Monday, March 13, 2006

Worse Places to Be

You could have picked worse places to be on or about February 10, 1982.

You might have been one of the thousands of people stranded at airports worldwide due to the collapse of Laker Airways, or you could have been one of the 84 rig workers drowned in the icy waters off Newfoundland when their oil platform sank. You could have been your correspondent, a trepidacious, future-fearing undergrad deep in the parlous throes of writing his senior thesis on Taoism.

But if you had managed to infest the Märkthalle concert hall in Hamburg that evening, you would have been treated to what for my money is the absolute high-water mark of New Wave live musicianship. After XTC, the graph, as they say down at the Econ Department, tends to slope off rather sharply.

Click to play video, XTC live, "Burning with Optimism's Flames," in a new window.

The Talking Heads were a groove band by 1982 -- nothing wrong with that, they were wonderful fun -- but they tended to kitchen-sinkiness in their later years. Costello's Attractions were a truly fearsome little platoon, as were the Joe Jackson Band, but as backing bands for flamboyant frontmen they necessarily receded into the background. The Police were all about the silences between the notes, which is great, but the notes are important too, and you know, come on. Sting.

In 1982, it was gonna be either these guys or the Police. They were right about on a par with each other, saw each other as cross-town rivals. When this video was made, XTC had just a week before released "Senses Working Overtime," their biggest hit, and an album, English Settlement, that was a critical darling. Things were just about to get Seriously Good for this band.

They were one tour away, they told themselves.

It was of course the Beatles who first explosively announced the musical possibilities of two-guitars-bass-and-drums playing sophisticated harmonic progressions and shifting textures all to a compulsively danceable tempo -- music you can both dance and think to. So many bands have explored and continue to explore the terrain the Fabs first mapped out that it becomes impossible to trace influences through the historical murk of generations. In their later, studio-only years XTC acquired a deserved reputation as a "Beatlesque" band, but in their live, touring years they were more reminiscent of a much tighter and more energetic Kinks, both in sound and in subject matter. The finest album of that period, Black Sea, is packed with songs that you can easily imagine coming from Ray Davies' pen, fine English satire like "Respectable Street" or "Generals and Majors" or "Sgt. Rock."

Andy Partridge has said that he wanted to form a band that married Captain Beefheart and the Monkees, and a better description of "Burning with Optimism's Flames" is hard to imagine. Against a straight-ahead bass figure and driving, uncomplicated drums, the two guitars play an oscillating pattern that is rhythmically in some other universe, a demented waltz against the four of the pedestrian beat, much like something you'd expect to hear on Ice Cream for Crow. But unlike Beefheart's weirdness, the jerkiness of the arrangement here is never repellent. You can still sort-of dance to it, if you just listen to the drums. You're going to wind up on the wrong foot quite a lot of the time, but it is possible.

It's not completely nuts to imagine Ray Davies attempting a Gilbert & Sullivan patter-song, and that's what's on display here -- Andy the Modern Major-General. If you can in this muddy live mix, try to hear the melody Andy sings in the verse against the bass figure Colin Moulding is playing -- it's more Beefheartian cycles rubbing against each other. One of my favorite Naughty-Andy lyrics is featured here:
What on earth is bringing up this stream?
The cat who got her cream
Is licking her lips and smiling like her Chesire cousin!
From the verse, where these eccentric time-signature cogwheels cycle like a clock built by a madman, the chorus explodes from the exquisitely ska-tinged "All you do is smile" bridge like a cannon going off.

If the Secret Sauce of the live XTC sound is guitar interplay, what better partner in crime could you hope for than the masterful and peripatetic Dave Gregory? Jesus, look, just look, at some of the things he's doing in those guitar breaks! I'm particularly impressed by his ability to switch from single-note leads to second rhythm, dominating the arrangement one second and instantly switching to coloration the next. Dave is that rare species, the egoless lead guitarist.

I have another live version of this song from a year before, on a BBC recording. On the liner notes for that CD, Andy wrote, "By the time we get to the 'every bird and bee' middle bit I'm smiling so hard I can hardly sing." It's not hard to see why -- the band is finally given its head completely, finally allowed to roar at full voice. I see now it's Dave switching to power chords on his Strat that fills out the sound; nothing like a nice fist C played on the fat strings to make a joyful noise.

But of course the irony here is that the man you see singing these wonderfully clever and literate words about being ecstatic -- in a band literally named after that emotion -- is himself only slightly less than a month away from an emotional breakdown that will prevent him from ever playing in public in any serious way again. The breakdown will manifest itself as crippling stage-fright, but Andy understands now that his going cold-turkey from a decade-long Valium dependency had a great deal, if not everything, to do with it.

Yes. That guy, Mister Logorrhea McPattersong, was addicted to Valium.

What you are watching is about as extreme a case of laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside as you're likely to see. He tells of years' worth of a dreadful diet -- dinner a handful of peanuts grabbed off a bar somewhere -- a poorly planned, killer touring schedule that treated the band like robots; and a slowly dawning suspicion that their manager was siphoning a great deal of money into his own pockets while paying the band barely more than their per-diem.

"Let it die/So let it all break down to rotten/That's the way we'll grow new flowers," writes an older and wiser Andy Partridge in 1992's "This Is the End." From the composted corpse of this fine, fine performing unit's demise would come the Studio Years of Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons and Apple Venus, in which many more beautiful, great-hearted lace doilies would be tatted by these hands.

But Lord, what a great rock band they were.

(Edit: Many thanks to Xtcfan for burning the Rockpalast DVD for me...)


helmut said...

Nice essay, Ned. I've followed XTC since Drums and Wires, loves Skylarking and Mummer and Apple-Venus as much as the earlier records. But Ray Davies, man. His Dave was also undersung, apparently confirmed especially by his legendary unreleased album. But Ray. How do you put together Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola vs. Powerman, and Muswell Hillbillies, and get tossed from the US over a period of four years after already having made some of the most sublimely simple and brilliant rock songs ever? Beautiful ballads, sweeping histories, cranking melodies, and one possibly the best sense of humor in rock.

I like the comparison, and love both bands and the guys involved, but have to go with the Kinks on this one. Nevertheless, on a desert island....

helmut said...

Please read that last comment with an imagined sense of decent grammar. I've been taking too much hbvzm.

XTCfan said...

Lordie, how I love this drum pattern. The 16ths on the hi-hat kill me. And you're right, the whole song is a rhythm fest -- the verse structures rubbing against each other, then everything coming together during the chorus.

And yeah, ya gotta love Booker T. Gregory. I hope those two guitarists work together again someday. They were meant for each other.

Neddie said...

Helmut: I'm pretty sure Andy would agree with you. He's pretty self-aware.

Any DC Locals going to see Ray Davies at the 930 Club the 20th of March? Tickets are still on sale as of now at the 930's website....

Come on down, let's have us a couple of mwcws....

fgfdsg said...

Thanks for the clip Neddie. I only saw this show once before the videos were stolen from me by a Certain Chalkhills Creep, but I remember it being Killer. Having never seen XTC live I was amazed at how great a band they were.

Make sure you cross post this on Chalkhills, if you haven't already.

I've been listening to a lot of Ray in the last few months, and he's a master, (i think I might like the Kinks even more than the Beatles), but Andy wins for me purely because he's always pushing the boundaries of songwriting and never seems to stop trying something, (whereas Ray is content to write very catchy rock songs).

roxtar said...

Rock & roll eats its young. Always has...always will.

Kevin Wolf said...

Many thanks for this Neddie. I'm less familiar with live XTC than studio; but it's true they could certainly kick ass when needed.

And "Burning with Optimism's Flames" is one of their best - it is sometimes my favorite XTC tune. (That honor keeps shifting among a number of their records.)

There's not a dudvuv among them.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Great post Ned.

An Upstep or a Downstep said...

Mostly agree with you on the rock viability of XTC. They succeeded where many other attempts crashed predictably. But...

"Andy Partridge has said that he wanted to form a band that married Captain Beefheart and the Monkees..."

Um, ok... and maybe we could marry Salvador Dali with Thomas Kinkade.

"I love the interplay between the pastel softness of firelight drizzling through the pastoral farmhouse window onto the frozen tv dinner lake of salisbury steak with chocolate pie pudding horse whose stapled envelope carriage houses a my little pony storm trooper. LET'S BUY IT!"

No No Neddie. Mr Partidge is woefully misguided in an attempt to fructose the absinthe.

As the good Captain succinctly put it:

"I don't want to kill my china pig."

zwhcf - another damned good(and not so repellent) quote of Beefheart's

Sluggo said...

taoism, eh?

I wrote my senior thesis on afirmative action, during Bakke. I see now where I went so horribly wrong.

Neddie said...

Upstep: Actually, I think that Dali/Kinkade thing worked pretty nicely... Almost a Lennon/McCartney vibe to it...

Now excuse me, I've got to go jqmysin... Well, somebody has to.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Ah, Th' Police and XTC. It all came down to Miles Copeland and Sting's abs, didn't it? And Miles *begged* these guys to let him manage them.

Which isn't to say he had the Midas touch. Where are his '90's version of The Police, dada, now? But what were they thinking in '82, when the gap started to widen?

I love when Andy refers to The Police as "all flashbulbs at airports".

To this day my favorite thing about their whole early-to-mid-period sound is those guitar chords that sound like a car body panel hitting a plate glass window i.e. "Roads Girdle" and "Respectable".

blue girl said...

Jeddie, I love the way you write about music. I can truly *feel* what you mean every time you write about it.

And boy, don't you all have your *opinions* on music? *Drumming this* -- *E Flat* that. Jangle. Jangle. Zip boom bah.

I am also a music snob of the highest order!

But I fear that if Jeddie and I were ever at a party together and I, being as mouthy and opinionated as I tend to be -- I fear that when I would speak my peace, Jeddie would chase me around trying to give me an atomic wedgie.

You boys just keep on thinkin':

"C'mon. Sting."