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XTC – Towers of London

A few years ago, my stepfather, a classically trained virtuoso and music professor, asked me for some popular music recommendations. He knew the classical canon inside and out, but little else. He knew I was passionate about contemporary music, and asked me to give him something to listen to that he might enjoy. I knew he liked the Beatles (who doesn’t?), and I’d also heard him respond to some of the music I listened to – he was a big fan of Julee Cruise and The B-52s’ Rock Lobster (!), but I could never predict what he’d like.

So I considered it carefully. I wanted to give him something I thought he’d actually like, not just what I was listening to at the time. I was big into Radiohead then, but I knew that probably wouldn’t be right – I thought you really needed to be conversant with the vocabulary and history of rock to get into Radiohead. He was unfamiliar with the textures and timbres of the genre, and I didn’t want to scare him off. I wanted to give him something that had some depth to it. Something intelligent. Something with literate lyrics and sophisticated songwriting. Something that would both be immediately appealing and also stand the test of time. Something with a wide enough range of styles to hold his attention. It was a tough call. I browsed my collection, trying to find just the right combination of musical sophistication and depth and breadth. As I scanned down the shelves, I found a few things that I thought might be promising, but nothing that really solidly fit the bill. I was beginning to despair as I approached the end of my collection when I suddenly spied the perfect band. Smart, funny, literate, sophisticated, with an astonishingly wide range of styles and influences, it was the perfect band to turn him on to. The band was XTC, and I hit the nail on the head. He totally loved it.

XTC burst onto the British scene with the explosion of punk and new wave bands in the late ‘70s, releasing their first album, White Music, in 1978. Their early work is all nervous energy and biting humor and stridently jarring arrangements. Most of the songs sound like they’re being played too fast, with singer and principal songwriter Andy Partridge’s hiccuping vocals barely stopping long enough for a breath. A couple of minor hits – This is Pop, Statue of Liberty – and the band’s sly sense of humor, start/stop aesthetic, and winning live sets garnered them an early and devoted (though small) fan base.

Their next album, Go 2, continues in the same nervy vein. Although Andy Partridge was the main visionary and writer for XTC, bassist Colin Moulding contributed a couple of songs per disk and came up with the band’s first real hit, the winning Making Plans for Nigel.

In Lonesome Pie, our drummer, Jeff, used to marvel that we had two capable songwriters in the band, unabashedly comparing us to Lennon and McCartney. He should have been abashed (or perhaps just bashed) as the comparison was, obviously, entirely unmerited (although his enthusiasm was endearing). But I always thought a more accurate comparison between the songwriting of me and Matt was XTC’s model of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Andy, like Matt, wrote the majority of the material – the band was his. Both of their songs were quirky and angular, steering clear of anything too poppy. Colin, like me, played bass and contributed the occasional song here and there, and both of us wrote much more straight-forward pop songs that weren’t afraid of being immediately accessible. This is not, in any way, intended to compare the quality of Lonesome Pie songs with the quality of XTC songs, as there is absolutely no comparison on that regard, but merely to compare the relative dynamics of the two songwriters for the bands. Anyway.

After Go 2, their manic keyboard player left (and would go on to some success with his new band Shriekback), and they hired another guitar player – the versatile Dave Gregory – and their sound started settling down on their next album, Drums and Wires.

Their follow-up, 1980’s Black Sea, was a big step up in sound quality and songwriting, and includes some of their best early work. Scratch that, some of their best work period. Songs like Respectable Street and Generals and Majors and this track, Towers of London, are absolute classics and still sound fresh after 20+ years. On this album, Andy Partridge has started to relax into a smoother, rounder style of singing, relying less and less on his hyper kinetic hiccuping. They also started getting more comfortable in the studio, and this song has lots of intricate layering and effects. Originally meant to be Tunnels of London, Partridge meant it as an ode to the working men who died digging London’s tunnels and turning it into the great Victorian Jewel, but Tunnels of London didn’t sound right so he switched it to towers with (in his eyes) the unfortunate switching of emphasis. This song, like the rest of the album, has a huge sound, with thundering drums, courtesy of producer Steve Lillywhite who had just finished recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album (“Melt”), with its revolutionary cymbal-less gaited drum sounds. I particularly love the middle section, with the proclamation

I’ve seen it in paintings

I’ve seen it in engravings

I’ve seen it in the faces

Clear as children’s chalk lines on the pavement

Partridge is fiercely intelligent and cynically witty (how often those two go together) and I like the subtle dig about the “bridge that doesn’t go in the direction of Dublin.”

One of my favorite tracks from the Black Sea sessions has to be one of the fastest realizations of any song – going from nothing to fully recorded and mixed in about two hours. At the time – perhaps it’s still true – the musician’s union in England had strict rules about performing on television. It was okay (in fact, expected) that you would lip synch your performance, but union rules required that you rerecord the song specifically for the show. So a couple of hours of studio time would be booked and the band would show up long enough for the union rep to pop by and make sure they were “recording”, and then the band’s manager would take the union guy out to the pub for a big lunch and when they came back two hours later, the re-recording would be finished and they could go on TV. Everybody knew it was a sham, but nobody cared, as long as you pretended. So, when XTC was invited to play Making Plans for Nigel on Top of the Pops, their label booked a couple of hours of studio time and brought the union chap around to see the lads strumming and smiling before taking him off to get faced in some pub and, as soon as they left, the band packed up to go to their pub. Except for Andy, who couldn’t bear the thought of wasting studio time. So he had Terry Chambers, the drummer, thump a quick double bass drum beat before he went off to get into his cups and he had the engineer loop the tape around to make a continuous heartbeat. Over that, Andy laid a few atmospheric sounds and recorded The Somnambulist. The inspiration was a demo he had heard comparing sleepwalking to being underwater and, taken with that image, he quickly constructed an entire song around it. The Somnambulist is a wonderfully ambient track, with muffled, slow-motion lyrics and little submarine noises piercing the murky mix. Andy worked feverishly and this time, when the union rep tottered by at the end of the session a couple of hours later, they really had recorded a song – but it wasn’t Making Plans for Nigel. Deemed a little too sparse for the album, it was released as a B-Side, but then later included on the CD version of Black Sea.