XTC’s English Settlement: 35 Years Old Today

r-1455277-1313625163-jpegVirgin Records, released 12th February 1982

Produced by Hugh Padgham and XTC

Recorded at The Manor, Oxfordshire, October/November 1981

Working titles: Rogue Soup, Motorcyle Landscape, World Colour Banner, Explosion Of Flowers, Knights On Fire

Album Chart position: #5 (UK), #48 (US)

Singles released: ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (UK #10)
‘Ball And Chain’ (UK #58)
‘No Thugs In Our House’ (did not chart)

Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘We spent the summer of 1981 rehearsing at Terry “Fatty” Alderton’s Tudor Rehearsal Studio and it was very sweaty. All the Swindon heavy rock bands would rehearse there, drink cider and piss in the corner. Terry (Chambers) had forgotten how to drum. He had spent the early summer working on a building site and when he set up his drum kit it was more like scaffolding. He was just useless (but apparently improved pretty quickly… Ed.). I forced him to buy a new snare drum and timbale. I bought a Yamaha acoustic. It opened up possibilities for new sounds where the live arrangements mattered less. I’d become unhinged a couple of times on tour and wanted a break. The album cover (by Ken Ansell)? I think it was just that we were fascinated with the Uffington Horse. The Americans thought it was a duck…’

Dave Gregory (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals): ‘I’d always dreamed about owning a 12-string Rickenbacker but it had seemed like a frivolous folly until now. I fell totally in love with the sound. English Settlement was a watershed record for us. We’d made a couple of guitar records and then the acoustic side came out. It was definitely a progression. There weren’t too many songs, just not enough time…’

Colin Moulding: (vocals, bass, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘I bought a fretless bass. I thought it would fit in with the acoustic stuff we were doing but it was impossible on tour. You have to have a flair for playing something without frets and I haven’t. As soon as the lights went out…the rest is history…’

For much more info on English Settlement, check out Neville Farmer’s book ‘XTC Song Stories’.

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XTC’s Skylarking: 30 Years Old Today

xtcVirgin Records, released 27th October 1986

10/10

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Recorded at Utopia Studios, Woodstock, upstate New York

UK album chart position: #90 (!)
US album chart position: #70 (!)

terry-thomas

Terry-Thomas in ‘School For Scoundrels’

Side One:

1. ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

Andy Partridge (composer): ‘Something about the words reminded me of Dylan Thomas. Not that I’m saying I’m a Dylan Thomas. More of a Terry-Thomas, really…’

2. ‘Grass’

Colin Moulding (composer): ‘A lot of people think the song’s about marijuana – it isn’t. Todd said: “Don’t sing so deep. You sound like a bit of a molester.” So I just did the Bowie thing and added an octave above it…’

3. ‘The Meeting Place’

Moulding: ‘Because the riff was a bit like “Postman Pat”, we were just figures on a Toytown landscape viewed from above. It was me meeting her (future wife Carol) at the gates for a sandwich in The Beehive pub, embroidered with the suggestion of a lunchtime quickie…’

4. ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’

Partridge: ‘I’d go into his (guitarist Dave Gregory) little room, smelling of aftershave and guitar wax and dead mice, and he’d be rehearsing this solo over and over again. I can still see him playing it. I remember when we were recording the song that Todd was trying to master it on keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, “He’s got the chords wrong!” He thought the chords were major, and they’re not. I was hearing it a lot more clangorous…’

5. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ (Partridge)

6. ‘1000 Umbrellas’

Partridge: ‘There was very little time to do the strings. They had one run-through and then recorded it. Their balls were on the line but they turned in a pretty fine performance…’

7. ‘Season Cycle’

Partridge: ‘I felt that I had maybe laid the ghost of Ray Davies ‘fore me and written a song that could stand up against “Shangri-La” or even, dare I suggest, “Autumn Almanac”.’

Side Two:

8. ‘Earn Enough For Us’ (Partridge)

9. ‘Big Day’

Moulding: ‘I’d been messing around with the chords of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love” and, with a little moving around, it became this sort of fanfare to a big event, a ticker-tape parade for a big day.’

10. ‘Another Satellite’

Partridge: ‘I regret writing it because things turned out so marvellously with the person (Erica Wexler) it’s all about. The story had a happy ending because Erica and I finally got to express the emotional bond that was always there.’

11. ‘Mermaid Smiled’ (Partridge)

12. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’

Partridge: ‘It just says you’re born, you live and you die. Why look for the meaning of life when all there is is death and decay? Todd said, “Let’s do a John Barry thing” and, literally overnight, came up with his arrangement with brass and flutes. It’s bang on. Cod spy music.’

13. ‘Dying’ (Moulding)

It frightens me when you come to mind
The day you dropped in the shopping line
And my heart beats faster when I think of all the signs, all the signs
When they carried you out your mouth was open wide
The cat went astray and the dog did pine for days and days
And I felt so guilty when we played you up
When you were ill, so ill
What sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard
And your multicoulored tea cozy

What sticks in my mind is the dew drop hanging off your nose
Shrivelled up and blue
And I’m getting older, too
But I don’t want to die like you
Don’t want to die like you, don’t want to die like you

14. ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’

Moulding: ‘There was a touch of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a bit of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” in it, I suppose. But I wasn’t moralising. It was just that this was an evil piece of music and good would triumph over it. (The strings) were a bit too Vivaldi for me, but it had to go somewhere, I suppose…’

Further reading: ‘XTC Song Stories‘ by Neville Farmer

Complicated Game‘ by Todd Bernhardt/Andy Partridge

Don’t Mention The Prog: It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis

eat-me-in-st-louis-527b870be5b7fVirgin Records, released June 1989

9/10

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, June 1989

It Bites go Metal? Nearly. A brave attempt to break the US? Possibly. Even Kerrang! magazine took notice of this one. Riff-heavy, blues-based rock was making a big comeback on the late-‘80s UK music scene, typified by the success of Thunder, The Quireboys, Gun and Little Angels.

The gifted Cumbrian four-piece came up with a neat twist and produced their heaviest album yet – but they could never completely jettison their penchant for brilliant pop hooks, colourful instrumentation and intricate arrangements.

it bites

Francis Dunnery’s guitar playing was leaner, meaner and more direct than before, with a stronger blues flavour; Hendrix and Clapton were touchstones now rather than Holdsworth and Gambale. The song and performance were paramount. He had also added a lot of grit to his vocals and talked glowingly of David Sylvian and The Blue Nile in interviews. Producer Mack brought the big drum sound and ban on reverb. Dick Nolan expanded the grooves with his new six-string bass. There were three near-hits (‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Sister Sarah’). Roger Dean provided the album cover concept/graphics/masks, possibly a weird move for a band trying to escape the Prog tag. It was red rag to a bull for the NME who ran a sarcastic mini-interview with Dunnery which barely mentioned the band’s music.

First single ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ was Classic Rock of an early-‘70s vintage, sounding more like Family, Cat Stevens or Free than Genesis or Marillion. Virgin flogged it mercilessly with not one but two re-releases but there was still no sign of a hit. I remember excitedly rushing out to the buy the 12” version one beautiful spring day in 1989. Its superb B-side ‘Vampires’ features one of Dunnery’s most outrageous guitar solos. Other fine B-sides of the time include ‘Bullet In The Barrell‘ and ‘Woman Is An Addict‘ which features a killer whole-tone Nolan/Dunnery riff.

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, It Bites were shaping up to be one of the bigger live draws in British rock – they embarked on three tours in the space of a year, selling out the Hammersmith Odeon and impressing everyone. A glorious night at the old Town And Country Club featured on the ‘Meltdown’ TV show. They played extensively in Japan and toured the States with Jethro Tull. The feeling in the Virgin camp was that the fourth album would deliver the big hit they were striving for. Too heavy for pop but too pop for metal? Too good for the charts? Suddenly, despite the lack of singles action, it didn’t seem to matter too much.

But the cracks were starting to show – Dunnery was a barely-functioning alcoholic whose self-loathing tendencies led to sublimely pissed-off guitar solos but more often than not wound up the rest of the band – especially the equally gifted yet far more docile John Beck (Dunnery recently said in a Classic Prog interview that they had very different ‘energy levels’), often leading to some thrillingly edgy onstage duels but also some resentment.

Decamping to Los Angeles to write songs for the fourth album proved a career move too far – Beck, Dalton and Nolan refused to work with Dunnery who was AWOL periodically throughout the sessions. The band splintered and that was that, despite a brief reunion of the original line-up the early noughties. It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been if they’d been able to hold on a bit longer and harness the creative tension between Beck and Dunnery. The breakup was a sad end to one of the most prodigious groups of musicians in the ‘80s pop pantheon.

China Crisis’s Flaunt The Imperfection: 30 Years Old Today

china crisis

Virgin Records, released 11th May 1985

Bought: Our Price Putney 1988?

8/10

In the UK, China Crisis have always had what you might call an image problem – they’ve never quite been able to shake off an almost imperceptible naffness.

Is it because of their name? Because their first hit was the extremely wimpy ‘Christian‘? Because they were neither doomy enough for the post-punk crowd nor cosmopolitan enough for the New Romantics? Or maybe because they had the dubious honour of being playlisted by Alan Partridge (actually, they were played by Partridge’s nemesis Dave Clifton, Ed…)? Who knows?

Steely Dan co-conspirator Walter Becker didn’t think they were too shabby though, apparently requesting a meeting with the Liverpudlians after he heard the nuclear-themed ‘Papua’ from their second album, 1983’s Working With Fire And Steel. He was intrigued by their obtuse lyrics, they liked the cut of his jib and apparently got on like a house on fire. Becker signed on as producer and was summoned to Parkgate Studios near Battle, Sussex, to begin work on Flaunt The Imperfection which would turn out to be CC’s biggest success to date. Flaunt reached 9 in the album chart and stayed in the UK top 100 for 22 weeks.

China Crisis and Walter Becker, Parkgate Studios, 1985

China Crisis and Walter Becker, Parkgate Studios, 1985

With the steady hand of legendary Stones/Sly/Hendrix engineer Phill Brown onboard too, the album featured two infectious top 20 UK hits, ‘Black Man Ray‘ and ‘Wake Up (King In A Catholic Style)’. Well worth checking out too is the ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side ‘Animalistic‘ which shows that the lads were also flirting with a variation on Britfunk in their spare time.

Apart from the singles, there are a host of other treats on this album, not least the drumming of the late Kevin Wilkinson. He was a big drumming hero in my teenage years. He’s very close to a British Jeff Porcaro or Carlos Vega, a tasteful groovemaster with a few chops too. Gazza Johnson’s basslines are catchy and memorable and the songwriting is solid throughout, only ‘Wall Of God’ and ‘Blue Sea’ lacking strong choruses.

Then there’s Becker’s top-draw production. He ‘Fagenizes’ Garry Daly’s excellent vocals (usually double-tracked with a touch of delay) and shows off his arranging skills with subtle synth/guitar layering and brooding horns. In particular, ‘Strength Of Character‘, ‘You Did Cut Me’, ‘Bigger The Punch I’m Feeling‘ and ‘Gift Of Freedom’ bear his fingerprints, the latter featuring some glorious Gil Evans-esque woodwinds.

China Crisis followed up Flaunt with 1986’s What Price Paradise, a massive misfire wherein producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley inexplicably tried to turn them into Madness.  If I remember rightly, the Q review of the album ended with the phrase ‘File under: Victim Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’!

But the band reunited with Walter Becker on the excellent Diary Of A Hollow Horse four years later. More on that to come.

Classic Prog’s Last Hurrah: It Bites’ Once Around The World

it bitesVirgin Records, released May 1988

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1988

9/10

Everyone has their favourite summer music and Once Around The World is an album I always turn to around this time of year. It’s a feast of resplendent chord changes, audacious song structures, good grooves, blistering lead guitar lines and uplifting, unusual melodies.

This is the record I was really waiting for as a music-mad 15-year-old. I had recently become slightly obsessed by their debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and couldn’t wait to hear what the talented Cumbrian four-piece would come up with next. For some reason, I didn’t buy OATW on its first day of release, but my schoolmate Jem Godfrey did. I would badger him for details in the playground. Me: ‘Are there any instrumentals on it?’ Jem: ‘No.’ Me: ‘What’s it like then?’ Jem: ‘It’s bloody brilliant, just get it!’

In 1988, the world didn’t need a dose of beautifully-recorded, full-on prog lunacy, but they got it anyway and the UK music scene was all the better for it. There were murmurs of a ‘prog revival’ at the time but It Bites (and to a certain extent Marillion) were streets ahead of the pack because they blended superb musicianship with great hooks and catchy songs.

The Manor

Hats off to Richard Branson and Virgin for throwing some money at this album because it turned out to be classic prog’s last hurrah. Mainly recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire (where rumour has it singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery ‘gained access’ to Richard Branson’s bountiful wine cellar with disastrous consequences…), OATW is essentially one side of beautifully-produced pop/rock songs (mainly helmed by Virgin prog survivor Steve Hillage), and another of completely brilliant, barmy prog/pop pieces.

‘Midnight’ and ‘Kiss Like Judas’ are lean, mean, well-crafted pop/rock songs with good hooks and meaty grooves, but both just missed the UK Top 40. ‘Plastic Dreamer’ fits an unbelievable amount of material into its four minutes, including a vocal harmony section that would make Roy Thomas Baker drool, a stunning guitar solo from Dunnery, some spooky Alice In Wonderland atmospherics and preposterous fantasy lyrics that would have Syd Barrett turning in his grave. They repeat the trick on ‘Hunting The Whale’ and make good use of the Manor swimming pool in the process.

The 14-minute title track, whilst owing a few licks and lyric ideas to ‘Supper’s Ready’, is nevertheless astoundingly ambitious and brilliantly realised considering it was recorded in the same year as Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. They could play all this stuff live too, and with great elan (they played the whole of OATW at a fantastic gig at the much-missed London Astoria, and I also caught them in early ’88 at Brunel University). Their range and ability was simply stunning.

John Beck’s keyboard textures have possibly dated a bit in comparison with what, say, Trevor Horn and David Sylvian were doing with synths at the time (though his voicings and arrangement ideas are always inventive), but people often forget what an amazing rhythm section (Dick Nolan on bass, Bob Dalton on drums) It Bites had. There’s a solidity and ‘swing’ there that suggests that they were always influenced by much more than just progressive rock, and Dunnery’s guitar playing and vocals have incredible bite. Here’s some great footage of them recording the title track:

Though It Bites were turning into a very popular live draw throughout Europe, the album stalled at 43 in the UK chart. But OATW is gaining fans as the years go by. The lads took a much heavier direction after this, but OATW is the standout in their short but excellent career and shows off a great band at its peak (I took one mark off for ‘Yellow Christian’, the only track I could care less about…).

Stay tuned for the next instalment: Bites into America…

How To Sidestep Second-Album Syndrome: Danny Wilson’s Bebop Moptop

danny wilsonVirgin Records, released 17th July 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989

8/10

Summer 1989. Change was in the air. A new decade beckoned. De La Soul, acid house, Madchester, Kylie/Jason/Bros and New Kids On The Block were in. School was out…forever. Sixth-form college beckoned – but not yet. There was tennis to be played, Thunderbird wine to be drunk and music to be bought/played.

I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Prince’s Batman and Sly Stone’s Fresh. And Bebop Moptop, Danny’s underrated second album. Apparently they turned down a few big-name US producers to helm the album themselves, and some might say they could have done with a slightly tighter quality control check. But for my money this more than justifies the potential of the debut.

DannyWilson1

‘Imaginary Girl’, ‘Loneliness’ and ‘The Ballad of Shirley MacLaine’ are dramatic torch songs taking Sinatra as their starting point, while ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’, ‘If Everything You Said Was True’ and ‘Goodbye Shanty Town’ are superb updates of the Steely style, the latter even throwing in some great ‘New Frontier‘ sequenced synths.

‘If You Really Love Me Let Me Go’ beautifully captures the subtlety and craft in their method; check out the passing piano chords that enjoin the various sections, livening up what could easily be a humdrum progression in another band’s hands.

The heavy lead guitar and slithering synth bass of ‘Charlie Biz’ suggest the lads had been listening to Prince‘s Lovesexy.  ‘Second Summer Of Love’ is a super-catchy, throwaway folk pastiche, and the only hit from the album, reaching UK number 23. Slightly less successful are ‘I Can’t Wait’ and the shambolic ‘NYC Shanty’, but no matter; they can’t stop this from being a first-class album with songs that are built to last.

danny wilson

Although Bebop Moptop reached number 24 in the UK album charts and sold more than the debut album, the lads went their separate ways after the promotion work was done and a few live dates undertaken. I saw them at the London Town And Country Club in autumn 1989 where a lavish, no-expense-spared backing band superbly recreated almost every nuance of the two albums.

Gary Clark resurfaced four years later with a fine solo album Ten Short Songs About Love, which could almost be viewed as Danny album number three as it featured sizeable contributions from both Kit Clark and bassist Ged Grimes (currently the bassist for Simple Minds).

But Bebop Moptop rounded off my 1980s in a very classy way. Goodbye, Danny – for now…