Exploring “Empire Records” // XTC

For a split second in Empire Records, a philosophical Lucas can be seen contemplating his perverse victories of the day: he’s lost $9,000 of the store’s money, he’s ensured that he and his boss will get fired, and his actions will force the other employees to hatch a plan to prevent the store’s inevitable future as a soulless corporate Musictown. Hanging to his right on the balcony overlooking the sales floor is a massive promotional poster for XTC‘s 1992 album Nonsuch.

Though incongruent with the rest of the film’s posters – comprised of generally under-regarded bands or complete outsider musicians – XTC is arguably the most unique of them all. Not ear-catchingly strange at first (or even tenth) listen, this Swindon, England band’s oddities exist within complex lyricism that belies its instrumental bounciness, a bizarre propensity for perseverance, and unlikely career longevity.

Active as early as 1976, the band’s central duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding seemingly experimented with every style of music and genre imaginable (including the rapidly-declining Glam Rock of the late seventies) before settling on an infectiously springy style of pop that incorporated trace amounts of punk, reggae, and art rock – better known at the time as a moderately synth-less form of New Wave. However, where the genre would later morph into something altogether unrecognizable from this late seventies breed (art punk-leaning new wave bands like the Talking Heads would branch off into disparate styles like funk and world music while the core of “New Wave” would begin to heavily utilize synthesizers, leading bands like Duran Duran, the Cure, and Dead or Alive to typify the genre), Partridge and Moulding chose to unflinchingly grapple the sound they first established on their debut White Noise (namely with single “Statue of Liberty”) and exhaustively explore its relatively restrictive boundaries throughout the eighties and nineties.

By the time Empire Records was being filmed, the age of XTC had basically already come to a graceful close. The 1980s had been good to the group (they retained a constant presence European charts), but they were rarely if ever able to crack the charts in the United States with any emphasis. 1987’s Skylarking was a valiant attempt to connect with an American audience by employing the collaborative production assistance of the inimitable Todd Rundgren. Nevertheless, Rolling Stone – one of the only influential yank publications at the time – derided the songwriting of Partridge and Moulding as lazy and repetitive.

Though a song from Nonsuch had, a year before the release of Empire Records, gained some notoriety on this side of the Atlantic, it was in the form of a cover by Crash Test Dummies of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” on the soundtrack for the film Dumb and Dumber (not so coincidentally produced by Rundgren).  It stood then, that the presence of an advertisement poster for Nonsuch – in what was essentially a Jesus-on-the-cross centerpiece placement on the balcony above the store’s entrance – perfectly fit the aesthetic and overall point of Empire Records as touting the kinds of bands that are undeniably great but haven’t received their comeuppance (at least not in the States).

If there was any frustration over XTC’s lack of success in the U.S., it was reasonably warranted: their late seventies and early eighties work is some of the best barely-heard pop music of all time. As is the case with most bands who have had such an esteemed pleasure (i.e., U2, the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, the Psychedelic Furs), XTC’s best work arguably happened at the production hand of UK recording genius Steve Lillywhite. 1979’s Drums and Wires features possibly their most compelling offering in “Making Plans For Nigel” while 1980’s Black Sea contains the fan-beloved “Generals and Majors” and “Towers of London” (the latter of which was the subject of an enlightening BBC special documenting a recording session at the posh home of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson).

Though having branched from Lillywhite after Black Sea, XTC tapped his protégé, gated drum inventor Hugh Padgham to work on their most solid effort, 1982’s English Settlement. Featuring the career-defining tracks “Senses Working Overtime” and “Ball and Chain”, this record saw the band pushing both their creative and physical limits to the absolute extreme. The end result was a milestone album and the Valium withdrawal-induced nervous breakdown of Andy Partridge, who had battled an addiction to the drug for years while suffering from extreme stage fright. After only nine performances in support of English Settlement, XTC was no longer a touring band, confining themselves strictly to studio work and the occasional acoustic radio station promotional show.

If that tale sounds familiar, it’s because it practically mirrors the history of Barryfest-endorsed darkly sarcastic American duo Steely Dan, whose lead singer Donald Fagen battled the same sort of debilitating anxiety a decade earlier. However, whereas Fagen was able to accommodate himself by surrounding he and partner Walter Becker with literally dozens of the greatest studio and touring musicians alive, Andy Partridge wasn’t as lucky – or maybe as resourceful. After all, Steely Dan’s creative trajectory was based upon a philosophy of pushing pop music to its breaking point by interpolating as many disparate styles of music as possible, from island reggae and light funk to bona fide R&B and abstract free jazz. XTC, on the other hand, remained – from the beginning until the end – adamant about the straightforward nature of their music, never touting a lineup of more than four members (with the sole exception being their swansong, 1999’s Apple Venus dilogy) .

Nevertheless, just as Steely Dan’s uncompromising desire to challenge the attention spans of their listeners alienated some and completely enchanted others during their seventies heyday, XTC’s stubborn adherence to the sound of their late seventies incarnation has probably been both the reason they were never a smash success in America and the reason they have become such a beloved team of songwriters and somewhat of a cult band. Though their fourteen studio albums are from a different era of music than what existed at the time of Empire Records, their uniformity effectively prevents XTC from ever sounding dated.

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