Can a band transform itself multiple times in a career and not only stay relevant but actually get better with age? Few can but Swindon, England’s XTC is one of those rare examples. Moreover, the band has been able to accomplish this while retiring from touring just six years into its career that lasted for a total of 30 years.
My first recollection of the band was when I watched “Urgh! A Music War” for the first time. XTC’s live performance of “Respectable Street” from the band’s fourth album, 1980’s Black Sea was awesome. After watching vocalist Andy Partridge own the crowd, working them into a frenzy before launching into the blistering guitar intro to the song, I knew this was a band that required my attention. The band’s style of alternative rock really intrigued me as I started to check out their earlier work. There was such an interesting mix of post punk, punk rock and pop music that there was no real way to label the band. I love that. You can listen to singles such as “Science Friction”, “Life Begins at the Hop”, “This is Pop” and “Making Plans for Nigel” and hear a myriad of different styles.
The Black Sea album for years was my favorite from the band with the three lead-off tracks “Respectable Street”, “Generals and Majors” and “Living Through Another Cuba” a major reason why. The band released its fifth album English Settlement in February 1982 which featured a gorgeous track by the name of “Senses Working Overtime”. Unfortunately just nine shows were performed during the world tour for that album. If you are a fan you know all about Andy Partridge’s stage fright which caused him to completely withdraw from performing live. The rest of the band’s career, other than the random radio live-to-air performances and occasional TV appearances, they were purely a studio band. Tragic and the selfish fan in me is really bummed because I never had a chance to see this band live.
That is probably why I ignored much of the band’s output for the next few years, which included two XTC albums and one album as the alter-ego Dukes of Stratosphear. Then October 1986 rolled around and the release of the ninth album from XTC, Skylarking. Oh my …
One of my all-time favorite albums, Skylarking still 28 years later takes orchestral and psychedelic pop to dizzying heights. Do yourself a favor and if you don’t have this album go buy it. Now. If you have the disc go play it. Now. You have to listen to it from start to finish to truly “get it” and hopefully you have the edition with “Mermaid Smiled” on it. I say that because once “Dear God”, originally a B-side to the single “Grass” was receiving airplay in the United States the album was re-released in the U.S. adding “Dear God” and omitting “Mermaid Smiled”. Thank the music gods for the CD reissue in 2001 that corrects things.
Let’s take a look at two sides of the band, the power of “Respectable Street” from “Urgh! A Music War” and the beauty of “Dear God”. Essential.
Album(s) Inspiration: Black Sea and Skylarking