Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
This is the portion of the XTC catalog that I’ve been most eager to revisit, since I’ve never fully embraced two of the three albums I’ll be discussing. Here was my opportunity to finally devote some quality time to them, and reading about the songs and recording sessions…both in the Song Stories book I mentioned in my first post and via the invaluable information provided by the stellar Chalkhills.org website…has really helped me to appreciate them like never before. Neither of them has surpassed my existing favorites but some songs I had previously dismissed are now essential tracks that I’ll be revisiting frequently. Following several tumultuous years of touring & recording, main songwriter/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge had a breakdown that led to his (and consequently the band’s) retirement from touring. Much like The Beatles and Steely Dan before them, XTC would henceforth be solely a studio band, with only music videos & the occasional radio performance to help promote the albums.
Mummer (1983) was the first release by the newly studio-bound lineup that also included songwriter/singer/bassist Colin Moulding & guitarist Dave Gregory, along with new drummer Peter Phipps (he took over for the departing Terry Chambers, who only appears on the first two songs). The album was produced by XTC with Steve Nye, who also worked with Frank Zappa, Bryan Ferry & Japan…as well as Japan frontman David Sylvian. Before playing it again for the first time last week, I only recognized one song by title, and it took several listens before additional tracks began to make an impact. “Beating Of Hearts” has a blend of Asian & Middle Eastern influences in the swirling music & vocals, with more than a hint of psychedelia. Andy explained his thinking here as “affairs of the heart are preferable to acts of war.” Colin’s “Wonderland” is based on memories of a girl from his schooldays. The music is pastoral with bubbly synths & a noticeable Japanese influence, and the programmed drum pattern makes it sound like a polished demo (which somehow works to the song’s advantage). There’s a great hook at “no dark horse like me can cramp all of your style.” “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” was the one track that had always stood out for me. I love the folky English feel with acoustic guitars & hand percussion. It’s about Andy feeling that he’s a poor provider to his wife, at least in her parents’ eyes, but could also be a commentary on the low income the band was receiving. It features possibly Andy’s most subdued vocal performance with lilting melodies throughout, as well as a great rhythmic shift at the bridge.
“Great Fire,” which Andy wrote immediately after Virgin Records rejected their original submission of Mummer, features a beautifully sung chorus (“great fire burning through”) and a string section that includes two players who appeared on The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Andy was equating fire with love in metaphorical lines like “No round of drinks can extinguish this feeling of love & engulfing bliss.” It’s nice to hear him so happy, a feeling that returns on “Ladybird.” This time they incorporate some jazz stylings with a bouncy, McCartney-esque piano-led melody. There’s some nice brush work by Phipps and lovely vocal harmonies. Colin called “In Loving Memory Of A Name” one of his least favorite songs (he’s “moping ‘round the graveyard & just remembering the lives of the people there”), but I like this minor yet catchy song with its circular rhythm & melody. Andy described his “Me And The Wind” as “the bittersweet feeling at the end of a relationship.” The galloping rhythm & often yelping vocals can sound ecstatic or grating, depending on my mood, but I can’t ignore his gorgeous singing at “Have I been such a fool? Have I been sitting on your stool?” The remaining songs aren’t on the same level as the ones I’ve discussed, but my CD includes 6 bonus tracks, 3 of which are worth mentioning. “Jump” has an insanely catchy chorus (“Jump, jump, go ahead & jump jump, if it’s what your heart is wanting to do”) & light jazzy drumming in the other sections, although overall it sounds like an incomplete run-through. “Toys” is a bluesy semi-shuffle with harmonica that’s mostly half-baked but has an awesome chorus (“Oh dear what can the matter be, my children sweet children”). “Desert Island” features a slinky little groove and a Latin/Caribbean flavor with nice nylon string guitar work. The upbeat music is in contrast to the lyrics, which Andy described as “a comment on England in the early 80’s, one giant, soulless building site.” Mummer is still not up there with my favorites in the XTC catalog, but I enjoy it much more now than I ever did.
The Big Express (1984) was produced by the band with David Lord, who had previously worked with British folk legends John Renbourn & Roy Harper as well as singular artists like Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel. Although the album bears all the trappings of its time, like Fairlight synthesizers, programmed rhythm tracks and an overall plastic production, they were a perfect fit for a collection of mostly loud & often abrasive songs. Peter Phipps returns, but he’s mostly relegated to playing electronic Linn drums which provide a key sonic texture throughout the record. According to Andy, “All You Pretty Girls” concerns “all my romance about being a sailor,” set to a sing-songy, almost childlike melody with the vocal line matching the music (“Bless you, bless you, all of you pretty girls…”). “Shake You Donkey Up” is about Andy’s attitude towards women in the guise of a Captain Beefheart-influenced tune with rockabilly guitar & a driving syncopated groove. It’s quirky yet catchy, especially in the chorus: “She really shake you…donkey up.” Andy was obviously in quite an emotional state when writing the songs for this album. This is never more obvious than on “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her,” where he addresses mixed emotions regarding his feelings for another woman while he was still married. The simple, slightly dissonant synth melody & ‘80s percussion tricks are a perfect match for his pleading vocal performance, and the key line might be “He who hesitates is lost.”
It took some time, but “This World Over” grew on me with each successive listen. Andy discusses his fear of nuclear war amid synth washes, an insistent rimshot groove and a slightly funky guitar pattern. I love how he builds to a vocal crescendo in the middle, almost recalling Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” before returning to the original feel. “The Everyday Story Of Smalltown” is bouncy & peppy with hints of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” Andy crams in lots of words, making this a difficult track to sing along with. It’s also very British sounding. In the Song Stories book, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird” comes with a disclaimer that they are “unable to discuss the lyrical content,” which is clearly aimed at their former management. There’s an off-kilter hook at “All he would say is I can make you famous,” and “I bought myself a big mistake, he grew too greedy, bough will break” is a particularly stinging line. The lovely recurring guitar figure obscures the angry nature of the lyrics. The clunkily-titled “You’re The Wish You Are I Had” features a fast-sung verse that leads to a sing-along chorus, and one of their best vocal arrangements to date. Colin may not have been contributing many songs during this period, but the ones he did were usually quite good. “I Remember The Sun” is a case in point. It’s a slow grooving jazzy song with a bit of dissonance that points toward “Miniature Sun” a few years later. The chorus, with alternating vocals of “most of all” and “I remember the sun” is glorious, and Dave Gregory’s guitar work is subtly masterful. The other songs are only partially successful, although some fans probably like them a lot more than I do. That’s one of the great things about their catalog; that one person’s clunker is another’s keeper. Of the 3 bonus tracks, only “Red Brick Dream” works for me. It’s a minor gem; a poem written by Andy about the Great Western Railworks set to a brief 12-string acoustic arrangement. I still don’t love The Big Express, but I have a much better appreciation for its strongest material after finally giving it the time it deserves.
They shifted gears in more ways than one for Skylarking (1986) by working in New York with legendary recording artist & studio wizard Todd Rundgren as producer. The band (especially Andy) has never hidden their dislike for Rundgren’s approach in the studio, but fortunately those bad vibes didn’t carry over to one of the (if not THE) most satisfyingly consistent collection of songs they’ve ever recorded. With certain tracks connected by sound effects and a running order chosen by Rundgren before recording even began, there’s a sense that this is a concept album, but if that’s the case it’s more a sonic connection rather than a continuous lyrical theme. Just about every song is a winner and worthy of inclusion on a career spanning anthology. The various summery sound effects on “Summer’s Cauldron” immediately create a unique atmosphere, and I like the shift to a more peppy tempo at “when Miss Moon lays down…” This segues into Colin’s “Grass,” which is highlighted by a slow conga groove and a great violin melody. It’s a pleasant head-nodding tune with distinctly British vocals (“Shocked me too, the things we used to do on grass”).
“The Meeting Place” is a simple, sentimental & nostalgic look back at a girl waiting at the factory gate for her man, and the bouncy melody & lovely harmonies make this one of Colin’s most instantly accessible songs. I love the electric piano in the pre-chorus (“You’re a working girl now”). “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is a sarcastic song by Andy about a conceited woman, having nothing to do with the titular superheroine. It straddles the border of lounge music & gentle pop, and Dave’s short guitar solo is a gem. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” could be a Queen ballad in the verses with its lovely, slightly melancholy melody. According to Song Stories author Neville Farmer, it’s “a rather cheerful look at a miserable day.” “1,000 Umbrellas” might be the one misstep on this record, but it packs a punch at “Now I’m crawling the wallpaper that’s looking more like a roadmap to misery, oh oh misery.” The original Side A closed out with “Season Cycle,” which was inspired by Andy walking his dog. Andy regards this as one of his favorites, even ranking it up there with one of his heroes, The Kinks’ Ray Davies. It’s sparse & lovely with vocals & accompaniment that recall the under-produced (and underrated) Beach Boys recordings of the late-60s. “Earn Enough For Us” is super catchy & upbeat, a perfect song to start off Side B (I wish I owned this on vinyl to experience that the way it was intended). Although it wasn’t released as a single, it could (and should) have gotten more exposure. The melody at “Glad that you want to be my wife, but honest” is particularly noteworthy.
“Big Day” is Colin’s pep talk for his son, who was still very young, “aimed at the time when he would be marriageable.” It’s a bit grandiose but the psychedelic folk tinges and REM-esque jangly guitars set this apart from the rest of the album. I wonder how Colin really feels about marriage: “Are you deafened by the bells? Could be heaven could be hell in a cell for two.” Ouch! Andy’s “Another Satellite” is a slightly angry song about an obsessed female fan who, ironically, he would eventually settle down with after his divorce. The haunting phased guitar figure & vaguely psychedelic touches give it a unique atmosphere. Andy described “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” as “a John Barry thing…cod spy music.” Featuring one of his strongest vocal performances, this finger-snapping tune has a great lounge jazz arrangement and a killer shift at “And the sirens that sing…” The country-tinged “Dear God” was a controversial hit single that was originally left off the album, but its success forced the record label to re-press it, replacing “Mermaid Smiled” (that one’s included on a compilation that I’ll discuss in my next post). The idea of a child’s letter to God questioning the existence of God is a very clever concept, and it’s insanely catchy, but I can understand why some religious folks might have been displeased by lines like, “Did you make mankind after we made you?” It segues into Colin’s “Dying,” which is a somber but not maudlin tune inspired by his friendship with an elderly neighbor. His voice is gruffer, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and he delivers some effective lines, i.e. “Don’t want to die like you” and “What sticks in my mind…” The haunting melody played on a Chamberlain organ is another excellent production choice. Colin described his album closer, “Sacrificial Bonfire,” as “an evil piece of music, and good would triumph over it.” I love the subtle rhythm, with shakers & syncopated beat, although I’m not a fan of the bombastic chorus. The rest of the song is beautiful, and it allows the album to slip away on a peaceful note. I can’t say enough good things about Skylarking, which has to be high on the list of must-haves for anyone checking out the XTC catalog for the first time.
Between The Big Express and Skylarking, they released an EP under the pseudonym The Dukes Of Stratosphear, where they allowed themselves to pay homage to ‘60s psychedelic music. They would release a full-length album two years later before returning as XTC at the end of the decade. Instead of including the EP in this post, I decided to save both Dukes releases for my next post, since they should fit well with the XTC album that followed. Until then, I hope to hear from you about the three albums discussed above. Are there any fans who consider this the best era of their career? Does anyone rate Mummer or The Big Express as their favorite XTC album?