KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

XTC Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / This Is Pop

XTC Photo (circa 1978)XTC is a band that I was aware of in high school but I didn’t hear a note of their music until their controversial single “Dear God” got some serious radio play in 1986. Even then I didn’t buy any of their albums, but having worked in three different record stores I was familiar with their interesting album covers (one of them was simply small white text on a black background while another had a green paper bag hiding the actual cover, like Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door) and always remained curious about what they sounded like. It wasn’t until 1989’s Oranges & Lemons that I finally checked out an XTC record and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite albums. In fact, I made sure that one of the songs from that album (“The Loving”) was played at my wedding. Within a year I bought the rest of their catalog and continued purchasing nearly everything else they released after that.

XTC - Song Stories (book cover)If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my goal is to rediscover the lesser-played artist catalogs in my collection, so in some ways I’m cheating a bit with the XTC discography because I’m already familiar with so many of their songs. However, I have a few good reasons for choosing them now. Looking at the track listings of all the albums recently, I only recognized about 30% – 40% of their songs by title. Also, it’s been at least 10 years since I played them with any regularity. The biggest reason, though, is a book called Song Stories (subtitled The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music), co-written by the band with author & XTC fanatic Neville Farmer, that I purchased in ‘98 or ‘99. It functions as a musical autobiography, a behind-the-scenes story of each album and a song-by-song discussion with three key members of the band: main songwriter/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge, songwriter/singer/bassist Colin Moulding and longtime lead guitarist Dave Gregory. I started reading this book a few times over the last 13-14 years, but I knew it would make more sense to read it while I immersed myself in their music, and that hasn’t happened until now. Wherever it’s applicable, I’ll incorporate any interesting tidbits of information I learn from the book into my posts. They may not be a household name like some of their contemporaries, but they’ve influenced a couple of generations of musicians who continue to emulate their quirky songwriting, clever wordplay and ever-evolving musical adventures.

XTC - White MusicBefore Dave Gregory joined the band, they released two albums with the original lineup of Partridge, Moulding, manic keyboard whiz Barry Andrews and underrated drummer Terry Chambers. The first of these was White Music (1978), produced by former Abbey Road engineer John Leckie, who perfectly captured their youthful energy on a record that at times reminds me of Talking Heads, Television, early Roxy Music, Be Bop Deluxe, Skids, The Jam and Devo. Andy’s songs are the standouts since Colin’s songwriting abilities were still developing. “Radios In Motion” starts things off with a steady driving rhythm, stabbing guitars and squawking vocals. I love the super catchy pre-chorus (“All the kids are complaining that the songs are too slow”). “This Is Pop” switches from angular verses to melodic choruses, as the title finds Andy answering the question: “What do you call that noise that you put on?” Great answer. “Statue Of Liberty” is the highlight for me, with its slightly funky groove and Barry’s organ washes & accents. Andy’s over-enunciated vocals can be grating at first but the fantastic melody makes them easy to overlook & eventually embrace.

Other notable songs include “Into The Atom Age” (bouncy pop with swirling organ and a great hook at “I’m heading into the atom age, da-da-da da-da”), “New Town Animal In A Furnished Cage” (in under 2 minutes they convey a feeling of suburban boredom in the guise of a sparse, quirky pop tune) and “Spinning Top” (written by Andy in 1975 and XTC Photo (Virgin Records Promo 1978)compared…for some strange reason…to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this dance-y song has a super cool groove with great bass & drum interplay and offbeat organ accents). “I’m Bugged” deserves special mention. Although they were going for a creepy vibe, it’s still very catchy yet slightly off-kilter. It features a sparse arrangement & tight harmonies when they sing “I’m bu-u-ugged.” Andy’s vocals remind me of Bryan Ferry on early Roxy Music songs like “Virginia Plain,” and the B-52’s-esque space-age organ adds another interesting element. My CD copy features 7 songs not included on the original album. Of these, only “Science Friction” held up after numerous listens. It strikes a perfect balance between the offbeat paranoid verses and the catchy pop choruses (“science friction burns my fingers”). “Heatwave” is worth mentioning mostly because it was produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who would go on to produce some of the biggest albums of all time (by AC/DC, Def Leppard, his ex-wife Shania Twain, etc). I like Colin’s deeper vocals at “Oh no, can it be, we’re heading for a heatwave.” The remaining album tracks and bonus material showcase their youthful exuberance, so even the lesser songs are fun to hear.

Their sophomore album, Go 2 (1978), isn’t as infectious or consistent as its predecessor, but it does boast at least half a dozen memorable tracks. “Battery Brides (Or Andy Paints Brian)” starts with a moody 95-second instrumental intro that’s hypnotic yet slightly dissonant. Singing about supermarket checkout girls whose minds are elsewhere, Andy’s XTC - Go 2vocals are more subdued than anything on the previous record. I really like the descending keyboard run at “ba ba ba ba battery brides.” “Crowded Room” is the first of Colin’s songs that I really enjoyed. It’s also the first of two songs where he addresses his paranoia about violence at the band’s gigs. It has a wild punk/new wave energy, a catchy chorus (“faces in a crowded room” and “they’re pushing me out”) and a great sense of dynamics. “The Rhythm” is another strong Colin song, written after he saw Saturday Night Fever. It features a straight-ahead beat that’s muted in the verses & brighter in the choruses (“he has the rhythm in his head”), the latter being the main hook along with Barry’s Eno-esque synth washes. Andy made his first foray into mixing with his song “Life Is Good In The Greenhouse,” giving it a hushed atmosphere that masks his angry lyrics about being cut off from society…or possibly from a woman. I love the “ha-ha ha-ha ha-ha” intro, but at 4:40 it could’ve used some editing.

“Jumping In Gomorrah” is a brief blast of fun with an excellent percussive rhythm and bouncy bass line. Years before he offended some religious groups with “Dear God,” Andy’s humorous lyrics here (“J-u-m-p-i-n-g, jumping…I’m religion-free”) had a similar effect but on a smaller scale. “I Am The Audience” is another Colin song dealing with violence at their live performances. I love the stomping beat with chant-like group vocals in the chorus, as well as Barry’s use of organ, piano & clavinet. Speaking of Barry, two of his compositions appear on this album: “My Weapon” and “Super-Tuff.” Although they both have their own unique charms, his quasi-Ian Dury cockney accent has them sticking out like two sore thumbs among Andy’s & Colin’s compositions. This disparity in songwriting, and Andy’s desire to steer the XTC ship, led to Barry’s exit from the group after this album. He would go on to form the band Shriekback. I’ve only ever heard their Natural History: The Very Best Of Shriekback compilation so I’m far from an expert, but he was clearly a talented musician & songwriter who needed to lead his own project. I’m sure some of their original fans were upset at his departure, but XTC might never have developed into the influential band they became had he remained with them.

“Are You Receiving Me?” was a single release that’s included in the middle of my CD. It’s also the catchiest song here, with a great scratchy guitar sound and cheap organ tones. Their record company, Virgin Records, hired well-known producer/engineer Martin Rushent to produce this track (John Leckie returned for the rest of the album) and he delivered a wonderful single that’s the highlight of this disc for me. Sadly it wasn’t a chart success, even in their homeland of England. Not to worry, though; within a year the UK record-buying public caught on to the charms of XTC. In my next post I’ll discuss the progress they made over the next few albums, which I’ll be playing numerous times this week. As for the first two albums discussed here, I wouldn’t consider either of them essential but there are enough great songs on each that stand on their own while also pointing to even better things on the horizon. I’m curious to find out if there are any fans who consider White Music and Go 2 among their best work, especially anyone who was a fan from the start. Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below. Thank you.

[One additional note: After posting this, I discovered an excellent XTC fan site that I’ll be visiting throughout this series. It’s called Chalkhills.org, and I highly recommend that you check them out]

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24 comments on “XTC Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / This Is Pop

  1. 45spin
    July 11, 2013

    XTC continues to played in heavy rotation on my turntable. They had some of the cleverly cynical lyrics with these poppy power chords to make all so “Stupidly Happy” as they would sing in a song.

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    • Always happy to find another XTC fan. Sadly, I’ve never owned any of their albums on vinyl. Some of them would probably sound better than the early CD pressings I own, but regardless of sound quality the great songs shine through.

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      • Howard
        July 17, 2013

        Hi Rich,
        I think Steven Wilson is working at remastering the XTC recordings and that might generate something pretty exciting. Hope it will happen this year!

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      • Hi Howard. I heard that Steven Wilson is remixing Nonsuch for release later this year, but as far as I know that’s the only XTC album right now (he’s also working on my favorite prog-rock album of all time, Yes’ Close To The Edge). I’m a huge fan of Mr. Wilson’s bands Porcupine Tree, No Man, Blackfield & his solo work, and he’s also a master (no pun intended) at 5.1 surround sound. His work with the King Crimson catalog should be the industry standard for surround sound mixing. Since most of my XTC discs are the original CD pressings (I never bought any remasters), I will definitely purchase any upcoming reissues, especially if Steven Wilson is involved. Thanks for stopping by & mentioning this. I’m guessing some of my readers weren’t aware of this.

        Best…
        Rich

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  2. I only bought one of their albums on vinyl (Drums and Wires) but I do have the others on CD. These were Japanese releases that replicated the albums packaging and I love them all. XTC is one of my favorite groups.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Victor. I just realized recently that I never owned any XTC albums on vinyl. My collection is all on CD, and most of them are the original pressings from the ’80s & early 90s. I’d love to get some of the Japanese remasters but they’re not in my budget. My biggest complaint with some of the CDs I own is how they put the bonus tracks between Sides A & B of the original album instead of at the end of each disc. Not sure who made that decision, but I certainly don’t agree with it. Do you have a particular XTC era or album that’s your favorite?

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  3. Victor Lane
    July 14, 2013

    I guess I would have to go with Skylarking or Nonsuch but again it is too hard to choose. The only one that I am missing is Go 2. I probably should buy it to finish my collection.

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    • Hi Victor. I’m looking forward to revisiting both of the albums you mentioned in a couple of weeks. I know them both pretty well but need to spend more time with them. “Oranges & Lemons” is still my go-to XTC album, but who knows how that will change by the time I’m done with this series. As for “Go 2,” if you’re a completist like me I’m sure you’ll be adding it to your collection soon. I really appreciate you stopping by & sharing your thoughts.

      Cheers!
      Rich

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  4. Brian
    July 15, 2013

    great band and nice write-up Rich. I have a smattering of XTC albums and a hits comp but don’t know anything off of their first two outside of “This Is Pop”. I recently re-played “Skylarking” a bunch and it’s even greater than I remembered. Looking forward to your write-ups on the rest of their catalogue.

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    • Hey Brian. For some reason I expected you to be more of an XTC fan than that, especially of their early material. I suppose if you have a solid anthology you probably have most of the great songs from those records. There are several albums, though, that are pretty essential from start to finish. I’m most looking forward to getting better acquainted with a few albums that I’ve never gotten to know that well (specifically, Mummer and The Big Express), but of course it’s fun to revisit the albums I know pretty well after years of not playing them.

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  5. Remco
    July 17, 2013

    It is such a pleasure to go through XTC’s rich backlog. Even after years I find new stuff, nice details in their works. Man, being a music lover and a musician, from both perspectives this band is a true treasure!

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    • Glad I’m not the only one who enjoys going through XTC’s back catalog, Remco, and it sounds like we’re both musicians & music lovers who appreciate everything they put into their songwriting & recordings. Even though I’m relatively familiar with their discography, there’s still plenty for me to learn & re-discover. The Song Stories book has been a perfect guide through this process. I appreciate you visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts. I hope you’ll come by again as I work my way through the catalog a few albums at a time.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

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  6. Remco
    July 17, 2013

    Yes sir! 😉
    And check the blogs on myspace (for example: http://chalkhills.org/articles/XTCFans20070902.html), these are great song-by-song interviews by Todd Bernhardt with mr. Partridge & co, that go way deeper than the songstories book!

    All the best from the sunny Netherlands,
    R.

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    • Wow, thanks for sharing that link. Not sure I’ll have the time to go through every interview, but it’ll be great to have additional insight into key tracks as I work through their discography. I hadn’t seen the blog at Chalkhills before, so a great site just got even better.

      Hope all is well in the Netherlands. Greetings from sunny & very hot New York.

      Rich

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  7. stephen1001
    July 17, 2013

    The 1001 list deems Skylarking & Apple Venus Volume 1 as ‘must hear before you die.’ I’ve only heard (and enjoyed) Skylarking thus far – sounds like there’s plenty more to explore!

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    • Those are interesting choices in the 1001 list. There are a couple of others I enjoy more, and some fans seem to prefer Nonsuch, English Settlement, etc. Definitely a lot of great (and essential) music in their catalog. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the two from the 1001 list whenever you get to them.

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  8. Glenn S.
    July 18, 2013

    The first two albums are fun but I only visit them on occasion. I think they’re a bit self-consciously quirky sounding, so I have to be in the right mood. These are good but there were much, much better things to come.

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    • Glenn, I always felt the same way. However, now that I’ve spent a lot more time listening to them I find them a lot more enjoyable. I doubt I’ll be revisiting them as much as their later material in the future, but there will be a number of songs for me to look forward to that had always gone in one ear & out the other before. I completely agree that you have to be in a particular mood to really enjoy them.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

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  9. Pingback: XTC Part 3 – Beating Hearts And Rainy Days | KamerTunesBlog

  10. Pingback: XTC Part 6 – We’re All Light / In Conclusion | KamerTunesBlog

  11. jonathan gillies
    July 23, 2015

    Big fan since Drums and Wires. Listened to the first two albums but never bought them. They were my favorite working band for many years, (sadly working doesn’t equal touring) Drums and wires totally captivated me when i heard it. Speaking of Terry Chambers, the drummer in my band thought he might be the best drummer he had ever heard. The whole band is great, but to me Dave Gregory is the under-rated one, man is he great! I also recently joined an XTC fan site called “ten feet tall”, I will be checking out the one you mentioned.
    Thanks for fun post.

    Like

    • Hi Jonathan. Thanks for the feedback. You were fortunate to discover XTC so early in their career. Even though I was aware of them via a couple of songs & videos, and I knew their album covers from working at various record stores, it wasn’t until Oranges & Lemons that I became a full-fledged fan, going back through the catalog & realizing what I had missed. I’m not sure I would rate Mr. Chambers as the best drummer I ever heard, he’s certainly fantastic and his contributions to the band elevated their music to another level. I agree that Dave Gregory is a special player. Have you heard his current band, Tin Spirits? It’s nice to know he’s still out there making great music.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

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  12. Andy Poulton
    August 27, 2016

    Hi Rich, just found your blog and am loving reading through things. I’ve gone back to vinyl over the last couple of years – after a long foray in to CDs my 12″ and 7″ collection has returned from the depths of the garage.

    Got to say that I love XTC, and I’m from Swindon too. When 3D EP came out (their 1st release which included Science Friction) I was a part time DJ and frequented a great record shop in town called “Flashback Records”. The owner had an idea of my taste (punk and eclectic new wave) and he’d frequently order stuff in for me to listen to.

    He played me 3D EP and I fell in love although knew nothing about the band.

    I used to DJ for my school’s social club and would always turn up early so to play the records I really liked at a volume that really appealed (if it’s too loud, you’re too old) and the school caretaker wandered in to the hall – like most school caretakers the best years of his life were behind him and to me, a mere 17 year old – he seemed really ancient. When I’d finished playing 3D EP he came to the stage and asked whether I liked what I’d just played.

    I said I thought it was great and he said “That’s really great because my son’s on there). I knew him as Chas Moulding and checked the sleeve and low and behold – there was Colin.

    Anyway, XTC used to dress up and play regular Christmas gigs in town (and others too) and I never missed one – until AP retired from gigging (just realised that we share the same initials, how wierd).

    Still love the band and the music, follow AP (@xtcfans) on Twitter and really enjoy listening to Dave Gregory’s stuff too.

    A lot of their albums have now been remastered on to vinyl and so I’m replacing my loved but worn copies with nice 180g discs – see http://www.ape.uk.net/ for more info

    Like

    • Hi Andy. I’m glad you stumbled on my blog. Thanks for sharing some of your history with XTC’s music. I especially love the part about Colin’s dad. That’s one of those great moments of serendipity.

      I’m not on Twitter so I didn’t realize Andy is a regular contributor on social media. I wouldn’t have expected that. I’ve really enjoyed the various projects that Dave Gregory has been involved in the last several years. He’s such a talented player and I’m glad he’s out there plucking the strings with multiple musicians (and as a big prog-rock fan, I’m thrilled that he’s been exploring that side of his personality).

      As much as I’d love to get my hands on some of the 180g vinyl reissues, they’re a little too pricey for me. I’ve also been without my stereo for the past year because I moved and have been looking for a new house (which finally happened recently), and I won’t have a music room again until I move to the new house and finish renovations. Sometime next year I’ll be back to normal and, with my turntable back in place, I might find the funds for at least a few of these LPs. I’ve been enjoying the Blu-ray reissues with the albums in surround sound and lots of bonus material, but without my stereo I’ve also been without surround sound, so I haven’t been able to check out the Oranges & Lemons blu-ray yet.

      Cheers.
      Rich

      Like

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