Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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 their 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 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 means 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 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 it’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 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 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]