“This Is Pop” – the XTC documentary (Showtime, 2018)

“This Is Pop” is a documentary that avoids the far(c)e associated with the vast majority of “rockumentaries”, but that comes as no surprise if you are familiarized with the band it centers on: XTC. And if you’re not, then its frontman Andy Partridge makes that clear pretty early on, when he states they were never really “rock stars” in any accepted sense of the expression.

Through its 70 minutes, this 2018 Showtime documentary chronicles the band’s story from its origins as The Helium Kidz to the very end of XTC’s career, when only two of them remained together. The scene is set via some animations (many of which were provided by Andy himself, who is a gifted cartoonist), miniature models and interviews with people who (fortunately) all have something to say that is of relevance.

As much as I was moved by this documentary, I must mention that some of the information seems to contrast what was previously stated on certain band biographies. For instance, on “This Is Pop” Andy claims that the drum pattern you can listen to on “Making Plans For Nigel” was the result of transposing an acoustic melody Colin had come up with to Terry’s skins. Yet, on the book Chalkhillls & Children biographer Chris Twomey set forth that the “Nigel” drum pattern was chanced upon when Terry misunderstood some instructions Andy had given him.

Well, I’m not really sure it matters that much in the end. And specifying the actual contents of the documentary would absolutely defeat the whole point of this article. Yet, to give you an idea of its overall dynamics, you are brought on a trip through XTC’s entire oeuvre with an emphasis put on the vital joy of music making and creation (as exemplified by the several fragments in which Andy and Colin retrace how they composed some of their key XTC tunes, and –in one case– tracing the actual composition of one on the spot by Andy. But that’s the best, most intriguing part of the documentary, and I don’t want to spoil anything). Continue reading

English Settlement (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

Read the introduction to this review here.

“English Settlement” was released in 1982, and as opposed to “Black Sea” (the album that preceded it, and an album that was devised as a vehicle for live performances) the double LP hinted at the more pastoral sound the band was to adopt in earnest shortly. Of course, the embracement of such a tone was precipitated by the events that took place while they were touring “English Settlement” – first, Andy breaking down onstage and declaring the band would play live no more, and then the loss of Terry Chambers (the most level-headed member of the band, and someone who basically was in a group because he enjoyed playing live).

As I explained at the end of yesterday’s introduction, it was on “English Settlement” that Andy realized there was nothing wrong with exploring the capabilities that studios offer in terms of instrumentation. He no longer wanted to record only songs that could be replicated live exactly as they had gone down into tape. The record was then freed from a conceptual straightjacket and the results were to be the first true sampler of XTC as most of us love them: zany, daft, zany, wildly unpredictable, and zany. And utterly brilliant.

Each song is a true universe in itself. I think that there are not that many albums in which every note that you are hearing is germane to the actual constituency of a song as in the vast majority of the cuts featured on this double LP. With the exception of “Down In The Cockpit” and “Melt The Guns”, the extended duration of most of the songs is warranted – “Jason And The Argonauts” has an hypnotic instrumental passage that is not really a solo but rather a sagacious way to sustain the tension of the middle eight until the song comes back on track for its conclusion, and “Leisure” has some dissident breaks that amplify the tedium of the lyrics fabulously. Besides “All Of A Sudden” had to run that long if only because that was the only way the music could truly represent the inability to grasp the reality which is expressed in the song.

Discrimination based on race (“No Thugs In Our House” and “Knuckle Down”) and on gender (“Down In The Cockpit “) is a recurrent theme on English Settlement, and Colin sings about modernization in “Ball And Chain”, a song that precedes “Boarded Up” by two decades. The difference is that in “Ball And Chain” something was still standing up and could be ostensibly saved; by the time he wrote “Boarded Up” there was not such a chance. Continue reading

English Settlement (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

Released In 1982, “English Settlemenet” Was To Be XTC’s Final Album Before They Became A Studio-only Band

Released In 1982, “English Settlemenet” Was To Be XTC’s Final Album Before They Became A Studio-only Band

Upon discovering XTC and reading every single article and clipping I could find about them, I intended to make “English Settlement” one of my first purchases. But chance and coincidence determined that the album would be one of the last I would actually buy. And I can frankly tell you that was not a bad thing.

XTC’s first (and only) double album ever, “English Settlement” (1982) is not for those who are just getting acquainted with the band, let alone the uninitiated. The rewards that the album yields are incommensurable, but you have to be patient in order to get to the point in which everything starts clicking divinely.

I must admit that this is the one and only XTC album in which I have a problem with Andy’s voice. Songs which are astonishingly good like “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late Now)” and the great album closer “Snowman” are hard to be appreciated at first because his delivery can’t fully accommodate the new styles that he began broaching by this point, and which are a clear step in a divergent direction from XTC’s previous high-powered period. (Something similar happened to Joe Strummer when The Clash began aiming for styles far removed from punk, most notably on the triple album “Sandinista!”) Continue reading

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (The Dukes Of Stratosphear) (Part 2)

Don’t forget to read part 1 of this review where the “25 O’Clock” songs are analyzed.

"Psonic Psunspot" (The Dukes Of Stratosphear's Second Disc) Was Issued Right Between "Skylarking" And "Oranges & Lemons."

"Psonic Psunspot" (The Dukes Of Stratosphear's Second Disc) Was Issued In 1987, Right Between "Skylarking" And "Oranges & Lemons".

Things were different the second time the Dukes grabbed their instruments and donned their Paisley shirts. The record company was really interested in what could come out of it, and the budget had been doubled. And the sound was not to be the pastiche that characterized “25 O’Clock” – this time around it was an homage to most 60s bands, regardless of the fact that they had anything to do with pyschedelia or not. The leadoff single exemplified that perfectly, as “You’re A Good Man Albert Brown” was a buoyant sing-along in the vein of the Small Faces. While it didn’t hit as hard as “The Mole From The Ministry”, it was successful enough to warrant this new excursion in the eyes of the record company.

If anything, the second time around the line that separated XTC from the Dukes became indivisible, with songs like the impeccable “Vanishing Girl” and “Pale And Precious” being (needlessly?) sacrificed on the Dukes’ altar. “Vanishing Girl” (a song that trails the sound of The Hollies) was also used to promote the album, and I must admit it is my favorite song penned by Colin ever.

And “Pale And Precious” is one of the most honorable homages to the Beach Boys I have ever listened to along with R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful”. The vocal harmonies are absolutely exhilarating all along, and the coda could go on for 10 minutes and not make you lose your interest for a single second. Continue reading

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (The Dukes Of Stratosphear) (Part 1)

The Dukes Of Stratosphear: Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

The Dukes Of Stratosphear: Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

This CD-only anthology captures the original bouts of musical forgery that XTC undertook as The Dukes of Stratosphear. Both the EP “25 O’Clock” and the album “Psonic Psunspot” are included here in their entirety. And the anthology warrants all the laurels it is usually the recipient of.

The band (with Dave Gregory’s younger brother Ian on drums) showcases its coruscating pedigree, and the merits of its music become easier to apprehend in such a context. These recordings as their psychedelic alter egos were to lead to a phenomenal creative run and even a hit single at a time in which XTC had the rockiest relationship with the buying public. The song “The Mole From The Ministry” (a transparent nod to “I Am The Walrus”) outsold the singles from “The Big Express” so effortlessly that it was embarrassing.

It was also the most palpitating reminder for the Swindon rockers that having good fun on the studio fully translates into a finished piece of vinyl. Both “Mummer” and “The Big Express” suffered from a stiffness that was to vanish for “Skylarking” and “Oranges & Lemons”. “The Big Express” in particular had been labored at for a long time, leaving everybody but Andy jaded.

“25 O’Clock”, conversely, was assembled in little more than two weeks with Andy and John Leckie at the helm. Out of the six songs, only “The Mole From The Ministry” was new (Andy wrote it at the piano one morning). The remaining songs had been around for a long time, and the strongest the plagiarism the most effective the EP turned out to be. “Bike Ride To Te Moon” recalled the days of Pink Floyd under Barrett’ aegis so close to the mark that it was staggering. The title track was also intoxicatingly fun, a true testament to an age in which daftness was a virtue and a torch to bear. The same can be said about “Your Gold Dress”, with an unmatchable druggy guitar. And Colin’ songs on both Dukes’ albums were the truest revelation of all. He had never kept such an even keel of excellence to my ears. For the first and only time he and Andy were absolutely equalized. Continue reading

Fosssil Fuel: The XTC Singles (Compilation Album)

Virgin Released "Fossil Fuel" As A Way Of Bidding Farewell To XTC. All The Singles Released Within Their Career Were Featured.

Virgin Released "Fossil Fuel" As A Way Of Bidding Farewell To XTC. All The Singles Released Within Their Career Were Featured.

At roughly the same time that Geffen issued “Upsy Daisy Assortment” (a collection of hits and some noteworthy tunes from the Swindon’s outfit that was a bit whimsical to say the least) Virgin issued this 2-CD compilation. In the case of the British company, the focus was solely on singles. No track strayed from that conceit. The one exception was “Wrapped In Grey”, the song that caused the rift between XTC and Virgin way back in 1992, and which resulted in the band going on strike for the best part of the decade. Virgin decided to include it either as a way of burying the hatchet or as a final insult, a way of saying “there you go, take the goddamn song, it is now officially a ‘single’”. Which is which depends on the astute listener.

So, the album goes all the way from Andy’s much-despised “Science Friction” (from their debut EP) to Andy’s beloved “Wrapped In Grey” (from “Nonsuch“, their final album for Virgin).

The compilation is frankly phenomenal, and I don’t say that because I am a hardened fan. Over the course of the two CDs you get to see the band’s transformation from spiky new wavers (“This Is Pop”, “Are Your Receiving Me?”, “Making Plans For Nigel”) to pastoral tunecrafters (“Love On A Farmboy’s Wages”) who could still rock if they wanted to (“Wake Up”). The disc culminates with the best from both worlds, as the material from “Skylarking”, “Oranges & Lemons” and the aforementioned “Nonsuch” surfaces. This includes hits and quasi-hits like “Dear God”, “The Mayor Of Simpleton” and “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”. Continue reading

The Final Time XTC Faced An Audience

I found this clip yesterday, when looking for a suitable video to illustrate the review of “Upsy Daisy Assortment”. I must admit that watching it was quite unsettling, but I am glad I did. I must also say I had no idea that incident was tapped, thanks to the original uploader.

According to Chris Twomey (author of “Chalkhills & Children”) what happened next was that the band followed Andy backstage to find him doubled on the floor, retching. Terry seems to have had a go at him, while Colin and Dave realized that real trouble loomed ahead. Continue reading

Upsy Daisy Assortment (XTC) – Compilation Album

"Upsy Daisy Assortment" Compiles Most Of XTC's True Classics WIth A Few Rarities Thrown In For Good Measure.

"Upsy Daisy Assortment" Compiles Most Of XTC's True Classics WIth A Few Rarities Thrown In For Good Measure.

“Upsy Daisy Assortment” was released by Geffen (XTC’s American record company) in 1999, as the legal battle with Virgin was finally being dispelled and the band was to regain its freedom. It is a single CD that has some truly idiosyncratic cuts in addition to their indisputable classics.

Now, Andy says that the disc feels as if someone at Geffen had thrown darts at a chart with all their songs and assembled the compilation like that. Such a theory would explain why singles like “All You Pretty Girls” and “Wake Up” have been omitted, why “Funk Pop A Roll” found its way here instead of “Great Fire” and also why we have tracks such as “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her” at the expense of others.

I have to be very honest with you. The disc does not feel as if someone had randomly thrown darts at a chart, it feels as if Andy had overseen the whole thing from start to finish.

Exhibit 1: The compilation omits both “White Music” and “Go 2”, albums that he actively dislikes (and even despises). The first track is “Life Begins At The Hop”.

Exhibit 2: “Sgt. Rock”, a track Andy reviles despite being one of the highest-charting singles of his is absent. Continue reading

Apple Venus Part 1 (XTC) – Album Review

XTC's Penultimate Album Surfaced In 1999. It Was Titled "Apple Venus"

XTC's Penultimate Album Surfaced In 1999. It Was Titled "Apple Venus"

After a decade-long strike against their record company, XTC were finally released from their contract with Virgin. The question was how to present the material they had stockpiled over the preceding years. This was to escalate into a rift that ended with Dave Gregory leaving the band, as he disagreed with Andy’s notion that two separate albums had to be released. He did play on the first of the two discs that were to be issued, and he was credited as a session musician. The disc was named “Apple Venus Part 1”, and  Andy has described its sound as “orchoustic” – acoustic instrumentation mixed with elaborate orchestral arrangements. This is evident the second the disc starts spinning, as “River Of Orchids” couldn’t be described using better words. A whimsical tune, a multifaceted tune, a lovable tune. An XTC tune in all its essence. Andy deals once again with his hatred of automobiles in a string-led song that takes up 6 minutes of layered vocals and a permanent crescendo where climax after climax is reached.

The song is immediately counterbalanced by “I’d Like That”, the one cut that everybody liked on the record when it was issued. Because the album had some detractors that were expecting a harder sound, and when they finally got that in the shape of “Wasp Star” the following year they were to eat humble pie and admit that the sound of Apple Venus was far more suitable to this mature stage of the band. “I’d Like That” is a very jumpy track, running through a plethora of chords in which only three strings are strummed most of the time. Only the E chord that is played after the “Sunflower” bit is played in full. Andy slaps his thighs as accompaniment, and his wordplay is delirious, dropping the names of famous couples in a tale of unrequited love that is just an inch from materializing – hence the overall optimism. Continue reading

Nonsuch (XTC) – Album Review

Nonsuch Was First Issued In 1992

Nonsuch Was First Issued In 1992

Nonsuch is a quintessential XTC album in all the good and bad aspects. It is an elegant and refined collection that engages our brains and lifts shadows off our dreams (IE the good aspects), and it is also an album that fared abysmally when released (IE the bad aspect). The good aspects are a merit of the band, and the bad aspect that was mentioned is attributable to the buying public and its limited sight. What makes it all the more aggravating is that the album is nothing short of masterful, and its mastery is nothing short of awe-inspiring. John Alroy cites Andy’s poetic skills, and it is hard to disagree with that. But it must be mentioned that Colin does not necessarily lag behind here – alright, a song like “The Smartest Monkey” could do with a better lyric, but the rest are up there with his best work: “My Bird Performs” is a great “happy with my lot” song, and “Bungalow” is amazing in the way it grows. While my favorite songs of his are the ones found within “Oranges & Lemons“, you can count Nonsuch as the second best.

Andy’s best moments here include “Rook” (a song he has defined as his most personal ever), the gorgeous “Wrapped In Grey” (a fitting epitaph for the band in hindsight) and “Then She Appeared”, a composition that employ an alliterative title to excellent effect.

The album opens with the MTV-popular “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”, a song that some of you might also be familiar with since it was covered by the Crash Test Dummies for the movie “Dumb & Dumber”. They did it satisfactorily enough, and in case you are yet to sample XTC’s version here is the video:

Besides, the CD includes the mildly-successful “Dear Madam Barnum” (yet another character sketch, and yet another compelling one) and “The Disappointed” (which was chosen as a single). “The Disappointed” in particular is a very refined song, and if the album did not include “Wrapped In Grey” it would be the record’s definitive lyrical high point.

The album’s closer is “Books Are Burning”. The song is not necessarily hailed as one of Andy’s best moments on record. I think the problem arises from the stellar company that it has in Nonsuch, and from the somehow plain sentiment it conveys – “books are burning/and you know where they burn books people are next”. Personally, I find it a good idea to paint with more colors than one. A song like “The Disappointed” is great, but if you were to apply the same approach time after time it would end up being grating. A direct outlook is more thought-provoking than the long way around when it comes to most people, and I am sure Andy knew that. Continue reading