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

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.

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.

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

“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.

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.

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

“… 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.

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.

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

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 …”

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.

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

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.  

Singles and album from XTC’s English Settlement era

 

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

  

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