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Thursday, 22 November 2012

XTC - White Music (1978)

About a decade ago, I bought a DVD that collected together some of the best performances from the TV series The Old Grey Whistle Test. It was one of those shows that I was too young to have watched when the series was on TV, but one that my parents would talk about fondly.

On the collection there were some fantastic performances that exposed me to artists and bands that I had never heard before. The first disc boasted some of the show’s earlier performances, with artists like Bill Withers, John Martyn and Tom Waits grabbing my attention. The second disc had more of a post-punk and new wave feel with Public Image Limited providing an intense rendition of ‘Careering,’ and XTC performing the oh so catchy ‘Statue of Liberty’. I got into many artists off the back of this DVD, and XTC (along with John Martyn and PIL) probably remain my favourites.

I had been warned off XTC for years before delving into their back catalogue by my father, who hated them with a passion. It had nothing to do with XTC’s middle-class roots, nor their geeky quirkiness. It had more to do with the fact that my dad’s name is Nigel. When my dad was 15, XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ was released, meaning that people would sing the song at him. My dad dismissed them as being crap because of this; but I’m glad that I checked them out, starting off with their debut album White Music.

The album opens with the restless driving rhythm of ‘Radios in Motion’, in which we hear XTC’s trademark clash of off-key notes, unrelenting punk energy, and a quirky pop sensibility. ‘Cross Fire’ is strange and chaotic, with its bizarre Casio keyboards whining painfully over jagged guitars and seizure-inducing rhythms – you can really hear where bands like Cowtown and the Research gtook their influence.

In ‘This is Pop’ we get a disconcertingly aggressive vocal performance during the verse, but then a chorus that could have been written by the Jam during their ‘Beat Surrender’ days. This is a great piece of music that even through its catchy, shouty chorus, manages to sound decidedly un-pop. ‘Do What You Do’ is XTC at their most excessively silly. The song is fast, punchy, and incredibly daft. Luckily, it is a little over a minute long, so the joke dies before it can start to grate. ‘Statue of Liberty’, as noted above, is the song that originally drew me to XTC. I can’t hear anyone utter the words “Statue of Liberty” without finding myself doing the high ‘boo boo’ from the chorus in my head - no matter what the context. It’s a song that is restless and scratchy, and has a bounciness about it that can’t but help make you want to bob your head around like one of those nodding dogs you see in the backs of people’s cars.

‘All Along the Watchtower’, a cover of Bob Dylan’s classic (made more famous by Jimi Hendrix’s awesome rendition) treads the same conceptual ground as Devo did with their cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’: in that they both take a rock classic and transform it into an off-kilter punk-funk stomper with noisy synths and a bass-groove to die for. ‘I’ll Set Myself on Fire’ bristles with dark beats and angry echoic guitar stabs. ‘I’m Bugged’ is disjointed and chaotic, with its off-key bursts of keyboard and horrible jabs of guitar – this is one of the most difficult songs on the album to enjoy, as at points it is almost too painful to listen to. It is as if XTC purposefully set out to scrape our eardrums. ‘New Town Animal’ offers respite with bouncy pop melodies and a catchy chorus. Album-closer ‘Neon Shuffle’ brings together tinny guitars and knackered keyboards with a graceless frenetic energy.

On the whole, this is a very good album, and offers a slightly more light-hearted take on the post-punk sound than many of their contemporaries. This one is a keeper.

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