Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radios In Motion

An end to all things XTC with the first song on White Music.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A documentary on White Music

Wrapping up XTC month with their first album White Music.

I more or less agree with this reviewer (with the exception of liking their cover of "All Along The Watchtower"). XTC's early singles like "Statue of Liberty", "This Is Pop?", and "Science Friction" (which wasn't on White Music but is on the reissued CD) showed that they were a cut above the rest of the British new wave out of the gate, but there's a big drop off between those three singles and the other tracks. Still, the level of energy and excitement stays constant through the entire album, which was recorded live in about as much time as it takes to listen to it. Their second album took even longer.

The original working title for this album was Black Music, but which was rejected by Virgin as it was thought the title might suggest a blues or soul album. This reminds me of this movie scene from the same year as White Music.

Ruttling Orange Peel: Yes Sir, I originated XTC, they got it all from me. Every single bit of it.
Narrator: Well, how do you mean?
Ruttling Orange Peel: Well Sir, they come here and they took everything I ever written. Those four guys from Swindon came here.
Mrs Peel: He's lying!
Ruttling Orange Peel: I ain't lying!
Mrs Peel: He's always lying!
Ruttling Orange Peel: I ain't lying!
Mrs Peel: Everytime there's a documentary on white music around here he claims he started it all.
Ruttling Orange Peel: I did, I did, I did!
Mrs Peel: Last week he claimed he started Everly Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Welk. He's always lying!

Friday, May 29, 2009

the minor fall, the major lift

I finished reading David Browne's Dream Brother today, a dual biography of Tim and Jeff Buckley, and discovered that today is the 12th anniversary of Jeff's death.

I picked up the book earlier this week at Half Price Books in Columbus, OH. I'm a sucker for rock biographies, and this book has two bios rolled into one. It's set up with alternating chapters about Tim and Jeff, and they both end up dying in the end, so it's kind of a sad tale. They had similar personalities, so a reader like me ends up hoping that they'll both pull through, knowing that they won't. It's like cheering for the coyote in Road Runner cartoons.

Musically, I'm more of a Tim Buckley fan than a Jeff Buckley fan. I got into his music through the posthumous Dream Letter album, and his first few albums are among my all time favorites. He kind of went off the deep end after that, and made a bunch of albums that were neither critical nor commercial successes, but was in the midst of a comeback when he died in 1975 at age 28. He was kind of a prickly pear as a person -- married twice, fathered one son by each wife, and wasn't close to either son. He also alienated his bandmembers and producers and record labels by being "difficult", compounded by alcohol and drug abuse.

Tim's son Jeff never knew his father (who left his Mom right after he signed with Elektra and moved to NYC), but made his name performing at a 1991 Tim Buckley tribute show in Brooklyn. He was billed as "Jeff Buckley" (even though he usually went by his middle name and mother's name -- Scott Moorhead), and he looked and sounded a lot like his late dad, and within a year he became the next big thing. He was signed by Columbia/Sony, and made just one album (Grace) before passing away at age 30, twelve years ago today.

Jeff was kind of a troubled soul as well, more aimless than assholish, but still troubled. Why would he choose to go swimming in the Mississippi River, fully clothed, at dusk? He ended up only releasing one studio album, because he had to be in the right mental frame to write and to record, and would constantly change arrangements and tempos and keys on every song even while recording it. He was amazingly talented, and had a wonderful singing voice, but I've never considered him as accomplished as his dad. Certainly not as prolific.

My favorite Jeff Buckley song is actually his cover of Leonard's "Hallelujah", which I consider to be the definitive version of that song, even though he learned it from John Cale's cover on I'm Your Fan. My favorite Tim Buckley song is "Song To the Siren", which I've posted about before. I didn't realize that Tim's performance was on the Monkees final episode. "Song To The Siren" was the Monkees' "It's a long way to Tipperary".

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Waxworks and Fossil Fuels

After listening through all their albums this month, I still think that the best introduction to XTC is one of their singles collections, like Waxworks or The Compact XTC or Upsy Daisy Assortment or Fossil Fuel. Nearly all of XTC's best songs were released as singles, so listening to a best-of collection is a nice way to get everything in one place.

My first XTC purchase was Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982, which collects nearly all of their singles thru English Settlement (with the notable exception of "Respectable Street"). It was a good introduction to the band, but was replaced in the CD age by The Compact XTC which expanded the set with six more singles from Mummer and The Big Express (but still no "Respectable Street").

Ten years later, Virgin put out a two disc set of all their singles for that label called Fossil Fuel, which replaced the others. This was condensed for the U.S. market to a single disc set called Upsy Daisy Assortment, which has nothing before Drums And Wires and includes notable album tracks like "Funk Pop And Roll" and "Earn Enough For Us" that were never released as singles.

Right now, I think Fossil Fuel is the one to get, which is lucky because it seems to be the only one that's currently in print. It includes nearly ever XTC song I feel like playing at any given point, and surpasses every other greatest hits album, but it's still weird to hear "Grass" by itself without "Summer's Cauldron" before it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Taking a Break

So Prop 8 was upheld while I was out of state this weekend. I guess it's nice that "activist judges" didn't overturn "the will of the people".

(Un)fortunately, their judgement doesn't invalidate the 18,000 gay marriages that were performed between the time the CA Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and the will of the people overturned it. This means that the ruling is ripe for a lawsuit by a gay couple citing preferential treatment for another gay couple who chose to get married a few months before they did.

Also, the state Constitution still allows "civil unions" for gay couples under the equal protection clause of the California Constitution, as long as they don't call their civil unions "marriage". Separate but equal. It's like 1896 all over again.

I predict that gay marriage will become a Statewide and Nationwide institution before the 2010 elections. You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wasp Star

Just two more XTC albums to go, their last one (Wasp Star) and their first one (White Music).

Wasp Star is the second of two volumes of Apple Venus, the six year backlash of material that XTC accumulated while they were on strike from Virgin between 1993-1998. It seems like all the best songs were on Apple Venus, because it feels like a fully realized album while Wasp Star feels like a batch of leftovers.

My two favorite songs on the album are the first two ("Playground" and "Stupidly Happy"), but everything after that sounds uneven and half baked. None of Colin Moulding's three songs are especially memorable, and Dave Gregory left during the sessons, so it's almost like an Andy Partridge solo album. Andy's songs on Apple Venus, Volume One are some of the best ones of his career, but few of the Wasp Star songs are up to that level.

"Stupidly Happy" is a catchy little single that should have been a hit single, but it doesn't sound very much like an XTC song to me.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

All Along The Watchtower

For Bob Dylan's birthday..

Friday, May 22, 2009


If I had to choose just one favorite XTC album, it would almost definitely be Skylarking, because that's the one album that they got 100% right. Much was made at the time, and since, about the friction between Andy Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren (one bunker, two fuhrers), but they combined to make a fabulous record. It's one of those albums I always play from start to finish, and have kept in regular rotation for 22+ years.

"Start to finish" in this case being the original 1986 running order (restored in the 2001 reissue) with "Mermaid Smiled" at track #11 and "Dear God" at the end as a pseudo bonus track. After "Dear God" started getting airplay as the b-side of "Grass", it was added to the album replacing "Mermaid Smiled". The problem was that the album was sequenced so each song segued into the next, so "Mermaid Smiled" fit perfectly after "Another Satellite", but "Dear God" sounded like another song spliced in the middle. And Skylarking isn't a very long album by XTC standards (just over 45 minutes) so I never understood the need to remove a song. Maybe so it would fit on a single LP (or one side of a 90 minute tape).

Anyway, before I had the reissued CD, I made a CDR of Skylarking with "Mermaid Smiled" at track #11 and "Dear God" put at the end with "Extrovert" and the other b-sides from "The Meeting Place" 12". I think "Dear God" really does fit on Skylarking, just at the end after "Sacrificial Bonfire".

For some reason, I always here this fading into "In God's Country" by U2 or "Wasteland" by the Mission UK ("I still believe in God..but God no longer believes in me").

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oranges and Lemons

"Raincoats roll and tumble together just like fruit tipped from a tray". These next few albums fall in reverse chronological as well as alphabetical order

Oranges & Lemons was XTC's first album after their U.S. breakthrough with Skylarking, and sounds like they were trying hard to crack the mainstream. The album was recorded in L.A. with producer Paul Fox (who went on to over-produce Robyn Hitchcock's Perspex Island) and various session musicians (like the drummer from Mr. Mister).

Twenty years later, parts of Oranges & Lemons sound as dated as the Jimmy Swaggart reference in "Merely a Man", but most of the songs are strong enough to shine through the gloss. Just like Nonsuch the album suffers from being a few songs too long, but unlike Nonsuch there aren't any obvious weak songs on Oranges & Lemons.

Back when the album came out, I tried to pare it down to one side of a 90 minute tape, because most of my listening (car and Walkman) was on cassettes. The usual ways to do this are to play the album from the start and let it end where it ends (before track #12 "Hold Me My Daddy") or to cut the longest songs. On Oranges & Lemons the final song ("Chalkhills and Children") is also the longest and strongest (IMO), so my definitive O&L is the first ten songs plus "Chalkhills", which fits perfectly on one side of a C90.

Colin's four songs on Oranges & Lemons are all top drawer, including "King For A Day". Here's XTC's first, last, and only appearance on American network TV, performing the song on the David Letterman Show in June 1989.

I have this performance on a videotape which also has Andy, Colin & Dave on "Postmodern MTV", playing a few songs live, and snarkily making fun of all the videos (including their own videos). This performance is also on the youtube.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Nonsuch is XTC's tenth album, and their last one before they went on strike against Virgin Records. I listened to the entire album today for the first time in awhile, and it's kind of exhausting to listen to all the way through. There are lots of good songs and performances, with great drumming by Dave Mattacks, but not enough to hold it together for 17 songs and 64 minutes. I have a similar problem with Oranges & Lemons.

Nonsuch has always been a challenge for me because I don't like its first song and single "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" (which has always struck me as XTC-lite) so the album always starts on the wrong foot. Then the second song (Colin's "My Bird Performs") is one of my favorites, and the third one ("Dear Madam Barnham") is okay, but the fourth one ("Humble Daisy") is less good. And so on and so forth. Somewhere there's a great ten song album hiding amongst the 17 songs of Nonsuch, but it's hard for me to get any listening momentum with it.

The last song on the album ("Books Are Burning") is one of the ten great songs though. Here's a BBC performance from XTC's last live appearance in April 1992.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009


Mummer was XTC's sixth album, their first one after they stopped touring, and the first one that I bought when it was released.

Opinions seem to be divided on it, but I'm from the side of the divide that likes it. Mummer suffers in comparison to English Settlement (as well as a similarly titled album by another three lettered band that came out at the same time) but it's a nice little understated album. Drummer Terry Chambers left the band during the sessions, so it was their studio-bound record as a trio. Other than some ill advised 80s period synths on songs like "Wonderland", I think it holds up fairly well -- acoustic guitars never go out of fashion!

"Love On A Farmboy's Wages" might be my favorite XTC song ever.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Go 2

Go 2 was XTC's second ALBUM, from 1978. Not one of my favorites, but still one of my favorite album COVERS ever.

This RECORD is hampered by too many songwriters (XTC had three main ones at this point) with too few good SONGS. The two contributions by Barry Edwards, in particular, stand out like two THUMBS on Go 2. Edwards' cockneyesque singing VOICE (a cross between Captain Sensible and Suggs from Madness) went on to bigger THINGS in his next band Shriekback, but his sound didn't really fit XTC. And the other SONGS by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding aren't much better. Definitely the RUNT of the XTC discography.

This companion SINGLE "Are You Receiving Me?" wasn't on the ALBUM, but was a lot stronger than any songs that were.

I think this is a great SONG. And they all look so YOUNG!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Like tiny boats with cotton sails

XTC performing "Yacht Dance" on the Old Grey Whistle Test in Jan 1982. This was the only time the band ever played this song live.

Monday, May 11, 2009

English Settlement

The Uffington White Horse.

When you play (and blog about) every XTC album in alphabetical order, English Settlement comes just after Drums and Wires and Black Sea, the same place it fits chronologically.

The first XTC song I remember hearing was "Senses Working Overtime", on a tape that one of my SF Bay Area friends sent me during my senior year of high school (1982/83). After my family moved to Singapore in early 1981, and I'd stay in touch with the States by having friends send me random songs taped off the radio.

This friend sent me a batch of "new music" recorded off SF radio stations KQAK and KFOG, with a bunch of lesser tunes by bands like Heaven 17 and Culture Club and one great song with a chorus "1-2-3-4-5, senses working overtime!". Unfortunately, the song was near the end of the tape and wasn't back announced, so I didn't know who did it, and when I did, I couldn't find XTC in any Singapore record shops. I later heard a rumor that XTC were "banned" because the band name was related to drugs or sex, which was probably not true, but made them all the more interesting to me.

It wasn't until the summer of 1983 that I bought my first XTC album, the Waxworks compilation, which I thought would be a better choice than English Settlement, even though both albums had "Senses Working Overtime". I didn't pick up English Settlement until later, and it was the 10-song expurgated American version.

Many fans consider English Settlement to be XTC's best album, but I think a few of the songs are too long, and the album itself (especially the double-LP and CD version) is kind of bloated in spots. I still consider the five songs that weren't on the single LP to be "bonus tracks", and these ten songs from the Epic/US version to be the "album proper". And what a fabulous album it is.

1. Runaways
2. Ball and Chain
3. Senses Working Overtime
4. Jason and the Argonauts
5. Snowman
6. Melt the Guns
7. No Thugs in Our House
8. Yacht Dance
9. English Roundabout
10. All of a Sudden (It's Too Late)

This ten song album is one of the strongest of XTC's career, and "Senses Working Overtime" is one of my favorite songs ever by anyone (even covered by Mandy Moore). Here's a live XTC performance (not a mime) from back in the day.

It was also around this time that XTC stopped touring, mostly due to Andy's aversion to giant man-eating insects. "Some people ask us why we didn't just use fly spray," he said in a recent interview. "I guess we never did try that."

I saw it on the internet, so it must be true!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

First they ridicule you

Before I go on to English Settlement tomorrow (the next XTC album in alphabetical sequence), here's a futuristic TV report from the English Settlement era about being able to read the morning newspaper on your home computer. As Tom Servo would say "The news on your computer? It must be THE FUTURE!"

Of course, since it takes more than two hours to download using your 300 baud modem with a connection cost of $5/hr, so this new "telepaper" won't be much competition for the 20 cent street edition of the Chronicle.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Drums and Wires

I think Drums & Wires is XTC's first great album. Their first two albums with Barry Andrews sound like they're trying to process a million different ideas at the same time, but after they replaced Barry with Dave Gregory, everything suddenly developed into a cohesive whole. Drums & Wires is the first XTC album that sounds like no other band.

I've always found it strange that Colin Moulding only wrote four songs of the 12 on the original album, but half of them pulled as singles ("Making Plans For Nigel", "Ten Feet Tall") and Colin also wrote the non-LP single "Life Begins At The Hop" which was included in most CD reissues. Andy Partridge wrote most of band's material at this point, but Colin was the hit-making machine. "Life Begins At The Hop" and "Making Plans For Nigel" were bona fide top 20 hit single in the UK. Here they are miming to it on "Top Of The Pops".

Some of the "drum sounds" on Drums & Wires sound a little dated thirty years on (courtesy of producer Steve Lillywhite). I thought Lillywhite had to work to make it sound like Terry Chambers was banging on trash cans, but it makes more sense if Terry really was banging on trash cans!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Respectable Street

Live version of a Black Sea classic from Urgh! A Music War.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Black Sea

Black Sea was one of the last XTC albums I picked up, and always thought of it as a lull between Drums And Wires. It seemed like a handful of classic singles like "Generals And Majors", "Sgt. Rock", and "Towers Of London" sandwiched between a bunch of filler tracks, but the non-singles are nearly as strong as the singles on Black Sea, and now I think it's one of their great albums. There isn't a bad song on here, and the one-two punch of Andy's "Respectable Street" followed by Colin's "Generals And Majors" is one of the best two songs by principle songwriters to open an album ever, up there with Paul's "Drive My Car" followed by John's "Norwegian Wood" on Rubber Soul.

Unfortunately, the latest CD reissue has a few inferior bonus tracks stuck in the middle between sides one and two, but when I program them out and also skip "Travels in Nihilon" (which is okay, but too long), the result it one of the most enjoyable ways to spend my forty minute commute.

Here's the video of "Generals And Majors" with a cameo appearance by XTC's former boss (and mine), Sir Richard Branson.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Star Tinted Windows

Nearly every review of the Tinted Windows album (from positive takes at EW and Rolling Stone to predictable slams at Pitchfork and Pop Matters) compare the group to Big Star. Because "Big Star" is a critical go-to phrase for all melodic pop with guitars --
every power pop band sounds like Big Star!

I've been playing the album, and it's pretty listenable, "classic power pop" in the same way that Accelerate is "classic R.E.M.". Which is another way of saying "only the least bit like Big Star". More like the Knack or the Romantics or the Beat or other 1979/80 bands with skinny ties.

But it looks like James Iha forgot to wear his skinny tie to the Tinted Windows photo shoot. What a pop poseur! How can James namedrop Bram and the Buzzcocks, when he isn't even wearing a skinny tie?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Big Express

When I'm recounting XTC albums, I usually end up forgetting about The Big Express (their seventh album from 1984). It's a pretty good record which was unfortunately sandwiched between two great ones (Mummer and Skylarking), so it's easy to forget about.

When I bought The Big Express after it came out, it didn't do much for me, and it took a few years for me to appreciate. One KFJC dj (with the nom du radio Holden Caulfield) used to start his 6am Monday morning show with "Wake Up" (the first track on the album), so I have a lot of memories of waking up to that song. My two favorite songs on The Big Express are both by Colin Moulding ("Wake Up" and "I Remember The Sun").

That same DJ was a big XTC supporter who was responsible for turning me from a casual fan to a fanatic. He did a couple of three hour XTC specials where he played a bunch of their B, C, and D sides, which were really hard to find in the days before the internet or bonus trax, or even Rag & Bone Buffet. This song ("Take This Town") was one of the obscurities I remember being really taken with from Holden's KFJC specials.

"Take This Town" was the b-side to the single "Wake Up", but was actually an earlier song from 1980, originally on the soundtrack to the movie Times Square

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Apple Venus, Volume One

My XTC story begins, alphabetically, with their tenth album, 1999's Apple Venus, Volume 1. The "volume 1" designation comes because this was XTC's first album after they'd been "on strike" for six years against Virgin Records, and they had multiple albums worth of matrial ready to release. Volume 2 was Wasp Star, which came out the following year.

Looking back, it seems like most of the good songs are on the first volume, because Apple Venus Volume 1 is one of the strongest XTC albums, and Wasp Star is one of their weakest. It was the one that was the biggest departure from XTC's signature sound, compounded by Dave Gregory walking out during the sessions after twenty years with the band.

As a result, most of the album was recorded "orchustically" with acoustic songs by Andy and Colin expanded with orchestral backing. Apparently AV1 alienated "many fans", but I wasn't one of them. Ten years after its release, I think it's one of the best things they ever did. Here's "Easter Theatre".

Saturday, May 2, 2009

El Clásico Supremo

There have only been a dozen XTC albums over the last 30 years, so I only need to cover one every 2.6 days or so to fit their entire discography over the course of May. That means I can wait to post about Apple Venus, Volume 1.

Today's Classico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was one of the best soccer games I've ever seen, a classic Clasico. After I visited Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona last year, I've become a bigtime Barça supporter, and they've had an amazing season, losing only three times all year, but Real Madrid have stayed with them. Barça vs. Real is one of the great sports rivalries in the world, up there with Yankees vs. Red Sox, and both teams were moving the ball and trying to score goals, with Barcelona scoring six of them (to Madrid's two)!

After Barcelona's tentative 0-0 draw vs. Chelsea in the UEFA Champions league this week (which showcased all the bad things about the beautful game), today's game was like poetry on grass. Anyone who wasn't moved by this match (which will be replayed on GolTV and FSC and every back channel over the coming week) can safely say that they don't like futbol internacional, because this was as good as it gets!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Blogging for a rainy month

It's been raining here on and off all day today (California's rainy season is usually over long before May), so I've been listening to XTC's Skylarking, which is one of my de-facto "rainy day" albums. Some people consider that to be a summer album, but it's always been my rainy day album, since the album has a few "rain" songs ("Ballet For A Rainy Day" and "1000 Umbrellas"), and a bunch of others that reference seasonal changes of some kind or other.

Anyway, I decided today that May will be XTC month here in Hot Roxland. With the recent Dukes of Stratosphear reissues and Gil mentioning their last pre-exile album Nonsuch as one of the albums that changed his life, I've kind of had XTC on the mind recently.

I only became an XTC fan after I started college in the mid-80s, so I'm not as familiar with their catalog as I am with many bands. To give a clue, my first XTC purchase was Waxworks, my favorite XTC album is Skylarking and my second favorite is Apple Venus (vol.1). I know their later stuff much better than their early stuff (with the line between "early" and "late" set when I became a fan, which was around the time they stopped touring), and I'll probably choose to do their catalog alphabetically instead of chronologically to hide that fact.

Which would mean starting with Apple Venus, Volume 1, a record that I think is utterly brilliant, no matter what anyone else thinks.