Friday, April 28, 2006

Number 31: XTC

Towers Of London (Virgin VS372)
Chart debut: 18th October 1980

Writer: Andy Partridge

Another instalment in our "they have other songs" series, although if I'm honest that was sort of the original intent of this whole project. I've frequently expressed the view that XTC would be far wealthier had they been paid on the basis of how many other acts were compared to them in reviews, although Andy Partridge would no doubt counter that being paid all they were due for the record sales would have been a start - it's no coincidence that on the Black Sea album this is segued into a song about money.
Anyway, we all know about XTC and what a droppable name they've become, currently because of the trendy influence of their early yelping material. We all remember the big hit singles even if the reliably contrary Partridge would sometimes rather you didn't - it's widely reported that he wanted to use a burning copy of 'Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)' as the cover of a singles compilation. Still, it only amounts to six actual Top 40 hits in what will soon be a (slightly intermittent) thirty-year career, which limited my options here rather - but I was only too happy to choose this track, an unprecedented second hit from Black Sea, and the track that was apparently slated as the first single until Colin Moulding came up with 'Generals And Majors' (which only got to 32). Interestingly, this is a London song by a defiant non-Londoner, but unlike many songs that fit that description it's not a rant or a love-letter but finds a unique perspective, attempting to remember the workers who actually built the city. The beauty of this approach is not only that it's not obvious, but that it's also somehow non-partisan: in a way, he could almost have written this song about Swindon. He didn't though, and somehow he's caught the spirit of the city remarkably well - that "anvil" sound (actually a tape cabinet being hit with a mic stand) dragging slightly behind the beat conjures up a sense of a drizzly grey city, and yet as a semi-Londoner myself, I find that an oddly welcoming image, be it Partridge's intent or not.

Aside from the aforementioned fake anvil, the musical end is kept up by ringing guitars (Dave Gregory claims two of them on his website) and the reliably solid drumming of Terry Chambers. Indeed, throughout the Black Sea album Chambers and Colin Moulding make a good case for themselves as one of rock's greatest rhythm sections. The original single edit drops the guitar solo and one iteration of the middle-eight, and is if anything the better version because it's just that little bit tighter. There's a very obvious echo of the Kinks here, especially with the London theme, but of course the Beatles are never far out of sight in this context. Indeed, the night after Lennon died, XTC segued this song into 'Rain' at a concert in Liverpool.

Official website: But don't miss the incredibly long-running and detailed Chalkhills (est 1991!).
YouTube if you want to: video and some footage from XTC At The Manor, with the band pretending to record this single: parts one, two, and three. But not necessarily in that order.
Where to get it: If Black Sea isn't the best XTC album (and it might well be) it's certainly the most accessible. It's a good starting point, as is the double-CD singles set Fossil Fuel, the place to go for the 7" version. There's also an interesting early version of the song on the Coat Of Many Cupboards box set. Meanwhile, Chris Twomey's authorised biography comes highly recommended.