REMEMBERING XTC

senses

There’s a terrific little song from the late Ian Dury called There Aint Half Been Some Clever Bastards in which a number of folk from the entertainment industry are given a loving name check. I’d like to think that if anyone was around willing to update the song, they would have a go at including the name of Andy Partridge.

He is of course best known as the guitarist and main songwriter for XTC. However, he’s also recorded songs under a string of aliases and worked with dozens of other acts either as producer, songwriter or performer. Away from music, he’s been an agony-aunt on a Radio 1 show, a panelist on quiz shows and he’s written a series of comedy sketches that have appeared on television in the UK. Oh and in doing some more research, I learned that he’s also had an uncredited one-off appearance as a cricket commentator in the cartoon series Family Guy.

Not bad for a guy who suffered from such appalling stage-fright that he insisted his band give up touring just as they were becoming famous – a decision which in all likelihood cost them a place at the top table of the very best of British pop groups as the opportunities to grow the fan base was limited to radio and the odd TV appearance.

And yet it may have been the ability to concentrate entirely on studio output rather than a live sound that made XTC so special to so many people as they released one excellent album after another over a fifteen-year period up to the early 1990s. And every album produced at least one humdinger of a single, even if many of them failed to trouble the higher echelons of the charts.

They first came to prominence in late 1979 with Making Plans For Nigel, a song on which the lead vocals were taken by bassist Colin Moulding, thus leading many newcomers to thinking that he and not Partridge was the main driving force behind XTC. The two follow-up singles in the early months of 1980, Ten Feet Tall and Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down were Partridge compositions and vocals, but both flopped. At this point in time, it would have been fair to think that the band could have quietly faded away having enjoyed their brief flirt with fame.

But later that year came the release of the LP Black Sea, a truly stunning and wonderful piece of work of which just about any of the 11 tracks could have been a hit single. In the end, four singles were released by Virgin Records, of which the biggest hit was, at long-last, a Partridge number – Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)

With no tours to concern them, the band were soon back at work in the studio with Partridge promising that the next LP would be the one they would be best remembered for. The first taste of what was to come appeared in January 1982, with the release of the single Senses Working Overtime, which went Top 10. The LP followed a month later. Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to Partridge’s pre-release claims.

Maybe the problem was that it was a double LP which was a bit of a rarity in the post-punk days (London Calling notwithstanding), with some songs stretching out to over six minutes in length, which again was unusual for the period in question. The follow-up singles Ball and Chain, and No Thugs In Our House also flopped.

Never slow to cash in on one of their acts having some time in the limelight, Virgin Records put out Waxworks, a collection of singles spanning 1977-1982 just in time for the Xmas market.

The band then recorded and released the LPs Mummer in 1983, The Big Express in 1984 and Skylarking in 1986 to little or no fanfare. But 1987 saw another upturn in their fortunes with the song Dear God, which began life as a b-side but was later resurrected as a single (shades of The Smiths and How Soon Is Now?). This period coincided with MTV in America picking up on the band, and the 1989 double LP Oranges and Lemons, as well the singles King For A Day and The Loving sold as well as anything in their career.

Another double LP, Nonsuch, was released in 1992 at which point in time the band fell out with Virgin Records. As a consequence, it would take until 1999 before the next XTC album came out, although the intervening period was filled with yet more collections of hits and rarities.

I’m a big fan of just about any of the singles XTC released between 1977 and 1992. They were lyrically clever and the tunes were more often than not different from most of the pop fodder that was kicking around. Neither did the band didn’t stick with one particular sound throughout that period in time.

My favourite single of theirs is that top 10 hit from 1982 :-

mp3 : XTC – Senses Working Overtime

I love the really quiet acoustic opening and the gradual build-up in tempo and sound all the way to Andy Partridge calling out 1-2-3-4-5 and then the infectious chorus. There’s just so much to enjoy in this song with all sorts of instrumentation going on in the background. It’s fantastically produced and it has aged magnificently.  Indeed, it’s such a tremendous song that it deserves to feature here on its own and not have any of the other great XTC singles alongside to distract you.

Enjoy.

13 thoughts on “REMEMBERING XTC

  1. No disrespect to the Moz, who I love, but putting him next to XTC is a tad cruel. As you rightly point out, they were a killer singles band, and a number of the albums are equally and consistently brilliant: Drums and Wires my favourite, but I agree with you on the merits of Black Sea, too.

  2. Their comeback lp apple Venus is my favourite. Its gorgeous , full of wonderful harmonies and layered sounds. At the risk of going all music journalist wank , pure chamber pop . It also has his bitterest lyric in your dictionary about his divorce

  3. Always loved This Is Pop! but Making Plans For Nigel was my intro to the band as a young lad and finding it in amongst my cousin John’s sizable record collection. I’ll probably get crucified for this, but… I find some of their stuff to be rather corny and can’t listen to it in great measures. Sorry.

    I’ll get me coat…

  4. Nice to hear someone else who has problems with “English Settlement.” It’s just too scattered and diffuse for my ears. It’s an XTC album that I rarely find myself listening to in spite of my esteem for the big hit single, which is always welcomed by my ears. I may have liked it more had I purchased the US edited down LP instead of the UK version. I found that “Mummer” blew it away for my ears. That was an album full of intrigue that consistently pulled me into it. “Mummer” sounds like nothing else I can name. But “Black Sea?” Yeah, it’s practically a greatest hits album!

  5. XTC is one of my core bands. I got to see them 4 times through their last US Tour and they were a great live band, no matter how harrowing an experience it might have been for Partridge. Picking a favorite album is really difficult for me, but I think Drums And Wires, Black Sea and English Settlement are equally important to me and Apple Venus Vol. 1 stands up their equally with them. The beauty of English Settlement is that it is conceptual without ramming that concept down your throat. Partridge and Moulding honed their very English pastoral sound on this album and never really looked back. Black Sea is VERY English as well, in more of an updated Kinks sort of way, being full of stories and people which, I have to think, Ray Davies would have given his right arm to create around this time.

  6. If XTC had ended after “Oranges + Lemons” then they would have left an impeccable body of work, in my opinion. I was dealt a blow to the breadbasket by “Nonesuch.” I can’t say I cared much for it at all. Then the pointless war with Virgin effectively killed XTC. By the time that they released “Apple Venus” I was beyond caring. In fact, I still haven’t heard it. “Wasp Star” was good enough, but I don’t have those demo albums either. Nor did I bite on “Coat of Many Cupboards” or the endless series of Partridge demos.

  7. When I finally got to move on from my cheap cassette player and move on to my very cheap record player, the first single I bought was Senses Working Overtime on 12″. Magnificent. Love the birdsong! Contrary as I am my favourite album is Go2, followed closely by Drums and Wires.

  8. Way to go, Seamus! I like just about everything the band ever did, but I have a soft spot for the early records. And I’m going to give a shout out to the oft-forgotten Mr. Barry Andrews and his manic keyboards.

  9. Small world!!! Just put ‘Senses…’ onto a ‘mix’ CD for a friends before I opened up your blog. Hope you’re well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.