|Drums & Wires||1979||3.04/pi|
|Live at the Paradise Theater, Boston||1980||2.95/pi|
|Takeaway / The Lure of Salvage by Mr. Partridge||1980||2.06/pi|
|Live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam||1982||2.64/pi|
|Waxworks: Some Singles||1982||e/pi|
|The Big Express||1984||2.99/pi|
|25 O’Clock EP by The Dukes of Stratosphear||1985||2.91/pi|
|Psonic Psunspot by The Dukes of Stratosphear||1987||2.87/pi|
|Oranges & Lemons||1989||2.90/pi|
|Rag & Bone Buffet||1991||2.48/pi|
|Coat of Many Cupboards||2002||2.58/pi|
|Fuzzy Warbles Vols. 1–2 by Mr. Partridge||2002||2.08/pi|
XTC have been called the “Great Lost Pop Band”, and with some reason. For the past 27 years, they’ve churned out infectious pop songs in vast numbers, yet they’ve barely scraped the lower reaches of the charts. It’s not hard to see why. Andy Partridge’s signature wounded yelp wouldn’t exactly fit on in MTV. Their natural 14-year-old-girl-appeal-level is zero. Although they’ve always been critically acclaimed, they’ve never been trendy enough to catch a true hype wave. And the band has sealed its fate as a cult act by refusing to tour. Andy was forced by his wife to stop taking valium, and he wound up having a couple breakdowns on stage in 1982. Since then, XTC has been strictly a studio entity, give or take a couple radio and TV appearances.
There seem to be two schools of thought on XTC. One is that they are distant, too-clever, even soulless and insincere. This is, I think, born of Mr. Partridge’s aforementioned vocal style. The man just doesn’t have a great set of lungs, and he often tries to hide it with a weird, goofy delivery that, combined with his wordy lyrics, alienates a lot of people.
The other school of thought, of course, is the one that is naturally inclined to be sympathetic towards geekiness, and this is the one of which I count myself a member. Maybe you just have to be a geek yourself to “get it”. But where earlier nerds Gentle Giant often seem to be writing solely out of intellectual curiosity, with the lyrics as an afterthought, Partridge puts real heart and soul into his music.
The nice thing about being an XTC fan is, they’ve got a lot of albums, and they’re all good. So you can get lost in their catalogue for a while (an activity which I highly recommend.) I expect you’ve gathered by now that these are going to be very positive reviews. My only defense is to say that, if it wasn’t for XTC, I may never have started caring enough about music to write reviews in the first place.
Andy Partridge started his first band in 1970. Going by, variously, Stiff Beach, Stray Blues, Tongue, and Clark Kent, they were an atrocious freak-punk band drawing influence from the Stooges, Cream, and Captain Beefheart. By the end of 1972, a young Colin Moulding had entered on bass, along with Terry Chambers on drums, and the band was now known as Star Park…or Helium Kidz…or Skyscraper…indecisiveness ruled the day. As did the New York Dolls, in whose footsteps the proto-XTC closely followed, with homemade thrift shop glam costumes, space-age lyrics, and a general lack of competence. Gradually, the band found their own voice, shortening, sharpening, and weirdening up their songs into diamond-hard lumps of pure…uh, XTC. Yeah, they changed their name to XTC late in ’75, and with the addition of psycho keyboard wiz Barry Andrews a few months later, they were off!
Lineup: Andy Partridge: guitar, vocals. Colin Moulding: bass, vocals. Barry Andrews: keyboards, vocals 1976–78. Dave Gregory: guitar, keyboards, 1979–99. Terry Chambers: drums until 1983.
So for those of you who skimmed over my lengthy intro above, by 1977, XTC had somehow reconstructed the Beatles from scratch, using only punk, dub, ska, disco, glam, and avant-rock—like Robinson Crusoe building a working radio transmitter out of coconuts. They never quite fit in anywhere—not with the fundamentalist punks, which would have nothing to do with them, nor with the bright and simple new wave popsters, nor with the darkly arty ‘post-punks’ (ugh.) Andy and Colin appear to be incapable of writing a song without loading every inch of it full of bouncing, skittering, thrashing, mutating, careening sounds, rhythms, and chords. It’s a principle descended from prog weirdoes like Captain Beefheart and Brian Eno, but it’s all tied together by an adherence to the most important part of the punk formula: make it fast, loud, and danceable. The resulting quasi-genre has been termed zolo. White Music is not the first album to exhibit the principles of the style, but it is zolo’s great manifesto (if a genre that hardly even exists can be said to have one.)
This album has mostly been forgotten in the shadow of monoliths like Skylarking and English Settlement, but here in the 00’s, it’s looking more and more relevant. As of this writing, the elements of zolo are making something of a comeback, as dance-rock, new wave, and prog all creep back into the musical gestalt. But no one has ever quite duplicated the formula seen here, even XTC themselves.
The key ingredient, of course, is the songwriting. Andy Partridge was born on the island of Malta, which means he is made of delicious, delicious malt. And each of these 12 songs (plus 7 bonus tracks) is an impeccable little pop Whopper. Who could deny the catchy awesomeness of “Statue of Liberty” or “This Is Pop”? Who could fail to be charmed by the lunacy of young Colin’s “Cross Wires” and “I’ll Set Myself on Fire”? Well, feel free to dislike “I’m Bugged”, a slow number which shows that these guys were not exactly qualified to be writing slow numbers at this point.
But what turns this into basically the best thing ever is the sound, which is, to my ears, as irresistably kinetic, as exuberantly danceable as any rock album I’ve ever heard.
The one other anomaly is a cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, in which the band performs a live imitation of a dub breakdown, Partridge stammering fragments of the title phrase like a psychotic hobo. It’d be an easy track to hate, but just concentrate on the awesome, menacing goth-reggae backing track. It’s dorky as fuck, but dammit, I want to have sex with that bassline.
Before I go, I should mention the bonus tracks, which include the band’s stupendous 1977 debut, 3D EP, plus a few other uniformly excellent b-sides.
A weak one. Probably the least good XTC album, but also unjustly kicked by many. It’s a classic sophomore album: a band that has had years to build up material in preparation for their first album, suddenly thrust into the studio again with just a few weeks to one-up their younger selves. The album starts off on entirely the wrong foot: “Meccanic Dancing” and “Buzzcity Talking” are brash, clumsy rockers that sound like attempts to justify the band’s detractors, while the dirgey “Battery Brides” shows that Andy has not yet learned from the mistake that was “I’m Bugged”.
Things pick up starting with ”Crowded Room“, thankfully. There are some very high highlights from this point, like the spiky ska-punk of “Red” and “Beatown” with its extended astral coda. Lead single “Are You Receiving Me?” was a spectacular success (not commercially, of course. Just a success inside my own fevered brain.) But there are also misfires like “Life Is Good in the Greenhouse”
Part of the problem is the infighting within the band, which led to the departure of Barry Andrews shortly after the album’s release. Andrews recorded 4 songs for the album, but Partridge, jealously guarding his role as leader, kept Andrews’ best songs off the album. Partridge has since come clean about his control-freakdom and made up with his ex-keyboardist, but he can’t change history. The two songs that made it are both good, but a bit out of place; “My Weapon” is a bit of pointless cock-rock parody, and “Super-Tuff” squanders a great damaged-reggae groove on a slighty WTF-inducing attempt at a gang-war narrative.
Well now, this is different. Not too different, mind you. But the arrival of Dave Gregory has stripped away the old hyperactive carnival atmosphere, in favor of sharp twin-guitar pop (not to mention Colin’s ever-excellent bass playing). Some of the loopy energy of the preceding albums has been sacrificed at the altar of maturity, as the old rebellious party atmosphere gradually gives way to more overtly political material. For all the blinding primary colors on the cover, this is the band’s greyest material yet, and it’s matched by an important growth in the band’s already formidable songwriting skills: with “Millions”, Partridge has finally written a long, slow song that qualifies as an epic rather than a dirge. The times, they are a-changin’, baby.
An obsession with overbearing parents runs through Partridge and Moulding’s lyrics—always told from the adults’ point of view, from the opening son/daughter duo of “Nigel” and “Helicopter” to the more general childhood torments of “Scissor Man” and “That Is the Way”. These songs join together with the album’s web of social and political claustrophobia: “We all safe in your concrete robe / … When is A, B?” Partridge asks in the near-apocalyptic “Roads Girdle the Globe”. “Ignorance may help you cope”, he notes one song down, before singing the praises of a girl who “can’t hear what’s going on / in the outside world / … she’s not interested in that.” But the desperate paranoia of “Complicated Game” comes rushing back nevertheless—part catharsis, part nervous breakdown, all AWESOME—with a huge chugging rhythm and more echo than you can shake a finger, comb, ballot, or planet at. Amazingly, the song has actually become somehting of a standard, judging by the number of cover versions it has generated.
It’s not entirely gloom and doom, of course. The boys offer us a brief respite with the smitten geek-love odes of “When you’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” and “Ten Feet Tall”, the most conventionally poppy thing the band had yet recorded. And the tacked-on non-LP single “Life Begins at the Hop” gives the boys and girls a chance to party. But even in its lighter moments, the band feels worn raw by a year of constant touring and one step away from going postal. The result was one of their tightest and most satisfying albums.
Now this time they come out guns blazing, bigger and brighter than ever before. The politics are still present, but they are more concrete, coming in anthems for the British working class (“Paper and Iron”, “Towers of London”), from the sidelines of the Cold War (“Living Through Another Cuba”, “Generals and Majors”), on the hypocrisy of middle-class pretensions (“Respectable Street”).
But the pop side is clearly ascendant here. Minor hit “Sgt. Rock” finds Partridge mocking his own geekiness as he fantasizes about being a muscle-bound misogynist babe magnet. “Rocket from a Bottle” reconfigures the runaway train rhythms of “Complicated Game” for pure pop joy. “Burning with Optimism’s Flames” rises majestically from a sea of boucing, clattering rhythms, as Partridge spits out rapid-fire lines like “I learnt her lesson in like flint and styling / all the world is neatly curled around my littlest finger.”
Even the epic closer, “Travels in Nihilon”, with its dense soundscape of droning guitars, slashing drum loops and bitter lyrics on the failure of the punk revolution, feels like a part of the exuberant pop mixture rather than in opposition to it. Whatever else it is, this is just a damn fun album, focused, and nigh-unstoppable.
This is a document of an interesting era—a time when XTC’s live set was still heavily laced with material from 1978, but Barry’s dinky organ has been replaced with guitar. And with newbie Dave Gregory covering the leads, Partridge is free to indulge all of your kinkiest rhythm guitar fantasies, slashing, skanking, and skittering all over the place. This fresh new XTC would soon slow down and chill out into the pop pop craftsmen we all know and love, but they came roaring out of the gate here, blowing away the slightly dull finish on Drums & Wires.
In fact, this is one of the very few live albums I’ve heard on which I can honestly say most of the songs come off better than the studio takes. The band storms through tracks like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Helicopter” with endless aplomb. Even relatively weak songs like “Ten Feet Tall”, “Battery Brides” and “Dance Band” are given a new lease on life, the latter two becoming a pair of joyous bubbly jams. Simply put, this is the definitive document of early XTC.
The show is a bootleg, of course—there are no proper XTC live albums available (though there are a few officially released fragments, and hours of BBC quasi-live tracks.) But the recording (taken from a radio show) is mostly excellent, in spite of a few minor glitches. The crowd noise is a bit too high, and the mindless DJ chatter intermissions could stand to be edited, but the only really bothersome part is the intro to “Complicated Game”, which is marred by drunken shouting and some sort of weird chime-y effect which is mixed way higher than necessary. (The actual song, is, of course, yet another fantastic performance.)
As is so often the case with XTC, the weak link is the singing. Andy and Colin have a tendency to make unwise detours and inscrutable strangled noises. But they handle themselves pretty well here (especially compared to the BBC studio concerts on the Transistor Blast set.) Unless you have a heart of stone, you’ll be too busy dancing to care. You’ll be damn hard pressed to find any album with more sheer kinetic energy than this one.
A weird document. “Mr. Partridge”, as he is labeled on this solo release, went a bit dub-crazy in ’78-’79, but thankfully, he had the good sense to keep most of his experiments off of XTC albums.
Basically, Andy took a bunch of songs from the band’s first three albums (plus b-sides and one outtake that can be found only here) and remixed them into oblivion, slowing them down or speeding them up, mashing them together, removing vocals and guitar tracks…and then improvising totally new songs on top. The results range from dumb to interesting to quite engaging, and it’s a fun little look into Partridge’s brain, but I can’t say it really holds up too well as an album. Highlights include “New Broom”, which turns “Making Plans for Nigel” into a gothic juggernaut dirge, and “The Rotary”, a.k.a. “Helicopter” as the distressed-post-punk dance craze that never quite swept Britain. Their loss!
Nowadays, it’s packaged with the Go+ EP, in a comp entitled “Explode Together”. The accompanying EP is pretty inconsequential, being an earlier variation that lacks the overdubbed transformations. It’s just stripped down instrumental versions of songs from Go2—not something you’ll likely need to hear more than once. But the album itself is worth a look for the few brave souls who can’t get enough XTC or primitive mixing board experimentation.
A double! Well, every band needs a double-LP, don’t they? Not really, but XTC did it anyway, and would go on to make a habit of it later…
Of course, something you may notice about this album is that it only has 15 songs, which is not a lot for a double album, unless you’re Yes (which, hopefully, you aren’t.) If you’ve been following along faithfully since 1977, this is the point where you’ve got to face the fact that XTC have slowed down, stretched out, wised up, and gone all 12-string jangly, vaguely African, and yes, even a touch mediaeval on your ass.
Is this the end of the rabid new town animals who hatched just a few years prior? Well, yes and no. A metamorphosis has occurred, but all the old familiar traits are still there—just warped. Or at least, warped differently than they had been before.
Take disc 1’s epic centerpiece “Jason and the Argonauts”: the guitars jangle where they used to spike, the subtle synthesized soundscape may not have much in common with the keyboard carnival of the zolo era, but the riptide rhythms are as tense as anything in the band’s catalogue.
Everyone knows (or ought to know) “Senses Working Overtime”, one of the more unlikely top 10 hits in this little universe of ours. The track features some positively strange bass mumbo jumbo from Moulding, and rather ambiguous lyrics from Partridge—is it a wholehearted celebration of life or a dark satire of greed and materialism? Possibly both.
But the lesser-known material here is just as good—Moulding’s “Runaways” opens things with a thick bed of guitar plinkety-planking and dark atmospherics; “Down in the Cockpit” turns a pun with several more double meanings than should be legal into a dance-pop success story; “No Thugs in Our House”, perhaps the only song here that would have fit on the previous album, finds Partridge roaring out the tale of a white supremacist and his clueless, insipid parents; “Fly on the Wall” hides the album’s most infectious melody inside its irregular synth exoskeleton.
As on any double album, not everything goes right—it would probably benefit if several of the songs were shortened slightly—but then, even the white album has its “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
In conclusion, George Washington was a good president, even if he didn’t really do that much and he didn’t win many battles as a general and the cherry true story was totally not true.
Another bootleg, another club called “The Paradis*”. Alas, the sound quality is a bit worse this time, with the bass often heavily distorted. The setlist has changed drastically in two years. The only songs repeated from the 1980 show are “Nigel” and “Real by Reel”. The latter comes off a bit better this time, the former, a bit worse. C’est la vie.
The most intriguing selection is “All Along the Watchtower”, which was resurrected for this tour. It’s been overhauled with a long ambient intro and (thankfully) toned down histrionics from Partridge, who handles things with surprising near-competence this time. I could still do without the dub coda, but I’ll live.
The rest is an unsurprising selection of singles from the last couple albums, filled out with “No Language in Our Lungs” and a performance of “Living through Another Cuba” that sounds positively strange without the mad “BAH!!” refrain. The band is in fine form, but the performances are generally less revelatory than before. This is partly because they’re of songs that were better produced in the first place, but as much as it showcases XTC’s growth, this album also finds the band losing interest in the nuclear dance-punk of their youth. Good news for the quality of their studio albums, but bad news for the live experience.
Singles! Well, XTC were always a great singles band, and they prove it with this little new wave molotov cocktail. There’s an expanded version, Fossil Fuel, that comes with a second disc covering 1983-1992, but this is the one I’ve got.
The real reason most people are probably going to buy this is for “Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down”, a non-LP single that Virgin has kindly declined to include anywhere else. Unfortunately, it’s obscure for a reason—apparently Andy was quite in love with it at the time, but he now admits that the lethargic take reproduced here never quite lived up to the picture in his head. It does pick up steam momentarily in the middle, but it’s still very noticeably outclassed by the surrounding awesomeness.
As for the other songs, they’re all available right on the original LPs. However, several of them are slightly edited here, for reasons which remain unclear. The one song which appears in a real alternate version is “This Is Pop”, and it actually improves on the original—it’s bigger, tighter, funkier, and certainly the definitive take of the song. If you don’t want to splurge for the Coat of Many Cupboards box, you can always find it here.
So is this thing worth it? Well, probably not, unless you’re a completist or you want a quick gift to convert your new wave-hating friend. Whatever its uses (or lack thereof), it sure has got some great music on it.
If you’ve ever looked into the XTC conventional wisdom, you’ve been trained to believe that Skylarking perfected the formula tentatively explored on Mummer, but in the opinion of yours truly, Mummer features a better set of songs. Not that Mummer is better. Even I have to admit that it sounds a bit quaint next to the warm beauty slathered on by Todd Rundgren. But fuck that.
Unfortunately, all we can really do is dream of a world in which these songs had gotten the care they deserved. Imagine “Human Alchemy” no longer sitting in a sea of weird ungainly mellotron diddlings. Imagine “Ladybird” dusted off and displayed in all its glory. Imagine “Great Fire” and “Beating of Hearts” with some goddamn OOMPH.
Still, whatever their production faults, there’s lots to love here. Lead single “Wonderland” gives birth to the “indie-pop songs that sound like old school video game music” genre. “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” takes the acousticism of the previous album to its logical conclusion. “Me and the Wind” features a pounding piano groove and a montage coda that intercuts the verse and bridge in a strange and delightful manner.
Plus, we get these six fine bonus tracks to listen to, if we own one of those newfangled “compact disc” players. Which we don’t, obviously. Gee, what’s wrong with these songs? They’re great! I guess they got rejected cause they didn’t fit in with the feel of the album. But then, “Funk Pop a Roll” certainly doesn’t fit in, either, and they left that on the album. It’s pretty funny hearing all these soft pastoral nature-y songs and then Andy kicks you in the nuts with an angry death-to-the-music-industry rocker…and it turns out to be the best song on here! (And better than anything on Skylarking, too! So there.)
English Settlement marked the moment when the boys went out to play in the fields and streams, and entered their much-celebrated “mature era” of sprightly pop. But with The Big Express, the group took a big step backwards, to their industrial rail town roots, and to the relatively rocking sound of Black Sea.
It’s not simply a regression, though—this was also their most studio-based record yet. The more and more heavily ornamented production combines with the earlier mechanized pop to form a thick, claustrophobic mixture. It occasionally borders on overbearing, but ultimately works. Kinda. Okay, not really. But Andy and Colin come to the rescue with arguably the best batch of songs of their career up to this point.
The three flop singles are the obvious highlights. They’re just as utterly ill-suited to commercial radio as everything else here, but that’s a fairly normal state of affairs for an XTC album.
“Wake Up” starts things with a bang, a progressive mini-epic with a catchy call ’n’ response chorus and the kind of rhymthic interplay that would make Gentle Giant have a giant collective orgasm. We are put in the shoes of a Swindonian worker drone, as the music ricochets between sensory overload rock and creepy dreamy breakdowns. Unfortunately, it’s one of only two songs contributed by Colin Moulding. (His killer b-side “Washaway” would have made a great addition to the album. *sigh*)
“All You Pretty Girls” is another, uh, single. Andy puts up a spirited defense of the often-impugned heterosexuality of sailors, backed by a chorus of drunken pirates. Huge crashing bawdy sea shanties based on old folk melodies are not exactly my idea of radio friendly, but it works. Somehow. The contrapuntal grand finale is utterly perfect.
But the centerpiece is “This World Over”, a post-apocalyptic hymn which finally draws back from the din and gives us some wide open spaces to float around in. Partridge injects his usual wit into the proceedings with lines like: “Will you smile like any mother as you bathe your brand new twins? / Will you sing about the missiles as you dry odd-numbered limbs?” I could actually almost imagine this one on the radio, with its haunting melody and a great performance from Mr. Partridge, who really throws everything he’s got at this one. Of course, nobody was paying attention to XTC in 1984. Too bad.
After that, it’s…more crazyass pop songs! And more! And more! And they’re all really good! I admit the album can get a bit grating if you’re not in the mood for it, cause it takes some real stamina to survive 45 minutes of being molested by all manner of mellotrons and synthesizers and weirdly programmed drum machines. But just lie back and think of England, and it’ll all be okay.
Gosh, who could those mysterious blokes in the Dukes of Stratosphear be? That Sir John Johns guy sure does sound like Andy Partridge! And I could almost swear The Red Curtain was Colin Moul
Okay, I think we can end this pathetic charade now. This is an EP recorded by XTC in funny outfits, with a beautiful 1967 cover and the songs to match. Nowadays it’s only available on the Chips from the Chocolate Fireball compilation, which packages both Dukes discs together on one CD with drastically less attractive cover art. Such is life.
Whatever form you find these 6 songs in, you will surely find them to be an excellent exercise in popsmithery. You can have fun playing Spot the Influence, breaking down these six pastiches into their component amino acids—or you could just ingest the hallucinogenic substance of your choice, lie back, and watch the colors swirl.
It’s not a particularly ambitious outing, and you won’t find XTC’s greatest songs here, but you will find a good time, and a note-perfect little oasis of 60’s pop in the very center of the deadly 80’s wasteland…and that’s fine by me.
This album has always been a bit of a disappointment for me. It’s often bandied about as XTC’s masterpiece, and it’s not hard to see why: the whole thing is smothered in gorgeous pop production, courtesy of Todd Rundgren, that recalls the 60’s classics without feeling like a mere rehash. Plus, the sequencing gives it the feel of a concept album. Oh, but then I listen to the actual songs, and I can’t help but feel that they just aren’t the band’s best work. WHAT? THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS WRONG??????????
I have to punish the boys for putting together such a weak pair of songs as “Big Day” and “Another Satellite”. Sure, both of these songs have things to recommend about them. Partridge manages to muster up a truly astounding number of astronomic puns for the latter…but they’re a pretty obvious weak spot. Every XTC album has some little weak spot like that, of course, but I expected more from their supposed masterpiece.
I dunno, maybe I’m just entirely wrong about the whole thing, since hardly anyone seems to agree with me. But as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, this is a relatively weak XTC album. I blame Mr. Rundgren and his fanatical desire to craft the band’s material into a concept album. Some of the best songs Andy brought to the sessions (“Across This Antheap”, “Extrovert”, “Little Lighthouse”) were rejected for not fitting into Rundy’s mold.
Of course, Partridge himself has to bear part of the blame for insisting on the non-inclusion of the excellent “Dear God”. Launched into b-side purgatory, it became a hit single in its own right and caused no small amount of controversy, including terrorist bomb threats from Christian fundamentalists on one side and a near-school shooting from an unstable teenager on the other. Andy was never satisfied with the lyrics, feeling that they didn’t cut deep enough or capture everything what he was trying to express. But they’re thoroughly effective as is, with a passionate performance that fully backs up the song’s adolescent rage—something that might have been lost in an attempt to make the song more theologically airtight or comprehensive. It’s too bad it’s not really a part of the album…record company revisionist history notwithstanding. But we can pretend.
The Dukes return, a little less specifically psychedelic and a little more diverse, branching out into Brian Wilsonian experimentation, Kinksoid retiree-odes, and Holliesesque pure pop. As the full-length answer to the earlier 25 O’Clock EP, this is naturally a little less tight, but it makes up for it with the band’s best song yet, the Smile nugget “Pale and Precious”.
The songs are interspersed with a pseudo-Alice nonsense story, but overall, there’s less stuff laid on, fewer odd overdubs and backwards tapes, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that the Dukes are really XTC. But there are much worse fates for a band than to be XTC, and they prove it nicely here.
Like its predecessor, you won’t be able to find this album on its own anymore, but the Chips two-fer will supply both in one hallucinogenic pop.
This is an album that represents the moment that the label folks smelled the blood in the water left by “Dear God”. It’s an album based on the wildly popular “more is more” philosophy, and thanks to a new, bigger budget, it may be even more loaded with crap than The Big Express, though it’s also got a smoother, friendlier sheen that hides some of the machinery. The band actually managed a couple of minor hits with the excellent singles “Mayor of Simpleton” and “King for a Day”, but you can forget about mad rampages like “Across this Antheap” and “Garden of Earthly Delights”. Great songs? Hell yes! But not exactly radio friendly, in spite of the modernized production.
According to legend, the folks at Virgin, always with their finger on the pulse of society, asked Andy to write something “like ZZ Top”. So he wrote “Merely a Man”. Of course, by the time the band was done with it, it was recognizeably an XTC song, with pretty horn overdubs and other paraphernalia all over the place—including some badly out of place overdubbed guitar licks. There’s a really kickass song in there but it just didn’t quite come out quite right, which is unfortunately true of a number of the songs here. “Miniature Sun” sounds awkward and unfinished—it finally finds its groove just before the fadeout, but it’s too late to save the song. “Here Comes President Kill Again” is similar, but without the last-second redeption.
“Cynical Days” is just ultra-cool, however. This is one Velveeta-encrusted lounge ditty that I will defend to my dying breath.
There’s another problem, one that’s gonna become a recurring theme: the whole thing is just a wee bit too long. At over 60 minutes, it was a double album on vinyl, and, for some reason, also a 3 disc set of 3" CD EPs that I saw on eBay once. There’s a certain fatigue that sets in when you’re being battered by a single album for so long. For all its very considerable charms, and its wealth of excellent songwriting, this thing just doesn’t quite transcend its flaws to enter the highest reaches of the XTC pantheon. Cute Yellow Submarine-biting cover art, though.
In 1991, when Virgin was bringing XTC’s catalog into the CD age, they decided to get tricky with the b-sides and rarities. Most of the b-sides wound up as bonus tracks on the LPs, but they also collected a good-sized pile of rejects to go on their own CD. Of course, this isn’t even close to the last of the rarities, with the rest relegated to a horde of box sets, archival documents, CD singles, greatest hits albums, and, of course, eternal vinyl limbo.
So this disc is only an introduction to the never-ending task of being an XTC completist, but it’s a good introduction, with a solid core of classic songs—particularly the English Settlement b-sides, stuck here so they could fit both of that album’s LPs on a single disc. Those songs, “Blame the Weather”, “Tissue Tigers”, “Punch and Judy”, and “Heaven Is Paved with Broken Glass”, show the band at a time when they were churning out great pop songs at a freakish rate.
Of course, there’s some crap: “Strange Tales, Strange Tails” is inexplicable (not that I would want to explic it even if I could.) “Officer Blue” is a childlike ode to a policeman, making it possibly the most un-punk rock song ever written. It’s really too bad about the dippy lyrics, cause it’s a cute little song with a fine melody…but it’s just a bit too dumb to take. “Countdown to Christmas Party Time”, on the other hand, is so dumb that you can’t help but love it. “We’re so happy / and we want to share the secret of happiness with you!” How could you say no to that?? It’s far better than its A-side, the smarmy “Thanks for Christmas” (recorded under the pseudonym “The Three Wise Men”. They’re no Dukes of Stratosphear.)
Then there are the inclusions that are just pointless. Who needs to hear a tepid, cleaned-up outtake of “Respectable Street” with the naughty words removed? Or the undanceable “Cockpit Dance Mixture”? And, of course, there’s “Mermaid Smiled”, which is a fine song but is now redundant, having been restored to its rightful place on Skylarking.
But if you removed all the chaff from this 24-song, 78-minute collection, you’d still have a whole album’s worth of good music, and that’s probably about all you can expect from a rarities collection such as this.
Another double album (or single CD.) Even longer than the last one. Oh lord.
Thankfully, the boys haven’t lost their songwriting touch. The question is, have they lost their ability to make coherent albums? The sessions for this one were reportedly stormy, resulting in the longest wait yet for a new XTC album, and an odd hodgepodge of styles. I suppose the band was never all that coherent, really, but there was a time when it had a strong sonic identity. On here, that identity has largely been dissolved in pop classicism and beefy modern production values (but not that modern. This is very much pre-Nevermind, in spite of the release date.)
Well, sonic identity is nice, but it’s never really been my major concern. What the band hasn’t lost is their very clear songwriting identity, and that’s what keeps this from descending into the mediocrity that has claimed so many other classic acts. “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” may sound utterly alien to an XTC fan cryogenically frozen since 1978, it may be slightly harmed by the bizarrely overloaded drum sound, but it’s obvious that only Andy Partridge could have written it. Ironically, it flopped in its first go-round as a single but later became a hit in an inferior version by XTC imitators Shit Test Shitties.
But whatever your opinion of the 90’s shiternative rock scene, you are contractually obligated to admit that “Rook” and “Wrapped in Grey” are beautiful, miraculous ballads that shoulda been all over the charts. The latter was slated to be the album’s third single, but it was recalled and destroyed in an act of petty violence by Virgin records. A short time later, the band went on strike, refusing to record new material for 5 years until they were finally dropped.
But that’s neither here, nor there, nor everywhere. Seriously, though, what more needs to be said about another album of XTC songs? What if the Beatles were still together, still making albums as good as Abbey Road every year? Would the public continue to care? I doubt it. Well, no one cared about this album, except of course the XTC devotees. It’s good, though, dammit.
Live XTC. Lots and lots and lots and lots of it. Well over three hours, in fact. Well, these are only semi-live, being BBC sessions recorded (and sometimes overdubbed) in a studio. Oh, and two concerts performed under bright lights for a small studio audience in mid-afternoon. In the liner notes, Partridge describes the ambiance as being “more akin to an 18th century anatomy lesson than a rock concert”—and there’s some truth to that. They’re very very hi-fi for 25 year old live recordings, but the band’s performance level isn’t quite at its peak most of the time.
Not that there aren’t big winners—“No Thugs in Our House” is tightened up into a perfect ball of fury that stands as arguably the song’s definitive take. “Battery Brides” is drawn out into a hypnotic jam that brings out much of the squandered potential of the studio version. And, of course, there’s the unforgettable tiny guitar lick inserted into “Optimism’s Flames” by Dave Gregory—about which Andy waxes nostalgic: “By the time we get to the ‘Every bird and bee’ middle bit, I’m smiling so hard I can barely sing.”
The most puzzling inclusion is a version of “This World Over” that seems to just be a slightly edited version of the Big Express version. Its existence is understandable—it’s hard to imagine the band topping the perfect original take—but it sure makes a silly addition to this set.
It’s nice that a compilation of this material exists, but I’d recommend looking for a good bootleg if you want the group at its sweatiest—around the release of Drums & Wires seems to be the best.
Thanks to the band’s financial woes, these two discs were released separately as Apple Venus Vol. I and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. II). But they were intended as a double album, and Andy Partridge himself suggests that we think of them that way. So how can I refuse to honor the man’s last dying wish? (Hey, you can’t actually prove that it won’t be his last dying wish when he dies.)
XTC albums have been getting steadily longer (and further apart) over the past 20 years, so this 103 minute monster should come as no suprise. I fully expect the next one to come out in 2010 and be a 4-disc set.
The question that comes to mind whenver one is presented with a double album is…why? Indeed, Dave Gregory left the band during the sessions, and one of the “artistic differences” cited in the breakup was Partridge’s insistence on recording a double. Partridge’s plan was to record one disc of rockin’ pop fun and one disc of more personal, lushly arranged tunes. Everyone else just wanted to condense all that material down to one awesome platter.
I can sympathize with both sides: the double album allows each side of the band to shine, allowing for two different coherent musical experiences. On the other hand, there’s enough great material here to conceivably produce a near-perfect 45-minute LP. But in the end, you just have to take what life gives you, and life has given me two discs of magically delicious pop music.
The conventional wisdom holds that forty-something rockers are bound to stagnate and become sad relics of a bygone era, but 28 years after Andy and Colin decided to start a band together, here they are, reduced back to a duo, honing their craft, playing their guitars, and producing some of their best work yet.
Are there a few songs on here that could be cut? Naturally. “Knights in Shining Karma” and “Wounded Horse” are cute but a bit slight. “Church of Women” could have stood to be shortened. But the bulk of the material is fantastic. It’s clear that the extended layoff has done the band some good. Moreover, Andy’s songs are among his most personal and resonant yet, especially on volume I, and the result is some of the band’s very best songs.
Not only that, but, joy of joys!, both discs are truly well-produced, well-sequenced, and generally solid. Volume I picks up where Skylarking left off, recalling songs like “Sacrificial Bonfire” and “1000 Umbrellas”. Wasp Star draws from the chiming guitars of Oranges & Lemons, but avoids that record’s occasional awkward moments. It also sounds quite a bit sparser without a second guitarist—but then, clearing away some of that excess might be a good thing. And anyway, the lads are certainly not hesitant to use the odd overdub (or two or three) to keep things filled up. Andy shows that he’s given far too little credit as a guitarist, churning out great licks left and right. His solo on “You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” isn’t flashy, but it’s a perfect little unpredictable outburst. And “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love”, otherwise a fairly standard (though catchy) XTC single, is similarly embellished.
“Stupidly Happy”, with its endless, joyous one-chord groove, is a huge highlight, as is set-closer “The Wheel and the Maypole”. But the most magical moments are on volume I: the experimental opener “River of Orchids”, with its sampled, layered orchestral and vocal loops; the simply majestic “Easter Theatre”; and the tremendous final trio. Ah hell, just buy the damn CDs. Unless you hate music. They’re now finally available packed together as the Apple Box, with a couple CDs of demos as bonus material.
Now this, my friends, is truly a crapload of crap. (Pardon my French [Ha ha! The French use bad words! It’s funny cause it’s true!]) It’s got the fish-or-fowl problem of many box sets, in that it lodges a ‘greatest hits’ selection that no fan really needs in the midst of a huge pile of demos and outtakes that any casual listener would run screaming away from. (Oh shit, I ended a sentence with a preposition. Maybe if I pretend not to notice, no one will mention it.) Out of the 60 songs here, about a quarter are taken straight from the albums, which is a bit of a copout in my book. But I’ll let it slide.
The remaining 2 hours or so of music is primarily demos and outtakes of well-known album tracks, ranging, as you might expect, from interesting to not-very-interesting. But there real secret stash here is a small handful of never-before-released songs and excellent, rip-roaring live tracks. In particular, the band really nails “Snowman” at a 1982 London concert. Other highlights include lost Skylarking demos “Terrorism” and “Let’s Make a Den” and a pair of Barry Andrews-penned Go2 outtakes, “Us Being Us” and “Things Fall to Bits”, which were sadly shelved thanks to Partridge’s clashes with his keyboard ringleader.
Is the set worth $50 or whatever you pay for it? Probably not. Box sets are just generally a ripoff. Definitely some worthy material on here, though. And, of course, you’ll get a huge booklet with photos and band commentary and things of that nature. Decide for yourself, dammit!
Demos. Lots of demos. If you just couldn’t get enough of them on Coat of Many Cupboards, well…here’s some more. Actually, there are six volumes out now, and probably at least two more on the way. Andy Partridge has written a shitload of songs, no doubt about it. The formula for the series is pretty simple: each disc is half crappy unfinished versions of beloved XTC songs, half songs rescued from the reject pile. These range from the sublime (lovely ballad “Wonder Annual”, pop zinger “Dame Fortune”) to the just plain sub (answering machine message, radio spots, field recordings of pocket lint, songs written for ninth-rate Disney films.)
I really really wish Andy would just cut the crap and issue three or four discs of the real meat of his demo archives—there are still great songs that aren’t available on any album, like “My Paint Heroes” and “Always Winter Never Christmas” and “Candymine”, while every new disc comes loaded with extra fluff. This is exactly the sort of thing that drives honest young lads and lasses into a life of file sharing and reefer madness.