Despite his creative burst on English Settlement, all was not well with Andy Partridge.
His pleas to severely restrict touring fell on management’s deaf ears. Accurately perceiving that XTC was poised for a commercial breakthrough, manager Ian Reid dismissed Andy’s concerns and scheduled a massive world tour in support of English Settlement, including an extended journey through the United States where they would appear as headliners for the first time.
In preparation for the tour, the band played a few brief sets on British TV, including an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test where Andy experienced stage fright for the first time. Dave Gregory recalled the initial signs of imminent collapse in This Is Pop: “I knew he was having these night terrors, I knew that he was very, very nervous before every show in the dressing room, you know, he was so tense, you just think, well if that’s what it takes to get him on stage, then that’s what he has to do but you never imagine that anything’s seriously amiss other than just the natural tension of stage nerves.”
Eleven days into the European leg of the tour, Andy experienced “the mother of all panic attacks” during the opening number of their set at Le Palace in Paris and abruptly walked off the stage. He managed to get through a make-up show, then immediately flew back to England for treatment with a hypnotist. Mistakenly believing he had been temporarily cured, he flew to San Diego to hook up with his mates. According to Mojo, “He made it through one gig but, after the soundcheck for a sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium on April 4, 1982, ‘I couldn’t get off the bed. My legs wouldn’t function. Walked to Ben Frank’s coffee shop, where we’d all agreed to meet, in slow motion like I had both legs in plaster, trying not to throw up. I got in there, they knew what I was going to say.’ Acquiring a hospital certificate to avoid having his ‘legs genuinely broken’ by the promoter, the band skipped town. The live career of XTC was over.” As if things couldn’t get any worse, a rumor that Andy had died swept across the United States, leading to several inappropriate tribute concerts.
Unsupervised valium withdrawal certainly played a huge part in his collapse, but a burning desire to immerse himself in his art also played a significant role in his decision:
I was just at the end of my tether with everything. I was at the end of my tether with being a performing monkey for management, I was sick of not seeing any money. In all those years of touring the band never saw a penny . . . We never saw any time off to be normal, I was sick of that, sick of hotels, the whole thing . . . I was trapped and I wanted off that treadmill.
I just wanted a normal life . . . If my music’s going to get better, and therefore XTC’s music, we need better quality songs and I need more time to write more and better quality songs. (Andy Partridge, This Is Pop)
All very well and good, but the decision did not sit well with his bandmates or with Virgin Records. Dave Gregory couldn’t “understand why a musician wouldn’t want to work, go out and tour and play.” Terry Chambers said the decision “really went against everything I stood for really . . . if you’re a musician, playing is really what it’s all about.” He left the band during the early stages of the Mummer sessions; XTC would never hire a permanent replacement.
Of course, the Beatles suffered no ill effects when they decided to go studio-only, but for chrissakes, they were the Beatles! They had conquered the world! A more apt comparison is Harry Nilsson, who avoided concerts like the plague. Harry managed to pull it off because he caught a couple of breaks: a big career boost from (who else?) the Beatles and having his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” featured in the only X-rated film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture—Midnight Cowboy. XTC hadn’t come close to catching breaks of that magnitude and had only just begun to build a worldwide following. In terms of marketing and bottom-line financials, XTC’s decision to abandon touring was nothing short of a disaster that relegated the band to niche status for the rest of their run.
But it was the right thing to do . . . the human thing to do. Had Andy tried to shoulder on, he would have suffered a complete collapse and that would have been the end of XTC. Later in the decade after the release of Oranges and Lemons, there were various attempts to persuade Andy to return to the concert circuit, but Dave Gregory, who from a financial perspective had the most to gain from touring, dismissed the idea out of hand. “There was no point in insisting Andy went on tour. What’s the point of pushing him to a nervous breakdown? He’s never been motivated by money; he’s a true artist in that he’s inspired by his gift. In fact, if he gets the inkling that you’re trying to make money out of him, he will absolutely refuse to do anything at all.”
After a desperately needed period of isolation and recuperation during which he wrote some of the songs that appear on Mummer, Andy began to get very excited about the seemingly unlimited possibilities of the recording studio. As he explained with obvious glee in This Is Pop:
. . . it was like, ‘Hey, let’s get into the studio and use it for what it is—this creative tool. Let’s use every tool in the studio box. We want some brass, we hire a brass player, we want this organ, we’ll just get this organ in, we want mellotron, let’s get a mellotron, we want to overdub this, change the speed of that, we can do anything we want for god’s sake. Why were we restricting ourselves to two colours on the palette just so we could do it live? That’s insane, fellas, that’s not how you grow.
Andy was like the proverbial kid in the candy store (though I think he would have preferred a toy store). The Cambridge Dictionary defines that phrase as “to be very happy and excited about the things around you, and often react to them in a way that is silly and not controlled.”
And therein lies the problem with Mummer. As eloquently argued by Akhilesh Magal in “The Paradox of Creativity & Discipline”:
Creativity (and therefore art itself) is not the ability to express whatever one wants in whatever manner one sees fit. If this is the case, then the randomness of a child’s play can be considered art . . . If we are to define art as a creative endeavor, then there are certain things that define art and other things that simply cannot be considered art. Creativity is not randomness. Creativity goes hand-in-hand with mastery. Mastery of art, a science, or any discipline for that matter. And mastery involves rigor and discipline.
The best songs on Mummer are minimalist and disciplined. The worst are cluttered with too many toys that crowd out the vocals, making it difficult to hear some occasionally impressive lyrics. Other “enhancements” feel superfluous, adding little to the piece in question.
Because most musicians are a bit wacky, the responsibility for instilling discipline in a recording session usually falls on the producer. Andy had fallen in love with Japan’s album Tin Drum and hired producer Steve Nye for Mummer. As Andy remembered it, Nye clearly demonstrated that he was incapable of instilling discipline on day one. “It was kind of a gamble, which didn’t start very well, because on the first day of the session, I think Steve Nye turned up about 4:00 in the afternoon, and I think we’d been there since about 10:00 in the morning. I did not feel kindly to him when he walked through the door, and was just like, ‘Alright lads?’ It was a matter of, “Where have you been?” He’d failed test number one, which in my book is punctuality.” Dave Gregory later admitted, “Japan was a very different group from us. They were keyboard-driven. Tin Drum was a very beautiful record, but Steve wasn’t right for us.” Nye spent more time on the engineering side, and though he managed to get a few things right, the results often sound more “classic 80s” than XTC.
The follow-up album The Big Express suffered from similar excess, albeit with a different producer. I’m hoping that the recently released Steven Wilson remix (which should be waiting for me when I get home) takes care of those issues. Although XTC fans vociferously defend Mummer and Andy believes the album is a neglected gem, the truth is that the triple whammy of Terry Chambers’ departure, Andy’s compromised health and the emotional fallout from giving up touring made it highly unlikely that their first shot as a studio band would turn out to be a masterpiece. Change is never easy, and XTC found themselves inundated by change.
I would characterize Mummer as a transitional album where a few great songs are surrounded by several less-than-stellar efforts revealing that XTC had a lot to learn about balancing creativity and discipline in the studio.
“Beating of Hearts” (Partridge): Common wisdom and common sense tell us that the purpose of the opening number is to sufficiently engage and excite the listening audience so they can’t wait to hear the rest of the album. After listening to “Beating of Hearts” a few times, I felt a powerful urge to break my promise to review all XTC albums and skip Mummer entirely. The mix is terrible, with Andy frequently struggling to be heard over a background of fake strings and incompatible guitars, and some of the production borders on cheesy. The lyrical argument that love (symbolized by beating hearts) is stronger than all the horrible weapons humans use to kill each other is a nice if somewhat naïve sentiment, but there are too many awkward and overwrought lines in the song to make an emotional impact (“Tunes of good are all it plays,” “. . . you’ll find that/You shine like rain on the leaves you’ll be glistening.”). Terry Chambers sounds a bit bored by it all, and his presence raises a valid question: If Andy wanted to “use every tool in the studio box,” why didn’t he hire a tabla player and a real string section? All you have to do is compare “Beating of Hearts” to “Within You Without You” to grasp how far they were from mimicking Indian music . . . and the spoken word inserts designed to ape a tabla teacher reciting the patterns of classic Indian music almost cross the line into insulting. Even Andy admitted that this was a mistake: “I don’t think I pulled it off—like I say, it’s more like broken vinyl Popeye.” Next, please!
“Wonderland” (Moulding): Ah, that’s better! One quality of XTC’s music that I have come to appreciate is their ability to create memorable melodies that stick in your head for days. I had a hell of a time clearing my head of several tunes on English Settlement after immersing myself in that album, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have the same problem with “Wonderland” and a couple of the other tunes on Mummer. Though the verse chord pattern with its opening Bb6 moving up the fretboard to Db-Eb-F provides a strong melodic foundation, Colin raises the stakes in the bridge with a melodic variation based on the complementary pattern of Cm7- F7-Cm7, closing with a clever combination of Dbsus/Db7. Still in explorer mode, he introduces a key change in the chorus to Gb and yet another melodic pattern. The tropical mood is enhanced by a shimmery synthesizer, and as Andy noted in a chalkhills.org interview, “Even when he (Steve Nye) records fake things, synthetic things, they do seem to have an analog beauty or almost a living, breathing kind of quality.” That quality is missing from “Beating of Hearts,” but Nye delivered on “Wonderland.”
The “Wonderland” Colin describes is the world of fast cars, fancy parties and the irresistible (for some) glamour of the upper-class lifestyle. The object of his desire is caught up in that nonsense and Colin is trying to convince her (rightly so) that the whole scene is built on bullshit:
One day you will break out of your spell
And some day you will want me for your own
And I’ll say welcome to reality
All this talk
Of late-night parties
Flirting with the lower gentry
Lost in your magical wonderland
Out of depth
Out of class
Phase of your life
Will come to pass
Caught in this tragical wonderland
I spent some time in Wonderland when I was fucking dermatologists and dentists in my early twenties in search of free beautification services and I’ve never met a group of people who were so utterly competent at provoking boredom. I consider Colin’s mission an honorable crusade to save a woman from the emptiest life imaginable.
“Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” (Partridge): Proving conclusively that he was neither dead nor completely incapacitated, Andy Partridge wrote a song for the ages in “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages.” I hereby deny and reject any accusations of hyperbole when I assert that this is one of the most moving songs ever written—and this is coming from a woman who wouldn’t be caught dead on a farm.
Andy wrote the song in remembrance of his ancestors who lived hard lives on the farm, and his comments on its musical composition are particularly insightful: “It’s so important that you paint the musical scenery to me. Then you can find the right lines for the actors to say. If you don’t get the correct scenery, you can’t stage this.”
In this case, the scenery changes with the shifting moods expressed in the lyrics, which cover a range of emotions, from romantic to celebratory, from despairing to optimistic.
Scene One (verses and transitional lines): The dominant acoustic guitar riff in E major played on the bottom strings opens the song, clearly establishing a pastoral feel. The solo quickly turns into a duet featuring Andy and Dave combining strums with the central arpeggio; Colin enters with nice, clean bass tones; Dave sweetens the mix with some brief, bright strums on an electric guitar. New drummer Pete Phipps also enters with appropriately muffled drums consistent with the pastoral wash. The transition lines begin with a shift to B major followed by a lovely descent to Cmaj7 followed by the tension chord B7, mirroring the anticipation in the lyrics (“soon my darling”):
High climbs the summer sun
High stands the corn
And tonight when my work is done
(Transition) We will borrow your father’s carriage
We will drink and prepare for marriage
Soon my darling, soon my darling
Scene Two (chorus): The scene shifts to . . . well, it’s a hootenanny! Listen to those gee-tar pickers go! Colin’s upward slide on the bass satisfies Andy’s insistence on adding a cow to the landscape (yes, he really asked Colin, “Can you get any more cow out of your bass?”). Our hero’s anticipation is tempered by economic reality, coloring the celebratory music with understandable anxiety:
Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in
Shilling for the fellow who milks the herd
Shilling for the fellow with a wife for keeping
How can we feed love on a farmboy’s wages?
The second verse and transition add additional color to the scene via the romantic lyrics:
Deep under winter snow
Deep lay the lambs
And tonight by the full moon’s glow
Flask of wine on my feather bedding
We will drink and prepare for wedding
Soon my darling, soon my darling
Scene Three (Bridge): Andy correctly sensed the need to shake things up, and he came up with a key change to F# to emphasize the shift in the lyrical mood where the narrator dispels us of the notion that farm life is idyllic pastoral bliss. The music in this passage conveys the message as clearly as the lyrics through a declining chord pattern that ends on a gloomy Em(add 9) chord, followed by sharp hits on wooden blocks and the sound of a whip cracking:
People think that I’m no good
Painting pictures, carving wood
Be a rich man if I could
But the only job I do well is here on the farm
On the farm
And it’s breaking my back
Rather than repeat a verse or add a new one, Andy dispels the gloom by heading straight into the optimistic transitional lines, followed by a reprise of the celebratory hootenanny. The anxiety is still there, but I get the sense that our farmboy’s worries regarding income are not grounded in greed but in deep concern for his beloved. As the song glides to the finish, I feel tears coming on—for in addition to painting some intensely compelling scenery, Andy created an equally compelling character—a guy you can root for. I find myself fervently wishing that he finds bliss in marriage and somehow manages to escape the drudgery of farm work, becoming one of the lucky few who earns his keep through his art.
Andy has admitted that his own frustration with XTC’s financial situation made it easy for him to identify with the character, but much to his credit, he sets those feelings aside and immerses himself completely in the farmboy role. This is clearly one of Andy’s best vocal performances to date, but Colin, Dave and Pete Phipps all shine in this piece (the latter landed the job because Terry Chambers couldn’t get his head around the drum part and walked out early in the recording process).
“Great Fire” (Partridge): Virgin kept delaying the release of Mummer because they didn’t feel there were enough singles to help market the album. “Great Fire” was one of Andy’s attempts to please the bosses, but harboring feelings of resentment in response to what he felt was an unreasonable request, he didn’t approach the assignment with the same creative verve as he did with “Senses Working Overtime.” The result is a rather muddled piece based on the equation fire=passion but instead of evoking heat, the ever-changing rhythms feel rather clunky. Producer Bob Sargeant (who was brought in specifically to record the single) failed to instill discipline or much in the way of energy, resulting in a mediocre, over-produced mess. To his credit, Andy was shocked that Virgin was delighted with his creation, but he had the ironic last laugh when the single bombed.
“Deliver Us from the Elements” (Moulding): Okay, boys, now we’re getting silly. The intro goes on way too long, Colin seems to be singing in a closed echo chamber and the insertion of a fake chorus is exceptionally annoying. The lyrics go nowhere and I hope I never hear this song again.
“Human Alchemy” (Partridge): The use of the alchemy metaphor to describe the slave trade as a process by which black people are turned into gold is quite effective in exposing the sheer ugliness of human greed, but alas, there are far too many flaws in the arrangement to capitalize on the song’s lyrical power. Hampered by a long and boring intro where Dave shows Andy that all you have to do is flick the selector switch on the Mellotron to get different sounds (whoopee!), a poor mix that shoves the lead vocal into the background, and a weak attempt at a “slave chorus” that sounds like it was lifted from a 50s B-movie, “Human Alchemy” fails to achieve . . . alchemization.
“Ladybird” (Partridge): One of the more interesting compositions in the XTC catalog, “Ladybird” is marked by a complex structure brimming with intentional lyrical and musical ambiguity.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty, allow me to outline the unusual structure. Andy figured out that because the verses all begin with the phrase “O ladybird I have heard” there was no need for a separate chorus. The necessary diversity comes in the form of two musically unique bridges, one of which is repeated. The structure looks like this: VERSE 1, VERSE 2, BRIDGE 1A, VERSE 3, BRIDGE 2, BRIDGE 1B, VERSE 4.
The lyrical inspiration came first, along with the “aha” moment to embrace the opportunity for ambiguity:
I was in this German hotel out in the middle of nowhere, and I had a few hours to kill before whatever it was — the gig, or some radio station, or an interview — and I noticed that the room had patio doors that led out to a tiny garden area. It was pouring with rain, and the garden was very overgrown, so it was quite magical — it was just a big green mess out there, with rain dripping through it. I opened the doors and just looked out. I was feeling kind of musical, and I thought, “This is kind of inspiring, there’s something out here that I can write about.” And there was a little spider. I thought, “No, I can’t write about a spider.” So I thought, “Maybe I’ll make it a ladybird!” I also thought that because of the different-sex connotation—after all, I could be talking to a woman.
The clearest example of lyrical ambiguity appears in BRIDGE 2, where the ladybird also assumes an ephemeral quality:
And as you’re walking past
I’m lying on the grass and making chains of thought
To snare you with my wit
But bit by bit you fade to gone
Andy wrote the music in his backyard on acoustic guitar, but later decided that adding a piano would give the song “a little more gravitas.” This was a brilliant decision on his part, as Dave Gregory instinctively recognized that the guitar chord pattern filled with indefinite, tension-loaded chords (Aadd9, C#7(9), F#/Bsus4, Amaj7, B/C#, F#9, Emaj7) gave him the opportunity to intensify the ambiguity by playing different chords at key moments. The most noticeable example of this double-ambiguity involves the ending chord of the verses where the guitar chord is Emaj7. “Wait a minute, that can’t be right,” I muttered to myself. “Emaj7 is a soft chord, so why is the sound so dissonant?” It took me a while for my little blonde brain to notice Dave and Andy weren’t playing the same chord; I went back through the piece and found several instances where Dave plays a straight piano chord in contrast to Andy’s indefinite chord, creating either dissonance or intensified consonance. I’m accustomed to this kind of musical behavior in modern jazz, but was stunned to find it here, in large part because the boys managed to pull off these complex chord combinations without breaking the gorgeous melodic flow. Take into account the fact Andy couldn’t identify the names of half the chords he’s ever played and you have to accept the fact that untrained, instinctive musicians can be just as ingenious (or maybe more so) than classically trained geeks like me.
The song also features unexpected “rhythmic hiccups” that challenge a drummer’s ability to hold things steady. Pete Phipps made the wise choice to apply brushes to the conundrum and his contributions were essential to the song’s success. Terry Chambers certainly established himself as a great rock drummer, but Phipps was more well-rounded, bringing greater flexibility to XTC’s sound.
It’s likely that its length and structural complexity automatically eliminated “Ladybird” from the list of possible singles, but if I’d been in charge, I would have given it a shot. It certainly couldn’t have done worse than any of the other singles they released, and I know right now that the unforgettable melody is going to continue to haunt me for days.
In closing, I’d like to thank Andy Partridge for turning a gruesome nursery rhyme into a thing of beauty.
“In Loving Memory of a Name” (Moulding): Colin received some criticism about the clash between upbeat music and dark lyrics on “Generals and Majors,” but the disconnect is even more obvious in this song about “the glorious fallen” from Britain’s many wars. He claims to have a “lump in his throat” but the music sounds positively jolly at times and the chord pattern features only one minor chord (Gm9). Mishmash!
“Me and the Wind” (Partridge): In denying that the song was about Terry Chambers’ departure, Andy claimed he “was simply looking for ways to describe breaking free from a restrictive relationship.” My advice? Look again and try harder.
p.s. You might want to call Bob Dylan, the acknowledged master of bitter breakup songs.
“Funk Pop a Roll” (Partridge): The ending track opens with a pretty close imitation of the “If I Needed Someone” riff and goes spinning downhill from there. Andy’s claim that Mummer was a “gentle chug through the countryside” is contradicted by several songs on the album, but none more so than this bouncy bitch session about the music industry. I suppose the song had some therapeutic value for Andy, but little value beyond that.
What I find frustrating is that Mummer should have and could have been a “gentle chug through the countryside.” The three best songs on the album all have pastoral leanings and there are several pieces in the bonus track edition that with a little bit of tinkering would have made good fits. “Frost Circus,” “Jump,” and “Desert Island” immediately come to mind, and “Toys” could have been employed as an effective upbeat closer. Alas, Mummer is what it is—three excellent pieces surrounded by seven failed experiments marked by a severe lack of discipline.
Here’s hoping that Steven Wilson can work his magic on The Big Express.