XTC: Black Sea (1980)

Continuing with the motif of yesterday's Mott The Hoople write-up, XTC are another band I love with a hot burning passion, yet can't really point to any one album I find truly compelling from start to finish.  As with Mott, I've made myself an XTC compilation drawn from their long career, and I think it's pretty face-meltingly great and mostly does the trick.  (The exceptions are the EP and LP they released under their Dukes of Stratosphear moniker, wonderful 60s psyche-pop pastiches/parodies that contain more perfect songsmithery than they ever conjured up for their regular releases.)

When I do pull out the albums, I tend to go for the more ornate baroque-pop of later years, like the wonderful Oranges & Lemons from 1989.  Still, if pressed to pick a favorite, I'd have to fall back on 1980's Black Sea, if largely for sentimental reasons.

Back in high school in the early 80s, while I did my best to keep as current with new music as cloistered suburbia would allow, I was mostly interested in getting my arms around as much classic rock history as I could.  Yeah, I listened to the Clash and the Talking Heads and the Jam, but was still reveling in great albums from the Byrds and Neil Young that had come out back when I was too young to have heard them.  Still, now and then a song would break through that got me interested in looking forward.  "Generals and Majors" was one of those songs, something that from the opening seconds made me sit up and take me notice and got me wondering if there might be a whole world of new and emerging music just outside the mainstream that would render all those classic rock dinosaurs obsolete.  (Note: there was.)

I still think there's nothing that sounds quite like "Generals and Majors," that distinctive hook so singularly stunning that I will never NOT drop everything to listen if this comes on the radio or shows up on one of my playlists.

The other one that made a lasting impression was album opener "Respectable Street."  One of the most indelible moments of my youth was seeing Urgh! A Music War on late-night cable; it was a somewhat random collection of concert clips from various new wave acts, both popular (i.e. the Police, the Go-Go's) and obscure.  And, once again, seeing XTC (shortly before they became a studio-only act) was one of those a-ha! moments when you just feel that the musical world is shifting.  (I dedicated a bit of ink to Urgh! in my book; it was a big deal for me at the time.) 

Those two songs may have been the world-changers for me, but the album is full of great music, songs that bridge the band's evolution from skewed, angular post-punk with catchy hooks to more ambitious, baroque pop music.  "Love At First Sight" rocks a reggae beat far more effectively than most of what the Police were doing at the time; "Rocket From A Bottle" is understated yet hopelessly infectious; "Towers of London" is (almost) straightforward mid-tempo power pop; "Burning With Optimism's Flame" is another charming reggae-ish track with askew hooks. Admittedly, a few of the album's tracks lean towards the more jagged tendencies of their earlier work that I found a little disorienting and off-putting, but on the whole the album does a nice job of transporting me back to a time when I was feeling a sense of joyous discovery.

Here's the video for "Generals":
And here's that live "Respectable Street" clip from Urgh that made such an impression at the time:
...and an audio rip of "Love at First Sight":


  1. This is humanfund, btw.

    Kudos to you for persisting amidst this harbinger of the globally warmed and more populous future. As a university professor I have some extra time on my hands too. Hopefully this situation won't hasten the end of in person education.

    Funny, the 2 songs you focused on are my 2 XTC favorites as well. I too recall being blown away by the sheer ferocity of the Urgh version of Respectable Street.

    I have to say I don't much care for most of their later, softer, more whimsical stuff. Unfortunately, Andy Partridge was much better when he was unhappy.

    Perhaps you know of the compilation called Fossil Fuel? The first of this 2 CD set is pretty great all the way through.

    1. I trust as a sequestered professor you'll still be giving some online lectures. (My daughter, a college senior, is spending the next few months here at home with us and will presumably be attending class online, though details are still dribbling in.)

      Anyway, I actually like some of the whimsical tunes. Again, not entire albums, but the later work had, IMHO, some amazing songs (i.e. I'd Like That off Apple Venus; Dear Madam Barnum off Nonsuch; We're All Light off Wasp Star). I think Fossil Fuel is ok, but most their comps it's incomplete (i.e. lacking the last few years, and none of them include the outstanding Dukes stuff), and has some questionable choices (i.e. how could it not include Earn Enough For Us, the best song off Skylarking)? I think a band this idiosyncratic is going to have different fans making different picks, so I had to make my own.

    2. Completely agree about Earn Enough too.

      I guess I'm just always surprised, given how often it so closely aligns, that our musical taste sometimes differs.

      I'm pretty 20th century when it comes to technology, as you can see with my ineptitude with ID on this site. I just bombard my students with email. I'll bet it's nice to have your daughter home for a while, despite the circumstances.

    3. I've found that when I try to comment on this site from my iPhone or iPad, it won't take my user info; but it works fine from my laptop. Weird.

  2. XTC is, and will probably always be, one of my favorite bands. And this fine record contains some of their standout tracks (the one-two punch of Respectable Street and Generals and Majors, as well as Towers of London and No Language In Our Lungs, which was put to good use in the short-lived show Freaks and Geeks -- it's on YouTube) Hope this won't be your last XTC post!


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