/ Grass, Virgin, 1986
‘A lot has been written and wrangled over with this song, and, you know, it hasn’t deserved it. I just tried to wrestle with the paradox of God and the last dying doubts of belief that had hung, bat like, in the dark corners of my head since childhood. I’ll just say one more time this song failed to crystallize all my thoughts on the subject in under 4 minutes. Human belief is too big a beast to bring to the floor in such a short time.’ – Andy Partridge on ‘Dear God’ in the notes to Coat of many cupboards.
I was sorely tempted to pick something else. After all, this is the group which as long ago as 1982 released a set of B sides, Beeswax – whose title this blog perhaps ought to have appropriated as its own – alongside the hits on Waxworks. And that was at a point when we were less than half-way through the story, if we measure out XTC’s time in studio albums. From across that range the offcuts have often been as strong as those LPs’ individual highlights, and in a parallel world might have unseated some of them. The dubscapes of ‘Pulsing pulsing’ and ‘The somnambulist’; the brash attack of ‘Don’t lose your temper’ and ‘Limelight’ (twice outed as a B side and giving XTC’s official fanzine back in the eighties its name); twisted pop songs like ‘Smokeless zone’, and ‘Punch and Judy’ and straighter ones like ‘Blame the weather’ or ‘Desert island’. One of the ‘Homo Safari’ experimental instrumentals even – ‘Procession towards learning land’, say. (The Dukes of Stratosphear being an alter-ego, I consider myself free to do ‘My love explodes’ or ‘Vanishing girl’ at a later date.)
Most likely it would have been ‘Jump’ with its incredible surfeit of musical ideas, or the West Country pop art experimentalism of ‘Red brick dream’. But Andy Partridge’s missive to the Almighty, inspired by books of children’s letters to God, continues to command attention, just as it generated attention at the time of its release, tucked evasively away on side B of ‘Grass’, Colin Moulding’s jovial and psychedelic double entendre. It didn’t matter to the listener then that Andy feels he failed to put across a rounded and complete assessment of his own non-belief, and it doesn’t matter now. What matters is that he captured headline messages from his own internal newspaper and put these across in a way which immediately connected with the readership. Who has ever said everything there is to say on a subject in the course of a pop song (give or take Bob Dylan)? The best you can do is put across those big feelings and personalise them with the kind of small detail which enlarges both their humanity and their artistry. Andy Partridge was already a master of this craft when he penned ‘Dear God’ and I wonder if his coolness about the song reflects a sense that even after setting out his position, doubts about his doubt remained; because, where God is concerned, certainty is a fool’s game. And though he has said that if the song upsets anyone, they deserve to be upset, perhaps he was worried – having just recorded in America with Todd Rundgren in a somewhat desperate effort to increase their attractiveness across the water – that it might lead to the kind of Stateside troubles that the Beatles unwittingly engendered when Lennon estimated the Fab Four’s popularity as against Jesus’. Indeed, when college radio stations started playing the song, it did upset fundamentalists, though of course nothing like as much as Lennon’s Jesus quote. But such was the interest in the song that XTC’s American label Geffen were forced to re-press Skylarking, with ‘Mermaid smiled’ giving way to ‘Dear God’, and the album subsequently became a milestone for the group, selling in sufficiently healthy quantities to gift them another album or two of commercial lenience from Virgin. So the infamous battles between producer and band, the belligerence of which may also have served to warp Partridge’s opinion of the sessions’ stand-out song, ultimately did XTC an enormous amount of good, as well as giving us their most atypical LP, up there with their more characteristic best (Drums and wires and Mummer in this fan’s opinion).
There are three versions of ‘Dear God’ available, which allow us to trace the song’s development backwards from the fully realised song to Andy’s earliest sketch of it. First came the original, realised in the studio together with Todd. Much later a release was granted to the blueprint band demo through the medium of the Coat of many cupboards box set. The structure and lyrics are in place, but the recording – never of course originally intended to be heard – toots and parps a little, although Dave’s crunchy lead guitar, not dissimilar to that of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ (the Blues being an immediate signifier for God and the Devil), is more evident and gives the song a counter-cultural sixties feel distinct from the epic, string- and Todd-powered nature of the end result. Finally, on the fifth disc of the Fuzzy warbles series, in which Andy trawled his archives in what some including Colin Moulding felt was a disreputably sea-bed scraping way, there is the ‘skiffle version’ – the sketchy Doneganesque beginnings of the song, its tempo, mood and lyric all yet to settle down into the serious shape of the demo and studio versions. That Andy persevered – it took ‘several blacksmith-like bending and bashing sessions’ – suggests that the song was unusually important to him, and worth struggling over.
The earlier versions are for those whose musical sensibility was shaped or hard-wired by the sound of XTC, and still return to swim in their black seas, even after all these years. All anyone else needs is the remastered version of Skylarking, which ‘Dear God’ now concludes. (The original sequencing idea was for it to appear between ‘The man who sailed around his soul’ and ‘Dying’. But in the end it was left off in favour of ‘Another satellite’, a song much harder to love.)
Unlike certain of the songs on Skylarking – ‘Summer’s cauldron’, the triptych of ‘Ballet for a rainy day’, ‘1000 umbrellas’ and ‘Season cycle’, ‘Earn enough for us’ and ‘Dying’ – ‘Dear God’ is not flawless. One or two of the rhymes are ordinary, and although it was sound lateral thinking on Todd’s part to have a child sing the opening and closing lines instead of Andy, and eight year old American Jasmine Veillette does a great job, it’s a shame that recording with Todd obviously meant that they were unlikely to have the wherewithal to fly a similarly aged kid from Swindon across the pond to act as Partridge junior for verisimilitude’s sake. The idea ultimately works because it gives song the necessary low-key introduction from which Andy can then build its emotional and intellectual charge:
‘and all the people that you made in your image
see them fighting in the street
’cause they can’t make opinions meet
about God – I can’t believe in you’
Colin adds a thrumming and melodious bass line to the glorious and quizzical middle eight:
‘Did you make disease, and the diamond blue?
Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!’
In come sweeping strings with which I would wager Todd meant to echo George Martin’s arrangement two minutes into ‘I am the walrus’, developing the orchestral tension then released at the song’s climax through some seriously thunderous kettledrumming and Andy’s impassioned, angry vocal:
‘I won’t believe in heaven and hell
No saints, no sinners, no devil as well
No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You’re always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found,
and it’s the same the whole world ’round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That Father, Son and Holy Ghost
is just somebody’s unholy hoax
and if you’re up there you’d perceive
that my heart’s here upon my sleeve
If there’s one thing I don’t believe in
it’s you… Dear God.’
What an irony that the cover of ‘Grass’ reproduces Colin’s admittedly clever lyric to his song while ‘Dear god’ is listed at the end of them; an afterthought. Even as a B side it played second fiddle to the shiny happiness of ‘Extrovert’. But you can’t keep a good song down, and ‘Dear God’ was released as an A side the following year, although typically for XTC by then the moment had passed and it did not chart. Nevertheless it has become one of XTC’s best-known songs, and in popular music’s everlasting swing between God and the devil, Andy Partridge’s epistle strikes a particularly human (as well as humanist) note that will surely continue to resonate down the years.
Everything you could possibly want to know about XTC and aren’t afraid to spend a moment or two looking for: