Listening to XTC (again). Mummer. It’s a really really good album.
I bought most of XTC’s catalogue when I worked at a local independent record store. Someone must have unloaded their collection and I got them used really cheap. My thought at the time was, “Hey, here is a band I’ve only heard good things about, so I should check them out.” Of course my OCD tendencies do not allow to buy one or two CDs, so I spent about 50 to 60 bucks and bought the whole batch. Looking at their discography, it’s most of their proper albums and all the major ones.
I listened to them then and have given them a spin a few times since. XTC is one of those bands that has just never made an emotional connection with me. I remember enjoying English Settlement, but by the end of it, I couldn’t tell you a damn thing on it. I know Skylarking is supposed to be a masterpiece. The early records have a punkish frantic quality that make for interesting listens. I know the hits and like those songs fine enough.
I know hardcore XTC fans will tell you that they were several bands: a punk group, a new wave band, a pop band. I’m sure they fit somewhere in the vein of Talking Heads and The Cars. I know Andy Partridge is good writer and their records feature some strong production.
So, I am listening to Mummer right now (at work) and thinking, Why I don’t love this band like everybody else in the world does? I am thinking that this a very very good album. And I’ll probably listen to more, hoping they’ll finally stick. Maybe I’ll finally connect with these records and feel compelled to listen to them more than once every 5 years or so.
So, what am I to do? Your help is appreciated…
It will probably first help you to disable yourself of the notion that this fairly esoteric cult band is beloved by everybody in the world. Many otherwise right-thinking people dislike this band. Judging by many of the posts here on RTH, many XTC fans don’t even really like them that much.
So, it’s a love/hate thing? Or is it we’re supposed to love them, but only do so on a purely academic level?
I know it probably didn’t help my relationship with this band by trying to digest everything they’ve done all at once.
I’m also sure some fellow Townsfolk have struggled with bands in this manner. (Judging by comments, R.E.M. comes to mind.)
I find XTC to be good but not overly compelling. To me, the most interesting thing they’ve done is the Dukes of Stratosphear side project.
I love “classic” XTC, the albums with Terry Chambers on drums and Dave Gregory on guitar, spanning from Drums and Wires through Mummer (which Chambers only plays a few songs on, but was replaced by a human drummer who, like Chambers, did not have a stick up his butt). The first two albums have their moments. The albums that followed Mummer have their moments, but the further they strayed from the primal-yet-scientific rhythms that marked their best stuff the less interest I can muster. I really hate that Prairie Prince guy, for instance, who’s tightass drumming severely mars the easy-to-digest Skylarking.
They’re one of those “my bands,” for me, a band that means a great deal to me on a personal level. I really like Partridge’s way with lyrics, the way the band incorporated so much great ’60s music along with ’70s Art Rock impulses, the production on their best albums, their way of overthinking stuff and then spitting it out in weird ways, etc. Sadly they’re not for everybody, but I feel that a hundred years from now a few more people will be sorry they didn’t appreciate them fully in their time.
And, of course, the Dukes of Stratosphear’s first EP is not to be missed by anyone who likes anything having to do with 1967-era psych-pop.
Is that the Chocolate Fireball thing? I’ve heard nothing but GREAT things about it.
Never could fully get into ’em either. I love the Nonsuch album completely, and Psonic Psunspot by the Dukes (but ironically not their EP), but only a few other songs here and there.
I’ve owned Oranges and Lemons forever yet still have never listened to all of it, and “Grass” was the only thing I cared for from Skylarking.
I’ll probably be the only one here to say this, but I much prefer Mandy Moore’s cover of “Senses Working Overtime” than the original, which sounds like paranoid, irritated thyroid pop. In fact, I heard Moore’s cover of the song first (knowing it was an XTC tune, mind you). When I heard the original, I was less than satisfied.
So it goes.
I’m a real snob when it comes to XTC. They first put out a Dukes EP that’s got 5 or 6 killer songs. That, for me, is perfect. Then they did a follow-up Dukes record, then both were collected on one CD, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, or whatever it’s called. It’s almost all good, but I can do without all but about 3 songs of the second Dukes record. If you ask me, at that point they should have just added Gregory’s brother to the band and carried on as a straight-up ’60s-style pop band.
You either appreciate the vocal (and similar musical quirks) of XTC or you don’t, but I find it hard to deny that they’re one of the most creative and distinctive of all pop bands.
I have heard almost all of their albums, and to be truly honest I think the vast majority of them fall into the “good but not great” category, including their most popular ones. I’ve never been a particular fan of the critically acclaimed SKYLARKING either. But when they’re good I think they’re amazing. I would recommend starting with DRUMS & WIRES and BLACK SEA, which I still think are their two best, most consistent albums, as well as the ones with the highest high points. Then again, given what’s already been posted here, anyone who can’t appreciate “Senses Working Overtime,” which I find to be one of the most perfect songs ever recorded by anyone, might not find it in them to like anything by XTC.
I think Drums & Wires into Black Sea is one of the great back-to-back 1-2 album punches in music. Just great, top to bottom.
The thing that makes that era of XTC so amazing is that skittish, irritating quality that Partridge did, so I completely get what turns people off. But he’s doing this thing he just keeps winding and tightening up each song to build, in both cases, to these big closing songs that release all that tension, especially in the case of “Complicated Game” on Drums, that really works for me.
It’s interesting that he manages to do the “man or machine” thing that’s been discussed here, but at the same time, he’s making songs that, for lack of a better term, just feel sweaty to me. Like you’re getting inside this guy’s really nervous, high-tension headspace. It especially works on Drums & Wires, where the songs are more literally about that kind of creeping paranoia. I think “Outside World” might be the best example of getting it all together, where the song starts at full speed and just keeps ratcheting that jittery tension up, with Gregory’s lead part forcing it to hold that momentum right through to the end.
Add on to that having pre-Nonsuch Moulding as one of the great change-up guys, writing a perfect pop counterpoint song or two for each album, and it’s a mix that really works for me.
Though it loses the Dave Gregory factor, I think Wasp Star might actually be a great starting point to ease into things. Moulding’s songs are back up to par, and Partridge sounds a lot more at ease, with songs that feel like they managed to do a pretty solid job of marrying the melodic Dukes/Skylarking/Nonsuch style with enough of the snarl of the earlier stuff.
You just go right ahead and stand firm in your belief that XTC sucks. I’m behind you 100 percent.
I tend to agree, and I do listen to the Dukes of Stratosphear cd more than I listen to those XTC albums I own.
Pudman, I’m entirely in agreement with you on Senses Working Overtime. I’ll go even more specific; that middle eight section about the “cars on black ice, and bullies and black eyes” is the single greatest 30 seconds committed to vinyl during the 1980s. That song pushes all of my buttons every time I hear it. Way to put your warbles on the table for that song. I’m putting mine right next to yours.
I like the comments from alexmagic, pudman, and Mod above — very well said! I discovered XTC somewhat late in the game, circa Skylarking, though I’d heard some earlier stuff. I loved that record so much that I went back over time and discovered their early stuff, which I loved every bit as much. The later records have almost as many high points, but tend to be less energetic, that early Andy Partridge building tension headache damped down a bit.
What seemed to me at first with Skylarking was that it was wholly infused with a Beatles sensibility. Like, what might the Beatles be doing if they’d made it to the mid-80’s IN A GOOD WAY. This is surely in part due to Rundgren producing, as well as the varied styles, use of both orchestral strings and 12-strings, the interconnected songs, etc. “Pepper”-esque. Of course, those aspects are not really present in other XTC records to the same degree.
Going backwards to their earlier work I kept finding all these incredible gems. Shocked that I’d missed them before, but enjoying the discovery. Yeah, a few songs were familiar, but hearing everything and in detail and in repeat was eye-opening. I’ll pick a couple of probably lesser-known favorite elements of mine at random:
“No Language in Our Lungs” from Black Sea, great instrumentation; about the inability of words to truly express our ideas and feelings. The genius part is at the apex of midsection crescendo when Andy then apologizes for putting lyrics in the song in the first place:
I would have made this instrumental
But the words got in the way
“Poor Skeleton Steps Out” from Oranges and Lemons. This album is sometimes too harshly bright, sonically speaking; I dig this song, but my coworker would beg me to skip over it on the office stereo, he hated it so much. Another great, funny, disturbing lyric — who would think of providing the anthropomorphized point of view of our skeletons, who prop up humans of every stripe, and are just waiting to be released from their fleshy prisons when we die.
I think of “Scarecrow People” as a twin to “Skeleton” from the same album. Something about the guitars on that song — I presume it’s Gregory and Partridge playing off each other in stereo — is very weird and wonderful to me. Listen to them in the second verse/chorus/bridge carefully!
“Then She Appeared” from Nonsuch is the expression of a parent of a newborn daughter, overwhelmed with love and amazement and trepidation. It’s a beautiful song, but it isn’t sappy and has a great brilliant pop orchestration. Again reminds me of the Beatles somehow.
And the sun which formerly shone in the clearest summer skies
Suddenly just changed address, now shines from her blue eyes
I can totally understand someone not getting XTC. But it’s weird since this seems like a band that really should be in TB’s wheelhouse. Maybe it’s a situation where getting the whole back catalogue all at once affected his ability to absorb them emotionally. He’s certainly musically astute enough to appreciate them scientifically. Sometimes a certain singer’s voice just doesn’t connect with you reasons no one can explain. Music is a mystery.
It’s an interesting idea for a discussion though — artists you should like but but for reasons unclear do not.
XTC seems like a band that I should like as well, but to me they exemplify the annoying English trait of antiseptic songs that are too clever for their own good and are completely devoid of any sort of heart/soul/balls.
But in the interest of due diligence, would you folks mind coming up with a list of 10 gateway XTC songs? Perhaps the scales will fall from our eyes if TB and I could just focus on the cream of the crop.
1. This is Pop (single version)
2. Life Begins at the Hop (BBC version)
3. Making Plans for Nigel
4. Roads Girdle the Globe
5. Respectable Street
6. Ball and Chain
7. Senses Working Overtime
8. Earn Enough for Us
9. Wrapped in Grey
10. Stupidly Happy
I’ll try, but chances are the band just isn’t for everyone. I’m NOT, I warn you, going to give you their 10 most candyass songs that anyone might like. That’s not what the band is about. I will, however, leave off a few Miller’s Crossing songs, like “No Language in Our Lungs,” which is pretty tough going until the excellent payoff off the middle eight, as trigmogigmo, I believe, cited. In some particular order I suggest the following:
1. Senses Working Overtime: If you don’t dig this and feel like chickenfrank about the middle eight you need to get your ears checked.
2. Respectable Street: Talk about songs that should have been major hits, this is like the Kinks on steroids!
3. Towers of London: If you don’t like this song you must hate the British Invasion, the tv show The Avengers, and all other things celebrated by Anglophiles. Glorious – and what a huge, fucking sound! If you’re going to play jangly shit, this is the way it should be played. Mad props to Terry Chambers for hammering away and never once feeling the need to assert his identity or “personal style.” This is a KEY aspect, by the way, of the things I value in this band.
4. No Thugs in Our House: Read the lyrics as you follow one of the greatest guitar riffs since “Satisfaction” and pounding 4-on-the-floor rhythms this side of “Satisfaction,” as if it had been done by Led Zeppelin! This song epitomizes, for me, the band’s mix of Rock and Science. Nobody mixes the two better. The story the lyrics tell dazzles simple me. As is often the case, Partridge tries to spit out a mouthfull. (Who tries to cram more lyrics into a song, Partridge or Paul Weller?)
5. Love on a Farmboy’s Wages: Simply a beautiful song with very cool acoustic arrangement. Probably the best of Partridge’s humble “Earn Enough for Us”/”Mayor of Simpleton”-type “poor, simple me” songs.
6. Life Begins at the Hop: This is a totally fun approach to the “Science of Satisfaction” exercises that the band delivers for me. I think the lyrics are hinting something about fascist youth, like “No Thugs…,” but they never make much of an impression on me over that riff and the weird escalating chords that run underneath everything. Listen closely to those chords. Highly scientific!
7. Snowman: Listening to this song over the last 23 years of dating/marital bliss still kinda makes me wish I could experience a heart-wrenching breakup just one more time. It’s so childish and so true, at least how that stuff felt to me when I was in my pathetic, lost, lonely years. And all that repetition. If you don’t dig the repetitive riffs, man, you don’t have any symptoms of OCD!
8. Making Plans for Nigel: Maybe Colin Moulding’s best song in his George Harrison role to Partridge’s one-man Lennon-McCartney. In lesser hands (eg, Thomas Dolby) this would have been a song I would only tolerate, at best. XTC manages to make the song “rock” in unusual ways. It gets to that “tension headache” effect that alexmagic, I believe, described.
9. Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!): Maybe my favorite of their early songs, while Barry Andrews was still hammering away on his treated organ, or whatever the hell that thing was he played. It does a nice job of capturing the stupidity and awkward joy of Young Dudes on a Friday Night.
10. Jason and the Argonauts: Another highly scientific (shades of Steve Reich et al) yet surprisingly rocking song with a mouthful of lyrics I’d kill to write. The line about “make-up veils,” for instance, is so Andy Partridge. If you want a heavier version of XTC’s minimalist tendencies, check out “Travels in Nihilon,” which Partridge said he originally conceived as an album side-long number.
As I said earlier, the first Dukes EP is sterling, but I’m not including that because it doesn’t carry the name XTC. I’m also leaving out plenty of more “candyass” songs that I love, because it’s important you and TB face this issue head on. Thanks.
– No Language in Our Lungs
– Towers of London
– Senses Working Overtime
– Jason and the Argonauts
– Wake Up
– Earn Enough for Us
– The Mayor of Simpleton
– King for a Day
– Dear Madam Barnum
– I’m the Man Who Murdered Love
I fully admit my list tries to be “candyass”, gateway drug songs. Your list shows the joys of digging even just a little bit deeper!
That’s an outstanding top 10, Mod! That’s a Greatest Not Hits right there. I would personally leave off anything prior to Drums and Wires. I consider early XTC like early Stones. They just were not there yet. They needed a few years to realize what they could be. B minus new wave.
I also think Making Plans for Nigel is overrated. Too gimmicky for me.
I’m a much bigger fan of Skylarking than you. If we get into a top 20, I’m including Colin’s The Meeting Place, and Another Sattelite from that disk as 2 of my favorites.
Mrs. Chicken points out how not Rock and Roll she finds them when I play XTC. She considers the songwriting and approach very Broadway show tune. I have to concede she’s right, but I hear the Beatles more than Gilbert and Sullivan.
I’ll never forget the time I was with you while the two of us took on Mrs. Chicken. She slammed us with a damming, “But there’s not a shred of blues in their music!” Or something like that. After a second’s pause we both said something to the effect of, “But that’s one of the things we love about them!”
I am a huge XTC fan, but I find more people I know (non-musicians at least) can not stand them at all because (1) they don’t “rock out” (2) the warble-y vocals, (3) 80’s production sounds too “new wave”.
I started with Oranges & Lemons and worked backwards. I hated O&L the first 4-5 plays. My brother made me a cassette to play in the car on the way back to college. He kept telling me to give it another try and eventually it “clicked”. Skylarking sounds like the concept albums of the late 60’s (Tommy, Days of Future’s Past, Authur) and the early stuff reminded me of New Wave and Devo. I still listen to them every few months.
As I’m sure you know, trigmo, I did not mean to insult anyone else for offering choices that would go down easier. I simply wanted to state that I was holding cdm and TB by the scruff of the neck as I offered them a gamey serving of the band:)
I believe ’79-’82 XTC rock out just as much as, if not more than, any other “new wave” band of the same time frame. (Not punk. Obviously, the Clash and X and others rock out more.)
Unlike the rest of you, and because I know cdm values my peerless honesty, I will include Dukes material. Mostly because I think there’s a big shift that happens somewhere during Big Express and the first run of Dukes material that leads into the Skylarking-and-after phase of their career, where Partridge pulled all those Beatles tendencies to the fore of their sound.
In no order, 10 starter songs for XTC:
1. The Vanishing Girl (Dukes)
2. Senses Working Overtime
3. Outside World
5. Day In Day Out
6. Respectable Street
7. Your Gold Dress (Dukes)
8. I Bought Myself A Liar Bird
9. We’re All Light
10. Complicated Game
I’m glad to see that Dear God didn’t make it on to any lists so far.
However, while I appreciate everyone’s individual list, I must confess that one of the main things that motivated me to ask for the list in the first place was the prospect of witnessing a big, bench clearing, nerd fight about which songs should be in the Official Top Ten Gateway XTC songs.
To that end, is there any chance you guys could agree on ten songs? If not, I’ll start weeding through everyone’s individual lists.
CDM, so far I think all us nerds agree that Sense Working Overtime is THE gateway song. It has everything that should entice or repel a newbie.
Excellent use of acoustic guitars. A strong Andy melody with just a dash of his weirdo singing. Has that tension that Alex described with the cathartic release into a rocking middle eight. Cool lyrics. Bass and drums do all the right things.
Take that and Respectable Street and you will know pretty quickly if you are in or out of the cult. If you “get” those, you can probably enjoy others that lack the obvious connection to R&R.
I’m good with Chickenfrank’s first two choices.
What if we then proposed:
Two Dukes songs
Two from Skylarking-Nonsuch
Two from the Apple Venus albums
Two from either White Music-Go2 or
Mummer-The Big Express
I’ll start by seconding Alexmagic’s Dukes selections: Vanishing Girl and Your Gold Dress.
I wholeheartedly support the two songs that chickenfrank has suggested!
Why do we have to be “fair” about this? We’re trying to help some Townspeople in need. Why spread ourselves beyond the band’s core era, with Gregory and Chambers? But you knew I’d grumble about this…
I would love to hold out on including Dukes songs, but if you guys must, then I would suggest “My Love Explodes,” which any guitar player who digs The Yardbirds should enjoy, and “What In the World,” a great example of Moulding’s typically non-rock, old-fashioned, small-town concerns expressed through the haze of psychedelia.
You guys are on your own with Nonsuch, the only XTC album I took back and sold to a used record store. The two songs chickenfrank suggested from Skylarking are rock solid.
The best songs from the last 2 albums are the ones that sound like rewrites of songs on Mummer. Why waste selections on those songs? I love Mummer, so I’d recommend “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” right into “Great Fire.” That’s a killer segue, if you ask me. I’m a fan of The Big Express, but why subject anyone on the fence to that album, an album even XTC fans are reluctant to embrace?
“Battery Brides” and “I Am the Audience” are my next two favorite songs from the first two albums. I know a lot of folks go ga-ga for “This Is Pop,” but I’d rather enjoy the concept and the chorus and skip the bits in between.
I’ve listened to a number of the suggestions and I think I’ve nailed down what bugs me about these guys. The problem is a reoccurring case of Billy Joel Syndrome – the act of sabotaging your own song buy adding in unnecessary and stupid parts. (And to anticipate some of your responses: yes, I know, all Billy Joel songs are stupid. But he somehow manages to elevate that stupidity even further by adding even stupider parts.)
I’m not suggesting that these guys are as worthless as Billy Joel (or that Billy Joel songs would be good if he just didn’t say “ack-ack-ack” in the middle of them). To the contrary, I think that XTC songs are full of good ideas, catchy hooks, etc. But even when XTC has a pop masterpiece in their hands like Senses Working Overtime, they can’t seem to curb their smug cleverness long enough to recognize that the “They’re beautiful” bit in the middle is a distractingly bad idea. It sounds like a bridge within a bridge. I’ll bet they used no less than 45 different chords in that song. Just because it’s complicated, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worthy or good.
Similarly, otherwise solid pop songs like Respectable Street and Making Plans for Nigel, suffer from kitchen-sink songwriting (i.e. the Oh-Wee background vocal bit in the former and the bridge in the latter).
Even if you don’t agree, can you at least acknowledge that you know what I’m talking about?
So while I like those songs, my favorite XTC song probably remain Mayor of Simpleton. It’s simple, catchy and doesn’t feel the need to modulate all over the place.
This is the first time I’ve ever heard anything by the Dukes and they kick major ass. Really.
I’ll continue to work my way through the lists.
I handpicked Liar Bird from Big Express to personally stand in for Nonsuch and Apple Venus, Mod. I think that could be your gateway song for coming to terms with Nonsuch. I’m working to heal all wounds!
Also, “Season Cycle” would have been my choice from Skylarking if it wasn’t for that terrible “um-byl-ical” rhyme and my fear that cdm would hear that and jump me on Pine Street someday in revenge.
“Liar Bird” is a winner for me, too. I like most of that album. “The Everyday Story of Smalltown” used to really psych me up. chickenfrank and I wrote a few of my favorite self-written songs after intensive periods of cranking up that album.
As for Nonsuch, there is no healing in sight. “Then She Appeared” (is that the title) was a good song. Some other song, “Holly Up on Poppy” (?), was pretty good. The rest of it sounded like what I imagine Nilsson’s robe smelled like. To my ears, that is. I make no assumptions about any other Townsperson’s tastes, as I’m sure needs no explanation.
Man, that rhyme you cited in “Season Cycle” surely supports cdm’s fine insights after careful consideration of the material he was recommended to review. Nice work, cdm. We shall agree to disagree on your overall assessment, but you’ve explained yourself well! Clearly, the merging of Science and Rock is not for everyone.
You’ve just made yourself RTH’s Emperor Joseph II – “Too many notes”.
I’ll assume that link is to a clip from Amadeus. And I’m fine with that. I’ve gone on record before about my love of stupid music and intelligent lyrics
Partridge certainly has a problem with vocal mugging, especially during the ‘classic’ years when he was competing with Chambers’ thunder.
Damn, “big, bench clearing, nerd fight”. Actually, I should come back to this thread when I finally buy a bunch on individual XTC tracks on MP3 to replace my old cassettes.
It took me a while, and a lot of repeat listening, to really like Nonsuch. But there turns out to be a ton of really enjoyable stuff on it. I think “Peter Pumpkinhead”, “Dear Madam Barnum”, “That Wave”, “Then She Appeared”, “The Ugly Underneath”, and “Books Are Burning” make for a good set of accessible, upbeat XTC material. Then you have to dig in deeper for the quieter or weirder stuff, but you get things like the quiet, sad “Rook”, and the pretty, optimistic “Wrapped in Grey”.
“The Mayor of Simpleton” is pretty damn perfect in every way.
I did just notice that the moment of slapback echo in the midsection is reminiscent of the very Billy Joel moment you describe. “What you get is all real, I can’t put on an act-act-act”…
I like some XTC songs, probably more than 10, and I’m further along in appreciation than cdm, but I have about as much tolerance for them as most here seem to have for sax because of the vocals. But I do have a good nerd story about them. I was roommates with a guy the summer after college who would play a side of XTC (I think it was English Settlement) before a bunch of us would go out on Friday nights. When the record was done, he would, each and every Friday, exclaim “TONIGHT, is the night I get laid.” Can you imagine a less appropriate prediction?
As I got into bed last night, I realized that I was singing the chorus to Senses Working Overtime. So I guess you guys won (although there are still too many notes for the Royal Ear in that middle bit).
That song got me thinking of other songs with a really weird verses that break into impossibly catchy choruses. Liquid Indian by Guided By Voices is a great example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IUYZjr2pMM
I’m drawing a blank on the other example that I had.
This is EXACTLY what I was looking/hoping for. I am warming up.
I think with any band, it’s all about the discovery. Given the right place and time.
I randomly play Mummer one morning for no apparent reason other than the song title “Wonderland” caught my eye. As I listened, I began to wonder why this album never struck me. I think BigSteve hit it for me. It was a chore for me to wade through so many records at once. So it became a task. So, I’m trying to digest them.
I went back to Drums and Wires and English Settlement. Yes, “Senses” is a GREAT song. I think I am going to live in the period between Drums and Wires and Mummer for a little while. This seems confortable to me. Then I will branch out a little more as these albums become more familiar to me. I DO indeed like them.
Thanks for all the excellent explanations. They are “notey”, but thsi is not a problem for me. Michael Nesmith is “wordy” and I love him.
Now, back to ELO…
As an ELO fan, I’d think the 25 O’Clock-to-Nonsuch run might be the easier sell. Skylarking and Nonsuch kind of match up a bit with ELO’s ’75-’77 sound, and Skylarking even has a three-song weather cycle that feels like it could have been inspired by Side 3 of Out Of The Blue.
WoW! I truely am in the minority here, with XTC being a major part of my Rawk Pantheon & having “The Big Express” as my fave album of their’s. “This World Over” is one of Mr. Partridge’s greatest song-writing triumphs. Am quite suprised that this album gets overlooked in most discussions on XTC, w/the exception being here w/Mr. Mod, of course.