I swear it’s a coincidence, but I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time this week talking about music from the seventies. (Once is bad, twice is inordinate as far as that pestilent sore of a decade is concerned) But it just so happens that there was some good music being generated in spite of the prevailing trends.
That’s probably true of every decade when it comes right down to it, a ton of bad mainstream, marketable, management style music, and a little tiny bit of creativity. But for me it was the first decade that I got to experience that horror so it stuck with me more. The eighties were just as bad for there being a load of crap and some descent music, but I had come to expect that by then so I was so overjoyed to find anything half-way decent that I was able to ignore the dross. Eventually I just stopped listening to pop music and the problem was solved.
Anyway back to where we started before I was diverted so pleasantly. The mid to late seventies saw sort of a mini British invasion of pop music making it over to North America. Because it was the peak of the Punk period and the beginning of the New Wave period (how do you tell a Punk fan from a New Wave fan? A New Wave fan wears a pin of their favourite band on their jacket while a Punk fan wears a pin through their cheek) any band from The Clash to Boy George was classified as being one of the two.
This resulted in the gross mistake of people actually mentioning Boy George in the same breath as Joe Strummer as if they had something in common. One of the bands that received the misnomer of New Wave (I even heard them referred to as Punk one time which that underlined that DJ’s woeful misunderstanding of the music on all sorts of levels) was XTC.
XTC were the epitome of the power pop band, turning out finely crafted songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Making Plans for Nigel.” Musically they had far more in common with bands like The Kinks, The Beatles, and The Monkees than The Stranglers, The Damned, or The Clash. But since they all had shortish hair, British accents, and looked slightly eccentric they were labeled as New Wave over here.
When the New Wave boom ended in the mid 1980’s and the British retreat began, XTC’s releases didn’t make much noise outside of critics praising them to the skies and die hard fans in North America. But back home they were still hard at it putting out records and perfecting their studio sound.
When their contract with Virgin records expired, front man Andy Partridge decided the time was ripe for them to start doing all their own recording and producing discs on their own label. Ape records was the result of years of labour on Andy’s part to come to an understanding as how to make the best use of the technology available to the home recording artist.
Long before every kid had a recording studio on his or her laptop Andy was tinkering with the joys of the home studio. Over the years he has accumulated an archive of over 100 songs on tape that included alternative versions of XTC songs, songs that never made it onto albums, demos of songs for the band to hear and learn from, and even better songs that he’s finally gone back and completed. Why did he go back to complete them? Well so they could be released as part of a nine disc box set called The Fuzzy Warbles Collectors Album.
Eight of the nine discs have been previously released as Fuzzy Warbles 1 through Fuzzy Warbles 8 while the ninth disc in the package is the nine track Hinges CD only available in this box set. They’ve also included booklets with each disc wherein Andy takes you through his personal history of home recording.
Now like a lot of us his home recording started with cheap tape decks recording his favourite songs from records and radio. But unlike you and me he didn’t give up with that, but started to figure out how he could recreate different sounds and record them; generally exploring the whole range of potential that was available even then for interesting effects.
In later life of course he has machines out the wazoo, but he says he keeps a pair of knitting needles in front of him as a reminder of what his first and still favoured means of percussion was. He wonders about the effect on creativity when kids can just press a button and have an instant drum machine which they can talk over and then call that a song.
The question remains though who is going to want to buy a nine CD box set of material from the lead songwriter for a group that was only ever really marginally successful in North America. The songs are fascinating enough to listen too, hearing the ones you know without the accompaniment that your expecting, or even listening to the songs that were never released. But there is only so much of that one person really wants to or needs to listen to.
Perhaps there are musicians and guitar players out there who this will appeal to, because of the insights it gives into the creative process that one of the great songwriters of the late twentieth century went through to make his finely crafted songs. I’m sure there are fanatical XTC fans out there who will also consider this package indispensable and be willing to fork out whatever money is requested for it, but I can’t really see this appealing to just the general run of the mill fan.
To be perfectly blunt about the whole matter, you’re looking at nine discs of demo tapes, and no matter how amazing the person is they aren’t going to be the most interesting music to come down the pipe. There’s no denying Andy Partridge’s brilliance as a songwriter, but since all these discs have already come out independently of each other save the one nine-song add in, I’d think a person would be better off choosing among those titles already published with the tracks on them they are interested in, than investing in this whole kit and caboodle.
XTC was one of the premier pop bands of the late 1970’s early 1980’s. If you really want to listen to some of their music why not pick up an album from that era. The Fuzzy Warbles Collectors Album is likely to interest only either the serious musician or the aficionado of all things XTC. The rest of us will be perfectly content humming along to “Making Plans For Nigel” again.