KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

XTC Part 2 – Making Plans And Knuckling Down

With the departure of keyboardist Barry Andrews & the arrival of guitarist Dave Gregory, the new lineup of XTC emerged as a more focused musical unit on their third album, Drums And Wires (1979). Not only did Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding tighten up XTC - Drums And Wirestheir songwriting chops, but new producer Steve Lillywhite (best known for Siouxsie & The Banshees, Peter Gabriel, U2, Dave Matthews Band and my favorite band of the last 30 years, Big Country) and engineer Hugh Padgham (who also produced & engineered albums for The Police, Genesis, Split Enz and many others) brought a cohesiveness that was missing from their earlier work. Drummer Terry Chambers also elevated his game with some inventive percussion. Colin’s “Making Plans For Nigel” is a great opening track with a distinctly British feel in the music & lyrics, and a syncopated rhythm that immediately catches the listener’s attention. The guitar pattern points to The Police’s Synchronicity, which is understandable considering that Padgham was the producer on that one. “Helicopter” is a quirky disco-fied track with pulsing bass & slashing guitar. Andy’s offbeat vocals are similar to his work on the first two albums. “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” features a great little repeated guitar figure over a cool percussive groove. The verses remind me of their contemporaries like Joe Jackson & Graham Parker. Colin delivered the highlight of the album for me, “Ten Feet Tall,” with some absolutely brilliant melodic guitar and a slightly circular vocal melody. It’s more acoustic than anything they had previously done, and it opened up new possibilities for their sound in the future.

“Real By Reel” is like a simplified take on The Police’s early work, with a very catchy chorus (especially when they repeat the title), and there’s a lovely little guitar solo as well. “Outside World” shifts from an upbeat Celtic feel in the instrumental section to Joe Jackson-esque high energy verses. It’s not an essential track but I XTC Photo (circa 1979)love the happy mood it puts me in. “Scissor Man” goes from a claustrophobic intro to a steady, almost metronomic rhythm. There are a couple of great hooks (“snipping, snipping, snipping goes the scissor man” and “you won’t be frightened when you find out you’re on his list, you’re on his list, you’re on his li-i-ist”) and the extended dub outro was a pretty cool choice. Drums And Wires had different track listings depending on the territory of release, and my CD copy makes things even more convoluted. The packaging indicates 12 tracks but the disc has 14. Three of these were not indicated on the sleeve while one single, “Life Begins At The Hop,” was listed but not included on the disc. Confused? I know I was. I’ll get to “Life Begins…” when I cover a compilation at the end of this post, and a couple of the bonus tracks on the Drums And Wires CD are worth noting here. Colin’s “Day In Day Out” feels like Talking Heads at their most pensive, with great textures and subtle guitar interplay. “Limelight” is a fun driving rocker with a surf-rock style guitar solo and a memorable hook at “I’m in the limelight, uh-huh.” As for the rest of the album, there are no clunkers, but they didn’t feel as complete as the songs I’ve already discussed. There are certainly noteworthy moments on each track: a catchy vocal line, a clever drum break or a tasty guitar flourish, for example. Some fans probably prefer these songs to some of the ones I highlighted, but we probably all agree that this is where XTC really came into their own.

Lillywhite & Padgham reprised their roles on Black Sea (1980), and everything that was enjoyable about its predecessor was taken up a notch on what I consider to be their first great album, start-to-finish. The fact that it reached the Top 20 on the UK chart XTC - Black Seameans there are a lot of British people who feel the same way. Colin only wrote two of the album’s eleven tracks, but they’re both good ones. “Generals And Majors” sounds like new wave disco with Echo & The Bunnymen guitars (I’m a recent convert to their music, so it was nice to make that connection). There’s a political, anti-war statement hidden beneath a super catchy melody, huge drums and an inventive arrangement (whistling provides the biggest hook). “Love At First Sight” is a song that never made an impact on me in the past, but now I love its metallic guitar and midtempo dance groove (it sounds a lot like the 1979 hit single “Pop Musik” by M). The remainder of the record is the Andy Partridge Show. Album opener “Respectable Street” has angular guitar, huge drums and a ridiculously catchy collection of melodies. Lyrically it’s very British, almost an update of the late-60s Kinks only with more suggestive lyrics. “Rocket From A Bottle” has a tom-tom heavy groove that Lillywhite would bring to Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day LP a few years later. I love the sing-song pre-chorus (“I’ve been set off by a pretty little girl”) and the exuberant chorus (“I’m like a rocket from a bottle shot free”). “No Language In Our Lungs” has an insistent beat and snarling guitar that puts it in similar territory to Cheap Trick’s “Gonna Raise Hell.” The descending guitar line reminded me of a Beatles song that I couldn’t identify at first, but thanks to Song Stories they confirmed this comparison: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “Living Through Another Cuba” carries basically one infectious groove throughout, with excellent syncopated drumming & hints of dub reggae. Once again I hear similarities with one of my favorite artists, Joe Jackson, this time his 1980 album Beat Crazy.

“Towers Of London” is instantly memorable, with big clanging percussion & more great melodies (especially the “la la Londinium” section at the end, with McCartney-esque “ooh”s). “Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)” is a workingman’s anthem set to enormous tribal drums. “Burning With Optimism’s Flame” has some brilliant percussion work, especially on the hi-hat, and it’s bursting with XTC - Black Sea (with outer paper sleeve)various grooves & melodies. “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” is slower & more deliberate but no less catchy. Initially it seems like a “statement” type song but it’s really just about a weakling who wants a chance with the ladies, a la The Kinks’ “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.” “I’m invading territories, girls are foreign & strange to me” is a particularly well-written & humorous line. “Travels In Nihilon” is the 7-minute album closer that’s all about the Burundi-type drumming. A couple of years ago I compared it, in a Joni Mitchell post, to her song “The Jungle Line.” They’re not exact duplicates but they capture a similar vibe. According to Andy in the Song Stories book, it’s about the disillusionment of the punk movement, and he describes it as their “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles’ groundbreaking psychedelic, percussion-heavy masterpiece). Of the three CD bonus tracks, two hold up extremely well. “Don’t Lose Your Temper” is a catchy pop song with great attitude, and it’s misleadingly about not losing the ability to lose your temper. “The Somnambulist” is a classic b-side; a weird tune that wouldn’t fit anywhere on the album, but functions quite well on its own. Based on the idea that sleepwalking is like deep sea diving, the heavy synth & pulsing bass line help conjure up a dreamy, atmospheric gem. Black Sea is an album I already knew I liked a lot, but after numerous listens this past week I love it more than ever, and would recommend it as the perfect entry point to their early years.

For the 15-track, 70+ minute double album, English Settlement (1982), the band decided to co-produce with Hugh Padgham. While XTC - English Settlementit’s less percussive than the previous two records (a sound which became synonymous with Steve Lillywhite), it’s not as drastic a departure as I remembered. My biggest complaint is the often unnecessarily long running times (six songs clock in at more than 5 minutes), which dilutes the impact of some of the strongest material. It’s a minor quibble, however, but it does affect my overall enjoyment. Colin contributed four songs, including the first two. “Runaways” is a character-driven tune with a slightly psychedelic backing track. I really like the fade-in with echo-y “Oh run-a, oh run-a, oh runaway” vocals as well as the droning “aah”s & phased “please come home.” “Ball And Chain” is Colin’s commentary on the demolition of poor housing in their hometown of Swindon, which he later described as “far too overstated” and musically “unsubtle.” The lyrics are certainly obvious but that doesn’t detract from this excellent song, which was a minor hit in the UK. The keyboard sections remind me of Tony Banks, and some of this track could pass for Banks’ band Genesis from the early ‘80s. Andy delivered an undisputed masterpiece of pop music with “Senses Working Overtime,” which comprises several distinct sections that all add up to a unique whole…leading to that infectious chorus. I believe Gotye was listening to the verses when he recorded his #1 hit “Somebody That I Used To Know” nearly 30 years later.

“Jason And The Argonauts” may be way too long at 6+ minutes, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying various parts of it, like the cymbal work in the intro & the circular guitar pattern. It gets bouncy at the pre-chorus (“seems the more I travel, from the foam to gravel…”) and deceptively catchy for the chorus (“the ar-go-nauts”). Andy described it as a “song in the form of a quest,” about his father’s seafaring stories. “No Thugs In Our House” is a cleverly worded anti-neo Nazi song that Andy calls “violent Tamla-Motown meets Johnny Winter” and features his “rebel yell.” Terry’s 4-on-the-floor stomping snare drum adds to the aggressive nature of the lyrics, and “dreaming of a world where he could do just what he wanted to” is one of the biggest hooks on the album.  They take things down several notches for the lovely “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late).” Andy may describe it as his “big miserable song” but the chorus feels very uplifting even as he’s addressing the sad passing of time. The ascending “all of a sudden” mirror vocal line in the chorus is a real treat. “Melt The Guns,” which addresses the proliferation of firearms in the US, may be a bit too preachy and way too long, but the repetitive percussion-driven groove and chanted “melt the guns…and never more to fire them” vocals XTC Photo (circa 1982)always have me singing along.

“It’s Nearly Africa” equates the fear of losing one’s innocence with African “primitivism.” It’s full of hooks, like when they sing the title as well as “shake your bag of bones” and “any day now, any day now now.” Musically I can hear a direct line to The Police’s “Walking In Your Footsteps,” which was released a year later and produced by Padgham. “Knuckle Down” is a bit of “quasi white reggae” (if that makes any sense) with a slight shuffle beat, although Andy said “it’s just a bit of music hall.” It’s one-dimensional but I really like the sing-song verses & catchy choruses. Colin’s “Fly On The Wall” is a real grower, especially the chorus (“I’m telling you, fly on the wall, see see see seeing it all”). I never paid much attention to it before, but the buzzy synth and megaphone-treated vocals are effective production choices. Album closer “Snowman” was inspired by the coldness that had crept into Andy’s marriage at the time. Set to a slightly African groove, he delivers some clever lines like “What I want to know man, why oh why does she treat me like a snowman?” and a fantastic hook at “seems like I’ve been here for years and years and years and ye-e-e-ars.” Like I wrote above regarding Drums And Wires, the titles I haven’t mentioned all feature elements that I enjoyed but none of them worked as complete songs for me. I get the sense that many fans consider English Settlement the pinnacle of their catalog, but the extended running times (of individual tracks and the album as a whole) kept me from completely embracing it. As with many double albums, it could’ve been tightened up into a powerful & effective single album, but perhaps its sprawling nature is part of the charm. All I know is that it feels like a slight (very slight) letdown after the triumph of Black Sea, but at least two-thirds of the record is as essential as anything else they recorded up to that point.

Until last week I forgot that I owned Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982 (1982), since I rarely buy compilations when I own the individual albums. At first glance this 12-track collection seemed XTC - Waxworks (Some Singles 1977-1982)redundant, but then I realized that it includes two songs that weren’t on the CDs I’ve discussed so far. “Life Begins At The Hop” is a Colin-penned minor hit from 1979 that could have fit onto Drums And Wires. It finds him recalling the live bands he witnessed at youth club hops, and you can hear the ‘60s pop influences shining through. It’s simplistic but a nice little tune. “Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down” is Andy’s sneering song aimed at the upper class girls who looked down on him & his fellow Swindon residents. I played it a few times but it never really sunk in. This was clearly b-side material. As for the other 10 songs, there’s no questioning that they’re a well-chosen representation of their early years. Other more comprehensive compilations have since been released, rendering Waxworks obsolete. I probably won’t be buying any of those releases since I’ve got the majority of their songs in my collection, so I’m glad I already own this one.

Next time I’ll be talking about three albums they released in the mid ‘80s, including two that I’ve never gotten into. I’m hoping that will change and I’ll discover some new favorites. Stay tuned, and please let me know what you think about the albums discussed in this post. Thanks.

[Don’t forget to visit Chalkills.org for everything you could ever want to know about XTC]

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23 comments on “XTC Part 2 – Making Plans And Knuckling Down

  1. waynelaw
    July 17, 2013

    Rich,
    XTC is one of those bands that I always liked but never enough to buy any of the music-I feel like I missed the boat on them. They were a band for geeks before that was trendy. But I am with you all the way on Joe Jackson! I saw him on tour with Marshall Crenshaw at Saratoga in the early 80’s and it was one of the best shows I ever experienced at SPAC….not many of us there that night. Thanks for dragging these guys out of the vault.
    Wayne

    Like

    • Hi Wayne. I completely understand that XTC is not for everyone, even people who like similar or contemporary artists. Much as I love a lot of their music, I’m a much bigger fan of Joe Jackson and Marshall Crenshaw, both of whom I’ve seen numerous times. Wish I had gotten to see the show you’re describing, but my earliest JJ show was on the Body & Soul tour in ’84.

      I would still recommend checking out a well-compiled XTC anthology and giving them another shot. Some of their stuff might be for “geeks,” but the same could apply for Joe & Marshall.

      Like

      • waynelaw
        July 17, 2013

        Rich,

        Whoops!…I did not mean to sound like a band that is enjoyed by intelligent people is a bad thing:) …I am a big fan of geek rock most of the time!!! It has been a lifelong thing with me.

        Wayne

        Like

      • Nothing to apologize for. Any of us who obsess over music are geeks, whether we admit it or not (I do). I will never tell anyone that their opinions are wrong, but sometimes I’ll try to nudge them to give an artist another chance. It’s so nice to meet another fan of Joe Jackson & Marshall Crenshaw. Their songs have meant so much to me for so long, it’s like they’re a part of me. That only applies to portions of the XTC catalog…so far. Let’s see how I feel when I wrap up this series next month.

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  2. 1537
    July 17, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more with your Gotye comment.

    Like

    • Thanks. When I first heard the Gotye song I could hear various ’80s influences but couldn’t pick a particular reference point other than bits of Sting & Peter Gabriel. This was the first time I heard a clear line from a particular ’80s song. I happen to like the Gotye album a lot, but let’s see if he’s got staying power like XTC.

      Like

  3. theuglymoose
    July 17, 2013

    I used to HATE XTC when I was a teenager. I found them again when I picked up Pandora and now I’m blown away by them. Believe it or not, being an atheist, I hadn’t even heard of Dear God.. kind of ashamed and wondering where on earth I was at the time that came out! They definitely are an aquired taste though. If I play it or mention them it usually doesn’t go down well. For some reason ‘Grass’ really hooks me. I could play that again and again.

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    • I completely agree about them being an acquired taste. Fortunately I’ve known a number of big XTC fans over the years, many who like them a lot more than I do, and rarely have I met anyone who didn’t like them at all. Even one friend who finds them a bit pretentious couldn’t ignore “The Mayor Of Simpleton.” As for “Grass,” I can’t remember specifically what it sounds like off the top of my head, but after playing Skylarking a bunch of times this coming week I know I won’t be forgetting it. That will be included in my next post.

      Like

  4. fraxon63
    July 17, 2013

    “Black Sea” is one of the all-time great LPs, not just b y XTC, but by any artist. Just a solid piece of work from start to finish. It’s my favorite of their early (pre-‘Skylarking’) catalog.

    Like

    • So glad you agree about Black Sea. I always liked it a lot but it wasn’t until this past week that I realized how strong it is. It definitely stands tall among the albums that surround it, and that’s no small feat. As for Skylarking, I’ll be getting to that in my next post. I’m really eager to dig into the next few albums this week.

      Like

  5. Glenn S.
    July 18, 2013

    Although a transitional album, I like Drums & Wires quite a lot. I too had the screwy version of this with the incorrect track listing, but upgraded to the Geffen CD when it came out. There are a lot of catchy songs on this, with Colin’s “Life Begins At The Hop” being one of my favorites. “Millions” has always fascinated me due to it’s unusual rhythm pattern. The vocal always begins when I’m not expecting it, and after that I start hearing the rhythm differently. I don’t know if this is intentional but it’s been fooling me for years. The only thing here I really don’t like is “Complicated Game” which finds Andy in his heavy, plodding mode, which I think plays against his strengths.

    This heavy, plodding Andy shows up a few more times on Black Sea (“No Language In Our Lungs” and “Towers of London” to name a couple) which is why I’ve always found this album a bit of a mixed bag. On the other hand, it has some of my favorites, including “Respectable Street” and the first XTC track I ever heard, “Generals and Majors.”

    English Settlement was the first full XTC album I heard (well, almost full — it was the American version) so it will always be special to me. Although I don’t like some of the longer tracks on their previous albums, here I think length is mostly used to the music’s advantage. For example, on “Jason and The Argonauts” I love the way the lengthy, minimalist instrumental section builds musical tension until the release of Andy’s spirited repeat of “I have watched the manimals go by…” Simply one of my favorite XTC moments. The increased use of acoustic guitars on this album, at a time when synths and big production were the rage, were further indications that XTC were now playing by their own rules.

    On a side note, regarding the placing of CD bonus tracks between album halves, maybe it was done to preserve the overall structure so that you’d get the same opening and closing tracks as appeared on the vinyl. It’s a bit unconventional but after having these discs for so many years it doesn’t really bother me.

    Like

    • Hi Glenn. We both really like this portion of their catalog but for different reasons. You mentioned “Millions,” which is one of a handful of songs from Drums And Wires that I didn’t include in my post. I like the atmosphere they conjure in that song, and I think that’s a fretless bass that Colin’s playing which is great. Overall the song wasn’t a keeper for me. I agree that “Complicated Game” is heavy & plodding, and Andy’s raging vocals don’t help out either (I think they were still trying to hold on to their punk credentials).

      I don’t see “No Language In Our Lungs” as heavy & plodding, though, although I can understand why it’s not one of your favorites. It’s certainly not a song I would include on an XTC compilation but it’s a nice change of pace on Black Sea.

      Since English Settlement was your first XTC album, it makes sense that you have a stronger connection to it than I do. Of the songs with extended running times, “Jason And The Argonauts” has the most going on, but I’m not sure I was touched by the same moment that you were. I’ll keep that in mind next time I play it. This is one of those examples of how your opinions on an artist’s catalog are usually shaped by how & when you’re introduced to them. I will always have a special connection to Oranges And Lemons even though it seems that many fans don’t see it as a high point in their career. I’ll be curious to see if my opinion on that album has changed when I get to it in a week or two, now that I’ll be much more familiar with the albums that came before it.

      You made a couple of great points. First, the fact that they used acoustic instrumentation on English Settlement showed that they played by their own rules (spot-on observation). Second, your suggestion that the placement of those bonus tracks in the middle of the albums meant that the start & finish of each album remained from the original releases. I don’t agree with that approach but it’s a valid option. I prefer a lengthy silence after the final track followed by the bonus tracks. When I ripped my CDs to a hard drive, I made it a point to re-sequence my XTC discs so I could enjoy them that way when I listen on my MP3 player.

      Thanks again for your input.

      Rich

      Like

      • Glenn S.
        July 19, 2013

        You’re welcome, Rich. I always enjoy comparing notes with you. I didn’t even mention Waxworks because I thought my post was already getting too long, but another reason you should hold onto it is that it has the single versions of “This Is Pop” and “Are You Receiving Me.” which I think are both a bit tighter than their album counterparts.

        Like

      • Thanks for pointing out those single versions, Glenn. I only played Waxworks once before I wrote this post, except for the two songs that weren’t on the other albums, and I hadn’t noticed the difference. I will give them a listen over the weekend to see if I hear the “tightness” you mentioned.

        Like

  6. Roy
    July 21, 2013

    Xtc – We all own all of their records and understand every second of them anyway !
    If you can`t play or write or feel what they do then maybe music aint for you its very simple , the Beatles do that too ! Mind you the guitar solo`s on `that wave` and `real by reel can be rather tricky !

    Like

    • Much as I love a lot of XTC’s music, I understand that they are an acquired taste for many music fans. I have several friends, some of whom are excellent musicians, who only enjoy a handful of their songs. I’m hoping this series reaches people who may not own their records, and maybe they’ll become fans in the process. Thanks for stopping by.

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      • Roy
        July 26, 2013

        No worries my man ! its hard to imagine a music `fan` not having every Xtc record in the first place really its like not owning every slab of Elvis ,Dylan , Hank Williams , Bowie , The Fabs , Little Richard ,Gene Vincent and a few others outputs you simply can`t separate the word music from their names !
        Language in our Lungs is a top 10 track of all time remember when we all tried to play it in 1980 and those lyrics / melody are a killer marriage.
        keep on chooglin`

        Like

      • Great points, Roy. Of course, everyone’s list of essentials is going to be different. I’ve got everything by XTC, Hank, Bowie, Beatles, etc plus lots of albums by Elvis & Little Richard, so our lists do intersect. In my eyes, I feel like everyone should own the complete collections of Zeppelin, The Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Big Country & so many others. As long as people are absorbing music, old & new, and constantly expanding their musical horizons, that makes me happy.

        Cheers!
        Rich

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  7. Remco
    July 23, 2013

    Funny fact is Joe Jackson admires Andy Partdige as a songwriter, as he stated at one of his shows I attended here in the Netherlands. JJ than played ‘Major of Simpleton’ solo on piano, very cool.

    Like

    • Interesting. I’ve seen Joe numerous times and he’s done many covers at those shows, but I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing him perform “Mayor Of Simpleton.” I’ll have to scour the internet to find a version of it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Like

  8. Remco
    July 23, 2013

    And JJ covers Statue of Liberty on the tribute album A Testimonial Dinner: the songs of XTC.

    Being a JJ and Mike Keneally fan too, it is a great pleasure that they worked with or covered XTC/Andy Partridge!

    Like

    • Thanks for reminding me about “A Testimonial Dinner.” I’ll have to give that another listen and decide if it’s worth including in this series (maybe an addendum at the end). I’m also a Mike Keneally fan and really enjoyed his recent collaboration with Andy. There’s a second release from that pairing with remixes, outtakes, etc. that I’ll pick up soon. Nice to see we have another artist in common.

      Like

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