It was a freezing winter day, something like 5 a.m., and I was spinning the hits as I know them on KWCW, the pride of Whitman College. But this was to be a day like no other! As it became abundantly clear that the stylus on one of the turntables was broken, a fine sheen of panic seized my brain. You see, CDs had not been invented yet and you needed two, two, two turntables in one to run a radio show. Sadly, I was down to my last turntable. In an attempt to salvage the situation and save humankind for another day I threw on an entire side of Black Sea by XTC until the damaged stylus was replaced. And thus began a love affair that will continue until the gates of time come crashing down on baby New Year.
It’s hard to recall exactly which XTC album I encountered first. Perhaps it was Drums and Wires, a quirky pop gem that came out in 1979 and featured unforgettable songs like Making Plans for Nigel and When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty. Or it might just as easily have been Black Sea on that fateful winter morning. But by the release of English Settlement and the tight rotation of the single Senses Working Overtime on KZAM in the summer of 1982, I was eating XTC for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The band. Not the illicit drug.
The group is a bit steeped in mystery. Andy Partridge, their brilliant songwriter/guitarist/ singer has been plagued by a variety of health issues that led to the band’s cessation of touring. In fact, I was set to see them in 1982 when they cancelled due to jaundice. But the scope of their songs is far beyond the live performance capabilities of three or four lads, so I’ve always thought of them as a band that makes fabulous records but doesn’t perform live. And that’s okay.
Their songs are psychedelic, Beatlesque, poppy, sometimes huge, quirky, and incredibly perfect. From the punkish spasms of White Music and Go 2 to the pop perfection of Drums and Wires, the hugely orchestral rock of Black Sea, English Settlement, Mummer, The Big Express and Skylarking, these fellas have created some of the best music I’ve encountered. And now, through the magic of Hoopla, you too can experience XTC.
Starting with Drums and Wires, and I’m not at all certain this was done intentionally, most XTC albums contain one long, huge-in-scope song that generally grows from nothing, climaxes in a frothy release of decibels, and returns to nothing. These became my favorites. Complicated Game features Partridge rabidly shouting the song title. Travels in Nihilon creates an unending drone of tom toms and synthetic-sounding buzzsaw notes under chanted vocals. Jason and the Argonauts, Deliver us from the Elements, Train Running Low on Soul Coal, Dear God… all are songs of epic proportion.
So the moral of this story is: Listen to XTC! You can find most of their albums on Hoopla and, wait for it, it’s free and legal to hear them! And it’s filled with your daily requirement of niacin! In the immortal words of 17th century mathematician Robert Hooke as he reviewed Drums and Wires, “Hey, that’s acute angle.”