Thursday, July 26, 2007

No Thugs in Our House

Cover to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The song, from English band XTC's 1982 double album, English Settlement, reminds one of the ideological divides between "city" and "country". It is plausible that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, et al., were familiar with critic Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (1975), but at least there seems to be a subtle, indelible thread connecting these works. Take, for instance, Williams' assertion that urban views on the pastoral, and that pastoral views on the urban both constitute a "problem of perspective" made manifest through English literature in the 19th century. Williams notes:
For it is a critical fact that in and through these transforming experiences English attitudes to the country, and to ideas of rural life, persisted with extraordinary power, so that even after the society was predominantly urban its literature, for a generation, was still predominantly rural; and even in the twentieth century, in an urban and industrial land, forms of the older ideas and experiences still remarkably persist. All this gives the English experience and interpretation of the country and the city a permanent though of course not exclusive importance. (1975:2)
The song "No Thugs in Our House" from English Settlement also aims at this essential paradox of views. The song opens with an acoustic-electric Kinks-inspired riff, snare drum bristling in the upper register. The brash, new wave, post-post skiffle rocker finally kicks in with two angular themes: the first, a series of modes played on an overdriven electric guitar periodically interrupted by a giant crash of cymbals; the second, singer Andy Partridge's prolonged, guttural scream hovering over the raucous noise.

The perfect English country estate, record label, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

Is there is something incessantly urban, unabashedly "London" about the sound? Perhaps. Yet the song's lyrics reveal something that Williams himself may have been alluding to. The lyrics itemize the elements of a rural tragi-comedy: an unthinkable violent act, a controversial investigation, and a surprising suspect -- all having the combined effect of brining urbanism's malaise into the English countryside. In the song's opening verse, Partridge sings:
The insect-headed worker-wife will hang her waspies on the line.
The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying the kitchen-floor.
His viscous poly-paste breath comes out.
Their wall-paper world is shattered by his shout.
A boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen floor.
The boy in blue is Graham, a prime suspect in a racially-related beating. In the ensuing investigation, no one seems to be able to make of Graham's peculiar habits, all signs that this rural boy is perfectly capable of carrying out an act thinkable only in the dank, dingy alleyways of a London borough. This, of course, surprises Graham's parents, especially after some major revelations about their son's past surface soon after his arrest:
They never read those pamphlets in his bottom drawer.
They never read that tattoo on his arm.
They thought that was just a boys' club badge he wore.
They never thought he'd do folks any harm.
It all ends with a remarkable miscarriage of justice. Graham escapes incarceration (his father is a magistrate), the peace in the country is maintained. The incident becomes a footnote in the county ledgers. As the lyrics tell, the remote, isolated countryside is indeed the world where Graham "could do just what he wanted to." In other words, total freedom leads to wanton violence.

"No Thugs in Our House" clocks in at a respectable 5'16, fading into the opening strains of "Yacht Dance", which is perhaps English Settlement's loveliest pastoral. Yet the UK single version of "No Thugs in Our House", released on May 14, 1982, features a packaging concept that toys with the urban/rural divide, that reminds us of Williams' observation at the beginning of this post. The single's cover art (and included printed matter) are compelling examples of how pop culture artifacts can operate as a formidable form of architectural representation and not-so-minor armchair culture criticism.

The single's front cover (see topmost image) evokes capital- "T" Theatre. It is an illustration of a gilded proscenium stage. The apron and wings are marked with a series of horizontal lines that suggest music staves. Everything is interspersed with random red squiggles. On the right and left wings, orphic lyrae sprout upwards and form a set of gaudy city street lights. A red damask curtain dangles precariously inside the proscenium arch. The curtain accentuates a series of gilded pierrot masks almost floating above the stage apron, also acting as a counterpoint to the apron bearing the sign "XTC Theatre". All of these suggests something incessantly urban -- street lights flank and frame the audience's nosebleed view to a performance.

Sleeve insert to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The interior sleeve is the performance's own stage set. It is a sectional perspective of a two-story rural house. If one were to peer in through the stage, he or she would be immediately aware of a staggering difference in scale. The gas range, the kitchen table, cupboard are immense. But perhaps this scalar distortion reminds us of Williams' own views. The rural homestead literally becomes an object to be analyzed and dissected. The proscenium stage's maw becomes a lens through which the malaise of rural life can be properly diagnosed.

The interior, then, is basically a caricature of a proper English country residence. Everything is set for a nuclear family of three: three plates, three chairs, three kettles, three spoons, three coffee mugs. All the bric-a-brac of everyday English rural existence is rendered in a gaudy palette of near-primary colors. The table, rug, and chairs are all yellow. The stairs, a deep scarlet. The curtains are drawn in hues of royal azure. All in all, the bottom floor suggests the colors of the standard Union Flag: brilliant, pristine, impeccable.

Is is thus ironic that the very object that covers sleeping Graham in the dark, unlit upper storey is a Union Flag. The main protagonist of "No Thugs in Our House" is draped in the mantle of his nurturing homeland ... a system that allowed him to get away with a heinous offense. Graham sleeps soundly, his back turned to the theatre audience. We only see the top of his head, his amorphous body now becoming the only symbol of civil and political affiliation.

Paper cut-outs, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The other characters in "No Thugs in Our House" -- Graham's magistrate father and insect-headed mom, and a police investigator -- are drawn as paper cut-outs. They are hewn in various action poses. The cutouts contain several versions of Graham's father: sitting reading a paper and smoking a pipe; in a barrister's get-up; embracing his insect-headed wife. The mother, on the other hand, is shown in various poses connoting utter domesticity. Perhaps the insect head is entirely appropriate as it suggests an ant-drone-like existence, an unquestionable follower tangled in a skein of authority. The cerulean-uniformed, bobby-capped police investigator, on the other hand, is frozen in a typical pose: he raises his hand, forbidding someone from jaywalking, pointing at the aphoristic cat trapped in a tree. It is an image of sham authority. All are two-dimensional puppets in a theatre. Graham is literally above it all, oblivious, carefree, asleep.

To be sure, this is more than a suggestion of theatre. In 1982, a person could have walked into a record shop and purchased the single for "No Thugs in Our House." After a long bus ride, he or she would enter the bed room, undo the shrinnk wrapping, and play with figures of Graham's parents while listening to Andy Partridge's angry, Johnny Winter-esque screams. The ingenious packaging for the "No Thugs in Our House" single is invariably resonant. "XTC Theatre" is one of those rare devices that undergird Raymond Williams' observation, again from The Country and The City:
A critique of a whole dimension of modern life, and with it many necessary general questions, was expressed but also reduced to a convention, which took the form of a detailed version of a part-imagined, part-observed Rural England. It is a convention that has since held the shape of many lives. (1975:261)


Anonymous said...

Nice analysis...although I do believe in the first verse, the line is "a boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen DOOR," which I always took to refer to a policeman (british police are always portrayed in blue). Everything else was very nice!

enrique said...

Goodness, you are right!!! I was relying on my not-so-reliable ears for the lyric. All these years I was thinking that it was Graham literally banging his head on the "floor" -- a sign of his deranged mind. The "boy in blue" I always thought to be a euphemism/reference to Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" (c.1770). Thank you for the correction!