I wrote earlier that XTC embodied a certain strain of Discomfit Pop; this song could very well be its manifesto.
I have also written that Chalkhills.org will be, throughout this series, an invaluable resource. Indeed, in this case, it’s provided an incomparable cipher to the origins of “This is Pop?”
It came to pass that Partridge—Swindon lad, New York Dolls aficionado—heard the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” (“It just sounds like a slower version of The Ramones,” he confessed to Todd Bernhardt) and decided he wanted none of it, the compartmentalization, the hemming in. He relates to Bernhardt:
I thought, “I don’t want to be called ‘Punk’ — I want to name us before we are pigeonholed by someone else.” Then I thought, “Well, what sort of music do we make?” And once I’d seen the Sex Pistols on this video, I thought, “Well, it’s just Pop! You can’t call it anything else — it’s just Pop music.” And that was the revelation. It is just Pop music — let’s call a spade a digging implement! [laughs] Let’s be honest about this. This is Pop, what we’re playing.
It was pop they were playing, even if, as Partridge admits in one of the verses, “We play the songs much too loud.”
Of the multiple versions that exist, two are of especial interest: the original album version and the (of all people) Robert “Mutt” Lange rerecording, which became the single version.
Admittedly, I can’t distinguish much difference between the album version and the single version. The single version used in the promo video below, for instance, has got more squiggle to it, Partridge’s vocals sounding more tense. The tone sums up the song, that why-the-hell-are-you-talking-to-me tenor.
The album version, if we’re to believe the video above (in spite of it promoting the “This is Pop? b/w “Heatwave” single; I know, it’s all very confusing), has a bit more verve to it, more cutting guitar in lieu of squiggle.
Both versions sound squeamish with themselves; I don’t know if I’d have it any other way.
The lyrics are straightforward, although there’s a bit of a wrinkle established in the first stanza:
“In a milk bar and feeling lost / Drinking sodas as cold as frost / Someone leans in my direction / Quizzing on my juke-box selection…”
Andy Partridge acknowledges the reference in the first strains of “This is Pop?” frankly: “I always imagined this as a piece of music playing in a moloko (milk) bar in A Clockwork Orange.”
Perhaps Partridge was recasting himself as a droog, although none of Clockwork’s imagery crops up in the promo video, which mines the “pop music as commodity” train of thought. That said, I think Anthony Burgess (if he could have stomached the first line since he believed A Clockwork Orange to be “a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks,” as related in his biography of D.H. Lawrence, Flame into Being) might have gotten a prostatic tingle at the sight of vinyl being sliced like meat—choice cuts anyone?
B-side “Heatwave” continued the early tradition of XTC B-sides; it just isn’t very interesting, although it’s a step up from “Hang On To The Night” by dint of its funky propulsion and squiggly textures. Partridge, sing-songy here “waiting for a heat wave,” sounds almost demented on the track, always a treat. The outtake version (found on Coat Of many Cupboards under the name “Heatwave MKII Deluxe”) is crisper and less shambolic; in my opinion, it would have worked better instead of the version that ended up accompanying “This is Pop?”