The Meaning Behind “The Mayor of Simpleton” by XTC and Its Journey from Reggae to Pop Perfection

XTC tended to operate under the radar for much of their recording career. Now and again, however, the British band would drop a picture-perfect pop song that would work its way out of the relative obscurity this perpetually underrated band endured. “Mayor of Simpleton” made just such a dent, becoming the band’s biggest “hit” in the U.S. (it only reached No. 72, although it topped the alternative charts).

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What was the song about? How did the song transform from when it was first written to its finished version? And how were songwriter Andy Partridge’s expectations for the song realized? Let’s find out all the details about “The Mayor of Simpleton.”

Always Under the Radar

Like many so-called alternative bands of the ’80s, XTC attracted a devoted following but struggled to break out on a wider level. Part of that came from their refusal to stay in any lane when making music, as they were just as likely to churn out some aggressive, knotty post-punk as to deliver a pop song for mass consumption.

They also tended to do things a bit off the beaten path, such as release entire albums under an alter ego (The Dukes of Stratosphear). Three years passed between Skylarking, which attracted attention via the buzzy single “Dear God,” and Oranges and Lemons, which arrived in 1989 and included “The Mayor of Simpleton.” That delay also robbed them of some momentum.

Partridge, who wrote the bulk of XTC’s material (Colin Moulding chipped in a few songs here and there), suffered a bit of writer’s block after Skylarking. But he broke out of it in a big way, so much so that Oranges and Lemons turned out to be a double album.

The lead single, “The Mayor of Simpleton,” took its final form only after some reworking. It initially featured a much slower tempo and reggae-like rhythms. While fooling around with it, Partridge stumbled upon some guitar notes that suggested a faster tempo, which in turn suited the lyric he had written. He explained in a 2007 interview how important it is for songwriters to stick with songs that might not initially be working, coming up with a construction metaphor in the process:

“Sometimes you can make a great roof, but the building it’s on top of is just not happening. You know, you’ve made the roof of the Louvre or something, and put it on top of a mud hut! So, you mess around a bit—and in my case, I blunder—and then suddenly you sometimes find the key to the rest of the building under it, and you keep at it until it looks in proportion.”

Once Partridge had the format he wanted, he could hear every part of the song. Hence, he essentially dictated the song’s bass line for Moulding to play, because he had written it specifically to play off the melody and the guitar.

What is “The Mayor of Simpleton” About?

The Sam Cooke soul chestnut “What a Wonderful World” presented a narrator who loves a girl but worries he isn’t book smart enough to deserve her. “The Mayor of Simpleton” expands upon this a bit, in that Partridge’s hero believes that, denseness aside, he has something to offer: If depth of feeling is a currency / Then I’m the man who grew the money tree.

This guy is self-aware enough to know what he can’t do, such as calculate the weight of the sun or write a big hit song (that last bit a clever little in-joke by Partridge about his group’s standing). But he suggests throughout that the fancy book learning can’t measure up to emotional intelligence: When their logic grows cold and all thinking gets done / You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton.

Partridge tosses off several great one-liners in the short span of the song, all while making a pretty salient point about what’s ultimately important when it comes to love. The odd thing about “The Mayor of Simpleton” is how it mitigates intelligence, even as it came courtesy of XTC, the thinking person’s pop band.

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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