Like many other acts of a certain vintage, XTC are currently reissuing some highlights from their discography and just out is 1992’s Nonsuch, which is now available in two different versions, one a CD+DVD-A, the other a CD+Blu-ray edition, both with wads of extras.
Very good Nonsuch is too, crammed as it is with idiosyncratic pastoral pop from the perennially underachieving West Country combo who at this point consisted of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory.
Opener The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead immediately demonstrates Partridge’s peerless ability to pen exquisite and peculiar pop nuggets – named after a pumpkin that he’d carved for his children one Halloween, the track developed into a tale of somebody who pays a price for being pretty much perfect, appropriately enough, it sounds pretty much perfect too; Humble Daisy harked back to the golden age of The Beach Boys and could have been a lost gem from an old bootleg of Smile and Crocodile is four minutes of joyous psych flavoured fun on the theme of jealousy.
Nonsuch, though, wasn’t much of a commercial success first time round even if it did earn the occasional glowing review in the music press. In the age of grunge, where guitars were loud and distorted and when young men with unkempt hair were howling out angsty lyrics, Seattle seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Swindon was not.
Maybe if Britpop had hatched just a little earlier, Nonsuch might have struck a chord with a much larger chunk of the British record and CD buying public who, via the likes of Blur, would soon be rediscovering the great British songwriting tradition of artists like Ray Davies. Certainly the influence of XTC is clear on Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish, released a year later.
Of course, XTC wouldn’t be taking advantage of this trend as it peaked in the middle part of the 1990s, as, pissed off with what they perceived as their label Virgin’s substandard promotion of Nonsuch, they went on strike and didn’t bring out another album till Apple Venus Volume 1 in 1999.
Actually musical fashion wasn’t the only problem facing Nonsuch, which, come to think of it, wasn’t the greatest title possible either was it?* Likewise, the cover wasn’t much of an attention grabber either but, worst of all, XTC’s touring days were already effectively over due to the acute stagefright that Partridge experienced whenever he appeared in front of an audience.
Back in their early days, XTC had actually been pretty prolific giggers. During the era of punk and new wave, they appeared at most of the cool venues of the time: the Roxy in Covent Garden, the Electric Circus in Manchester and Liverpool Eric’s – and, that November, on a short trip north of the border, they fitted in dates at the Maniqui in Falkirk and Clouds in Edinburgh. They visited Glasgow twice in ’78 but both times were booked to play at the students only QMU so I couldn’t get to see them – didn’t know any students and was underage anyway. Never did get to see them live. Boo. Hiss.
Like many new groups of the time I first heard them when John Peel aired a session of theirs back in 1977 when Radio 1 would shut down at 7.00 for three hours and transmit whatever happened to be on sister station Radio 2 before reappearing with Peel, who would broadcast from ten till midnight five nights a week, the station promptly closing down again immediately afterwards.
This version of Radios in Motion was recorded on the 20th of June at BBC Studio Maida Vale 4 and was transmitted by Peel four nights later.
Radios in Motion, which usually opened early XTC shows, was also chosen to kick off their debut album, 1978’s White Music.
The introduction with the radio dial tuning into a variety of stations was dropped when they went into the Manor Studio in Oxfordshire and producer John Leckie pointed out that Live! in the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe, an album that he’d been heavily involved with, had used something similar. None of the band had heard that album.
Fifteen years after that first Peel sesh, XTC made what by that point was a very rare appearance on BBC 2’s The Late Show. Introduced by a young Kirsty Wark, they performed the song that originally closed Nonsuch, Books Are Burning, which possessed a late period Beatles feel and a fine guitar duel near the end between Partridge and Dave Gregory. The song, written largely in response to The Satanic Verses controversy was one that Andy was immensely proud of.
XTC Trivia: The line in Radios in Motion, There’s a message in Milwaukee, is mainly down to the fact that Andy Partridge had an aunt who lived in, you’ve guessed it, Milwaukee.
* A variant of nonesuch, in case you didn’t know (& I didn’t). It means a person or thing without equal.