Tag Archives: xtc

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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NAILING JELLY TO THE WALL

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When pop music still ruled the world, the normal turn of events was that an artist released a single every four months and an album a year or every eighteen months at the latest. Dropping out of the spotlight meant potentially losing your fanbase and nobody wanted to risk that.

Of course, if you were at the top of your game, the expectation would be that you would follow up quickly and make your status with your fans even more bulletproof in case you had to disappear from view for a while to record new material or tour the world.

In 1985, Tears For Fears released ‘Songs From The Big Chair’. The whole world fell in love with that record – and they were right to. It was a bit New Wave (US version of that genre), a bit rock, a bit pop and littered with great tunes and riffs. “Shout” and “Head Over Heels” would dominate any album on their own and yet there was also the mighty “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” which though now hugely familiar should be considered a deserved classic but rather prophetic about the situation in which the two lads from Bath a little awkwardly found themselves.

As a band, they were not especially easy to classify and almost through determination to keep that sense of difference about themselves, with the world at their feet they disappeared for over four years.

When they came back with “Seeds Of Love” right at the end of 1989, they had become even more difficult to pin down.

And accordingly, it’s a very ambitious record but no less interesting for that – especially through its clever writing. However, on returning to “Seeds Of Love”  after so long, you realise that it is complex and so not an easy album to digest immediately. Remember there might only be eight songs, but not one is under four and a half minutes.

It favours many styles and many influences which when allied to an incredibly layered production could leave you feeling that you were listening to an unsung classic or a pretentious folly. I suspect it all depends on what mood you’re in when you dig this one out of the loft.

We begin with a drum crack, a bass riff repetition, a potpourri of electronic percussion, a whistling keyboard and then a mumbling vocal from Roland – so far so Tears For Fears and then comes a voice that bears no similarity to one we’ve ever heard on one of their recordings before. This, we find out later, is the soulful wail of their discovery, Oleta Adams (that’s right “Get Here” Oleta Adams) whom the band had found singing in a hotel bar in Kansas City. I know – how random is that..

This is “Woman In Chains” – a huge song with a powerful social message the equivalent of any late-period classic Motown. , not even damaged by Phil Collins over-busy drumming. TFF are still a duet but seemingly a completely different one from the one we remembered because Curt never sounded as if he had particularly gospel roots.

How do you follow that?

“Badman’s Song” – another even more epic builder perhaps a little more rocky but not much.  Lyrically, it feels more like “The Hurting” but in sound-wise this is starting to feel like an epic modern soul album. We’re two tracks in and it is already sounding immense and this is without the jazz interlude (very “Dream Of The Blue Turtles”).

Time for a let-up, one would imagine.

No chance. It’s time for the big hit single “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” – a song that sounds like every Beatles record from 1967 has been lashed together into a massive uplifting anthem with more hooks in it than a fisherman’s hat. I make no apologies for loving this record. There is just so much happening in it (not least that Curt’s back) – its sheer scale is vast. A commentary delivered about the world as they saw it – apparently written the day Margaret Thatcher (the “Politician Granny with high ideals”) was voted in again in 1987 – a world of inequality and vacuousness.

“Kick out the Style, bring back the Jam” – ouch! Another “kick in the balls” for Mr Weller?

“Advice For The Young At Heart” has more of a pop sensibility about it with another optimistic refrain but really the whole album is starting to feel as if it has taken the more obscure elements of ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ like “The Working Hour” and “I Believe” and then just stretched, layered and over-dubbed them for all they’re worth.

I would hazard that the jazzy “Standing On The Corner Of The Third World” also traces its roots back to the more experimental elements of previous b-sides (“Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams” which you can find on the remaster was remixed into a Balearic classic) with fretless bass bouncing in and out of a shimmering backdrop of keys and backing singers. It’s another unusual but enjoyable piece, like “Swords And Knives” – an XTC tribute if ever there was one.

The album just builds and builds like a constantly inflating helium balloon and just when you think the inevitable explosion must occur, there comes the gentle deflation as the proceedings are rounded off by “Famous Last Words”, another paean for peace but it’s almost like “Abbey Road” and “The End”. The record just floats away into the aether. They know that this is it. It’s over. And although Roland continued the band for a couple more interesting recordings, Curt and he split up and didn’t speak for another 15 years.

The recording process was apparently fractious and for a band who had received huge fame without necessarily being able to cope with it, had treated their songwriting as a catharsis (their name derived from Janov’s Primal Scream therapy – heavy!) and had already scrapped one set of recordings in the four years they had spent trying to put this together, it’s hardly surprising.

They say it’s no fun if it’s too easy and it would be difficult to say that this album is fun but it has an intelligence and sincerity which underpins an album that just doesn’t stop building until the very last song. It is beautifully performed and produced but as I said at the start, you will need to make a large mug of tea and settle down in a comfortable chair to listen to it.

Whilst I never feel that it lapses into self-importance, It is one of the least casual so-called pop records you will ever hear. One that consciously takes the route of most resistance and succeeds nevertheless.

The lovely part of the story is that eventually, Roland and Curt did get back together again and did go out and tour the world visiting territories they had never been to -only to realise that they really had ruled the world and were still very much loved.

And nowhere more than the Philippines where so overwhelmed were they by an energetic and knowledgable crowd who had been sending setlist recommendations to them from the day their date was announced, came back year after year to play to ever more delighted crowds. Roland even tells the story onstage that when he’s back in England doing his weekly shop in Tesco’s and gets pointed out and asked what he’s doing now he tells anyone to look up “Tears For Fears in Manila” on youtube.

The band now seem happily at ease with each other and their popularity. And for a band that never took the easy path, it’s well deserved.

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