And so we come to the era that most casual fans of XTC will be most familiar with – the singles that were lifted from the 1980 LP Black Sea. There were four in total in the UK between August 1980 and March 1981. There was also a further single, not on the album, which was released in November 1980 – but all of that will be covered in due course.
General and Majors predated the release of the LP by around five weeks. As we would later discover, there were loads of options for decent 45s but given that Colin Moulding had supplied the only two previous chart hits it was no surprise that Virgin Records went for one of his to lead things off.
An anti-military establishment rather than an anti-war song, it is one of those incredibly simple but effective tunes made memorable from a combination of catchy chorus (which Colin has always been quick to say was really a fine-tuning, by Andy Partridge, of a half-finished lyrical idea), fantastically fast and furious guitar work, whistling and humming. It had smash hit written all over it….but stalled at #32 despite a marketing campaign that saw the first 15,000 copies of the record be a double-single with tracks that would be unavailable on the parent LP.
The first is a rockin’ n’ rollin’ two and a half minutes of music that really got up hopes for the forthcoming LP. If something as fine sounding at this hadn’t made the cut then something special had to be coming down the line.
The second was a bit more experimental albeit it kept up the frantic face of the two songs that made up the standard 7″. It was about now that I began to think of XTC not simply as a new wave band but more in keeping with the tradition of greatly talented but occasionally eccentric English bands who made music that you couldn’t ever pigeon-hole.
The third song is the only one on the double-pack not produced by Steve Lillywhite; instead it is attributed to Andy Partridge. It’s a very strange and eerie piece of music that was totally unlike anything else the band had done before – it was almost as experimental as the sounds of the likes of Ultravox, Human League, Tubeway Army or those other weird synth-based groups who were never going to amount to anything.
I had no idea back then what a somnambulist was…I had to look it up. That it was an ode to a trance-like state for sleepwalkers sort of made sense with the tune. Truth be told, I hated it back in 1980 Far too refined for my 17 year old tastes. Nowadays, I think it’s a masterpiece. Oh and I’ve since learned, thanks to researching for this series that it pre-dated much of the Black Sea material as it was recorded as part of spare time left over in a BBC studio while making a Peel Session in March 1980.
Oh, also worth mentioning that the single version of Generals and Majors is about thirty seconds shorter than would appear on the subsequent LP.