(Special programming note: I coincided this with the publication of my Oranges and Lemons 25th anniversary feature. Get 2 for the price of 1!!)
It’s hard to imagine any XTC album being “underrated”; many music geeks have rightfully identified the band as one of the finest pop groups to ever exist. But you really don’t hear much about the band’s pre-Dave Gregory phase. I guess this is fair, as 1980’s Drums and Wires is really the first of their albums that really shows the band as the smart, sophisticated songwriters that they’re known as today. Often when speaking of such a band’s formative years you can say, “the seeds were sown here”, or that the debut album was indicative of greater things to come. This is not one of those albums; anyone who hears this out of context (or anyone who heard it at the time) would probably have no clue as to what kind of band XTC would later become.
This shouldn’t be surprising – XTC didn’t seem to really know, either. At this point the band was Andy Partridge (guitar), Colin Moulding (bass), Terry Chambers (drums), and Barry Andrews (keyboards). Hailing from Swindon (not exactly a place with a lot of R&R history), they were influenced heavily by glam and punk, but were not particularly glamorous, nor did they have much attitude. But what they did have was a ton of energy and a knack for writing wonky, barely-serious rock songs. White Music is a collection of twelve such tunes, and if you get the CD version, there’s seven more (collected from the band’s singles and the 3-D EP). The band’s style can be briefly described as “spazzrock”; Partridge stabs at his guitar, Moulding pogos around on the bass, Chambers twitches away behind the kit, and Andrews goes over the top with a bunch of one-finger buzzy organ lines. Essentially they are a band of Muppets.
That said, it’s the vocal approach that really sets this apart from anything. The band seems to be proud of the fact that they have nothing to say (“This is Pop”). These lyrics are stupid and they know it; in fact they seem to think they’re so dumb that they don’t even bother to sing ’em right most of the time. Partridge barks, honks, and yells through most of this album, while Moulding yelps, shrieks, and howls. Without reading the lyric sheet, I would say the first line in the opener “Radios in Motion” is “well there’s a message up in Chinuhhh/ah dat dey got’em in Japan/it’s passing off an ocean lina-ey/a mack’um schickemey say ammm!” I can’t even translate the chorus of “Cross Wires”, which to me sounds like “When you’ve got cross wires/everything’s *unintelligable yelping*”. They take the same approach on their funky, nearly unrecognizable cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, in which Partridge alternates between the tuned honking coming out of his harmonica and the detuned honking coming out of his mouth. It’s so bastardized that you may not even realize it’s a cover at first.
There’s something infectious to this approach, to the point that just looking over the tracklisting gives me musical flashbacks. According to my brain, song titles here include “Statue of Liberty…OOOH OOOH!”, “Neon Shuffle, BOOP BOOP BOOP”, and “Into the Atom Age, a dun dun dan NA NOWW!”. The playing is so jumpy and excitable that it is hard to sit still while listening. If you grab yourself a cup of coffee, sit down, and listen to this on headphones, you will probably look as though you’re having convulsions. Ironically, the working title for this album was Black Music (Virgin wisely demanded it changed), suggesting something funky or soulful; these grooves are about as stiff as they come.
To what genre does this belong? I’ve heard many claim that XTC’s origins were in punk, but this music is too intricate to be punk; it’s got the energy, but if anything XTC’s tempos were quicker, and more liable to just stop on a dime. It’s closer to New Wave, though it almost feels like a parody of the genre; you can just imagine more serious New Wavers listening to it and thinking, “hey, we don’t sound like this!”. The only genre descriptor I’ve found that really suits this music is Zolo, a tag that fits a very specific cross-section of the jerkiest of New Wave and the boingiest of progressive rock. Early examples of Zolo include Zappa’s Uncle Meat and Gentle Giant’s Octopus, and while XTC didn’t have the skill level of either, they certainly fit the pingpong spirit of those releases.
Hence why White Music has gone underrated for so long. Your typical XTC fan tends to be something of a pop aficionado; someone who appreciates the craftsmanship and nuanced songwriting that marked the band’s classic albums such as English Settlement, Skylarking, and Nonsuch. White Music on the other hand is the sort of album that only exists to punish those who might take it seriously. I’m sure most of us can agree on the quality of the singles – “This is Pop”, “Statue of Liberty”, and “Science Friction” (from the 3-D EP) are all classics, but the more in-your-face material like “Neon Shuffle” or “Dance Band” require more of a taste for the absurd. It’s no surprise that they couldn’t stay this way for long; the follow-up, Go2, added a few new wrinkles to the sound, but it’s not quite as fun, and the songs aren’t as endearing as the ones on here (some of that, of course, is “second album syndrome”; many of the songs on White Music were four years in the making). Barry Andrews left the band soon after, joining Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, and later co-founding Shriekback with ex-Gang of Four member Dave Allen. After auditioning several replacements – including an at the time little-known techman named Thomas Dolby – the band eventually added fellow Swindonite Dave Gregory and transitioned into the pop deities we know them as today.
As such, those first two XTC albums aren’t really talked about much; even Partridge himself seems to disown that period of the band. “On our early records we didn’t know what we were doing. We were just naïvely, noisily energetic and thankful to be making records”, he said during a 1999 interview. If anything this is an understatement. The spirit of White Music hasn’t been quite forgotten on later XTC albums (“A Train Running Low on Soul Coal…AIEEE! AIIEE!!”), but suffice to say there aren’t many albums quite like it, even outside of the band’s catalog. The later albums may have better playing, songwriting, and production, but I still get as much enjoyment out of this one as I do many of those; outside of English Settlement and Skylarking, it’s the one I listen to the most.