Oranges and Lemons. XTC.
1989, Geffen Records. Producer: Paul Fox.
Purchased vinyl, 1989.
IN A NUTSHELL: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC, is a collection of sounds and styles and ideas that delivers thoughtful, fun song after thoughtful, fun song. Main songwriter Andy Partridge keeps his mighty pen of cynicism largely sheathed in this effort, instead producing uplifting songs about the power of love – tempered, of course, by his biting wit. Bandmates Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are excellent, as always, and the production is over-the-top in a way that sounds like just the right number of kitchen sinks has been thrown in.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
It’s not shocking to learn that I – a man who has spent the last 7 or 8 years maintaining a widely-read blog about all the records I like – was a child, in the 70s, with a very strong connection to music. The connection included (and still includes) physical reactions to the sounds. A friend and I were recently discussing the first time we experienced chills washing over us simply from hearing a song. It happened when we were kids, and for him it was CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” For me, it was The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
The technical term for that sensation is “frisson,” and it’s a regular, physical part of my music-listening experience, as are dancing[ref]Much to my kids’ dismay.[/ref], laughing, whistling, singing, and even tears. The tears usually come from a lyric and melody that combine to heighten each other’s impact. For example, when I listen to The Replacements‘ “Here Comes a Regular,” I’m almost always on the verge of tears.
As a child, however, the experience of hearing a song could be too much for me to bear. The potential physical impact scared me, so I’d turn off these scary songs before I could find out what they might do to me. I was a 70s AM radio kid, listening to WLBR 1270-AM at the time, and it played only the blandest, mellowest, dentist-officeiest pop music of the era. The songs that frightened me WERE NOT the loud, horrorshow pieces that were popular then. WLBR didn’t play, so I didn’t hear, or even know about, Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I didn’t know about the scary punks or the creepy art-rockers.
The songs that scared me were the sad songs, and I’m not talking about the kitschy, melodramatic story-songs of the 70s. Songs like “Run Joey Run” or “Billy Don’t Be a Hero“or “The Night Chicago Died” seemed goofy to me even as a young boy – which isn’t to say I didn’t love them! And I could recognize the point of sad love songs, so these didn’t scare me. The sad songs that scared me were the ones that seemed to express adult concerns that I couldn’t understand. Oblique lyrics (to my 7 year-old mind), when coupled with a minor key, made me feel like things were somehow out of control. When singing grown-ups expressed concerns about things I didn’t understand, I felt a physical response that made me turn off the music.
I found the phrase “There’s got to be a morning after,” from “The Morning After,” the theme to the disaster-film The Poseidon Adventure, quite upsetting, as it seemed ludicrous that a grown-up would even raise the question of whether a new day would come. The Sandpipers’ folky hit, “Come Saturday Morning,” made me wonder why the prospect of visiting a friend would seem so … foreboding. And “MacArthur Park” (the Richard Harris version, not Donna Summer’s disco hit) was just … weird. I still feel residual Willies[ref]As a pre-teen I caused an accidental injury, and in the car ride to the hospital the McCartney song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was on the radio, and I’ve never been able to listen to that record since. However, that association has a cause. These others do not.[/ref] from these songs, even just hearing a few seconds while I prepare the link.
A classic scary song for me is the Diana Ross smash, “The Theme from Mahogany.” (It’s interesting that 3 of the 4 are movie songs, where emotional impact is paramount.) “Do you know where you’re going to?” the song asked, and it wasn’t the improper grammar that disturbed me. As a 9 year-old, I found this question too psychologically loaded, too philosophically complex, to bear more than even one verse. (Until just now, I’d forgotten, or maybe I never knew, that the song included the upbeat middle section!) It’s a song that made me shiver as a child, a different sensation than the frisson I described, and it still makes me unhappy, even as an adult. See, as a 52 year-old man, I STILL don’t know where the fuck I’m going (to)!
Thirty (!) years ago I certainly had no idea where I was going (to), but I had somehow decided to pursue a Biology Education degree, and so it looked like I was going to teach school. It seemed like a decent plan – there were plenty of teaching jobs, I’d always loved school, I’d get my summers off … So, I knew where I was going (to), but the destination, the (to), didn’t feel right. As much as I thought teaching would be great, and I’d be a good teacher, something about it felt like the wrong path for me. But I stayed on the path nonetheless.
In the Fall of 1989, my destination every weekday was the Elizabethtown Area High School, in Elizabethtown, PA, where I student-taught Biology classes with a creepy teacher who went to prison for his awfulness. I wore dressy clothes my sisters had picked for me, and drove a bright blue ’76 Plymouth Duster to school every day. That Duster had come with a fancy tape-deck, state-of-the art in 1989, that was probably worth more than half of what I’d paid for the car. Tapes in rotation for my morning commute that year included Vivid, by Living Colour, and Green, by R.E.M., and Oranges and Lemons, by XTC. Pretty soon it was whittled down to simply Oranges and Lemons.
I’ve written before about seeking out Beatle-esque bands in college and becoming an XTC fan. When Oranges and Lemons was released in the Spring of ’89, I went out and bought it on vinyl. I loved it, and part of loving a vinyl record for me in those days included immediately duping it onto cassette so it became portable. It’s a positive record, with upbeat songs celebrating life and love, and dollops of cynicism and doubt to keep things level. As I drove in my Duster each morning, aimlessly drifting toward a future of standardized tests and testy parents, the songs and messages on that cassette soothed my undiagnosed depression. They helped me make it through when I didn’t realize I could take control and decide for myself where I was going (to). The album resonated then, and as I got older and had kids and learned to manage my mental health, it just got better and better.
The opening track is one of the most affirmative and philosophically optimistic songs I know, and it sounds super-cool, too. The Middle-Eastern sound salad of “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
What a start! The song is a welcome letter and instruction manual, of sorts, (“Don’t hurt nobody/ Unless, of course, they ask you”) to newly born babies on planet Earth. It is crammed full of instruments and sounds, and gives the feeling of walking through a Moroccan bazaar (I assume.) I got into XTC as I looked for Beatle-y musicians, and this song is similar to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band[ref]I say “similar.” The Beatles are still The King.[/ref], in that beneath all the sounds, the rock instruments are doing fabulous stuff. The whirling electric guitar behind the vocals in the verse (0:15), the chop guitar in the chorus (0:42), the Colin Moulding’s bass throughout, and the excellent Middle Eastern guitar solo by lead XTC-er Andy Partridge (2:15). The song has numerous details that encourage multiple listens, and it’s a fabulous introduction.
The song effortlessly flows into what may be my favorite song of all time, the brilliant “Mayor of Simpleton.”
Speaking of “frisson,” this song almost always delivers it. The precisely meandering bass line is (dare I say?) McCartney-esque, the call-and-response vocals are beautiful, and I love the melody. But the lyrics make it for me, as Partridge ingeniously describes why he’s too dumb for the woman he loves, and why it doesn’t matter. “If depth of feeling is a currency/ Then I’m the man who grew the money tree /And some of your friends are too brainy to see /That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay.” For a person like me, who shivers and tears up at songs, those words resonate. The band put out a clever video for the song, and tried to make it a hit, and while it only hit #72 on Billboard‘s pop charts, it did reach #1 on their “Modern Rock Chart,” whatever that is.
XTC is an interesting band that started as a 5-piece then dwindled over the years. By the time of Oranges and Lemons, it consisted of Partridge, Moulding, and Dave Gregory – each of them guitarists and multi-instrumentalists. Partridge handled the bulk of the singing and songwriting, but Moulding contributed several, including the lilting “King For a Day.”
Due to Partridge’s extreme stage-fright, the band stopped playing live in 1982, but to support this album they made videos and did a few TV and radio performances, usually performing Moulding’s songs. This song has great vocals, including Partridge’s ringing harmonies, and terrific drums by session-man Pat Mastelotto, whose work on the entire record is great. The lyrics also express the view, shared by the band and expressed throughout the album, that money and consumerism isn’t as important as love and art. It has a tremendous bridge (2:10) that seamlessly leads back into the chorus. Sometimes, as my friend Johnny has pointed out, “Colin has Clunkers.” But this song stands out. “Cynical Days,” however, is a Colin Clunker. And Partridge’s “Here Comes President Kill Again,” while promoting a world-view I support, is rather boring.
Another blatant expression of the power of love is the aptly titled “The Loving,” which argues for a Christ-like love for all people. Partridge doesn’t refer to Christ – like me, he’s an atheist – but what he describes is just that. His call for love is more specific on “Pink Thing,” a celebration of fatherhood and his newborn child. (It’s been pointed out that the lyrics very well may refer to his penis. I prefer the former interpretation.)
It’s got a cool calypso beat, with nice guitar figures in the background, and the chord change in the chorus (“That man isn’t fit to enter heaven …”) is fabulous. As usual, the band’s harmonies are tops, and the jazzy guitar solo at 1:55 is really cool, and the ending (2:40 – 3:48) is great. In addition to addressing his child, Partridge assesses his relationship with his dad in the South African-themed “Hold Me My Daddy,” a song Partridge claims he and his father chose not to discuss.
The songs on Oranges and Lemons have a variety of styles. Colin Moulding gets introspective on the rolling, bouncy “One of the Millions,” a bit of an anti-self-help song that tumbles along on a terrific bass line and has some great transitions between acoustic and electric. The angry she-done-me-wrong song “Miniature Sun” is a jazzy, barely-fit-together number. “Chalkhills and Children” is a dreamy ballad that sounds like it could have fit on the band’s previous album Skylarking. And nearly all the songs throw as many sounds and instruments as possible into the mix, including the fabulous “Merely a Man.”
The song opens with a ranging bass line and percussive dual rhythm guitars that together are almost (almost!) funky. The guitars are really cool, and again they approach (but only approach!) the late-era Beatles’ knack for putting multiple cool guitars low in the mix. Nifty guitar fills (1:00, 1:30, etc) abound, and Partridge does some near-scatting on lyrics that are as uplifting and once again espouse the power of love. By 2:00, a trumpet fanfare is added, multiple voices are singing along, and it begins to sound like several guitars have been added. It’s a cool song, probably over-produced, but I love it.
I really love what I think of as an XTC throwback song, “Across This Antheap,” which reminds me of their song “Meccanik Dancing” from the 1978 album Go 2.
XTC started out as an angular guitar band on the definite New Wave edge of the punk movement. By Oranges and Lemons, they’d transitioned into an arty pop band (I’ll refrain from making another Beatles reference … oh wait, I think I just did?), but this number, a long diatribe against a modern life that can trample the human spirit, shows the band still has a foot in the 70s scene – despite the languid intro, and trumpet and violins.
When I was student teaching at Elizabethtown High School, it was the fall semester, which meant I was listening to the album around Halloween. It makes sense, then, that the song “Scarecrow People” remains lodged in my brain.
It’s a warning about global environmental catastrophe, which, obviously, has gone unheeded. It uses the album formula of cool guitar and bass, with lots of noises thrown in. There’s a bridge, at 2:00, that transitions to a weird guitar solo at 2:24, then builds beautifully into the final verse, at 3:00. The song is more evidence that the songwriting on the entire album is brilliant.
The other song I remember as Halloween-y, and one of my favorites on the record, is the freaky, warbly “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” a collage of sounds that is the band at their most inventive.
The plodding, physical bass supports all sorts of percussive sounds, including an acoustic guitar that sounds detuned, a xylophone that sounds like dancing bones, and – as usual – excellent harmonies. It’s a song about the universality of human beings, and includes Partridge’s usual wit. The song always takes me back to the fall of 1989, driving my Duster to school each morning, but not really knowing where I was going (to). It turned out I never taught professionally, but Oranges and Lemons made my daily drive amazingly enjoyable. Elizabethtown Area High School was only a temporary stop on a 30-year ride that has had multiple stations along the way, and continues moving forward.
But maybe the destination doesn’t really matter much. Back in the mid-00s, when everyone was getting GPS consoles to put onto their dashboards, I instead got a subscription to Sirius satellite radio, and a bulky radio unit to stick onto the dash of my ’98 Saturn wagon. I realized then what that choice says about my outlook: I may not know where I’m going (to), but I’m sure going to enjoy the ride.
“Garden of Earthly Delights”
“Mayor of Simpleton”
“King For a Day”
“Here Comes President Kill Again”
“Poor Skeleton Steps Out”
“One of the Millions”
“Merely a Man”
“Across This Antheap”
“Hold Me My Daddy”
“Chalkhills and Children”