Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Trolling the Underground: The Night I Met XTC

Ah, yes. I remember it as if it were only 18 and a half years ago.

It was May, 22, 1989, a Monday, and I was off work that evening. My friend Mike called to see what I was doing, and if I'd heard that XTC was going to do a live show at WXRT radio studios that night. I was just sitting around with a fellow who had been known at various times as Lima Bean, Big Bird, and Secord, and no, I hadn't heard.

Feel like going to see if we can meet them, asked Mike? Mike was an artist - a painter, and a damn good one, which of course meant that he was entirely unsuited to anything else resembling work. He had time on his hands, was good for finding goofy shit to do, and always needed a ride. Well, we had nothing to do that evening, and stalking rock stars seemed novel enough for a lark. Why not?

I'd been a fan for about six years at that point, having learned of XTC when I left the rural clime of my childhood and went to college. Bloomington, Il. wasn't exactly what anyone would call urban, but being in school exposed me to people from all over the state, including Chicago and St. Louis, so I heard a lot of new things. Our campus radio station, WESN, had a "new releases" format, and I became acquainted with XTC's freshly pressed Mummer album through my weekly three-hour show. I didn't like it, and it's still one of my least favorites.

I heard much better stuff at parties, though. Drums and Wires, Black Sea, and English Settlement were all getting a lot of play on campus, and that stuff was easy to love. Rough, loud, and angry, it was also thoughtful and clever, with a sly joke thrown in for those listening carefully. With their attitude and their skill, they were one of very few bands that could bring the punk rockers and I to the same place.

I'd never had a chance to see them, however, because they stopped touring entirely due to frontman Andy Partridge's near crippling stage fright a year prior. While they continued to produce albums over the years, even kicking up quite a stir when their song Dear God hit the radio, they never set foot on a stage.

That didn't go too well with their record label, as it didn't help increase sales. They were in danger of getting shelved when they had a bit of a hit with their Oranges and Lemons album, and the single King for a Day. The personnel changes and the maturation of the band members had smoothed over the band's rough edge, and their newer, more harmonic approach was getting radio attention. They had to capitalize on that momentum while they had it, so a compromise was reached. In lieu of a traditional tour, they did a tour of radio stations in America's major cities, and on MTV, where they could do interviews and play "live" without all the live show rigmarole, and without an audience. They could get some media exposure without going crazy.

We looked up WXRT in the phone book for the address, and took off. I was cursing myself for having lent my Black Sea CD to an out-of-town friend, as it was the only one I had (in 1989 my CD collection was barely beginning). I brought along my LP of Black Sea, instead.

The station was easy enough to find, and we were not at all surprised to find that about 20 or 30 others had the same idea. It was a mellow crowd, though, and everyone just sat around and listened to the the radio and waited. By the time the show started, we had a little XTChead community going, and we listened to it all as the sun set. Then, after the show, we just waited.

And waited.

Well, they must not have minded, because rather than call the police to chase us away, they came out to greet us. Andy's legendary shyness had made us wonder quite a bit. When they came out the side door, there was a brief, awkward moment when he saw us all and took in the panorama of the parking lot, but his face warmed up and he immediately became approachable.

The others, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory, were quietly polite and signed all the autographs that were requested, but Andy surprised us. He wasn't just tolerant. He was downright gregarious, talking and joking with fans as if it were his heart's desire, although we were pretty sure it wasn't. As he was getting the lion's share of the attention, the others were able to slip away from the crowd - after signing the inner sleeve of my LP, of course. As I got closer to Andy, they started coming around and dropping hints at him that the car was waiting, and to our surprise he blew them off rather than begging off from us. As the girl in front of me got his autograph, Colin came by and made another request that Andy break away, in a rather cryptic way so as not to offend us. Andy looked at us and said something very sarcastically spy like, as if it were a code, which got the crowd laughing at Colin's expense. He went away and didn't bug Andy again.

I remember asking him what comics he'd enjoyed the most as he signed my record jacket. I'd read that Andy was a comic book fan (and several of his song titles indicated so) and I was in the prime of my collecting days at the time. He expressed a strong fondness for the works of classic artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (the guys who helped put the Fantastic Four and Spiderman, among others, on the map) and then looked at me and said "Adam Strange" in the same way that someone my age might look at me and say "Speed Racer." And then he was on to someone else.

That was my first experience with meeting someone I listen to, and I've been lucky enough to repeat it several times with folks like Adrian Belew, Bo Diddley, Marcia Ball, Charlie Musselwhite, Stanley Jordan, and Mose Allison.

These recordings are fairly easy to find, and seem to make the rounds on the bit torrent sites. They all sound great since they were either recorded from the FM broadcasts or taken from the radio station's tapes. I haven't tried to get them all, but I do have a couple from Boston and the one from WXRT. They all include the interviews and acoustic versions of some of their more popular songs. In fact, XTC being a rather open minded band, there is a website called XTC4U that offers many choice live shows for free download. You don't need to know BT for these, either, they're just point and click downloads. There are some real gems there. Go get you some!

Now, to the music. You can get the acoustic GreatFire/Dear God/Big Day medley at XTC4U, so I won't post that, nor will I post any of the interview. While it was all pretty interesting, and the band members were all in a jovial, wisecracking mood, we're about the music here at TtU. So I'll share two musical cuts.

The first is the other medley they did - Senses Working Overtime/Grass/Love on a Farmboy's Wages. The acoustic guitar and lack of thundering drums gives Senses an entirely different sound, and that difference extends to the second track I'll share tonight as well. That track is the show's finale. It starts with them coming back from a record, chatting for a moment, playing an acoustic version of The Mayor of Simpleton (one of their best "pop" tunes, IMO), and saying goodbye.

While Dave Gregory has since then bid the others adieu, Andy and Colin are still together and have stated plans to continue recording. Here's to more music from, and more success to, XTC.


Natsthename said...

What a great story, Joe, especially the comic book part. Real fans often know these minute details about artists, and when a fan asks about something other than music, I think it throws them! (I know from asking John Hiatt about Indy cars and Nascar. He's a race fan.)
Andy's writing is superb, and I am also a big fan of "The Mayor."

Joe the Troll said...

Nat - you just made me think of the second time I got Adrian's autograph. It was during his acoustic tour around 1990 or so. I had gone with my pal Hillbilly Tim and on the drive to Chicago saw one of those "Mean People Suck" stickers for the first time. We thought it was hilarious. I had brought a Bears promo CD I'd gotten when I managed a record store to get signed if I could, but it turned out that he was also selling an acoustic CD that was not available in stores, and he was autographing them. Here's the part I didn't get - they had separate lines for the CD and the autograph. I sent Tim to the autograph line with my promo disc while I went to buy a CD, and joined him in line. When he got to Adrian, instead of giving him a name, he said "Write ' Mean People Suck'"

Adrian paused for a moment, looked at Tim, seemed to think about all possible repercussions to signing this statement, and then just wrote it, with his name. I still have both CDs, both signed.

Cheezy said...

XTC... there's a blast from the etc... I only know them from the single 'Making Plans for Nigel' back in the old new wave days, and then the album 'Oranges & Lemons' which I actually bought (I think on the strength of a review that I read).

I had it on cassette, so it's long since history, but I recall a few things about that album... including that it was very 'Beatle-ish' overall... and there was a song that Andy wrote about his cock! Hahaha!...

Mayor of Simpleton is a corker though. I'll download that acoustic version later. Cheers for that.

I've got an idea that XTC were quite posh boys (private education, well spoken, etc)... Was that your impression, Joe?