A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – The Big Express

XTC's albums on CD

The Big Express – 1984

I’ve had this idea in my mind that The Big Express was the album where the album buying public really fell out of love with XTC.   

But the facts don’t bear that out. The Big Express shifted more units in the UK than its predecessor, Mummer.  

I guess this feeling comes from two places. Firstly, it was the first album I didn’t buy in real-time, a touch of guilt on my part, and, secondly, that even XTC didn’t seem so interested in XTC at the time, sojourning off as their sixties alter egos, The Dukes of Stratosphere, at the first opportunity. The Dukes of Stratosphere was described by Andy Partridge as, ‘the most fun we ever had in the studio’ . This implies that The Big Express wasn’t so much fun, and we know that the Rundgren wrangle made next ups Skylarking a difficult experience.  

But in retrospect, is The Big Express as negative an experience as I remember? Well, yes and no, as it’s an album of two halves for me, to use the football analogy.

Overall, it’s a denser, yet more upbeat offering than Mummer. Side one is as good as anything the band produced, but side two gets bogged down and disappears down several blind alleys that could have benefitted from the lighter touch displayed on the previous album.  

But, and this is a big but, any even slightly under par XTC album is better than most others’ top efforts and any album that contains a song of the quality of This World Over, one of my favourite XTC songs, is worth its weight in gold.  

Side one contains all that is good about XTC, catchy, clever, pointed songs. It is packed full of failed singles – everyone, including me, really was looking the other way to overlook gems like Wake Up, All You Pretty Girls and the aforementioned, This World Over.  

“But side two drifts, meanders and even irritates at times…”

But side two drifts, meanders and even irritates at times, particularly in the album’s closing track, Train Running Low on Soul Coal.

From the album’s title and packaging, I’ve got one where the cover is in the shape of a steam train’s wheel, you’re expecting more of a concept/themed offering, an industrial revolution theme to offset the countryside of Mummer, but apart from the final track, there’s scant evidence of this. If only they’d known, they could have held back Paper and Iron, and Towers of London from Black Sea for the purpose.  

But the inclusion of the steam motif reminds me of the old joke that the only good thing to have come out of Swindon is trains. As XTC fans we know that not to be the case.   

The Big Express? A curate’s egg.  

Top Tunes 

  • Wake up!  
  • Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her 
  • All you Pretty Girls 

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

  • This World Over

In case you missed it …

XTC's early releases
Singles and album from the White Music era

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – White Music (1978)

Herky and, indeed, jerky. The sound of speed. 100mph. Non-stop. 

Singles and album from XTC’s Go 2 era
Singles and album from XTC’s Go 2 era

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – Go 2 

Probably the most unloved XTC album and probably rightly so. The second album of the year and it shows. (1978)

Singles and album from XTC's Drums and Wires era
Singles and album from XTC’s Drums and Wires era

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – Drums and Wires 

Ah, that’s better! Preceded by the criminally neglected single, Life Begins at the Hop, Drums and Wires is a really good album. (1979)

Singles and album from XTC’s Black Sea era
Singles and album from XTC’s Black Sea era

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – Black Sea

Is this my favourite XTC album? Not quite, but we’re almost there on our journey through Swindon’s finest’s back catalogue. (1980)

Singles and album from XTC’s English Settlement era

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – English Settlement

English Settlement is the pivotal album for XTC with both cover and name signalling a shift in perspective for the band. A shift from suburban to countryside, from contemporary to timeless. (1982)

Mummer

A garden of earthly delights – XTC’s studio albums – Mummer

XTC are the Village Green Preservation Society.  (1983)

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