After we’d finished touring Black Sea, which was most of the second half of 1980, we were all ready to do something new. It was time to sort of expand the two guitars bass and drums lineup, maybe add a piano here and there, and just think about maybe different guitar textures. So we went and rehearsed songs that would become English Settlement.
—Dave Gregory, This Is Pop
Dave’s recollection captures only one side of the story. After insisting on limited instrumentation for Black Sea so the songs could be accurately reproduced on stage, Andy Partridge did a 180:
The problem for me was that I was beginning to absolutely hate touring. I wasn’t a young man anymore and my body was starting to rebel against the lifestyle. We’d been doing it pretty much non-stop for nearly a decade and I was sick of it all: the crap food, the hours stuck on a bus with the same faces and the general soul-destroying tediousness of it. I got it into my head that if I wrote an album with a sound less geared towards touring then maybe there would be less pressure to tour.
I suppose endless touring would make a young man of twenty-nine feel like a geezer, but try telling that to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
In Andy’s case though, there were extenuating circumstances—a 13-year Valium addiction and spells of amnesia, manifested in one very troubling incident:
. . . We were traveling around the States in this little seated van, and we were somewhere like upstate New York, with very heavy snow. We were traveling along quite slowly, and I said, ‘I really need to pee.’ I jumped out of the van and wandered into this field, and was pissing in this snow, up to my knees, and I thought, ‘Who am I? Who the hell am I, and what am I doing in this field?’ . . . I remember laying on the seat in the back of the van in a fetal position, sobbing quietly, not knowing who the hell I was.
Still on tour a few months later, he returned to his L.A. hotel to find that his then-wife had emptied his bucket of Valium tablets down the loo, forcing Andy to experience withdrawal cold turkey and aggravating his already fragile state.
Back home after the long slog, Andy floated the idea of ending or severely reducing touring with Dave, Colin and the suits at Virgin but met with unanimous disbelief and disapproval. He did not bring it up with Terry Chambers, as he already knew he’d be a solid “No!”
Andy’s scarcely hidden agenda of making an album with “a sound less geared towards touring” happened to dovetail nicely with the band’s shared desire to do something different, though each had their own ideas about what “different” might sound like. Andy told The Quietus “With English Settlement I wanted to move in a more pastoral, more acoustic direction,” but though acoustic instruments appear with greater frequency, English Settlement is hardly an acoustic album. Dave Gregory’s desire to “maybe add a little piano here or there and just think about maybe different guitar textures” veers closer to the truth, but really, his assertion is British understatement at its best. After two albums highlighting gated drums and “slashing guitars,” XTC created a work of vast sonic diversity, featuring a variety of instrumentation, fascinating chord progressions, a wide range of musical influences and intricate vocal arrangements. The search for new sounds was contagious: Colin treated himself to a new fretless bass, Dave picked up a 12-string Ric and Terry agreed to Andy’s suggestions that he invest in a new drum set-up. And despite his personal struggles, Andy Partridge wrote eleven of the fifteen songs on English Settlement, some of which are among his best.
When I pondered how a guy who was teetering on the edge of a breakdown could have found the energy and desire to create a prodigious amount of quality music under the strain of a tight schedule, I recalled a brief scene early in the documentary This Is Pop where for a few seconds we see Andy at his desk, painting something on art paper. Despite the presence of the camera, he seems lost in concentration, fully absorbed in the act of creation. I’d like to think that immersing himself in his creative endeavors served as a form of sanctuary from his demons.
That said, it’s obvious that all the band members embraced the spirit of creative exploration in their contributions to English Settlement. As Annie Zaleski noted in her retrospective review, “When compared to the band’s previous record, 1980’s Black Sea—not to mention 1979’s post-punk milestone Drums & Wires—English Settlement is less frantic and more deliberate-sounding. This translates to music that’s stubbornly in between genres and resists pigeonholing.”
English Settlement was released in two formats: a fifteen-song double album spread over four sides and a ten-song single LP released in two slightly different versions; I’ve chosen to review the full double album. The track order is a bit odd in that they frontloaded the album with back-to-back Colin songs, then we don’t hear anything from Colin until side four. I think the album might have been better balanced by placing Colin’s four songs on each of the four sides.
There are a couple of songs that go on a bit too long and some others that could have benefitted from more time in the studio (depending on the source, the album was recorded in five or six weeks). These are fairly minor quibbles compared to what XTC achieved with English Settlement—a significant expansion of their playing field and a quantum leap in the range and quality of Andy Partridge’s compositions.
“Runaways” (Moulding): I don’t know whose idea it was to place “Runaways” in the pole position, but XTC couldn’t have selected a better song to express their intent to do something different. And no, I’m not talking about a “more acoustic direction,” as the only acoustic instruments on this track are Terry Chambers’ drums and Andy’s semi-acoustic electric 12-string.
In contrast to the bright guitars, gated drums and assertive vocals of the Black Sea opener “Respectable Street,” this is a haunting piece with filtered, distant vocals, 12-string guitars, a synthesized ambient background and a more naturally booming bass drum. The opening line reads “Oh run-a, oh run-a, oh runaways,” but when you first hear the “oh-run-a” it sounds like part of a chant in an unknown language reaching out to lost souls, adding a bit of exotic mystery to the piece.
The lost soul in this case is a runaway from a dysfunctional family whose daddy hit her/him in a fit of temper and whose mother went after daddy with a knife. Like many violent assholes, they say they’re sorry for what they did but chances are they’ll resort to the established pattern if the kid chooses to come home. The vocal arrangement is reminiscent of “She’s Leaving Home,” with ghostly cries of “please come home” floating over Colin’s narrative of the child’s encounter with homelessness. The kid wanders from city to country, “lost in a maze of neon light” one night and in a “haystack for your bed” the next. The last verse seems to be a flashback to the moment of terror that inspired the kid to get the hell out:
You heard screams from
The warmth of your bed
(Don’t cry, don’t cry)
You slumbered on without being fed
(Don’t cry, don’t cry)
Now there’s no more tears to be shed,
And she’s sorry,
He’s sorry, oh . . .
Given both Colin’s (“Making Plans for Nigel”) and Andy’s (“Helicopter”) skepticism regarding parental competence, we can assume that the only thing Mom and Dad are sorry about is the embarrassment they’re likely to face when trying to explain the child’s absence to the neighbors.
Though the scene is similar to “She’s Leaving Home,” there are noticeable differences. The key lyrical difference is that McCartney only hinted at the girl’s reasons for a sudden exit (“something inside that was always denied”) while Colin explicitly depicted the ugly truth of child abuse. The musical difference between the two songs is even more obvious, with the Beatles opting for “sad and regretful” and XTC going “dark and ghostly.” “Runaways” may not be your typical album opener but it certainly has enough going for it to engage the listener.
“Ball and Chain” (Moulding): I guess Colin was having Sgt. Pepper flashbacks during this period, because according to the commentary on the song page on Chalkhills.org, Andy claimed that “‘Ball and Chain’ was based on ‘Getting Better.'” I assume he was referring to the assertive, downstrummed guitar chords and pumping rhythm as opposed to the vocal arrangement or the lyrics.
XTC members have frequently alluded to their admiration for the Beatles, but “Ball and Chain” is more Ray Davies than Lennon-McCartney. With Ray tied to his Arista contract and focusing on creating music to make Americans happy, someone had to stand up for preservation and against the mindless destruction of architectural gems, and Colin was certainly motivated to do so, as he recalled in an interview with Todd Bernhardt:
I think it was probably the state at the time of where we were living. The whole Swindon area seemed to be under the hammer. Mrs. Thatcher had come to power a couple of years before, and [laughs ruefully] everything was kind of being battered to the ground. 3 million unemployed — it was a difficult period, until this country got its North Sea oil revenue and began to come out the other side.
Swindon doesn’t have much beautiful architecture, but a lot of the old buildings that it did have seemed to be coming under the hammer, with a lot of shite being put up in place of it.
The music is essentially “Getting Better” with a “football vocal” where the boys sing in unison. Though it was chosen as the second single, it failed to crack the top 30, and Colin wasn’t particularly surprised: “ . . . it wasn’t much of a song. I think I’d gone off the boil . . . The least favourite of my contributions.” In considering the two opening songs in the context of the album, I think they’re good warmup numbers, but the real gems on English Settlement come from Mr. Partridge.
“Senses Working Overtime” (Partridge): Okay. Pretend you’re a budding songwriter and you’ve written a song that you think is a surefire hit. You decide to “go to a publisher and play him your song” but before he agrees to listen to your work, he asks you a simple question: “What’s the song about?” Your chest filling with pride, you tell the publisher, “The song is about a farmer in the Middle Ages tilling the land while musing on the wonder of the five senses.” What do you think happens next?
Odds are he’ll kick your arse out the door, right? I don’t even think he’d sign you up because he hates to be wrong.
As it turns out, the publisher should have hedged his bets, for a song about a medieval farmer contemplating the five senses became XTC’s biggest hit (and the only one to make it to the Top 10).
To understand how this miracle came to pass, we have to take a trip inside the brain of one Andy Partridge. The quote below where Andy describes how he came up with “Senses Working Overtime” is from the Todd Bernhardt interview about the song, but I strongly advise interested parties to check out Andy’s explanation in This Is Pop as it provides a more vivid picture of his creative process. The segment begins at 29:10.
Here’s the prelude. The band submitted an early version of English Settlement to Virgin and their response was “Where’s the hit record?” Andy decided to take up the challenge and immediately made his way home to Swindon and into the front room where he did most of his writing.
So, I went in there and thought, “Well, okay, what were immediate great singles that had you singing them within 10 seconds?” And literally the first one that popped into my head was [sings] “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1” [imitates beat], you know, the Manfred Mann thing . . . I thought, “Okay, 5-4-3-2-1 — I’ll go 1-2-3-4-5!” So, I thought, “5-4-3-2-1 was like a count-down to something, 1-2-3-4-5 is like adding up–what is there five of? There are five fingers—no, really, there are four fingers and a thumb. There are [dumb voice] five seasons! No. There are five senses! Right!”
So I worked on this kind of stomping, idiot pattern, thinking about the five senses. Then I thought, “Well, everyone has five senses, what’s great about that? Well, they’re not just working, they’re going crazy! They’re working overtime! They’re taking all of life in, and it’s too much!” Because life is just too much . . .
So, I was piecing it together. I had the 1-2-3-4-5, and it was going to be about the senses, and these senses were just going to be going crazy at the fantasticness of the world. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to need a verse.” The chorus was in E, and I remember I was playing the chorus, not looking at the guitar, and I stumbled and inadvertently played a part of an E-flat. And I thought, “Fuck, that sounds great! What is it?” And I looked down, and saw I was playing the E wrongly, playing it like a messed-up E-flat, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds really medieval! Let me find another chord that fits with that.”
So I messed around until I found two chords that seemed to go together and I thought, “Yeah, this sounds great, it’s medieval, it’s like pictures from illuminated manuscripts, tilling the soil, and wow, how hard life was in those days. So, I know, I’ll make the verse kind of like these little figures tilling the land, and cutting hedgerows, and stuff—I’ll make it as if it’s their woes, and their worries, and the things that they’d be singing about—or the things they’d be fantasizing about . . . ”
I didn’t know how to join the half-time medieval bit to the great big stomping bit in E . . . but I actually had a song called “The Wonderment”—the lyrics of which, some of them, went on to become “Tissue Tigers.” I took part of “The Wonderment,” which was the A to the A suspended part, and then the B to the B suspended. Ending up on the B was a great way of getting into the chorus, because that’s the set-up for E, you know. So that was it—I was going to nab this piece of song called “The Wonderment,” and have that.
All those disparate parts came together to form one of the most exciting builds on record, a stunning progression from pastoral-medieval to gradually rising wonderment to a veritable explosion of melodic rock ‘n’ roll.
The song begins very quietly with a muffled acoustic guitar pattern alternating between 6-8 and 8-6 on the fourth and third strings respectively, a pattern of truncated G# minor/A# minor. Light rim/skin shots enter to firm up the rhythm followed by the appearance of a tambourine, bass drum and fretless bass. Andy sings the verses in the rather plaintive tone of a farmer engaged in heavy work under a bright sun. The farmer’s thoughts are a mix of completed chores, the struggle between good and evil and one imaginative metaphor:
Hey, hey, the clouds are away
There’s straw for the donkeys
And the innocents can all sleep safely
All sleep safely, all sleep safely
My, my, sun is pie
There’s fodder for the cannons
And the guilty ones can all sleep safely
All sleep safely, all sleep safely
The build that follows involves multi-layered upward movement in rhythm, key and volume. After a single closing measure, we move from half-time to straight time with a chord change to A major/A9sus4 courtesy of Dave Gregory’s 12-string Rickenbacker. Terry and Colin establish a strong driving beat as Andy strengthens his vocal and the volume starts to rise. The farmer lets his imagination run wild in cartoon-like fashion (“And all the world is football-shaped/It’s just for me to kick in space”) and on the word “space” we experience an upward movement to B major/B9sus4 to support a burst of sensual joy (“And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste”), cueing the climactic moment. . . “And I’ve got ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE” with Terry adding a good strong whack on each number. Dave switches to arpeggios for the rest of the chorus, the sound of his Rickenbacker sweetening the moment with gorgeous chiming guitar:
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in
I’ve got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to taste the difference ‘tween a lemon and a lime
Pain and pleasure and the church bells softly chime
Climactic, orgasmic, whatever—the build to the climax is one endlessly exciting piece of music.
The verse-bridge-chorus pattern repeats itself (hooray!), enhanced by the background sound of “farmers” grunting their way through the daily drudgery. Meanwhile, our farmer’s musings become increasingly metaphoric (“Night fights day,” “The sky will cry,” “Jewels for the thirsty”). What Andy didn’t mention in his tour through the song’s creation is that there’s an additional bridge that features wonderful falsetto scat and involves some time travel to the current age:
And birds might fall from black skies (woo-woo)
And bullies might give you black eyes (woo-woo)
And buses might skid on black ice
But to me they’re very, very beautiful
(A striking beauty)
The bits about England’s glory and striking beauty form a pun within a pun: England’s Glory is a brand of wooden matches and “a striking beauty” was their tagline (thank you again, chalkhills.org).
The song ends with a couple of rounds of the bridge-and-chorus, the first round enhanced by a clever twist in the closing couplet:
Trying to tell the difference ‘tween the goods and grime
Turds and treasure and there’s one, two, three, four, five . . .
I floated the idea of changing my tagline from “music with a touch of erotica” to “trying to tell the difference between the turds and treasure in music,” but the look of horror on Alicia’s face forced me to abandon that proposal.
“Senses Working Overtime” is not only a great song but also serves to brighten the atmosphere after two songs dealing with parental misconduct and wholesale destruction. For reasons unknown, XTC doesn’t own the rights to the official video, so I can only post the audio here. If you’re interested, you can view the video on YouTube.
“Jason and the Argonauts” (Partridge): In the first segment of Chanan Hanspal’s series Andy Partridge – How I Write Songs, Andy explains that he wanted to write a song about touring and “needed something to peg it on.” He hit on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts—not after plunging himself into the labyrinth of Greek mythology, but because he loved the claymation depiction of the tale that came out when he was ten years old. With those images in mind, he picked up his guitar and “stumbled upon” an arpeggio in a crescendo/decrescendo pattern with the emphasis at the peak. The arpeggio triggered a picture in his mind of the rising waves and swells that accompany a sea journey on a fast boat. That arpeggio became the central motif of “Jason and the Argonauts.”
Andy told Chanan that “stumbling upon” is how he writes, further admitting he’d be hard-pressed to identify the key of most of his songs (Chanan threw a lifeline to us music geeks in the audience by identifying the mode of “Jason and the Argonauts” as G Lydian). Fundamentally, Andy intuitively understood that creativity involves play, and as we all know from childhood, there are no mistakes in play; it’s an open learning environment. Applying that truth to music composition means that there’s no such thing as a “wrong chord” when you’re exploring the possibilities, allowing playful types like Andy to go wherever their fingers take them.
In the end, of course, you want all your explorations to come together to create a coherent (or deliberately incoherent) piece of music, and different composers have different views of coherence. Since Andy’s musical background is grounded in pop, he has an intuitive feel for pop structures, but he’s not afraid to spice things up with novel chords and unexpected rhythmic twists. As he once said, “I have to have novelty constantly. I have to have new things. I have to have gentle surprises and I like things to not go into predictable places.”
“Jason and the Argonauts” reflects those values by combining colorful chord combinations in the verses and bridge with that mesmerizing guitar arpeggio performed with Andy taking the basic pattern in one channel and Dave complementing the main melody with harmony on the other. When Andy makes a game attempt at mimicking the sound of a Viking horn in the chorus (“Jason and the ArGOnauts”), you have to smile at the playfulness.
The lyrics are a ship’s log of a journey—in this case, Andy’s encounters with other human beings while on tour. The general mood has been described as dark and pessimistic, and the first verse line certainly hints at that direction: “Oh, my head is spinning like the world and it’s filled with beasts I’ve seen.” Andy then sings of “a scarlet woman who would pick up on the boys she thought were green” and “the two-faced man who made a hobby of breaking his wife’s heart.” He really lets it rip in the third verse:
I was in a land where men force women to hide their facial features,
And here in the West it’s just the same but they’re using make-up veils.
I’ve seen acts of every shade of terrible crime from man-like creatures,
And I’ve had the breath of liars blowing me off course in my sails.
Whoa, dude! It’s time to get off the road . . . er, boat!
“No Thugs in Our House” (Partridge): This is a solid rock number that opens with strummed acoustic guitar in “Summertime Blues” style, snappy drums and one hell of a scream that gives me the giggles. Andy was asked about that violent gargle in a Todd Bernhardt interview:
Well, that’s my Johnny Winter yell you’re hearing there. It was one of the things we’d do in the dressing room—I was always being provoked, because I had, like, the loudest yell in the known universe. It’d be, “Oh, c’mon, Partsy, do your Johnny Winter yell. Give us all a laugh.” So I’d yell like a wounded mountain gorilla or something, which would cause great mirth and merriment amongst all company gathered therein. I thought, “Well, I’ve got to throw this into a song somewhere,” you know.
He couldn’t have picked a better song for the yell than “No Thugs in Our House,” another installment in the XTC campaign against dumb fucking parents. Oh! Here they are!
The insect-headed worker-wife will hang her waspies on the line;
The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying their cushion-floor;
His viscous poly-paste breath comes out,
Their wall-paper world is shattered by his shout,
A boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen door
Hmm. A bobby at the door. What’s that all about? Meanwhile, their beloved son Graham is sound asleep “Dreaming of a world where he could do just what he wanted to.” I’m curious and somewhat suspicious about what Graham wants to do, but the parents step in to assure me that all is well with their progeny:
No thugs in our house, are there dear?
We made that clear,
We made little Graham promise us he’d be a good boy (2)
The policeman enters and attempts to dispel them of their naïvete:
The young policeman who just can’t grow a mustache will open up his book,
And spoil their breakfast with reports of Asians who have been so badly kicked
Is this your son’s wallet I’ve got here?
He must have dropped it after too much beer
Oh, officer, we can’t believe our little angel is the one you’ve picked
Aha! So Graham is one of those dumb fuck white supremacists from the National Front and what he wants to do is beat up immigrants. Apparently the dumb fuck parents had their heads up their asses, for the evidence was right in front of their blank faces:
They never read those pamphlets in his bottom drawer,
They never read that tattoo on his arm
They thought that was just a boys’ club badge he wore,
They never thought he’d do folks any harm
Lock up the whole lot! That’s what should happen, but the cards are stacked in the white boy’s favor:
The insect-headed worker wife will hang her waspies on the line;
She’s singing something stale and simple now this business has fizzled out;
Her little tune is such a happy song
Her son is innocent, he can’t do wrong,
‘Cause dad’s a judge and knows exactly what the job of judging’s all about
As the song progresses, Andy’s repeated screams gather more meaning, somewhere between pulling-your-hair-out frustration and bottomless disgust with parental irresponsibility. For the most part, the song moves forward in solid rock mode with some great licks from Dave and the usual tight rhythms from Colin and Terry. The only deviation occurs during the “They thought” bridge where that band takes it down a couple of notches and Dave switches from guitar to the Prophet V synthesizer, adding a swirling melody that serves as a temporary departure from the intensity.
XTC could have easily made it as a pure rock ‘n’ roll band, but I’m glad they didn’t.
“Yacht Dance” (Partridge): News flash! Andy Partridge does romance! This lovely number is the first real acoustic piece on the album, with Dave fingering a nylon-stringed guitar and Andy complementing with acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars. The arrangement is polyrhythmic, with guitars locked into a fast waltz while the rhythm section of Chambers on roto-tom and Moulding on fretless bass plays in 4/4 time. The inspiration for the piece came from a song Andy heard as a kid, “Messing About on the River” by Josh MacRae, but the two songs have enough differences to relieve Andy of any suspicions of plagiarism. “You know, stuff you hear as a kid—it’s going to come out at some time or another,” he told Todd Bernhardt, and in this case, it came out beautiful.
“All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late)” (Partridge):
I’m happy to report that Andy and I are in complete agreement regarding the song’s only serious flaw: “It’s one of the deaths of my early-album voice. You can hear the dying embers of my trying-too-hard voice.” He plays it straight throughout most of the song, but in some of the transition lines his voice takes on a bit of snarkiness that contradicts the central message—that love is a precious, fragile thing that can die from neglect if we fail to spend the little time we have on earth nurturing it.
Dave Gregory opens the song with a beautiful downward 12-string arpeggio that avoids resolution, a musical message that hints at a problem in need of a solution. The melody is perfectly lovely, set to a verse pattern of D-A relieved by a closing F and a bridge pattern that employs an Em7-Bb change with a closing F# that is both unexpected and appropriate. I love the decision to allow Colin to sing the title line in the chorus, as it beautifully reinforces the melody. Dave’s 12-string Ric gets another full workout, a mix of gorgeous strums and sweet counterpoint fills. Andy thought the song went on too long and would have cut Terry’s late-intro drum part, but I think the song is too long and they should have cut the final chorus.
This is the socio-cultural-political side of the album and several critics hated it. In a retrospective review Peter Helman of Stereogum opined, “If we’re looking at the original, double LP release, side three feels like an absolute throwaway. That might raise some hackles, but I urge you to go dial up “Melt The Guns” at your earliest convenience. The sentiment of the song is a fine one (especially today), but it is a hiccupping, twitchy disaster, and a waste of Gregory’s glistening guitar leads and Moulding’s minimalist bass work. And things only get more awkward from there. “Leisure,” the ode to the working man, clomps forward like a dying nag; “It’s Nearly Africa” tries for a Fear Of Music-style mashup and threatens cultural insensitivity; and “Knuckle Down” has all the nuance of saying “tsk tsk” to racist acts. Good effort; failed execution.”
Some fair points, but a bit harsh and rather superficial, I’d say.
“Melt the Guns” (Partridge): In a then-contemporary review of English Settlement, Jim Farmer of Creem wrote, “As on Black Sea, with its fear-of-war songs, XTC’s new songs feature some topical nods, like ‘Melt The Guns,’ an anti-U.S. peacenik plea.”
I thought “peacenik” only applied to the anti-nukes crowd. Farmer sounds like a proto-MAGA moron when he claims that protesting the sick American obsession with firearms is somehow anti-American. Hey, stupid! Andy Partridge was trying to save American lives. How on earth could that be interpreted as anti-American? If Americans had taken Andy’s words to heart, perhaps the number of gun deaths in the United States wouldn’t have increased from 34,050 in 1981 to 48,830 twenty years later . . . and perhaps we wouldn’t read about mass shootings somewhere in America nearly every fucking day.
Farmer also criticizes the song’s tone as “chipper.” I beg your pardon, sir, but what I hear in Andy’s voice is a combination of incredulity that any civilized nation could be so lax in controlling access to weapons and a desire to expose the gun fetish as pure silliness. He even expresses confidence that Americans will someday get their shit together: “You’ll gather your senses I’m sure.” I hear him reaching out in friendship, making an effort to expose a nagging blind spot in the American psyche. And he rightly points the finger at American entertainment entities for continually selling the myth of “good guys with guns”:
Children will want them,
Mothers supply them,
As long as your killers are heroes.
I find no issue at all with the still painfully relevant lyrics, but I do agree that the song goes on way, way too long.
“Leisure” (Partridge): Again, no problem with the lyrics, but the vocals are weak and the electric guitar dissonance sounds like a goose dying a horrible death. I have to confess I’ve learned to skip this one when it comes up.
“It’s Nearly Africa” (Partridge): Andy said about the song, “It was a little celebration of all things primitive, of how we should slow down and appreciate being basically animals, in the good sense of the word; how we should realize we’re really very primitive and find the joy in that, rather than racing onwards through technology and losing our realness.” Perhaps, but I think Ray Davies did a much better job on “Apeman.” I’m also uncomfortable with the stereotypical notion of Africa as “primitive.” I’ll give the boys a few brownie points for creating the marimba-like sound on a low-end synthesizer and move on.
“Knuckle Down” (Partridge): A few years ago I would have found it impossible that anyone with a conscience would object to this anti-racist song, but the emergence of the anti-woke movement in the U.S., U.K. and much of Europe has made racism fashionable again. Toward the end of a conversation with Chanan Hanspal on the controversy surrounding “Dear God,” Andy mentioned that he received some hate mail from Arizona regarding “Knuckle Down.” Chanan was justifiably surprised but in today’s climate, openly expressing hate has become all the rage.
I’d define Andy’s musical and lyrical approach to racism as, “Chill out, people!” I like Rich Kamerman’s description of the music as “quasi white reggae,” and when you combine the Jamaican influence with a pleasant melody and accessible lyrics, it makes for a satisfying sing-along experience. For much of the song, Andy employs the standard meaning of “knuckle down,” acknowledging that ending racism will require a sustained effort:
Love his skin,
It doesn’t matter what colour skin he’s locked in,
Knuckle down and love that skin.
Love his race,
It doesn’t matter if you win or lose a little face,
Knuckle down and love that race
But he also uses the literal meaning of the phrase, in the form of a request to young white racists like Graham from “No Thugs in Our House”:
For my sake,
Won’t you put your knuckles down, boys?
If through some miraculous set of circumstances XTC decided to do one final tour of the United States, Andy would have to change those lines to “For my sake won’t you put your assault rifles down, boys.”
“Fly on the Wall” (Moulding): Having already covered the issue of governmental privacy invasion in “Reel by Reel” on Drums and Wires, I’m not sure why Colin felt the need to add his two cents. If anything, it confirms Colin’s admission that he had indeed gone off the boil.
“Down in the Cockpit” (Partridge): This playful ska number about the rise of feminism is well-executed and features one of Andy’s best vocals. The lyrics are very well-written and the double entendre “cockpit” brings a smile to my face. Essentially, “Down in the Cockpit” is a mini-manifesto in support of the idea that women should take over the world, and who am I to argue with that?
Queen wants the castle,
Back from the rascal,
Queen wants the castle.
The girl tribe are growing up and
Filling the world full with a new soul,
To get so far they paid a high toll.
Try not to make
The same mistakes
As man has done or you’ll fall in that hole,
And you will see us changing our role.
Though I’m on record as a firm advocate of female dominance, my advocacy has been tempered somewhat by reality. I doubt very much that the Brits are eager to bring back Liz Truss and I sure as fuck don’t want Marine LePen running my country. I’m also having a hard time with the oxymoron of “female Republicans,” especially those who passionately support a certain misogynistic racist who likes to grab women by the pussy. It’s pretty obvious that some women who have advanced to leadership positions in our world missed Andy’s admonition to “Try not to make the same mistakes.”
“English Roundabout” (Moulding): Colin complains about traffic. Who doesn’t? Yawn.
“Snowman” (Partridge): Andy claimed the inspiration for this piece came from a “repetitive mandolin pattern” on one of the songs from Eberhard Weber’s album Fluid Rustle.
Well, let’s give him partial credit for getting the name of the album and the artist right. The song in question is “Quiet Departures” and the instrument is not a mandolin but a balalaika, played by a very young Bill Frisell. As things turned out, the inspiration didn’t have much influence after all: “I tried to imitate that on a guitar, and before I knew it, bleaagh, I was vomiting out the song. [laughs] But it’s kind of mandolinesque. That’s where the original idea came from—trying to match what was on this jazz record and coming up with something completely not like it.”
Sourcing controversy aside, “Snowman” was an excellent choice for the album closer because its quirky, playful, let’s-try-anything-and-see-what-works orientation is pure XTC. This is one of a few songs they tested in front of an audience before going into the studio and Andy found it to be “a joy to play live as I always felt borne along by its clattering clockwork.” The clockwork feel is a full band effort combining Terry’s frequently offbeat whacks on the roto-tom, the rhythmic contrast in the Dave-Andy guitar duet and Colin’s thumping bass. Andy embraces his inner child with an engaging vocal alternating between narrative and scat, immersing himself in the role of submissive male in a tension-filled relationship with a cold, dominant female. Though he complains about her “far too frosty” treatment, he kinda-sorta gets what’s going on with the help of a spot-on metaphor:
It seems you would say I was too soft-hearted,
If you made a dunce-cap I’d don it!
People will always be tempted to wipe their feet,
On anything with ‘welcome’ written on it.
Now we have an answer to Colin’s haunting refrain of “Why oh why?” When you act like a doormat, people will always wipe their feet on you, especially a dominant female who senses that your destiny is closely tied to that doormat.
English Settlement marked the end of one of several mini-eras in the life of XTC. It was the last and only album to make the Top 5 in the U.K. and featured the last and only single to make the Top 10. We’ll explore how a band that kept getting better and better hit a commercial ceiling in my review of Mummer.
More importantly, English Settlement was the Great Leap Forward that confirmed XTC’s upward trajectory and provided solid evidence that they possessed enough talent and creative drive to become one of the best musical groups of all time.