XTC, a band I was led to remember when fiddling with the "A Clockwork Orange"-blog.
Posted by Bo Ellegaard on November 23, 2020 0 Comments
It dawned on me from an expression off "A Clockwork Orange" where some incomprehensable words turned up, but a lot do in that novel/movie.
"Fuzzy warbles" (meaning "good for nothing records" or something) put in the mouth of head character Alex Delarge when chatting up two girls in a record shop in the novel/movie. I came to think of the CD-set "Fuzzy Warbles" by Andy Partridge and from his name my memory naturally led me back to....XTC!
Thinking of both the music and the fate of XTC only a few bands have had so many ups and downs as they have!
-landing a lucrative recording contract with Virgin Records- years later it turned out to be most lucrative for Virgin
-the loss of a keyboard player (Barry Andrews) and the gain of a fellow-Swindoner/guitarist Dave Gregory
-chart succeses with the singles "Making Plans For Nigel", "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" and "Senses Working Overtime"
-and vinyl albums: "Black Sea" no.1 in New Zealand! "English Settlement" no. 5 in the UK, and silver-records for both in the UK
-then a panic-struck, fatigued Andy Partridge leaving stage mid-"Respectable Street" in France in 1982 as witnessed by French TV
on youtube: (rumour has it that it was him coming off Valium too rapidly)
-an English Settlement-Tour that should never have happened
-the American leg of that tour cancelled after just one concert
-and still- against all odds- XTC churned out a bunch of great Virgin-albums from 1983´s "Mummer" to "Nonsuch" in 1992
-going on strike from Virgin Records for seven years because of contract disagreements
-the falling out in his studio with star-producer Todd Rundgren over something as trivial as....er, well the actual sound on the record!
-and years later finding out that you were right: "wrong polarity" (which means getting your plus and minus mixed-up during mix-down or something!)
-this was discovered thanks to engineer John Dent when he re-mastered "Skylarking" for re-release in 2010 on 2xLP and on CD again this April
-losing drummer Terry Chambers who couldn´t pay the rent with XTC´s going off the road
-as well as losing guitarist extraordinaire Dave Gregory who felt not needed during the XTC strike
-returning to form with "Apple Venus Volumes 1 and 2" for the Cooking Vinyl label as XTC in 1999
Whatever the reason for some of the above resulting in the group´s Beatles-like decision in 1982 to just becomming a recording band only. Albeit with the occasional TV- and radio appearances. (go check Youtube!!)
When characterising XTC´s musical development over the years I´d like to divide their output into different stages:
1. The Wild Years
2. Goodbye Barry Andrews/Hello Dave Gregory...and a hit-single
3. Britpop before Oasis and after The Kinks
4. The acoustic masterpiece
5. The low ebb
6. The unexpected American masterpiece, no thanks to Todd, well perhaps...anyway!
7. The whimsical years
Interval (lasting seven years)
9. The Cooking Vinyl years
10. Collecting XTC
11. Further knowledge beyond XTC
-well that´s a lot of stages, I agree, but please indulge me!
-to continue the Beatles analogy mentioned above for a moment only to examine if the comparison holds up, since much of the music of XTC was always considered arch-British and often compared directly to the Beatles´ more adventurous songs (if you are unfamiliar with The Beatles output then try some of the tracks off "Rubber Soul" and forward!):
Lennon (guitar)/Mc Cartney(bass) (today we know, that they wrote seperately) compared to Partridge(guitar)/Moulding(bass) (they do too!)
Hamburg days as The Silver Beetles (or Silver Beatles) compared to Swindon days as The Helium Kidz
Audition with producer George Martin leading to a record contract with Parlophone compared to recocnition by BBC´s DJ John Peel leading to a record contract with Virgin Records
The Beatles as Sgt. Pepper´s Lonely Hearts Club Band compared to XTC as The Dukes of Stratosphear
"Magical Mystery Tour" on 2 x 7" ep compared to mini 12" album "25 o´clock"
Double album "The Beatles"(="The White Album" to you!) compared to... well, did The Beatles really only make one double originally? XTC has made three and counting so here the analogy ends!!
To fully understand a by a large audience unknown, uncommercial band like XTC you have to be thorough bordering on the pedantic so please let me continue:
By "1. The Wild Years"
I mean the new wave of "White Music" and "Go 2" with quirky and melodic almost-pop songs: short and to the point.
Listen to "Science Friction" (clever, eh?), "This Is Pop", "Statue Of Liberty" and "Life Begins At The Hop" to see and hear what I mean.
Also their hint at Kraftwerk in "Go 2"´s "Meccanik dancing": "...To a disco trot from Germany..."
(Kraftwerk´s robotic singing: "...And We Are Dancing Mechanic..." in May on 1978´s "Man Machine" five months before).
The ending of the first (new) wave of punk didn´t affect XTC much although they had profitted from this period by writing and playing fast songs almost to be mistaken for punkish new wave had it not been for the obvious qualities when it came to both songwriting (clever lyrics and detail put into the melodies), performance and enthusiastical singning -sometimes even hiccuping eagerly to added effect. Escpecially the vocal harmonies with traces of The (young) Beatles but perhaps even more so Brian Wilson´s Beach Boys shines.
In other words: XTC was not afraid of showing that they were musically ahead of the punks of the day daring also a look back to the past!
(Not unlike another New Waver about town, I´ll use only initials here: EC, because I´ll save him for another blog...and no, it´s not Derek!)
The playing is well executed on both albums with lots of keyboards and jangling rhythm guitar added with superb drumming bursting to express that right now in 1978 the time is on their side!
"2. Hello Dave Gregory!"
"Drums And Wires" was were I discovered XTC in 1979. An album with both good pop songs ("Making Plans For Nigel""Helicopter" and "Ten Feet Tall") and more adventurous stuff like "Complicated Game". This time more guitar-oriented ("Wires" meaning guitars) due to new recruit Dave Gregory. But like the vocal harmonies continues to impress, the sound of two guitars blended so well together sounded very promising for what to expect from the band in the future.
I played in a band at that time and persuaded the others to the fact that we should add "Ten Feet Tall" to our set list and we learned to play it reasonably well.
"3. Britpop before Oasis (and indeed the expression "Britpop") and after The Kinks".
I was ready to unpack "Black Sea" on the day of release in 1980. The first run of "Black Sea" came in a green paper bag with "XTC Black Sea" printed on it. And what a thrill it was to get the record out of the bag/cover/innersleeve and onto the turntable to the sound of "Respectable Street"! But what was wrong with my copy?
Nothing really, just another quirky idea, that the record should sound like something from an old 78-shellac with scratches and limited tonal range only to return to the sound of 1980´s with a forceful guitar riff to indicate the rebirth of classic British pop where The Kinks, The Small Faces and let´s add The Move for good measure were looking over Andy Partridge´s and Colin Moulding´s shoulders. The songs on the record contain themes like behaviour/conservatism, the cold war, the love of London´s architecture and even sonic travels in avant-prog land.
With "4. The Acoustic Masterpiece" how could they possibly follow the string of classic pop songs on "Black Sea"?
From the cover on (showing a facsimile of the giant pre-historic horse drawn on green grassed chalkhill(!) near Swindon) to a double album´s worth of songs of, ...well, life in Britain during the Thatcher-era really.
About both the (nouveau-)rich(e) and the unemployed. In fact enough songs about condemned houses, home theft, anti guns/war and young children running away from home to make your senses work overtime!
On this album XTC turned the loudness off and strummed their acoustic guitars instead- blended with sweet harmonies as usual and cool percussion throughout the album´s four sides resulting in a very mature fifth album.
"English Settlement" won the band a deserved hit record in Britain charting at No. 5!
"5. The Low Ebb"
-came arguably with the next two albums: 1983´s"Mummer" and 1984´s "The Big Express". I left XTC at this point looking for new inspiration. I won´t go into these albums a lot but try for yourself to see, if I was wrong. Feel free to comment on this blog stating your opinion on "Mummer" and "The Big Express" and indeed the other albums as well as including your favourite XTC album in your comment!!
"6. The Unexpected ...." being of course 1986`s "Skylarking"!
Moving to New York State to Utopia Studio XTC left the English shores and studios with producers from Martin Rushent and Steve Lillywhite to Hugh Padgham the band had grown so accustomed to. I´m sure they wanted a new challenge far away from the stranglehold of the British Music Press perhaps also looking for a more commercial (american?) sound in the US.
They needed to look no further than Todd Rundgren, a man who only have to say "like a Bat Out Of Hell" when asked for his CV!
There are a lot of rumours about the working climate during the recording of "Skylarking". Suffice to say here, that the real problem was the fact that the sound of the finished product either LP or CD didn´t sound like the playback of the tapes in the studio according to a then depressed Andy Partridge. The happy ending to this problem can be read in "6." above but came (too) late.
"Skylarking" is today considered to be among the best 100 albums of the 80´s!
"7. The Whimsical years"
began in 1985 with the band looking back to the 60´s to celebrate English psychedelia circa 1967/68. Hidden under their moniker "The Dukes Of Stratosphear", which was among a lot of names they had come up with to choose from when they finally decided to become XTC, they recorded a mini album of songs and made it sound just like Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles, Syd´s Pink Floyd or even Disraëli Gears (for cover pastiche) by Cream. This was followed by a similar nostalgic "The Psonic Psunspot"-album in 1987.
If the title "25 o´clock" makes you laugh be my guest and have a go at both albums.
I find that the excellent "Lemon and Oranges" -another double album, from 1989 with its cover, title, themes and sound also fits well into this era, I hope you agree?
Another fine set of songs this was: again very British and executed with even more precision and finesse than before and also bursting with more musical ideas than you could wish for. Dare I say almost sounding commercial?!
How do you compose, collect and record another batch of 17 songs over the next couple of years and land with their Magnum Opus in this blogger´s opinion? I don´t know. Perhaps what it takes is what is called "Genius"!
A creative period the late 80´s were for XTC and teaming up with ("Space Oddity"+Elton John-)producer Gus Dudgeon and enlisting the fantastic folk-rock drummer Dave Mattacks (of Fairport-/Joan Armatrading fame) together they conjured up "Nonsuch", a title that says it all: has no equal/unmatched/second to none, and has it all: surefire pop (from the guitar amp plug in and "let´s begin" of "Peter Pumpkinhead"- succesfully covered by lesser Gods the Crash Test Dummies in the dumbest movie you can imagine!) to "Dear Madam Barnum" and "The Disappointed", beautiful ballads "Rook" and "Bungalow" and their usual clever lyricism of "The Smartest Monkeys" and the adventurous "That Wave" (check that guitar solo!). And still fighting against war on "War Dance".
The production is in perfect balance with a clear crisp sounding top and a full deep bottom to accomodate both vocal harmonies and a wide range of instruments. I simply love this album!
Gus Dudgeon has made a home movie of the recording process and loaded it to youtube:
The next seven years were a dark period for XTC, soon to become a band of only the two songwriters. It is always money that can ruin the fun. In this case the money came from records sold over a period of 20 years and when XTC was finally released from their Virgin contract a minor sum enabled the pair to establish a home studio. Virgin kept the lion´s share.
The good thing was that it was now possible for XTC to look ahead. To get new songs recorded and finding a decent recording contract.
This happened when Cooking Vinyl came to their rescue!
9." The Cooking Vinyl years"
Originally a body of songs this album was to become the swansong for XTC. When it came to reality the songs were split on two records issued over a period of two years. An almost acoustic "Apple Venus Volume 1" and the more electric guitar-album "Wasp Star (AppleVenus Volume 2)" nicely sums up what Messrs. Partridge and Moulding were still -should anybody have forgotten- all about: the good melody with a twist -wrapped in instruments as diverse as trumpets and string quartets added to the usual rock instruments. Vocals beautifully entwined with the highest of harmonies to strive for what XTC has always tried to create... The Perfect Pop song!
It´s for us listeners to find out wheather they have succeeded!
Record collecting is by definition a hard task to indulge in- expensive too were you not there first time around and certainly not this bloggers reason for doing this blog!
But just to consider the plethora of (vinyl)records XTC have put out over the years is simply a joy. The creative notions in the songs are repeated in the presenting of the product: the actual record itself be it 7" or 12".
Especially the singles had a run for their (or our?) money so to speak. In no special order I recollect:
A collection of postcards attached to sleeve of "This World Over" .....First edition double 7" singles of "Generals And Majors" in gatefold sleeve. The 3D EP is printed in ...3D colours red and green. "No Thugs In Our House" 7" is housed in a pantomime theatre die cut sleeve. Even the give away flexis themselves can be found in different colours (no sleeve, however!).
But also the albums: try to find the title letters of debut album "White Music" printed on white background in ....white print! (a way to examine, wheather your copy is original!), (of Pink Floyd covers fame-)Hipgnosis´ idea to print words and sentences all over the cover of "Go 2" explaining the obvious as well as the secrets of the record business itself. It has even the gimmick of some lines of text missing on back cover of "Go2" is to be found on the insert of the record and must be added to give any meaning at all!!(see picture below!)
The round cover of "The Big Express" to make the album look like a wheel on a steam engine train. The "Nonsuch" CD has the Nonsuch Castle printed in gold on jewel case ("jewel?").
It´s easier today with your "smart-pods" you can collect and create your own favourite XTC songbook and I recommend that you simply start were YOU find XTC exciting and fitting to your own musical tastes. There are 14 original studio albums, several compilations, lots of live recordings, the odd tracks off different singles´ b-sides and flexidiscs out there to collect from. Some of the re-issues even contains DVD´s with videos, documentary clips etc.
As they say: "What´s not to like?" and knowing The RecordPusher himself I´m sure that he recommends the lot!
11. "Further knowledge beyond XTC"
After making the final XTC albums Andy Partridge continued to make music. Listen to his collection "Fuzzy Warbles" to find out where he is going musically. It´s more uncertain wheather Colin Moulding will ever make music again though...we´ll have to see about that in the future!
If this has made you interested in XTC and should you need to look for more info you can go on to fan home page:
- or Andy Partridge´s label Ape House:
-or just google XTC to your heart´s delight there is plenty out there!!