Photo by j. botter
Some believe that creators need a firm guiding hand to help them create their best work. Others will swear that a nurturing friend will help a creator make the most of their talent.
So which is right? Should the creator go unchallenged or should they be forced, even bullied, in directions that improve their work? Let’s look at a pop band who experienced both extremes and see what we can learn from them.
XTC was an influential British pop rock band based in Swindon that started recording in the late 1970s. They were known for imaginative, clever, snarky and often beautiful songs. At one time they toured with The Police and Talking Heads and even had their songs covered by future stars like R.E.M. However, in 1982, just as they were starting to hit achieve commercial success, they stopped touring. Unless you’re The Beatles, this is a death sentence for any musical act which has relied heavily on live performances to build a following.
XTC’s core members were Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding and the irrepressible Andy Partridge. Partridge was widely regarded as the driving force behind XTC in terms of personality, creative output, and his drive to shape the band according to his own vision. He also forced the band to stop touring due to a combination of exhaustion, unhappiness and stage fright – just when XTC started to consistently sell hundreds of thousands of albums.
Commercial success is not always a good measure of the quality of one’s work. However, it is a common yardstick to measure progress over time and it is much less subjective than album reviews. Commercially, then, XTC began to look like a failure. The next two albums, Mummer and The Big Express, each sold less than 50,000 copies. With poor new record sales and no other revenues, XTC was also heavily in debt.
Enter the Drill Sergeant
Desperate measures were called for. Virgin Records, despite a rocky relationship with the band, agreed to support the band with a decent budget for a new album. They even managed to get a star producer, Todd Rundgren of Utopia, to sign on for the project. This would prove to be a significant milestone in the band’s history… and their greatest challenge to date.
Partridge was used to setting XTC’s direction and creative output, powered by an unwavering faith in his artistic vision. XTC had a habit of hiring good producers but then largely ignoring or overriding their advice. But they had never worked with Todd Rundgren before. He was as strong, determined and controlling as the band members. He insisted on producing the album in his home studio, deciding on the tracks and their running order, the album theme, making some of the musical arrangements, and so on while paying little attention to the band’s wishes.
The recording process was difficult and full of conflict. Rundgren made no attempt to bond with the band. The band members fought amongst themselves. There were disputes with Rundgren even up to the remix stage, when XTC rejected three remixes of the album, but were forced to accept the third when Rundgren left the project. In the end Skylarking was as much a Todd Rundgren production as it was an XTC album, much to Partridge’s chagrin.
So was it worth the pain, the hard work, and the lack of control?
On the surface, it would seem so.
Propelled by strong critical reviews and the college radio success of the song ‘Dear God’, Skylarking became the band’s biggest record to date. The album sold a quarter of a million units in the US within six months: more sales than their previous three albums combined. In later years, Partridge would later acknowledge that Rundgren helped them make their best album to date.
A More Laid-Back Approach
But the next album, Oranges and Lemons, was a completely different story. Paul Fox was hired to produce it. Partridge would refer to Fox as one of the most caring and nurturing producers he’d ever worked with. Fox was also one of the least experienced producers that XTC worked with: the album was his first big project. Moreover, the relative success of Skylarking helped the band to regain some clout with their record company. This album would stay closer to XTC’s artistic vision, predictably dominated by Partridge’s ideas.
And how did this project work out? Oranges and Lemons was bigger, louder, more intricate, and more colourful than its predecessor. In the first six months after its release, Oranges and Lemons sold twice the number of albums as Skylarking, yielding XTC’s new biggest album ever. Its commercial success was matched with respectable critical acclaim.
What Made the Difference?
How can we explain the difference between the two albums? In a situation with a producer who did little to nurture them, XTC put out their most successful album ever. But, when placed back into a situation with greater creative control and a more positive producing experience, their follow up album was arguably twice as successful as its predecessor. How can we explain this?
- Improved confidence, songwriting skill and musicianship: musicians continue to learn and grow with each project they undertake. Partridge has said that despite the friction with Rundgren, he was quite impressed by some of Rundgren’s musical ideas and arrangements. Between that experience and other natural growth, XTC would naturally become better musicians and writers. A number of the songs on Oranges and Lemons were among the better songs that the band ever recorded.
- The natural boost following the success of Skylarking – the success of the album increased XTC’s US following, particularly on college campuses. New fans would naturally be interested in the next XTC release.
- A more relaxed working environment – relations between Partridge, Moulding, and Gregory were better during the recording of Oranges and Lemons than on Skylarking. The reduced tension between the band members likely made for a more productive environment.
- Personal touch and handling – the contrast between Rundgren and Fox: some people work better in conflict situations, other people need more support and a gentle touch. It could be that XTC, or at least Andy Partridge, just naturally worked better with a producer like Fox.
- The impact of ‘Dear God’ – Skylarking’s sales figures hide a story about how the album really did. We’ll never know for sure, but there’s a good chance that Skylarking would have sunk like a stone without the success of ‘Dear God’ on the US college radio circuit. After its initial release, Skylarking peaked at Number 90 on the album charts and soon began losing ground. However, several thousand copies of ‘Dear God’ were sent to American radio stations… as the B side of the first single! In fact, ‘Dear God’ wasn’t on the original release of Skylarking! Somehow, American DJs decided that ‘Dear God’ was better than ‘Grass’, the single’s A side, and started to play it like mad. The response to the song was so strong that the record company released a different version of Skylarking in the US, including ‘Dear God’. It’s highly unlikely that Skylarking’s sales would have risen as high as they did without the inclusion of ‘Dear God’. This suggests that while Rundgren may have helped XTC to create a great album, it lacked commercial appeal and it was only the good fortune of ‘Dear God’s popularity that sold most of the albums.
What Does This Tell Us about Creative Control?
Does this example suggest to you that the creator works better with a taskmaster or a hand-holder?
Would your feelings change if you were the editor, producer, or coach in this situation instead of being the creator?
Are there other more creative approaches to take your innovative ideas to fruition?
Note: the author is indebted to Chris Twomey’s excellent biography of XTC, Chalkhills and Children, for providing the source material for this article. For an ongoing fount of information about XTC, visit Chalkhills.org.
About the Author: Mark Dykeman is an IT professional, blogger, and writer based in New Brunswick, CANADA. Mark writes at Broadcasting Brain and other fine blogs. You can also find him on Twitter at @markdykeman.