From Joe Jackson’s “What I’m Listening To” blog (which is ALWAYS worth a read – see link below)…….
XTC – Everything
I’m going to finish with something that’s not only What I’m Listening To but an Appreciation I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. There are two kinds of people in this world: XTC fans and, well, the rest of you, who might want to skip this.
One of my favourite down-time pleasures over the last few months has been re-listening to pretty much everything this un-classifiable band did on their dozen albums from 1978 to 2000, while also dipping into the two essential books, XTC – Song Stories, by the band themselves with Neville Farmer, and Complicated Game – Inside the Songs of XTC, in which Andy Partridge talks to Todd Bernhardt about a selection of his songs while going off on endless fascinating and hilarious tangents. Andy is a very funny guy, who buzzes with enough ideas for a dozen bands. It’s a kind of miracle that this one also found room for Colin Moulding, a less prolific but fine songwriter, whose three or four tracks per album I always looked forward to. He was the George Harrison of XTC, with a bit of Paul thrown in, and an exceptional bassist to boot.
With the luxury of hindsight (not to mention presumptuousness) it strikes me now that XTC’s work can be divided roughly into four periods. On the first two albums, White Music and Go 2, they sound like a snotty young pop-punk outfit trying to create a retro-futuristic soundtrack for The Jetsons, but with some great tunes. Listen more closely, though, and you could imagine them getting much more interesting over time. Which, of course, they did.
The second period begins with the departure of keyboardist Barry Andrews and the recruitment of Dave Gregory, mainly a guitarist but also a pianist, arranger, and all-rounder with the skills needed for a band growing more ambitious by the day. Now a formidable live gigging machine, they toughened up their sound, while writing songs that were somehow both more solid and more sophisticated, on Drums And Wires and especially Black Sea—a critical and commercial hit and still a lot of people’s favourite XTC album.
Their next release, the fascinating and adventurous double album English Settlement, seems to me to have one foot in that second period and one in their third, in which they retired from the road, causing drummer Terry Chambers to quit—from then on, they would use a different drummer on each album (the best, for my money, being Dave Mattacks on Nonsuch). XTC became an ever-more creative studio band, with Mummer showing a more reflective, acoustic, pastoral side, and The Big Express its noisier counterpart. This is their transitional period, and I remember thinking at the time that although there were plenty of brilliant moments, the express might just be running out of steam a bit.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, because Skylarking—despite its well-known ‘difficult’ beginnings with producer Todd Rundgren—turned out to be a masterpiece. It was the start of XTC’s mature period, in which they surpassed expectations (well, mine, anyway) to produce work which was no longer just clever and fun but often moving and inspiring. (Skylarking was also probably Colin’s finest hour, with five great songs). How do you follow a masterpiece? In this case, with the big, bright, shiny and confident Oranges and Lemons, their second double album, about which I remember thinking at the time: the bastards, they’ve done it again!
I’m not sure, after that, whether anyone was quite prepared for yet another double album, but Nonsuch, while perhaps less immediately accessible, is a treasure trove to be dipped into again and again. Picking a favourite XTC album feels a bit like having my fingernails pulled out, but if I really, really had to, this would—tentatively, possibly, maybe, perhaps—be it.
Then came a five-year hiatus in which the band dealt with various personal crises while fighting their way out of their unhappy relationship with Virgin Records. They reconvened with an unmanageable pile of songs and, logically enough, decided to split them into two piles. Apple Venus is rather serious and very beautiful, taking XTC’s acoustic/orchestral leanings to new heights. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Part 2) is simpler, happier, and more ‘back to basics’. Taken together, they stand with XTC’s very best work, but I can’t help feeling that releasing them as two contrasting albums, a year apart, took something away from each. Though I’m not sure if that’s really what’s bothering me, so much as the retrospective melancholy of knowing that this project would be their last.
XTC seem to be gone for good, but to quote Spinal Tap (which Andy would probably like): Their Legacy Lives On. There are so many things I love about XTC: their misfit awkwardness, their omnipresent humour, their gleeful mishmashing of irresistible pure-pop catchiness and seriously out-there ideas, their creative ambition, all the clever little references to the music they love, and their Englishness—a very particular timeless, rural and small-town, rather than London-cool, Englishness. I could say much more; I haven’t even mentioned any individual songs, because if I started, I wouldn’t know where to stop. And like most of what I’ve written about music, this is just an appreciation, and a signpost for anyone who’s interested. Which they should be.