Second of two in a row from XTC‘s double treasure, 1982’s English Settlement, the album where they pulled a sort of Beatles move: stopped worrying about how they might reproduce the material live and instead just dove into the studio and its possibilities. And special nod to engineer and co-producer Hugh Padgham, best known for inventing the gated drum sound that so drove the 1980s (for better and worse). But his tricks on English Settlement are more subtle, working an often rich acoustic sensibility which, as the story goes, was driven not by any great conceptual intent, but rather main man Andy Partridge‘s purchase of a new acoustic guitar after giving the old one away as a contest prize.
The Dukes of Stratosphear being XTC in psychedelic disguise, their first EP 25 O’Clock being one of those sublime moments wherein parody transcends itself, becomes its own wonderful thing. And from 1985 no less, which was about as far from the giddy light of the original psychedelic age as the culture ever got. In fact, go ahead and call 25 O’Clock the turning point, its 25 minutes of wild and weird technicolor pop invention being precisely the kind of superlative noise that could cause a shift in a planet’s orbit.
Note the question mark in the title. This is XTC telling it like it was in early 1978 – everybody confused about the new wild sound that was tumbling out of the punk eruptions and eviscerations of the previous year. But what was it? New Wave, claimed the marketing types, but that didn’t mean anything. That was just a way of selling stuff that wasn’t disco or metal or prog or just boring old rock. What it was, was pop, bullshit free, for the moment and all time.
XTC was never a band that was afraid to pursue a little open experimentation in the name of pop. Smokeless Zone was a b-side that came our way via 1982’s Beeswax, which was all b-sides, all worth troubling your ears with.
XTC were never quite punk; they were too pop savvy for that. Though they were there from the beginning, tearing up fragile facades with the best of them. So maybe just call them a damned good band who, by 1982’s double-vinyl English Settlement, were taking off in a pile of different directions uniquely their own, with Ball and Chain reminding us that they still had the pop.