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XTC -This is Pop (Documentary, Sky 1)

The long awaited - and even longer overdue - documentary about the British band XTC felt to many of us who have considered them the best ever group to emerge from these shores, like a simultaneous roar of approval and a shocking great slap in the face, a sharp reminder of what we have lost now that they no longer record together. Apple Venus Vol.1 and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2) were released in 1999 and 2000 respectively and together represented the almost perfect distillation of British popular music. I hesitate to just call it "pop" although there are almost unequalled examples of it on both these albums and right through the XTC canon. Andy Partridge's lavishly inventive songwriting, lyrical brilliance and at times almost extra-terrestrial knack for a breathtaking melody or crushingly beautiful harmony seemed to improve and grow throughout the band's 14 album career. It came to a mighty zenith on those final two records. 

Followers of XTC were often torn between a teeth-grinding agitation that the band were not huge and a sneaking pleasure that they were our secret. Mention XTC and someone would pipe up with how much they liked 'Senses working overtime' but we'd list the later albums, each one better than the last, that they had released since then. They really were a miracle of the British music scene. 

This documentary, refused initially - and criminally -  by the BBC was thence commissioned by Sky. The film was clearly made by people who know and love this band, imbuing it with a loving eccentricity (model trains for the band from Swindon) but laced it with an impeccable compendium of XTC's music through the years, and not just the obvious singles either. The final credits rolled to the majesty of "The Last Balloon", the final track on Apple Venus Vol.1 and possibly, for my money, the band's best ever. It is a track that essentially waves the world goodbye and was thus appropriate.

Andy Partridge anchors the film although all the band are interviewed. Partridge is painfully honest about his anxieties and past valium addiction, becoming moved by its recollection, and he exudes the kind of quirky exuberance of a musician who writes music on a synaesthesic level. By contrast, bassist Colin Moulding and the writer of many successful XTC songs, and Dave Gregory, the prodigiously gifted guitarist and arranger fair whispered their way through the documentary, admitting a lack of care to Partridge when he had his early 80's mental meltdown. That collapse, which led to the band ceasing touring, became a central point in the film; their ability to spend more time in the studio thereafter, and the removal of the obligation to write songs that could be replicated live, opened the floodgates of their creative imaginations that led to the achievements of their subsequent albums.

The film called on a number of stars and celebrities to wax lyrical about the genius of the band and thus there was a certain format-familiarity to the film, despite Partridge's opening monologue trumpeting his disdain for rockumentaries. But the talking heads were never intrusive and contributed humorous and in some cases very telling opinions. The overwhelming feeling that the film left me with was one of sadness and melancholia that we are highly unlikely to hear another album by the three of them together. There was no obvious animosity between them on film (although all were interviewed separately) and Partridge, an engaging and engaged member of the Twitter community, never overtly expresses disapproval of his former bandmates. Yet he has been known to politely, but firmly, dismiss the idea of any reunion. 

Since XTC albums never seem to age (and Partridge is slowly remastering them for 5.1) bereft fans have plenty to keep us amused and satisfied. But a recent track for the Monkees, written by Partridge ('You bring the summer') was a tantalising reminder of what we are all missing in their absence.

It is time you explored the XTC catalogue. But if you start with the two Apple Venus albums mentioned in this piece, you won't be disappointed.


  1. Excellent review. And excellent advice. Anyone intrigued to know more about XTC should check out my new publication, The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls ("Music publication of the year" Louder than War). More details on my website Do what you do!


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