When I first listened to The Big Express a few months ago, I voiced my reaction in typically pithy language.
“What the fuck is this shit?”
I was all set to skip The Big Express and go straight to the Dukes of Stratosphear when my Christmas miracle arrived a couple of months early.
Steven Wilson to the rescue!
I ordered the remix the second it became available. There was a bit of a delay in receiving the package because I thought I’d be back in Nice by the time it arrived but due to the implementation of a high-level terror alert in France, I thought it best to stay put in Ireland. Fortunately, my house-sitting cousin forwarded the package to me in Cork County tout suite.
The package includes several different mixes, but as I have no access to 5.1 equipment at present, my only option was the 2023 stereo mix. The first time through was delightful. Sometime during the second pass I felt growing trepidation. On the third go-round, I listened to the remix with the lyrics in front of me and my reaction can be summarized in two tiny word fragments.
What I realized is best expressed in a creative paraphrase of the famous line from Julius Caesar: “The fault lies not in Steven Wilson, but in the absence of a coherent vision.”
When you read the band member commentary about the experience of recording The Big Express, it becomes painfully obvious that Andy, Colin and Dave were not on the same page. Andy hired producer David Lord in the belief that he would be XTC’s George Martin, but Colin couldn’t relate to the guy on a musical level and Dave felt that Lord enabled Andy’s worst tendencies: “We were thinking, ‘What else can we put on this track?’—even if it didn’t need anything adding. David Lord was as bad as Andy for tarting things up when they didn’t need tarting up.” Colin also felt that the recording process interfered with musical collaboration: “It was just too analytical. Andy tends to analyse down to the minutest detail. We’d be listening to bass drums all fuckin’ day to see if they had any feel!” He described it as “the LinnDrum album” and added they had stopped “playing as a band” due to the reliance on overdubs.
While the album certainly fulfilled Andy’s desire for something more “boisterous” that fell into the category of “industrial pop,” his later comment that The Big Express “might be a concept album by stealth” reveals that the artistic vision for the album was murky at best. Prior to the start of recording, Andy predicted that the new album would not contain “any particularly multilayered things” and then wound up baking a musical cake with so many layers that it might have earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In the Todd Bernhardt interview for “Train Running Low on Soul Coal,” Andy inadvertently confirmed the lack of direction:
Yeah, I wrote this at a time when I was really confused about what I was supposed to be doing. You know, in terms of, “Well, that’s my touring career out of the way. I don’t want to do that anymore. We just made an album that didn’t sell very well”—that was Mummer. “We’re about to make another one that probably won’t sell very well, and Virgin are getting fed up with us and starting to grumble about potentially not carrying on with us.”
Biographer Chris Twomey, who holds a generally positive opinion of The Big Express, had to admit that the album had serious flaws:
Its hard-edged bluesier sound had turned parts of the album into a multilayered impervious wall of sound that only true XTC converts could get around. The five-month conception period had left much of it overworked and overproduced. On almost every song there were tantalising snatches of XTC at their most melodically potent, but the group was suffocated by heavy-handed production and cumbersome arrangements. “By the time The Big Express came out,” admits Dave, “I was so fed up with it I never wanted to hear it again.” (Twomey, Chris, Chalkhills and Children: The Definitive Biography, p. 138)
Hence the desperate need for Steven Wilson. His remix amounted to a thorough sonic house-cleaning and the results are often stunning. Unfortunately, The Big Express is marked by defects that fall far outside of Wilson’s responsibilities. Writer and musician Dave Bidini opined, “This might be XTC’s most humorless album—a sort of no-fun answer to the half-serious question asked on English Settlement . . . the direction of the band seems blurred. At this point, anything can happen.”
What I noticed once Steven Wilson cleared the muck is that the quality of the songwriting is madly inconsistent. Some suffer from a disconnection between lyrics and music, others combine solid lyrics with substandard music and a few are just plain annoying. Memorable melodies are in short supply while grating noises are in abundance. Some of the arrangements suffer from sudden, unnecessary changes that wreak havoc on the compositional flow. The album emphatically refutes one of Andy’s justifications for going studio-only: “If my music’s going to get better, and therefore XTC’s music, we need better quality songs and I need more time to write more and better quality songs.” If anything, the first two studio-only albums show a marked decline in songwriting quality.
To be fair, Andy was dealing with a lot of stuff at the time. He and his wife were expecting their first child, an experience known to infuse soon-to-be parents with equal helpings of hope and anxiety. As the titular leader of the band, he felt responsible for the group’s sagging chart performance and nagging financial problems. In response to a question from Todd Bernhardt about the shift to studio-only, Andy replied, “I had enormous guilt—‘Oh my god, have I ruined their careers?'” That guilt was likely accompanied by a feeling that it was on him to do everything he could to make things right, but the resulting pressure triggered his obsession with detail and the “need” to “tart things up.” He failed to heed the age-old advice, “Take your work seriously and yourself lightly.”
The Big Express is far from a total loss, however. Colin and Andy each contributed two songs that rank among their best and Wilson’s tinkering revealed the fundamentally solid bones that were hidden by the mix. While there remains far too much clutter to qualify The Big Express as one of XTC’s best, Wilson’s salvage efforts managed to nudge its status from “unlistenable” to “worth it for the most part.”
“Wake Up” (Moulding): Colin didn’t think it was much of a song but his perspective might have been soured by the David Lord treatment: “The Big Express recording of this is much embellished, producer David Lord takes the song to the Albert Hall and back.” To be honest, I thought Steven Wilson was about to meet his match with this one. I imagined he might even drown in the swampy mix and never come back.
I will never underestimate Steven Wilson again.
Thankfully, he avoided messing with the syncopated guitar back-and-forth that serves as the album’s opening thrust, marking a clear break from the more toned-down Mummer (though Andy considers “Funk Pop a Roll” the stepping stone to The Big Express). Wilson then proceeded to pull Colin’s vocal out of the ooze and give it more clarity, while slightly adjusting the panning on the drums to give Colin’s vocal more space and the drums more punch. What is most impressive about Wilson’s efforts is what he did with all those Albert Hall overlays—he lowered the volume of the instrumentation and increased the volume on Annie Huchrak’s “choir vocal” just enough to give it more presence in the mix. Those tweaks strengthened the composition to the nth degree by delineating between two separate states of consciousness—the noisy world of the day-to-day grind with its sharp guitars and the dreamy, synthesized world of semi-consciousness with its inner voice urging the narrator to “wake up.” The lengthy fade is a remarkable achievement in itself, with Wilson infusing the repeated declining synth figure with greater presence and transforming Annie’s previously muddy vocal into something ethereal and quite lovely.
Colin’s vocal and lyrical contributions stand in stark contrast to the image of the “good-looking one who writes pleasant pop music.” It is obvious from the tone of his voice and the tenor of the words that he is seriously disgusted with the millions of people who accept the mediocrity of forced routine as the permanent status quo:
You put your cleanest dirty shirt on
Then you stagger down to meet the dawn
You take a ride upon a bus, it’s just a fuss
You know it keeps you born
You get to know a morning face
You get to join the human race
You get to know the world has passed you by
Who cares? You might be dead
Who cares? You stayed in bed
Who cares? You wrote the note
Who cares? You might have spoke
Colin explained the gruesome last verse as “me being first at the scene of an accident, a recurring dream for many years.” Fair enough, but the verse does make an important point about how human suffering is often met with a strange combination of curiosity, indifference and the ultimate desire to keep it out of sight.
In the road a crowd had gathered
And a man was close to dead
The blood is running down the gutter
While you’re yawning, nothing’s said
His body’s wriggling like an eel
They got no sense, no touch, no feel
Somebody better go and get a blanket
Andy thought the song was a great opener, and thanks to Steven Wilson, the rest of us can now agree.
“All You Pretty Girls” (Partridge): The opening foray with its Mellotron-choir-in-a-bucket, LinnDrum pattern and Andy’s otherworldly vocal makes for an ear-catching introduction, but the sea shanty that follows gets old pretty quickly, falling from “kinda cute” to “incredibly annoying.” The sing-songy melody sounds familiar, so it’s probably a recycling job.
The lyrics make no sense whatsoever. A sailor asks his mates to send a message in the bottle in case he croaks on the high seas. The message is a blessing for the girls who wait by the seaside for their sailor boys to come home. Now, if I were one of those girls, I’d be mightily pissed off to receive a lousy bottle. What does Andy want me to do with it? Use it as a dildo? I want a real man!
“Shake You Donkey” (Partridge): According to Farmer, this song is supposed to be about “unenlightened attitudes about women” but Andy’s pronoun manipulation makes it a difficult tale to follow. Here’s what I get: a guy loses his girl to another guy, the other guy is a violent type who kicks the girl, the girl kicks back and Andy calls the guy a jackass. Not the most stirring attack on domestic violence and hardly a major contribution to feminist literature.
The guitar intro is good enough to raise my expectations but the chorus is quite annoying and unworthy of repetition. Wilson managed to clean up the overall sound but the abundant ingredients in the mix make for too many distractions.
“Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her (Partridge): I’m not sure if English seagulls are different than American seagulls or if Andy’s imagination was running wild when he wrote this song, but linking seagulls to romance is something that would have never occurred to me. The seagulls who hang out in San Francisco are mean, nasty birds who conspire with one another to launch precision shit-bombing runs targeting innocent human beings before they have time to dive for cover. The sound of seagull splat terrifies me to this day.
Don’t worry—I can put my feelings aside and consider the song from Andy’s perspective. I’ll also ignore parts of the backstory that cross the line into “rock star gossip.” If you’re interested in that kind of stuff, you can go to the chalkhills.org page on the song.
The song is basically a character sketch involving a shy young man who has invited his crush to spend the day at the seaside and finds himself unable to work up the courage to get to first base. The tale is largely presented through the young man’s inner thoughts, but rather than boring us with extensive psychologizing, Andy paints a vivid scene where the interactions between the young man and the physical environment reveal his state of mind. The features of the physical environment also serve as useful distractions that allow the young man to delay the first kiss for as long as possible.
Our first contact with our not-so-heroic hero finds him wrapped in gloom, latching onto environmental factors to justify his paralysis. It’s raining. It’s foggy. “The black coastline slumbers on.” You can hear him thinking “Just like me to pick the worst possible day to take her to the beach. She probably hates me now.”
He deliberately chooses to ignore evidence to the contrary. When they sit down she moves closer. While he’s whining about the weather, she moves even closer and he can smell the salt in her hair. Meanwhile, the seagulls, the “warship grey” sea and the “flags that flap on the pier” seem to be encouraging him to get off his ass and give the girl a smooch. Caught between green lights and red lights, his inner voice finally intervenes with a stern warning:
If you want her, you should tell her
Take her by the hand If you hesitate
If you wait, November wins
She returns to sand
With the hourglass draining, he finally shakes off the protective shield and initiates conversation, but alas, the interaction does not result in a victory kiss:
I say I like your coat
Her thank-you tugs my heart afloat
I nearly didn’t hear for
Seagulls screaming kiss her, kiss her
I feel terrible for the poor kid, but I think Andy was right to dispense with the hoped-for happy ending. That little tug of his heart tells me he’ll get there on the next date.
The music is decent, though I wish they would have silenced the Mellotron during the euphonium solos. The Mellotron effectively removes some of the brightness of the brass.
“This World Over” (Partridge): Andy wrote this song in response to the Gipper’s aggressive ramblings about the Evil Empire and his decision to ramp up nuke production. In XTC: Song Stories, he told Neville Farmer, “My first child was on the way and I just thought that, if I survived, how terrible it would be to have to tell her what life used to be like, that there was once a place called London and it was a fantastic place but it’s not there anymore.”
The strongest lyrics can be found in the two verses aimed at “that far-off and mythical land” we know as the United States. I read Andy’s use of “far off and mythical land” as a pair of double entendres: “far off” means “out of touch with reality” and “mythical land” translates to “a country that doesn’t live up to its incessant self-promotion.” The first of the American verses deals with the celebrity president and his unbridled machismo; the second exposes the hypocrisy of the Reagan-loving Christian right in embracing mutually assured mass destruction:
Will you tell them about that far-off and mythical land
About their leader with the famous face?
Will you tell them that the reason nothing ever grows
In the garden anymore
Because he wanted to win the craziest race . . .
Will you tell them about that far-off and mythical land
And how a child to the virgin came?
Will you tell them that the reason why we murdered
Everything upon the surface of the world
So we can stand right up and say we did it in his name?
The problem with the song is the yawning gap between the lyrics and the music, for the dire circumstances depicted in the words are set to a bland, slick, 80s pop arrangement. The softness of the music clashes mightily with the hard truths in the lyrics, inadvertently communicating that “things aren’t that bad.”
“The Everyday Story of Smalltown” (Partridge): If the Steven Wilson mix is your first encounter with “Smalltown,” you will likely gape with astonishment when I tell you that it wasn’t released as a single. After all, writing songs about “small things in small towns” is XTC’s sweet spot and its release as a single may have encouraged those British fans who checked out in response to Mummer to give the band another chance.
Dave Gregory certainly thought it was a hit waiting to happen, but reluctantly changed his mind when he heard the finished product and learned that “It was twatted by a lousy mix.”
Man, I love British idioms.
Thanks to Steven Wilson we now have access to an untwatted mix and the results are quite impressive. In one of the best Todd Bernhardt interviews on chalkhills.org, Bernhardt guides Andy through every line in the song, so there’s no need for me to duplicate their efforts. I’ll limit my commentary to the music and the passages that moved me the most.
It’s unfortunate that XTC’s dire financial straits prevented them from hiring a real brass band for the intro because the E-mu Emulator they borrowed from Tears for Fears sounds cheap, cheesy and cartoonish. I especially loathe the fake brass in the reprise, where it comes out of nowhere to wreck the flow and weaken the transition to the triumphant closing chorus.
By contrast, I love the music of the song proper. Pete Phipps maintains the march on a real drum kit, keeping the jaunty nature of a march intact. Andy’s vocal is exceptional throughout the piece, combining noticeable energy with due precision on the parts marked by trickier phrasing. The harmonies and background vocals match Andy’s enthusiasm and are superbly executed. The general vibe is one of playfulness, making this the one song that contradicts Dave Bidini’s generalization of The Big Express as a no-fun album.
The “Smalltown” is Swindon, of course, and though Andy pokes fun at its ways, means and quirks, it’s obvious that he feels genuine affection for the place, despite having his sleep disturbed by Bert the Milkman and the Salvation Army band. What he doesn’t love is the “progress” Colin wrote about in “Ball and Chain.”
If it’s all the same to you, Mrs. Progress
Think I’ll drink my Oxo up
And get away
It’s not that you’re repulsive to see
In your brand new catalogue nylon nightie
You’re too fast for little old me
Next you’ll be telling me it’s 1990
You may notice that Andy modifies his tone and timbre in the anti-progress verse; he explained in the interview, “I was thinking of Bert the Baker/Bert the Milkman saying this bit.”
Andy also explained to Bernhardt that the “voice” in the bridge is Swindon itself. To some that might seem crazy, but the personification of towns, cities and villages has been a uniquely human pastime for centuries:
One Bible verse describes Jerusalem as a woman—variously a widow, a queen, and a slave. Isabella Whitney’s 1573 poem “Will and Testament” is structured as a letter to London (“The time is come I must depart/from thee, ah, famous city . . . Yet to the last, I shall not cease/to wish much good to thee”). Jack Kerouac, too, picked up on the trope: “Paris is a woman,” he wrote in Lonesome Traveler, “but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub.” These are just a few points of interest in a vast literary map that includes Raymond Chandler (Los Angeles), James Joyce (Dublin, obviously), and Honoré de Balzac (Paris, again).
The authors of that Atlas Obscura article note that we think of cities as “sheltering organisms.” So does Andy Partridge:
I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more
And I’ve sheltered all the children who have fought the wars
And as payment they make love in me
In squeaky old beds
In bicycle sheds
Inside of their heads
As singles and weds
As Tories and Reds
And that’s how I’m fed
And that’s how I’m fed
I completely endorse Andy’s implication that the main purpose of shelter is to provide a suitable environment for fucking and fully believe that “Smalltown” is one of his best works.
“I Bought Myself a Liarbird” (Partridge): “In the 1998 XTC biography Song Stories, the song’s entry simply states: ‘Due to a legal arrangement with their former management, XTC is unable to discuss the lyrical content of this song!'” (Wikipedia)
And I won’t either. I will say that while it gets tiresome to listen to musicians bitch about getting screwed by certain persons who in this case shall remain nameless, Andy’s mockery of one of those certain persons who shall remain nameless makes me laugh.
“Reign of Blows” (Partridge): The opening passage sounds like the Rolling Stones when they haven’t had any poontang for weeks, immediately perking my interest. I lose interest immediately when Andy sings the first line and I can’t understand a word he’s singing. He wanted this song about violent regimes to sound violent, so he channeled his voice through an amp, transforming his vocal into unintelligible static. It’s likely that Steven Wilson was aware of Andy’s intent and respectfully avoided messing with the artist’s vision, such as it was.
“You’re the Wish You Are I Had” (Partridge): I wish wish wish wish wish wish wish wish this song had never been recorded.
“I Remember the Sun” (Moulding): The syncopated rhythm gives this piece about Colin’s childhood memories a decided jazz feel, but the piece contains little in the way of “jazz chords.” The richness of the music stems from alternate voicings and subtle variations on the E chord, a surprising but ultimately satisfying key change to C minor in the bridge and Dave’s marvelous turn on the piano, a mix of spot-on percussive chords and alternating sweet and dramatic arpeggios. Colin’s vocal is excellent and the call-and-response harmonies in the chorus are quite delightful.
Colin’s memories of playing in the field next to the Penhill Estates in Swindon evoke analogous memories of my childhood, and I’m sure that’s true for anyone who listens to the song. Children live in a timeless world of unlimited imagination where nothing is silly and everything is possible:
Hot as golden sand in fields
We whiled away the hours
I’m thinking of the days we had
Yes I’m sleeping, my mind’s on the blink
I thought a page, like it’s written in ink
When I remember distant days
I remember many things, but
Most of all, I remember the sun
My memories of childhood in San Francisco would demand a title change because most of all I remember the fog. That may sound like a downer, but I still spent most of my time outside because children have some kind of magic shield that makes them oblivious to the weather.
How I wish they hadn’t followed this lovely song with a virtual noisefest.
“Train Running Low on Soul Coal” (Partridge): Kudos to the band for creating a reasonable facsimile of a steam engine but who the hell wants to listen to that? Andy described this piece as “possibly one of the most autobiographical songs—I’m the train and I’m losing my inspiration.” Ironically, this piece confirms that his worries were indeed valid.
In my always humble opinion, I view this song as symbolic of a missed opportunity to transform The Big Express into something more coherent—a real concept album devoted to “small things in small towns.” All three bonus tracks (also remixed by Wilson) are Swindon-based, and when you add “Wake Up,” “Smalltown” and “I Remember the Sun,” you’re halfway there. As Swindon’s identity had been closely linked to the railroads for over a century, a piece about the inexorable decline of the Swindon Works—the largest employer in town—would have been far more impactful than a song about Andy’s anxieties, reinforcing the “Is this really progress?” theme introduced in “Smalltown.” Given their intimate familiarity with the place, I don’t think it would have been particularly difficult for Andy and Colin to come up with a few more songs about life in Swindon. All that was missing was a crystal-clear vision—and “more boisterous” hardly qualifies as a vision.
To this day, Andy Partridge staunchly defends Mummer and The Big Express to anyone and everyone who will listen. One quote cited in the Mojo article XTC – ‘Til Death Do Us Part revealed the extent of his defensiveness: “Call me stupid, but these were good records. If you bastards don’t want to buy ’em, what can I do? I had faith in my art.”
Well, Andy, what you can do is get out of your defensive turtle shell and ask for some feedback, like “This is what I was trying to do on this song. Do you think I achieved what I wanted to achieve?”
Faith in one’s art is essential but so is learning. I wish Star Trek: The Next Generation had aired in the 80s, for Andy might have learned something from Lieutenant Commander Data. In the episode “Schisms,” Data initiates a conversation with Geordi after giving a poetry reading in Ten Forward:
DATA: I noticed that many spectators seemed distracted during my presentation. Was my poetry uninteresting?
LAFORGE: Well, it was very well constructed, a virtual tribute to form.
DATA: Thank you. And?
LAFORGE: And what?
DATA: Did it evoke an emotional response?
LAFORGE: Well . . .
DATA: Your hesitation suggests you are trying to protect my feelings. However, since I have none, I would prefer you to be honest. An artist’s growth depends upon accurate feedback.
Andy desperately needed to chill out, stop worrying about everything under the sun and kick-start his latent playfulness. As we’ll learn in our next episode, all he had to do was slip on a Paisley jacket and light a few patchouli-scented candles to start having fun again.
Note: YouTube has yet to publish single-track videos of the Steven Wilson remix, so I’ll add them when they become available. The full remix is accessible on YouTube courtesy of Radiorock TheOriginal.