XTC – Drums and Wires – Classic Music Review

This review is part of my unofficial “Honeymoon Series,” consisting of music I heard in clubs, cafés and other places while on my honeymoon, a combination of the unfamiliar and music I thought I’d never review in a billion years.

*****

One night we found ourselves cycling through a rather disappointing club crawl through Biarritz, seemingly unable to escape the dreary repetitiousness of techno and House. I was just about to suggest to Alicia that we head over to the casino when we turned a corner, happened upon another club, heard the muffled sounds of late 70s/early ’80s funk and decided to give it a shot.

The floor wasn’t too crowded, so we found a spot and started to get into the groove. The DJ kept dishing out the funk, with Prince’s “Controversy,” Rick James’ “Super Freak” and of course, “Get Down On It” from Kool and the Gang. After the obligatory nods to French funk via Funk de Luxe and a what-the-fuck appearance of “Another One Bites the Dust,” the DJ played a song I didn’t recognize but caught my attention. What tickled my eardrums was that the song was set to a beat somewhere between disco and funk with a seriously cool moaning bass, a guitar tone more suited to post-punk or garage and a vocal reminiscent of Devo. Curious, I walked over to the DJ, waved my arms to get his attention, waited patiently for him to remove his headphones and shouted (politely), “Excusez-moi, qui est-ce?

“X-T-C!” he shouted back with more than a touch of annoyance in his voice, re-installing his noise-canceling ear muffs before I could ask for the name of the song, the prick.

I was surprised and a little bit confused by his response, as I hadn’t paid much attention to XTC and was only familiar with one song (“Dear God”) that sounded nothing like the song I was hearing. Once XTC gave way to Funkadelic, we headed over to the bar where I pulled out my iPhone and left myself a reminder to check out XTC when I returned home.

As soon as my phone gave me the nudge, I started searching the net for information. Hooray! There’s a book! XTC: Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music! Fuck! It’s out of print! Double fuck! A used copy would set me back a hundred euros! Hooray! There’s a BBC documentary! XTC At the Manor! Fuck! It’s about recording one fucking song! I want the whole history, dammit! Hooray! There’s another documentary! XTC: This Is Pop! Please be free on YouTube, please be free on YouTube . . . hooray! It’s free on YouTube! Triple hooray! This is exactly what I was looking for! Yay me!

Here’s what I learned from the documentary:

  • I learned why XTC never entered my radar. When I was exploring new music in my teens during the 90s, the band was on strike due to an impasse with Virgin Records: they refused to record anything new for Virgin due to a lousy contract and Virgin refused to consider a new deal. They went seven long years without releasing a proper studio album.
  • XTC was one of many bands signed at the peak of the UK punk revolution. For the band members, it was more of a way in than a wholehearted commitment to punk values. Nominal band leader and multi-faceted creative force Andy Partridge explained it this way in This Is Pop: “By the time XTC got signed up in ’77 . . . and who didn’t get signed up in ’77? It was like a disease. Record companies were so scared of missing the boat. ‘Is this thing called punk, new wave, whatever it is, we don’t know what it’s called, quick, sign everything!’”
  • While their first two albums reflected the high speed and shouted vocals of punk, XTC generally ignored punk dogma, with songs featuring more varied chords that often extended beyond the three-minutes-max rule. Partridge described his vocal approach during this period thusly: “In the first few years, I managed an entertaining seal bark . . . like a wounded Lassie.” He also emphatically rejected the punk label in the song “This Is Pop” and explained his perspective in the documentary: “To me, it was pop music . . . short, sharp, slightly futuristic pop music. I thought, ‘Come on you idiots, don’t bother putting it into another sub-ghetto, it’s just pop music.'”
  • Critics and musicologists weren’t entirely happy with Andy’s suggested simplification, classifying XTC’s fourteen studio albums (including the two recorded under the moniker “The Dukes of Stratosphear”) into the following genres: post-punk, power pop, pop rock, art rock, jangle, new wave, progressive pop, psychedelic, avant-pop, rock, symphonic pop, orchestral pop and alternative pop. Some critics gave up trying to shove XTC into a slot and started referring to their offerings as “eccentric.” I prefer to think of XTC as the musical version of Oklahoma weather in the Will Rogers quote: “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute . . . it’ll change.” In their twenty-plus years of existence, they covered a whole lot of musical ground.
  • While their exploratory nature is very appealing to me, their musical wanderings presented a marketing problem in our consumer-oriented universe. XTC inhabited a niche within a niche within a niche. Because most commercial radio stations attach themselves to specific genres, airplay was limited. Most American fans connected with XTC through college radio stations, which was pretty much their only option, as the band stopped touring in 1982 and went studio-only.
  • Frank Zappa could have never accused XTC of being only in it for the money. A combination of unethical, incompetent management and the absence of touring to promote new releases left the band in debt for the greater part of their existence.
  • I was both surprised and delighted to learn that Todd Rundgren had produced one of their albums (Skylarking).

The decision about where to start with a band possessing such a diverse catalog of tempting offerings was thankfully simplified by my encounter with XTC in Biarritz: the song I heard is on Drums and Wires. Lucky for me, my selection turned out to be compatible with the views of Andy Partridge and co-lead songwriter Colin Moulding, according to Mojo via chalkhills.org: “The impressively complex clatter-pop that was Drums And Wires was released in August 1979 and was, in Colin’s view, where XTC’s ‘career really started.’ Andy concurs: ‘We started becoming half-decent around Drums And Wires.'”

Several developments led to XTC becoming a lot more than “half-decent.” Keyboardist Barry Andrews had departed in the middle of an American tour due to an ongoing power struggle with Andy Partridge and his disappointment that all but one of his compositions were excluded from their second album (Go 2). Instead of replacing Andrews with another keyboardist, the band brought on guitarist Dave Gregory, an old acquaintance from Swindon whose contributions would shape XTC’s sound on the next eleven albums. Meanwhile, Colin Moulding had been upping his songwriting game, motivated by his desire to “ditch that quirky nonsense and do more straight-ahead pop.” (Mojo) Top-tier drummer Terry Chambers had been with the band since inception (under a variety of band monikers) and would play a greater role on Drums and Wires because Andy Partridge wanted to increase the drum presence on the new album to achieve a more “tribal sound.” That assertion of leadership confirms that Andy was still top dog, writing eight of the album’s twelve tracks; however, Colin’s emergence as a songwriter not only helped expand the band’s playing field but gave them their first hit single, which initially triggered Andy’s lingering insecurities. As things turned out, the presence of another talented songsmith would gradually motivate Andy to up his songwriting game, resulting in a still-kinda-quirky but more accessible set of songs on Drums and Wires.

*****

Side One

“Making Plans for Nigel”

You’ll have no difficulty figuring out why the album is titled Drums and Wires once you hear the first twenty seconds of “Making Plans for Nigel.” The drop-everything-you’re-doing sound of Terry Chambers’ opening drum riff involved a collaboration between inanimate objects and sentient beings. The non-sentient contribution came from the stone, brick, wood and glass of the “stone room” in Townhouse Studios, a natural reverb environment that made the drums come through loud and clear. The sentient beings (in addition to Chambers) included engineer Hugh Padgham and producer Steve Lillywhite, who had begun experimenting with a bigger drum sound on records by Ultravox and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Andy Partridge, who “got Terry to play an upside-down drum rhythm where he moved a quite conventional rhythm around to other drums.” Essentially, Chambers eschewed the snare for the more tribal sound of the tom-toms while adding cymbal crashes that sound like brief exhalations. Padgham would eventually perfect his technique, and “gated reverb” would become all the rage when Phil Collins (without cymbals) employed the sound on Peter Gabriel 3 (Melt). 

That takes care of the drums, but the wires (referring to guitar strings) are equally important in establishing the song’s uniquely captivating rhythm. Colin immediately fixes his bass part to Terry’s toms, strengthening the tribal aspect with nice thick bass. Meanwhile, the two guitarists engage in an oddly compatible back-and-forth duet with Dave Gregory supplying the crunchy rhythm guitar chords and Partridge offering up a counterpoint in a slightly smoother tone, repeatedly playing two notes: A and G. Those notes are a bit off-key in the dominant chord pattern of G-Em-BM, but eventually make sense when we get to the lyrics, where we learn that Nigel’s situation is more than a little bit off. Andy’s simple offering is also counter-rhythmic, a syncopation on top of a syncopation, an implied rhythm layered on top of the base rhythm. As the song proceeds there are rhythmic changes in the latter halves of the verses and in the bridge, both of which provide a break from the dominant polyrhythms and are executed to perfection without the stiffness implied by “perfection.” In simpler terms, the rhythm to “Making Plans for Nigel” is a one-hundred-percent guaranteed ass-shaking delight.

Colin Moulding’s lyrics came from personal experience, as he explained in the song summary on Songfacts: “Partly biographical, this one. My dad prompted me to write it. He wanted a university future for me and was very overpowering in trying to persuade me to get my hair cut and stay on at school. It got to the point where he almost tried to drag me down the barber’s shop by my hair. I know the song tells of a slightly different situation, but it all boils down to the same thing—parental domination.”

Part of the reason my teenage friends considered me a little weird is that from an early age my parents encouraged me to make my own choices and never ever tried to shape my future. Most of my friends weren’t nearly as lucky—their parents had veto power over just about everything, from selecting a college to choosing a date. I would have thought that the success of college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have cured American parents of the belief that attending a prestigious college was a gateway to success, but in the next century, things only got worse (see the article “Only in America: The mom who sued a preschool for wrecking her 4-year-old’s Ivy League chances”).

Though it wasn’t my experience, parental domination is as real in the US as it is in France and as it is in the UK. Nigel’s parents have his whole life mapped out for him, a path that leads to a respectable position with a reputable firm so the parents can tell their friends that their son is doing very well and oh, by the way, how is your son doing in rehab, the poor thing?

We’re only making plans for Nigel
We only want what’s best for him
We’re only making plans for Nigel
Nigel just needs that helping hand

And if young Nigel says he’s happy
He must be happy
He must be happy
He must be happy in his world

We’re only making plans for Nigel
He has his future in a British steel
We’re only making plans for Nigel
Nigel’s whole future is as good as sealed, yeah

Looking into my crystal ball, I can see one whopper of a mid-life crisis in Nigel’s future.

What makes Moulding’s lyrics so effective is something he doesn’t do: he never gives Nigel a chance to speak for himself. His parents are more than happy to speak in his stead: “Nigel is not outspoken but he likes to speak/And loves to be spoken to . . . ” Note that (according to the parents) he likes to speak but he loves to be spoken to, indicating that their relationship to Nigel is akin to the relationship between ventriloquist and dummy.

The melody is hummably lovely (Partridge likened it to a Gilbert & Sullivan show tune), and the precise harmonies from Dave and Andy are spot-on. With its engaging rhythm and lyrics that are closer to a Ray Davies composition than something from the Brill Building, it’s no wonder that “Making Plans for Nigel” became XTC’s first top-20 hit in the UK.

“Helicopter”

The Wikipedia page for Drums and Wires cites Neville Farmer’s out-of-print book that I can’t afford as the source for the song’s inspiration: “‘Helicopter’ was inspired by Partridge’s childhood memory of a 1960s magazine advertisement for Lego toys.” The justification for that claim can be found in the first verse “I’m crouching here with a telescope in hand/Looking out across our Lego land.” While that may have been the spark that ignited the fire, the reference to Legos merely establishes the scene of the crime (likely a neighborhood of council houses) but has next to nothing to do with the song’s meaning.

“Helicopter” extends the theme of parental control, but in this case, daddy is having a hard time controlling a daughter determined to compensate for the repressive experience of a Catholic boarding school by transforming herself into the queen of sluttery. Andy plays dad (telescope in hand), loading his vocal with close-to-bursting anxiety over his daughter’s escapades, using playful language marked by clever euphemisms:

She a laughing giggly whirlybird
She got to be obscene to be obheard
I really think it’s about time that she came down

And I object to all the air male that she pick up
The air male that she pick up
The air male that she pick up, oh oh oh

When she’s up there twirling round
Just like a helicopter, copter
She’s landing on the town
It’s about time that I stopped her, stopped her 

Andy’s manic performance gives me the giggles and the stutter-cut rhythm pattern reinforces the song’s wacky humor. Please note that Andy uses the helicopter metaphor to describe the girl’s tendency to hop from bed to bed and that there is no connection to the sexual technique known as “the helicopter position.” If you’re interested in exploring that particular bit of sexual acrobatics, I refer you to The Bad Girls Bible for step-by-step instructions—but guys, if you break your dick in the process, don’t come crying to me.

“Day In, Day Out”

I had to laugh at the section labels assigned to the tabs for the bass part to “Day In, Day Out” on Ultimate Guitar: “crazy guitar,” “awesome dissonant solo,” and “crazy guitar outro.” Accurate descriptions indeed, but tying the bass part to the guitarists makes it harder to do what the bassist should always do: connect with the drummer. In this case, it sounds like Colin and Terry divvied up the rhythmic pattern between them. If you listen closely to the intro, Colin plays the fills at the end of each measure that are usually assigned to the drummer—a bit more of that “upside-down thinking” Andy encouraged on “Making Plans for Nigel.”

“Day In, Day Out” is a well-designed composition from Colin where the meaning in the lyrics is echoed in the music. The subject matter is “another dreary fucking day on the dreary fucking job”:

Clock in my head
Clock on the wall
And the two of them
Don’t agree at all
Friday is heaven, Friday is heaven
Day in day out

Colin’s lines of succinct poetic economy take me back to the 90s when I took a summer job at one of the women’s retail clothing shops in Union Square. For every nice customer who knew what they wanted and treated me with respect there were ten nasty bitches who assumed I was a low-class, too-dumb-to-get-a-real-job fucking idiot—and every time I took a hit, I would look at the clock in sheer desperation. My clock was so out of sync with the store’s clock that I might as well have been stuck in a loop on the International Date Line.

Those down lyrics are sung in a generally descending melody pattern marked by an occasional sour note, with the most notable switch to ascent appearing in the last syllable of the second rendition of “heaven.” As the music moves forward, we hear a sonic translation of the worker’s inner state. The first “crazy solo” mirrors the tedium; the “awesome dissonant solo” the complete disconnection between the human and the inhumanity of wage slavery; “the crazy guitar outro” captures the feeling that the day and the disconnection will never end. I’d describe “Day In, Day Out” as a somewhat disagreeable but brilliant piece of work.

“When I’m Near You I Have Difficulty”

In a MySpace (wow, haven’t heard that in a while!) interview posted on chalkhills.org, Andy connected “When I’m Near You I Have Difficulty” to his first big crush: “But when I got within about six feet of her, I’d just become useless—just a bag of jello! My legs wouldn’t work, and my arms would just hang like two strings of sausages by my side. I couldn’t do anything! When I was near her, I had difficulty doing normal things.” In the song, the jello is transformed into a jellyfish represented by a Korg monophonic synthesizer, part of a soundscape that combines British Invasion guitar jangle, diverse and well-executed rhythmic passages and several creative chord changes. Andy also noted in the interview that Dave Gregory played the bulk of the guitar parts (except the solo) and orchestrated the wide-ranging and very effective guitar orchestration. The song lacks a truly catchy melody, but the rhythmic theme and guitar interplay keep things interesting.

“Ten Feet Tall”

Colin’s “Ten Feet Tall” also delves into the mysteries of post-pubescent mating, but while he also experiences some feelings similar to Andy’s (“You make me go dizzy/I’m weak at the knees, yes”), adolescent rushes of testosterone (“the chemistry is right”) make him “feel like I’m walking ’round ten feet tall.” The most notable aspect of this piece is the presence of an acoustic rhythm guitar, a variation so un-XTC at the time that Dave Gregory suggested that Colin release the song as a solo single. Nah. Acoustic guitars have wires, too, and the song serves to balance Andy’s ever-present intensity.

“Roads Circle the Globe”

“Roads Circle the Globe” was the song I heard in Biarritz. BULLETIN! EXCLUSIVE DANCE FLOOR TIP: If you get familiar enough with the song to anticipate the syncopated lines that appear throughout the piece, you can add several hip thrusts to your dance routine and give your fuck muscles a nice workout before you head over to your love nest.

Sexual workout value aside, there’s a lot going on in this song, as explained by Dave Gregory on John Peel’s show (courtesy of chalkhills.org):

When Andy first brought “Roads” along to rehearsal I seriously wondered how we were ever going to make sense of it, much less so an audience. Its dissonant, jagged chords were bounced off a thrashing, metallic drum beat interwoven with a preposterously sinewy bass line. Only when Steve and Hugh were setting up the mix for the track did I suddenly hear and appreciate what Colin was playing there—genius!

. . . And on top of all this was the vocal. Andy’s impassioned rant against the cult of the motor car, with the famous seal-bark at full throttle. I always looked forward to the a capella “roads girdle the glowwwwb!”, followed by Chambers’ metallic tom-flam, that heralds the coda . . . We all loved playing this song live, despite management pressure to drop it — it had none of the hit potential they wanted from us—and it remained in the set for most of our touring years

Decades later, Andy Partridge was still able to cough up an impassioned rant against the automobile, as this excerpt from another MySpace interview confirmed:

AP: . . . I think I wanted it to have a desperate edge. I didn’t want it to sound comfortable.

TB: Why?

AP: Because they’re killing machines! They’re destroying the planet. They’re stalking the planet, like modern, mechanical wolves. How many people do they kill each day?

TB: [sarcastically] Oh, cars don’t kill people, people kill people.

AP: [laughs] Okay, well, you get out of the car, and let’s see how many people you can kill then. If you put that gun down, let’s see how many people you can kill.

My hero!

The crashing major seventh chords that dominate the song remind me of that awful sound of grinding gears when you fail to press the clutch, which is probably why I thought the song had a “garage” feel to it. I’m not sure that Andy’s use of abbreviated syntax (what he called “badly translated Italian Futurist manifestos”) was the most effective way to warn the human race about the insidious evil of the automobile—and though I know that one of Andy’s frustrations had to do with “car as sex symbol,” the rhythms and sounds make for a pretty sexy musical moment.

Side Two

“Real by Reel”: In one of the aforementioned interviews, Andy described “Real by Reel,” a song about government surveillance via CCTV, as “a very paranoid song.” I would revise that description to “paranoid and prophetic.” While the UK was an early adopter of CCTV, the use of the technology expanded significantly in the 90s and even more after the terrorist attacks of the early 21st century. A study published on Statista in 2019 identified London as the most surveilled city in Europe by far: 68.4 million cameras watching 9.6 million people; second-place Berlin was way behind with 11.2 million. Though it may not have been the case at the time, Andy’s song has morphed from delusional paranoia related to false beliefs (the MAGA disease) into reasonable paranoia based on factual evidence:

They can film you in bed
Or when you take a bath
They can tape every cry
They can tape every laugh
They can turn you around so you won’t know what’s

Real by reel
They’re busy little bees recording everything you feel
On real by reel
You’re documented down like rats 

France started really loading up on the cameras in the 90s and the numbers continue to increase. I am proud to say that when I moved to France I launched my very own one-woman protest against surveillance cameras: whenever I encounter one of those devices, I give it the finger. When I’m in a really good mood and few people are around, I unbutton my blouse and pull out my tits as a morale booster for the monitors. I thought I might have to rethink the tit move when the government recently approved a trial run of cameras containing AI software in preparation for the Paris Olympics—which opponents claim will enable the watchers to collect biometric data—but I found out that biometric data does not include tit prints or NID’s (Nipple Identification Determinations). Whew!

The drums and wires are prominent in this song, with Terry Chambers opening the track with a hard-driving snare attack reminiscent of the intro to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” but with ten times the punch. Dave Gregory’s riffs are a bit more complex than Roy’s, but similar in tone. After the intro, the band settles into a driving rock rhythm suitable for the dance floor. Immediately following the monotone vocal in the bridge, Gregory launches a way-too-brief solo that begins with a repetition of the central theme followed by a stunning rush of upward and downward arpeggios. I’m amazed that a guitarist with that much talent had been playing in a going-nowhere cover band before joining XTC and that Drums and Wires was his first studio experience. Dave Gregory is the real deal.

“Millions”: I love the first fifty-eight seconds of pure instrumental music that sounds like the warm-up for something that might have appeared on Bitches Brew. Unfortunately, Andy destroys the mood with an ill-fitting vocal that cues a disastrous rhythmic change to boring. I’ve noticed that sometimes Andy liked to shake things up just for the hell of it, and while sometimes that tendency produced some interesting music, sometimes it flat-out doesn’t work.

“That Is the Way”: Colin’s final contribution to the album essentially repeats the parental-societal control theme of “Making Plans for Nigel” but the lyrics are a string of clichés and the music is rather dreary. A deeper exploration of the gender-expectation theme (“Boy and girl, girl and boy/This is how you do it/And who am I to reason why”) might have made the song a bit more interesting.

“Outside World”: If you want to hear what XTC sounded like in their punk phase, this is as close as it gets—“Outside World” has the hyper-speed, the shouted vocals, the rough bass and even the social consciousness associated with punk. The use of ten chords as opposed to the standard three may have pissed off the purists, and I’m sure they would have objected to Dave Gregory’s marvelously melodic opening riff, but I would argue the manic energy compensates for that sinful display of musical curiosity.

Andy’s lyrics tell the tale of a woman of means who lives on an estate where “She has six swans singing in her sauna” and “eleven lions laughing at her lakeside,” with the animals serving a specific purpose—“So she can’t hear what’s going on . . . in the outside world.” Apparently some news has managed to trickle through her heavily-guarded gate, news which she finds most unpleasant:

Bad black and white men
Standing in their pigpen
Selling guns to simpletons
To shoot ’em in the abdomen
But she’s not interested in that
But she’s not interested in that 

She can’t entirely escape the outside world, not with the tabloids bent on digging up the dirt on the upper crust (“Drape her in a newspaper/And stab her with a poison pen”), but she’s allegedly “not interested in that” either. Yeah, sure.

“Outside World” may seem like flashback filler, but I think it features one of Andy’s best vocals on the album and the satire is sharp and hilarious.

“Scissor Man”: “‘Scissor Man’ is Partridge’s attempt at an adult morality tale, based on ‘The Story of the Thumb-Sucker’ from the German children’s book Struwwelpeter,” according to Wikipedia. As is the case with many a German fairy tale, the narrative is rather gruesome. A boy is repeatedly warned by his mother to stop sucking his thumb. He continues to suck on the sly until a roving tailor barges into the house and uses a sharp pair of scissors to relieve the kid of his thumb and any chance he had to become a top-tier NFL quarterback.

Andy ignores the source material that makes the original snipper a one-track-pony and gives his Scissor Man a wide range of appendage removal options (“You may find important pieces gone”) in response to a long list of no-nos, expressed in the cheery form of a PSA: “So be kind and helpful to your mother,” “Just think twice before you try to steal,” and my favorite, “So be good and never poison people.” All little Ludwig has to do to avoid becoming a eunuch is take the Scissor Man’s advice to heart.

If you think my overview was specifically designed to recommend that you avoid the song as you would any scissor-wielding nut job you might encounter in your travels, think again. “Scissor Man” may be wacky, kooky and seriously over the top, but the arrangement is superb and the musicianship astonishing. Need a genre definition? Sure! “Scissor Man” is a high-speed-infectious-post-punk-show-tune-explosive-comedic-theatrical extravaganza with an extended dub fade. The band is as tight as tight can get and it sounds like they had great fun putting it together (and according to XTC fans, the song was even more fun and creative in live performances). “Scissor Man” is one of those songs that could have only come from XTC, a highly original outburst where dedicated musicians work together to create a unique listening experience.

“Complicated Game”: “We are our choices,” wrote Sartre. In “Complicated Game,” Andy asks the follow-up question that we all ask at one time or another: “And what if our choices don’t fucking matter?” As Andy noted in another Chalkhills.org interview, choice often leads to a sense of futility:

AP: I was thinking about why this song came up, and it is a great futility song. As in, it’s a reasonably good example of how strong and important futility is.

TB: What do you mean by that?

AP: Because a lot of our lives, or virtually all of our lives, are controlled by things we have no input in. We think we have input, but we’re fooling ourselves.

When the song opens, you can barely hear Andy mumbling the lyrics to the first verse, as if the sound was coming from inside his head:

I ask myself, “should I put my finger to the left?”
No
I ask myself, “should I put my finger to the right?”
No
Does it really matter where I put my finger?
Someone else will come along and move it
And it’s always been the same
It’s just a complicated game

The lyrics to the remaining verses follow the same pattern: a little girl asks if she should part her hair on the left or on the right; a little boy asks if he should put his vote on the left or on the right;  and finally God comes along and asks if he oughta put his world on the left or on the right. All ask the question “Does it really matter?” The only change to the lyrical and musical pattern comes in the bridge, where Andy addresses his own feeling of futility regarding the music business by wondering if his peers Tom (Robinson) and Joe (Strummer) feel that futility, answering in the affirmative:

They wanted Tom
They wanted Joe
To dress ’em up and stick ’em out on show
They were only arrows in a very bad aim
It’s just a complicated game

In theory, I embrace existentialist philosophy, but it has one big limitation: you can’t make effective choices if you don’t know how the game really works and the powers that be do their very best to make it difficult for the average person to figure it out. Andy’s choice to keep the lyrics as simple as possible places a laser-like focus on both the cause and effect of this unfortunate helplessness.

The music to “Complicated Game” is suitably dark and portentous, with a gradually intensifying build, dissonant chord combinations (G-F# in the first two lines of the verses and an A-F combination in the first and third lines of the bridge), a staccato-like attack from the guitars, a droning sound from Colin Moulding’s electric razor (!) and a grinding, contrary guitar solo performed by Andy without listening to the backing track. Andy said his voice was shot when he recorded the vocal, but the gruffness and sheer desperation in his voice express the agony of futility in a way that would be impossible to express through language. “Complicated Game” is exactly what you want in a closing track—a well-designed and executed piece of music that leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

*****

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard an album with such diverse offerings as those that appear on Drums and Wires. I know from the documentary that the road ahead would get pretty bumpy, particularly in 1982 when XTC stopped touring due to Andy’s health issues and Terry Chambers left the band. The remaining members chose not to replace Chambers with a full-time drummer and henceforth used studio drummers in their permanent studio-only stage. That sounds like an odd decision to me, but I get the sense that the three core members had enough musical talent and innate creativity to continue recording interesting and engaging music. I’ve been sampling some of their later creations and I’m pretty certain there will be a few more XTC reviews in the future.

I’ll be back next week with the penultimate review in the Honeymoon Series, the result of an unexpected change in our travel plans and a series of other-worldly encounters that convinced me that if I didn’t review a certain album I would be in big trouble with any higher powers that may exist in our ever-mysterious universe.

8 responses

  1. Hello ARC, this is your correspondent from late 1970s Britain. Just to add a little nuance to ‘Nigel’: British Steel (both words capitalised) was a nationalised industry in 1979. Low productivity, loss-making, but managed by the Labour government with an objective of maintaining employment. 156,600 people worked for British Steel in 1979 and that would have included a large number of self-important managers with good, final-salary pensions. A deluded parent might plausibly think it offered good prospects for their Nigel, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. The Thatcher government, elected one month before XTC went into the studio, sent in an American hard man, Ian McGregor, to shred the business. Two years later the workforce was almost halved, to 88,200. Thatcher so liked the job that McGregor did, she next sent him to the National Coal Board, essentially to close down that industry.

    1. Thank you for the additional context! Poor Nigel!

  2. Thanks for reminding me about Scissor Man. It’s been rattling around the back of my head for awhile. In the US, this album actually starts off with Life Begins at the Hop, one of Colin’s poppiest tunes. Spend some time with English Settlement and Skylarking. I think you’ll enjoy those as well, especially the latter.

    1. You’re welcome! I have all their albums lined up and am very intrigued by the two you mentioned.

  3. Brendan Spaulding | Reply

    I’m very happy you decided to review this album!! I love XTC and I’m happy you’ve found similar joy in their music that I have. I agree with much of what you said in this review, it’s really a great album even if millions and that is the way are downers. The rest of the music is so groovy and danceable and it all makes me think and feel about my life.

    As you mentioned the whole band is very tight. They all comprise some of my favorite musicians on their respective instruments and talents, a somewhat rare feat I only feel a handful of bands have ever managed (tull, fairport, king gizzard, and the kinks to my ears). While I see Andy’s writing getting lauded the most often, it’s the run of albums from drums and wires through English settlement that initially pulled me in. While the rest of the band and whatever studio savvy people they would bring in later on would always be fantastic, I’ve felt that the sense of them being a, “bands band” stopped after English settlement mainly due to the loss of chambers and that consistent run of core members. As you mentioned many times, chambers and moulding play very well together. I do like drummers they would bring on past this, more specifically on the big express, skylarking, the dukes, and nonsuch (where they got the always wonderful dave Mattacks) but it’s fairly obvious to my ears that they never fully recovered. Other qualities of the later albums certainly make up for this fact, but you just don’t get songs like roads, Africa, and Cuba with a substitute drummer, especially when that substitute drummer is filling in for terry fucking chambers. I suppose it also might be hard to see chambers playing on an album such as skylarking, but his softer touches on English settlement are evidence enough to me that he may have done a wonderful job had he stayed on.

    As a quick side tangent, I’ve always likened Gregory to a dave Davies. Fun, often melodic, and energetic lines and solos that never go on longer than they need to. He’s just right in that sense.

    As a note on the lyricism, you hit what I love square on the head. They have a knack for making me feel plain and simple. I’ve always admired the way Andy could make ridiculous lines sound just right. It’s like he took the Beatles line, “What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine” as a guide for his whole career. A personal favorite line from one of the groups later albums is, “This is your life and you do what you want to do, Just don’t hurt nobody, ‘less of course they ask you”. That combined with a ray davies sense of social consciousness and wit makes him mostly lovely. His zaniness does get the better of him here and there but only in his left overs and post xtc output did he ever completely devolve into plastic man esque over indulgence thankfully.

    Speaking of post xtc output, I would recommend checking it all out eventually. It certainly never reaches xtc levels of good but there are some gems. Andy could always write a melody and chambers and moulding ended up making their own little ep that is satisfying in its own way.

    And yeah that’s about it, I hope you have an equally wonderful time exploring the rest of the bands discography, they’re one of my faves! After the Elton John and Led Zeppelin reviews it’s nice to read something you seem to enjoy a bit more also. As an end note I was wondering if you had plans to review any more Annette peacock or camera obscura? I’ve been indulging in Annette peacock a lot as of late and I believe camera obscura has plans at the very least to release an album this year!

    I hope you’re post wedding days have been great, thanks for the fun writing, cheers!

    1. It was REALLY nice to listen to interesting and enjoyable music for a change. I am deeply appreciative that I stumbled on XTC—it’s like I have a whole new universe to explore. As for Annette Peacock, I will probably do another review, since I have all of her albums. I’ve had Underachievers on my list for some time so I hope to get to it this year. I really didn’t like Desire Lines—they never should have recorded anything in Portlandia. Too trendy.

  4. iicdiaoa,iddiaoy | Reply

    OMG! XTC!!!!
    Very, very glad that you finally noticed my fav 80s boys’ band, very, very grateful that you treat “day in, day out” the way it should, and heartfully, heartfully wishing that one day XTC will earn its place on the main menu along with their heroes, the Kinks.
    https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/senses-working-overtime-xtc-and-dukes-of-stratosphear-song-by-song.1124612/ is recommended. Hope it can satisfy any fan of XTC (and English Settlement)!

    1. You’re very welcome! I have all their albums lined up and I’m pretty sure they’ll eventually get their own spot on the menu bar. Artistic integrity is endlessly appealing to me.

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