls right into the catchy riff and singsong verse, both of which are echoed heavily in the chorus. The song’s point of view is a circus clown who’s not being given the spotlight he feels he deserves; that’s the literal meaning, of course, but analogies do present themselves. I mean, at one time or another, haven’t we all been that clown? It’s a silly premise, for sure, but the melody is near perfect, the background vocals add just the right texture, and when it’s all wrapped up in about three minutes, all you want to do is hear the song again.
# 9 – Making Plans for Nigel
It’s a little unsettling when you realize that a song from 1979 foreshadowed the helicopter phenomenon so well, but that’s sort of what “Making Plans for Nigel” did. From the band’s third effort Drums and Wires, this Colin Moulding-penned track tells of a child (with the somewhat unfortunate name of Nigel) whose parents are trying desperately to shape his future. It probably isn’t the right approach, though they “only want what’s best for him” — now doesn’t that sound familiar? Moulding has mentioned that the song is somewhat autobiographical, which explains the earnestness that comes through as he’s singing.
As far as the melody goes, it’s not as immediately accessible as some of the band’s other songs; there’s a lot of booming and crashing, with herky jerky guitar chords and riffs that get loud, then disappear. Try to dance to it, and those around you might wonder if you had some sort of nervous condition. Still, between the vocal harmonies in the chorus and the song’s overall meaning, it grows on you quickly.
# 8 – All You Pretty Girls
“All You Pretty Girls” was the lead single on 1984’s The Big Express, and while it registered as a bit more than a blip on the UK Singles Chart (it hit 55), it’s not one that immediately comes to mind when you’re asked about XTC’s big songs. That doesn’t take away from it’s awesomeness, though. First of all, the subject of the song is, at its heart, about the loveliness of women; specifically, about how the thoughts of pretty girls is enough to sustain a man’s quest for life while out at sea. It’s been done lots of times, with lots of success, but this track is one of its best interpretations. Then, there’s the music itself: the song starts with Partridge’s soaring baritone, then transitions into the bouncing chorus, a hook that sounds as much like a pop song as it does a show tune. You can try not to sing along, but you probably won’t be able to stop yourself.
# 7 – Senses Working Overtime
If you went to college in the 1980s, this song was everywhere. The lead single from 1982’s English Settlement is one of XTC’s biggest hits and most well known tunes. Partridge’s somewhat erratic vocals on the first verse might not sound like single material, but just wait: when Moulding comes in on the chorus and the “1-2-3-4-5” gets going, you can immediately tell why it was so popular 25 years ago and remains popular to this day. If “Senses Working Overtime” had first been released in the last year or two, we might be having a conversation about the song’s allusions to sensory processing disorder. It’s a 1982 song, though, so we can leave its meaning at the overwhelming feeling of trying to take it all in.
# 6 – This is Pop?
The band’s first ever single, off of 1978’s White Music, “This is Pop?” is as much a commentary of the music of the day as a challenge to it. “What do you call that noise that you put on?” is actually part of the chorus, echoing the voice of parents and disapproving elders everywhere, and while the song itself is actually fun and catchy, its rebellious nature is a big part of why it’s so great. This noise is pop, and it is loud, and it is ours. “This is Pop?” was an ideal way for XTC to introduce themselves to the world, as it established up not only their sound, but their attitude as well.
# 5 – Generals and Majors
If you had to pick a song that really epitomized the XTC sound, 1980’s “Generals and Majors” would be a solid choice. Colin Moulding wrote the track and sings the lead, and it offers up a sound that’s at once radio friendly and experimental. The melody walks up and down the scales in the verses, the chorus is wonderfully high energy, and in the middle of it all, we get a whistle solo — a whistle solo! Behind the peppy music is an uncomfortable truth: that the glory we bestow on military men is always dependent on war. Fun fact: Virgin mogul Richard Branson features prominently in the music video.
# 4 – Earn Enough For Us
Old gender roles die hard — it’s a sentiment that’s summed up nicely in this track from XTC’s 1986 album Skylarking. As it opens with one of the band’s more memorable guitar lines, we hear Andy Partridge lamenting over his paltry income and how he just hopes it’s enough to support the song’s “you” who wants to be his wife. While it’s an idea that makes feminists cringe (I can earn my own money, thank you) and non-feminists angry (I earn my money for myself), it maybe still has a place in the romanticized world of pop music. And really, that’s all this is: a pop song — a great pop song — that’s more about creating an appealing sound than being politically correct. It’s high on our list because it’s the best kind of earworm: catchy melody, excellent musicianship, and clever rhymes that perhaps outweigh the outdated ideas they present.
# 3 – Life Begins at the Hop
This 1979 track has a ‘50s-inspired title with a ‘50s-inspired sound to match, and it’s high on the list because it’s just so much fun. It’s hard to point to the one thing that really makes it — the plucky guitar lines, the high pitched oooooh-oooooh backing vocals, or Colin Moulding repeating, “Tell me what do you say?” over and over (not ad nauseam, though, because it never really feels annoying). The lyrics don’t really profess anything especially profound, but the song is good mindless fun. Some might count the song’s lyrical shallowness as a mark against it, but that’s a mistake. Pop music should be catchy and fun above all else, and this song achieves that goal easily.
# 2 – Dear God
However, if you prize intellectual lyrical content above catchy pop sounds, then you’ll be pleased to know that 1986’s “Dear God” ranks even higher on our list. The simple acoustic strumming and pleasant enough melody draws the listener in, and then there’s a child’s voice singing the first verse. It’s a risky move, but the innocent sound is just what the track needs to get off on the right note (no pun intended), because it then leads into a full-on take-down of religion. Yes, it’s a huge topic to address in a pop song, but XTC manages it with complete success.
It probably does offend the devout, though XTC probably appeals more to skeptics anyway. The song asks the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” However, instead of trying to rationalize the answer with the standard God-is-testing-us response, Partridge seems to place the blame squarely on the man upstairs — or, more specifically, on the fact that God isn’t real and that we just made Him up. And, if you come for the philosophy, you should most definitely stay for the powerful wrap-up, in which Partridge’s passion comes shining through before it all quietly ends. It’s a brilliant track — truly.
# 1 – The Mayor of Simpleton
This 1989 track, and one of XTC’s biggest hits stateside, is about as perfect a pop song as you’re likely to hear. Where to even start with this one? The melody is gorgeous, going from Partridge alone in the first few lines, to Moulding harmonizing on the chorus, to Moulding again providing the response to Partridge’s call on the later verses. You can definitely dance to it, thanks to a straightforward 4/4 beat, and you’ll definitely be singing it long after you’ve taken off your headphones, but what makes the track complete are the self-deprecating lyrics; it’s the Forrest Gump mentality before hardly anyone knew who Forrest Gump was, the “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is” approach that amazingly works as a closer and not a punchline. A few of the rhymes feel forced, and some of the lyrics are wonderfully out of date (“The home computer has me on the run,” LOLZ), but those are quibbles. “The Mayor of Simpleton” is brilliant by any standard and every standard, and that’s why it’s number one here on the Top 10 XTC Songs List.
Updated Nov 10, 2020
Top 10 XTC Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2016
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