As a belated celebration of St George’s Day, allow me to introduce you to an underrated beacon of Englishness in the form of XTC. Led by Andy Partridge, they managed to make music that pulls in many directions while somehow managing to remain quintessentially parochial for the most part.
Releasing their first record, White Music, in 1978, it was clear that this was something radically different, part New York Dolls, part Small Faces- the singles This Is Pop and Statue Of Liberty ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI1PDNUk9QU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRt1GsPMXbk ) showing off their eclecticism, with a hint of Wiltshire burr. The spirit continued into a second album, Go 2, which was a platform for a burgeoning interest in electronic music and elements of dub, splitting critics used to their particular brand of pop-rock- listen for yourselves to the likes of Meccanik Dancing ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7WUNKUcEfM ) and Battery Brides ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr3ArWo0SlY ), the sound of Kraftwerk or Lee ‘ Scratch’ Perry upping sticks to Swindon.
It was back to relative normality with Drums & Wires (1979), home of their first major hit in the shape of Making Plans For Nigel ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_59q3FvPgQ), vibes spreading into Black Sea, released the following year. Perhaps the most outwardly British of all their albums, it revels in the spirit of the Kinks on Respectable Street ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqDFGpd845Y ), adding the military march of Sgt Rock ( Is Going To Help Me- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87rvv41c0wM ), Towers Of London and its evocation of an England long ago ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRNHbBg6HVc ) making for an impressive hat-trick of singles.
Their next step was the English Heritage rock of the double album English Settlement in 1982, arguably the peak of their powers as they tackled the pastoral side of the motherland- Senses Working Overtime ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9gq-ANfjc0&feature=related ) in all possible ways, No Thugs In Our House ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C5k4GioJfY ) another highlight, even taking in a diversion into world music of sorts on It’s Nearly Africa ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsqClrqlI1Y ) .
A side project, the Dukes Of Stratosphear, may also be of interest, the band paying homage to their love of Sixties psychedelia- Chips From The Chocolate Fireball coming recommended ( a compilation of their ‘ best bits’ in this vein), channelling the spirits of the likes of Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, the Zombies and Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. Consider the likes of 25 O’Clock ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGF7o_I4mAw ), Bike Ride To The Moon ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0CL5emjoh8 ) and You’re A Good Man, Albert Brown ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8HP_QV7xxg ).
So, perhaps raise a glass of finest West Country cider and salute the songs of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, and feel a tinge of pride that our nation can conjure such bucolic rural idyll, inspired by all the elements that make Britain great, namely its culture and the countryside in which it plays out on a daily basis.
Consider the following statement- ‘ Classical musicians were the rock stars of their day’. To what extent is this true? Can supposedly ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture ever mingle? Defenders of progressive rock would say yes, without a moment’s pause- ironically enough given that Yes are one of the titans of the form. But to me both musics aspire, inspire and frustrate in equal measure- anyone who’s ever heard an orchestra on record or seen them in full flow live will concur.
‘Pop music is the classical music of today’. So said Paul McCartney when pressed on the subject in the early Sixties, and it is hard to look past a certain Fab Four as the leaders of a new wave of opened minds, certainly after their retreat from the pressures of touring and a new focus on the possibilities offered by the recording studio as a tool, producer George Martin helping realise the far-out sounds in their heads from the Sgt Pepper era, orchestration an ever-increasing forethought, starting with the rather lovely She’s Leaving Home ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lG3nXyI41M ) and the bombastic A Day In The Life ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-Q9D4dcYng ), perhaps taking in Eleanor Rigby ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LOgMWbDGPA ) with its nods to Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYPu4zWLWzs ).
Arguably the first fellow exponents of this new Baroque’n’ roll were the Electric Light Orchestra, formed from the ashes of the Move by Roy Wood alongside Jeff Lynne. A listen to one of their first attempts to marry Bach and the Beatles, 10538 Overture ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9oI6ijUq_Q ), will no doubt shed more light, the observant among you possibly noticing a nod to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbxgYlcNxE8&feature=related ) Given thought, the enterprise is admirable and surprisingly simple if at times lacking in practicality. Take the energy of rock and the precision of classical music and stick them together.
Going into the pop field the likes of Richard Wagner can arguably be thought of as the precursors to what would now be termed stadium rock, ‘ Wall Of Sound’ guru Phil Spector going so far as to term his productions a ‘ Wagnerian approach to rock and roll, little symphonies for the kids’. Again, how both achieved this is astonishingly simple yet ahead of either of their times, multiple instruments playing the same notes at the same speed to create simple yet memorable rushes in the mind of the listener. Compare and contrast the following, and perhaps marvel as the inherent snobbery of the classical world melts away a little. Ride Of The Valkyries, the most popular piece of the marathon Ring Cycle ( a glance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V92OBNsQgxU will refresh memories I’ll wager) could be the grandfather to any number of rock and pop’s most gloriously over the top moments.
And here’s one of them, King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, the title track to their magnum opus.( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlNantlznCA,) though anything in the vein of the aforementioned Yes ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Tdu4uKSZ3M ) should also have you in no doubt just how much rock, however begrudgingly, owes the rarefied atmosphere of the classical concert hall. Perhaps the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap should be allowed the last word on what makes both great and sometimes pompous, as Nigel Tuffnell plays his own take on a well-known minuet of Boccherini’s String Quintet No.5 in E Major, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH-DO3FgROI and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fLPBIBOE5U showing off the fun you can have straddling both worlds.
Ever wondered where the line between performance art and rock’n'roll begins and ends? Step into the wonderful world of the Velvet Underground- pulling in so many directions it’s often hard to keep track, but what a ride- and the bedrock of a lot of this innovation is a simple deviation from standard guitar tuning.
Co-founder Lou Reed first used his alternate tuning in a pre- Underground band, the Primitives, on an odd novelty track known as The Ostrich ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r998weOUiM )- and it is from this which the system derives its name. Some simple alterations will enable you to try for yourself- leaving your fourth string as standard, tune down your first ( E) string to a D note, second ( B) moves up to another D, third moves from G to D, fifth goes from A to D and sixth tunes down from E to a final D, uniform pitching the order of the day ( though almost any chord can be used as a substitute if desired).
Listen also to Venus In Furs ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XROTzaZbzQ) and All Tomorrow’s Parties ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pMuAgsZ2oo ) from The Velvet Underground and Nico, the début album by the Velvets. By this time the core of Reed ( guitar/vocals), Cale ( various instruments- among them bass, piano and organ), guitarist/ bass player Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker had been joined by the German vocalist Nico, at the insistence of their pop-art patron Andy Warhol, blurring all recognised genre boundaries as the musical accompaniment to Warhol’s Factory/Exploding Plastic Inevitable scenes, jams soundtracking Warhol’s early moves into avant-garde film-making.
The following year’s White Light/White Heat saw them soldier on minus Nico, though the template remained in place on the likes of the title track ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62ckXALWn1M ) and Sister Ray ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJUpY5geWcU )- following a dispute with Cale, the group then found itself forced to tag along as Reed spent what remained of their time as a collective using them to indulge a desire to move in a more pop-based direction on a self -titled third record and their 1970 swan-song Loaded.
Yet it is only with hindsight that the music community finally read their re-written musical rule book- as musician/producer and fan Brian Eno once said, few bought their first album but all who did were inspired to start a band, and I hope this will inspire most, if not all readers, to do the same, or at least broaden musical horizons.