So there I was, choogling to the iPod on the 9.44 from Lewes to Eastbourne, when the ebullient strains of XTC’s We’re All Light chirped up, reminding me of the most poignant email I have ever received (a list that includes being informed that a friend and fellow cricket hack had died after falling out of bed).
In 2000, Andy Partridge and the other talented chaps in his well-stocked Swindon pear tree released Wasp Star, the second volume of their Apple Venus duology. Not their best, granted (not quite up to the psychedelic-bucolic majesty of Nonsuch, Oranges and Lemons and Skylarking or even Volume 1), but still a country mile or three ahead of 99% of the pack. After all, any album housing Stupidly Happy – lifted, with astonishingly good taste, for a TV sofa ad – can hardly be less than intriguing.
Even more thank-someone-I’m-alive wondrous than the deliriously batty Stupidly Happy was We’re All Light, to these ears the jauntiest of Andy’s deathless sequence of damned-fine ditties. Not that there’s any shortage of contenders for such a singular rave – King For A Day and four from Nonsuch alone, The Disappointed, Wrapped In Grey, The Ugly Underneath and Then She Appeared, all spring turbo-instantly to mind – but I’m sticking with my original thesis.
After I enthused about all this a year or two later on The TR Connection – a website/forum devoted to the producer of Skylarking, Todd ‘Godd’ Rundgren – a fellow Todd-er messaged back. We’re All Light, she said, had got her through cancer. I’d heard plenty of twaddle about the power of song before but here, at last, was evidence.
I never asked her, but I should have: what was it that got her through – melody or lyric? It could have been both. Try the alliterative earthly delights of the following, note the maybe-unique use of ‘illion’ as a rhyming mechanism, and I defy you to nod without grinning:
Don’t you know ’Bout a zillion years ago Some star sneezed, now they’re paging you in reception Don’t you know Jack and Jill-ion years ago Some dinosaur dropped the pail when it saw our reflection Don’t you know We’re all light Yeah, I read that some place Don’t you know We’re all light Yeah, I read that someplace
So you won’t mind if I kiss you now Before indecision can bite Don’t you know in this new dark age We’re all light
‘I'm very proud of the lyrics,’ Partridge disclosed. ‘They started off as gibberish, but I worked them through, and tweaked them, and I think it’s actually one of my better lyrics. Because of the alliteration – and because they’re kind of truthful, you know? In a blink, in terms of the universe, you’re stuff that was in a star, and now you work for some corporation, and you’re in some posh building, and they’re paging you, and you’re in reception. Yet five minutes ago, in the universe’s life span, you were a piece of star cough.’
Then there’s the middle-eight, the ethos:
And I won't take from you what you can't take from me And I'll leave nothing here that you can't use upon your trip And I won't take from you what you can't take from me And I'll leave nothing here but love and milk aplenty for your tea
‘It’s wrong to take from somebody else more than they take from you,’ the poet-scribbler reasoned. ‘Because then you end up exploiting them, and it’s not a balanced relationship. The older I get, I’m not interested in right-wing or left-wing – gimme that middle of the road! That's the safest place, in the middle. It’s a balanced view of things – I try to see the balance in everything now. I think that's a kind of a healthy Yin Yang thing.’
In terms of chords and keys, the genius lies in Partridge’s delicious and possibly quite potty fusion of two-part choral harmonies, George Formbyan scrubbed guitar, screeching Crazy Horses-type keyboards and, surging cheekily and noisily from the mix, the sort of skittering drums last heard on Hold That Tiger and other dancehall gems from the Roaring Twenties.
‘I wanted something that was really kind of jolly and dancey,’ he explained on MySpace in 2007, ‘and I wanted the rhythm to be somewhere between a syncopated Twenties rhythm and a kind of hip-hop rhythm… almost like a big-band syncopated thing… 1920s music makes me really happy.’
The brief he gave his hired drum gun Chuck Sabo was crisp and reasonably clear: ‘Think of a disco propulsion, and any little pushes or pulls in there; think like The Wailers.’ The climax, best and unlikeliest of all, finds Sabo duelling with the most hypnotic theremin solo imaginable. Think Rick Wakeman’s solo on Close To The Edge meets Macca’s synth trills on Band On The Run and multiply by 200bpm.
Miserablism may be the pure pop for today’s now people, but I can just about only do joy. Almost impossible as it was in the 20th century for me to conceive of anything more neck-hair-rousing than LA Woman, Born To Run, Bodhisattva, Pyjamarama, Good Times, All The Young Dudes or American Girl, my 21st century mood elevator of choice has now been enthroned alone for 12 years. Long live the King of Joybringers.
This blog was first published at rocksbackpages.com in July, 2012
Although he is one of a select band to have twice been a finalist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year and has won the EU Journalism Prize and the Cricket Society Literary Award, and contributed to The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times, Rob Steen has spent far too little of his journalistic life writing about music, his foremost love. Having done so for Mojo, Rocksbackpages, Record Mirror, City Limits and The Independent, he is delighted, nay honoured, to have been granted this opportunity to expand his limited repertoire.