That Was Pop: Relistening to XTC, Part 2

After starting off with XTC’s final two albums, I thought I’d go all the way back to the beginning of their career and focus on their first few records.

It’s a lot like listening to Abbey Road and then going back to Please Please Me and reminding yourself it’s the same band, although the difference between early/late XTC and early/late Beatles is fairly stark. XTC evolved a LOT over a longer period of time.

Other than the distinctive quality of Andy Partridge’s voice, the debut album White Music sounds like a completely different band than the XTC of Apple Venus/Wasp Star. And to a large degree, it was a completely different band, also featuring the keyboards of Barry Andrews and the drums of Terry Chambers, but mostly featuring an earlier and rawer Partridge and Moulding at the center.

While there are hints of the literate quality of Partridge’s lyrics to come, the songs here are simple and quick. Some of them seem rushed and unfinished. But it doesn’t matter – White Music from 1978 overflows with energy, fast nervous beats, overdone affected singing styles and a lot of really good songs. It matches up nicely with the first/early albums of their contemporaries in the New Wave/Postpunk material that certainly flooded my record collection at the time – debut albums from Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Cars, Joe Jackson, Devo, Blondie, The Jam and others all came out around this time. And like White Music, they all stand as bursts of energy from acts that evolved, developed, mellowed and altered their sounds and styles over the years, some more than others, and some more successfully than others. The brash we-don’t-care youthful attitude of the brand new rock band permeates this record, and it’s a wonderful listening exercise in tracing the band’s evolution, finding the little hints of what was to come, and hearing a lot of what got left behind. A lot of it is quick and forgettable, but the better cuts like Radios In Motion, This Is Pop, or Statue of Liberty stand out, as well as the lone cover in XTC’s catalogue, an odd version of All Along The Watchtower.

I miss when bands looked and sounded like this.

It has that Elvis Costello “Pump It Up” video vibe to it, with those overhead keyboard shots, simple white set and oh-so-wacky cutaways. And like Costello, the musical trajectory the band would follow would certainly be eclectic.

But unlike Costello, who managed to put out a second album superior to his first, XTC’s second effort exhibited the same sort of sophomore slump that other artists experienced after killer debuts, like Joe Jackson or the Cars. The followups were good albums… but not in comparison to the first. And this is where Go2 lands. I gotta admit, it’s my least favorite album by the band. I like a few of the songs on it, but most of them feel like b-sides that got rejected from White Music. And the two entries from Barry Andrews, who had pushed to get more of his own material on the albums, is especially weak. Super Tuff falls short and My Weapon is just embarrassing, probably the most out of place tune on any XTC record.

Partridge’s rejection of Andrews’ songs and their general competition over who’d be the face of the band led to Andrews leaving the group after Go2 and getting replaced with Dave Gregory on lead guitar. In some ways, Go2 sounds like a bridge between the frenetic energy of White Music and the more refined quirkiness found on their excellent third record from 1979, Drums and Wires.

Drums and Wires saw the emergence of Colin Moulding as a songwriting force, penning two hit singles for the sessions. Making Plans For Nigel was the first song I’d ever heard from this band, as a matter of fact. And it certainly wanted to make me hear more, even though it turned out that no other song of theirs really sounded like it.

And then I realized that you can say that about the majority of XTC songs. Drums and Wires also features Andy Partridge’s development as a lyricist throughout the record. Scissor Man, Roads Girdle The Globe or Complicated Game show hints and themes of the kind of stuff Partridge would compose from then on. The arrangements are stark and loud, with the echo-drum effects the band wanted by bringing in producer Steve Lillywhite all over the album. The keyboards are gone along with Andrews, and the only cut with a danceable beat, appropriately, is Moulding’s Life Begins At The Hop, a non-album single that got added to the American version. Lillywhite’s production would bring the band along for more complicated arrangements, often enhanced by Gregory’s input, on their next records…. which I’ll get to in later blog posts. Stay tuned!

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