Friday, March 22, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead

That sound.

An electric guitar being plugged in, the expectation being set up, the tension building, albeit ever so slightly, because there's almost no time before the first chord's played and my God what a chord. What a way to start a song and an album.

XTC has never been one of my favorites. I admire and respect them and enjoy the hell out of some of their stuff but there's something about them I find them off-putting—almost certainly the fact that we don't click is a flaw in myself. So when they had their early new wave-ish hits on MTV, I was unmoved. When Skylarking was proclaimed the Sgt. Pepper's of the 1980s, I was unimpressed. When my imaginary friend Chris brought this home from his job at MTV, I...well, we put it on, since all we had was a small boombox and about five CDs, so beggars and all that.

That initial noise caught me, the first chord punched me in the face and then those drums, larger than Mount Everest gave me sweet, sweet CPR with breath vaguely redolent of honeysuckle and optimistic anger. And then...a harmonica? No, not a harmonica. An utterly asskicking harmonica, a strange, such a strange choice for the lead instrument and absolutely perfect.

And then the lyrics started. And the very first words are the name Peter Pumpinkhead. Which is just such a stupid name that I was immediately...nope, the melody wins. And then the gist of the lyrics, about a guy with his priorities so perfectly straight that of course he has to be killed, turned the name from something dumb into something whimsical, something which not only fit the lyrics, but managed to turn the entire thing into a not-entirely-obvious allegory rather than a hectoring screed.

It's still got the little XTC touches, the kind of obsessive attention to detail I don't normally love in my rock and roll, but which here works perfectly: the cymbal crashes on the offbeat rather than the expected downbeat, the cheers of "hooray!" only every other chorus, the unusual switch from the major to the minor at the end of the chorus, the way the bassline in the first verse ascends...and then just hangs there, toying with you, the sonics so pristine you could eat off them.

In the end, it's a perfect marriage of words and music, composition and performance.

Oh my.


  1. I have been a huge fan of XTC since Generals And Majors...perhaps one of the 'hectoring' lyrics you spoke of, but I loved it.

    Although I never agreed with the effervescent praise for Skylarking. I felt rundgren wasn't such a good match for XTC, and from the storied of the recording, they didn't think much of him either. It did result in "Dear God", however.

    But this album came like the uppercut after the body blow of Oranges and Lemons. Two such great albums, one after the other, knocked me out. Both of them starting with unbelievably great songs, and containing many lovely moments and tunes.

    I had a friend who saw them open for the Police in Madison, before Partridge found his stage fright to be unworkable. Black Sea tour, I believe. I have long been incomprehensibly jealous. He said they blew the Police to smithereens.

  2. On a related note, I woke up yesterday morning with "Jumping IN Gomorrah" running through my head, so housework Sunday was accompanied by and XTC soundtrack. It worked.