“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 →
This morning I was doing a marathon run through the discography of “They Might Be Giants”, and I was in stitches most of the time. I hadn’t listened to most of their stuff in a long while, and when I came across “Hey Mr. DJ” on the Miscellaneous T compilation it occurred to me that it would be fun to make a list of songs inspired by dodgy managers.
You know, a compendium of songs with lyrics alluding to individuals who grew wealthy by misrepresenting artists. Or (as good ol’ Roger Daltrey put it once) “people who screw bands down the fuckin’ alley”. Ah, man, gotta love The Who…
So, there we go. But do keep in mind this is by no means a “best of” list. It’s just the first five songs that came to mind when I thought up the concept. I’m aware that more (and better) songs on the subjects exist, so please leave a comment with your personal picks. Continue reading →
The First Top 20 Single Penned By Andy Was A Song He Really Hated: “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)”
As you know, the song that gave the Swindon-based art rockers their first taste of success was “Making Plans For Nigel”. That was the first single culled from “Drums & Wires”, and it was a Top 17 hit. But it wasn’t penned by Andy Partridge. Rather, it had been composed by bassist Colin Moulding.
Andy would have to wait until the next album (Black Sea) to have a Top 20 hit of his own. Yet, fate dictated that his least-liked composition from the whole LP was to be the one putting him on the map. The song “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” got to number 16 on the charts.
Andy was to lament forever more that a song harking back to his puerile writing days became his first hit. Remember, at that time he was already penning stuff like “Living Through Another Cuba” and “Respectable Street”. Continue reading →
Andy picked the name XTC while watching a skit in which Jimmy Durante was looking for “the lost chord” (have you heard, Pete Townshend??). At one point, the American performer exclaimed “Dat’s, it, I’m in eks-tee-see!”. Andy failed to understand the phrase the first time around, and he only got what Durante was saying when he transcribed it phonetically. It was then he also realized what a cool name XTC would be for a band – a name that is all in capitals lends itself to cooler posters and puns. Thus, “XTC” replaced the band’s old moniker (the gimmicky “The Helium Kidz”) right away.
Just for the record, the name XTC had nothing to do with the drug ecstasy. The drug was introduced a good couple of years down the line. The Swindon band amply preceded it.
“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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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).
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 →