XTC from left to right Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers, Barry Andrews (Wikimedia/Jean-Luc Ourlin)

This is pop: XTC's giddy, incomparable "White Music" turns 40

Don't call it new wave or punk — call it a highlight of '70s music, period



Annie Zaleski
January 21, 2018 7:00PM (UTC)

In 1977, XTC vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge caught a video of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." at an HMV in his hometown of Swindon, England. At the time, John Lydon and co. were the next-big-thing rabble rousers hell-bent on upending the establishment. Partridge, however, was somewhat blasé when he finally heard and saw the band in action.

"I thought, 'Is that it? Is that what all the fuss is about? It just sounds like a slower version of the Ramones, or the Monkees with a bit more fuzz,'" he said in a 2007 interview. "I don't know, it just wasn't new enough, you know?"

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His assessment was rooted in both a keen musical ear — in the interview, he went on to note (correctly) that Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter sang with "that sort of voice" first, and the Sex Pistols' sound nicked from David Bowie, the Stooges and New York Dolls — and skepticism about descriptors. An avid reader of the U.K. weekly music magazine New Musical Express, he didn't want his own fledgling band, XTC, to be squeezed into any sort of limiting box.

Partridge eventually channeled these concerns into "This Is Pop," the third song on XTC's debut LP, "White Music," which was released on Jan. 20, 1978. In the first two verses of the loose-limbed song, a narrator is confronted and asked to define what they're listening to: "What do you call that noise/That you put on?" The defiant response, of course, is "This is pop."

By verse three, the narrator has decided to head off any questions at the pass, and state a musical manifesto of sorts: "We come the wrong way/We come the long way/We play the songs much too loud/This is pop." Tellingly, there are gang vocals on each utterance of the word "we," a signal that the band members are in it together.

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"I thought, 'I don't want to be called 'punk' — I want to name us before we are pigeonholed by someone else,'" Partridge said in the same 2007 interview. "Then I thought, 'Well, what sort of music do we make?' And once I'd seen the Sex Pistols on this video, I thought, 'Well, it's just pop! You can't call it anything else — it's just pop music.' And that was the revelation. It is just pop music — let's call a spade a digging implement!

"And that was the purest inspiration for that song," he added. "I was going to pigeonhole us — or un-pigeonhole us! — before we were pigeonholed by the likes of NME and people who would want to put stuff in their boxes, in their construct."

That desire to demolish expectations and control how the band was perceived certainly became a hallmark of XTC's genre-slippery career. Incredibly enough, both of these traits were already present in spades on "White Music," a giddy and (yes) impossible-to-pigeonhole debut. Partridge and the rest of the band — bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding, keyboardist Barry Andrews (who was billed as playing "steam piano" and "clapped out organs") and drummer Terry Chambers — recorded the LP at the Manor, a Richard Branson-owned studio in Oxfordshire, England. (XTC was signed to Branson's label, Virgin Records.)

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What emerged was an album that's exhilarating and, truth be told, almost exhausting to absorb, simply because it's so relentless and energetic. After kicking off with the relatively tame mod-pop of "Radios in Motion," the record veers off in all sorts different directions, like a rubber ball careening around a linoleum floor. "Neon Shuffle" hews toward "Looney Tunes"-cartoonish dance music, while the swerving grooves of "New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage" presaged Franz Ferdinand's entire career. "Spinning Top," meanwhile, scans like a fractured Rolling Stones outtake, courtesy of the interplay between Morse code-esque keyboards, Chambers' clipped drumming and one of Partridge's funkiest vocal performances.

As the latter songs imply, not all of Partridge's tunes were as straightforward as "This Is Pop." In fact, the fully formed cheekiness he exhibited on "White Music" is, in hindsight, a marvel. The jovial pub rocker "Statue of Liberty" is brightened up by some jaunty keyboards and an extended metaphor about the freedom-signifying statue. The lyrics are rife with ribald double entendres that got the song banned at the BBC. "Into the Atom Age," meanwhile, is sly commentary on what people in the '60s once thought modern society might look like — with the added clever detail that the music is the kind of ebullient surf-rock popular in that decade.

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Colin Moulding's songwriting contributions to "White Music" are brisk and gleeful. "Cross Wires" resembles a frantic jazz record sped up to an incorrect RPM; "Do What You Do" is chaotic skiffle with mad-scientist piano and galloping bass; and "I'll Set Myself on Fire" boasts needling guitar riffs that resemble guitar strings fraying at the seams. His lyrics aren't as fully formed as Partridge's, but his songs do a masterful job harnessing the sound of words to get his point across. For example, "Cross Wires" exclaims, "It's the airwaves of the world/Not the hairwaves on your head," while the titular phrase of "Do What You Do" goes racing by in a blur of consonants and vowels.

XTC's greatness always stemmed from the way the band members' talents — and, at other times, tensions — intersected, and "White Music" was no exception. The band's gulping funk-soul take on Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" is transformative, and illustrates the sonic chemistry this particular quartet possessed. "Spinning Top," meanwhile, is a dynamics master class: Strutting, midtempo verses suddenly accelerate into speedy choruses and a prog-tinted bridge. (In a further nod to this chemistry, XTC members Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers are currently collaborating under the name TC&I, and recently released the "Great Aspirations" EP.)

From a commercial standpoint, "White Music" was a modest success: It scraped the Top 40 on the U.K. album charts, although neither "Statue of Liberty" nor a re-recorded version of "This Is Pop" charted. By the end of 1978, XTC had already issued their second album, "Go 2," and was headed onward and upward into new sonic territory.

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However, if a January, 28, 1978, Melody Maker concert review is any indication, at least one journalist completely understood what XTC was all about back then. "[The band] perhaps can't be blamed then for concentrating their music on those whose ultimate joy in life is in hurling their bodies up and down in frenzied inanity," wrote Colin Irwin.

"But the band are patently capable of much more . . . They may now find themselves in the punk corner, but if, as is being strongly touted, the beat revival is soon with us, they will fit just as well there too."

Indeed, if "White Music" proved anything, it's that Partridge's wish for a fluid creative future was always within reach. "In the beginning of the career, we were quite different people and we tried to express quite different things," he told Soundi in 2000. "'White Music' is naïve art. It is really naïve art, but in its own way it is a charming document. That's what we were like in those days, but not any more. I'm proud that we have gone forward all the time. Our curve of development can clearly be read from our records."

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XTC's progression in the years after "White Music" was certainly a joy to behold. And the ideas put forth in the record have endured: A documentary on XTC premiered on Showtime in the U.S. last week. It's called, appropriately enough, "This Is Pop."


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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