Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thanks for Christmas

I missed my chance to see XTC live.

I was offered tickets to see them on their last tour. But I had no way to get to the venue (and didn't know anyone with a car that I could talk into going). So I didn't go, figuring I could see them the next year when they toured the U.S. again. Of course, they never toured again... and ever since I've regretted missing my chance to see them live.

You see, in 1980, XTC became my favorite band that still existed.

A local radio station in my college town that was leaning towards New Wave (while not quite abandoning Top 40) was playing Making Plans for Nigel (which the DJs frequently played 2 or 3 times in a row since the Program Director wouldn't let them play any other XTC songs). I was hooked instantly.

From then on, I devoured devoured everything the band put out. Their jangly off-kilter rhythms and catchy melodies were instant earworms that burrowed into your brain and never came out. Colin Moulding was a strong writer, but Andy Partridge was clever, biting, cynical, sometimes angry, and wildly prolific -- everything that resonated with kids growing up in college towns in the 80s.

For the next few years, XTC churned out a series of albums that grew in complexity and craft. At the same time they issued a series of astonishing singles that (in a more just world) would have sold tens of millions and catapulted them into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. I'd listen to these songs over and over again and most of them still sound as fresh today. (Don't take my word for it, listen to Life Begins at the Hop, Respectable Street, Generals and Majors, Towers of London, Ball and Chain, Senses Working Overtime, Earn Enough for Us, Dear God, Mayor of Simpleton, or The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.

Late 1983 found me in New York with my friend Ed (whose record collection is still spoken of by his friends with a mixture of reverence and jealousy). We wandered into the Tower Records in the Village (which took up an entire square block of prime real estate, boasted the finest selection of British and European new wave bands in the U.S., and was more Temple than store). I remember it was cold and snowy outside and warm and inviting indoors (but maybe my memory is playing tricks on me). Did I spend days there or did it just feel that way? Did I really explore every part of the store except Opera and Country? Did I literally rappel down the wall in the Classical section? I can't quite remember.

What I do remember was the import section in the back of the store, where they had dozens of copies of Thanks for Christmas, an import 45 that never got a proper U.S. release. The song was credited to the "the Three Wise Men," but the open secret was that it was really XTC. The single and its flip-side (the funk-inflected Countdown to Christmas Party Time) were cheekily listed as being composed by Balthazar/Kaspar/Melchior, but were really written by Andy Partridge, whose cynicism didn't stop him from wanting to create a modern classic Christmas song. (Andy later said in an interview that he wanted to get women who worked for his record company -- Virgin -- to sing on the song and credit them as "the Virgin Marys," but the company quickly put a stop to that idea).

Tower Records is now gone. XTC changed categories; they're no longer my favorite band that still exists, but one of many groups I love that sadly disbanded. But 25 years later, I don't think it's really Christmas until I pull the 45 out of its sleeve and hear the needle drop on the only record released by the Three Wise Men.

Thanks for Christmas:


XTCfan said...

What about all the great Mummer videos?

Love on a Farmboys Wages (,
In Loving Memory of a Name (, Wonderland ( & Human alchemy (

Alex said...

XTCfan -- thanks for those. Mummer's probably my favorite XTC album!

Anonymous said...

XTC is one of the greatest bands ever. I saw them in San Francisco around 1980 or so, with Wall Of Voodoo (with Stan Ridgway) playing before them. WOV were cool and XTC didn't come on until pretty late, but they rocked and were awesome. Very energetic. My memory has faded a lot but I still remember parts of it ;-)