A few weeks back I went the extra mile on Pop Junkie’s behalf by listening to The Police’s Regatta de Blanc, an album I hadn’t played in the best part of a quarter of a century. I found it to be not as onerous a task as I feared, but I don’t imagine I’ll be playing it much over the next 25 years.
Today I’m listening to an album made in the same year (1979) which was not as commercially successful and certainly didn’t earn the band or songwriters as much dosh but which, I am very confident, will have weathered the years in a much healthier state. Whatever happened to XTC, they were bloody great? That was a rhetorical question. They carried on making music for anyone who’d care to listen well into the 1990’s. It was me who lost touch with them. Danny Baker used to play a single called The Disappointed on the radio in 1993. It was a great single, yet still I didn’t follow it up. My loss. In another life I have a feeling that XTC could easily have been my favourite band. I bought a few of their singles but Drums and Wires remains the only album I’ve ever owned. I can’t recall when I last played it all the way through, though it does get an airing now and again. An always enjoyable experience, but it’s been a while since I gave it a spin.
By the way, 1979 would appear to be a pretty classic year for albums. Just off the top of my head I recall Fear of Music, Secondhand Daylight, London Calling, Three Imaginary Boys, Metal Box, Armed Forces, Unknown Pleasures and Setting Sons.
Without further ado we start with side two simply because I always regarded Real by Reel as a great track one side one. It’ll have to do as a great track one side two, which isn’t really a listable category (is it?). It’s still a great track, but (I’ve almost got to the end of the side as I write this) I have been surprised by how great Outside World and Scissor Man are. In fact Scissor Man (track 5) has just finished and I’m going to play it again.
It starts with a very wiry guitar almost like something from The Fall’s Dragnet, before Andy Partridge’s unique and weird vocals come in. “Snipping, snipping, snipping goes the scissor man, putting end to evil doers games”. I think this used to be one of my least favourite tracks but it has a brilliant poppy chorus with a double-snare beat. Couldn’t ever fathom what he was singing, till I just looked it up on the net. Then goes a bit dubby at the end, which I didn’t like back then and don’t much now. PiL were way better at dub. XTC are better at pop.
I never liked the closing track Complicated Game either which surprises me, as replace Partridge’s hoarse pleadings with Howard Devoto’s vintage whine (ahem!) and you’ve got a track that wouldn’t be out of place on Magazine’s Real Life complete with McGeoch-style guitar. However, I still don’t much care for it.
Okay, back to the beginning. Real by Reel is still a bloody great song. Unmistakably XTC. Few bands can have invented a sound that is so distinctively theirs and theirs alone. It is followed by Millions, which bizarrely would not be out of place on Regatta de Blanc, at least not until the vocals come in. An ethereal, angular piece of white punk reggae. One of the weaker tracks.
Next come two Colin Moulding tracks (the two openers and closers are all by Partridge); That is the Way and Outside World. Would have been a great group on the strength of Partridge alone, but like Squeeze and The Zombies made much better with two songwriters of stature (The Beatles had three). That is the Way is again not a stand-out, but a more than adequate album filler.
Outside World however, is a zippy, zesty, joyous, infectious piece of punk pop with incomprehensible I am the Walrus style lyrics.
So, now for side one which kicks off with their breakthrough hit Making Plans for Nigel. With Partridge writing their first four singles, Life Begins at the Hop (No. 54) being the most successful, Colin Moulding was given three of the band’s next four starting with Nigel. Everyone loved this at the time and it is a classic of the era, but I’m not sure about it now. Possibly a case of having heard it too much.
This side alternates Moulding-Partridge compositions and thus continues with Partridge’s Helicopter, a track I never paid much attention to until in 1994, in a moment of sudden realisation, it became my favourite track on the album. An apt moment to mention what a brilliant drummer Terry Chambers was. Often inventive and complex, but never unnecessarily so, here his hi-hat work conjures up the spinning rotors of the copter. I was right in ’94 ~ This is a wonderful slice of post-punk pop.
Day in Day Out reminds me of something and I can’t quite place my finger on what. It’s dreamy manner might well have made a successful daytime radio hit single with its “Friday is heaven, Friday is heaven, Day in day out” chorus.
When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty – ditto (not dreamy, but could have been a daytime hit). It was considered as a possible single, along with R by R, Helicopter and Outside World, before Nigel was selected.
Ten Feet Tall. I can’t remember if I got the album before or after this was given away as a free flexi single with Smash Hits! This sounds very accomplished and stands up very well at thirty years distance (Thirty bloody years!!).
Roads Girdle the Globe. I never liked this track, always thought it a bit dirgy. Sounds bloody marvellous now. Again, replace the vocals, this time with Siouxsie, and you have what the Banshees were doing a year or two later. Also, very easy to see how they were an influence on Damon Albarn and Blur.
So, that was how the band coped with the loss of founder-member and keyboardist Barry Andrews ~ they made a punk-pop masterpiece. I don’t think that’s praising it too highly. This is still a marvellous album. I’d better mention produced by Steve Lillywhite, although Nick Lowe had been the band’s preffered choice.
By the way, Life Begins at the Hop is a magnificent single, which really should have been their breakthrough. I guess they were considered too quirky back then. Ian Dury and Kate Bush were being played on the radio and we can’t have too many maverick voices filling the nation’s airwaves, can we. Breakthrough they eventually did, with a string of great singles (remember Respectable Street? Flippin’ wonderful) though never fully got full credit for being the unique and great pop band that they undoubtedly were.