Making Plans With XTC
XTC is a band that has been around for over three decades, has released a consecutive string of nine outstanding albums and is blessed with two of the best songwriters of the past 35 years (Colin Moulding and especially Andy Partridge). Yet most people (especially in the States—ignorant Bastardos!) are unfamiliar with the majority of their discography. Only Making Plans For Nigel (from Drums and Wires) and Dear God (a single, later added to the album Skylarking after it became an unexpected hit) made any sort of impact.
Whatever the case, like the mighty and under appreciated Nick Lowe, this band warrants some serious attention.
XTC has evolved over time from a jerky new wave explosion of a band into a lyrically sardonic and lushly orchestrated pop music machine. The first two albums (although decent they are not included in the nine I mentioned earlier) were all nervous energy, no doubt inspired by the punk movement at the time. Drums And Wires, their third proper album, contained Making Plans For Nigel, an outstanding hybrid of modern sounds and ominous new wave jerkiness. Their humor and quirky wordplay remained intact, but the bigger sound on the album proved a turning point for the band. Other highlights from this album: Life Begins At The Hop, Ten Feet Tall, Complicated Game.
Black Sea and English Settlement, the next two proper albums, see XTC rocking harder than ever before, but a shift in direction towards mid sixties British Psychedelia was becoming more prominent, especially in the excellent tracks Respectable Street, Towers of London and Generals And Majors (from Black Sea), Ball and Chain and Senses Working Overtime (from English Settlement). Like the majority of XTC albums there is more to love than just the “hits”, as the album tracks are usually just as notable.
After stateside indifference and massive touring pressure it was inevitable that the fragile Andy Partridge would suffer some sort of mental breakdown (‘specially given his well documented stage fright ‘issues’), which ultimately led to the bands retirement from touring.
It has been said that Mummer, their next album, is very much the work of an “eccentric in isolation”, with Partridge writing 13 of the album’s 16 songs. A much more subdued and uneven affair than it’s predecessors, it is awash with some truly excellent acoustic music full of inspiration and pastoral English imagery, sounding not unlike another undervalued songwriter from England (with the initials R.D.). Partridge stumbles when he attempts “world music”, and is better off sticking with his forte: little symphonic pop gems a-la Paul McCartney.
1984’s The Big Express saw yet another stylistic change in the bands direction, this time utilizing the extra time away from the road to take full advantage of the studio. From first listen it certainly becomes apparent that something has changed, and for the better. Painstakingly detailed and sonically lush, the musical innovations explored here would inspire Partridge, Moulding & Co. to go even further down the rabbit hole with their next album, Skylarking, their undisputed masterpiece.
Released in 1986, Skylarking was a revelation. The band totally and unapologetically jettisoned its new wave roots in favor of the sounds, sonics and textures of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, circa 1965-1967. Produced by Todd Rundgren , who tightened up XTC’s sound considerably for this album, Skylarking contained the undisputed classic singles Summer’s Cauldron, Grass, Season Cycle and Dear God (as mentioned earlier, this was a late addition, but fit’s the albums mood and flow perfectly.) The detailed, sweeping instrumentation coupled with improved songwriting (some would say perfect songwriting) make this XTC’s Magnum Opus, no question.
Oranges and Lemons is where the band pretty much embraces psychedelia as their genre of choice (just look at the cover, for God’s sake!), and Nonesuch (1992) is simply a massive, lovingly crafted record almost the equal of Skylarking, which becomes evident while listening to the 17 tracks back to back. Although not as thematically coherent as Skylarking or quite as goofy or eclectic as Oranges and Lemons, this album maintains its position with me as their 3rd best album. Their 2nd best album, in my humble opinion, came next…
After a seven-year sabbatical (!) the band return in 1999 with Apple Venus Pt. 1. This is a beautiful and ambitious record, although it certainly has some very dark and moody moments. On the lighter side is I’d Like That, a song in which Partridge channels McCartney to great effect; Your Dictionary, probably the bitterest sounding lyric Partridge has ever penned, represents the darker side. Here’s a lyrical sample:
Is that how you spell love in your dictionary?
Pronounced as kind
Is that how you spell friend in your dictionary?
Black on black
A guidebook for the blind
Well now that I can see my eyes won’t weep
Now that I can hear your song sounds cheap
Now that I can talk all your corn I’ll reap
I’m not so sure that Joey wed a Virgin Mary
There are no words for me inside your dictionary
Lush and melancholy, exuberant and sad, Apple Venus Pt. 1 will stand the test of time. Even though it contains shades of the old XTC, it stands out as probably being the most unique album in a catalogue full of unique albums.
Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2) is more…normal XTC. Sharp, witty, classic XTC songs abound, and although it is very, very good, it pales in comparison next to the grand statement of Apple Venus Pt. 1. Should have been called Wasp Star Outtakes Vol 1. Which is not to say it’s bad; even a sub-par XTC album is better than 99.9% of the stuff out there.
Though the band has embarked on many interesting and competent side projects over the years, it is their alter ego as Dukes Of Stratosphere that is the real gem. This was an opportunity for the band to really indulge in their love of mid 60’s British psychedelia; an opportunity to break out the fuzz guitars, sound effects and trippy lyrics. If you can find it, get the collection Chips From The Chocolate Fireball, which contains the “band‘s” entire output. Vanishing Girl is the standout in collection filled to the brim with standouts. What started off being a lark ended up being one of XTC’s best and most coherent albums.
XTC are the great lost pop band, tragically ignored by the majority but followed obsessively by fanatical lovers of great music all over the globe. It is impossible to have only one XTC album in your collection, but if you’re a newbie you can’t go wrong with Skylarking. If collections are your thing, buy Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles, 1977-1992.
Then get all the rest, including the ultra rare K-ROCKING IN PASADENA, an in-studio live recording and re-interpretation of classic XTC tracks.