Book Review: Inside The Songs Of XTC

complicated gameBooks about songwriting are a small but fast-growing and fascinating subgenre of music journalism. Alongside such classic tomes as Paul Zollo’s ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’, Omnibus Press’s ‘Complete Guides’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’, we’ve also recently had Daniel Rachel’s excellent ‘Isle Of Noises’. And now here comes another cracker.

XTC fans, however, may be slightly surprised about the publication of ‘Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC’, a gripping new book of interviews with mainman Andy Partridge, seeing as they may possibly feel that it would hard to better Neville Farmer’s ‘XTC Song Stories’.

But, while obviously covering similar ground, ‘Complicated Game’ zooms in with forensic detail on a select group of Partridge songs, particularly ones that may well have been overlooked throughout his stellar career (‘Travels In Nihilon’, ‘No Language In Our Lungs’, ‘Beating Of Hearts’, ’25 O’Clock’ etc). He once said that XTC’s music explores the unexplored nooks and crannies of the guitar neck; this book does the same for their discography.

Essentially, ‘Complicated Game’ is a transcription of over 30 interviews by American rock journalist/musician Todd Bernhardt. Though some of Partridge’s legendary West-Country repartee and clever wordplay occasionally get a bit lost in translation, these conversations are candid, detailed and never less than engaging. Discussions about a rhyming couplet can suddenly give way to painful memories of Partridge’s divorce, or asides about Swindon or 9/11.

The ‘Dear God’ controversy gets a whole chapter. The thorny subject of record company wrangling is never far from the surface, and Andy’s troubled relationships with producers is also a constant theme, with Steve Nye, Todd Rundgren and Gus Dudgeon taking centre stage (the former being described as ‘possibly the grumpiest guy we’ve ever worked with’!)

There’s just enough musical theory discussed too, and – not surprisingly, given that Bernhardt once interviewed Partridge at length for Modern Drummer magazine – a lot of emphasis on the role of the rhythm section, with much talk about Colin Moulding’s superb bass playing and many hilarious anecdotes about original XTC drummer Terry Chambers and later sticksmen Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince and Dave Mattacks.

But, most importantly, Partridge is able to give detailed and fascinating answers about where he gets his songwriting inspiration, looking in detail at how unusual – and often completely accidental – chords can set off images and themes, and also how much he associates music with colours. There’s also a lot of advice for songwriters about how to develop initial ideas.

Andy_Partridge

Of course, the real measure of a great music book is how quickly one is drawn back to the records, and ‘Complicated Game’ works a treat in that regard – I rushed first to the CD and then to the guitar to try and nail down ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ and ‘Church Of Women’. The orchestral arrangements and song structures of the truly singular ‘River Of Orchids’ and ‘I Can’t Own Her’ are also discussed in great detail.

There are a few minor quibbles: some of the interviews have a slightly ‘flogging a dead horse’ feel to them, and also there’s a strange reluctance to talk about Partridge’s contemporaries – Sting, Weller, McAloon, Gartside et al go unmentioned, and Elvis Costello is only referred to once in terms of his huge bank balance…

But hey, enough of my nitpicking. ‘Complicated Game’ is another fine book about songwriting, a good holiday read for ’80s music fans and a great companion piece to ‘XTC Song Stories’. I devoured it almost in one sitting and will definitely be reaching for it regularly.

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Chris Rea’s On The Beach: 30 Years Old Today

chris reaMagnet/Geffen Records, released 1st April 1986

6/10

I don’t really do ‘guilty pleasures’ (some would say a love of ’80s music is a guilty pleasure in itself), but if I did, I guess this would be one.

Rea has – a little unfairly – never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe he was just too popular.

The breakthrough/breakdown was 1989’s ‘The Road To Hell’, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.

But he’s always been a solid songwriter, great guitarist and distinctive vocalist. He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound). His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial peak.

rea back cover

It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys. Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.

Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences. The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments (but I wasn’t keen on the re-recording of the track that became a hit in 1988).

‘Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea. ‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.

On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success.

But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.