THE XTC SINGLES (Part 8)

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.

mp3 : XTC – Generals and Majors

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.

mp3 : XTC – Don’t Lose Your Temper
mp3 : XTC – Smokeless Zone
mp3 : XTC – The Somnambulist

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.

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 7)

It was something of a strange decision not to follow-up ‘Nigel’ with any other track from the LP Drums and Wires. This was partly down to XTC, like many of their peers, wanting to minimise the number of singles associated with any album, but it was also linked to something mentioned in a previous post, namely that loads of new material was being written at a fantastically quick rate thanks in part to the band now having, in effect, two principal songwriters.

This led to the a non-album single being the next UK release in March 1980.

mp3 : XTC – Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down

Despite being a decent enough track, albeit at more than four minutes in length a bit of an epic as far as the singles went, this latest effort failed to trouble the charts, thus becoming the fifth successive Andy Partridge composed 45 to suffer such a fate. It’s another fine and clever lyric in which the protagonist is offering sage advice to a female of the species predicting that while her looks, wit and charm have her currently floating in exalted circles within a new and upmarket social gathering, there will inevitably come a time when she will have to rely on old friends. The tune though is a wee bit clunky and that made it less than ideal for radio play and thus difficult to pick up on.

In contrast, the single came with a quality b-side:-

mp3 : XTC – Ten Feet Tall

The original version of Ten Feet Tall was, and still is, one of the best tracks on Drums and Wires. It was the first mid-tempo love song that the band had recorded and was a pointer to where they could go in the future once the fad for new-wave had worn off (as it was already threatening to do).

The label thought that a re-recorded version with more electric rather than acoustic guitars would work as a single, primarily for an American market. And so the band re-cut the song and it was released in the USA where it sunk without trace but made available for UK fans as the b-side. If more had been made of the fact that it was a new recording – perhaps indeed going as far as making it a double-A side with the likelihood of airplay – then maybe it wouldn’t have been a flop.

I say this with a bit of conviction in that I didn’t buy Wait Till Your Boat Comes Down at the immediate time of release – I had seen copies in the shop but was, at a time when value had to be sought from any purchases, shied away as the b-side looked like it was the album version. Nothing on the sleeve indicated otherwise unless you looked closely a the name of the producer in small print. A wasted opportunity but then again, a bargain bin copy at half-price just a few weeks later was a personal consolation of sorts.

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 6)

At last, at last, at last. A hit single in September 1979. It reached #17.

mp3 : XTC – Making Plans For Nigel

Jonny the Friendly Lawyer said this when he included it within an XTC ICA a while back:-

One of the band’s best known and loved songs, but what is it about, exactly? Parents planning their child’s future? A comment on English society’s emphasis on steady employment? Never been able to work that out, but I do love this number.

Colin Moulding has said it is semi-autobiographical in that his parents weren’t sure about his efforts to pursue a career as a musician and tried to persuade him to remain at school and get enough qualifications to go to university.

Lyrically, it was a brilliantly timed song. The British Steel Corporation (BSC), for so long a cornerstone of the UK economy at a national and many local levels, was now in deep financial trouble and making huge losses, largely from the fact that the more modern plants elsewhere in Europe and further afield could easily supply the products to manufacturers much more cheaply. Nigel, or indeed anyone, didn’t appear to have too much of a future,and indeed there soon followed a high number of plant closures in the early 80s that put tens of thousands of men out of work and with few prospects.

But having said all that it is the tune that was responsible for the single getting loads of airtime and leading to enough sales to finally propel the band into the charts. I think that has a lot to do with the sound of the drums which were quite unusual for the time in question as well as the nagging riff that once heard isn’t easy to forget….in a good way!!  Oh,  and it’s worth mentioning that the single edit is some 20 seconds shorter than that which would appear later on Drums And Wires.

Two tracks on the b-side, one being the second in the Homo Safari set of tunes referred to last time out:-

mp3 : XTC – Bushman President

The other is a short 90-second track that has a catchy, infectious riff but sort of feels a bit like a demo that never really developed much:-

mp3 : XTC – Pulsing, Pulsing

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 5)

A few things worth noting.

This April 1979 release was the first A-side that was written by Colin Moulding.

It was the first song on which Dave Gregory played having come in as replacement guitarist for founder member Barry Andrews who had left after the release of Go2.

It was the first XTC single to make the charts, reaching #44.

mp3 : XTC – Life Begins At The Hop

It’s an autobiographical number, telling the story of the bass player’s teenage years where the highlight of his week was getting along to the dance that was held every Saturday night in a local church hall.

Funnily enough, although this isn’t an XTC song that I’m all that fond of, I too have great memories as a 14-16 year old going along with my mates from school to a local church hall for a weekly disco on Sunday evenings (7-10pm). Not too many of the songs I was listening to and subsequently buying would get played at the disco but it was something to do in a crowd in a safe environment and going along sort of helped to increase confidence around girls. Sort of.

My issue with the song is probably that it veered too much on the poppy side of things and didn’t feel nearly as worthy as the earlier flops. Still, it did raise their profile a bit further, including a debut appearance on Top of The Pops and helped pave the way for what would happen next.

The b-side was a very strange affair:-

mp3 : XTC – Homo Safari

It was the first of what proved eventually to be a series of six experimental instrumentals, composed by Andy Partridge, that would appear on singles over the coming years.

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 4)

For a band that had suffered a series of hard-to-justify flops, the title and cover of the fourth XTC single is just genius.

XTC were ridiculously prolific in 1978, recording and releasing the album Go2 a mere six months after the debut. The album quickly became noted for the distinctive and unusual sleeve which consisted of a lengthy and witty essay printed in white text against a very black background. You get the gist from the opening few sentences:-

This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to pick it up. When you have done that maybe you’ll be persuaded to listen to the music – in this case XTC’s Go 2 album. Then we want you to BUY it. The idea being that the more of you that buy this record the more money Virgin Records, the manager Ian Reid and XTC themselves will make. To the aforementioned this is known as PLEASURE.

The press release to accompany the album was designed in a similar style to the cover. The opening few sentences are superb:-

This is a record company biography which, unlike a real biography, tells you only what is convenient for you to know. Its style and appearance, which will be applauded by some as iconoclastic and dismissed by others as pretentious, corresponds closely to that on the cover of XTC’s new album ‘Go 2’. Its function is to provide information about the group for the recipient, usually a journalist, to employ when writing about them. Often, a biography exceeds that function by expressing carefully programmed opinions in persuasively vacuous biz-speak. This provides the company representative with some vague sense of purpose and the journalist with an opportunity to paraphrase the results without recourse to such tiresome activities as thought, the eventual intention being that the public should view the band exactly as wished by their record company.

It ends with the information that the 13 new songs on Go2 will be followed by an additional two songs as a single, before helpfully stating:-

Adjectives employed most frequently when describing XTC are ‘attractive’, ‘energetic’, ‘unique’, ‘bizarre’, ‘addictive’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘inventive’.

So here we go with the attractive, energetic, unique, bizarre, addictive, intelligent and inventive tale of unrequited love that was the 4th single, along with its b-side:-

mp3 : XTC – Are You Receiving Me?
mp3 : XTC – Instant Tunes

It flopped….but it did get decent reviews!

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 3)

Two monumentally good bits of music had failed to provoke any interest in the record buying public. Nor had the debut LP, White Music, exactly set the heather alight.

The good news from the band’s perspective is that they had a record label who believed in their abilities and a number of champions within the music press consistently praising the records and giving positive reviews to the live shows.

It was the record company bosses who suggested that one of the tracks off the debut LP should be re-recorded for release as the third single. The band was teamed up with a different producer – RJ (Mutt) Lange – who at the time was relatively unknown but had some new wave credentials thanks to his work with The Boomtown Rats. As an aside, Lange would in later years become something of an uber-producer and make a fortune from his efforts with the likes of Billy Ocean, Bryan Adams and Shania Twain – but that probably don’t impress you much.

It has to be admitted however, that the results of what proved to be a one-off collaboration with XTC did result in one of the best non-hit singles of the era.

mp3 : XTC – This Is Pop?

It’s a fantastic lyric in which the point is made that, no matter the genre anyone ever tries to shoehorn a song into, if it becomes well-liked and celebrated (as was increasingly happening with punk and new wave) then by definition is has to be pop music being made by a pop band. It’s also a killer tune that somehow, once again, was ignored by mainstream radio on its release in April 1978.

Proof that Mutt Lange helped the band realise their potential can also be found in the two-minute ditty that was recorded for the b-side:-

mp3 : XTC – Heatwave

It’s not a cover of the Martha & the Vandellas song (as would be done by The Jam for the Setting Sons LP in 1979) but a Colin Moulding original which is far too catchy to have been wasted as a b-side. I don’t think I’m alone in reckoning it is similar in places to a big hit single from Elvis Costello & the Attractions.

JC

THE XTC SINGLES (Part 2)

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In early 1978, there was a fair bit of excitement in the music press around XTC with some journalists boldly claiming that they were the sort of band that would have a future beyond that of many of their peers thanks to their ability to knock out the sort of catchy, upbeat tunes that had been evidenced on their debut single and which were very much to the fore on the follow-up.

Only problem though, was that the BBC Radio 1 refused to play it for reasons that, 40 years on, seem ridiculously petty, especially given the lyrics that freely get aired nowadays.

As Andy Partridge later observed, “A certain radio station banned it for its ‘risqué’ line ‘I sailed beneath your skirt’, whilst they played ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ in which Lou Reed’s characters are busy shaving their legs, changing their sex and giving each other head.”

Indeed.

mp3 : XTC – Statue of Liberty (single edit)
mp3 : XTC – Hang On to the Night

The single is about 30 seconds shorter than the version later included on the debut LP White Music. The b-side is another very fine new-wave number that would have got any audience all hot and sweaty as they pogoed away down the front. The two tracks between them barely scrape four and a half minutes.

JC