XTC – ‘Black Sea’: Round 69 – Rob’s choice

XTC - Black SeaXTC got their hooks into me at an early age. They stuck there, I incorporated them and many years later they reeled me in.

I’ve argued before that everyone has a formative period when they are soaking in music from all around them and that the sounds that make up part of this absorbed fluid are the sounds which resonate the most down the years. Judging by the songs that still make the hairs at the back of my neck stand up, even though I was too young to buy them and have no direct association or specific attachment to them, my sweet spot was roughly 1979 to 1982. Not everything, you understand, in fact probably just a handful of songs, all told, but my what a whallop they still pack.

‘It’s Different For Girls’, ‘One In Ten’, ‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘Johnny and Mary’, ‘Walking On The Moon’, ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Geno’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Oliver’s Army’ and on and on. I can place these and dozens of other songs within this timeframe just by the tingly effect they have on some reptilian part of my central musical cortex, where they pulse away forever, immortal, ready to transport me back to the kitchen of my parent’s house where I sat once, bathing in radio.

Some of these songs are by artists I’ve gone on to get to know well and cherish, like Dexy’s and The Beat. Others are total outliers for me. Bowie and Gabriel are major artists but we’ve never connected. I think of XTC as almost the prime example.Their charting singles from ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ through to ‘Senses Working Overtime’ lapped away at the edges of my developing sense of pop music and slowly became beloved years before I ever realised they were so deeply in my head but it’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve gone back and started to spend time with the albums that host these signature songs. In some ways I regret it, as with repeated playing comes a certain wearing away of the frisson, the scent of magic and transportive effect. Also, before I always knew they were there, waiting for me to reach out to them in discovery. Now that’s gone.

In every other way, no second thoughts. The records are rich, vibrant, inventive, playful and a pleasure to spend time with. None of them hit the bullseye quite like those key singles did when I was a schoolboy, but then how could they?

XTC are outliers, related to no-one, reminiscent of few and followed by fewer. They found and kept their space thanks to their twin engines, Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge, and driven by the two they put out 8 albums in as many years, from the buzzing post-punk This Is Pop? of ‘White Music’ through to the lush pastoral orchestrations of ’Skylarking’ (11 in 11 if you count the Dukes of Stratosphear and stretch out to 1989’s ‘Oranges and Lemons’). All this despite the well-documented breakdown that effectively ended them as a touring band.

The nexus for me still sits somewhere between ‘Drums and Wires’ and ‘Black Sea’, when they were spiky, driven, ambitious, unsettled and squirting out taut, telling pop in unique shapes whilst expanding their range and depth year on year. ‘Black Sea’ gets the nod although i’m not entirely sure why. In practice it might be because it’s exactly half way between the pop-zap of ‘Drums’ and the looser more folk inflected ‘English Settlement’. Every XTC record sounds like a step along the way, a mid-point between the last one and the next one. Perhaps the mark of a great band is one who’s best work you just can’t choose.

We talked about singles earlier, and ‘Black Sea’ produced five, although only three of these troubled the charts: ‘Generals and Majors’ is a fine bobbing and whistling bustle of a tune, poking a fairly blunt stick at militarisation but, primarily, giving us an incessantly toe-tapping first single, ‘Towers of London’ is a down-tuned paean to the builders who lost their lives whilst constructing the capital’s skyline, then next to last on the album comes ‘St Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’, a scratching, scathing hooligan of a number, on the one hand all slabs of guitar and stamping baselines, on the other a gleefully snickering poke at male impotence and incompetence.

The remaining 8 tracks are as varied and strong as these, if lacking the weight of 30 years airplay. ‘Respectable Street’ is the true bridge between The Kinks and ‘Parklife’, otften passed over when tracing the lineage, it nails suburban curtain twitchers (“Avon lady fills the creases/ When she manages to squeeze in/ Past the caravans/ That never move from their front gardens”) and stands as a clear signpost to the band’s heritage, which came down more from the Beatles and their contemporary chroniclers of the surreal mundanity of English life than from the Year Zero punks they just happened to be contemporaneous with.

Elsewhere there’s the party-starting nuclear terror stomp ‘Living Through Another Cuba’, ‘Love At First Sight’ and ‘No Language In Our Lungs’ demonstrating two sides of XTC’s pop stridency, the clattering ‘Paper and Iron’ and even an incongruent seven minute closer ‘Travels In Nihilon’ which comes over like a galley-ship freak out and just about manages to earn its place.

I can’t point you to one place for everything you need to hear from XTC (although you could start with ‘Fossil Fuel’, their dizzyingly strong singles compilation). To me they are a band who need, or indeed deserve, to be consumed whole. There’s more than enough for lovers of smart British rock to lose themselves in a back catalogue that really does reward a deep dive. That they never produced a single definitive statement ultimately, to my mind, is to their credit. They were too restless, too inventive, too playful, too damned good to be pinned down in one place.

Tom listened: That XTC are fantastic goes without saying. What it is that makes them so is harder to pin down. They don’t seem to do all that much that’s different to a plethora of other bands but are just off kilter enough to make them compelling. Maybe it’s Andy Partridge’s singing – a kind of back of the throat (but not raspy) my food’s gone down the wrong way kind of warble that sounds awful on paper but is palatable enough in practice to ensure that XTC stand out from the crowd. Maybe its the mix of pop hooks, new wave sounds combined with a whiff of psychedelia (which became more of a pong as XTC grew older). Maybe it’s just that they had the best tunes. Whatever, XTC stood out at the time, released a slew of impeccable singles but, it appears, had strength in depth. Sure enough, Black Sea sounded like a must have – more accessible and less arch than the sole XTC album in my collection, Skylarking. Another Mitchell endorsed cracker!

Graham listened: I used to love XTC as a youngster. Strangely I do not posses anything by them these days. I’m sure in a cardboard box lurking in the loft storage I would find a whole host of C90’s with their albums on, because I definitely used to have them on at home and in the car. So their absence from my collection is as much about media and format changes as it is about my lazy record buying. It was great to be reminded how great and important they were. It spurred me on to think about finding and opening that Pandora’s box of C90’s, to be reminded of what other treasures my tastes of the early 80’s could offer up. They’ll definitely be a bit of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice (like XTC, absent from my collection these days) knocking around in there. If DRC are really lucky, I’ll find a copy of Marillion’s 1984 ‘Real to Reel’ live album! Wish me luck boys!

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