10 Best XTC Songs
What’s the best XTC song? It’s kind of like asking if you prefer air to water. Their catalog is an endlessly fascinating musical adventure that has not paled one shade since they first burst onto an unsuspecting music scene in late 1977 with their debut single, ‘Science Friction.’ Always looking to the future with a knowing glance at the past, XTC remain one of the most loved bands to have emerged from the spirited days of the late ’70s and early ’80s. We decided not to include any tracks from their alter ego, the Dukes of the Stratosphere, because hey, it was hard enough to whittle it down to this list of the 10 Best XTC Songs.
‘ The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’
The opening track and one of the highlights from the band’s ‘Nonesuch’ LP, ‘The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’ kicks off with the sound of a guitar being plugged in, followed by a classic, almost Pete Townshend-style, riff. Another in a career-long trail of wonderful melodies can be found here. Andy Partridge wrote the song in an attempt to do a Dylan-style tune, which explains the sharp harmonica on this one. “I just came up with some Harrison-esque guitar, and we added some Hammond organ to give it that ‘Blonde On Blonde’ feel,” said guitarist Dave Gregory in the book ‘XTC Song Stories,’ “It might have been a hit if it had been chopped down.”
‘The Mayor Of Simpleton’
Jangling guitars ring out loud and proud on this perfect little pop gem, No. 9 on our list of the 10 Best XTC Songs. One of many highlights from the band’s 1989 LP ‘Oranges And Lemons,’ The Mayor Of Simpleton’ is pop perfection in four minutes flat. From it’s Byrdsian guitars to the very “modern” production, it balanced the worlds of looking back and looking straight ahead that XTC often straddled. It’s one of the few records made with glaring ’80s production techniques that has not suffered long term the way most have. Though it was never a big mainstream chart hit, it proved to be a huge hit for the band on College Radio and the ever popular Modern Rock format of the times.
‘This Is Pop’
With a whispered, “Yes,” we’re off and running. ‘This Is Pop’ first appeared on the band’s debut LP, ‘White Music,’ and was then re-recorded for single release. The single (featured here) wins hands down. It’s far more emphatic and immediate in its approach as it grabs and molests your ears, leaving them in, well, ecstasy. Andy Partridge spews out one of his fiercest vocals amid the over-the-top Pop, with a capital “P.”
‘No Thugs In Our House’
‘No Thugs In Our House’ is one of the most revved-up tunes on their classic 1982 LP, ‘English Settlement.’ Amid the LP’s variety of styles, ‘Thugs’ is as good an example of XTC rocking it out as there is. The song packs a sweet punch that never lets up, while Andy Partridge sings a tale about a misguided buffoon of sorts, who has pledged his allegiance to the National Front. In the book, ‘XTC Song Stories,’ Partidge referred to the song as “violent Tamla-Motown meets Johnny Winter,” adding, “I get to do my best rebel yell in this.”
‘Making Plans For Nigel’
Another of many pearls from the pen of bassist Colin Moulding, ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ is a genuine pop classic and one of XTC’s best loved songs. Though nowhere near as prolific as band leader Andy Partridge, Moulding’s contributions were undeniable. His style was, in many ways, much more direct and traditional than Partridge’s. Despite a mutual admiration, this did leave Partridge a bit out of sorts. “I was incredibly jealous that everything Colin did was getting all the attention,” Partidge said in the book ‘XTC Song Stories.’ He felt that Virgin Records was grooming him to be the ‘star’ of the band. “He was the handsome dos and I was the egghead,” continued Partridge, “You could see Virgin’s reasoning.” The song would, however, not be without significant contribution from Partridge, who came up with the distinct drum pattern, which gave the song an undeniably unique kick. Released as a single in their homeland, ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ hit the Top 20 and stayed on the charts for 11 weeks.
The first song on the band’s 1980 classic ‘Black Sea,’ No. 5 on our list of the 10 Best XTC Songs is a full-on stomping rock ‘n’ roller. As the song begins, it sound like it’s coming out of an old Victrola before the jagged guitar riff announces itself loudly. Walking a somewhat similar terrain to that of many a mid-’60s Ray Davies song in terms of its observations on everyday life, the tune includes such great lines as “as they speak of contraception and immaculate reception on their portable Sony entertainment centers.” The combination of ’60s pop sensibility and the energy of punk made for a perfect recipe for the band at this junction. The punch of the song never lets up, and it may be one of the defining moments in this era of XTC.
Inspired by the ‘Dear God’ children’s books, Andy Partridge lets loose his thoughts on this larger than life topic. The song was originally issued as the b-side of the song ‘Grass’ and was, in the mind of Partridge, never meant to be anything more than a b-side. The song, however, took on a life of it’s own, particularly in America, when college radio began playing it repeatedly. The song is undeniably striking, both musically and lyrically. The addition of the child’s voice for the first verse is brilliant. ‘Dear God’ was added to the second pressing of the ‘Skylarking’ LP and went on to become a genuine hit for the band in the States. “It did us a lot of good,” recalled Partridge to author Neville Farmer in the book ‘XTC Song Stories,’ “although it upset as many people as it pleased.”
‘Generals and Majors’
From its first beat, ‘Generals and Majors’ leaps right out of the speakers. Released in September 1980 as a single, the song jumped into the Top 30 in the U.K. and was a key track from the band’s album released that fall, the ever-wonderful ‘Black Sea.’ Musically frantic and charged, the song is irresistibly catchy. At the same time, the lyrics are both satirical and thought provoking. “It was definitely going to be a song about the military,” said writer Colin Moulding in the book ‘XTC Song Stories,’ ” but from the pompous, slightly humorous side rather than an antiwar song.”
‘Senses Working Overtime’
On their 1982 LP ‘English Settlement,’ XTC really began to expand their approach, including a wider variety of styles and instrumentation. The pop perfection XTC was capable of shines brighter than ever on that LP’s first single. ‘Senses Working Overtime’ has it all and then some. From the percussive picking on the acoustic guitar set to a sauntering rhythm, the band kick into high gear as the ultra-catchy chorus bursts in. The single hit the U.K. Top 10 and became a regular on U.S. college radio.
‘Life Begins at the Hop’
Stomping out of the gates, ‘Life Begins at the Hop,’ first on our list of the 10 Best XTC Songs, is one of the group’s most infectious and irresistible songs. The lyrics are a clever take on teen drama, while the urgency and the melody are invigorating and life affirming. Written by Colin Mouding, the song was released as single in the spring of 1979, preceding the ‘Drums and Wires’ LP. The single just missed the U.K. Top 50 but has remained a fan favorite since its release. To borrow a phrase from Nick Lowe, this is “pure pop for now people!” Turn it up … LOUD!