XTC, WHITE MUSIC
Punk rock, a la the Sex Pistols and the Clash, was a good and inspiring trend in the late 1970's; even I, a man who enjoys the virtuosic showpieces designed by the superskilled likes of Yes and Gentle Giant, understand that making music should also be a life option to creative persons who _didn't_ score in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Test Of Basic Manual Dexterity (actually, if you've heard me play keyboards, you'll realize my chief complaint is that punk didn't lower the skill demands nearly far enough). The downsides of punk were two: that not everyone enjoys music that sounds like seals barking over pneumatic drills; and that not everyone enjoys attending (or performing at) shows where spitfights, fistfights, thrown bottles, and flesh wounds by spiky hair are imminent possibilities--- sadly, the virulent dislike of Emerson Lake & Palmer had a statistical correlation, in those days, with the virulent dislike of all persons, present or absent, armed or unarmed.
In the wake of punk's barrier-shattering, then, came something called New Wave. The term itself quickly degenerated into a marketing term, for music from Graham Parker and Nick Lowe (previously known as "pub rock" or "bar band") to Duran Duran and A Flock Of Seagulls (better described as "synth-pop"). But at first it meant music
1. made by nerdy kids who either didn't play music very well or weren't willing to play traditionally,
2. who did want to be difficult and annoy people (a custom sometimes equivalent to "being original"),
3. but who often also liked tunes and who, regardless,
4. were basically harmless at heart.
The first three Talking Heads LP's, the first two by Gang Of Four, the first three by Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu's THE MODERN DANCE, Essential Logic's BEAT RHYTHM NEWS, Tin Huey's CONTENTS DISLODGED DURING SHIPMENT: in these albums is a core for New Wave, one that tended to emphasize the fast-moving, the staccato, the abrasive (well, Elvis Costello's _voice_ surely qualifies?), the abrupt, the undanceably rhythmic. My favorite New Wave band, among impressive competition, is XTC, and their WHITE MUSIC debut is a remarkable document.
Andy Partridge, guitarist and lead songwriter and reigning melody champ of the era, has claimed that he was taught, by mistake, the wrong initial set of three chords. I choose to believe this: XTC melodies _sound_ internally consistent in a way that would make sense from accident. It is also true that I, at age ten, read Daniel Pinkwater's novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, a wonderful novel which I heartily recommend. It shaped who I am today, and its sequel ...and the Baconburg Horror has had a probably-quite-ruinous influence on my original poetry, but all this is only because I was already someone well-primed to receive its non-lessons and expand upon them colorfully far beyond the confines of one kids' book. Andy, too, took his mistake or gimmick far beyond any directly implied consequences, and WHITE MUSIC would sound plenty weird in E-A-G.
Andy's guitar here is just the genre's ideal. Colin Moulding's bass is simple and propulsive. Barry Andrews contributes "steam piano and clapped out organs" in a style which ranges from cheesy to circusy to pipe-organ-like in varying but often high amounts of discord. Andy's loud singing is choked and hiccupy, and my efforts to duplicate it require me to suck in my ribcage and put an unfamiliar amount of jolting stress on my jaw and throat muscles.
But "this is pop (yeah! yeah! yeah!)", as the single rightly proclaims. "New Town Animal In A Furnished Cage" could be the early Beatles if you ditched the social satire and the parts where the instruments take turns playing one brief note each. "Do What You Do" could almost be a TV cartoon theme. "Radios In Motion" ("all the kids are complaining that there's nowhere to go/ all the kids are complaining that the songs are too slow/ ah ba-ba ooh") is power-pop for an era when the "power" meant as much as the "pop" but not more. "Statue Of Liberty", however, a nearly-crooned lust song to the famous statue, reminds me most of the _real_ pop influence here: Del Shannon. Oh come on, you've heard "Runaway" at least: "I'm a walkin' in the rain/ to the ball and I feel a pain", and "I wonder/ I WAAA-WAAA-WAAA-WAAA-Wuuuh-hunder", and that high-pitched, bouncily ahead-of-its-time 1960 synthesizer solo? That's about what Shannon generally sounded like, not that I think he was normally that great. WHITE MUSIC is like Shannon, in a new key, with snotty lyrics and part time penchants for atonal thudding punctuation ("Cross Wires") and menacing six-note organ loops with a machine-gun-like vibration ("I'm Bugged") and a loopy jazz-bass-with-harmonica Bob Dylan cover ("All Along The Watchtower") that turns into an all-splice dub version of itself. It seemed more fun that way at the time, I guess, and it hasn't stopped me from learning to sing or hum, gleefully, everything here.
XTC, Go 2
XTC wouldn't acquire a label as being "quintessentially British" for several more years, but their second album earned the title. Partly it was just the album cover, an all-text classic worthy of Douglas Adams that explains, in cheerful detail, the manipulative use of album covers, itself included (and yes, it talked me into buying the record). More notably, though, it was the product of a generous dole system, in which physically healthy young men such as Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge and Barry Andrews could earn enough money to live on by simply existing and picking up welfare checks every week. GO 2 is an album of economic non-need, a series of commercially useless sidetracks from a band whose demi-hits "Science Friction" and "This Is Pop!" had served far too small a market to set them up securely.
"Life Is Good In The Greenhouse" is the least pleasant thing here, and possibly the best, stretching its atonal title phrase over a bitter nine seconds ("li-i-ife is goo-oo-ood in the greeeeen house/ ra-ther be a pla-ant than your Mi-ckey Mouse"), with Barry Andrews contributing a sickened organ line, and the whole band circling through a creepily near-pop round of "ba da da da, ba, ba da da da"s. "Battery Brides" is pretty and static, an explicit tribute to Brian Eno's becalmed "pop" records. Andrews himself contributes two songs about wife abuse, the perky "My Weapon" and the jazz-rap affected "Super-Tuff", both exploiting his own intimidating voice and slithery keyboards.
All of which share a record with eight songs of deranged, half-formed bubblegum music, to the degree which gulping vocals and wrong chords supported such. "Meccanix Dancing (Oh We Go!)", a loathing tableau of working class existence, constructs a genuinely elegant melody to interrupt for its syncopated Adam and the Ants choruses. "Jumping In Gomorrah", celebrating decadence and impending doom, rushes whistleably through its jumprope refrain of "J-U-M-P-I-N-G! Jumping in Gomorrah and religion-free!". Everything else is incomplete and snappy. Bad way to author an experimentalist classic; still, maybe if Brian Eno had settled for snappiness on half of his songs too, I'd pull out his albums more than once a year.
XTC, DRUMS AND WIRES
Barry Andrews left after the power struggle of making GO 2, working with arty guitar wanker Robert Fripp for a while and then forming Shriekback. This should have been bad for XTC's music: it subtracted a crucial and imaginative element of their sound, and left them as a generic guitar-bass-drums band. In practice, though, Partridge and Moulding and new second guitarist Dave Gregory were more stubborn than that. Perfecting and varying a brittle, jutting guitar sound, they got weirder and more varied, and DRUMS is still often chosen as their masterwork.
"Weirder" and "masterwork" are not synonyms, mind you, and DRUMS's most immediate strength, as I see it, is Colin and Andy's determination to actually finish writing their singles. The ecstatic blare of "Life Begins At The Hop" and the relaxed acoustic reverie of "Ten Feet Tall" are decorated by an assortment of guitar hooks and a brief tasteful solo apiece, and end up making XTC's melodic system seem as (or more) hitworthy than the Beatles' "Drive My Car" and the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb", which they vaguely resemble. "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty" tumbles through its melody with more than enough energy to keep it surviving against its uncooperative rhythm section. The nervous "Making Plans For Nigel" was on odd choice for a single, but its lyrical attack on parents who map out their children's futures struck gold on the charts, which the equally nervous but gloomier (Siouxsie-esque) "Millions", urging the 3rd world to reject Western culture, would not have. I'd still have voted for the radio release of the pro-escapism "Outside World" instead, myself. The wavery intonation of "Bad brown and yellow men/ spitting on their fellow men/ drape her in a newspaper/ and stab her with a poison pen" is bowled over by an increasingly exultant rush of counters, from the abstract swoop of "she's not interested in that" to the happy chant of "she has eleven lions laughing by her lakeside" to the bubbly, but still rhythmically off-kilter, singalong "so she can't hear what's going on/ no she can't hear what's going on".
The obvious non-singles are intriguing as well. The heavily syncopated "That Is The Way", a song of Nigel's daily life ("Go and speak to your niece/ kiss your aunt on the cheek"), has a jazzy abstractness somewhere between the Missing Persons' "U.S. Drag" and Steely Dan. "Roads Girdle The Globe" slowly simmers between sour chords, but works up a compellingly grumpy war chant by its "Hail, mother motor, hail, piston rotor, hail wheel" chorus. "Real By Reel" flips from angular verses to a peppy chorus that's closer to a transposed version of "Yummy Yummy Yummy" than the band has any need to admit, given that the warped chordal base and paranoid lyrics are just enough of a moderating force to cross (for me) from "nauseating" into "delightful".
For avant-garde cred, though, DRUMS relies most on its final two songs. "Scissor Man", inventing a psychotic Santa Claus alternate whose list of Naughty and Nice is a hell of a lot more ominous, is a whispery, gulped-out nursery rhyme over skittery guitar. It does emerge, for the "So be good, and never poison people/ just think twice before the deed is done", into a majestically jolly chorus, with a nearly subsonic keyboard bass worthy of Frank Zappa's "Disco Boy" as a bonus. But the last couple of minutes are pure "dub", the form of reggae remixing in which voices, beats, and chords are stripped down to fraction-of-a-second pieces with heavy echo and draped over each other in perverse, erratic, sketchy soundscapes. "Complicated Game" picks up in dub - Andy's interrupted-breath singing style joins the fun -- and builds up. Way up. If small bits of echoed sound are merely strange and unnerving, massive assemblages of them can be as claustrophic as any sound in rock. And so a fun album barrels to a close, and something new is brought into the world.
XTC, BLACK SEA
That said, I find the notion that DRUMS AND WIRES is XTC's masterpiece to be a strange one. A band that never improved on it could, to be sure, be a very fine band indeed. But it was immediately followed by the greatest heavy-guitar pop album ever made; and while I guess I need to include an "in my opinion" in there somewhere, I quite sincerely fail to see why there is any room for disagreement.
The variety of guitar tones Gregory and Partridge generate broadens again, this album, even further. "Love At First Sight"'s hook is an impudent little chicken-scratch, but the rock thump of "Respectable Street" is what AC/DC could've sounded like if they'd had brains and imagination, and "Living Through Another Cuba" splits the difference. "Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)"'s riff is a formalist, marching squall, but "Burning With Optimism's Flames"'s guitar lines play the erratic undertones of "Scissor Man" against something with the dignity of George Harrison. "Generals and Majors"'s chief guitar hook sounds a little like it's whistling. "Towers of London" has both semi-dirgey deliberation and some melodic British majesty worthy of the Kinks; "No Language In Our Lungs" exaggerates the former more than the latter. The guitar on "Travels In Nihilon" is used for atmosphere, shooting off minor-key sparks like 1982-era Cure.
More important would be that XTC decided to move beyond the guitar/bass limit as necessary for coloration. "Respectable…" opens with a piano verse over an old Victrola record player. "Generals…" creaks Andy and Colin's voices down a few octaves artificially to croak harmonies on the chorus. "Living…" uses hip-hop cutup tactics and bubbly test-tube synthesizer at the end. "Rocket From A Bottle" simulates fife, tin-whistle, and some idealized notion of hi-energy piano churn. "Towers…" has a squiggle flute part, just for a moment on the chorus. "Paper and Iron" has, for opening atmosphere, fluttering drums and Andy chanting slowly at what's probably the bottom of his real vocal range. "Burning…" allows Andy to gleefully soar unaccompanied as he blows rhyme schemes out of the water, as if the band was watching in awe and puzzlement: "I can't stop this grinning/ so I assume I'm winning/ then pessimism in the air is spinning/ crashing to the floor and nevermore will it lure me away with sweets and shiny things just like a magpie". "Sgt Rock" uses kazoos. "Travels…", a strong attempt to end on a darker note than DRUMS's "Complicated Game", assaults with tribal drums, synthesizer, long held vocal notes, and running water.
The tunes, as always but more so, are varied and excellent, as XTC had fully adapted to their oddball structure. What's new to me is the percentage of their lyrics - cranky and adolescent and anti-modernist as ever - that hit home. "Respectable…", despite the dignity of its opening rhyme ("It's in the order of their hedgerows/ it's in the way their curtains open and close/ it's in the looks they give you down their nose/ all part of decency's jigsaw, I suppose") is happily over-the-top in its meanness, strewn with incest, the vomit of the rich and famous, and "now they speak of contraception/ and immaculate reception/ on their portable Sony entertainment centers". "Living…", though explicitly a British take on nuclear saber-rattling, applies to the helpless rooting-only power of anyone who isn't president: "It's 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle/ while war is polishing its drums and peace plays second fiddle" (but also, more impishly, "if they're not careful, your watch won't be the only thing with a radioactive glow"). "Towers…" looks at a royal construction project and counts the number of people who died in building it. "Travels…", mostly sledgehammer, does redeem itself for me with the warning to its fans: "there's no youth culture/ only masks they let you rent". "Paper…", another working-man anthem by a band who avoided the fate very carefully, observes "I'll inherit the earth, I'm told, but the church says to remain this meek".
Virtually none of which, in practice, sounds remotely preachy. Never has a record more successfully navigated, for me, the art of setting unhappy critiques of the world to jubilant music. "Rocket From The Bottle", a genuine infatuation song ("jets should hide/ I'll fly alongside/ me and pride are bolted tight today/ I've been set off by a pretty little girl") sounds mildly more ecstatic than its surroundings, but the competition is tight. "Generals…" is a sing-along about World War III, "Living…" approaches the same topic in well-earned amusement over its own cleverness. "Love…", for all its unsettling patterns of whir and silence, bouncily attacks sex and courtship. "No Language…", a wordy take on the uselessness of speech, is a sad song, but perks up for the "for a second that thought became a sword in my head", and the "I felt just like a crusader/ lion heart, a holy land invader" section could be Roxette triumphantly marching off to win World War I in the predicted six weeks. "Sgt Rock", implicitly a vicious takedown of machismo, might have been a Residents song if they'd ever once let themselves do a REAL concession to the kiddie pop they mauled. Even the darkest moments of the album bear the pride of a band confident in its workmanship. And unlike any other album of XTC's long strange history, BLACK SEA genuinely rocks.
XTC, ENGLISH SETTLEMENT
Which is not to say that "rock" is the only great thing a band can do. By my tastes, in fact, ENGLISH SETTLEMENT is rock music's single most amazing makeover. In one album, XTC went from being a loud guitar band to making the record SGT PEPPER might have been had it been born into a world that had already been expanded by SGT PEPPER. In certain specifics, the change is parallel to the one the Boomtown Rats had undergone from FINE ART OF SURFACING to MONDO BONGO: for example, the incorporation of African, Caribbean, even medieval influences in the rhythms and expanded percussion kit, or the increased use of non-rock instruments. That said, the Rats' also-amazing transformation was basically all for a lark, a casual day. SETTLEMENT is an intensely serious record.
"Jason and the Argonauts", for example. I'm ignorant; I don't know that particular myth; and I'm not going to figure it out from a perky prechorus of "seems the more I travel/ from the foam to gravel/ all the nets unravel", or the massed, echoing, major-octave traversing refrain of "I, have watched, the man,imals, go by/ buying shoes/ buying sweets/ buying knives". But I like how that last line previews Ani DiFranco's observation that "It's all cross-marketing now, clothes and shoes, or guns and drugs, you choose". Far more than that, I like how the music itself incorporates the mythological aura, layered and distant and skittering, another reworking of "Scissor Man" but this time into something you could build a religious ritual around. "Yacht Dance" is medieval and bores me, but "All Of A Sudden", an earnest meditation on the self-defeating cruel behavior of former lovers, maps what the Dave Matthews Band could've sounded like with a pretty-voiced singer and a tendency to build their jams around actual vocal melodies. "It's Nearly Africa", evasive but celebratory, adopts the polyrhythms, calypso, and vocal call-and-response patterns of its chosen continent.
"Senses Working Overtime", merging medieval and African influences in its hushed verses, is a triumph nonetheless of XTC's effervescent pop instincts, a song to make "Feelin Groovy" seem reserved: "and all the world is biscuit-shaped/ it's just for me to feed my face/ and I can see hear smell touch taste/ and I've got one, two, three, four, five/ senses working overtime/ trying to take this all in". "No Thugs In Our House", stomping, and foursquare until it inevitably mutates, is pop as triumphant BLACK SEA throwback, but "Fly On The Wall", with a synth backdrop less like buzzing than like sandpaper trying to whistle, is more like a transmutation of "Glass Onion" into reserved, delicate synthpop. "Knuckle Down", an antiwar anthem, is loud but absolutey straightforward, apparently to prove XTC can that if they want. But "Runaway" floats fragilely under synthetic flute and pennywhistle, and vocally processes a "don't cry, don't cry" chorus response into the urgent good wishes of a spinning coin; while "Ball and Chain"'s percussive authority breaks for a synthesizer solo worthy of the Dark Crystal movie soundtrack, a fanfare to summon the dreams of the asleep to readiness. "Snowman" has Andy swallowing his own voice and shaking like a tambourine, just like the early days, but the melody deliberately avoids liftoff, and closes the album on a quietly yearning note much unlike their previous selves.
"Melt The Guns", not the album's best song, is probably its spiritual (as well as literal) centerpiece. A semi-strangled guitar riff sets the pace, and Andy's voice roundly exploits his quirks, rolling energetically over his vowels and consonants like he's practicing them for the dentist. But the drums keep layering into something more complex than rock's vocabulary comfortably admits; extreme echo exploits XTC's old interest in dub in a much more natural way than before; and the guitar breaks, and the lilting "doo-doo-by-doo" vocals over them, are lovelier than they have any right to be. XTC was about to follow their muse into sheerest wimpiness; I regard their subsequent tale, through at least to 1999, as one of steadily developing the compositional skill, at their new grownup level, to recover from 1983's MUMMER. But SETTLEMENT was radical and strange enough, and also pretty and hummable enough, to justify quite a long detour.
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