XTC - Drums and Wires
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
As a lad growing up in England I always looked forward to Saturday morn and “The Chart Show.” Some might term it a cynical, manipulative parade of horrible music videos -- and maybe it was -- but at the time, it was all we impressionable pups had. “The Chart Show” featured everything from Amy Grant and Color Me Badd to Stereolab and Mogwai, which is more than can be said for its replacement “CD:UK”, with its hordes of shrieking and, quite frankly, mentalist Westlife fans. Comapred to “CD:UK”, “The Chart Show” was a paragon of musical diversity. Every week they would have a classic video, something like, say, the Buggles or Dire Straits. One weekend they had “Making Plans for Nigel” by XTC. It rocked my little Britpop-obsessed world.
XTC is based around the songwriting duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Partridge is best known as an angst-ridden fame hater whose stage fright put an end to XTC’s life as a touring band in 1982; Moulding is regarded as more whimsical, a gentler soul. The band are from Swindon, a town once fed by the pulsing arteries of the railway industry that by the late 70s had become a rotten and dreary. Having cleaved their way out of the golden age of punk, sniggering at the spit dribbling emptiness of their contemporaries, the group was corralled into the New Wave camp (though I’d prefer the pop classification). In 1979, whilst coming to terms with the fact their contract with Virgin was royally screwing them, the group released Drums and Wires, their third long player. Its opening salvo, “Making Plans for Nigel” -- which has since been covered by Primus, Pitchshifter, and satanic cockgobbler Robbie Williams, and inspired Shonen Knife’s “Making Plans for Bison” -- was the band’s first and biggest hit.
XTC’s “Nigel” is nothing short of a sparkling pop classic. Moulding-penned, it tells the story of an unremarkable lad named Nigel forced to shackle himself in a job with “a British Steel” because his parents “only want what’s best for him”. Strange-sounding drums phase in and out like a plane passing over head as the quirky murky hooks take over. The refrain “He must be happy” is repeated with such grim certainty that you know the guy is doomed. The song’s quality is so high that it should come as no surprise that XTC spent one week recording “Nigel” compared to three weeks on the rest of the album.
On the rest of the songs, however, the effect is the same. There is only one way to really describe the band: loopy. At times, Drums and Wires sounds like the product of a group of madmen who’ve slung a paper bag over their heads, and take great pleasure in screaming and laughing. “Scissor Man” has tittering Gilbert and Sullivanesque dialogue and some truly weird and rambling sections; “Complicated Game” is a chaotic, even disturbing wall of echoes and sturdy drum. Elsewhere, Partridge’s crazed genius manifests itself in lines such as, “He bake you golden like the Yangste mud” from “Millions” -- a tale of Chinese culture shock -- and “I used to stand proud like a sphinx/ In a noble immovable state” from “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty”, a paean to the debilitating effects of love. At times it may seem as if Partridge doesn’t quite know what he’s talking about, but it sounds great anyway -- especially when his voice swings effortlessly from a low, elongated squall to an impassioned, high-pitched cry. That passion -- which combines the vim and vigour XTC extracted from punk with a peculiar wit and intelligence all of its own -- infuses the album. Then when they bring out the ‘la la las’ and ‘oh oh ohs’ it doesn’t sound absurd. It sounds joyous.
Partridge wrote most of the songs on the album, but for me Moulding’s contributions are its most transcendent moments. “Ten Feet Tall” is a lovely, ambling homage to the effects of happiness (or, ahem, something else) while “Life Begins at the Hop” with its litany style to-ing and fro-ing of ‘Tell me what do you say?’ ‘I’ll tell you life beings at the hop, boys and girlsssss...’ has an infectious pop sensibility than induces both smiles and a need to dance.
Yet XTC has been consigned to the neglected treasures bin. Partridge claimed a few years ago: “In England, we’re considered to be exceptionally uncool”. I’d say he was wrong. Why? Because people simply haven’t heard of them. Or at least, the people who have didn’t listen to them during their heyday. XTC’s problem and, ultimately, saving grace is they never really went for the pop jugular. Here, hit happy pop is skewed into shapes that suggest the conventional path seemed too boring. It’s as if they had all the weaponry to launch an assault on the charts but then wilfully sabotaged the music because it was just too easy to play the game. Or maybe they couldn’t be fucked. Or maybe they wanted to keep things interesting.
But there remains a modernity here that makes it still utterly relevant. You can hear them in the music of bands like Radio 4 and the defiantly British lyricism of Blur, who have often been labeled, ‘son of XTC’. It’s odd and disheartening to think XTC is still being ignored. The odd, short review of their latest album, Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2, will appear almost apologetically in more nostalgic magazines such as Mojo or Uncut, far from the eyes of younger music fans who could fall for their copious talents. XTC certainly does not deserve obscurity and in particular, Drums and Wires -- an album of the best British pop music of the past 30 years -- deserves its place in the sun.
By: Olav Bjortomt
Published on: 2003-09-01