Let’s say you’re like me—an XTC fan—and you meet someone who’s never heard of the band. Where to begin? With so many stellar albums to choose from, it’s tough to recommend the one where novices should start with.
It’s at this point where I’m resigned to recommend starting with the very same record that turned me into an XTC fan, Black Sea, an album so near-perfect that you’re most assuredly going to delve deeper into the band’s catalog after listening to it.
Black Sea marks the end of their “drums and wires” period, the culmination of the quirky guitar pop of their first three albums. With each album, they got better and Black Sea shows the perfection that all of their rehearsing and touring provided.
Part of what makes the album so rewarding is Steve Lillywhite‘s production. There are reports of how he would spend days trying to capture the perfect snare drum sound. On paper, that mundane process sounds completely pointless, but when you hear Terry Chambers‘ drum sound on Black Sea it makes all of those hours of head tuning and mic placement a worthy exercise; they are some of the most powerful drum tracks in rock history.
He also did a stand-up job of capturing the rest of the band. Jagged guitars abound, Colin Moulding‘s bass is brilliant and understated (meaning, you have to listen closely to hear how great it truly is), and it’s quite clear that XTC was an absolute shit hot live band during the time Black Sea was recorded.
Too bad they retired from live performances shortly after the album was released.
Beginning with the social commentary “Respectable Street,” a song documenting the hypocrisy of white bread neighborhoods, the band quickly learned that record companies are largely run by morons. Someone at Virgin records convinced lyricist Andy Partridge to change such controversial words like “abortion” to “absorption” and “contraception” to “child prevention” in order to ensure radio airplay. Even after Partridge acquiesced, the label still couldn’t get radio to bite on the single. The edited version can be found on Rag & Bone Buffet for a decent laugh.
Side one ends with “No Language In Our Lungs,” a song that seems to have taken the guitar part at the end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” chopped it up and created something new from the results. Another highlight is the tongue-twisting “Burning With Optimism’s Flame.” The song itself is a riot and an exercise in concentration: every instrument, including Partridge’s vocals, is running on their own tempo.
Black Sea ends with another in a long line of terrific album closers. XTC seems to have a knack for ending their records with great, epic tunes and Black Sea is no exception. The seven-minute “Travels In Nihilon” begins with a repetitive pattern of drums—compressed to all fuck—until Partridge enters with a drone on the dogmatic English punk culture. “You’ve learnt no lessons / All that time so cheaply spent / There’s no youth culture / Only masks they let you rent,” he spouts, illustrating the similarities that Christianity and record companies have on conning people. It was around this time (1980) in which those who were initially influenced by the freedom and non-conformity that punk provided suddenly began to realize that it too—a genre supposedly removed from such marketing tidings—was packaged and constituted just like everything else that came before it. I never much cared for the song for the first few years I owned Black Sea, but now count it as one of my favorites. “Travels In Nihilon” is an anomaly in XTC’s song list, and with repeated listens it becomes clear that this very strange entry is one of their best.
It would be called a “new wave” record back then, but it’s more three-dimensional than that casual classification. There are elements of ska, world-beat, and garage rock throughout the album with everything stuffed through a taught punk meat grinder. And just as quickly as they invented, perfected, and executed this kind of music, they moved on to a different direction with their next album (English Settlement) and, I’ll be goddamned, managed to find similar success with that sound too.
You’ll find out soon enough that XTC had a higher-than-usual success ratio with nearly every album that they did, and there’s a good chance you’ll find out sooner than later if you happen to start with Black Sea. It alone turned me into a lifetime fan and it’s a record of such lasting greatness that I return to it on more than a few occasions every year.
Black Sea has recently been reissued under the “better sound” promise. Actually, my original Virgin import (with three top-notch bonus tracks) sounded fine to begin with, but if the attraction of improved fidelity prompts anyone to examine this record, then so be it. It was good enough for me to purchase it three times over and each copy had their share of spins. I found something new to enjoy with each one of those plays, but for anyone who hasn’t heard Black Sea, one spin may enough to open up a rewarding examination into the rest of the band’s impressive catalog.
Video: XTC – “Generals and Majors”
Video: XTC – “Towers of London”
Video: XTC – “Respectable Street”