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

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

Mummer (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

The Cover That Was Accepted By The Record Company. A Cover With The Band In Mummer Regalia Was Rejected.

The Cover That Was Accepted By The Record Company. A Cover With The Band In Mummer Regalia Was Rejected.

XTC’s music is characterized by marked twists and turns, both in terms of melody and lyrics. As a new listener of the band, I always knew that any of their albums would be an experience akin to a mystery to be elucidated, and I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, however, ready for Mummer. And the fact that it was one of the last XTC albums I bought makes that all the more significant.

As you probably know, this was the first album to be released after Andy’s nervous breakdown and his decision that the band was to become a studio entity from that point onwards. It was also the first album without Terry – he left the band and moved to Australia with girlfriend Donna (and son Kai), and worked there as a drummer for some time before leaving music behind for good. Also, the ties with manager Ian Reid were to become severed and lead to an exhausting litigation shortly. Continue reading

Chalkhills and Children (Chris Twomey) – Book Review

The Cover Of The Book. The Picture Comes From The "Nonsuch" Photo Shot.

The Cover Of The Book. The Picture Comes From The "Nonsuch" Photo Shot.

Named after one of Andy’s most ethereal compositions, this book (first released in 1992) stands as a moving portrait of a band that is incredibly cerebral, and yet has the ability to tug at your heartstrings like few bands in history. That contradiction comes as no surprise. The story of XTC involves the clash between ideals and reality, and that is something that comes across very vividly on this book.

The book has 188 pages. It includes 10 chapters, two sections of black & white photographs and a discography at the end. It begins out of chronological order (the first chapter deals with Andy’s breakdown) and then the story properly starts and it is run without detours or digressions. It is also an “authorized” biography – the book was compiled from interviews with the band members and their families. And most key figures like Todd Rundgren and Steve Lillywhite are also among the interviewees. Continue reading

Black Sea (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of the review. Don’t forget to read Part 1 for the introduction!

The original album had 11 songs, and the CD rerelease 14. If we had to summarize what XTC achieved here in one word, that would be “consistency”. The album is a true work, and in certain places it feels like a continuous track (some songs actually run into each other).

It is not an easy task picking favorites this time – as I said, there is such a sense of unity that the album is one of the most rewarding listening experiences within XTC’s catalog. What I can do is pick out personal favorites: these would be any of the singles plus the splenetic “Paper & Iron” and “Burning With Optimism’s Flames”. “Paper & Iron” has my favorite performance from Terry on any of their albums – he carries the whole song, takes it wherever he wants and finishes it with a detonation the kind Keith Moon would be proud of. For its part, “Burning With Optimism’s Flames” has a mesmerizing chorus that makes the title of the composition become more than a mere asseveration.  Rather, it turns into a true validation for pushing forwards no matter what. Continue reading

Black Sea (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

On Of The Original Names For The Album Was Gong To Be "Work Under Pressure". The Photo Session That Produced The Album 's Cover Was Based On That.

One Of The Original Names For The Album Was Going To Be "Work Under Pressure". The Photo Session That Produced The Cover Was Inspired By That, Hence The Diving Suits. The Title Was To Be Scrapped, But Not The Shot.

“Black Sea” was the fourth album released by XTC. The record was issued in the year 1980, and it garnered unanimous praise. It is now considered as their first truly indispensable album. Critical reaction was so fabulous that Andy & Colin were compared for the very first time to Lennon & McCartney. Such a comparison was sure to elicit a reaction, for the mere fact that even thinking about placing someone on par with the two timeless composers is sacrilegious to many. In hindsight, it showcases what a lukewarm response the Swindon boys were eliciting from critics even in those days. And – maybe most importantly – they were starting to reach a broader public. The album had another Top 20 hit, and this time it was a song penned by Andy. Success, at last. Or was it? Read on…

The main denominator of the songs contained here is the toughness and density of the sound. Andy insisted on recording only arrangements that could be replicated live. That meant that if they included a keyboard, that would be at the expense of a guitar and so on. This worked on their advantage in the long run, as the songs were free from unnecessary embellishments (“The Big Express”, anybody?) and could be reproduced onstage naturally. Continue reading