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25 Years On: XTC's Oranges & Lemons Revisited
Nick Reed , February 11th, 2014 05:20

Oranges & Lemons was the beginning of the end for XTC in 1989, says Nick Reed, but was it worth it?

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"I don't know how to write a big hit song", Andy Partridge sings on this album, and if there's one way to sum up the frustration that XTC must have felt throughout their whole career, that's got to be it. Frustration that neither their managers nor their producers seemed to understand what they were aiming for. Frustration that their record company went from being uninterested in them to really uninterested in them once Partridge's stage fright got the best of him. Frustration as they watched other New Wavers such as Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, The Jam, and U2 become household names while they languished in relative obscurity. The irony is that the song the line appears on, 'Mayor Of Simpleton', is about as pure a shot of Grade-A pop as you can find, a slam-dunk smash hit if there ever was one - it peaked at #46 in the UK.

Of course, they brought a lot of it on themselves. Obviously their refusal to tour was a big factor, as was their tendency to ignore any passing fads; while their first four records all fit in well with the post-punk movement, from English Settlement on they've felt like a band out of time. The band had previously been big on being able to reproduce their albums live, but now that they were no longer playing live, all sorts of crazy things were allowed to happen. In the years prior to Oranges & Lemons, the band found themselves trying hard to replicate the bands they grew up admiring - both under their assumed names as the Dukes of Stratosphear, and with the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. All this ranks among the best work Moulding and Partridge ever did; maybe all they really needed was to be born 15 years earlier. It wound up breathing some life into the band financially, too - while Mummer and The Big Express tanked, Skylarking wound up being one of the most successful albums of the band's career. Partially because it spawned their most well-known song ('Dear God', originally a B-side), and partially because it's a really damn good album. But it was not really a great time for Partridge; he was going through turmoil both personally and professionally, as both his marriage and career seemed to be going down the tubes.

Oranges & Lemons is an attempt for the band to loosen themselves up; as the cover implies, they were going to be gaudish and colorful and nobody was going to stop them. After butting egos with the notoriously headstrong Todd Rundgren, the band hired Paul Fox to produce - a fan with no prior production experience. Where Skylarking was painstakingly edited and arranged, Oranges & Lemons lets everything hang out, and wound up as a double album that flies all over the map. The sort of outlandish tunes that previously wouldn't have made it past the demo stage were showcased front and center here. Needless to say, many of the fans weren't really into it; nowadays you generally hear it spoken of in terms of "Well, I like it, but..."   That's a big "but". Indeed, Oranges & Lemons is the first XTC album that gives us a lot to complain about. If only it weren't so long - sure, English Settlement is longer, but the songs there had a lot more substance. Here, they're like candy bars; the first few are enjoyable, but fifteen in a row can make you sick to your stomach. If only the production was better - Paul Fox gives everything a shiny, in-your-face gloss that gives the album too much zip, the sort of thing Rundgren would've nipped out right away. Nearly every instrument is mixed to the forefront; it's too well-arranged to be cacophonous, but there's a degree of sensory overload, especially given the band's newfound tendency to blast synthesizers in our faces. In only there weren't so many instruments. And so on.   It didn't have to be this way - there really is a great album buried somewhere in here, if you're willing to find it. Hell, if you're the kind of person who loves 'Shake You Donkey Up', this may be your favorite XTC album already. Partridge and Moulding come from a long history of overstepping their vocal boundaries, and writing lyrics to match ("I want to take you out and show you to the girls", Partridge sings on a song that is definitely about his penis) - and as 'Wounded Horse' on Wasp Star shows, they'd do this till the bitter end. But their songwriting instincts generally keep their heads above water. Indeed, the songs on Oranges & Lemons may press down hard on the irritating button, but there are good ideas lurking on most tracks. Some of this is hard to redeem - 'Here Comes President Kill Again' is a dull marching tune, Moulding sleepwalks through 'Cynical Days', and 'Miniature Sun' attempts to imitate jazz by overloading the listener with loud honking noises. But otherwise, ideas that should fail wind up working, through rich arrangements ('Garden of Earthly Delights') or undeniably hooky melodies ('Poor Skeleton Steps Out').

  So ultimately whether or not this album holds up for you depends on how much you like the band's boisterous side. While Partridge has matured a lot from the guy who barked all over 'All Along the Watchtower' on White Music, something seems to have brought those instincts back - perhaps having kids, which much of this album is a testament to lyrically. Only now he's got a horn section to play with, and a producer who doesn't seem able to tell him "no". But it's not just Partridge - Moulding gets his goofball moment on the third song, with 'King For A Day', a chirpy single with more than a passing resemblance to 'Everybody Wants To Rule the World'; exactly the sort of thing Rundgren might have a conniption about, but Fox lets it slide. As gimmicky as this album can be, there's no denying that the fun factor is through the roof. Still, Oranges & Lemons is one of those albums that works better in pieces than as a whole. It does boast some of the band's best songs; the aforementioned 'Mayor Of Simpleton' is about as good as pop music can get, and the closing 'Chalkhills And Children' realizes Partridge's lifelong dream of writing a timeless 'Good Vibrations'-type song of his own. Even if the rest of the album provokes an allergic reaction in you, it's worth keeping for 'Chalkhills' alone. I'd also rank 'One Of The Millions' as one of Moulding's best; it's jangly, has great harmonies, and is instrumentally rich - basically everything he does well at once.   Alas, Oranges & Lemons signalled the beginning of the end for the band. Even though 'Mayor Of Simpleton' made a minor dent, the other two singles ('King for a Day' and 'The Loving') didn't, and soon both Moulding and Dave Gregory found themselves working at a car rental spot to sustain themselves between royalty checks while recording their next album, 1992's Nonsuch. Nonsuch was XTC in their full-blown adult phase; recorded with veteran producer Gus Dudgeon, it's refreshingly more restrained than Oranges & Lemons was, and holds up a lot better today. Listening to it today, it feels like XTC realizing that it may be their last chance, and therefore putting everything they've got into making something timeless. But the result was business as usual for the band; heaps of critical acclaim, a few minor singles, and hardly a dent on the charts. From there they'd split with Virgin; we'd hear from them one last time with the double Apple Venus/Wasp Star which was released over a two year period, but as of now it seems doubtful that either member will want to get involved with writing new music again.

On one hand, this is a real shame; today, Apple Venus feels a hell of a lot more relevant and skillful than the sort of albums XTC’s contemporaries were making 20 years into their careers. On the other, their lack of success made it a lot easier for them to walk away once they ran out of ideas, and as it stands now, XTC’s discography is one towering, absolutely essential beast, from start to finish. For even when they massively stacked the deck against themselves on Oranges & Lemons, they still managed to create something that still endears in its own way 25 years later.

Phil Lloyd
Feb 11, 2014 11:57am

Sorry to go slightly off topic : I can't think of any band who released as many albums and then went out with anything as strong as Apple Venus / Wasp Star. I can't wait to hear what Steve Wilson does with them if and when the re-issue programme gets to them.

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Michael E.
Feb 11, 2014 5:59pm

Mummer, Apple Venus, and English Settlement are my favourite records of XTC. Tny Visconti is a huge fan of Mummer, too.

A very fine text, by the way.

P.S. Any Partridge did a fanatstic duo album with Harold Budd, it's part of the new BUDDBOX.

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Dominique
Feb 11, 2014 7:10pm

Nice article, always good to see thoughtful attention paid to a band who clearly deserves/demands it. XTC are one of those acts who inspire super-devotion amongst fans, but diving deeper, tend to inspire similarly diverse opinions within that group of fans. Personally, I love "I Remember the Sun", maybe the proggiest thing they ever did, and think "Mayor of Simpleton" is just a bit too, er, simple.

As a whole, I agree with your assessment of O&L, and certainly regarding the faults of Paul Fox, who Andy Partridge has gone on record as saying what a joy it was to work with. IMO that's a big warning sign that the album is going to go off the rails, because for all his talents, AP is hardly his own best critic/editor.

Also, what are the actual sales figures for this album compared to Skylarking and Nonsuch? I was under the impression it did relatively well for the band.

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Mr. Odd
Feb 11, 2014 7:17pm

The production is, indeed, the weakest part of this album along with Colin's contributions (aside from the wonderful "One Of The Millions"). The demos released on the Fuzzy Warbler series are almost all better.

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Ant
Feb 11, 2014 8:15pm

I'm not familiar with Nick - just wondering if he's (North) American? Describing Dear God as XTCs best known song suggests possibly.

Broadly agree with the assessment of O&L though - but I have to say I really like Here Comes President Kill Again, particular the wonky brass. Looking back it's a curate's egg, but it's hard to see why the singles bombed. Mayor of Simpleton is magnificent (and I refute a fellow commenter's claim that it's "simple" - listen to Colin's bass if nothing else, to hear the complexity they wove underneath the glistening pop sentiment). And I also remember this being rather successful for the band - don't forget that Skylarking really didn't do much in the UK at all.

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Nick
Feb 12, 2014 1:17am

In reply to Ant:

You're right - I am American. You can still hear "Dear God" on the radio here. Dunno what their most well-known song is over there. I agree that Mayor of Simpleton shines thanks to that bass line. But I admit that I never noticed how awesome it was until someone pointed it out. It's mixed too low!

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Feb 12, 2014 1:24am

This album was actually my introduction to XTC in '89, after I'd read a glowing review in Rolling Stone ( which, in hindsight, makes perfect sense as it was a stab at making a Beatles record) so I'll always be more fond of it than it may totally deserve. As I learned more about the band, and heard other records, than 'Drums and Wires' hit the spot with me a bit more than this one, but there's definitely a lot of good songs on here, amidst some of the more pallid imitations.

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Basil Exposition
Feb 12, 2014 11:30am

XTC's nostalgic 60s pastiche was one step removed from Austin Powers. Not entirely serious, but at the same time not ironic enough to entertain as one big, campy joke.

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Bob Memery
Feb 12, 2014 9:15pm

I think O&L is XTC's most accessible album - the song stories are the most 'human' of their career, easy to understand, but with enough depth for repeated listening. They put the great bits of Skylarking and Psonic together with great results. The production is very shiny in your face, but that's the same for virtually everything of the era. Sequencing on the original '3 mini CD' box is better than the standard CD. Only a couple of songs annoy me, the dreary 'One of the Millions' and one-joke 'Pink Thing'. Overlooked highlight 'Miniature Sun' super twist from happy to bitter.

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Vince Williams
Feb 13, 2014 4:55pm

I tweeted this article to Andy Partridge and this was his reply:
"I disagree, our next 2 albums were the best ever. Everyone's a critic"

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Nick
Feb 18, 2014 3:42am

In reply to Vince Williams:

nice! I find Nonsuch to be a little too refined for my liking but I agree that AV is one of their best.

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Eric
Feb 22, 2014 6:59pm

I'd like to hear your 11th album

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Eric E
Feb 27, 2014 3:42am

From a long-time XTC fan in the USA Midwest- I can't believe it's been 25 years since I first heard Oranges & Lemons, and thanks for the link to the Mayor of Simpleton video- always a joy to see. I still love this record (along with all their others). THIS is pop!

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David Rubien
Apr 9, 2014 6:52pm

Stuff all the criticisms. O&L is a perfect piece of pop, my favorite XTC album.

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Alan Wheater
Jun 13, 2014 8:33pm

Loved this band,sadly never got to see them live, Didn't even know this one was out (O & L),found it in a second hand record shop in Middlesbrough, got it home and found it to be a marvellous quirky album full of surprises,even if it was a bit over-long.
happy days indeed,....wish they were still around as a unit today!!

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Bob Parr
May 13, 2015 6:40pm

My taste in music goes from The Beatles through to Genesis, Camel, Weather Report, Steven Wilson, Hawkwind, Jazz Rock, Blues and much more and in my opinion XTC are the most underrated band in rock history. Their discography easily compares to the Beatles in quality. Fame is transient. Art is forever!

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Hap Hapablap
Apr 9, 2016 9:04am

Most of the criticisms in the article are actually what I like about O&L: all the instruments foregrounded, hooks and musical quirks being relentlessly flung at you. It works because the hooks are so consistently great! I'd compare it to Beck's 'Midnite Vultures' in that way. Admittedly some tracks suffer from the 80s synth sounds... Chalkhills And Children in particular needed more Wrecking Crew, less DX7. But it's just so damn infectious and (mostly) vibrantly optimistic! C'maaaaan!!

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