A garden of earthly delights

A personal review of XTC’s albums

In the first of a series of reviews of albums by bands who have been important to me, I look at the output of XTC – the classically underrated Swindon band who should be talked about in the same breath as the Kinks, but aren’t.

White Music (1978)

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

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

XTC was one of a number of bands who hitched a ride on the punk bandwagon – see also The Stranglers and The Motors.

But that was alright as Punk was as much about who was let in after the door was kicked down as it was about the here today, nowhere to go tomorrow merchants, like, say, The Lurkers – great though those early singles were. My heart is still in the Shadow. 

XTC was in the vanguard of great English songwriters, in the tradition of Ray Davies et al, who initially snarled their way into our hearts. Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and, a little later, Squeeze fit into that model. 

“Punk was as much about who was let in after the door was kicked down as it was about the here today, nowhere to go tomorrow merchants”

Contrary to popular belief, The Stranglers weren’t the only band of the new wave to feature keyboards. Indeed, the soon to be jettisoned Barry Andrews’ steam organ drives this album. And it is driven, rarely letting up, which was what we wanted. 

But they couldn’t completely suppress the songwriting under the speed. Top pop tunes like, er, This is Pop and Statue of Liberty, the album’s singles, formed an oasis among the mayhem and pointed the way forward. 

Is All Along the Watchtower the best cover of that song? No, obviously not, that’s Hendrix, but it is a fun addition to punk’s deconstruction of previous generations treasures, as exemplified by The Dickies with their uncanny ability to make every song sound the same, ie like the Ramones, and of which Devo’s pulling apart of Satisfaction was the most satisfying. 

Top Tunes 

I Set Myself on Fire 

This is Pop 

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

Statue of Liberty 

Go2 (1978)

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

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

The most original thing about Go 2 was the cover and packaging – a well ahead of its time critique of marketing manipulation.

It certainly wasn’t the music that was the selling point of Go 2. The lack of singles on the album is telling, nothing much stays with you in a good way. For the most part, it’s made up of attempted rehashes of the first album, combined with Barry Andrews’ attempts to write and sing. The only song which seems to have any legs is Battery Brides, which they were still playing live.

The inclusion of Andrews’ songs took down the quality threshold considerably. Super Tuff, in particular, feels interminable as it plods along draining any life that the album might have had.

“From here, XTC was going to be a guitar band. What would that sound like?”

More interesting than all this was the dub versions of the album which came as a freebie with early purchases, Go +. It certainly benefited from only being five tracks long, but it’s a definite improvement on the real thing.

Two albums in and it’s already all sounding tired.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who thought that, as musical/personality differences saw the departure of Andrews, who went on to not really trouble the scorers in Shriekback amongst others, to be replaced by Swindon scene guitarist Dave Gregory.

From here, XTC was going to be a guitar band. What would that sound like?

Top Tunes 

N/A

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

Battery Brides

Drums and Wires (1979)

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

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

Always a fine line between what’s New Wave and what’s Post Punk, but this feels like a new wave album to me. Clever, sharp pop still informed by the energy of punk.

It contains the biggest hit single, the one that appears on all the new wave compilations, Making Plans for Nigel. You always wondered whether the biggest hit being written by Colin Moulding caused Andy Partridge angst. His most successful chart entry would have to wait for a couple more albums in the form of Senses Working Over Time, which doesn’t appear on half as many compilation albums.

“… the first real inkling that in Partridge we’ve got an English songsmith in the class of Ray Davies.”

But Drums and Wires is the first real inkling that in Partridge we’ve got an English songsmith in the class of Ray Davies.

Still being punky in taste at the time, my inclination was towards bangers like Reel by Reel and Helicopter, but something more subtle was starting to emerge in the form of songs like Patridge’s When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty and Moulding’s Ten Feet Tall. And quirky had replaced herky-jerky on numbers like Millions and Complicated Game.

Steve Lillywhite’s presented a tight unit underpinned by Terry Chambers’ thumping drums, a great contrast to the sprawl and lack of focus of the last LP.

Drums and Wires starts the run of three albums where I felt most attached to XTC, the songs and their running order ingrained on my memory forevermore.

Top Tunes 

When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty
Reel by Reel
Complicated Game

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

Making Plans for Nigel

Black Sea (1980)

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

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

I find it hard to separate those two new wave classics; this and its predecessor, Drums and Wires. They share many similarities, based as they are on the well-made pop song model. If anything Black Sea is even slicker on that count than Drums and Wires, Partridge and Moulding having had more time to practice and hone their art.

But maybe it’s the rougher edges of Drums and Wires that tips the balance its favour – but only by a gnats. And Black Sea’s singles – Generals and Majors, Towers of London and Sgt Rock – aren’t my favourite things. So, I guess, there are also more songs on Drums and Wires that I like than on Black Sea, a more obvious way to separate the two. But, don’t get me wrong, I love Black Sea. No album containing Love at First Sight and No Language in our Lungs can be unloved.

“On Black Sea, just before heading more into more bucolic settings, Partridge nails suburbia …”

All that remains of the paper bag that Black Sea came in
All that remains of the paper bag that Black Sea came in

Although slicker, that doesn’t mean everything is heading middle of the road. Travels in Nihilon, for instance, continues the experimentation we’ve already heard in things like Go + and Scissor Man, making copious use of Terry Chambers’ tub-thumping. B-side from the time, The Somnambulist, also showed that everything wasn’t by the numbers.

On Black Sea, just before heading more into more bucolic settings, Partridge nails suburbia, in a way he would repeat on English Settlement’s No Thugs in our House, with the magnificent Respectable Street. Like The Members’ Sound of the Suburbs, this song appealed to the faux anger of us out of the city part-time punks.

Respectable Street has a special place in my heart. It was the song that the obligatory band that I was in at the time attempted to reproduce with alarming results. For every Buzzcocks who went to the Pistols’ gig and employed the DIY ethic to become great bands, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, more who inspired by punk started terribly and remained so. We were young, we were Burning with Optimism’s Flames.

If the gaze was soon to start shifting from suburb to countryside, on Black Sea we also see concern turning from the domestic and becoming more global, most apparent on Living Through Another Cuba, a big, hectic slice of early eighties panic about the bomb.

Black Sea is another great XTC album, but it’s time to head into the Chalkhills.

Top Tunes 

  • Living Through Another Cuba
  • No Language in our Lungs
  • Burning with Optimism’s Flames

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

  • Respectable Street

English Settlement (1982)

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

But it’s not a revolution – babies aren’t thrown out with bathwaters. Earlier themes and early expressions remain. No Thugs in our House feels like it belongs with Respectable Street as a Sound of the Suburbs. Fly on the Wall retains the edginess of the punkier beginnings to the extent that it’s close to being a rip off of Wire’s I am the Fly, not just because of its pest based subject.  

But we are stretching into new territory, both musically and thematically, best exemplified by one of XTC’s most famous songs, Senses Working Overtime.  Senses Working Overtime is epic, especially for single, Swindon’s answer to Bohemian Rhapsody, consisting of movements heading towards that singalong chorus.   

Talking of epic, Jason and the Argonauts wanders into the territory of Greek mythology – we’ve already come a long way from setting ourselves on fire. Myth would play an increasing part in XTC’s output, albeit usually English tales, like those performed by the forthcoming mummers.   

Grand themes are a plenty on English Settlement, political statements, which would eventually reach their height with the infamous Dear God, abound – It’s Nearly Africa, Melt the Guns, Leisure, Down in the Cockpit. Not the first time we’d been on this territory with the boys – Living Through Another Cuba – but you felt they were very concerned, and, with it being the early days of Thatcher and Reagan, there was a lot to be concerned about.   

But the weightiness of the subject matter shouldn’t detract from the increasing subtlety of the music, both Moulding and Partridge are producing really boundary-pushing tunes, Senses Working Overtime being the prime example.   

“The consistently high standard of the material is almost frightening, the dictionary definition of on a roll.”

And it’s a double album. The consistently high standard of the material is almost frightening, the dictionary definition of on a roll. They’d repeat the trick later on with the more psychedelic Oranges and Lemons, beloved of US student radio during the late 80s/early 90s.  

And English Settlement also contains my favourite XTC love song, All of a Sudden (It’s too Late), which I still find heartbreaking after all these years.   

It would be a while until XTC displayed such breadth in their music. Next ups Mummer was much more focused on the bucolic as XTC almost became the Village Green Preservation Society.  

For so many reasons, some musical, some personal, English Settlement is my favourite XTC album. 

Top Tunes 

  • All of a Sudden (It’s too Late) 
  • Jason and the Argonauts 
  • No Thugs in our House

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

  • Senses Working Overtime

Mummer (1983)

XTC are the Village Green Preservation Society.  

Mummer is the most bucolic of XTC’s albums, where they virtually abandon the suburbs for the countryside, but the album is underpinned by a malevolent and disturbing spirit.

It is with a mild sense of shame that I have to report that Mummer is also the last of XTC’s LPs that I bought in real-time. I too wandered off into pastures new for a while, Devon for further education, having to play catch-up later for their last four efforts before the first break up.   

It is also the first album where we have three core members to the band, Terry Chambers having got as far away as possible, emigrating to Australia after leaving the band. Chambers left the tub-thumping to a series of session musicians for the rest of the band’s recordings.   

One of the earliest, who appeared on Mummer, was a throwback to the first music that I bought with my own pocket money – Glam. I’d like to tell you that it was the artier ends of things that first appealed, Bowie, Roxy etc, but an eleven-year-old me was more interested in something a bit more basic and stompy, so Sweet and Slade, although Sparks did provide the first window into a too clever for their own good world that would prove irrestible to me.  

And I responded enthusiastically to the tribal beat of the double-drummed Glitter Band (and he who shall not be mentioned), a trick nicked to great effect by Adam after he was left in the lurch by his first colony of Ants. One of those glamtastic drummers, Peter Phipps, provided the beat on all but two of Mummer’s tracks, Terry Chambers’ last hurrahs coming in the form of Wonderland and Funk Pop a Roll. Terry’s now back with us and currently recycling the grand days under the moniker of EXTC.  

Apart from the throwback Funk Pop a Roll, stuck on the end as a bit of an anomaly, we’re very much rooted in a past guided by the seasons and the elements – Great Fire, Deliver us from the Elements, Me and the Wind.   

“Several tracks are a bit summer hazy, slightly queasy, we’ve seen Wickerman too many times than is good for us …”

Mummer’s two key tracks present the two sides of the same pastoral coin. Love on a Farmboy’s Wages is one of Andy Partridge’s sweet love songs and is echoed on the album by Ladybird and, to an extent, Wonderland. But Wonderland also contains that other, darker side to nature. Several tracks are a bit summer hazy, slightly queasy, we’ve seen Wickerman too many times than is good for us, exemplified by Human Alchemy. Human Alchemy is a wee bit disturbing to be truthful, particularly musically.   

That feel doesn’t end with Human Alchemy. Both Beating of Hearts and Deliver us from the Elements both have that same unsettling quality to them. We’ll visit this neck of the woods again – think Summer’s Cauldron from Skylarking.  

The strength of the shift from town to country, from present to past leaks into other songs, like In Loving Memory, which when you listen more closely don’t actually fit into the pattern.  

Mummer is a fine album, but such an ostensibly quiet album was a shock to the system at the time. Maybe that is why I fell away for a bit. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to give up the noise of punk and post-punk, I’m not sure that I ever have been. A bad decision in hindsight, it lost me a few years with a few great albums but did allow me the joy of rediscovery, prompted by FOPP bunging the compilation Fossil Fuel out for a fiver and finding the post Mummer singles as a gateway to those missing years. 

Top Tunes 

  • Beating of Hearts
  • Wonderland
  • Human Alchemy

Toppermost of the Poppermost 

  • Love on a Farmboy’s Wages

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

  

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