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

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

The story so far …

XTC's albums on CD
All XTC’s studio albums on CD

A garden of earthly delights

I am reviewing all of XTC’s studio albums, I have got as far as The Big Express …

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