Like a lot of people who went to college around 1989, I figured that XTC was a group right on the cusp of breaking out in the US, having no idea that, years before, they had come awfully close.
Actually, that’s overstating the case considerably, which is what makes this story so unusual. It would be more accurate to say “like a small handful of people who listened to college radio and watched 120 Minutes and were at the right age to go to college around 1989.” XTC was not a band that most anybody knew about, but it is true that, years before, they came close. From 1978 to 1981, without a hit radio single, Elvis Costello had punched five LPs into the American top 30. Armed Forces peaked at # 10, Get Happy!!, my favorite of all his records, made # 11. The Clash also had three top 30 albums in the same period. XTC was one of a number of English “new wave” acts whose American label steered in that direction, following the strategy that The Clash and Costello’s local label, Columbia, had employed.
The boys from Swindon were signed in the US to Geffen, who focused on Rolling Stone magazine, who bit, and younger-skewing magazines like the Clash-obsessed Trouser Press, along with “new wave”-friendly radio stations in the important corridor of Philadelphia-New York-Boston. XTC didn’t manage quite the crossover appeal that the Columbia acts did, but their LPs Black Sea and English Settlement did make it into the lower rungs of the top 50 in 1981-82. When I learned about that in late 1989, I was hugely and pleasantly surprised. I’d wrongly thought XTC had been following the better-known (in 1988-89) Echo & the Bunnymen and The Cure up the long, long road from obscurity in America. However, the truth is that at the same time XTC was peaking around # 48, Sire could barely move the Bunnymen into the top 200, and A&M couldn’t get a chart album out of The Cure in three tries before giving up and letting them find a new label.
So XTC was a respectable B-list act in America, and their records were selling by the ton in that Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor, on the strength of some really terrific live shows in 1981. Illicit recordings from that period show them to have been an astonishing live band. If I’d have been at that amazing Philly show (well, Cherry Hill), I’d have found nothing else to talk about in the last thirty years. XTC was right on the cusp of being enormous, and then it fell apart. They planned to start a spring 1982 tour on the West Coast. Then frontman Andy Partridge’s wife cut him off from a lifetime’s dependence on Valium – it really is a sad story – and he had a complete breakdown and simply couldn’t perform on stage anymore. The canceled tour cost XTC all of their built-up goodwill, turned them into the butt of constant jokes (“Stage fright ?!“) from insensitive DJs who weren’t planning on playing them anyway, and their two next records, which were admittedly not anywhere as good as the American near-hits, both badly flopped.
But by 1987, college radio had become a regular format around the country, and XTC found an oddball second chance. Their new album Skylarking was following in its predecessors’ ill-fated footsteps – two weeks at the very bottom of the Billboard top 200, a dismissive pan in Rolling Stone – when it found a new life. DJs at college stations were kids who enjoyed giving every song on an LP a chance, not just the label’s desired “radio emphasis track,” and, obsessive record collectors all, they enjoyed listening to and promoting B-sides. You couple that drive with the undergraduate desire to break out of your parents’ mold – there are atheists of every age, but none so loud as a nineteen year-old – and you’ve got a recipe for success when somebody noticed “Dear God” on the flip side of XTC’s not-a-hit-single “Grass.” As a lyric, I’m sorry, it’s weak, building up a straw man idea of God and whining that He doesn’t do what the writer wanted Him to do, but it’s a great performance, and every college station in the US was playing it in heavy rotation by the summer. Geffen quickly reissued Skylarking with “Dear God” added to the running order, put it out as a single, had the band shoot a video, and, at least on the left of the dial, XTC finally had an American radio hit, and a brand new fan base.
So that sets the stage for this remarkably unlikely incident in the spring of 1990. About a year previously, XTC released a quite good album called Oranges & Lemons, which followed their 1981-82 near-hits into the top 50. If you were in high school in 1989 and of the “corporate rock sucks” mindset, then you knew this record. You knew the lead single, “The Mayor of Simpleton,” backward and forward. You knew it like you knew “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” by Morrissey and “Ana Ng” by They Might Be Giants and “Fascination Street” by The Cure and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by The Pixies and “Trouble Me” by 10,000 Maniacs, because they were all played at least four times a week during the only times you ever watched MTV, to see 120 Minutes and Post Modern MTV, and because every college radio station in America put them all in the heaviest rotation. To be anywhere from the age of 17-21 in 1989 and not interested in whatever was one of those boring people’s hits – Garth Brooks and Richard Marx, I expect – was to know “The Mayor of Simpleton.”
But since most people were interested in Richard Marx, what happened at this Gyro Wrap was still a little unlikely.
This was one of my favorite places for a Sunday lunch. The Mean Bean, my favorite restaurant of all time, was closed on Sundays, and I had not yet discovered the Shrimp Boats on Baxter. A year later, there would be that legendary $2.99 coupon for a fish sandwich, fries, slaw, and a drink. I think I told somebody once that I couldn’t afford to come home one weekend, because I was eating cheaper in Athens.
The Gyro Wrap wasn’t all that cheap, but it sure was good. I liked to get the gyro platter, specifying that I liked it wrapped and not open face. I loved their white sauce, their curly fries, their wonderful salad of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers in vinegar. I loved the banter of the people working behind the counter. I loved watching them dance around each other as they took plates into the dining room. I loved watching the one guy carve the slices of meat from the rotating spit. I loved the framed picture of Ronald Reagan advertising cigarettes. He sent Chesterfields to all his friends, for the merriest Christmas any smoker can have. And I loved the music, because the Gyro Wrap always played 90.5 FM, WUOG Athens.
So here’s the scene. It’s a Sunday morning about 11.45 during the warm spring of 1990. Sundays in Athens were quiet in 1990. They probably still are. If you didn’t stay out late enough on Friday, then you certainly did on Saturday. The town smells like warming beer going stale. There’s one homeless guy you’ll always give a dollar to, but only that one, because he’s a sweet man with an enormous smile and he’s fewer than four years from dying. You walk around the Arch because you’re still a freshman. At the corners of College Square, you’ve got Yudy’s and China Eventually. If Barnett’s is open on Sundays, and it probably isn’t, it isn’t open yet, meaning you need to stop by a box to get a Flagpole and a Classic City Live and a Red & Black, all of which you have already read, if you didn’t have anything in your dorm that you wanted to bring, but you need to have something to read.
Even if you listened to Richard Marx, you remember that scene.
I want to say that WUOG didn’t have regular rotation when I was in Gyro Wrap on Sundays. I think that they had a “freeform” or a “free-for-all” or whatever they called it at the time. I want to say that some girl had got permission to play XTC for two hours. Since WUOG was, even by college radio standards, a little snobby about playing singles, that’s the most likely reason that “The Mayor of Simpleton” got played then. Besides, the record was a year old at this point. Old enough for everybody to know it.
“Never been near a university / Never took a paper or a learned degree…”
You know those cheesy bits in movies where people start singing together? Large groups of people? Usually, it’s something like “I Say a Little Prayer for You” or something that everybody knows a word or seven of.
“Well I don’t know how to tell the weight of the sun / And of mathematics well I want none / And I may be the Mayor of Simpleton / But I know one thing, and that’s I love you…”
There were three, maybe four other people with me at the counter. Figure four people working. Those four were singing together by the chorus. The guy next to me joined in. Despite signing a treaty in Geneva to never sing in public until and unless there would, in the future, be a teenage girl to mortify, I followed him right in, probably with “I love you.”
“And some of your friends thinks it’s really unsound / That you’re even seen talking to me…”
We were all singing. Every one of us. We all knew this song and loved it. We got louder and sillier and somebody turned the volume up. People were singing into their forks and dancing in their seats. Nobody stood on the counter, but I’d like to believe that the seven or eight people in the dining room were bopping along with us, and that outside, in that traffic island on Broad Street with the memorial obelisks, there was a whole dance routine going. We sang through the whole song and applauded at the end, and even if the Mean Bean had been open on Sundays, I would not have had a better lunch there.
This couldn’t have happened anywhere else or at any time. “The Mayor of Simpleton.” Who remembers that? That wasn’t a hit. If you put this in a movie, nobody would believe it. But it’s true. I don’t know what I studied in the spring of 1990, but I know what I sang. I know one thing, and that’s I love you…
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