Respectable Street (Partridge)

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Black Sea / Respectable Street

RESPECTABLE STREET

XTC were a formidable and creative musical entity throughout their career, placing emphasis on honesty of feeling and quality of expression. In terms of rock music there was no one else quite like them: they could write songs of such tenderness they would make your heart ache; or of such brutality you wanted to go out and steal a car or punch an Elected Official (remember, vote No Violence). They were as good as The Beatles and as pioneering as Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush. For some, they were an acquired taste, like a John Coltrane solo. They were always present and listening.

The selected years of 1980-1989 have been chosen as the time-frame for our analysis for a reason – the albums created in that decade of our youth tell a story wherein the central metaphor is journey and travel. As writers, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding may be unaware of this central metaphor of transformation, for it is magical and occurs in the privacy of personal experience, the Meeting Place of artist and audience. Each album marks a distinct movement in this engagement: we travel by boat across the Black Sea (1980); by land with the English Settlement (1982); by foot on the roads of Mummer (1983); by rail on the locomotive of The Big Express (1985). We meet The Dukes of Stratosphear just-in-time for 25’O Clock (1986) and follow a metamorphosed and reinvigorated XTC into the sunny cauldrons of Skylarking (1986). We dance in the transformative heat of Psonic Psunspot (1987), and are propelled back to Earth by the solar flare that is Oranges and Lemons (1989), oddly complete.

It’s in the order of their hedgerows
It’s in the way their curtains open and close
It’s in the look they give you down their nose
All part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose…

And so we begin, as all journey’s must, at home, in Your Room, plotting an escape. “I’m so wiped out with things as they are,” David Bowie tells us before making that transformation as a rock ‘n’ roll star, and so Andy peeks from behind the curtains onto Bowood Road and he doesn’t like what he sees. ‘Respectable Street’ is a song about hypocrisy, the religious and moral hypocrisy of others – a thematic precursor to ‘No Thugs In Our House‘ – but it also carries the whiff of self-criticism, for while the target is undoubtedly those mean-spirited and dour “curtain twitchers” that define middle-class experience (‘It’s in the look they give you down their nose‘) the writer is a curtain twitcher also, observing with stern disapproval the church-goers, Avon sellers, and sexed up sons and daughters that tramp and retch across the gardens of Swindon.

One of the driving forces of suburbia is the desire for status, and the possession of consumer goods greatly defines the goings on Respectable Street, from the slammed door of the new car purchase (‘What d’you think he bought that car for’); to the rows of caravans that sit idle, waiting for a sunny holiday that is promised but never quite taken; to the Avon Lady selling her pump-and-dump face-creams and trinklets; to the ‘immaculate reception’ made possible by the purchase of all those new Sony Entertainment Centers – a pointed (and hilarious) juxtaposition of Immaculate Conception & Reception, an image that pairs the capitalist impulse with the new Church of Materialism… Blessed are the Cheesemakers!

As Narrator and Sunday Saint trade eye-daggers across the road, both are trapped by their relationship to money: she (presumably) has money and covets status but lacks the creative fortitude or personal insight on how to spend it with joy and consideration; and he (presumably) is broke but is armed with the brass knuckles of creativity – a formidable sword, the only draw-back being that the ridiculed targets will go to their graves blissfully unaware of such concepts as satire, irony, and humor. Watch as writer Martin Amis captures the intellectual bewilderment of those who live on Respectable Street:

A sense of humor is a serious business; and it isn’t funny, not having one. Watch the humorless closely: the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them…The humorless have no idea what is going on and can’t make sense of anything at all.

The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-200

Without the cash to distance himself from prying eyes, the narrator relies on his powers of observation and craft to make a point: in this regard ‘Respectable Street’ is a skillful example of structure and word choice. We are introduced to the world of ‘Respectable Street’ and Black Sea via the medium of its own telling: the long-playing record. For the song’s opening an old-time 78 RPM cackles to life and the upper-crust provides the mock introduction : ‘It’s in the order of their hedgerows-row-o-o-o-ows‘. This is the classic dramatic device of Exposition – that portion of a story that introduces context via setting, events, and characters. Adhering to the proto-punk sensibility of the times, Andy goes on to lay down a series of clipped and in-your-face rhyming couplets: Abortions precede proportions; contraception anticipates reception; fetching has a head start on retching, and so forth. The tricky tightrope of cleverness and punk that XTC navigated around this time would soon be abandoned – deemed unnecessary by English Settlement – and so the quarrel is arty (a good word in our view) but the words are clear and to-the-point. Likewise, the guitars are clear and crisp, shooting down your spine like lightening strikes, and the drums are a concussion of modern, decade-defining sound: Black Sea is Terry Chambers best album with XTC, with opening cut ‘Respectable Street’ introducing a series of heavy patterns that find its fullest, darkest expression by album closer ‘Travels in Nihilon’. The boys all know what it is like to be judged, looked down upon, and this, their fourth and perhaps most tightly sequenced album, is their sonic revenge. Bang the wall for me to turn down

The arrows of good taste, Bowood Road (Respectable Street)

On the surface ‘Respectable Street’ appears straight-forward in its satire and clarity of attack. Yet while the hedgerows get the amusing Pleasant Valley Sunday treatment, the song also contains a critique of creativity, for beneath its surface it holds the hypocritical position of hating a particular environment while also being beholden to it. T.S Eliot, for example, wrote ‘The Waste Land’, a nihilistic slab of brilliance (‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust‘) while working as a bank-teller in a suburban town. (Sounding like he lived close to Respectable Street, Eliot wrote to Conrad Aiken on New Year’s Eve 1914: “I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls … Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead” (Aiken)). Indeed, ‘I Don’t Like To Be Dead’ could be the sub-title for ‘Respectable Street’.

While some musicians traveled abroad for the first time in their teens and wrote of their adventures on the road (It’s hardly worth my while/To tell you of my travels/Across the golden east – Chris Difford, Squeeze), Andy returned home to write of domesticity and growing concerns about being judged:

I can see them with their stern frown
as they dispense the kind of look that says
they’re perfect

Increasingly uninterested in physical travel himself, Andy Partridge invents a narrator to tell a tale of neighborhood hypocrisy and madness from the confines of his small flat on Kingshill Road, Swindon. Similarly, nestled behind a pillar at Lloyds of London, T.S Eliot promises to show us fear in a handful of dust. There is a central tension in ‘Respectable Street’ that struggles to separate the observer from the observed: the creative imagination has no limits and enjoys absolute freedom of travel, yet in most instances requires the respite of stability and tranquility to execute its freedoms, a respite that it paradoxically resents. ‘Respectable Street’ is a killer opening on an album produced by a rock group at the peak of its live powers, a muscular force moving across the planet in search of fame and fortune – status seekers of a different kind. What happens next is well known and much discussed in the history of XTC – Andy’s retirement from the stage and the band focusing their work full-time in the studio. (Ah, what gems lay in store for us). ‘Respectable Street’ is the beginning of the end of the touring XTC, as the opening track on Black Sea could only have been written at home, from the vistas and confines of domestic living. May the curtain-twitchers of the world unite and take over.

Recorded: June-July 1980, Townhouse Studios, London

Credits: Promo picture XTC, 1980; Victorian London streets with terraces, Gustave Doré, 1872; Bowood Street, Swindon (do a Google map search for Bowood and there’s actually a pic of a soon-to-be-retching son washing his Dad’s car while the Google van drives by. Hilarious); Bowood getting tagged in various locations for a bright future by Swindon City Council; lady peering over fence courtesy of corymorgan.com

Lyric:

It’s in the order of their hedgerows
it’s in the way their curtains open and close
it’s in the look they give you down their nose
all part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose

Heard the neighbour slam his car door
don’t he realise this is respectable street
What d’you think he bought that car for
‘cos he realise this is respectable street

Now they talk about abortion
in cosmopolitan proportions to their daughters
as they speak of contraception
And immaculate receptions on their portable
Sony entertainment centres.

Now she speaks about diseases
and which sex position pleases best her old man
Avon lady fills the creases
when she manages to squeeze in past the caravans
that never move from their front gardens.

It’s in the order of their hedgerows
it’s in the way their curtains open and close
it’s in the look they give you down their nose
all part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose
Sunday church and they look fetching
Saturday night saw him retching over our fence
bang the wall for me to turn down
I can see them with their stern frown
as they dispense the kind of look that says
they’re perfect.



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