Monthly Archives: August 2016

CHALICE AFORETHOUGHT

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August 2016 has been a red letter month for reissues because after I thought “English Settlement” would never come off the playlist, there is a new remastered Super Deluxe Edition of the Simple Minds classic from 1982 – “New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)” to replace it endlessly.

And it is just as wonderful as it sounds.

Now I have already recently written about Simple Minds when mounting a defence of the sometimes neglected “Once Upon A Time” which would be released three years later but during the course, I admitted my love for this album above all their others – indeed it figures in my Twelve That Travel list which features in the main menu – and said that if they ever got round to a new version and box set I would be unstoppable in wanting to write about it.

Now I have to admit, I have versions of this album from each of its releases. I’ve had it on cassette, CD and then remastered version and I have a beautiful version in marbled gold vinyl to complement the striking cover. – which is one of my favourite, if naturally unplayed, pieces of my collection… together with the singles in all their various formats – picture discs, remixes and poster bags.

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Every single piece of this album’s construction screams attention to detail – from packaging, to design to sonic creativity.

But then that was always at the very heart of the album.

I had the pleasure of seeing a later version of the band perform the album in its entirety and you easily realise what a complete work it is. It is therefore, a wonderfully difficult album to deconstruct as it it fits together so seamlessly, with each track blending beautifully into the next, creating a textured soundscape that makes me suggest this is the best album Brian Eno never made.

It is interesting because Simple Minds previous work was patchy and heavily took its influence from Bowie’s Eno-produced Berlin trilogy, which (and I appreciate this is sacrilegious now) could be quite unlistenable in parts.

Yet when I listen now to the composition and delicacy of this album it resembles far more those other titans of Glam Art – Roxy Music. It shimmers and beguiles as a recording with its esoteric themes and subtle hooks. From the opening bars of “Someone Somewhere (In Summertime)” where you are immediately  transported to some ethereal world from which you will not return until the closing shudder of “The King Is White And In The Crowd”.

This album becomes the culmination of everything they have been searching for over their previous recordings and the journey is there for all to hear. Its seamless nature seems to echo the trajectory of their deliberate search. A true musical quest.

Jim Kerr’s voice is used like another instrument as it changes pitch and depth to the surroundings that his musical cohorts set up and each of them introduce tiny flourishes that continually build interest into every single track. It never slackens. The triptych of “Colours Fly And Catherine Wheels” (fizzing like its title) then “Big Sleep” and the side one closer of the curiously Balearic instrumental “Somebody Up There Likes Me” evoke all the classic elements of the album and form a riveting centrepiece  , while “The Hunter And The Hunted” has the added bonus of Herbie Hancock (yes that Herbie Hancock) putting a suitably jittery keyboard solo in to close.

Really it all begins with the first single, “Promised You A Miracle” because, although the album sounds entirely seamless, was recorded nearly six months earlier as an on-tour session. In the box set, you can hear its very first outing – before it was recorded officially – on the Kid Jensen show. However, it marked quite a change in the writing style for the band and in their fortunes, becoming their first significant hit and its richness combined with a more mainstream sensibility laid down the blueprint for the entire recording.

It is still a powerful blast from the past and captured that nexus of new romantic and futurism of which they and The Associates were probably the greatest exponents. It is dark, curious and has every instrument delivering something new every time you listen.

The follow-up single “Glittering Prize” manages to the follow the plan without becoming formulaic but really the album’s pinnacle is the title track, “New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)”, which really has taken on a greater resonance with the new remaster. I say this because whilst it is an album very much of its time, it has lost none of its impact. It is almost the very representation of the Holy Grail depicted on the cover. It soars and swoops and you ride on its back. It almost never appeared as Jim Kerr was only able to drop lyrics in at the very last minute and yet it sounds like it spent centuries being marinated.

It really is a new found highlight.

Much of the enduring success should perhaps be given to Pete Walsh the producer who was fairly inexperienced and until then had only really engineered but most significantly on one of the previous year’s highlights the equally commendable “Penthouse And Pavement” by Heaven 17. There is so much depth and layering that the album never loses its bite.

Simple Minds may not have access to Presidents and may no longer sell out stadia but what  U2 would give to be able to say that they had produced an album as defining as this – they were so influenced by it that they began their relationship with Eno for “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree” which was possibly as close as they came but they both lack the completeness of the Holy Grail – the sound Simple Minds spent four albums trying to find.

And here is where it all came together perfectly.

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BEAUTIFULLY PUT TOGETHER

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One of the main spurs to writing this blog – apart from my own amusement – was to look back at now-forgotten albums and reappraise them, normally in the light of some reissue program that necessitated my purchase once more of an album I already had in perfectly acceptable and well-kept condition. All of this inevitably at an inflated price for the sake of a bonus disc or new sleeve notes or a reordered tracklist. Often the sound is remastered (hence the name), cleaned up and improved so that you can pick up the odd nuance of which you were never previously aware.

Obviously, there is no logic to this at all as I am simply once again putting money into the pockets of record companies who have found a new way to part me from the contents of my wallet.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Often it’s done without the direction of the artist and can disappoint. Lloyd Cole recently apologized to fans for the reissue of “Rattlesnakes” as it used sub-standard mixes and an incorrect listing. Nik Kershaw was involved in his reissues and used it as an opportunity to correct some elements he had not liked at the time and then had to explain himself to his more anorak-y fans.

But once in a while, something comes along which absolutely redefines the whole experience of an album for you and is repurposed (admittedly at significant expense) as a thing of not inconsiderable beauty.

On this occasion, unsurprisingly, it is those masters for detail – and one of my very favorites – XTC who have reissued two simply exquisite box sets of “Skylarking” and, the current subject “English Settlement” from 1982.

It is very difficult for me to say which is my favorite XTC album or period because I liked everything they ever produced. I never travel without “Nonsuch” and loved “Apple Venus Volume 1” so much I used to give it to people as a gift. Everything they produced was a product of care and attention and mastery of their craft.

If you read “Complicated Game”, then you will hear Andy Partridge talk through the background to each phase of his writing and production. I suspect this is only for the most devoted but there is a section where he also shows his handwritten lyrics and designs for covers. Every detail of his release is covered by him obsessively. He was famously not easy to work with and this obsession may well be why.

But he could produce some truly wonderful things.

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At the heart of everything I love about XTC probably lies “English Settlement”. As a recording it is the nexus of their entire output and is all the more enjoyable for that. It still retains some of the spiky angularity of their New Wave selves in songs like the ska-like opener “Runaways” and the strong protest of “Melt The Guns” but then begins to hint at the very bucolic leanings and “english-ness” of the band that would become evermore prevalent in albums like “Mummer” and “Skylarking” but really continued delightfully right until the end of their recording lifespan.

Interestingly, during the tour to support this album, the band famously quit touring and cancelled their tour largely as a result of Andy Partridge’s stage fright and they became a studio-bound band for evermore. Hence, their powers of experimentation should be acknowledged as amongst the very best of their kind and yet no record sales would really indicate that they gained their rightful recognition.

At the release of “English Settlement”, they were at the very height of their success. “Drums And Wires” and “Black Sea” had produced an unbeatable string of truly excellent pop singles from “Making Plans For Nigel” to “Sgt Rock Is Going To Help Me” via “Generals And Majors” and “Love At First Sight”.

But the best of all was to come next.

The thunderous “Senses Working Overtime”.

It’s not just their best single but, for me, simply one of my favourite singles by anyone. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before and still doesn’t – apart from some later XTC. This is a stunning tribute to rural living which has that quaint medieval feel about it – best summed up by the fact Partridge invented their own typeface for this recording (talk about attention to detail).

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The song is simply joyous, thrilling and wonderfully constructed – though no-one knows why the line “And buses might skid on black ice” was removed from the single version. This is what an English summer sounds like in all it’s glory.

The acoustic guitar drives it but there is Colin Moulding’s unique fretless bass slides giving a slightly sinister quality to the verses whilst Terry Chambers drumming simply adds to the ecstatic nature of the song. It remains one of the most unusual songs to ever hit the mainstream and starts XTC’s love affair with the countryside as an inspiration for their work – it comes absolutely to the fore in the stately “Yacht Dance”.

It’s the kind of Beatlish storytelling and scene-setting that is probably why there are often so many comparisons with the Fab 4 but the variety of experimentation that they introduce in this album is certainly reminiscent. “Jason And The Argonauts” tells the mythical tale against a shimmering rhythm track and Dave Gregory’s pain-staking guitar licks that really summons up the atmosphere of sea-faring.

There is always an element of humour and satirical comedy in XTC’s work and it often comes from the more everyday lens of Colin Moulding’s lyrics. “Fly On The Wall” has a claustrophobic compressed vocal that seeks to attack the tax service – XTC would have run-ins over payments for many years – whilst “Ball And Chain” and the reggae-ish “English Roundabout” seem to focus on the architectural eyesores of their hometown of Swindon in contrast to much of the album’s rural feel.

In contrast, Andy Partridge can write remarkably bittersweet love songs. “Snowman” is a remarkably angry blast set to the counterpoint of a bouncy bright melody whilst “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)” remains one of his strongest but most plaintive songs about the losing of a relationship set to a languid bass rhythm and guitar cycle with all sorts of interesting licks added to give it extraordinary texture.

And it’s worth pointing out how beautifully played the entire album is as it manages to pull together the sharp New Wave leanings with the mellowness of the newly introduced acoustic layer. It’s almost as if the decision to pull out of live performance could be predicted as the work became more and more complex and difficult to replicate. When The Beatles gave up touring their latest album was “Revolver” and their live set contained nothing from it.

Sadly, in giving up touring, Terry Chambers, whose drumming on this album manages to combine New Wave and Medieval with a variety of intricate patterns and unexpected rhythms, would leave the band as he felt he had so little to do and missed the role. His playing was a real characteristic of “English Settlement”.

We should never forget that this was 1982 and so political comment was never far away for most bands who took themselves seriously. “Melt The Guns” would be a presage of “Nonsuch”s “Wardance” and there are nods to environmental thinking all through the recording. However, most interesting were their attacks on the nasty brutish often racially motivated campaigns that were rife in a world still recovering from the riots of Toxteth and the alarming prevalence of the National Front. “Knuckle Down” is a plea for peace and tolerance but the most astonishing work is “No Thugs In Our House” written and played out as a three act play (and interlude) with an anguished opening and incredibly observed piece of writing.

It is a remarkably clever piece written about Graham (a name jokingly inspired by Colin Moulding’s mysteriously unknown brother) who basically is a racist thug and sleeps throughout the duration of the song while a policeman interviews his unwitting parents about his heinous attacks. It is still a fascinating and furious dissection of an unpleasant part of society both then and now.

Ken Loach or Shane Meadows would be proud, though strange choice as a single.

XTC’s obsession for detail goes back to this period as well as all they regularly produced beautiful packaging for their records. “Making Plans For Nigel” had come with a career board game; “Sgt Rock” had it’s own poster insert whilst “Senses Working Overtime” had an intricate fold-out sleeve. It must have nearly bankrupted Virgin’s design unit.

“No Thugs In Our House” however, was the piece de resistance as it came in a gatefold toy theatre complete with characters, mimicking the pollen of the story which had something of the Victorian melodrama about it. It is one of the very best 45 sleeves of this or any era.

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And really that is why XTC are so very special for those of us who love them. Their precision and care in every aspect of what they did made the experience of listening to them all the more rewarding. They would experiment but never to the point of forgetting melodies or rhythms. They would deal with big issues but never to the point of being preachy; and they could deal with the remarkably mundane but never to the point of being boring. Wiltshire is their home and they are proud of that.

“English Settlement” is a marvellous starter if you want to begin a journey into XTC. I can vouch that there will always be something interesting happening and much to truly enjoy.

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