“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They full you with the faults they had, and some extra, just for you.” – Philip Larkin
Teenage rebellion is nothing new; in fact, you only have to watch a few episodes of some heroic Sir David Attenborough show and you’ll realise that there’s even something primordial to it. However, the British working-class version of this age-old war of affection and autocracy is a very particular brand, and nobody has embodied it better than XTC with the pockmarked attitude and artistry on ‘Making Plans For Nigel’.
Taken as the lead single from their third album, Drums and Wires, it rattles headlong into the subject, riding on a riff that could rouse a dead sloth into action. The music itself, however, is the product of the theme that spawned it. As Colin Moulding explained to the Guardian: “’Making Plans for Nigel’ was my attempt at an Alan Bennett-type vignette about someone who’s a bit put-upon. There had been Nigel’s at my school. The name felt very English. I couldn’t imagine myself in a song about a Graham or Colin. I had the title first, and the rest came very quickly. I finished the whole song in an afternoon.”
Much like the observable association of poor downtrodden Nigel’s, the matter behind the music is also something he knew well. “The theme of parents trying to dictate their child’s path in life was something I had experience of,” Moulding explains. “When I was 15 I wanted to be in a band and had a big battle with my dad over my not staying on in sixth form. In those days you could get expelled for having long hair – and I was! It took five dispiriting years and a lot of dead-end jobs to break into music, so there’s bit of Nigel in myself.”
When Moulding and his XTC cohorts finally managed to break down the door of the music industry it was thanks to the maelstrom of punk that went before and had already smashed it off its hinges. “The music industry was run by public-school boys in those days, not council estate lads like us,” Moulding says. “But once punk opened the doors, we could explore what we could do. I imagined Nigel working in an office, but not in a top job – probably lower middle management. During the 1970s, British Steel was in the news over industrial disputes, so I gave Nigel ‘a future in British Steel’.”
Hilariously, British Steel sensing that their ever-growing pool of Nigel’s would be perturbed from joining the industry in favour of a career in punk, decided to hit back at the track. Their response was to round up every Nigel at their Sheffield steel plant and have every one of them make a sworn statement about how great their job was. Whether the song or the valiant unified retort of an army of content overalled Nigel’s had any effect on the industry is unknown, but it certainly propelled XTC to new heights.
The encapsulating dénouement to the whole story of the song is in the beauty of the fact that Moulding claims, “I’ve had countless Nigel’s come up to me over the years and say, ‘That song is my life.’” And, alas, in a rather befitting way, the punky vibe that gives the mantra of the song such a visceral edge, is also basically the embodiment of the genre itself. It offers up the simultaneous recognition and exultation that it aimed to provide. As Larkin’s poem sarcastically concludes in proto-punk fashion: “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Got out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.”