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XTC, 'Mummer'

Mummer  (1983,  41.30)  ***½/TT

Beating of Hearts
Wonderland
Love on a Farmboy's Wages
Great Fire
Deliver Us From the Elements
Human Alchemy

Ladybird
In Loving Memory of a Name
Me and the Wind
Funk Pop a Roll
XTC, 'The Big Express'

The Big Express  (1984,  43.57)  ***½/TT

Wake Up
All You Pretty Girls
Shake You Donkey Up
Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her
This World Over
The Everyday Story of Smalltown
I Bought Myself a Liarbird
Reign of Blows
You're the Wish You Are I Had
I Remember the Sun
Train Running Low on Soul Coal
XTC, 'Skylarking'

Skylarking  (1986,  45.50)  ***½/T

Summer's Cauldron
Grass
The Meeting Place
That's Really Super, Supergirl
Ballet for a Rainy Day
1000 Umbrellas
Season Cycle
Earn Enough for Us
Big Day
Another Satellite
Mermaid Smiled
The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
Dying
Sacrificial Bonfire
XTC, 'Apple Venus Vol. 1'

Apple Venus Vol. 1  (1999,  50.07)  *****/TT½

River of Orchids
I'd Like That
Easter Theatre
Knights in Shining Karma
Frivolous Tonight
Green Man
Your Dictionary
Fruit Nut
I Can't Own Her
Harvest Festival
The Last Balloon

Current availability:

Mellotrons/Chamberlin used:

XTC formed in the mid-'70s in Swindon, Wiltshire as failed glamsters The Helium Kidz, mutating into XTC around the time punk hit. They began as a particularly spiky-sounding outfit, with scratchy guitar and cheap organ combining to create a fairly unique sound, with Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding's songs lending their sound the requisite oddness they needed to stand out from the pack. Over the course of their next few albums, they lost the keyboards, gained another guitar and lost their drummer, becoming a studio-based outfit in the process after Partridge had a nervous breakdown on tour.

XTC bought their M400 (with two tape frames) around 1983. Dave Gregory:

"During the rehearsals for Mummer we were sitting around thinking of something different to use. Mellotron? Yeah! We looked in the Melody Maker and there was actually one for sale in there, we had to go to South Wales for it. I think the bloke had just quit his job in an art-rock group. When we got it back and I took it to pieces to see how it worked I couldn't believe it; the tape's attached to springs that pull it back after eight seconds, and there's a wheel propelled by a big fan belt. Plus it takes about ten minutes to warm up after you turn it on. We have to clean it from time to time and the fuses used to go a lot when we first got it. Absolutely obsolete".

Mummer, like all the relevant XTC albums, uses the Mellotron sparingly; two tracks only, mainly choirs. Deliver Us From The Elements is a Colin Moulding song, and one of the band's first 'psychedelic' numbers. Human Alchemy is slightly less so, but with slightly more Mellotron. The following year's The Big Express uses the 'Tron in a fairly similar way; two tracks, mostly choir. All You Pretty Girls features Mellotron choir 'recorded from a speaker in the base of a tin bucket', apparently, which could explain the 'unusual' sound... Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her is an Andy Partridge song about an imaginary encounter with Erica Wexler, Andy's long-term admirer and (very) eventually, partner.

Skylarking was recorded in America and produced by Todd Rundgren, both of which caused considerable problems for the band. During the recording, they found an old Chamberlin at the studio which (allegedly) 'had a family of mice living in it'. Dave Gregory plays it on one song, the terribly cheerful Dying, but it's not particularly audible, although it apparently provides the clarinets at the end. By this time, XTC had got their psych alter-ego project The Dukes of Stratosphear going properly, with a full album in the pipeline, but they didn't use their 'Tron again for many years.

XTC took an enforced seven-year break after 1992's Nonsuch (****), while they went on strike, refusing to offer Virgin any new recordings, as the label refused to release them from their somewhat unethical contract. Eventually, the band won out through sheer determination, and released what I personally feel to be the highlight of their career, Apple Venus Vol. 1. This is a marvellous collection of psychedelia-influenced material, written over the course of several years. Sadly, after everything the band had been through, Dave Gregory left during the recording sessions, but not before laying down some excellent 'Tron parts on three of the album's tracks. Easter Theatre has some very 'Strawberry Fields' flutes, Frivolous Tonight features a superb descending string line, while closer The Last Balloon has some background strings on the chorus (thanks, Herman).

XTC are most definitely an acquired taste, but one that I feel more people should make the effort to acquire. It took me many years of thinking 'I know I should like this band' before I finally did, so if I can do it, so can you. All four of these albums are well worth hearing, but (at least to my ears) Apple Venus Vol.1 is not only the best of the bunch, but the only one with any really unmissable Mellotron. Buy 'em all anyway.

Dukes of Stratosphear, '25 O'Clock'

25 O'Clock  (1985,  26.44)  *****/TT½

25 O'Clock
Bike Ride to the Moon
My Love Explodes
What in the World??...

Your Gold Dress
The Mole From the Ministry
Dukes of Stratosphear, 'Psonic Psunspot'

Psonic Psunspot  (1987,  40.00)  *****/TTT½

Vanishing Girl
Have You Seen Jackie?
Little Lighthouse
You're a Good Man Albert Brown
  (Curse You Red Barrel)
Collideascope
You're My Drug
Shiny Cage
Brainiac's Daughter
The Affiliated
Pale and Precious
Dukes of Stratosphear, 'Chips From the Chocolate Fireball'

Chips From the Chocolate Fireball  (1989,  62.44)  *****/TTTT

25 O'Clock
Bike Ride to the Moon
My Love Explodes
What in the World??...

Your Gold Dress
The Mole From the Ministry
Vanishing Girl
Have You Seen Jackie?
Little Lighthouse
You're a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)
Collideascope
You're My Drug
Shiny Cage
Brainiac's Daughter

The Affiliated
Pale and Precious

Current availability:

Mellotrons used:

Ah, the Dukes of Stratosphear, one of Britain's best-loved late-'60s psych outfits, unheralded in their time, only to be exhumed and beatified decades later. Oh all right, it's XTC's cod-psych alter-egos, rejoicing in the monikers Lord Cornelius Plum, Sir John Johns, e-i-e-i Owen and The Red Curtain. Their two albums, compiled onto the Chips From the Chocolate Fireball collection, are the most brilliant psych pastiches ever, with an almost psychotic attention to detail and bucketloads of humour to boot.

Fans tend to prefer the 25 O'Clock mini-album, originally conceived as a one-off project, and it's probably fair to say that there's a little more joyous abandon in its six tracks than in the more commercially-inclined Psonic Psunspot. It must have been intensely irritating to XTC to discover that their jokey side project was selling better than they were and I believe that's the reason behind the full-length album. Nonetheless, it's still full of superb material, replete with period detail and great songs, a touch that many bands would've forgotten in their haste. A brilliant touch is the spoken-word interludes by the studio owner's young daughter (I think), who does the best 'Alice' I've heard in a long while. Incidentally, scholars of the period can apparently nail almost every track down to a specific influence, many of them obscure in themselves, but my lesser knowledge can only spot the most obvious; 'Sgt. Pepper', 'Ogden's', 'Village Green' etc. A couple of specifics I've noticed, though, are Bike Ride To The Moon (Tomorrow), the excellent pub singalong You're A Good Man Albert Brown (Beatles vs. Kinks), the end of Pale And Precious (Beach Boys, theremin included) and Collideascope (The Move).

There's some great Mellotron, too, of course, although the band have resisted the doubtless huge temptation to swamp the entire project with it. It's not always easy to tell, but there's definitely a couple of tracks on the mini-album, but it really comes into its own on Psonic Psunspot, particularly on Have You Seen Jackie? and Collideascope. The story goes that for the recording of the full-length album at a studio right out in the sticks (Devon, I think), the equipment had to be transported in a rowing boat (!), M400 included...

It's interesting to note that as XTC's career has progressed, the distance between 'themselves' and the Dukes has gradually lessened until by 1999's excellent Apple Venus Volume 1, they're almost indistinguishable, except that the XTC album is technically 'serious'. Anyway, if you have even a remote interest in late-'60s British music, buy these (the compilation suffices) and contribute to XTC's pension fund (stop choking at the back...). Absolutely wonderful albums that stand repeated plays without a murmur of dissent. Sheer brilliance. Buy immediately.



Andy Partridge, 'Fuzzy Warbles Volume 2'

Fuzzy Warbles Volume 2  (2002, recorded 1979-2000,  49.38)  ***½/T

Ridgeway Path
I Don't Want to Be Here
Young Marrieds
No One Here Available
Obscene Procession
Miller Time
You're the Wish You Are I Had
Ra Ra Rehearsal
Ra Ra for Red Rocking Horse
Everything'll Be Alright
25 O'Clock
GOOM
Chain of Command
All of a Sudden
Summer's Cauldron
Then She Appeared
It's Snowing Angels
Ship Trapped in the Ice
Andy Partridge, 'Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3'

Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3  (2003, recorded 1983-96,  57.41)  ***½/T

My Train is Coming
Lightheaded
Goodbye Humanosaurus
Humble Daisy
You Like Me?
Great Fire
Work
Mopti Fake 1
Collideascope
Mopti Fake 2
When We Get to England
Train Running Low on Soul Coal
Holly Up on Poppy
Strawberry Fields Forever
Autumn Comes Around
Child's Crusade
Little Lighthouse
This is the End
Put it on Again
Andy Partridge, 'Fuzzy Warbles Volume 4'

Fuzzy Warbles Volume 4  (2003, recorded 1979-9?,  56.03)  ***/T

Tunes
Bumpercars
The Art Song (Something Good With
  Your Life)
I'm Playing My Fano
Zonked Right Out on Life
All I Dream of is a Friend
Peck the Ground Like a Chicken
That's Really Super Supergirl
Brainiac's Daughter
Blue Beret
Gangway, Electric Guitar is
  Coming Through
Mechanical Planet
Helicopter
Ugly Underneath
OMGO
Where is Your Heart?
Hey, it's Alan Burston!
Season Cycle
Countdown to Christmas Partytime
Andy Partridge, 'Fuzzy Warbles Volume 7'

Fuzzy Warbles Volume 7  (2006, recorded 1982-2003,  60.36)  ***½/T

2 Rainbeau Melt
Thrill Pill
Sonic Boom
I'm Unbecome
Ballet for a Rainy Day
1000 Umbrellas
Ejac in a Box (MGOO)
C Side
Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her,
  Kiss Her

Ladybird
Candymine
Visit to the Doctor
Cherry in Your Tree
Desert Island
Scarecrow People
Hold Me My Daddy
Books Are Burning
Bobba De Boop De Ba De Boobay
Open a Can (of Human Beans)

Current availability:

Mellotrons used:

Andy Partridge has been, of course XTC's chief mover and shaker for over thirty years now (and, of course, chief Duke of Stratosphear), although the band have been on hiatus for the better part of the last decade. After the two Apple Venus demo sets (Homespun and Homegrown), Partridge elected to release a slew of demo albums under his own name, the Fuzzy Warbles series (a Clockwork Orange quote, fact fans), starting in 2002. They've been compiled with no regard for continuity, so I'm not sure what criteria Andy used when piecing them together, making every one of the eight regular volumes a bit of a mixed bag of experiments, one-man-and-an-acoustic run-throughs of familiar material, near-full band arrangements obviously used as works-in-progress and demos of never-released stuff. As a result, the boringly consistent ratings basically tell you that one volume's as good (or bad) as another, and if you like one you'll almost certainly like all. And the corollary, of course. Partridge's unique voice and phrasing shine through most of the tracks on offer here, while his way with a melody line makes it impossible they could be written by anyone else.

To add complication to complication, it seems quite a few of the tracks from the series have actually been released before, largely on North American fan club cassette releases, including Jules Verne's Sketchbook (1987) and The Bull with the Golden Guts (1992), plus cassette, vinyl and CD EPs scattered across the years, sometimes as XTC, sometimes as Partridge. I'm afraid I've made no real attempt to log all the different original releases, although I've tried to note when the Mellotron tracks have been previously available. After releasing Volumes 7/8 in 2006, Partridge stuck the whole lot into a box set, The Official Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, with a ninth disc, Hinges, which must've pissed his devoted fans off big-time, since they'd presumably already bought the previous eight volumes.

Andy Partridge, 'The Official Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album'

Volume 1 (***½) is Mellotron-free, but Volume 2's 1985 opener Ridgeway Path (originally on The Bull with the Golden Guts) is the most Mellotron-heavy track in the entire series, being an infuriatingly-incomplete just under a minute of full-on multiply-overdubbed string and flute madness, accompanied only by a drum machine. The rest of the disc's the expected hodge-podge, not least the 18-second Jamaican answerphone message No One Here Available and the excellent, otherwise-unavailable Ra Ra For Red Rocking Horse (excepting its original release on Jules Verne's Sketchbook). Oddly, there's one other possible 'Tron track, Then She Appeared, although it seems to fall in completely the wrong part of XTC's career (around 1990), being a(nother) '60s psych spoof, this time credited to The Golden, with what could well be a few seconds of a 'Tron flute melody at the end.

Volume 3 is the by-now usual mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the fully worked-out and the bare bones, the excellent and the WtF? Possibly the album's oddest track (against stiff competition) is Dave Gregory's note-perfect home-recorded Strawberry Fields Forever, complete with Mellotron flutes and cellos, Partridge singing. It seems Dave's 'kinky thing was reproducing his favourite records in atomic exactitude', according to Andy, to which I can only say: job done. He adds: 'Just don't ask to hear his McArthur Park or Twenty First Century Schizoid Man'. The track has actually been available before, on a 1990 various artists effort, 1967: Through the Looking Glass, listed as Colin's Hermits (ho ho).

Volume 4, for some odd, reason, seems marginally less appealing than its predecessors, although it's still an essential listen for (should be) committed fans. Maybe it's the cumulative effect of Partridge-style melodic twists and turns? Maybe he'd already dug out all the best stuff? Four/five vols to go, folks... One 'Tron track again, with choppy, distorted flutes and in-yer-face cellos on another shorty, 1983's Peck The Ground Like A Chicken, previously unavailable. There's nothing Mellotronic on Volumes 5/6, leaving Volume 7 as the last relevant release for Mellotron fetishists, with no fewer than two 'Tron tracks, with what sounds like string section on Partridge's original demo for The Big Express' Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her and distant strings on the one-off 2003 Dukes reformation track, Open A Can (Of Human Beans). The rest of the disc's, well, pretty much like the rest of the set, to be honest, highlights including the three rather filthy 'single entendre' tracks Partridge wrote for a quicky-abandoned 'bubblegum' album in the early '90s (Candymine/Visit To The Doctor/Cherry In Your Tree). As he says re. playing them to Virgin, 'You should have seen their faces...'

So; do you invest? The set isn't cheap, although I've seen it for around £40 sterling, which isn't bad for a nine-disc set, is it? If you're a fan, there's no point buying individual volumes, as you're going to want all of 'em and will just kick yourself for trying to pick 'em up piecemeal. And you'll miss out on the set's 'bonus disc', Hinges (carrying on the philatelic analogy, clearly), which, although it's the shortest disc in the set (don't tell me Partridge was actually RUNNING OUT of barrels to scrape?), is still essential for anyone interested in the backroom workings of XTC, or anyone who simply wants to hear a bunch of 'as good as the albums' stuff that you're not going to hear anywhere else. The five definite 'Tron tracks are, of course, spread over four volumes, the one absolute essential being Ridgeway Path, despite its brevity. Look, if you like XTC, you can't really go wrong here. Buy.

samples
XTC, 'Apple Box'

Apple Box  (2005, recorded 1998-1999)  ***½

New tracks:
Spiral
Say it

Current availability:

In 2005, both Apple Venus albums plus their demos were made available as a four-disc set, Apple Box, complete with download instructions for two new tracks, Spiral and Say It; slightly naughty, given that most fans would already own all four releases separately. The two new tracks are well worth hearing (if possibly only for total completists), fitting neatly into the sonic landscape already defined by the original albums.

The very talented Duncan Maitland (ex-Pugwash) plays Mellotron string samples on Say It (thanks for that, Duncan), with a perfectly acceptable part that's never in any real danger of being mistaken for the real thing. Do you buy the box? Yes for completists, hmmm... for the rest of us. Are these extras even still available, a good few years after the event? Quite possibly not, although they've turned up as not-entirely official (cough) downloads.

links

Official site

Superb fan site

Official Andy Partridge site

See: Peter Blegvad | Duncan Maitland


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