Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Do You Call That Noise That You Put On? -- XTC and Obsession

This is pop?

Right now I'm listening to the Replacements and dipping into some early 90s hits for my own entertainment. I've been listening to Paul Westerberg's (of the Replacements) solo material for a lot of the day, spent last night listening to Ryan Adams and the rest of today listening to early Bee Gees, Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets, and Badfinger.

Despite all that, though, I went out to Charlotte's Manifest Discs and Tapes, which I last visited about eight years ago, yesterday, and though I walked out with some of the Ryan Adams and Meat Puppets I just mentioned (as well as some long-desired Thin Lizzy and Church reissues), the find of the night was an object that's been in my peripheral vision for a while, then suddenly went out of print. I'd seen a copy at my old friends CD Alley but it had even left there--and they often have box sets that just hang out until they go out of print and one of us stumbles in and goes, "Hey, waitasec..."

Somehow, this thing was sitting there with that TWEC-style sticker¹ denoting their online usage of TWEC's (not worth linking to, I'm afraid) and consigning many of their prices to absolute weirdness (see: unusually long footnote). Sometimes a great deal, sometimes a horrendous one not worth touching. Indeed, this particular item is out of print, as I noted, so that makes the price a huge gamble. The list price, when in print, was around $60, and that's become the starting used price for most of the year. This one, though, was marked $37.99. So, screw anything else I was going to find--this was coming home with me.

So, what was "this"? Well, here, of course, is a picture:

Coat of Many Cupboards is one of the more complete XTC anthologies, from a band that has released numerous singles collections, best ofs, and other compilations. It's a document of the band as a whole--or at least, to be fair, "the Virgin Years" when they were signed to Virgin Records, from the late 70s on through 1992, when the legal wrangling--to get away from Virgin--took them off the market for nearly a decade.

There will never be a great time to discuss XTC, at least no time better than any other. this is the band that sent me spiralling off into insanity regarding release dates, research and alternate versions. I might talk about They Might Be Giants some other time (my passion for them has dropped to a few glowing embers over the years), but that's the essential starting point, as I'm sure it is for many of us in my generation when dealing with XTC. On Their 1996 album Factory Showroom, there is a song titled "XTC vs. Adam Ant," which posits the musical clash of "Beatle-based pop" against "New Romantic," to reference their own rephrasing of the central conflict. By chance, looking through my father's CDs while I was in high school, I stumbled into this:

Upsy Daisy Assortment is one of those aforementioned "best ofs" and covers the ground of 1979's Drums and Wires on through 1992's Nonsuch. I was hooked within a few lessons, especially on the old hit, "Making Plans for Nigel" (which has been covered by some odd people, including Primus). It expanded from there and, like I always did when given a scattered starting point (thus my distaste for choosing them when the option exists not to), I began running in every direction, collecting up--digitally, in the days when doing so through worrisome means was ridiculously easy and doing so legally was generally impossible--every album the band released in that period. On vinyl, my father only had (and has) Black Sea, their 1980 album, though I was yet to start looking through those endless rows of music. Instead, a trip to the Fayetteville branch of Edward McKay brought me a copy of Skylarking, the 1986 Todd Rundgren-produced classic, because of the presence, primarily, of the song "Dear God." That song caught my high school ear for religious controversy and poking and prodding at the same subject.

Me, I now have most everything on vinyl. My old friend John bought up the copy of White Music that my sadly departed favourite music store, Musik Hut, carried and we'd visit periodically. But I got 1978's Go 2, Drums and Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement, Mummer, The Big Express, Oranges and Lemons...indeed, I even ended up tracking down a copy of the original release of Drums and Wires which came with a bonus 7" with "Chain of Command" on one side and "Limelight" on the other. On CD? Every album, in its early 2000's reissued form, which reinstates the British tracklisting for all albums as well as a smattering of b-sides (oh, yes, they kind of started me on that kick, too). This reinstates, perhaps most importantly, the original "cycle" of Skylarking, without unexpected b-side hit "Dear God" gunking up the works by being dropped in toward the end, but not after it.

What's so great about this band? Well, I tend to think that my inclusion of videos (or songs played to static images, where video is not available, of course) leads one to watch or at least listen to them. That's an Andy Partridge song--one of the duo that have consistently formed the backbone of the group, the other being Colin Moulding. While some people have (quite inexplicably, as it seems "I can't believe in you," amongst other lines makes his general atheism painfully obvious) decided his decision to address the song to God means there's a contradictory belief underlying it, it's really just cleverly written as a direct address to something he truly doesn't believe in, but maintains the illusion that, somehow, he's writing to this entity in the service of explaining why that entity isn't there to receive it.

Andy's got a way with words, and in interviews it's clear that it's something that comes naturally to him. Horrendously wonderful puns and seemingly harmless yet obviously filthy innuendo can just drop out of him in casual statements without a pause. When he sings "umbilical" in "Season Cycle" so that it rhymes with the song title, you might wonder for just a moment, if American, whether that's a British pronunciation you've never been exposed to, because there's no sense of tripping over the word nor forcing it into that strange emphasis.

And the hooks! My God, the hooks. Colin, too--sometimes better, with his occasionally less cerebral approach--can master these things.  For proof, one need look no further than that first big single which was the first song to catch my ears, "Making Plans for Nigel":

Andy works guitar magic while Colin slides up and down and all around the bass guitar. In those days, Terry Chambers drummed for them while second guitarist Dave Gregory would add some extra tasty bits to arrangements and guitar parts. He had replaced Barry Andrews, their keyboardist for the first two albums, smattering of singles and an EP. Barry used to actually write a song here and there--though Andy's notorious ego got in the way and led to a George Harrison-type situation,² though one that was later resolved far more amicably, as Barry and Andy have worked together in recent years a few times. Still, it pushed Barry out of the band.

Terry left in 1982, when a breakdown on Andy's part led to a cancelled tour and then a permanent end to live playing and touring in general. Thenceforth, of course, XTC became a studio band. They were now two guitarists and a bassist, with songwriting originating still from Colin and Andy. This is when the more "pastoral" and "English" English Settlement had been released as their last touring album (indeed there is a bootleg floating around of a Rockpalast appearance including songs like "Jason and the Argonauts"). When we talk about bands being "very English" in this sense, of course the meaning is the same kind given to the Kinks around the time of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Cultural reference and clear background, rather than an undefinable feeling. Indeed, the album itself references their origins via the cover art:

That image is that of the "Uffington White Horse," in Uffington, Oxfordshire, which is very near the town XTC come from, the often-working class town of Swindon. Songs began to escape the "punk" and "new wave" origins of the band exhibited on the frenetic and vaguely schizophrenic White Music and Go 2, as well as the jangling and wiry Drums and Wires. Black Sea started this movement quite naturally, but English Settlement pushed it off a cliff, with songs almost all in the five minute range, or past it. This isn't to say that the inclusion of acoustic guitars more prominently softened or slowed the band completely, as one of my personal favourite tracks from the album is Colin's "Fly on the Wall"--dig that crazy back-and-forth buzzing guitar backing:

(Alas, the video is lost to the ages for many of us--there's a clip of it floating around YouTube, but it's only just over a minute long.)

There are fantastic songs on every one of their albums, making the whole of their catalogue worthwhile, which is why I ended up trapped in increasingly specific searching. Of course, their website in those days, (now sadly defunct) had a fan-made, extensive and wildly searchable and specific discography. This isn't common--at all--for bands to do. INXS, oddly, had a pretty thorough one for a while (though it had not quite gotten to the level of fan-site "An Excess of INXS"). But the XTC one was a "trainspotter's" dream come true. I should mention, this term has been applied to fans of Elvis Costello to reference the obsessive nature some of ...them can reach regarding tracks, and is intended to convey a minutiae-poring sort of approach. That discography led me to not only b-sides galore and compilation tracks, but also single edits. I'd avoided, for years, the idea of edits, mixes and alternate versions. Unless you really enjoy details, I recommend avoiding this trap.

Now... now I acknowledge that "Heaven Is Paved with Broken Glass" was remixed for compilation Rag & Bone Buffet: Rare Cuts & Leftovers, "Respectable Street" had an intro recorded to sound a bit wax cylinder-y for Black Sea which was cut off for the single release (there was a moment of revelation when I finally put my dad's copy of that album under the needle--what the hell was this starting the album?!). This band is so good that I wanted all of that. It also meant that my habit of listening to recorded music by an artist in chronological order of release became a headache: now, multiple releases per year were present, so release dates became important beyond simply release years. This has only gotten worse, of course, but there we are.

And, indeed, my collection remains incomplete, despite some ludicrous things that I do have. I have Rag & Bone Buffet, but, hey, that has songs that aren't on other releases. But I also have Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles, a nine disc set of demos. Some of those songs were never released--indeed, he was in the runnings for writing the songs for James and the Giant Peach's film adaptation (until Randy Newman unsurprisingly beat him out), and with some pretty fantastic songs, to boot. "Dame Fortune" is a brilliantly catchy and fantastic song he never released otherwise as well. But this really isn't the half of it.

Floating around various wishlists, we have Fossil Fuel: The Singles. Now, some bands release songs as singles that they never put on albums, EPs or anything else. That means that there is some value to their best ofs (curse you, Sly and the Family Stone, because "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" is one of those songs, and it's an amazing song). XTC? Yeah, they did it a few times. There was the 3D EP before any albums in 1977, and "Are You Receiving Me?" in 1978, but those appeared on the 2001 issues of White Music and Go 2. "Life Begins at the Hop," too, but it suffered "The American Fate™" of being jammed into the album it was released alongside once it crossed the ocean, so it has been stuck to that album in all CD issues, at least in the U.S. But that's it, and I just told you how available all of those are--indeed, I have all of those releases. So what's left?

Edits. Mixes.

And "mixes" doesn't mean "Remix" in the sense most people think of it--no one is chopping the song up and turning it into a dance track. It's turning the guitars up, using a slightly different take of the drums, fading the vocals earlier or later...minor changes. Anyone who had not yet questioned my sanity when it comes to these things can probably start now. Now, that would probably have been better as a sort of "punchline," but it sets up the other gaps I still see in my collection: Transistor Blast: The Best of the BBC Sessions and Explode Together: The Dub Experiments. Those two, at least, serve entirely different purposes. Transistor Blast--sadly also out of print--covers the work XTC did for the BBC, albeit, frustratingly, incompletely. Still, it does the sessions I've mentioned before, for people like John Peel and "Kid" Jensen and their radio shows from the BBC. Explode Together covers Andy's weird flirtations with dub, forming the Go + EP and Andy's "solo" record Take Away/the Lure of Salvage.

But this? Coat of Many Cupboards? Oh, goodness. It contains a number of lovely goodies. Live tracks from a band that abandoned live playing early on. Demos. Alternate studio recordings, including strings of unused single attempts that were abandoned. It has--though it was already on Rag and Bone Buffet--the allegedly inferior electric version of Drums and Wires' "Ten Feet Tall," which has such a lovely swirling, sliding guitar line under it, pronounced and clear when electrified, that I actually like it more than the original. Even if Andy and Colin don't.

Sadly, after they reformed post-Virgin legal issues, they recorded Apple Venus and Wasp Star in 2001 and 2002--splitting orchestral, subdued tracks and electric ones into those two respective albums, a move which helped Dave Gregory to leave the band, and then sort of puttered around until they stopped recording entirely, not really releasing anything new after that, capping it all with the Apple Box, so named because Wasp Star is technically Apple Venus, Vol. 2: Wasp Star. I've got that silly little box myself, which has demos of every track on both albums.

Andy's a brilliant songwriter and a fantastic guitarist, but his ego and ideas managed to finally push even Colin out, who nearly abandoned music entirely.

One final note that I simply cannot knowingly omit: When Oranges and Lemons came out in 1989, it was sheer coincidence that the title echoed lyrics from prior album Skylarking, but they liked the idea enough that all the subsequent albums followed the pattern deliberately instead. Just one of those fun notes.

Before I ramble everyone into a coma, let me leave off with one of my favourite album covers of theirs, as well as a favourite in general, that of 1978's Go 2, and a little note on this band with relation to my friend Brian:

While my friend John and I both quite liked XTC--enough that a random typo of Black Sea single "Generals and Majors" as "Genrasls and Majorns" stuck, another friend hated them (though he mistook them for INXS at the time, the song he identified was "Senses Working Overtime" from English Settlement). Brian took my recommendation of XTC some five years ago, no kidding, and has been trying to 'get' it for all this time, and now quite thoroughly does so.

Oh, and the friend who hated them? Apparently, he changed his mind quite thoroughly as well.

If you don't know this band...perhaps there's a lesson there. They're worth it.

Back to Post ¹TWEC is "TransWorld Entertainment Corporation," and they are responsible for almost every ridiculous over-priced (MSRP plus--I worked for Borders for six years and we'd stick to MSRP, but TWEC will actually go higher) major music/media chain you've seen in malls or free-standing. If nothing else, that is, they eventually bought that company. Yeah, Coconuts, Strawberries, Camelot, FYE, on. They can be absolutely ridiculous about even used pricing, as I once saw the out of print original Criterion of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca sitting on the shelf of a liquidating FYE. I think the Hitchcock Premiere Collection had already been released, but there it was: $99.99. No typoes. One movie. One disc. Heck, yesterday, I saw Public Image Ltd's Plastic Box. I almost picked it up...except it was $110.99. Yecccch. Go look at Amazon. Used copies starting at $13-$15. New copies at $18. The automated system can be great for sellers and buyers, or hell for either of them. Simpler for employees though, which is okay with me. But that Plastic Box ain't movin' anytime soon.

Back to Post ²Lennon and McCartney (is there anyone reading who doesn't know the Beatles by name? If so, I've subtly just informed you of who I'm talking about) famously led George Harrison to a per-album song limit of two, generally, which led, in a way, to the song "Only a Northern Song." Northern Songs Ltd. had publishing rights to all of their songs, with George owning a whopping 0.8% of the company, and John and Paul owning 15% each--meaning even George's own songs earned those two more than him. Thus a song with lyrics like "It doesn't really matter what chords I play/What words I say/Or time of day it is/As it's only a Northern Song."

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