Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
XTC – “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in May 1992
Nostalgists who like Kate Bush drew strength from an increasingly fussy studio craft but unlike Bush devolved into a miscellany of influences, XTC were at the peak of their American careers when they released 1992’s Nonsuch. Oranges and Lemons ruled the college chart in early ’89, with “The Mayor of Simpleton” and “King for a Day” making significant MTV and pop radio inroads. That album, one of the least essential double albums in history released at the height of phony Beatlemania, itself built on the patient word-of-mouth embrace of 1986’s Skylarking, produced by Todd Rundgren in one of the decade’s coups; I suspect “Dear God” became a succès de scandale because nobody expected such an adolescent bleat from the Swindon trio at that point in their careers.
As gesture designed to shake the act from their hermetic crouch, “Dear God” worked, but give me the two albums recorded after singer-guitarist Andy Partridge’s admission of stage fright. Often maladroit in its wrestling with programmed drums that pound home the inscrutability of half the material, The Big Express (1984) was a death wheeze of an album, climaxing with Partridge imitating a locomotive on “Train Running Low on Soul Coal” as well as Kate Bush imitated turning into a donkey on 1982’s “Get Out of My House.” Even better is Mummer (1983), where Partridge and bassist-songwriter Colin Moulding issue one of the more defiant anti-funk albums recorded by white people yet in “Great Fire,” “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” and “Ladybird” they offered compensatory acoustic material.
In short, an honorable and even exciting career, and I haven’t even mentioned Drums and Wires, Black Sea, and English Settlement, the fruits of their post-punk years. But Nonesuch is moldy figs: the first distended album in their discography. If like for me Nonsuch introduced you to these people, then imagine hearing “The Smartest Monkey,” “Holly Up on Poppy,” and “War Dance,” among the clunkiest performances in the XTC canon. Gus Dudgeon might have been a fascinating selection on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road alone, but the producer’s solution to clarifying XTC’s talent for contortion was to straighten the arrangement lines; Nonsuch is a parody of the “Beatlesesque.”
Writing a Beatlesque ode to John F. Kennedy or a man like him killed for “making too many enemies” is so beyond what I expect XTC to have done in 1992 that it’s like expecting Madonna to duet with Lee Ranaldo. The clippety-clop rhythm, abandoned harmonica, and zealously mixed drums are gauche. worst is Patridge’s vocal, straining for an earnestness that worked on tracks like “This World Over,” with their generous apportionment of space: he sings through his teeth, as if Lee Harvey Oswald were holding Partridge’s children at gunpoint. In a way “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is the culmination of a decade’s worth of exploring sixties: testing them, subverting them, abandoning them. With its open embrace of the dying king (“Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead!”), XTC’s last American crossover embraces the myth that it starts to limn. If only the band had shot its video as if it were “Roll With It.”
If only I hadn’t heard Crash Test Dummies’ cover — man, imagine nostalgia for nostalgia.