When you think of the history of British music, perhaps going back to the first early efforts by primitive man, through the compositions of Elgar, Britten, Holst and their contemporaries, Music Hall, Jazz, Blues, Rock’ n Roll, all the genres of the sixties, through the next decade of glam, prog, sheer rock indulgence, or pub rock, which all crashed into Punk, New Romantics, Ska revival , I could go on, that’s an awful lot of music.
If a poll was launched into the public domain, for a favourite, the most creative, the best, then there would be multitudes of answers with The Beatles still coming out on top.
From a personal point of view, Music has been my life, my one constant companion that has never let me down, whether I’ve performed it, photographed it, written about it, attended quizzes, sold it or played it on my radio shows.
The one constant factor of this is that I listen to it.
I deliberately don’t own a TV. That just gets in the way of listening to more music.
For every episode of Love Island or Gogglebox, I could be discovering, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Laghonia or some garage band from Alabama who made one single on a Pebbles compilation.
So yeah, I pretty much LIVE music.
I’m also a bit of an enigma, a 50 plus man who, through breaks ups , lives alone and struggles with that. Claustrophobia and panic attacks are more regular than my friends know, yet as a paradox to that, I also struggle in crowds (which, perhaps luckily, were never an issue in my singing days).
One thing I never expected was the whole Covid 19 crisis. This, like many of you , effectively stopped me in my tracks. I’d wound up in Norfolk, nursing a severely broken heart and to much extent a broken mind.
When the outbreak came, with no suitable offers of anywhere to stay, I returned, rather forlornly to my Leicestershire flat
Whilst in Norfolk I’d often thought about talked about this subject matter. Who in my opinion – and let’s stress, music like all art is subjective – but who in MY opinion is the best British band or artist of all time and why?.
Now I could put a case forward for many thousands of artists. The Stranglers and The Clash I grew up listening to and still love both to this day, not to mention the many other punk and new wave bands from that era. The Damned, The Undertones, The Jam, Gang of Four. OMD, The Comsat Angels…
We could put the obvious case of the Beatles by going further back, or The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Who, progressing through the years to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Elton John, Queen, Bowie,Pink Floyd etc. Even pop bands such as ELO and 10CC were marvellous.
Or jump past Punk, Talk Talk, Joy Division, The Pogues, The Specials, blur, Happy Mondays, The Smiths. (Apologies for long lists. Who would I have left out? I nearly wrote a list longer than this article)
SO….I could go on naming contenders, but I won’t.
There were really BIG contenders in Elvis Costello with his various incantations, Squeeze perhaps? The Kinks and yes the aforementioned outfit from Liverpool. So who in my opinion (Let’s say that again in capital letters IN MY OPINION) were the best, There’s only one conclusion – XTC.
Of course it’s a little different to be writing an article on a band who haven’t anything to release or I’ve just seen live.
But when listening to a band’s music has made the worst crisis since World War 2 that much more comfortable and reassuring for this writer. I feel I owe them.
Maybe it’s bad form, almost amateur to write of your own experiences in life in unison with a piece on your favourite band, but, in part that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
I want to express why personally I feel they’re the best.
Starting in the early to mid seventies as Star Park and then The Helium Kidz, before embarking on a near 25 year recording career, the breadth, diversity and inventory and not least, originality of their songs is simply unbeatable. Yes better than The Beatles (whom I love, incidentally).
From Swindon, a mid-size industrial town and railway hub in the heart of England’s countryside, approximately halfway between London and Bristol. along the M4 corridor.
Such a great place that even Gilbert O’Sullivan once chose to live there.
It has a famous roundabout, not for the faint-hearted, and I’ve travelled there a few times to watch the local Robins Speedway team. I remember the fans were not the nicest there to away teams and there was quite a high percentage of men with moustaches, which is an immediate red flag..
It’s never been a great centre for the live music circuit, although I do remember Kings Of Leon and The Stranglers playing there amongst others
Surrounded by very English rolling hills. and chalk outlines of horses etc. and not far from Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford or Reading, it’s not an unpleasant town by any stretch, without seeming over remarkable (no offence!).
Constant and busy gigging around London led to Virgin snapping up XTC, the same label who had eventually signed The Sex Pistols. Label mates also included the more akin The Motors. Branson’s record company had mainly built its success upon Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells a few years previously., but every major label was now busy snapping up the punk, new wave bands. Most bands with spiky hair and snarls were being courted.
The Keyboard led music of their 1978 debut , White Music, provided a launch pad for some of the best compositions ever put to tape.
Keyboards were a rarer commodity with the new wave; The Stranglers and Squeeze were also using them, but were already accomplished musicians who rode very successfully on the punk, new wave tide. In later days, being a fairly close neighbour, Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers would occasionally pop in to an XTC recording session. I think the two bands had mutual respect and would have played many of the same London venues in ’76, ’77 on the way up
For those of you who think they recorded two songs (yes those two) who might start listening out of curiosity, you’re in for a delightful surprise.
The punk / new wave era proved to be an ideal vehicle for the band to start getting the name across.
XTC , a perfect name really , not pronounced “ectasy”, but as it looks – X. T. C.
Initially with Andy Partridge, guitar , vocals and main songwriter, Colin Moulding, bass, vocals and songwriter, Barry Andrews, keyboards, vocals and songwriter. And Terry Chambers on drums,
White Music, although possibly taking on elements of Devo, Be Bop Deluxe, Sparks, Talking Heads etc, was original enough to influence many, even those who hadn’t realized they’d been influenced. This was London, New York, Swindon Hybrid. ( with a little Akron, Wakefield thrown in).
Whilst Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watch Tower‘ is possibly one of rock music’s ultimate cover versions, XTC decided to put their own stamp on the song. To this day one of only a couple or so cover versions they ever recorded. On listening to it now, it’s just as original and more ‘out there’ than the Hendrix version and like most, if not all XTC’s recordings still sounds every bit as fresh to this day.
Although a very fast tempo, choppy record, songs like ‘I’m Bugged‘ took other directions, whilst ‘Statue of Liberty‘ and ‘Science Friction‘ would become a benchmark for future recordings.
GO 2 , their second offering was never the most popular with most fans and was written quickly, as The Difficult Second Album often is. Many bands would kill for this being their best album, not one rather unfairly tagged as their worst, but hey? If you’re going to have your runt of the litter, get it out of the way early.
‘Are You Receiving Me‘ was perhaps not their most acclaimed single, but as a document of songs recorded at the time of that album (a single added later), it shows just how good most of it was, very of the times and could well have been handled by bands such as Wire with great aplomb. ‘Crowded Room‘ and ‘Beatown‘ could have graced any decent album of similar ilk.
It has to be said that when the majority of bands sign a recording contract, not only is it signed with a lot of bombastic naivety, it’s also usually done when a band has at least enough material for an album; that album is usually recorded fairly cheaply and rushed out and certainly if it performs well enough, then the record company will press almost immediately for a second album – in the case of White Music and GO 2, in the same year – a band then finds themselves under pressure to write and produce fresh material without the prior luxury of touring and testing those songs for several months, even years in some cases. For Go2 it was all hands on deck.
This album also marked the departure of Keyboard player Barry Andrews (to form Shriekback). Andrews had composed a couple of reasonable songs on the GO2 album. Who knows where the band would have gone if he’d stayed, but no doubt it would have been a different band. At the time Andy Partridge was known to have been thinking. (“Shit, what do I do now?”
Well what he did was completely change the band demographic by bringing in local boy Dave Gregory in time for their third offering, Drums and Wires. Dave ‘could’ play keyboards but was chiefly brought in as a lead guitarist. Although Andy is an accomplished enough guitar player himself, boy this guy can play. Not only that, he had a guitar collection just big enough so that most XTC songs would never sound similar. He would also come up with some of the bands string arrangements. The first release involving Dave was a single. Colin’s ‘Life Begins at The Hop‘, preceding the album, but not initially included, the song itself being more colourful than the clear vinyl I eagerly snapped up from Revolver Records, now long gone in Leicester. I’m not sure how much of a debt it owed to Danny and the Juniors, but it helped put the band on Top of the Pops and mainstream radio.
Songs such as the guitar led ‘Real by Reel‘ became a perfect show opener. The lovely bouncy ‘Helicopter’ above any of the hits became a favourite of my daughter after I chose it on a mix cd to introduce her to the charms of the band. Try NOT to bounce around to that song.
Other great songs such as ‘Chain of Command‘, ‘Day in Day out‘ and ‘When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty‘ certainly had one eye on the live circuit they still patrolled. It was on this album that Colin’s ‘Making Plans For Nigel‘ became one of the two songs the band are mainly known for and what a great song too. Colin has never been as prolific as Andy in views of song numbers, but his output is every bit as equal, the fact that, live, the band could switch between singers, being an added attraction and probably good for the band too. There is a similarity between an Andy and a Colin song. Both got better with age and wisdom too, but were no slouches to begin with either. Already on this album, the richness, the textures and the variety of flavours on the menu were beginning to look Michelin Star.
By the time of Black Sea, the little subtleties added by Dave were shining through, sprinkled upon the great songs written by Andy and Colin. Colin again managed to come up with another staple in ‘Generals and Majors‘, but Black Sea was a chocolate box fit for an ambassador. Andy has often disowned ‘Sgt Rock (Is Going to Help Me)‘ as being heavy handed and clumsy. A song which meant well, but didn’t come across so. Listen Andy, when you’re a 16 year old male listening to this song, it resonates. No one with intelligence mistook that song other than the 99% of us male teenagers wondering why girls were just unapproachable, and wishing we had the key to open the secret box containing all their secrets and thoughts
It was what The Undertones were doing so well on virtually every song, and even now that is such a great song about our male insecurities which we still harbour.
What an album Black Sea was in respect for Instant Tunes aimed at the live market. ‘Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)‘ was a real standout and must have been great fun live.
One of the band’s stadium anthems, if stadiums had been their thing. A song written all about the evils and virtues of currency. ‘Burning With Optimism’s Flames‘ was already an example of the perfect pop song. What a great title, and a statement I wish could be true to feel, just once in life at least.
It was also around this period that they came up with ‘The Somnabulist‘. If I want to relax my troubled mind in bed, then this is one of the GO 2 (see what I did there?) tunes on my much treasured Alexa. A Ramones song it isn’t. It showed, even if shyly buried on a B-Side, what the band could do by slowing down the gears and heading off down a different country lane at 3am. ‘Respectable Street‘, I would think very much written from a suburban Swindon viewpoint, even resulted in a BBC ban. No band worth their salt didn’t have a BBC ban in those days. Not for the mention of abortions or sex positions, may I add, but for the use of a plug for Sony Entertainment Centres. It’s fine for a neighbour to throw up over your fence, but sneaky advertisments are a no no.
I must also point out Terry’s powerhouse and articulate drumming and percussion. Although Terry Chambers was perhaps an unsung member of the band at times, he must be one of the most under rated sticksmen of all time, Listen to ‘Travels in Nihilon‘ or the later ‘It’s Nearly Africa‘. That man has a serious ability to play drums. It’s the rhythm of those tracks which MAKE them.
Many regard English Settlement, the fifth album as the band’s finest; I hold the view of liking all of the albums, but think they got better and better. They simply brought out one classic after another. Even if not always appreciated as much at the time. Certainly when you listen, again, the variety is remarkable. ‘No Thugs in Our House‘ was almost a throwback to Drums and Wires in its punk like mannerisms. What a little sod Graham was. I wonder what happened to him? Can you shed any light Andy?
‘Runaways‘ and ‘Jason and the Argonauts‘ transport you to far off places. ‘Yacht Dance‘ with its Kinksy Englishness, ‘Knuckle Down‘, ‘Down in the Cockpit‘, ‘Fly on the Wall‘, the band were writing Champions League material. The fact that I can type ‘Down in the Cockpit‘ and some people can’t instantly hum that is a travesty to me, but they CAN hum ‘Octopus’s Garden‘.
It was also Andy’s turn to write the other XTC song which everybody’s heard of, ‘Senses Working Overtime‘, the perfect pop song , which received plenty of airplay and won a few more fans. Not an advertisement or swear word to be heard, just lemons and limes.
I do believe that they were working with a record company who didn’t really have an appreciation of the treasure they owned though. XTC were not flouncing around on yachts like Duran Duran, despite the occasional slightly awkward looking appearance in Smash Hits or on Top of the Pops performing to kids who wanted to see Wham!
Sadly as a possible result or consequence of this, the next gorgeous offering Mummer was not the success desired.
Despite the again feast of great songs on offer, ‘Beating of Hearts‘ this time almost transporting us to the far east, ‘Human Alchemy‘ with its accompanying, almost disturbing shaman style video, showing us what goes on in Wiltshire when we’re not looking. I feel the best song from this time only made it as a B Side, ‘Gold‘ was better than anything on the album and possibly didn’t quite fit. If promoted properly it should have been a high charting single. It almost had that Haircut 100 feel – good early 80’s floppy hairstyle bravado about it. If I could go back in time and pull strings , I’d love to see what could have been with that song. But in languished on the B Side of ‘Great Fire‘, a song mentioning animals panicking at the zoo, during a fire. A song which is quite possibly about the fear we have before falling in love and usually making a big mess of things. A bloody good song, but should have been a double A. ‘Gold‘, is a humdinger.
I feel that everything happens for a reason. I’m not sure, as mentioned before, whether mega stardom would have suited the band. Certainly Andy, who can remain a national treasure without being swamped at the garden centre.
It was on Album number 6, The Big Express that ‘I Remember the Sun’ appeared, A song where the band really let loose and showed what they were now capable of.
‘Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her‘, for those male moments where you should have taken your chance but were scared of the inevitable rejection, this song adding yet another storey to the Diverse skyscraper standing tall in Swindon Old Town. ‘This World Over‘ had an almost Police like rhythm to it, a band they had supported and lead singer Sting had called the earlier ‘This is Pop‘, the perfect single
The band’s stint as alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphear must also receive plaudits, masquerading as a long lost 60s psychedelic band and mimicking every quality British band of that era; the songs they produced, mainly on 60’s era equipment, were just sublime. Without prior knowledge, the discerning listener, on first hearing, would be deceived into thinking this was the best sixties band they’d never heard. Songs such as ‘25 O’ Clock‘ perfectly echo many freakbeat or garage nuggets , whilst ‘You’re a good Man Albert Brown‘ should have been on the first Pink Floyd album. I think Dave in particular would have loved this project. What a great idea it was. It also gave the band license to maybe go to places even XTC couldn’t .or weren’t allowed.
On the Todd Rundgren produced Skylarking, I really feel the band hit top form with so many great songs to choose from – ‘Big Day‘ is another gem from Colin.
I very much know the hurt of unrequited love. It’s the worst pain, I never managed to get married. ‘Big Day‘ hits straight to the heart of the fear, the anticipation and the bravery of marriage. Finding that one person you love enough to pluck up the courage to ask them to take that step with you. The sheer joy or the total despair of said rejection. This song can tweak your emotions without doubt, even by their immaculate standards, one from the very top drawer. I would often follow this one with ‘Gold‘ on my mix tapes, just to give me something to listen to equally as good straight after.
‘Earn Enough For Us‘ is quite beautiful and is a perfect follow up to ‘Big Day‘. We’re married, now the pressure’s on, I’ve got to earn, pay the bills, not let my wife down. Written by Andy and showcasing the everyday struggles and fears of most men going through humiliation at work rather than not earn. Of the times and before the present regime started forcing young mums back to work and children back up chimneys. Another perfect song. ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages‘ is along the same thread. With almost a day’s long gone rural feeling to it. Jethro Tull anyone?
The faintly controversial and provocative ‘Dear God‘ also appeared (eventually) on this album and although not apparently autobiographical, most of us could perhaps empathise with this and wonder what occurrences of the time pointed Andy to pen this great song. And it really is a great song and should be heard with an open mind. It may have even resulted in someone burning a cd in Georgia. The ghost of The Beach Boys, not for the first and certainly not the last time, emerged on ‘Season Cycle‘. However it was still very much an XTC song. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul‘, with its light jazz ensemble feel, was again another flavour of ice cream in the parlour, and the band were a million miles from the band who ten years or so earlier had been almost a part of the London pub rock scene (no slur on that). ‘Ballet For a Rainy Day‘, ‘Grass‘ (‘ooh hey nooo oh er missus’ in Frankie Howerd voice), ‘The Meeting Place‘, ‘One Thousand Umbrellas‘… I could go on. Again this is another album which is often cited as their best by fans. By this time Terry Chambers had left the band – XTC had stopped touring, and Chambers still wanting very much to play live. A permanent replacement was never recruited. The various session men utilized all doing sterling work.
By the end of the 80s the band were still going strong, improving, and had plenty of gas left in the tank. Oranges and Lemons being positive proof of this.
‘Mayor of Simpleton‘ again showed Andy’s ability to write about most men and our feelings. I may not be the most gifted man on the planet, but I love you and I’ll give my all. I may not have everything, but here is the grocery money in the palms of my bleeding hands. ‘King For a Day‘ is perhaps my pick on the album. A Colin tune with a gorgeous melody and another everyday wish we all have of being able to shine just for one day. ‘Scarecrow People‘ just flows so brilliantly and again, like most of their work, sounds like nothing before. No mean feat. There is a great YouTube video of this, with Partridge, Moulding and Gregory sitting with acoustic guitars on a TV set, looking very Crosby, Stills & Nash.
‘Chalkhills and Children‘ is just a thing of beauty, again resonating so well, The Beach Boys return. This was Andy going home and trying to come to terms with things, the things which comforted him, his kids and the famous chalkhills of his native Wiltshire. One of at least a dozen XTC songs which make every sense tingle and eyes water. It really is a splendid album.
Other standouts include the North African sounding ‘Across This Antheap‘, ‘Miniature Sun‘, ‘The Loving‘…it’s a sign of absolute quality when you write about a band and don’t even mention many standout songs which 99% of bands would sell their grannies for. Yet there was EVEN better to come…
Nonsuch was to become their only real output until almost the end of the 90’s as the impasse between band and record company, Virgin, resulted in what basically became a ‘strike’.
Ill feelings were not helped by the withdrawal of the beautiful ‘Wrapped in Grey‘ single. ‘The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead‘ transferred Andy’s basic suspicion and contempt from the religious circles of ‘Dear God‘, to the political and New World order we still find today, and probably always will. Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks was recruited, along with the usual three suspects, Andy, Colin and Dave. It was 1992 by now, but they were still managing to chart albums in the lower echelons of the top 30, still a good achievement in those times.
‘War Dance‘ is a particular standout, a Colin Moulding composition of the highest calibre. Moulding excelled himself on this album with some of the best songs he’d written to date. Slightly reminiscent of The Beloved for some reason, a band who’d come into their own a couple of years earlier, ‘War Dance‘ also could be a distant cousin of Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding‘, with its focus set on the modern wars of the time, possibly the first or at least a very rare use of a (simulated) clarinet in an XTC song. Mattacks’ skills were utilized throughout the album and he brought a new dimension into proceedings, being able to use the benefit of a wealth of experience. ‘The Disappointed‘ again approached the very real emotion of rejection. Let’s form a club and meet at my house. It worked well as a single, but by this time their singles weren’t pulling up any trees and Virgin were not exactly jumping through fire to promote them.
Humble Daisy, I feel, is almost a prequel to the tour de force albums to come just in to the next millennium. The same could be said for ‘Holly Up On Poppy‘, a song written about Andy’s daughter and her pony. I feel a real affinity with Andy, I feel he is proud of the loving family man role. A role that’s never been easy to perform in music land. The very ordinary nature of this modest and humble man is refreshing.
Colin’s ‘The Smartest Monkeys‘ is truly wonderful and a sarcastic dig at human falliabilities. There is a B-side of Colin’s from this period called ‘Down a Peg‘, which was released in demo form, but I absolutely love that song. I’d love to see a finished, polished version. ‘Bungalow‘ was Colin’s pièce de résistance. It perhaps wasn’t expected to make any real impact, buried down in the album, but it’s such a lovely song, based on childhood holiday memories and probably the old fashioned British dream of retiring to a house at the seaside. It’s an absolute gem. One of XTC’s very best songs and something you wouldn’t have seen with a crystal ball as you listened to the brilliant White Music. However, unbelievably there was even better on this album, a song so good that we should be welcomed into heaven by a choir of angels singing this song – ‘Wrapped in Grey‘ was, in song form, that feeling you get when you first realise you’re in love with the stunning long haired blonde who’s just smiled and stolen your heart forever. That feeling you get when you’re walking hand in hand on the beach with the love of your life, the stars are bright and the waves softly caress the sand. It was the absolute epitome of a master composer on peak form, again owing a nod to the Beach Boys’ harmonies, but golly gosh, it was better than anything even troubled genius Brian Wilson ever composed. Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel in aural form, It is debatable whether Wilson was over delighted about the occasional foray into his territory, but tough. The world needed ‘Wrapped in Grey‘, yet there was one or two even better songs waiting in the wings to surface an agonizing 7 years later.
By the new millennium XTC had left Virgin and had decided to create their own label. Idea Records, distributed through Cooking Vinyl, meaning that the band had full control of releases, song rights etc. It also meant funding them too, no easy task for a band who hadn’t made anything like the money they’d richly deserved. Andy’s trust and faith in others hadn’t exactly paid dividends. The band were by no means destitute, but they weren’t buying islands next to Richard Branson’s either.
Without the blazing fanfare of previous albums or even the half-hearted promotion Virgin had eventually resorted to, and without the huge benefit of a major, but with the freedom the released shackles offered, the band went into the studio. Enough material was recorded to easily fill a double album, one with more orchestral type songs and another with a guitar based and uptempo feel. Financial restraints meant a double album wasn’t possible. Andy wanted to take a step on from the mixed pot of Nonsuch, whilst Dave argued that another mixed pot was the best idea. In the end two albums were released and sadly, the amicable and highly talented Dave Gregory departed the band. However seeing as he’d already worked on many little parts for the album these were retained by Andy. So it was at this point that XTC meets The Wombles was released (Sorry more on that later).
For my own sense of purpose, I’m grouping Apple Venus and Wasp Star together, the yin and the yang, the sugar and salt, the black and the white. These – and this is open to obvious and loud debate – are the best albums the band released; certainly Apple Venus anyway, but Wasp Star is not far behind.
Let’s also take a moment to mention the cover art. Every XTC release maintained a high standard for this, even the cheeky written artwork for GO2 was striking enough. None of the art was uniformed or serialized, but AV and WS were similar in design and Apple Venus, especially, was stunning, visually. Apple Venus was a tribute to Women. Like many men of a creative nature, the admiration, respect and awe for the fairer sex is strong.
Now reduced to a duo consisting of songwriters Partridge and Moulding, they offered a helping of apple pie rich in flavour and generous with the double cream. There is NO weak track on Apple Venus, alongside London Calling, The Raven, Ocean Rain, Revolver, The Village Green Preservation Society, Led Zeppelin 4, Strangeways Here We Come, Red Roses For Me, Armed Forces, Machine Gun Etiquette and the other XTC releases, and many other of the best British albums of all time, this is the best. It beats the lot. A complete work of genius, flawless in every way, peerless in every way.
Lending a helping hand with some of the orchestral arrangements at Abbey Road studios, was no less than Mike Batt, multi talented stalwart of the music business and also Orinoco, lead singer of seventies rockers, The Wombles. If every other album had been a qualifying match and quarter and then semi-finals for the World Cup, then this was the final. A Final for which they saved the best performance and mullered Brazil 5.0 in THAT final..
XTC were always strong lyrically too; as in the chords and structure of their music, the lyrics wouldn’t always follow the higher/fire rules: “Really high, like a really high thing, say a Sunflower”. No one else would have written that. As for the songs, not only did some of their finest grace Apple Venus, but some of the finest anywhere. This was Lennon & McCartney on steroids. ‘Easter Theatre‘ hangs like the finest painting in the Louvre. I say painting because this song wasn’t written, it was painted. I urge you to listen to it.
‘Frivolous Tonight‘ is a lovely song, finely crafted and a fine appetizer before the lengthy ‘Green Man‘, whereas ‘Your Dictionary‘ is probably the best song ever written to illustrate a man hurt by a woman: “H.A.T.E. – is that how you spell love in your dictionary?“.
‘I Can’t Own Her‘…. What can I say? (I take a moment)
It’s not only XTC’s best song, even surpassing ‘Wrapped in Grey‘, It’s quite possibly the best song ever written. The passionate, almost holy longing of the mere man who has everything, except the one thing he wants. The realisation (again) of unrequited love. The most powerfully destructive emotion a human can suffer, unrelenting torture that doesn’t fade or ease. But “I Can’t own her and I never will“… the bitter realization closes in under a swirling sky. The build up, the lyrics, the harmonies…everything on this song brings it all home…and then some. Mike Batt played a blinder arranging this. This will be played at my funeral. I carry this song in my heart. Thanks Andy.
‘The Last Balloon‘ finishes what, I suppose, to me personally is not only a great record, but also, in places a little melancholy. Maybe that was the idea?. Most good music exists to make you feel something. As mentioned, originally this was meant to be a double. Maybe ‘The Last Balloon‘ was metaphorical and originally a goodbye of sorts.
The release of Wasp Star a few months or so later, proved to be the real ‘last balloon’. In some quarters this wasn’t received so well, and I fail to understand that.
The orchestra is replaced by guitars, the tempo is upped slightly, but the songs are again some of the finest they ever produced. Reasonably simple song structures that were built on to create some lovely work. ‘We’re All Light‘ is a standout for me. Almost a new take on ‘Senses Working Overtime‘. It’s a cheerful song and during the dark and uncertain times we’ve faced in 2020 has managed to put a little joy in my heart. In this new dark age, we’re all light. ‘Church of Women‘ again is Andy admiring the sheer beguilement of the opposite sex. Men are fascinated by women, many more times than the other way around. Let’s celebrate women and all their complex emotions, their caring and nurturing ways. Let’s celebrate the existence of the greater sex.
‘Playground‘ explains how you take yourself out of school, but school stays with you for life. Basically life IS School. You can’t jump off once the page is turned, marked by the masters and bruised by the bullies for life if you let them push you around in the Playground. It starts the album off in fine fettle and then gets even better with the lovely
‘Stupidly Happy‘. Almost a sarcastic song about leading the perfect life not many of us ever find. I can’t listen to it without smiling. A perfect and simple pop song.
Flicking through these two albums and contrasting the songs against each other is just like opening the finest bag of magic, a wonderful box of coloured marbles or a fine palette of paints.
Colin comes up trumps with ‘In Another Life’, or Confessions of a bass player perhaps? Would you want me in your afternoon if I seduced you in your Mills and Boon, I’ll be the master if you’ll be the maid.. It’s all In Another Life though, sadly. I’ll take your mood swings if you take my hobbies. I couldn’t put it better than that.
XTC bowed out with ‘The Wheel and the Maypole‘, a great uptempo song and one fitting enough to bow out with.
This was 20 years ago.
So what is it/ What is it about XTC which makes them simply the best British band of all time?
Mainly it’s quality. Let’s break that down, although some of you haven’t heard many of these songs, quite simply the amount and strength of great songs over each album was amazing. As creative as The Beatles with more original songs. They continued to improve with every album. Andy and Colin wrote songs without the pressure of expectation of The Beatles or The Stones to a lesser extent, but without the financial power of them either. In other words They had to produce Crufts winners bought from the pet shop.
Tracks such as ‘I Can’t Own Her‘ (possibly, as previously mentioned my favourite song of all time along with My Morning Jacket’s Dondante) and ‘Wrapped In Grey‘ were better and had more passion and said so much. Written by lads from the estates, the suburbs, not unlike myself, who did see the fairy tale Princess as being unreachable or love being something that is snatched away and leaves you with a hole where your heart once was. I can unashamedly well up to those songs.
‘Bungalow‘, wow, Had Colin gone further and added a couple of minutes to that , it could have been the best song ever written. There should be earnest and wistful British movies based around that song. These guys wouldn’t admit it, but they have written masterpieces, works of genius. The fact they lost their record deal after these, shows everything which is wrong about the music industry. Ditto the fact that they were ripped off and never received payment for any live performances. But I’m not sure if living in Wiltshire castles would have helped their songwriting. I’ve sadly never met any of them, but there is a reality to them. If I met Andy, I’d spend more time talking about old board games and collecting stuff, Dave about guitars and bands from the sixties and Colin about the best places to fish. Terry, about his travels and how the hell are his arms still hanging on their sockets?!!!
Will they ever treat us to a morally boosting return? That remains to be seen. Relations between various members soured, which is a great shame. All of them are decent human beings. It would be lovely if a compromise to any conflict could be worked out and bygones left to be bygones. Life is too short and XTC produced too much beautiful work for its collaborators to be at loggerheads. I hope one or two of them can pick up a phone and say ‘Hey’ I understand your reasons.
All 4 of them are still remaining creative and playing in various forms: Colin and Terry with each other as TC & I. Dave has played with Big, Big Train amongst others. Andy has recently worked with Robyn Hitchcock. The stage fright which saw the band stop playing live maybe still haunts him. However, times have changed dramatically so who knows? We can hope. It perhaps could have been forgotten what a great live act they were. If budget permitted, the thought of AV and WS songs, Nonsuch etc, being performed on a summer evening at Blenheim Palace is a thought I can’t shift.
Sometimes the brightest diamonds are not found in the most obvious places. We were lucky to have them. I’m lucky I can dig up and listen to those little golden truffles over and over.
So for depth, variation and sheer volume of great songs for 25 years, Ladies and Gentlemen…
XTC, THE BEST BRITISH BAND OF ALL TIME.