“Hey, wait a minute! I thought you were gonna do more broads and those people sure don’t look like broads!”
While I have no intimate experience with any of the men pictured above, I think we can safely assume there are dicks somewhere beneath those monstrous diving suits, shriveling to death inside a virtual oven, and that it is highly unlikely that any of the men will be able to get it up for a few days.
But, yes, you’re right—I did have two broads lined up for reviews. The problem I ran into was that one of the albums was dark and gloomy while the other was sad and melancholy. I was already feeling dark, gloomy, sad and melancholy about Sinéad O’Connor and needed to move on. I pushed both broad reviews back to October because the combination of autumn and Halloween tends to make one more accepting of dark, gloomy, sad and melancholy.
Mark your calendars, for I have always wanted to review David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in sync with Halloween and I am determined to make it happen this year.
Back to my first-world problem, I thought that going happy-clappy was a bridge too far, and I’d already done Herman’s Hermits anyway. “If you can’t do happy, how about witty?” I asked myself. I looked at my list and found a few albums with witty lyrics, narrowed it down to two and chose the least pessimistic. I’ll do the runner-up next week when I expect my feistiness to return.
I will admit to a secondary motivation: I’ve decided to review all of XTC’s studio albums (including The Dukes of Stratosphere) so I thought I better get on it before the planet burns down to a cinder. I figure if I do one every month, I’ll complete the series sometime next September. Rather than go back and review their first two albums now, I’m going to review everything after Drums and Wires in sequence and wrap up with a double review of White Noise and Go 2, thereby completing the circle and allowing me to reflect on their amazing journey from pseudo-punk band to musical explorers who deserve more credit for creating an undeniably impressive body of work.
Drums and Wires gave XTC their first top twenty U.K. single with Colin Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel” and led to sold-out venues on their subsequent U.K. tour. All very well, but Colin’s sudden turn in the spotlight triggered Andy Partridge’s latent insecurities:
It was a double-edged sword for me because certainly in Britain, we’d had no chart success with this odd music . . . you know, these strange perverts from a council estate in Swindon. ‘It’s too odd for me, pffft.’ . . . So by the time that Colin came up with ‘Making Plans for Nigel,’ Virgin Records said, ‘Hey, that good-looking bass player, he’s come up with one and it’s in the charts, so okay, he’s the one to look at . . . and we thought it was Andy’s group.’ From then on, for quite a few years, certainly in the eyes of Virgin Records, it became Colin’s group.
Andy Partridge, This Is Pop
Colin remembered, “I think he was . . . a little bit pissed off, to be honest, as you can imagine because he had been the songwriter, the sole songwriter, he was the face of the band, so it all felt a little bit odd.”
The strain of touring all over the world in support of Drums and Wires led to an incident that suggested something more than ego-bruised insecurity was simmering in Andy’s psyche. “In 1979 . . . Partridge experienced what he believed was a nervous breakdown, essentially blacking out on stage and forgetting who he was and all of XTC’s songs. It was temporary, and he went quickly back to work, but the pressures of performing began to build up more and more from that point on.” No one thought much of the incident at the time, and once they made their way back to the U.K. in early 1980, the band had some time to catch up on their sleep before re-entering the studio.
Once ensconced in the “stone room” where they recorded Drums and Wires, the insecure side of Andy emerged in the form of a “benevolent dictator” desperate to reassert his leadership, achieving little beyond irritating his colleagues. Next, he came up with a single he predicted would be the band’s “Hey Jude,” but the positively dreadful dark reggae piece “Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down” impressed no one but Andy and failed to make the charts.
Andy would eventually realize that Colin’s rise to prominence was not a threat but a golden opportunity: “I had the thing where I thought it was ‘my band’ but I realized it was our band.” Colin certainly thought so: “It was kind of good for him as well, because it kind of spurred both of us on, you know . . . so in a way it was healthy.”
Meanwhile, the truly creative side of Andy’s complex personality began to bubble to the surface, revealing a healthier direction to artistic success:
For me, more and more of the influences was the British pop group stuff came out more and more, i. e. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, The Kinks. The way that Ray Davies wrote these little mini-plays about life in England. You know, I loved that and I sort of gravitated naturally towards wanting to do that myself. You’re not stealing, you can’t help it, it’s in your DNA. You live in a little English town, just the very fact that you’re reporting what’s going on in that little English town it’s going to be a bit like anybody else. We wrote about small things in small towns.
Andy Partridge, This Is Pop
In the end, Andy wound up with nine songs to Colin’s two and outscored Colin 3-1 on singles. Though you might think Andy came out on top because of his benevolent dictatorship that wasn’t so benevolent, the scorecard really reflects the simple truth that Andy would always be the more productive songwriter. What’s truly remarkable about Black Sea are the songs that reflect a noticeable increase in the quality of the music and lyrics penned by both songwriters.
Extensive touring always results in a tighter band (unless they can no longer stand each other), and though XTC agreed to limit the instrumentation to ensure accurate reproduction on stage, that tightness, combined with creative chording and marvelous guitar duets, makes for some very engaging arrangements. The production team of Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham had added some new wrinkles to their gated drum sound approach in their work with Peter Gabriel, fulfilling Andy’s desire for “boomier and bigger and more gated and more aggressive drums” supplemented by “slashier guitars with more punch to them.” Sometimes the punch-and-slash approach gets a bit overwhelming, and side one is definitely superior to side two, but all in all, Black Sea represents another step forward for XTC.
“Respectable Street” (Partridge): What is clearly the strongest single on the album never made it to the charts because the BBC refused to play it, even after label-mandated surgery:
Virgin would pick the most banal songs as singles and inevitably the ones I was least proud of, which would cut me inside . . . But they warmed the cockles of my heart and said ‘Respectable Street’: finally a lyric with a bit of grit, a track with a bit of spunk in it. ‘This will be great . . . but we want you to change the lyrics because there’s no way the radio are going to play it with words like abortion and contraception.’ ‘Oh yeah, I knew there’d be a catch.’ But I thought half a spunky song with a half-gritty lyric is better than none so I agreed to rewrite the lyrics to get rid of certain words that Virgin found offensive. So contraception became child prevention, abortion became absorption, which I thought was a lot filthier; seemed to suggest sanitary protection to me. Retching became stretching over the fence, and fuck me, the radio still wouldn’t play it. I was told years later by a BBC employee they were really upset by the phrase Sony Entertainment Centre. The same reason Ray Davies had to change Coca-Cola to cherry cola; it was an advertising brand. How frustrating is that?
Rachel, Daniel. The Art of Noise (“Andy Partridge”). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Oddly enough, most of the web-based renderings of the lyrics must have come from somewhere in Florida, as they’re still using the sanitized version. The version on my record is uncensored and the version on Apple Music is uncensored (and free of the E label), so I say fuck that Floridian pussy bullshit, I’m going to let the real, uncensored Andy Partridge have his say.
According to Wikipedia, “In another interview, Partridge reveals that ‘Respectable Street’ was based on a real street, Bowood Road in Swindon, which was diagonally opposite the flat above a shop on Kingshill Road where he was living at the time he wrote it.” Having a birds-eye view of what’s going on behind the “veneer of respectability” in the town where he grew up certainly strengthens his credibility, and the reference to living “in a flat above a shop”—the first step in becoming one of the “Common People” according to Jarvis Cocker—revealed not only that his modest rock stardom hadn’t gone to his head, but that he was likely an unwelcome presence on Respectable Street:
I’d found a nice, rather kind of jagged chord change — the opening B, and then the really strange-sounding G-flat 7 (sic)*. So, I was working on this song, and I was kind of annoyed that the woman who lived next door to us at the time was always banging on the wall if I had my stereo system on, just even barely audible. It really annoyed me, because we weren’t a noisy pair. We called this woman “Mrs. Washing,” because she washed everything. You know, you’d look out on the clothesline, and you’d see shirts, and then you’d see mats, and then you’d see shoes. We said, “One of these days it’s going to be small pieces of furniture, or the dog . . . ” So I guess the song grew out of the annoyance with her, and the million-miles-away respectable people living on Bowood Street opposite, and the hypocrisy, the veneer of respectability, of the “curtain twitchers,” as they’re called. They get behind the lace curtains and have a look — down their nose — at what’s going on. And I was in my mid-20s, and people were decidedly looking down their nose at me. [jive voice] I was poor, man!
* The main progression is actually B to C#7.
The song opens with a nearly inaudible, scratchy 78 rpm “Noel Coward” preamble of what later became the bridge, what Andy called “a good way of easing people into the Englishness” of the song:
It’s in the order of their hedgerows
It’s in the way their curtains open and close
It’s in the look they give you down their nose
All part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose
After a bit of silence, we hear a slashy guitar establishing the B-C#7 pattern with four go-rounds, then WHAM! Colin and Terry jump in with the tightly integrated, thumping, gotta-dance central rhythm while the second guitar complements the main riff higher up on the keyboard (in live video versions, Andy takes the low part and Dave takes the high part, but I’m not sure who did what in the studio). Andy steps up to the mike in strong-voice mode to deliver the chorus without bothering in the slightest to mask his obvious disdain for the neighborhood’s unwritten rules:
Heard the neighbor slam his car door
Don’t he realize this is respectable street
What d’you think he bought that car for
‘Cause he realize this is respectable street
The band then seamlessly shifts to double time with Colin’s bass leading the way, giving the listener the accurate perception of non-stop excitement. Andy delivers the first two lines of the verses in his gentler voice, raising it to a peak in the closing lines as the slashy guitars and falsetto vocal counterpoint add diversity and increased intensity:
Now they talk about abortions
In Cosmopolitan proportions to their daughters
As they speak of contraception
And immaculate receptions on their portable
Sony entertainment centers
Andy claimed that the song wasn’t about “knocking people who have ‘respectable’ ideals (I know I must have a few), more of a song about people with double or hypocritical values . . . the mother who urges her daughter to go out and have fun dear, isn’t abortion wonderful? If their daughter got pregnant they would beat her senseless.” (Songfacts).
In a very clever and sophisticated move, the rhythmic transition back to the chorus begins a couple of measures early while Andy is still finishing the verse, a bit of rhythmic foreshadowing I find absolutely thrilling. After another power-packed rendition of the ass-shaking chorus, the second verse starts out with a continuation of the sexual theme (a huge topic of conversation in the liberated, Cosmopolitan-dominated 70s and 80s) then Andy calls on the Avon lady to help him with the transition to another odd feature of Respectable Street:
Now she speaks about diseases
And which sex position pleases best her old man
Avon lady fills the creases
When she manages to squeeze in past the caravans
That never move from their front gardens
No, my American friends, “caravans” is not a reference to the nearly invisible hordes of brown people threatening to ruin your country by sneaking across the border, but the British term for “trailers,” or what eventually became the “RV.” In complete contrast to the USA, where many snooty neighborhoods won’t allow RVs on homeowner properties, these caravans were apparently some kind of useless status symbol in England at the time. In the Chalkhills interview referenced above, Andy speculated that the status attached to caravans had to do with telling the world, “We could go away if we choose to.”
Conclusion: human beings are fucking weird.
The bridge appears after another chorus, initiating a key change with the delightfully odd chord combination of A-B-C#-Bb. After a passage filled with hyper-strummed guitar, we arrive at the third verse with Andy nearly shouting his vivid descriptions of hypocrisy and intolerance:
Sunday church and they look fetching
Saturday night saw him retching over our fence
Bang the wall for me to turn down
I can see them with their stern frown
As they dispense the kind of look that says
I would characterize “Respectable Street” as Andy Partridge’s great leap forward as a songwriter, the moment when he fully embraced writing about “small things in small towns” as a gateway to exploring the human condition.
“Generals and Majors” (Moulding): One of the curious aspects of Black Sea involves the simultaneous fascination with “one-chord songs” on the part of the two songwriters. The seeds of Andy’s “Tower of London” came from John Lennon’s “Rain,” while the origins of Colin’s “Generals and Majors” came from Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer.” Though neither side of the Beatles’ hit is a one-chord song, (“Rain” has four and “Paperback Writer” two), it makes perfect sense that Andy would have gravitated towards the edgier Lennon and Colin towards McCartney, who is “easier on the ear” (Dave Gregory’s description of Colin’s songwriting style).
Though he fell far short of achieving his one-chord vision (“Generals and Majors” has at least five), “Generals and Majors” is a solid composition with a fascinating arrangement. As for the song’s subject matter, Colin explained his thinking in another “Song of the Week” feature:
I remember I was thinking of the phrase “Oh, What a Lovely War.” You know, the absurd idea of a “good war.” I don’t know if you remember, but there was a film in England called “The League of Gentlemen,” about robbing a bank. The gist of it was, these guys all were in the army, and had had [Sandhurst-type accent] “a bloody good war.” Now they were redundant — they were out of the army, in pretty duff jobs — not really succeeding in Civvy Street as they had in the war. They were good at what they did, you know. So, they all plot to rob a bank, basically, and get caught in the end, obviously — they can’t succeed, just think of the message it’d send to society! — but I remember one of the guys saying, “Yeah, I had a bloody good war.”
The song features three distinct rhythmic patterns that Terry Chambers handles with aplomb. The verses employ a straightforward bouncy rhythm that works well with the singsongy melody; the mini-bridges feature thumping, martial toms as Colin changes his tone from melodic to gruff-and-sarcastic in delivering the line “Generals and Majors always seem so unhappy ‘less they got a war”; and the chorus . . . well, the chorus deserves a paragraph of its own.
A truncated two-line verse follows the mini-bridge, followed by a continuation of the bouncy rhythm and the introduction of bright martial whistling. Colin cues the sonic shift with the first word of the chorus (“calling”) and Terry abandons his drums for light, still-on-the-beat high-hats. Meanwhile, Colin enters an echo chamber to sing the remaining lines, accompanied by low-register humming, strong bass and chorus-tinted guitar. Essentially, what XTC did is create a unique, reflective passage in contrast to the jolly rhythms of the verses to highlight the sheer lunacy of those who actually believe there is such a thing as a good war:
Calling Generals and Majors
Generals and Majors everywhere
Calling Generals and Majors, hey
Your World War III is drawing near, World War III
As long as the military believes they cannot fulfill their destiny without a “good war,” we will forever live on the verge of deep shit.
Colin gave heaps of credit to Andy for coming up with the chiming guitar that forms a counterpoint to the melody and enriches the composition. There aren’t many albums that open with two great songs back-to-back (something The Beatles pulled off several times) and “Respectable Street” and “Generals and Majors” deserve a spot on the list of the best one-two opening combinations.
“Living Through Another Cuba (Partridge)“: When Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev played kissy-kissy and signed the SALT II treaty in June 1979, history tells us that the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. That sigh proved to be a premature exhalation of carbon dioxide when six months later those naughty Russians invaded Afghanistan. Jimmy responded boldly by scrapping the treaty, cutting off grain exports and depriving American athletes of their dreams of Olympic glory. The Russians responded boldly by telling Jimmy to fuck off. Détente went down the drain along with Jimmy’s re-election prospects.
Andy Partridge found himself in the role of observer caught in the middle of all this shit, correctly identifying the situation as history repeating itself. His perception and valid concerns about nuclear war would earn additional validation once Reagan took office a year later and adopted a more aggressive stance towards the Evil Empire. Set to a rhythm Andy identified as “Caribbean Rock Ska Dub” with Terry Chambers messing around with a rototom and various synthesizers, the song is structured as a call-and-response with Colin and Dave harmonizing on the repeated call line “Living through another Cu . . . BAH!” and Andy responding with a series of semi-paranoid rants:
It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle
While war is polishing his drum and peace plays second fiddle
Russia and America are at each other’s throats
But don’t you cry
Get on your knees and pray, and while you’re
Down there, kiss your arse goodbye
Andy admitted in the Chalkhills piece on the song that he fucked up and should have used the year 1962, but as there may not have been a Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 if there hadn’t been a Bay of Pigs in 1961, I think he should have taken credit as a perceptive and insightful historian.
The lines “We’re the bulldog on the fence/While others play their tennis overhead” capture the song’s sub-theme, which Andy described as “the uselessness of England—this completely and utterly useless little country whose significance in the world ended at the First World War.” The same could be said about France, and it’s not a stretch to argue that the reason both countries have nuclear arsenals is to preserve the delusion that they still belong in the great power club.
What’s weird about the song is that the music is “tropical party time” and the lyrics are anything but. The song earned status as a live favorite, often paired with “Generals and Major” due to rhythmic similarity. I just hope people stopped partying long enough to get the message.
“Love at First Sight” (Moulding): This rough guitar song with plenty of bounce confirms what I’ve heard from people who lived through the 60s and 70s with their libidos on fire: the 60s may have launched the concept of “free love,” but first-date fucking didn’t become commonplace until the 70s. The ongoing sexual revolution changed the meaning of “love at first sight” from the image of a boy and a girl locking eyes at the country fair and then walking home together holding hands to separate scenes where the girl prepares for a night on the town by making sure she takes her pill and the guy grooms himself for a hunting expedition in bars now filled with ample available prey.
Colin views these developments with prim concern, opening the song with the line “See the lovers all gone crazy” and expressing unease regarding poor preparation (“Make a slip could be forever/Wedding bells, the shotgun kind”). In the final verse, he shares his sorrow for the prey and his disdain for the hunters:
Take your partner to surrender
Then your misdemeanor’s done
Sacrifice of maidenhood
But little boys must have their fun
A rock musician urging caution when it comes to sex is a rare bird indeed. “Love at First Sight” has all the trappings of a song designed for single release, but fortunately for Colin, it was not selected. A song urging people to refrain from instant gratification had no chance of charting.
“Rocket from a Bottle” (Partridge): Andy’s take on the subject of love moves from the general to the specific as he describes his feelings for a girl he just met—and those feelings are quite apparent before he sings a single intelligent word. Over a driving rock rhythm, Andy vocalizes his feelings in the rise and fall of the phrase “Ah-ah-ah-oh-oh-oh-oh,” giving the impression that he’s on the precipice of something. He puts his feeling into words through lyrics that could have found their way into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical:
I’ve been set off by a pretty little girl
I’m like a rocket from a bottle shot free
I’ve been just explosive since you lit me
I’ve been up with the larks
I’ve been shooting off sparks
And I’m feeling in love
Given my positively filthy mind, I immediately associated a rocket shot from a bottle with a prick ready to explode, but alas, the song is as clean as Colin’s. I rather like the song despite the G-rated lyrics and somewhat muddy mix, and I love both Andy’s Ah-ah-ah-oh-oh-oh-ohs and Dave Gregory’s too-short guitar solo.
“No Language in Our Lungs” (Partridge): Excuse the fuck out of me for breaking with linear narrative tradition, but in some ways the most important line in this song comes toward the end: “I would have made this instrumental/But the words got in the way.”
My point is that Andy could have made this song instrumental only and achieved his goal of writing a song about the difficulty people run into when trying (or not trying) to say what they mean.
Allow me to explain . . . oh, fuck it, I’ll let Andy explain:
AP: . . . it was originally called ‘I Have the World in My Mouth,’ and it was about how you can say what you want to say. Of course you can say what you want to say, but there’s still a lack of communication. Because communication isn’t really words — it’s about all sorts of things, isn’t it. It’s about every sensory input you can imagine. It’s not just sounds of things.
TB: Right. There’s intent, for example.
AP: Yeah. There’s tone, your body language, your inflections, the actual language that you’re using — you can raise an eyebrow and it means something totally different. There are so many subtle but powerful variations of communication. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that most people are totally impotent. I think everybody is, when it comes to putting their ideas across. You know, the constriction of society, and the constriction of not wanting to upset people. That’s very English, after all.
Later in the interview he says, “Or, that might be a human thing, generally,” to which I respond, “Duh!”
I’ll take Andy’s comment that “communication isn’t really words” and run with it. Whenever I listen to a song I’m always analyzing the compatibility of music and lyrics, correcting for any signs of irony in the process. The musical-lyrical compatibility of “No Language in Our Lungs” comes as close to perfection as any song I’ve ever heard. I’ll go even further and argue that the music tells us more about the experience of human non-communication than the lyrics, in large part because music (in the right hands) can convey emotion more effectively than language.
Ironically, the aural expression of miscommunication was the direct result of excellent communication between the band members, particularly the communication between the two guitarists. Though the bulk of the lyrics are set to A B-F#7-C# pattern, each verse and bridge devolves to different levels of dissonance, underscoring the dissonance one often feels when the parties attempting to engage in communication fail to get in sync. Sometimes the dissonance appears in the form of a flat vocal note from Andy; sometimes it arrives in an off-chord riff from the guitarists; sometimes in splashes of dissonance in Dave Gregory’s solos. The song is loaded with rising and descending note patterns, with the rising patterns conveying growing frustration and the descending patterns utter communication failure. Toward the end of the song, you hear descending guitar arpeggios similar to the dirge-like arpeggios of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which in this context communicate a sense of hopelessness. The basic rhythm is based on the slower ballads from Free, a slow and stately beat brilliantly interrupted in the verses with a stutter-step that mirrors the hiccups that often accompany awkward conversation. There’s a fairly good rendition of the chord array on Ultimate Guitar, but I think it would take a gaggle of musicologists to notate the diverse bits of dissonance.
With great reluctance, I’ll share the verse lyrics for those of you who are language-oriented:
There is no language in our lungs
To tell the world just how we feel
No bridge of thought
No mental link
No letting out just what you think
There is no language in our lungs, lungs, lungs
There is no muscle in our tongues
To tell the world what’s in our hearts
No, we’re leaving nothing
Just chiseled stones
No chance to speak before we’re bones
There is no muscle in our tongues, tongues, tongues
Warning: all the dissonance may seem offputting at first, but I suggest that you stick with it and listen to the song a few more times. “No Language in Our Lungs” is really one fucking great piece of music.
“Towers of London” (Partridge): This is the song influenced by “Rain,” and you can hear the similarity in the “clangorous guitars crashing together and sort of droning.” As Andy noted in a Chalkhills interview, the main melody is similar to the Stones’ “Sing This All Together.” The song was written as a tribute to the Victorian workers who built London long before much thought was given to worker safety:
Towers of London
When they had built you
Did you watch over the men who fell
Towers of London
When they had built you
Victoria’s gem found in somebody’s hell
Pavements of gold leading to the underground
Grenadier Guardsmen walking pretty ladies around
Fog is the sweat of the never never navvies who pound, pound, pound, pound, pound
Spikes in the rails to their very own heaven
Quite unlike “Rain,” there are a whole lot of chords, largely due to a very interesting path to a key change. Up until the bridge, the dominant chord pattern is F-C-G including related variants, but clearly in the key of F major. Things seem to be set in that pattern until Dave Gregory sneaks in a quick descending D chord combination (D, Dmaj7, D6, D) to create a surprisingly smooth transition to F#minor in the bridge. We now seem to be in D major with a F# minor/D major chord pattern but it turns out that the bridge is really a bridge! The D major becomes the resolution chord of the key change to G major.
Love the song, love the thumping beat and bass and really love the way XTC keeps things interesting.
“Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)” (Partridge): Well, you can’t expect everything to work and this sucker sure doesn’t. The introductory guitar duet is definitely the song’s highlight, an intriguing mix of muffled and bright guitar arpeggios. Sadly, the sudden shift to intense BOOM! coupled with Andy’s spoken word vocal is an immediate turnoff and things don’t get much better when he starts to sing. The lyrics contain some interesting possibilities but never come to impactful fruition. Meh.
“Burning with Optimism’s Flames” (Partridge): I assume that this song was either written before Andy had the epiphany about writing more in the style of the early British pop groups or he just had a bad day at the writing desk. Way too busy, way too frantic and way too much intensity spent on underwhelming lyrics.
“Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me” (Partridge): Hooray! The highest-charting single from the album came from Andy Partridge! Way to go, Andy!
Hey, Andy! Why are you telling me to fuck off?
“Right, I’m standing up here and now, and saying this song embarrasses the shit out of me. Of all the tunes that I’ve written, that made it to tape, this makes me cringe the worst. It’s not the music, that’s solid enough. All the instruments in the track mesh nicely enough, but the lyrical sentiment, oh dear. It was supposed to be ironic, you know, nerdy comic fan imagines two dimensional hero can help him with his unsuccessful chat up technique. It did not work. It just came out limply crap. Virgin insisted it be included in this set, otherwise I’d gladly erase it from our history. We all make mistakes.”
I can understand his disappointment (and appreciate the honest self-evaluation). The comic book hero Sgt. Rock is a misogynistic, violent asshole and Andy doesn’t acknowledge any of his glaring faults. Without some small hint that the fictitious jerk is a total loser, lines like “Make the girl mine/Keep her stood in line” lead the listener to conclude that the narrator is an asshole too. The chart success of the song probably owed a lot to the strong beat and the irresistibly catchy jingle that forms the pre-chorus:
If I could only be tough like him
Then I could win
My own, small, battle of the sexes
Sex sells. The mere mention of sex sells. Virgin knew it; Andy seemed oblivious to it. However, the song did earn him entry into the hallowed group of musical artists who hated some of their songs that sold like hotcakes.
Way to go, Andy!
“Travels in Nihilon” (Partridge):
Wikipedia claims that “‘Travels in Nihilon'”, the album’s closing track, is about Partridge’s feelings of disillusionment with the music industry.” That’s like saying 1984 is about a man who loses his job.
The title comes from an Alan Stiltoe novel about a nihilistic society but the influence stops there. The song is really about the inevitable disillusionment of young people who are perceptive enough to realize that much of the life we’ve fashioned for ourselves is built on bullshit. In the interview about the song on chalkhills.org (great site, by the way), Andy explains his journey to the land of disillusioned enlightenment and yes, what the song is really about:
AP: . . . So, it was a great book, but the actual song isn’t about the book — the song is really about traveling through the land of nothingness. It’s a song about a con—that enormous con of Pop Culture and the con of religion.
TB: What brought that out of you? Why were you feeling bitter or betrayed?
AP: I was at an age where I did rather get swept up in the whole Punk/New Wave movement. I foolishly thought, “Hey, this may be the turning point for music! Maybe this is truly where everyone can be involved—it’s like a democratizing or Year Zero thing — everyone can make music if they want to. There are no preconceptions, you don’t have to be a great musician. Fashion is blown out of the water because you can wear anything you want.”
It was the last time I think I truly got swept along by my optimism. It wasn’t the optimism of the movement as such. It was a time in my life where my optimism was being mirrored by these new possibilities. I was in a band that was starting to go places, the world was looking up for me, I was at a good age, I was experiencing a kind of a movement where I actually felt like this might be my gang, you know?
And very, very quickly, I could see that people were using it for the same old reasons! The same old, selling-you-the-dumb-clothes thing. Punk was about you making your own clothes, but very quickly it became about how you had to have just the right thing to wear, and the right thing was expensive . . .
So, this was at a time where I did actually get swept along with it, and I quickly saw that it was extremely cynical, and it was exactly the same as what it was supposed to be replacing. There was too much industry involved—too fake, too controlling. It was so commercially driven.
So, I actually think this song is about my enormous disappointment and my feeling that it was all a con—the music, the fashion, and hey, let’s throw religion in there as well, while you’re at it! There’s no Jesus come and gone! [chuckles] There may not have been one in the first place. It’s just a con, and it’s time for us to wake up.
All of that translates into a very unusual composition clocking in at seven minutes and thirty seconds, dominated—and I fucking mean DOMINATED—by the incredibly loud drums made possible by the stone room. The drums are so loud that they drown out the lyrics, so without access to a lyric sheet you really can’t understand what Andy’s on about. The drums pound away until the song reaches the five-and-a-half minute mark, followed by what was supposed to be the sound of a shower but to Andy’s delight sounded more like a guy taking the piss of a lifetime.
In fairness, Andy’s lyrics are pretty good . . . and I really wish I could hear them clearly in the context of the song. My favorite verses have to do with the manipulative nature of capitalism and its ability to raise hope without substance:
Building your whimsy
Hypnotising you to need
Dance goes full circle
One step ahead of your greed
You’ve learnt no lessons
All those years to get it right
Flashes of promise
Burn out faster than strobe light
I think Andy’s observations are spot-on I am very sorry that “Travels in Nihilon” suffered a tragic death from percussive overkill.
Even with my less-than-enthusiastic feelings about side two, I feel pretty good about Black Sea. I can hear the songwriters raising their game, I can hear Dave Gregory expanding his role and presence, and the band has no shortage of energy. I also know from peeking ahead that XTC will continue to get better and better . . . after and in spite of a few bumps in the road.
Next month: the original UK double album version of English Settlement.