“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.
This was also Dave Gregory’s second album with the band. He later was to admit this was the point it all came together, as his recorded debut with XTC (“Drums And Wires”) was too much of a “I’m the new kid on the block and I must watch my step” kind of scene. Andy in particular had been too dominating, even intimidating. But on “Black Sea” Dave realized he was part of the outfit for good and that he was there for a reason.
The rest of the band was impeccable as usual. Chambers was a powerhouse, and he exhibited a fierceness on songs like “Paper & Iron” that was to be unmatched. Note that he was the band member that enjoyed playing live the most – he later remarked that recording came second to him, as he found the process far too tedious. No wonder he made such a contribution to a record that was mainly a live vehicle.
Colin had truly come of age as a songwriter. His two compositions were not only good but actually perdurable in the memory of the listener long after the record had finished playing.
And Andy was never happier with an XTC album as with this one upon completing it. In a sense, it was his baby – nine out of eleven compositions were his, and he touched a broad specter of social and contemporary matters in a dexterous way.
But something unfortunate happened. The album’s Top 20 hit was “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)”. Simply put it, Andy abhors the song. He once termed it “juvenile piffle” and “a piece of candy floss”. Having had this “hit” was damaging to him, as he became even more disenchanted with the buying public. He once said he had had the naivety knocked out his system quite quickly. I dare say that something like this must also have knocked out part of his desire to communicate directly with the audience – what is the point in speaking to those that won’t listen, or who will listen only to what is banal? It was yet another straw. A small one, granted, but if you start putting two and two together…
Read Part 2 for a song-by-song analysis of “Black Sea”, including information on all the singles to be released from the album and the different versions available.