As if I don’t cover ROBYN HITCHCOCK & ANDY PARTRIDGE enough already, they go and put out a record together. I didn’t see that coming. Planet England is the name of their nascent collaboration, a 4-song 10″ and CD EP featuring the two elder statesmen of new wave/post punk playing a style of rock that’s a mixture of the typical sounds they’re known for, with a splatter of psychedelia thrown on top.
This fab four starts with “Turn Me On, Deadman,” which isn’t as Beatles-y as you’d expect from the title – it’s more Egyptian than Liverpudlian. “Flight Attendants, Please Prepare for Love” is my favorite here, with Hitchcock taking the lead vocal on a slow, dreamy tune that sounds more like XTC than any of the others; you could say it’s got a slight Dukes of Stratosphear vibe going, too. The bass riff plays well against Hitchcock’s higher pitched voice, keeping this one in the air – or ear – long after the flight ends. Flip over the ten-incher (or let the CD keep playing) and “Got My…” registers as the one track where Partridge and Hitchcock share the main mic. It‘s a spare, folky ditty that sounds like neither fellow’s own stuff (though lyrically it appears to come from Andy’s pen). The EP closes up shop with the title track, the least interesting song of the bunch (surprisingly), though that’s relative because all four songs on this EP are worthwhile listening.
Fans of both Hitchcock and Partridge will be drawn to Planet England. It’s not different enough from either’s catalogs to turn off their fans, nor is it different enough to lure new recruits to the cause. That being said, if anything, it’s a great teaser for the rumored Beatles cover album they’re doing. I may not have seen this pairing coming, but now that I’ve witnessed it I’ll be sure to keep my eyes ’n’ ears open for their next outing.
A couple of years ago XTC’s Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers teamed up to form TC&I, and after releasing an EP of new material (2017’s Great Aspirations; reviewed here), they did some live shows and recorded them. Naked Flames – Live at Swindon Arts Centre is the souvenir of these concerts, a baker’s dozen of songs originally recorded by Moulding and Chambers in one of new wave’s most celebrated groups. Including one of XTC’s other songwriter’s tunes (“Statue of Liberty”), the selection is a pretty good look at Moulding’s best work.
Colin Moulding was definitely the George Harrison of XTC, contributing few songs to the band’s albums while Andy Partridge-as-Lennon-&-McCartney had the spotlight as the premier wordsmith in the group. Here TC&I run through many of Moulding’s good ones, such as “Grass,” “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Life Begins at the Hop,” “Ten Feet Tall” and a few more obvious choices, take a stab at later tunes like “Standing in for Joe,” and two original TC&I tunes, “Scatter Me” and “Say It,” and the result is pretty good. I say that because, though the band is not bad, they’re not exactly great either. While it’s nice to hear some of these XTC tunes played live, there’s a certain vibrancy missing on this disc. I think that’s partly due to the recording itself, which is missing some top end shimmer and therefore lacking in live vibe, and partly because Moulding’s voice seems kind of weak. They may have been able to beef it up for XTC’s studio recordings but in this live situation it lacks bulk.
This all being said, there’s no doubting that Colin Moulding has written some truly great songs, and TC&I covers them ably on Naked Flames. These live renditions just don’t pack the same punch that XTC’s originals did. Chances are the initial interest in these versions will wane soon after first hearing and the superior XTC takes will remain the quintessential versions of Colin Moulding’s greatest hits.
Here’s a couple of brand new cover songs by ANDY PARTRIDGE, he the main man of XTC and the Dukes of Stratosphear. Undertaken to ring in the completion of his new home studio, the two homages – to Pink Floyd and The Bonzo Dog Band – are played entirely by one human(oid).
“Apples & Oranges” is the A-side, a sweet ’n’ crisp version of the Floyd’s 1967 single (penned by Syd Barrett). The stereo and mono mixes are quite good and fairly close to the original, though Partridge sings it in a lower key. “Humanoid Boogie” comes in stereo and mono mixes, too, and is less faithful to The Bonzos’ original (from their 1968 album The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse [or Urban Spaceman in the US]). I like how Partridge slows it down a bit and gives Neil Innes’ tune a more funky beat, and how he practically raps the lyrics.
Many fans of Mr. Partridge are probably expecting something that sounds like the Dukes of Stratosphear, XTC’s doppelganger in the psych rock world. But neither cover really enters that land, even though they’re both from the era the Dukes mined for their two celebrated records. And though I would be prone to favor either song, being a big fan of both early Pink Floyd and The Bonzos, I’m going with “Humanoid Boogie” – by a sliver – as my pick from this limited edition 10″ record. Rumor has it that it’s already sold out (they only pressed 1396 copies, for an arcane reason that Andy Partridge explains here), though a CD single and downloads are likely to follow. The two sides of this single definitely make a nice pair.
Late Christmas gift or early birthday present to myself? Who cares. It finally arrived, just seven weeks after they shipped it from the UK… and I’ve been listening to it practically non-stop ever since. XTC’s Black Sea is the 1980 album by these British heroes of the new wave, and it was an amazing slab of wax: muscular power pop, thinking man’s rock, whatever you wanted to call it, it was an album like no other in their catalogue, past or present.
This November 2017 reissue of Black Sea is the latest in a series of surround sound spectaculars released by XTC’s Andy Partridge’s Ape House label. With new 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album by celebrated remixer Steven Wilson (he’d already done the same thing to Drums and Wires, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch), along with a big ol’ bucket of bonus tracks (single mixes, soundtrack tunes, demos, instrumentals), this Blu-ray/CD set is a big deal for us XTC fans. Wilson’s new mixes add additional in your face sonics to what was already a big, brash production by Steve Lillywhite (with Hugh Padgham), at least in their stereo guise. [Once again, like with last year’s Skylarking, my surround system’s not set up so I can’t speak for the 5.1 mixes.] I’m sure Wilson’s lost none of his understanding of what makes a good production or mix, so the surround mixes are likely to be just as mesmerizing. And when I say that, I mean, songs like “No Language in Our Lungs” and “Travels in Nihilon,” both extended grooves that build and build, stand out as so much better than they did in 1980. Perhaps that’s a bit of my maturity speaking; I was naturally drawn to singles “Respectable Street,” “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock” as a young man. Those songs still excite me — I never get tired of ’em! — but the side enders “Language” and “Travels” are pure pummel now, with both their lyrics and their gargantuan grooves coming through loud and clear!
What is also crystal is that Black Sea stands as the first great XTC album, bridging the gap between their own youthful material and the mature stuff that followed: English Settlement, Skylarking, etc. It spawned four great singles (noted above), was presented in a nice green bag (my US copy pictured at right), and showcased two songwriters (Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) who could write with equal amounts of humor and politically savvy satire. Whether it’s the comic book hero/mentor in “Sgt. Rock,” the imagined nostalgia for simpler, more grateful times (“Towers of London”), or the silly warmongering of “Generals and Majors,” Partridge and Moulding, with XTC guitarist Dave Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers, crafted an album that at the time could’ve been considered New Wave’s Sgt. Pepper. That is, until 1986 when they gave us the magnificent Skylarking.
For the price (less than $30 USD), this combo Blu-ray/CD package is an excellent presentation of XTC’s fourth album. Sure, they could go all 12″x12″ and give us a deluxe book, super lengthy liner notes, a vinyl pressing and more – and charge sixty or seventy bucks for it – but you get so much Black Sea in this lil’ treasure chest (including some fun videos), I can find no fault here. I’m sure we’ll get a nice vinyl reissue one of these days [c’mon, Andy, you know you should!], so for now this high value XTC package is a superb way to wade into Black Sea.
TC&I is the name given the duo of Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, the once upon a time rhythm section of vaunted new wavers XTC. The bassist and drummer recently got together to do some recording, and the first product of that liaison is Great Aspirations, an EP of four songs recorded in their hometown of Swindon, England.
If you’re a fan of XTC and, in particular, Moulding’s songs, this CD EP is probably a no-brainer purchase. Opener “Scatter Me” is definitely the best of the quartet, bringing to mind latter day Moulding greats like “King for a Day,” with “Kenny” coming in second. “Greatness (The Aspiration Song),” however, is kind of trite in its listing of great people and “Comrades of Pop” treads a similar path. After not hearing anything from Moulding since XTC’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) from 2000, this release had a lot to live up to and it doesn’t make it. He writes some great songs but these aren’t those.
Great Aspirations is definitely an excellent showcase of Colin’s bass playing – always one of the secret weapons in XTC’s armory. He also plays guitar and keyboards, which have only ever been evident on the handful of his demos that have come out as B-sides of XTC singles. Yet, for Moulding (to paraphrase Sun Ra), bass is the place. As for Terry Chambers, he’s still the quite capable drummer he always was, but there’s a tightness to his playing here that feels too perfect, like a drum machine, or at the least, a digitally recorded, quantized drum track. There’s a lack of swing in the drumming so the songs feel sort of plain. And that, along with the production, which is “stock” good but lacking the kind of excitement that XTC’s best records have, make this a bit of a ho-hum affair. I hope this is just TC&I testing the waters and there’s something better in the works. Perhaps a great aspiration for something even better…
2.5/5 (TC&I Music TC&I-CD-001, 2017; available via Pledge Music)
Before the internet, “fanzines” were just about the only way us hardcore fans (“fan” + “[maga]zine” = fanzine) could stay on top of the latest info on our favorite bands. Limelight was an XTC fanzine edited and written by Mark Fisher. The self-published ’zine ran for over a decade, spanning nine issues and the metamorphosis from typewriter/rub-on letter layouts to more professional, early word processor (computer) layouts.
The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology collects ten years worth of these indie publications into one big book of memories and new information about the author’s favorite band, XTC. Though I wasn’t a subscriber to Fisher’s UK-based ’zine, I did subscribe to its Canadian counterpart, The Little Express. (I actually wrote a review for that one at some point in the early ’90s.)
In its 256 pages, Bumper Book reprises all of Limelight’s content, and includes brand new interviews with XTC members Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers along with remembrances by famous Brits that most of us Yanks probably wouldn’t have heard of (unless you know who Phill Jupitus and Joanna Neary are). Vintage pages (at left, below) are presented as they were originally done by Fisher, while the new content (at right) is laid out in a way our modern eyes will recognize and welcome.There’s a lot of interesting – if a bit lightweight – content here, with its word jumbles (“Complicated Games,” taking its name from an XTC song title), fan letters and most of all the gossipy stories on the band’s studio activities. Fisher must have gotten at least some of his info from the band or its management, as both Limelight and The Little Express were always noted in the credits of XTC’s albums. The fact that they are once again willing participants in the publication’s pages shows that Mark Fisher must have had the band’s approval both then and now.
Until XTC’s deluxe reissue of Black Sea comes out late this month – or while you’re taking in the Colin Moulding/Terry Chambers project, TC&I, which is out now – this compendium of XTC’s early hijinks ought to be a lot of fun.
The Bumper Book is available for £17.99 plus £5 international shipping. (As of this writing, that’s about $30 USD.) Look for reviews on both aforementioned XTC related releases in the near future!
They’ve taken both of XTC’s alter ego releases as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR and put them into an ultra-mega-deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes that includes both CD and vinyl versions (180 gram, too!), a 7″ single, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, some Dukes Dollars, and a coupon for a Dukes t-shirt of your very own. All of this comes in a real nice purple velvet box. So if you haven’t picked up 25 O’Clock or Psonic Psunspot since they were reissued by Andy Partridge’s Ape House label, now’s the time. The remasters are much better than the ones Virgin originally put out, the CDs feature extra demos and stuff, and the vinyl is very psychedelically psupreme. (The vinyl versions come out separately in their own right anytime now.)
5/5 (Ape House APEBOX002) [blurb originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]
As alter egos go, there aren’t too many as psychedically pspot-on as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR. The nom de plectrum of Swindon, England’s XTC, it was used as the name of a pfictitious rock group circa mid/late ’60s that was actually a mid/late ’80s “tribute” to the music that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory grew up on. Thirty years ago this month the Dukes released the second of their two records, Psonic Psunspot; as the successor to 1985’s 25 O’Clock it was the logical conclusion of an exercise that started out as a lark and ended as a favorite pair of platters by both band and fans alike.
By 1985 XTC, a nominally successful new wave/alternative rock group started in the late ’70s, were starting to run out of psteam. The band’s last two albums (Mummer and The Big Express) had failed to capitalize on the momentum gained by hit singles “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime,” and their label (Virgin Records) was noticeably worried. To keep their creative juices flowing, the record company agreed to give the band a tiny budget to record what became the 6-song 25 O’Clock EP and for them a fun break from the pressure of trying to write and record a proper XTC LP. Partridge, Moulding & Gregory enjoyed themselves immensely. Free to do basically whatever they wanted (within the reported £6,000 budget), the musicians fuzzed-up their guitars, played tapes backward and did anything else they felt psuited the concept. What they created in 25 O’Clock was not only a half dozen great tunes, but a virtual Trivial Pursuit of Psychedelic Rock. Here there’s a mellotron like the one on “Penny Lane,” there there’s a guitar lick recalling The Pink Floyd. Though the Dukes didn’t do actual cover versions of the psych and pop songs they got their inspiration from, they clearly channeled their heroes in a wholly believable manner.
25 O’Clock did so well for the band and Virgin Records that XTC had a new mandate (and pressure) to make a successful record under their own name. Their 1986 album Skylarking was just that, with the song “Dear God” becoming a ubiquitous track on alternative and college radio in the USA. By 1987 XTC was given the go-ahead to do another Dukes of Stratosphear record, with a larger budget than the first release. Psonic Psunspot, a 10-track album, expanded the Dukes’ influences so much that it actually comes off as more of a hybrid Dukes/XTC album—too current-sounding to be believable as a ’60s release, but too psychedelically inclined to be credited to XTC. Still, some of the songs, such as the Beach Boys-influenced “Pale and Precious” and single “Vanishing Girl,” are XTC in all but name.
This time, XTC’s US label, Geffen Records, took notice and released the album on both vinyl and CD (under the title Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, including the 25 O’Clock tracks). Once more XTC took a backseat, not hopping into the driver’s seat again until Spring 1989’s Oranges & Lemons. Thirty years after their final release, the Dukes of Stratosphear continue to thrill with their recorded righteousness—often outshining releases by XTC proper. If “Little Lighthouse,” “What in the World??” and “My Love Explodes” don’t smother you in their organic guitar goodness, you may well be a lost cause.
In 2009, frontman Andy Partridge’s record label, Ape House, reissued the albums separately on both vinyl and CD (and in a super deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes). The 180-gram vinyl versions sound even better than the original UK records do (I still have mine), and the CDs added bonus demos and unreleased tracks to fill in the rest of the picture. These days the band members look back at the Dukes fondly, if maybe a little jealously—after all, if it weren’t for them, XTC may have never had another chance to dazzle us with the likes of Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s Nonsuch. Declaring, on their debut record, that “it’s time to visit the planet smile… it’s time the love bomb was dropped… it’s time to drown yourself in soundgasm,” the Dukes of Stratosphear were both of their time and of all time.
4/5 (Ape House APELP023 [25 O’Clock] and APELP024 [Psonic Psunspot])
Here’s another great album anniversary for me to go on about: English Settlement, the 1982 2LP set from XTC, turned 35 this week, and it’s yet another release with a distinguished place in my collection.
By the time the celebrated UK “new wave” band released this, their fifth album, XTC had had a few appearances on Top of the Pops under their belts, for songs like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Statue of Liberty,” and would do so a few more times over the next decade or so. Their principal songwriter, Andy Partridge, turned in some of his best songs for Settlement, as did bass player Colin Moulding. And yet, this album’s release – or at least the tour supporting it – was a huge missed opportunity that took the band years to recover from. That’s because Partridge finally succumbed to the stage fright that had been his nemesis since the band started, just as the band had begun a US tour that quite possibly would have “broke” them here. Their single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was topping college radio charts everywhere and its video was getting saturation play on MTV (which had only debuted in August ’81). The tour was cancelled after only a handful of shows (I’m still bummed because I had planned to attend their Seattle stop); who knows how the exposure would have helped them in America? It took XTC another four years to achieve similar visibility here (with the song “Dear God” from their 1986 album Skylarking). Regardless, today, English Settlement stands as a highwater mark for XTC.
The double album, as released in the UK, was a 15-song, 2LP affair that contained some of XTC’s best-known and best loved songs, such as “Senses,” “No Thugs in Our House” and “Knuckle Down” from Partridge, and “Ball and Chain,” “Runaways” and my new favorite “Fly on the Wall” from Moulding. As a double LP English Settlement is a staggeringly rich album, moving slightly away from the power-poppy, two guitars/bass/drums sound they’d established on Drums and Wires and Black Sea (1979 and 1980) to an earthy yet ballsy new place. This time, Partridge and guitarist Dave Gregory brought their electric 12-string and acoustic guitars, while Moulding frequently used a fretless bass to add to his sonic palette. Luckily, there was no let-up in Terry Chambers’ drumming and the album still had the all important anchor necessary to keep the songs within the band’s established wheelhouse. Sadly, when issued here in the US by Epic, the album was whittled down to a single LP and that really changed its feel. Yes, the “hit” singles were still there – “Senses,” “Ball and Chain” and “Thugs” were all released as 45s in England – but the flow was interrupted. You wouldn’t have known this if you were a casual XTC fan, but after I had devoured Black Sea the year before, I read up on these guys! I knew, according to Trouser Press or NY Rocker or maybe it was Creem, that the UK version was a double album, and that’s the one I wanted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be until the late ’80s when, after Skylarking had become a sensation, the band’s US label, Geffen (now distributing Virgin releases here) reissued the album in its original 2LP configuration. None of this matters now, because these days you have your choice of either full-length 2LP or single CD when buying it new.
Last year, Andy Partridge’s Ape House Records reissued English Settlement in a super deluxe 2LP box set (along with a similar treatment to Skylarking), and it’s epic. (Pun intended.) Not only do you get a real quiet, 180 gram 2LP pressing of the album, you get a full-color, 12″x12″ booklet and inserts detailing the making of the record, foibles with their label, and remembrances about the instrumentation and the way the band came to the songs’ arrangements. The mastering (by John Dent at Loud) is pretty nice and detailed, but I must say: it isn’t as immediate (or as loud, actually) as the original Virgin (UK) issue. Finally scoring a super clean copy of that last year, I was amazed at how much better it sounds than the 2016 Ape House vinyl or the most recent Virgin (UK)/Caroline (US) CD master from the early 2000s, let alone the Geffen vinyl. Though my newly treasured 1982 copy smells a bit musty, it kicks ass on the more recent issues. You know what my advice is? Knuckle down and find an original Virgin UK copy.
4/5 (Virgin V2223, 1982; Ape House APELPD105, 2016)
I reviewed a book about Andy Partridge’s songs, Complicated Game; see it here.
Released early this year, I was finally able to get a copy of Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC and naturally devoured it immediately. Being a huge fan of XTC and its two songwriters, ANDY PARTRIDGE and Colin Moulding, this book has been on my radar since before it was announced. I’ve been an XTC devotee since I first discovered their 1980 album Black Sea, and haven’t deviated from that devotion since. XTC is a band that has really matured over the decades and their songwriting is at the forefront of that growth. I fully expected this book to illuminate Partridge’s songwriting and it completely lived up to its subtitle.
Born of a blog TODD BERNHARDT helmed in the mid 2000s, the book is made up of interviews between Bernhardt and Partridge and separated into chapters devoted to a single song [not just songs that were singles, btw–ed.]. The chapters/interviews are arranged chronologically by when the song was first released on record, starting with “This Is Pop” and winding through “Roads Girdle the Globe,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Dear God,” “Mayor of Simpleton,” and on to “River of Orchids” and “Stupidly Happy.” In each dissection the interview covers everything from the initial spark of an idea for a song, to how it was arranged and recorded. If you’re an XTC fan you will really enjoy this book. Bernhardt is clearly a big fan of XTC, but he’s also a friend of Partridge’s and is able to stay focused (most of the time) on the substance of the song and not get sidetracked on little bits of trainspotter info. Both interviewer and interviewee are born humorists so the interviews veer between serious and humorous in a good balance.
If there’s anything that could be improved, it would be the release of a second volume. Partridge has written so many great songs that this one volume (nearly 400 pages) misses many of his best songs. The only other nitpick I have–and this is primarily because of the book’s subtitle–is that it does not include Partridge’s partner in XTC songwriting, Colin Moulding. He may not have written as many of the band’s songs, but Moulding has written some of the band’s best. Witness “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Ball and Chain,” and “King for a Day.” That being said, there’s a way to remedy that. They could come out with a second volume that includes more of Partridge’s songs and some of Moulding’s. Done and done.