Saturday, 27 March 2010

3. Black Sea - XTC

Purchased : August 1981

Tracks : Respectable Street / Generals And Majors / Living Through Another Cuba / Love At First Sight / Rocket From A Bottle / No Language In Our Lungs / Towers Of London / Paper And Iron / Burning With Optimism's Flames / Sgt Rock / Travels In Nihilon

This one was bought with reward money for my better than expected O Level results (9 in case you're interested). It and the next entry are the only records in my collection which came from Littleborough's own shortlived record shop. I don't recall it before 1980 or after 1981; otherwise we only had Mr Lumb the electrical hardware seller and his eclectic selection (as in hadn't got a clue) and his shop didn't see the decade out either . I don't think I ever bought an LP from him (Fivepenny Piece not being my thing really) but he was good for Ex-Top 40 singles in his 50p bargain box. I bought quite a lot of those including Teardrop Explodes' "Passionate Friend" which was still climbing the charts when he put it in there.

I was quite spoiled for choice and probably spent half an hour in there before finally plumping for "Black Sea" probably because I hadn't got all its singles taped from the radio. It was their fourth album, released, like "Organisation", in the autumn of 1980 and perhaps represents their commercial peak. Although the follow up "English Settlement" got higher in the LP charts, this is their only LP that boasts three Top 40 singles; most of them didn't produce any.

The cover shows the then-four members of the band posed as for a picture on board a tall ship wearing antique diving suits. Drummer Terry Chambers's suit is a different colour from the others. The band's name is formed above them by an albatross, the mast of the ship and a weather balloon painted with a new moon crescent. The sky is stormy. None of this is explained by the album's contents which don't feature any nautical themes. Perhaps it's in response to "Going Underground" and they're going under water instead.

It has to be said that this is not the most varied LP in my collection so to avoid repeating myself I will say that every track has a heavy drum sound upfront, sinuous bass mixed correspondingly low and lashings of angular post-punk guitar (though again Simon Reynolds denies their claims seeing them as a skinny-tie New Wave band comparable to The Cars). Steve Lillywhite’s production ensures that drummer Terry Chambers is the dominant musician here much as Mel Gaynor would take centre stage on Simple Minds’ “Sparkle In The Rain”.

The LP begins with deliberate crackles and Andy Partridge singing in a broken weary voice about hedgerows and curtains to a lone piano and then the guitars and drums kick in and we’re off down “Respectable Street” a scathing account of suburban Swindon, pitched halfway between Manfred Mann’s “Semi-Detatched Suburban” and The Jam’s savage “Mr Clean”, where the caravans “never move from their front garden”. As with “Too Much Too Young” earlier that year there’s a direct reference to contraception (where Colin Moulding’s sarky whoo-oo backing vocals come in ) although this disappeared when the song was re-recorded for release as the fourth (unsuccessful) single in 1981. There’s also a bit of product placement for Sony entertainment centres. There’s a bit of a let down in the last verse with the line “bang the wall for me to turn down” which nails the observer as whiney teenager and conjures up the spectre of Limp Bizkit.

We’re then straight into lead-off single “Generals And Majors” the first of two Colin Moulding compositions. He is the McCartney/Matlock melodic yin to Partridge’s more abrasive Lennon/Lydon yang and this is the only song on the LP based on a chiming guitar riff. The subject matter of the song (and the next) is the growing Cold War paranoia of the last year of the Carter presidency and the fear that military preparations generate their own momentum towards war – “Generals and majors always seem so unhappy ‘less they got a war” . There’s a warm middle eight where the drums give way to a male voice choir humming softly as Moulding slips in the line “Your World War Three is drawing near”, an acoustic guitar solo and military whistling to complete an impressive pop package which deserved better than a number 32 slot. Perhaps it was the sight of Richard Branson hamming it up in the video that upset people.

“Living Through Another Cuba” is a more uncompromising take on the same subject. Built around a repeated chant of the title Partridge offers a scattergun commentary on Cold War tensions though the first line is troubling –“It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle” . Well for a start, the Cuban Missile Crisis was actually 1962 and as the USA’s most hawkish ally in NATO the second part is scarcely more accurate. Better is “He loves me he loves me not he’s pulling fins from an atomb bomb” which takes us back towards “Enola Gay” .The music gets more adventurous as the track progresses with disconcerting missile sound effects , pre-Pigbag percussion breaks and dub effects (which remind that Partridge had recently released a solo album of sorts re-working some earlier material in dub which his mother possibly bought). Towards the end Partridge shouts “Cuba,Cuba-Cu-ba-ba ba-ba as the playground taunt Na-na –na –na underlining the essential childishness at the bottom of M.A.D. theory.

Eschewing international politics we next get Moulding’s second song “Love At First Sight” an arch account of teen lust following on from his earlier “Life Begins At The Hop” . We’re very close to peak-period Blur here; this could easily sit next to “Boys And Girls”. That said, it’s a rather slight song tarnished by the ugly Mr Punch-voiced “What they want is” interjections on the chorus.

“Rocket From A Bottle” benefits from the addition of Dave Gregory’s piano interlocking with the bass to give the song a powerful momentum. Partridge’s groans at the beginning make sense when you hear the playful innuendo of the lyric “I’ve been up with the larks, I’ve been shooting off sparks”. There are some discreet synths and phasing effects here too. Whether Partridge’s tale of infatuated abandon is entirely genuine is questionable but there’s an infectious sense of fun here ( including the use of the “Hard Day’s Night” guitar chord to conclude).

That disappears with the rather dreary “No Language In Our Lungs” a puzzling treatise on verbal inadequacy which plods and drags after its bright intro recalling “Brass In Pocket” . Halfway through it improves with a slightly more urgent middle eight incorporating some Andy Summers-like guitar skanking (highly ironic given the similarity in topic to the much-loved “De Doo Doo Doo De Da Da Da” ) and “Lazy Sunday” background chatter.

The less rewarding Side Two begins with the second single “Towers Of London” a tribute to the Irish navvies who built the engineering triumphs of the Victorian age which begins with the sound of a rail being tapped. Partridge is clearly sincere here as he contrasts the leisured classes “walking pretty ladies by “ with “the bridge that doesn’t go in the direction of Dublin”. The only fault is that, at 5.20 it’s far too long.

With the next track “Paper And Iron” we start again to discern the influence of “Closer” (albeit Side One is more relevant here) as the drum pattern recalls that of “Colony”. But other influences are at work here too. The lyrics are a blend of Paul Weller’s “Pretty Green” and “Man At The Corner Shop” while the jagged guitars and declamatory vocals strongly suggest Gang of Four circa “At Home He’s A Tourist”

“Burning With Optimism’s Flames” is another track which purports to be about feeling happy in love but is less convincing particularly when Partridge runs out of space at the end of each verse and mutters the rest of the lyric at speed.

The penultimate track “Sgt Rock” was the surprise big hit as a single reaching no 16 in February 1981. One guy on Amazon refers to it as an “appalling sexist novelty” but he’s missing the point. Partridge is drawing on his own interests as a comic collector but singing in character as a lovesick adolescent naively imagining he can draw life lessons from the military superhero (and, no doubt, the omnipresent Charles Atlas ads – “if I could only be tough like him”) in his magazines . It’s easy to imagine Gervais and Merchant basing Gavin on this song. The futility of his approach is clear from the middle eight “Sometimes relationships don’t go as planned” underlined by a sardonic trombone.

The last track “Travels In Nihilon” could hardly make the “Closer” connection more obvious. Like “Atrocity Exhibition” it takes its title from a dystopian novel ( Alan Sillitoe 1971) and follows the same musical template of drum clatter and guitar squall. Although I haven’t read it, Sillitoe’s novel is apparently a comic satire of a society based on anarchic principles and in this light Partridge’s lyrics read like a denunciation of punk -“there’s no youth culture only masks they let you rent” concluding with the pro-disco “burn out faster than strobe light”. It’s powerful stuff but unfortunately so tuneless it’s a very difficult listen and goes on for far too long.

XTC will feature again in this survey though not for a while. I still concur with my initial thoughts that “Black Sea” is very impressive in places but played end to end it’s quite heavy going.

No comments:

Post a Comment