Thursday, October 4, 2018

XTC: One Man's Gold Is Another Man's Zinc, Or Something Like That

I belong to an XTC fan group on Facebook. It's the usual stuff with people posting songs and videos, pictures of rare band memorabilia, etc.. Occasionally, there is some news or new music...but not yesterday. Yesterday, someone asked the question, "What is your least played XTC record?"As I scrolled through over 100 or so replies, I was absolutely shocked at the overwhelming dislike for "Wasp Star," their 2000 farewell, a record that falls in my Top 3. Another shocker, though the response was not as overwhelming, was the distaste for "Nonsuch" from 1992, which is indeed, my favorite XTC record.

XTC were two different bands-- pre-"Skylarking" and post-"Skylarking." I love both bands, and the only record I don't play is their second, "Go 2," which would have been my answer to the Facebook question, if I had chosen to get involved instead of just lurking and stewing. Almost every XTC prior to "Skylarking" has moments of brilliance with bursts of quirk over quality. But the last records, starting with 1987's "Skylarking," and continuing with "Oranges & Lemons," "Nonsuch," "Apple Venus" and finally "Wasp Star," find Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and at least on the first two, Dave Gregory, progressing leaps and bounds in both songwriting and musicianship.

One specific comment about "Wasp Star" was how badly Dave Gregory was needed. Fair enough, since Gregory is an outstanding player. But this pushed a button on me, since one of my favorite guitar solos of all time can be found on "Church Of Women" from said record, and it is played beautifully by Mr. Partridge.

I love "Wasp Star" so much, I once wrote an entire post just on the structure and brilliance of its second song, "Stupidly Happy," which you can read here, if you like. "Wasp Star" is filled with one pop gem after another, including the track up top, "We're All Light," which lyrically is both a science lesson and ridiculously romantic.

But okay, I get it. I don't love "The White Album." I mean, I LOVE "The White Album," but it is my least played Beatles record. I think the difference here is, I am not dismissing "The White Album," the way these XTC fans are trashing "Wasp Star." I haven't even started to rave about "Nonsuch," which is a masterwork, and contains another of my favorite guitar solos of all time found on "Books Are Burning," this time as a duel coda between both Andy and Dave.

If you're an XTC fan and you do not care for either of these gems, I'd love to hear why. Or, if you think you might be the only one out there who does not like a record that seems to be loved by many, I want to hear that, too.


itsok2beright said...

So, you have a musical opinion is contrary to the masses? At this point, I assume this to be SOP. That's why people respect your musical opinion.

Sorry, no real commentary on XTC.

Sal Nunziato said...

You kids with your shorthand. SOP?

buzzbabyjesus said...

I'm in the same XTC FAN Group. I lurked as well.
Favorite to not so much:
1) Skylarking
2) Apple Venus
3) Wasp Star
4) Nonsuch
5) Chips From The Chocolate Fireball
6) English Settlement
7) Oranges And Lemons
8) Drums And Wires
Disliked in no particular order:
I own copies of The Big Express, Mummer, and The Black Sea, which I've yet to get through.
I know I hate the programmed drums on one of them.
GO 2 is entirely unexplored territory, and I've been warned.
White Music has the worst version of All Along The Watchtower I've ever heard.
Statue Of Liberty is a passable imitation of Elvis Costello.
There's a hard to find version of This Is Pop which is one of my favorite songs.

Andy is indeed a fine guitar player.

itsok2beright said...

Standard Operating Procedure. You could have also pointed out that I left out the word 'that' after 'opinion'.

Sal Nunziato said...


I know you are a Zep fan, as am I. If a handful of people claimed Physical Graffiti was garbage, it'd one thing. But if a the majority of group devoted to LZ disliked PG, you'd think something was up, yes? That's how I feel about this group and "Wasp Star."

daudder said...

cannot agree with you more. i was totally puzzled by the post, and the comments in the group. And your Stupidly Happy" post is one of my all time favs from Burning Wood (its the post I have shared with friends to reco BW, BTW)

Sam said...

I too love all the post-Skylarking albums, although they're all missing one thing: Terry Chambers. For that reason, English Settlement and The Black Sea are my all-times favorites. I love Wasp Star and Nonsuch as well, and yeah Andy's a killer guitarist--he's not as smooth or polished as Dave is, he's more rough and jagged--his leads are like John's compared to Dave's George, if that makes any sense. I don't do the facebook, so thanks for your views on this, I really enjoyed your post.

Ken D said...

This is not about XTC (a band I like in a sort of "Greatest Hits" kind of way) but about "The White Album."
Driving back from a wedding in New Hampshire last weekend I put 'TWA' in the CD player. Hadn't heard it in a very long time. It made me think about that post you did a while back about good double albums that could have been great single albums. Did anyone mention this one back then? Drop the English music-hall novelties, and "Bungalow Bill," and of course "Revolution 9" and maybe it would have been up there with "Rubber Soul" and "Sgt. Pepper." Just maybe...
(Apologies in advance to anyone who considers it heresy to suggest that anything Beatles is less than perfect...)

Sal Nunziato said...

Ken D.,
Yes, The White Album was part of my main post and also part of an earlier mix, where I did condense it to one LP.

Shriner said...

I actually *did* say I didn't like GO2 on the forum -- and I stand by that (as I've done here.)

"Wasp Star", though, is great. I could live without "Boarded Up", and, too, wonder what it would have sounded like with Dave Gregory on it. But it's great. It's better than "Nonsuch", too. Yes, I said that.

"Standing In For Joe", though. Colin's final masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. Written for the Bubblegum project and it's a pop gem.

Piratecyan said...

Greetings, my 2 bobs worth.

I discovered XTC when their first album came out. I saw XTC live in Manly, Sydney Australia in 1979 and I think Dave Gregory had just joined. They were awesome live and played tracks off the first two albums and maybe the third. I thought the drummer kicked arse. Has anyone else seen them live at this time? There's a bootleg from a gig at the Marconi Club NSW that I have from this tour. It's out there so look for it. Anyhow, I lost interest in them the after The Black Sea.

I'm perplexed why Go2 is scorned. Maybe most people didn't discover the band till later. I don't like the Barry Andrews songs but GO2 has some of my favourite XTC songs, Crowded Room, I Am The Audience, Battery Brides, Beatown, Meccanik Dancing, Life Is Good In The Greenhouse yada yada. Maybe it's because I saw these songs played live...

I have listened to their later music and I loved some of the songs but I wonder how they would have sounded if they had played them live on tour before they went and recorded them. BTW I have had several goes at Skylarking and have yet to get through it lol.

Happy Trails

A walk in the woods said...

Yes! As the kids say, "All this."

I am a bit unusual in that in almost all cases, I tend to like great artists' LATER RECORDS better than their first, famous ones. In addition, I am very interested in bands that have drawn some bright line, consciously or not, between Their Early Selves and Their Later Selves. To the point that it's almost different bands. This phenomenon is especially interesting when it's basically the same band members. A favorite band in that category is Talking Heads.

And so, with XTC, I fall completely in Their Later Selves as a fan... to such an extent that I've never heard most of their early records pre-Skylarking, or if so, tried to listen once and couldn't make it through. Too angular, spiky, too shouty with the vocals and semi-clever with the lyrics while being too oblique to mean anything to me, in general.

But Skylarking onwards? Yeah!

And in fact, I'd agree with the specific two records you list as my favorites - Nonsuch at the top, for sure, then Wasp Star close behind. Brilliant records, for which you couldn't trade me 1,000 English Settlements.

vincentsear said...

every note of XTC is treasure to me. the combination of sophistication and dead cleverness is unlike any other band save perhaps the Beatles. the inventiveness of each song is a perfectly solved equation, balanced riddle and piece of art. even your lowest totem Go2 is for me a brilliant work, and i've always thought of it as their nod to Roxy Music. an album geared directly for its time, as they all were, but, gifted with a relevance in any decade. G.O.A.T.? on some days i think they may be, then i'll hear Beefheart or Big Star or The Beatles and tell myself the pantheon grows for us all and am thankful for the (exceedingly weird) times in which we live ...
R. Morris

Anonymous said...

Sal, I am floored as well about the group's feelings about the two albums.

Personally, I have quite a bit of trouble with the pre-Skylarking stuff, though I do love Towers of London, Sgt.s & Majors, and a few other early singles. The later stuff is just sublime.

I'm pumped big-time as I'm awaiting the postman's delivery of the repressed Apple Venus combo on vinyl.


Anything Should Happen said...

Great piece Sal! I share your thoughts. I also get frustrated about the stick Mummer and Big Express in particular get.

Just two observations from me. Skylarking is a great album, but nowhere near XTC's best. It's become the Sgt. Pepper of the XTC discography. Partridge's vocals are great on it, but the better songs are elsewhere.

More importantly, I get so irritated by these Worst album threads everywhere. By all means talk about people's favourites, but is there any need to cause the headache for people?

I saw a Top 10 Worst Beatle Songs in a mag, FFS!

Shriner said...

I'm actually surprised that "Skylarking" is the dividing line for so many people. I've always seen the band in these 5 phases.

White Music/Go2 -- angular, punky, keyboard heavy, young.

Drums & Wires/Black Sea -- a bit less punky, but still attitude and more guitar heavy. Songwriting steps up. Dave Gregory.

English Settlement/Mummer/The Big Express -- my favorite period. No more live performances and heavy studio work (I get why the production can turn some people off who started with Skylarking). Terry Chambers leaves.

25 O'Clock/Skylarking/Psonic Psunspot -- Production rules these albums.

O&L/Nonesuch/Apple Venus/Wasp Star -- deeply mature band and some of the best songwriting from Partridge. Colin's work (to me) starts to fade, though.

I can understand why somebody who loves O&L might not get Go2. But loving Skylarking and not embracing Mummer? That, I don't get. :-).

However I think the reissues of some of the albums where they tossed the bonus tracks *dead in the middle* was a really bad idea. Filter those songs out to the end and those are (still) amazing albums. Those 6 bonus tracks in the middle of Mummer should have been at the end!!!

Bill said...

The first XTC album I bought was English Settlement, prompted by liking Senses Working Overtime. While I liked the album, XTC didn't really stick with me until Mummer. To me, that album with it's bucolic numbers like Love on a Farmboy's Wages and Ladybird and Wonderland marks the real demarcation between the two XTC phases.

Somewhere in a move I lost both Apple Venus and Wasp Star, and I never replaced them. With neither of them available on Spotify, I haven't heard them in quite some time, so it was nice to play the songs you linked to.

For me, top XTC albums are:
Oranges and Lemons
Psonic Psunspot

Sal Nunziato said...

Great breakdown, Shriner. Hard to disagree with anything you've written, though as much as I do love "Mummer," I would have loved it even more if "Toys" was smack dab in the middle on the original LP.

The irony, for me at least, regarding Skylarking, is the sequencing. I think Side One plays brilliantly, with credit given to the producer for the sequencing. But Side Two just doesn't feel as strong, and I think it's because some of those great tracks on Side One should have spread across both sides. So where the sequencing might have worked in the band's favor on side one, the poor sequencing on Side Two takes away from the whole. (That's irony, right?)

One of the reasons I think Skylarking is the dividing line is because the gap between the record prior, The Big Express---not without its gems but certainly with more weak spots than most XTC records--and Skylarking, was almost three years, after a career of one album a year. It felt different. It felt like a comeback. I can even remember where I was when reading about the news that Rundgren was producing. I read it out loud to my band members at a break in rehearsals and the bass player Rich said, "Wow. God producing God."

A walk in the woods said...

Sorry - I forgot about "Mummer"! That is actually a brilliant record to me - but I only discovered it a year or so ago (after being an XTC fan for 30 years) so, quite oddly, it's still "new" to me.

ken49 said...

For me Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch were too long, too many songs. Even if you hit 75% that still leaves four or five cuts I can do without. Finally dawned on me to make my own albums and cut the cuts I can do without. I think the O@L remixed version is vastly superior and reveals the creativity of the band. Been listening on Spotify to XTC Live in Concert 1980. Love the frenetic take on the songs, they sound relentless in a live setting. "What Do You Call that Noise" indeed.