SDE special guest contributor Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears on the making of XTC’s classic album, its influence on his own work and his verdict on the reissue…
‘Andy Partridge is a genius!’
Those words were delivered emphatically by a charming, besuited young man who had a deep, resonant voice, a ripe Russian accent, and worked for the Italian record company back in the nineties.
‘And you are a genius!’
OK, rewind. I took the compliment with a pinch of salt, it was part of a constant apology for the disorganisation of the Italian promo trip we were on at the time, but I was impressed that he felt so strongly about one of our national treasures; ‘Andy Partridge is a genius!’ I wish you could hear those words spilling out of Michele’s mouth.
Three little-known facts: I have never met any members of XTC despite the familial connections; Hugh Padgham, who engineered Black Sea, also engineered the recording of Phil Collins’ drums on Woman In Chains; and Steve Lillywhite, who produced Black Sea, is an ace at ping pong.
Anyway… the problem with listening to this album for the first time in years is that I now have (track one) Respectable Street stuck in my head. And it just won’t go away. Then, when the track plays out in my mind, it immediately segues into (track two) General and Majors. It’s a brilliant segue and one that we musicians dream of both live and in the programming of our own records. Listening to those two tracks alone, I am immediately reminded why I list Black Sea among my favourite albums of all time.
But just for the record, my favourite song from the album is, and always has been, No Language In Our Lungs. When I was 19, that song struck a chord with me, and I took it very much to heart.
There is no language in our lungs,
To tell the world just how we feel…
Cue The Hurting.
I bought Black Sea on vinyl when it came out in 1980. It became part of a growing record collection, which included Bowie’s Scary Monsters, Peter Gabriel 3 and Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music (and Remain in Light). XTC had been having a busy year, the singles, Generals and Majors, Towers of London and Sgt Rock (Is Gonna Help Me) gave them serious exposure on Radio and TV. Track by glorious track, they were building on the success that had kicked off with Making Plans For Nigel from the previous album, Drums And Wires: eerie, unsettling, and a nifty piece of social commentary, it made us wannabees sit up and pay attention, wondering who the hell XTC was and keen to know what was coming next. But there was a false start to their next album, which seems in hindsight like serendipity – having to wait for the right studio and engineer.
Following a heavy bout of touring and verging on nervous exhaustion, XTC had become ‘a well-oiled gleaming Moloch of two chopping guitars, bass and drums’, to quote Andy. It was a line-up popularised by many of their influences, including the obvious one, The Beatles. In fact, if I remember rightly, I believe that Partridge and Colin Moulding (bass and vocals, writer of MPFN among others) were referred to as the Lennon and McCartney of Swindon (a small town in the West Country of England not far from where I lived, in Bath.) But there is another band whose influence dominates the sound of Black Sea, another well-oiled four-piece of guitar (mainly), bass and drums, and that is Talking Heads. It’s especially dominant on Living Through Another Cuba with its ‘herky-jerk’ Byrnesque vocal stylings, the jump and quirk of Love At First Sight and the scratchy rhythm guitar on Travels In Nihilon.
So, somewhere between More Songs About Buildings and Food and Sergeant Pepper’s lies the Black Sea? Okay, maybe not that simple, because I really cannot pinpoint all the influences behind this incredibly diverse record. Luckily for us, it’s open, big and sparse without a thousand overdubs to come in and confuse the picture; the guitars are razor sharp, the vocals are in your face, the bass weaves subterranean McCartney magic, and the drums are proud and powerful.
Plus, it’s superbly produced by Steve Lillywhite, who also produced Drums and Wires. In-demand Lillywhite had worked with Siouxsie and the Banshees and produced U2’s Boy and, more importantly, was king of the ping-pong table when I was in the same studios. But the sound of Black Sea is hugely reliant on both the engineer, Hugh Padgham, and the drum room. I’m assuming the drums were recorded a stone’s throw from the stone room at the Townhouse Studios, London, this being the birthplace of the famous Phil Collins drum sound, born during the recording of Peter Gabriel 3. Listen to the drumming on Travels In Nihilon and, again, it’s really Gabriel from that period. There was surely a lot of cross-pollination going on because of Steve and Hugh being involved with Peter’s masterpiece of a third album. (Lillywhite and Padgham received a test pressing of the Gabriel album while working on Black Sea, and vinyl scratches from the pressing can be heard at the start of Respectable Street.)
So, we have another re-release to consider. Why buy it? Well, it’s the first 5.1 mix to be had from this album, and, unsurprisingly (cos I’ve worked with him), the mixing by Steven Wilson is superlative. Sit in the centre of the speakers like you’re supposed to or sit with the main mix on the right and the sub-mix on the left and it’s quite amazing. It’s like being in the perfect rehearsal room with the band; the acoustic guitar overdub on Generals and Majors popping out of the back-left speaker is a revelation, the metallic percussion on Paper and Iron too – it’s a new, for me, way of listening to a very familiar record, it plays with your ears and spatial awareness while making you, despite the odd ping-pong-related injury, want to dance like a drunken teenager.
So far, so good. Reading the sleeve notes is fascinating and a perfect reminder of Partridge’s wit and sensibilities. The stories about the artwork and last-minute change of album title are new ones to me. (I won’t share – go buy this record.) Are there any undiscovered gems? Well, maybe not exactly gems, but one of Andy’s demos, Mind The Gap gives a fascinating insight into how Travels In Nihilon was written, another, Spy In Space, provides the bass riff for Living Through Another Cuba. Unfortunately, the pre-Padgham recordings are just not on the same level as Black Sea, the additional tracks are merely, in my opinion, additional tracks, but the surround-sound remixing of Smokeless Zone and Don’t Lose Your Temper brings those songs a lot closer to the quality of the main album.
There is a gulf between this audio experience and what you hear on streaming services. Maybe they will catch up one day? Until then, stay cheerful!
Thanks to Roland for his review. The CD+Blu-ray reissue of XTC’s Black Sea is out now. Tears For Fears‘ Rule The World is released as a 2LP vinyl set on Friday.
The Black Sea reissue can be purchased direct from Burning Shed or using links below.
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Black Sea CD+Blu-ray deluxe edition
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Tears For Fears
Rule The World: The Greatest Hits [VINYL]
Black Sea CD+Blu-ray content summary
• CD: Features a 2017 stereo album mix by Steven Wilson with bonus tracks (many featuring Steven Wilson mixes).
• Blu-Ray: a 5.1 Surround mix in 24bit/96khz mixed from the original multi-track tapes available in LPCM and DTS HD MA.
• Additional Blu-Ray features include:
– The 2017 stereo album mix in 24bit/96khz LPCM audio.
– Additional songs from the album sessions in stereo and 5.1 (several featuring 2017 Steven Wilson mixes)
– The original stereo album mix in hi-res stereo + bonus tracks.
– Instrumental versions (mixed by Steven Wilson), and several bonus mixes in 24bit/96khz LPCM audio.
– Many album tracks in demo form as recorded (mostly live) at Phonogram Studios prior to the main album sessions.
– Three Andy Partridge demos from Phonogram studios.
– Three Andy Partridge demos from Swindon Town Hall.
– Promo films for Towers Of London, Generals & Majors & Respectable Street.