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.
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).
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.
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.