A closer look at XTC’s sophomore masterpiece of ’78
For the sheer steep curve of their artistic development, The Beatles had no equal and few rivals. Radiohead certainly comes close as do Stevie Wonder and Scott Walker. But for the distance between where they started and where they ended up, perhaps no one comes closer than XTC. They are also similar in the length of the runway before their first recordings, having been around since 1972 in various configurations and under a few names, always under the leadership of Andy Partridge before releasing their first album, White Music, in January 1978. Also like The Beatles, their career divides neatly into “touring years” and “studio years,” having ceased roadwork in 1982 after Partridge’s nervous breakdown.
Unlike the Fab Four, however, XTC did not maintain the same personnel after they started releasing albums. One of the biggest changes in their time as a band was the departure of keyboard player Barry Andrews, whose rinky-dink organ and atomic barrelhouse piano stylings were a defining feature of White Music. His work also contributed to the slightly obnoxious sound of some of that album, perhaps a hangover from when they were known as The Helium Kidz. Still, there were many impressive songs on there (“This Is Pop,” “Statue Of Liberty,” etc.) and when they asked Brian Eno to produce the next album he turned them down, saying they were good enough to produce themselves.
That didn’t happen, however, and when the band returned to the studio with producer John Leckie, Andrews and Partridge began having issues around leadership and songwriting. The impending departure of Andrews makes Go 2, which turns 40 this month, a transitional album in the band’s trajectory. That wasn’t immediately apparent, though, as the first cut is slightly more sophisticated version of what we heard on White Music. “Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!)” is an hilariously geeky anthem, telling nerds everywhere that “Alcohol is/an easy key/it helps you unwind/and dance with me.” The groove is a little off kilter but still danceable (a specialty of drummer Terry Chambers) and Andrews reels off a hyped up Clavinet solo, which only increases the antic energy.
It’s on track two, “Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian),” that fans started to get a sense that something new was going on here. The “Brian” in the title is Eno, of course, hinting at Partridge’s interest in emulating the master who rejected him. A drum and bass intro fades in at a tempo slower than any on previous XTC song, going on for a full 90 seconds, with Andrews contributing a synth pattern reminiscent of Baba O’Riley and Partridge giving it some atmosphere with his guitar. It’s not quite ambient but it is meditative and when the vocal starts Partridge is subdued, indicating some compassion amidst the irony of the lyrics: “Battery brides/have you ever tried/to break out of your waiting room/to find yourself a waiting groom…” Andrews adds a sing-song piano solo that adds a surreal touch and by the end of the song, things have turned edgy and angular again, but a certain musical ambition was starting to make itself known.
Next up is “Buzzcity Talking,” the start of a trio of songs by Colin Moulding, the group’s bass player and other main songwriter. “Crowded Room” and “The Rhythm” start to hint at the pop smarts that would turn the band’s fortunes around with his “Making Plans For Nigel,” which became their first Top 20 single in the UK in 1979 and also got considerable airplay in the US. Moulding’s slightly more relaxed and melodic style not only provided a good antidote to Partridge’s more outré leanings but it also engaged his competitive nature and pushed him to become a better songwriter which would bear even greater fruit on future albums.
Besides songwriting, another area XTC showed growth on Go 2 was in their musicianship. Partridge’s “Beatown,” which kicks off Side Two, was a thrilling display of his guitar fireworks, an aspect of their music that showed itself mostly in concert. The rest of Side Two is a bit uneven, however, with Partridge’s “Life Is Good In The Greenhouse” and “Jumping In Gomorrah” finding him giving in to some of his more annoying impulses. Maybe he was running out of ideas as even Andrews gets in two songs, with middling results. “Super Tuff” is primo art-reggae with a fantastic chorus, but “My Weapon” is barely disguised misogyny (“Hot love – cold sweat – feel her beneath me wanna crush her to death”) married to an earworm that makes you feel complicit as you sing along. Most versions of the album ended with the strutting funk of Moulding’s “I Am The Audience” but on some Partridge had the last word with “Are You Receiving Me?,” a storming number which is also one of XTC’s classic singles.
With 40 years of hindsight, it’s clear that this lineup had probably gone as far as they could go. Even if it was personality problems that led Andrews to leave, for all the variety of instruments he deployed there was a certain sameness to his approach that was likely holding XTC back. For example, it’s impossible to imagine later achievements such as English Settlement or Skylarking with Andrews on board. He didn’t do badly for himself, though, first joining League Of Gentlemen with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and then delving into dance music with Shriekback, which ruled the clubs with tracks like “Lined Up.” He and Partridge eventually reconciled, releasing the sprawling, improvisational Monstrance in 2007.
That XTC was feeling a certain restlessness in 1978 is exemplified in the fun deconstructions of Go+, an EP of five dub versions of songs from Go 2, including a comically sped-up version of “Battery Brides” retitled “A Dictionary Of Modern Marriage,” which had Partridge whispering “Here’s comes the bride” over the tinny groove. While they never entirely lost that wacky side, the more disciplined direction (and the addition of guitarist Dave Gregory) found them hitting new heights of greatness on their next album, Drums And Wires, making their increasingly large audience forever grateful.
A note should be made about the cover of Go 2, which was designed by Hipgnosis, the design firm mainly known for their work with Pink Floyd. This is the note about the RECORD COVER, which is comprised entirely of a white block of text featuring marvelously self-reflexive copy along the lines of “A good cover DESIGN is one that attracts more buyers and gives more pleasure,” and “We’re letting you know that you ought to buy this record because in essence it’s a PRODUCT and PRODUCTS are to be consumed and you are a consumer and this is a good PRODUCT.” Indeed it was, and still is four decades later.