XTCBlack Sea (or goodbye Helium Kids, set controls for the Stratosphear)
Released 1980 on Virgin
Reviewed by Andfurthermoreagain, 18/08/2011ce
The musical equivalent of Kellogg’s Cornflakes – have you forgotten how good they sound?
Well, yes...and no. See, I always find myself going back to XTC every now and then yet the thing about Swindon’s finest (and dare I say it, quirkiest) that always appeals to me is that because their recorded output stretches over the best part of twenty years or so and because each phase or album seems to have a unique flavour of its own, I always find myself going in at a different entry point and rediscovering a new favourite. Past XTC phases have seen me obsessing about Oranges & Lemons one year or Skylarking or Drums & Wires the next.(of course The Dukes Of Stratosphear are omnipresent given my love of psychedelia) but this time its arguably the most consistent album of their immediate post punk (post Barry Andrews) phase that has drawn me in – 1980’s Black Sea.
I think I’d always unjustifiably overlooked Black Sea, simply because the weight of singles released from it (which I had elsewhere, either 7”s or on comps) made me ignore it in favour of albums where there was more to discover – such as English Settlement. Big mistake!
Everyone must be familiar with those so called ‘classic’ albums that are widely represented by single cuts or choice tracks on compilations yet turn out to be nothing more than the sum of those popular, oft heard songs. Black Sea couldn’t be further from this notion, in that despite five fairly well known singles – Respectable Street, Generals & Majors, Love At First Sight (isn’t it amazing just how many singles of this period are Colin Moulding tunes too*), Sgt Rock and Towers Of London – the rest of the material on the album is so strong that listening to the album is a consistently pleasurable experience despite the over familiarity with the aforementioned tracks. In the best possible sense, the singles don’t stand out and that’s a good thing, trust me - certainly not a case of “know this one, know this, what’s this one, when’s Sgt Rock on, don’t know this, bored” It’s all good!
In fact, if the double album English Settlement was XTC’s White Album then Black Sea is their Revolver (and probably as good in many ways). I guess it took The Dukes to do Sgt Pepper but they were miles better than the laminated-in-clarifoil-library-sound-effects-kitchensinkerama they were replicating anyway!
Essentially, XTC and particularly Andy Partridge have always worn their influences proudly on their sleeves (a tour programme circa Black Sea features each band member’s profile whereupon ‘favourite music’ certainly suggests that these weren’t the most nihilistic, iconoclastic bunch ), a fact strengthened by their rather mature ages in terms of their typically young punk contemporaries (The Clash excepted of course). What you have to remember is that Partridge was already in his teens during the psychedelic boom of the late sixties and has confessed that this first musical love was something that simply didn’t go away, during punk, new wave, post punk etc. and it took until 1985’s first Dukes release 25 o’ Clock for this nagging desire to be realised as Andy (as Sir John Johns) finally got to front a psychedelic band of his own. Of course XTC’s work after that started to incorporate more overtly psychedelic elements (like the Dukes became XTC or vice versa – the second Dukes album Psonic Psunspot arguably sounds more like a very psychedelic XTC rather than a stand-alone alter ego oddity) once freed of the more austere requirements of punk or post punk.
Yet even their early pre-Dukes stuff is rather cunningly and subtly informed by Andy’s seemingly insuppressibly psychedelicised mind – whether it be the sinuous pop-art guitars or Barry Andrew’s garage punkish keyboard flourishes (see Music Machine/Seeds) or even Partridge’s provocative (in strict punk terms) whispered utterance of the word “psychedelic” just before the solo on debut single Science Friction.
The other significant influence on XTC’s early sound was glam rock particularly given the fact that their first incarnation as The Helium Kids saw them as long haired spangle clad New York Dolls obsessives until of course, the advent of punk necessitated a swift trip to the barbers and a hasty narrowing of the trouser leg bottoms. Much has been written about the glam terrace-stomp inspiration on punk (for evidence of this check out the Glitterbest and Velvet Tinmine comps) yet XTC seem also to have brought the reverb, echo, Eno oddness and Sparks camp with them too, not forgetting Terry Chambers’ mighty drumming which is much more Glitterband than Keith Moon. Add to this the requisite punkified love of dub and reggae and the band’s early sound is complete. Fast, frenetic and forward thinking enough to garner punk credibility (to an extent) yet with a defiant retro edge that to me gives them an almost technicolour bubblegum wash (in the context of British punk’s year zero austerity) yet with a more appealing and eclectic sound than the blatantly retroist likes of The Jam whose early singles whilst admittedly being classic bursts of youthful energy often sound ham-fisted and bluff with their hand-me-down Who chords and Paul Weller’s nascent soul bark. XTC, despite their relative combined age seem to suggest a rather naive youthful giddiness and their love of classic pop and rock, melody and out-there tunefulness provided their particular energy rather than fashionable anger or cod belligerence (see The Stranglers).
However, following the departure of Barry Andrews following second album Go2 and the arrival of multi-instrumental wunderkid and equally 60s obsessive Dave Gregory saw the band eschewing a great deal of the sci-fi glam sheen in favour of a more defined, guitar driven sound, which through 79’s Drums And Wires (about half/half old sound/new sound) finally blossomed into fruition on Black Sea where XTC finally set themselves within a classic English songwriting and lyrical tradition instigated by The Kinks and thereafter tracing a line through Madness, XTC, The Smiths and finally to Blur, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys with arguably diminishing returns from the nineties onwards.
Black Sea retains a portion of the group’s early new-wave jerkiness, dub/ska rhythms and skewed pop knacks but also sees Gregory’s guitar and arrangement skills becoming apparent with Beatlesque raga, shimmering arpeggios and more genius melodic counterparts than you can shake a George Martin shaped stick at. The whole thing is so cleverly constructed (right down to each track running into the next for maximum continuity) yet retains a necessary spontaneity lacking in much 80s music that would follow in the wake of punk. Bear in mind the album was recorded at the Town House, famous for its incredible drum sound, yet no Phil Collins overproduction here. The surroundings and production serve simply to make Terry Chambers’ drums sound even bigger and better giving the record a solid, structural backbone without resorting to MOR rock bombast.
Colin Moulding’s bass has also now lost its trebly punk rattle and resonates with a warm, lugubrious rumble skipping perfectly from one contrapuntal line to the next revealing him to be a true four-string master in the same league as McCartney, Hillman or Forssi. Effortless, ego-less and powerful!
Yet if the contribution of his supporting players (in the most respectful sense) cannot be underestimated, it is the transformation of Partridge from stuttering, awkward ‘youth’ (yelping paeans to aliens, robots, statues, helicopters, scissor men and other such ‘quirky’ subjects) to something of a modern update of Ray Davies that is immediately striking about Black Sea. Andy now displayed a mature (obviously had a big advantage here pushing thirty), intelligent and thoughtful (as opposed to tetchy) cynicism, a yearning heartfelt eye and like Davies a newfound parochialism that whilst dealing with the capital city on this album would soon develop into the pastoral inspiration of his beloved West Country on further records. Along with the aforementioned Madness, it seemed that the outer extremities of the punk movement were now coalescing into a brand of classic, genuinely English music (clearly influenced by The Kinks of Something Else and Village Green and the more romanticised Beatles place songs like Penny Lane), replacing nihilism with reflection and rage with observation yet retaining enough contemporary relevance so as not to fall into the trap of over-clever retro pastiche. XTC would subsequently prove to be one of the more artistically successful perpetrators of this approach but Black Sea (along with Madness’s Rise And Fall) is an early high water mark.
Kicking (or Kinksing) off with Respectable Street and we’re right into ‘social commentary’ territory as Partridge snarls at his middle class neighbours who hide behind the portrayal of such pleasant, correct and religiously empowered veneer to mask a heap of (by their own terms) moralistic shortcomings – abortion, kinky sex, drunken debauchery – as they peer sardonically down their noses at the young punk newcomer in the street with his only apparent sin being that of loud music **
Over chugging verses and call/answer guitar chords, Partridge’s sneer is positively Ray Davies at his ‘Well Respected Man’ best, yet the post punk clang of the chorus is also a clear blueprint for Blur’s Britpop era*** and in fact the song seems to have been poorly rewritten wholesale by Damon Albarn for the rather patronisingly obvious and self parodying Stereotypes in 1995. Ironically, sessions for Blur’s second album Modern Life Is Rubbish were at label boss Dave Balfe’s insistence begun with Andy Partridge at the controls but due to a clashing of egos and method this pairing came to only a couple of unused tracks. One should never meet their heroes, a sentiment echoed similarly during the strenuous sessions for XTC’s Skylarking with Todd Rundgren.
Without further ado we move swiftly onto a couple of songs dealing with that often voiced theme of a particularly eighties paranoia, namely the seemingly impending nuclear holocaust. It’s funny really that in this age of global economic and environmental disaster or fear of international terrorism that it’s easy to forget just how scary the implications of the Cold War posturing between NATO and the former Soviet Union were at that time. I remember as a small child, sitting at the top of the stairs well after bedtime straining my ears to hear my parents’ TV during News At Ten and shuddering at any mention of America and Russia. Not to mention the chilling adrenalised grip of terror every time they tested the local air raid siren.
Of course, with XTC, you’re hardly likely to get songs bursting with blood boiling rage when it comes to even the toughest subject matter and the first song Generals And Majors is a Colin Moulding song which typically wraps a rather cynical lyric in such an ebullient dash of pop melody**** as was the author’s favourite trick – see also his other Black Sea song Love At First Sight and other Moulding favourites as Making Plans For Nigel, Fly On The Wall and King For A Day. Partly influenced by Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers and the melody of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machine (oh yes), Generals And Majors deals with warmongering for the sake of power and vanity, yet with its deliciously addictive guitar lines and whistling motifs it’s just great pop full stop. It could have been about anything and still worked and this despite Moulding’s sarcastic hissing delivery (“battlefields so glorioussssss”) and the underlying threat of a distinctly pent up something or other!
Partridge’s Living Through Another Cuba is the other side of the apocalyptic coin, examining the futility of Cold War trade-offs and displaying them seemingly as nothing more than an international bitch fight with us poor sods caught in the crossfire (“It’s nineteen sixty one again and we are piggy in the middle”) and about to be annihilated (as was felt during the referenced Kennedy era Missile Crisis) for the sake of merely super power one-upmanship rather than any territorial gain or freedom from oppression. Andy’s defiant accusatory scorn is set within a gleeful punk-funk environment bombarded with duelling guitars, thumping bass and missiles whistling overhead to crash and explode on the word ‘cu-BAAH!’ with a whopping snare crack – this is a marvellous sonic trick and its shit like this that really makes me smile. Lesser bands would have smothered the track with sound effects, machine guns and explosions yet Partridge merely enunciates each bomb blast with terrific effect, having finally found a suitable use for his off-the-wall vocalisations. It’s as sarcastic aurally as Moulding’s tune is lyrically and possibly one of the white-boy funkiest things they ever set to record without so much as a hint of Spandau Ballet. Hooray!
Moulding’s second Black Sea track (and single) Love At First Sight is next and being a Colin Moulding tune it does exactly what it says on the tin with its cautionary lyrics and giddy pop melody. Chambers’ drums are seismic, almost over-recorded and whilst I’ve hardly mentioned him here, Steve Lilywhite’s exceptional production work is the other essential element that lifts Black Sea into mindblowing heights. (A band as precise, clever and Partridge-ego driven as XTC would always need a sympathetic (and patient) producer and Lilywhite constantly rises to the challenge with notable aplomb giving each musician ample room to breathe yet within tight, sharp boundaries and avoiding the need to over-embellish). Partridge and Gregory merrily complete the scene with pulse racing guitar weaving that just makes you feel they could do it in their sleep (not because it’s predictable, just the effortless skill and invention they betray with simply two guitars and brains bursting full of great ideas including an urgent one chord solo that ought not to work within its melodic surroundings but is just so cockily executed that it does!). The third single out of four tracks so far and no surprise there – it could even have been four out of four!
Or five! Contrasting Moulding’s cynicism is Partridge’s genuine ‘love song’ Rocket From A Bottle, which despite the firework imagery is actually a lot more sublime musically, a slow burner in fact and all the better for it as we know he can do kinetic musical handstands without much problem. So it’s rather refreshing to hear something a little more brooding from Mr Partridge, yet this seemingly mid-paced (it is actually quite fast, just subtly upbeat) is one of two songs on the album that clearly reveal his 60s art-pop notions and point eagerly (rocket metaphor notwithstanding) in the direction of the ‘Stratosphear’ whilst also bringing to mind the playful artiness of early Roxy Music and Eno. Yep, the Dukes may have been five years away (or thirteen depending on which direction you face – real or pretend) but the chugging piano, dancing bass and earsplitting phasing at the end of each chorus certainly paves the way for tracks such as ‘Your Gold Dress’, itself a Big Express outtake and reminds you that psychedelia was never too far away from the ‘real’ XTC.
Which goes without saying given No Language In Our Lungs’ plentiful use of reverse echo, heavy White Album guitars and I Want You (She’s So Heavy) arpeggios. A little too heavy to bear out the ‘every track a single’ theory and too intense to make it proto-retro-Dukes fodder, the tune revisits that once popular punk frustration of being unable to express oneself “to tell the world just how we feel”. Paul Weller probably would have shouted this out in about two minutes but Andy Partridge is much too old for that and redresses the case in an embittered worldly-wiseness for a mature post-adolescence audience that is equally successful in getting its message across - though such eloquence actually makes the point whilst seemingly disproving it, if you catch my drift. Good though!
Towers Of London is a classic, of this we know and the second song on Black Sea marching in a Dukesward direction with its Beatlesque harmonies, Hari Georgeson guitar and sub-McCartney bass throb, reminiscent and admittedly inspired by Rain (one of Partridge’s favourites apparently). It’s funny how, whenever there’s a new musical movement hitting mass media notice that The Beatles always get cited as an early example. The first ‘Britpop’ Band, the first ‘punk’ band (for the Hamburg days, also ridiculously claimed as being the first ‘grunge’ band when that terrible Backbeat film came out in the early nineties) and even the first ‘techno’ band with Tomorrow Never Knows. Whatever, well before Oasis made it fashionable again to love the Beatles (and therefore laughably unfashionable), XTC were the first ‘Beatles post-punk band’ – even more so than The Jam who basically rewrote a handful of tracks off Revolver pretending to reinvent the wheel. Yeah, there was those power-pop bands like The Knack and The Pleasers but XTC took the more experimental and arty (and therefore more enthralling) side of the Fabs and wove it into their soundscape rather than one album’s worth of seventh chords, Rickenbackers and fringes. However, Towers Of London is more than just a cunning knock-off as the decidedly un-Beatles middle-eights suggest along with the slightly folkish linking passages and steady marching pace that are more Fairports than Fabs, more Richard Thompson than John Lennon. Thing about XTC is (apart from obviously The Dukes and a couple of Skylarking tunes, probably a result of Rundgren’s overt anglophile references) when the Beatles influence came into play it was always Beatlesque ‘elements’ rather than the whole picture – they always sound unmistakeably and quirkily XTC. I guess, in a similar sense that The Beatles themselves tried to assimilate Motown, Stax, West Coast folk rock into their original material, only to be warped via their own particular idiosyncrasies and mistaken by musicologists and classicists at the time as Aolian Cadences and other complex classical technique that was probably just a lob-sided attempt to harmonise like The Miracles or such.
Colin Moulding actually thinks the song was inspired by The Kinks and it’s easy to understand why given the apparent Waterloo Sunset fondness feel of the lyrics – guardsmen, merchants, pretty ladies, pavements of gold – yet it also bears comparison to Big Black Smoke in its contrasting of the modern city’s majesty with the inherent suffering, degradation and physical sacrifices (here personified by the ‘never never navvies’) made during its construction. The workers’ blood, sweat and tears can be found resonating eerily within each building, street and bridge and the song acts as a sombre warning to the Thatcherites of the following years to remember how and where they came from. Yet, given the subsequent recasting of the capital as a glass and steel mecca for greed, commercialisation and neglectful modernisation it was only inevitable that a certain amount of historic and cultural identity would be shed. Given these social-political changes however, it was also inevitable that such dewy eyed and heartfelt nostalgia within the pop song would also become increasingly passé*****.
So if Towers Of London suggested that XTC were the first of anything it could be argued that they were the first of the last of a dying breed and this is furthered on Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins) a sonically impressive musing of the plight of the common working man set to pounding drums and bass and stop start ska-inflected melodies. Thanks to the likes of Duran Duran and U2, the notion of wealth within eighties rock and pop became an increasingly two sided (ahem) coin – either a celebratory gloat of how much one had amassed or usually patronising (given the riches of the writers) missives on those who had none. What seemed to fade almost out of existence in the materialistic decade was the misery and futile efforts of actually earning it, especially when material gain, far from being a vanity exercise, was the means by which food was put on the table. Of course, the dole queue became a significantly symbolic image within mainstream and indie music, but not the fruitless endeavours of nine-to-five entrapment and still being empty pocketed at the end of each week which seem more rooted in kitchen sink drama or ‘I know my place’ satire rather than the agitation of say a northern council estate or Glasgow scheme. Accepting the desperation of one’s lot in life was something for the elder generations - new pop was about ambition and escape. True to form, XTC would unfashionably revisit this concept again with Love On A Farmboy’s Wages (Mummer) and Earn Enough For Us (Skylarking) but it’s likely that by then these were inspired more by the self-imposed poverty of their retirement from touring rather than genuine social commentary.
Burning With Optimism’s Flames is cut from a similar cloth as Rocket From A Bottle yet with a brittle post-modern crunch as opposed to the former’s retro strangeness and quirk. Partridge is still clearly looking for new ideas in terms of vocal oddities and in this case decides to garble a string of incomprehensible words during the verses. If it was anyone else blah blah...etc. Perhaps not quite single material for that fact alone (as The Stranglers proved with the similarly garbled Just Like Nothing On Earth, which nearly was and flopped mightily as a 45). But still good and gets-in-your-head catchy. Which is what it’s all about after all.
What was it I said earlier? “When’s Sgt Rock on?”. Right now folks. There’s very little to be said about this one – we all know it – and it’s one of the greatest singles of this period not to be featured in Garry Mulholland’s book (see footnote). Perhaps because its joy-filled blast of 60s pop-art and 70s glam stomp (a tour-de-force in fact with Terry Chambers’ dum-da-ba-ba rhythm sounding uncannily like that of another teen-adult anthem, School’s Out) and purposefully dumb teenage lyrics sits uncomfortably in the 1980 world of progressive, intelligent new wave. Perhaps it’s too musically clever – you try working out those strange yet addictive Townshend-circa-Sell Out chords on the chorus. Regardless, it is pure pop bubblegum (of which Moulding should have been envious) and ironically met with more criticism than praise owing to the misreading of the lyrics to be abusive and misogynous. Ha, even with no knowledge of the titular cartoon character you can tell they are sung from the point of view of a gawky adolescent who needs some urgent aid on the ‘appealing to girls’ front. If anything it’s a satire on the ridiculousness of teenage lust rather than a call for women to ‘know their place’. Andy Partridge hates it now apparently. Minority of one there!
So with such a righteous pop burn up, it seems only necessary that the album end on a deeply stark, doomy note and whilst the title of closing track Travels In Nihilon may have a more literary source, its subject matter is much closer to Partridge’s heart and recent past.
Essentially, Travels In Nihilon seems at first to be a churlish attack on the fashion elitism and image based nature of the more commonly acknowledged elements of the punk scene -. having to fit into a certain ideal, display a particular attitude, adopt a preordained stance. However, if this were simply the case, you could land a rightful accusation of hypocrisy in Partridge’s direction, given that without certain image ‘loopholes’ a bunch of psych/prog fans in their later twenties would certainly not have gotten away with exploiting the hip cache of punk music for their own exposure.
Yet, the last two lines of the song (“You've learnt no lessons all those years to get it right, flashes of promise burn out faster than strobe light“) reveal Andy Partridge’s true disappointment – not simply that punk became a commercialised, fashionable style-over-content mainstream movement (and Andy was old enough to have witnessed this several times) but that as a result of this and the essential but naively informed nihilism of the initial scene, punk clearly, in many minds had failed to achieve many of its initial aims – the dinosaur bands still existed (many of their albums no doubt in Partridge, Moulding and Gregory’s collections), The Clash had ‘sold out’, the Pistols imploded – its vital early energies misappropriated and spent. Punk had eaten itself and it seems that Partridge, along with many others younger and older than him felt it should have amounted to so much more than a couple of years of cultural bluster and snotty sloganeering (albeit with mostly great music) only to be assimilated into mass media in the most ungraceful way. Of course, given the rosy tinted spectacles of hindsight, the importance of punk is well documented, particularly in the genesis (oops) of the indie record label and the wonderful DIY artistic statements this produced over the next decade.
So given the fairly disillusioned nature of the lyrics, you’d hardly expect even XTC to come up with a bouncy, jerky pop melody for this one and true enough, the actual music is probably as close as the band ever got to avant garde within the boundaries of an official album. In fact, the rather industrial sound – thunderous cyclic drumming, patrolling bass, mannered treated vocals – places it more within the more experimental arena of post punk artists such as Cabaret Voltaire, Henry Cow, even Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division (if Peter ‘Flogging A Dead Singer’ Hook had learnt what to do with more than two bass strings and one octave range).
Andy Partridge has subsequently described the track as a ‘negative Tomorrow Never Knows’ which as Black Sea is their Revolver is fairly appropriate and although Nihilon doesn’t share Tomorrow Never Knows’ rhythmic groove it does feature some tape loop ‘monk chants’ buried deep in the mix. It’s more disturbing than mindbending but given the subject matter, a perfect vehicle for Partridge’s cultural sulk.
That said, this track could only have been penned by someone essentially too old for punk, yet still young enough to care about the course of British music and the mistakes clearly perceived as having been made thus far. That said, wasn’t Paul Weller saying the same from ground zero with All Around The World where he similarly viewed the essentially destructive and pointless elements of punk’s iconoclastic stance? The difference here being that Weller complained about the danger of misplaced potential whereas Partridge disappointedly (and correctly) commented on the in-hindsight mod cons. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
Ultimately, with Black Sea, XTC along with some of their more worthy contemporaries****** niftily sidestepped the more populist or leftfield escape routes from punk as Andy Partridge realised that the key to classic songsmithery did not necessarily lie in strategically adopted angst or the need to be fashionably elitist, obscure (or even chartworthy) and instead lay in the vital ambition of artfulness and melodic intensity as demonstrated by his heroes. Yet if Partridge’s ideas and tastes had been proved right all along and resulted in an increasingly competent body of work, it would appear that the dwindling amount of record buyers who agreed with him suggested this was unfortunately out of phase with then current trends. Not a problem in retrospect but try telling that to the Virgin execs desperately searching for the big breakthrough that English Settlement unfortunately failed to herald after Senses Working Overtime became something of a mainstream swansong.
*Life Begins At The Hop, Making Plans For Nigel, Ten Feet Tall, Generals And Majors, Love At First Sight, Ball And Chain – all within about a 3 year period. Not bad for a guy who only has between 2-3 tracks on each album!
**Apparently based on real life experience whereby Partridge claims his walls were banged on repeatedly at the slightest noise. The song was released as a single on the insistence that he rerecord the vocal ‘changing’ all reference to the very elements he was sending up to guarantee prime time BBC airplay, thereby nullifying the sentiment whilst simultaneously proving the point! Ironically, the censored version still wasn’t played due to a reference to ‘portable Sony entertainment centres’; which Auntie Beeb felt would either breach product placement rulings or offend Sony themselves. Does art imitate life?
***Roll call of blatant and likely XTC inspired Blur songs – Mace, Villa Rosie, Advert, Magpie, Tracy Jacks, London Loves, Magic America, Stereotypes, Charmless Man, It Could Be You. The legacy of XTC can further be heard in post-Britpop bands such as Franz Ferdinand and particularly The Futureheads!
****In his rather excellent book, This Is Uncool - The Greatest 500 Singles Since Punk And Disco, author Garry Mulholland correctly (to a certain extent) identifies that one of the secrets to XTC’s more successful records was the pairing of the crazy sounds in Andy Partridge’s head with Colin Moulding’s pure pop, otherwise known as the Lennon/McCartney technique. I say ‘to a certain extent’ because Mulholland is chiefly referring to Making Plans For Nigel with that theory, following which Partridge would himself begin to display more and more evidence of ‘pure pop’ genius (rather than his earlier trademark dischordant jerkiness). This is particularly noticeable on Black Sea.
*****A fact made apparent by Blur’s ‘life trilogy’ of albums (Modern Life..., Parklife & The Great Escape) in which they either fail to appreciate this situation or treat it with a knowing irony. Recorded as a reaction to the apparent Americanisation and crass modernisation of the UK and following templates laid by Ray Davies and XTC, the albums were intended to celebrate a certain lost Englishness the band perceived. Yet the majority of songs therein are arguably anything but celebratory or nostalgic and mostly follow the pattern of satirical vignettes concerning concepts and characters clearly resulting from the Thatcher years – hardly the traditional English values they set out to portray. Whilst the albums contain the requisite amount of Davies bile they fail (unlike The Village Green Preservation Society and Partridge’s later work) to suggest any idyllic, pastoral or socially utopian alternative. They are essentially intelligent but bleak observational works as opposed to the wiser, romanticised views of Ray and Andy. Two notable exceptions however are For Tomorrow which could almost be Towers Of London filtered through a post-modern Martin Amis dynamism and This Is A Low which despite the title is as breathtakingly idyllic as any classic ‘English’ song ever!
****** Madness, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Julian Cope etc. Given, the majority of these could be seen as being from the fringes of the punk movement and in a few cases cannily restyled pub rockers, there are two notable examples of first wave punk bands exhibiting a similar route into classic British songwriting rather than New Romantic, Synth Pop or Stadium Rock. After Howard Devoto’s departure, The Buzzcocks became ever more indebted to the 60s three minute pop-art slash and burn of early Who or Kinks and The Damned began to incorporate distinct elements of British psych pop and proggy adventurousness. For a great example of The Damned’s more sixties influenced sound check out the 7” Grimly Fiendish and in particular its arch-Barrett B-side Edward The Bear. The parent album Phantasmagoria is however, pure goth – a genre clearly as a result of the fusing of punk’s tough edginess with gloomy psychedelia.