Thursday, September 10, 2020

Beatleisms and Doom: XTC's Black Sea is a hit

XTC: Respectable Street 

On September 12, 1980  XTC released Black Sea, their fourth album and biggest hit to date.

“Oh, it’s much more muscular," Andy Partridge tells Todd Bernhardt in Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC. "We took Drums And Wires and increased it to the nth degree, if you see what I mean. The drums got boomier and bigger and more gated and more aggressive, and the guitars got slashier, with more punch to them.

"This was Hugh Padgham and Steve Lillywhite refining their trade, finding out how to get a certain sound and then taking it on until they could go no farther with it, you know? They were doing a lot of their experimenting on us! "

The album begins with Partridge's "Respectable Street", inspired by Partridge's neighbor living in the apartment next door.

“I’d found a nice, rather kind of jagged chord change—the opening B, and then the really strange-sounding D-flat7. So, I was working on this song, and I was kind of annoyed that the woman who lived next door to us at the time was always banging on the wall if I had my stereo system on, just even barely audible. It really annoyed me, because we weren’t a noisy pair. We called this woman ‘Mrs Washing’, because she washed everything. So I guess the song grew out of the annoyance with her, and the million-miles-away respectable people living on Bowood Road opposite, and the hypocrisy, the veneer of respectability, of the ‘curtain twitchers’, as they’re called. They get behind the lace curtains and have a look—down their nose—at what’s going on. ”

"Respectable Street" is followed by Colin Moulding's "Generals And Majors", an attempt at a composition with one chord, inspired by the Beatles' "Doctor Robert" and "Paperback Writer". This is far from the only Beatlesque moment on the album. "Towers of London" stemmed from Partridge "subconsciously" trying to rewrite the Beatles' "Rain", desiring "clangorous guitars crashing together, and sort of droning" . "No Language In Our Lungs" has guitar chords reminiscent of Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy) and "Because".

“It’s almost like the entire Abbey Road album in one little four-bar sequence, you know?," Partridge says.

In a Trouser Press interview he says more:

When you're speaking  you never get across what you really want to says. You can only give quick sketches of what you're thinking. I don't think anybody can communicate; they can only use certain set of patterns. You can never get emotions into words. I do honestly think that speech is basically outmoded.

Here's a review from Smash Hits:

From Robert Christgau, who gave the album a grade of B+

Virtuosos shouldn't show off--it's bad manners and bad art. I'm suitably dazzled by the breathless pace of their shit--from folk croak to Beach Boys croon in the twinkling of a track, with dissonant whatnot embellishing herkyjerk whozis throughout--but I find their refusal to flow graceless two ways. On what do they predicate their smartypants rights? On words that rarely reclaim clichés about working-class futility, middle-class hypocrisy, militarist atrocity--not to mention love like rockets and girls who glow. They do, however, show real feeling for teen males on the make and, hmm, the recalcitrance of language.

From Don Shewey writing for Rolling Stone:

On Black Sea, the material is especially good, from the Kinks-style "Respectable Street" to the jarring, almost frightening rock-dub tune, "Living through Another Cuba," to the jubilant "Burning with Optimism's Flames." Only the overextended "Travels in Nihilon" strays from the intersection of punk and pop where XTC are most at home.

As a college radio DJ, I knew I could always find a track off this album to play. It's truly one of their best, despite moments like "Travels In Nihilon", which is not a trip I would want to take a lot. It's based on the John Peel approved novel by Alan Sillitoe about a country founded on nihilism.  

For a deeper dive into Black Sea check out this podcast featuring Dave Gregory and Hugh Padgham.

The Best Albums of XTC

1. Drums and Wires
2. Skylarking
3. Black Sea
4. Mummer
5. English Settlement

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