“This Is Pop” – the XTC documentary (Showtime, 2018)

by Emilio Pérez Miguel on January 2, 2019

“This Is Pop” is a documentary that avoids the far(c)e associated with the vast majority of “rockumentaries”, but that comes as no surprise if you are familiarized with the band it centers on: XTC. And if you’re not, then its frontman Andy Partridge makes that clear pretty early on, when he states they were never really “rock stars” in any accepted sense of the expression.

Through its 70 minutes, this 2018 Showtime documentary chronicles the band’s story from its origins as The Helium Kidz to the very end of XTC’s career, when only two of them remained together. The scene is set via some animations (many of which were provided by Andy himself, who is a gifted cartoonist), miniature models and interviews with people who (fortunately) all have something to say that is of relevance.

As much as I was moved by this documentary, I must mention that some of the information seems to contrast what was previously stated on certain band biographies. For instance, on “This Is Pop” Andy claims that the drum pattern you can listen to on “Making Plans For Nigel” was the result of transposing an acoustic melody Colin had come up with to Terry’s skins. Yet, on the book Chalkhillls & Children biographer Chris Twomey set forth that the “Nigel” drum pattern was chanced upon when Terry misunderstood some instructions Andy had given him.

Well, I’m not really sure it matters that much in the end. And specifying the actual contents of the documentary would absolutely defeat the whole point of this article. Yet, to give you an idea of its overall dynamics, you are brought on a trip through XTC’s entire oeuvre with an emphasis put on the vital joy of music making and creation (as exemplified by the several fragments in which Andy and Colin retrace how they composed some of their key XTC tunes, and –in one case– tracing the actual composition of one on the spot by Andy. But that’s the best, most intriguing part of the documentary, and I don’t want to spoil anything).

Based on this criteria, the fact the “Apple Venus” volumes are just marginally mentioned does make sense – the departure of Dave Gregory during the recording of the first volume was the event that heralded the end of XTC’s vitality, with the “band” becoming a “brand”, as Andy finely put it much later on.

The people interviewed run the gamut of musicians involved directly with the band such as Stewart Copeland of the Police (a band that XTC got on with splendidly) and contemporaries like Clem Burke of Blondie, whereas the session players that filled in for Terry Chambers are represented by Dave Mattacks, erstwhile Fairport Convention drummer who sat on the stool for “Nonsuch”.

Their ex-manager is deliberately not mentioned, but it’s worth stressing that when speaking about XTC’s commercial misfortunes Andy speaks in the plural tense, underlining that not only their “liarbird” took advantage of the band – the whole industry did.

The one intriguing omission is that of Barry Andrews, the original keyboards player for the band. Its absence is quite disconcerting, to be frank. He participated on the band’s first two albums, and he had an intellectual scope that came close to Andy’s. I wonder what happened – his absence couldn’t be attributed to a lack of things to say. Quite the contrary…

Of course, producers also have their say, with John Leckie recounting the impact producing the “25 O’Clock” EP had on his career, with the Stone Roses approaching him because of the esteem they held The Dukes of Stratosphear on.

Yet, the one pivotal reflection is provided by none other than a group of fans. They actually have a band that has recorded a spiffy version of “That Wave” (which is included on the movie). They go by the name of Fassine, and I became acquainted with them (and their work) through this documentary.

They make the most valid assertion of all: that the band is something of a well-kept secret, and fans themselves like to keep it that way. They don’t want “their” band to become contaminated by the mishandling which goes with any artistic expression entering the most public and widest of domains.

Towards the end of the documentary, Andy reflects he doesn’t know that many bands which actually got better and better as they went along. And you don’t have to be a fan to agree with him. Any person with good taste and an actual criteria for listening to music will concede that to him.

However, there is something else in the music of XTC.

And that’s a sense of closure.

I am fortunate enough to have the full discography of a series of artists which (if anything) can be singled by the emotional rescue their music can provide. The Who, Tom Petty, The Clash, The Smiths

None of these bands (however deep-resounding music they may have produced, or how long they stayed together) have such an intrinsic merit. The Who (which are my other favorite band, alongside XTC) were trapped in a cycle of reformulations that began with “Tommy”, and they could never truly break free from it. Tom Petty’s career ended in mid-sentence. All the things he did were admirable, but there was no last word (the masterful “American Treasure” box did bring a poignant sense of relevance and a thread unifying his whole oeuvre, but that’s beside the point I’m trying to make here). The Clash and The Smiths bowed out with records that were not up to their usual standards (The Clash’s “Cut The Crap” was actually an outright embarrassment in an otherwise sterling career).

But not XTC. Their last album (and most specifically, its final song) brought everything full circle, in a way that was not only satisfying but also indescribably fulfilling and inspiring. I (tried) to say as much when reviewing Wasp Star.

Andy, XTC not only got better. XTC got the best of people. And the best out of people.

Because (and I’m quoting a fan – and there is no more suitable way to end an article about an XTC documentary than by quoting a fan), “your heart is a big box of paints if you love XTC”.

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