So Much More Than Nigel

I have been putting this one off for a while now. I am in regular contact via twitter with several devotees of a certain English band from Wiltshire. I know that if I get the facts wrong, I may be drummed out of the appreciation society for falsehoods and inexactitudes. So this is my disclaimer:- 1. I may get facts wrong. 2. This is my personal opinion of a band I have loved above all for about 30 years. 3. My choice of favourite songs are exactly that – mine. Right we have got that out of the way.

Image by Andy Freeberg

I first heard XTC at my brothers flat in London in the early 1980’s. They struck me as much more than a new wave band (of which there were numerous at that time). They were unusual, intelligent, energetic and got in your head like those worms that creep in your ear and mess with your brain ; as found on Star Trek 2 ‘The Wrath of Khan’ (watch the film and understand). I had heard them on Top of the Pops with ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ and ‘Sgt Rock’ but English Settlement  was my first album experience. The opening track ‘Runaways’ sets the scene for all future enjoyment of XTC. They take you by surprise in every album. Nothing is ever formulaic or predictable. Highlights for me are the next track ‘Ball and Chain’ with brilliant powerful percussion and chord progressions. ‘Melt the Guns’ has a  mesmeric sound that caught me from the first listening. ‘Knuckle Down’ is probably as near a classic XTC track as you will get. There is humour, fantastic lyrics and great catchy tune. ‘No Thugs in Our House’ has brilliant social observation in its lyrics and a powerful aggressive beat . ‘English Roundabout’ has a great ska rhythm with excellent slick guitar fills throughout. I loved ‘Senses Working Overtime’ as a fantastic single and with a great chorus but my favourite track has to be ‘All of a Sudden’ with wonderful percussion, guitar, bass in fact everything!

You see XTC make such accessible music that I have never understood why they are not bigger in the nation’s consciousness. There is something for everyone you might say. This does not dilute or degrade the quality of their output. The comparisons with The Kinks have been made before. The quintessential English band that open a window into everyday lives of people. XTC have done that in spade loads. You have always felt you could understand what Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding are experiencing at the time of recording an album. They wear their emotions audibly. This is a good thing. This means that the music means something to them. They have been known as a band admired by others in the music industry but less so by the general music buying crowd. You ask any non believer if they have heard of XTC, they will answer ‘Making Plans for Nigel’? Don’t get me wrong, this is a great track with very fine lyrics and music but it is but one amongst so many. ‘Black Sea’ seen by many as a seminal album has three of the best tracks they have ever written on it. ‘Respectable Street’ is the finest intro track to any of their albums. The moment the guitar riff punches in followed by cutting, sharp lyrics you are launched into a truly fine album. ‘Generals and Majors’ another personal favourite where Colin Moulding highlights the absurdity of officers having a ‘good war’ not often the experience of the ordinary soldier. ‘Sgt Rock’ is probably one of their most well known songs after Nigel. It is classic XTC from the first drum intro, enlisting help of Sgt Rock to discover the secret of how to win the affections of women.
Albums such as 1979 ‘Drums and Wires’ including ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ and ‘Ten Feet Tall’ started to move from more punk/new wave style of previous albums  ‘White Music’ and ‘Go 2’ (with brilliant tracks such as ‘Are You Receiving Me?’ and ‘I Am The Audience’ reminiscent of Dr Feelgood in parts).
The mid eighties had its ups and downs. They ceased to play live and focused on studio work. ‘Mummer’ with gems such as ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Big Express’ with ‘All You Pretty Girls’ were fine albums but surpassed in 1986 by ‘Skylarking’. This was critically acclaimed although apparently some of the band thought less of it. Highlight tracks such as ‘Earn Enough for Us’, ‘Summers Cauldron’ and ‘Another Satellite’ were to some extent a departure from previous material but fabulously rich songs.
My top album above all came in 1989 with ‘Oranges and Lemons’. ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is an exotic opening number which has elements of their alter ego group the Dukes of Stratosphear. ‘The Mayor of Simpleton’ is undoubtedly my favourite song by XTC from all their numerous recordings. It has wonderful lyrics, a sensational catchy tune and is I believe the perfect pop song. The guitar has echoes of Johnny Marr and the bass line is fabulous. Other brilliant tracks include ‘King for a Day’, ‘Pink thing’ (full of double meanings!), ‘One of the Millions’ and ‘The Loving’.

They followed three years later with ‘Non Such’. Such excellent tracks as ‘Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’, ‘My Bird Performs’ and the sublime ‘Then She Appeared’. This album featured former Fairport Convention  Dave Mattacks on drums. I always remember eagerly awaiting the release of this and beat my way to the store to buy it.  I was naturally delighted. Its probably my most played album. Several years later the two ‘Apple Venus’ albums appeared with excellent tracks on both volumes. ‘I’d Like That’ stripped down acoustic number, ‘Green Man’ with its North African sounds and ‘Knights in Shining Karma’ were highlights. Volume two ‘Wasp Star’ had some crackers including ‘Playground’ classic XTC, ‘Stupidly Happy’ now surprisingly used to advertise DFS sofas!, ‘Standing In For Joe’ and ‘The Wheel and the Maypole’.
There are dozens of tracks not mentioned as I have been going on endlessly anyway but these are my picks.  Please please please go and buy XTC albums/downloads today. You will enter a world where we lucky ones have dwelled. Don’t bother asking whether they will rise again. I expect Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge will only do so if it felt the right thing to do. It would be more appropriate to await what they individually or even collectively come up with. Judging by the last 38 years, I reckon it will be worth waiting for. Just a final note, check out ‘Dame Fortune’ from  Andy Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles Vol 1. Its absolutely brilliant

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2 thoughts on “So Much More Than Nigel

  1. I can vividly remember NOT going to see them at the Target in Reading as I really didn't like their fist two records… but then… they started to get under my skin too. Not sure what my fave track or album is… depends on the day of the week, weather, etc. Do love 'English Settlement', 'Skylarking' and the Apple Venus pair. And, like you, adore 'Oranges and Lemons'. Played 'Mayor of Simpleton' on a Radio Cracker show in early 90s!How much do I regret not going to see them now…?

  2. I would love to have seen them but never got the chance sadly. I could have written this and replaced most of the chosen tracks for equally good ones on the same albums. They are a true gem of English music

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