BRIGHT SKY BLUE

White Music

Go 2

Drums and Wires

Black Sea

English Settlement

Mummer

What an amazing band XTC were. Few rock outfits have produced such an interesting and diverse catalogue of albums, nor shown the kind of growth and development the lads from Swindon demonstrated across fourteen albums between 1978 and 2000. From angular post-punk through 60s psychedelia to swoony pop classicism, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (the songwriters) have given fans dozens of memorable moments.

As with many substantial catalogues, some albums are better known than others. As luck would have it, their sixth album—Mummer, released in 1983—is a hidden gem; a transitional work that points the way towards the sublime pastoral beauty of Skylarking and the later Apple Venus. Andy Partridge had this to say: “Until early 1982, our work was like black-and-white TV. Mummer was the first in full colour—bright sky blue”.

Although passingly familiar with XTC’s sixth LP, I thought it prudent to invite expert commentary from my friend Ryland (closely related to Vinyl Connection’s Hendrix correspondent, Steven Newstead). Ryland agrees that Mummer signals a transition.

For me it really is the start of phase two of XTC. The first five albums all had a trajectory to them. From the sharp and enthusiastic White Music to the very sophisticated and lavish-sounding English Settlement, each album builds on its predecessor—particularly in terms of songwriting and production. But Mummer suddenly sees them taking an unexpected sideways step. Their previous albums had no hint of the bucolic themes sprinkled throughout Mummer; ideas that would eventually blossom on Skylarking and Apple Venus. The Eastern melodies “Beating of Hearts” dabbles in are the precursors to “Garden of Earthly Delights” and “Greenman”. Even “Funk Pop A Roll” provides a clearer link than we’ve heard previously to the jingle-jangly power pop perfected in “Mayor of Simpleton” and “Earn Enough For Us”. 

There is a sense of drawing breath with Mummer. The band had recently stopped touring due to its negative impact on Partridge.

Andy: Five years of solid touring ‘wigs out’ yours truly and the band comes off the road. The result was a record built in troubled times. Is he dead? Will they split? Have they lost it? The answer was no, no and no. Try a spoonful, out of the sour came forth the sweet.

Ryland: You’d think a band who were making such a radical decision (as ceasing touring) and were criticised by many for “committing commercial suicide” would make sure they came out with a really strong album. However, Mummer was not a commercial success, and although I enjoy it a lot it does sound vulnerable to me. Maybe that’s because I’m comparing it to its uber-confident predecessor. Listen to the starts of “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” and “No Thugs In Our House” and hear the difference. Both start with a crescendo over a long sustained vocal note from Andy. On “Farmboy’s Wages” this note is gentle and pure, whereas in “No Thugs in Our House” it is a guttural, agitated but supremely self-assured howl. Andy talks of recovering from his nervous breakdown, sitting in his backyard and writing the songs that would become Mummer on an acoustic guitar. The songs are more gentle and this feeling pervades the majority of the album.

Mummer opens with the lurching, eastern tinged “Beating of Hearts”. Says Ryland: Louder than noises of hatred… louder than thoughts of dictators. My favourite track on the album. The arrangement is unique; the lyrics are genuine instead of trying  desperately to be funny or smart. And when that note enters at 0:52 it’s a sign of a typical Andy Partridge production eccentricity we are destined to experience much more of over subsequent albums.”

Perhaps because I haven’t spent as much time with the album, I’m drawn to the singles. The gentle, melodic “Wonderland” (a Colin Moulding song), the deliciously anachronistic “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” and the deceptively complex “Great Fire”.

Two songs Ryland and I are in accord on are “Human Alchemy”, whose odd chanting and mysterious atmosphere are unlike anything else in the XTC catalogue, and the poetic “Me and the Wind”. Nature is again prominent as the rhythm sways and dances with strange overlays of almost jazz-like flutes and frantic pianos. Me and the wind are pushing kites and pulling trees.

The original album finishes with “Funk Pop a Roll”. Ryland again: At the end of what has been a long and challenging listen Andy gives us an undeniable pop gem replete with plenty of ahhhhh wooooo‘s, chiming guitars and a vibrant drum beat that pump along as Andy wails about the futility of the music industry:

Funk pop a roll beats up my soul

Oozing like napalm from the speakers and grill

Of your radio

For those not averse to little silver discs, the 2001 re-mastered CD adds a slew of worthwhile bonus tracks: B-sides from the time. Some are atmospheric (“Frost Circus”—that nature theme again) others pop-rock (“Jump”). But all six are worthwhile and I’d love to collect the original singles. But with my income, maybe I’ll stick to the one I have.

A series of articles about sixth albums to mark a 6th anniversary

#5 The 80s

#4 The 10s

#3 The 60s

#2 The 90s

#1 The 70s

The introduction to the series is here

40 comments

  1. “Wonderland” is one of my most played songs. It’s beautiful. The whole album is terrific. RE-posted on twitter @trefology

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s lovely. Are you a fan of the sublime ‘Skylarking’ too?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course. It is hard to pick a single favorite, album by XTC though Oranges & Lemons arrived at an important time in my life, so it’s a sentimental favorite (I writ’ a sort of tribute to it on the site awhile back)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. A very concise review, tref. But just imagine the dancing challenge if we had seven senses!

          I love Oranges and Lemons too. And Nonsuch.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Have you listened to Colin Moulding’s solo EP? It was a pleasure hearing his voice again. Colin said ‘maybe’ to a tour with Terry Chambers but I guess they never traveled farther than their home-turf of Swindon

          Like

  2. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Love Wonderland too! How about that odd Frost Circus, too?!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. There’s a touch of ‘mythic Albion’ about ‘Mummer’ and it’s certainly there in ‘Frost Circus’. As I asked tref, are you a fan of ‘Skylarking’, Bill?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Dude, skylarking makes me…well, I won’t be perverse but I freaking love that album. I really believe it’s Beatles quality. Or I put it on that same level I should say. We had a lot fun with those 2 psych albums they did too, but they don’t have the same depth. That record is perfect!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Excellent. I sprang for the exorbitantly priced vinyl re-issue a year or two ago and have been meaning to write about it ever since. ‘Skylarking’ and ‘Apple Venus’ are my favourite XTCs. Though I love the Dukes of Stratosphear too. They are such fun.
          Love that there’s an international XTC connection!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. pinklightsabre · ·

          That would be one to spring for. Stereolab is playing in Seattle again for the first time in 14 years. One of my fav concerts ever. But the tickets were +200 USD for a set, and I decided that was exorbitant. Leave some memories memories and don’t try the redo.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. The superannuation tour. Lucky you to have seen them. I remember in the late 90s they toured here but I didn’t go. Mistake. Wouldn’t pay that kind of money either.
          And another favourite band I’m yet to feature. So much great music…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Big fan, but this is one of their weaker albums for me. Like a transition where they were adjusting to being a studio based band and not having Terry Chambers any more (who was a fine drummer). I like all of Moulding’s stuff here – ‘Wonderland’ is a good song, even though it could have done with a sharper arrangements, while ‘Deliver Us From the Elements’ and ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ are my favourite deep cuts. I have the older CD version, which puts the bonus tracks in the middle of the running order.

    My XTC favourites are Skylarking and Apple Venus 1, as well as Chips from the Chocolate Fireball.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, we drew attention to the transitional nature of the album.
      How annoying to have the b-sides in the middle of the running order! Still, they’re worth having anywhere I guess.

      Those are my two favourites as well. And I love the Dukes.

      PS. Thanks for the shoutout at the Finn songs site. Wondered why there was an increased dribble towards that old post on ‘True Colours’!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve had XTC on the list for quite a while now, but I’ve yet to spend any proper time with them. It’s probably about time I rectified that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It absolutely is, J. I would start with Black Sea and move on our out from there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Black Sea duly jotted down at the top of this week’s listening list! Thanks!

        Like

    2. For unabashed great songwriting, consider Nonsuch too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will do!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. The romantic notion of synchronicity might have drawn me to Mummer (as Coltrane’s ‘Both directions at once’ has dominated my listening week) but I’m going to run with Skylarking as my introduction to XTC.
    Thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. An excellent choice, DD.

      Like

  6. The only XTC recording in my library is Oranges and Lemons, of which I’ve always been quite fond. I now have a new Spotify playlist including Mummer and your two XTC faves: Skylarking and Apple Venus.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are some terrific songs on O and L. And I reckon ‘Skylarking’ and ‘Apple Venus’ would tickle the right spot, JDB!

      Like

  7. I liked XTC quite a bit in their day and in fact blogged about them a while back. But I confess that this album passed me right by. I’ll have to give it a spin.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They are fascinating, those ‘over looked’ albums, aren’t they Jim? Probably a little feature post right there! I’ll seek out your XTC post. In the meantime, enjoy Mummer.

      Like

      1. I did listen to it, minus the bonus cuts. It’s an odd one for sure, not really commercial for the most part. I recognize exactly none of those songs and I can tell you it received zero airplay in the States. But i liked it enough that I think it bears another listen. And it would seem that the apparent success of “Farmboy” indicates that people really crave straightforward pop tunes as opposed to more experimental ones.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. … or the record company demanded a more accessible song as a single?! Wonderland got a tiny bit of exposure in Aus, but generally the album was more murmer than mummer.

          Like

        2. I’m sure the record company did. But loathsome as they can be, sometimes they are right. A good single back in those days could sink or swim an album.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. brian m odonnell · · Reply

    hey! how are ya! i could talk about ‘xtc and the boyz’ all day! i slightly doubt there’s better, other than maybe the fixx or maybe a very few others on the whole of middle earth, dudes! andy is saintly, and godlike, on that frickin’ guitar and off it, frackett, he’s a frickin’ legend, i would hate to be that guy, – can you imagine?? i imagine he just must be a great guy, and i imagine he must also be a regular person, maybe not even perfect…bull frickin’ *crap*, he’s saintly and godlike and so are the others, including all drummers and others who ever recorded with them–how’d they do that! do they have friends in hi places, i would imagine they frickin’ would! if not, i would wonder, then who the heck they’re workin’ for, haha–but seriously, i could talk about my favorite music and who i think did it, all day, i bet– i oughta be a frickin’ critic, huh! that edie brickell, just with that one album, way back when, wow, has there ever been a cooler ‘new artist’ , it’s like i slightly doubt it, yo!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. brian m odonnell · · Reply

    are ya serious, sorry, we were supposed to be talkin’ about mummer, yeah? —- i was reading some of the other comments and it’s funny to me! for me, mummer was the first album i ever got, of xtc, it was a cassette tape because that’s what was used back then, it was now early 1991, and strange times! i had never been exposed to xtc except thru frickin’ mtv in 1989, and it was the mayor of simpleton, o , dang, this was somethin’ else, man! and so when i finally found this tape called mummer, i was like, wow, this is weird, i could never have imagined it! i remember buying ‘it’s beginning to and back again’, y’know the wire album, also on cassette, the same day…and i still love it! in vivo , in fact, i have to stop and go find, before i forget! i flippin’ love that song–what were we talkin’ about, one more time?

    Like

    1. Thanks for your enthusiastic joining in, Brian. XTC fans always welcome here! Hope the rest of your day/evening flows well with good soundtracks.

      Like

  10. Once, in the early 80s, a friend from back home sent to me in the mountains of Peru a recorded letter (cassette) that included inter alia the song ‘Senses Working Overtime’ on one side and my friend performing the song’s lyrics as poetry on the other. This is the full extent of my experience with XTC. At least I’ve the VC blog to ease the agony.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Proud to be VotF agony aunt.
      For sir, I’d suggest trying ‘English Settlement’ – it’s higher energy and more angular than the ones I’ve been recommending elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Not a band I’ve ever given as much time to as I should have. I have Oranges & Lemons and the Dukes of Stratosphere LP.

    Mummers are an utterly freaky olde English tradition though. Like Wicker Man level freaky.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah. Oddly, I’ve just delivered a piece for the Record Store on the Wicker Man OST plus Comus. The latter makes almost everything else, ever, like, er, Kylie.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m obsessed with that film and album. I love it to bits.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. You’ve inspired me to explore a little further.

    Like

    1. Great! Try ‘English Settlement’ (a bit of edge) or ‘Nonsuch’ (brilliant song craft).

      Like

  13. I don’t know if I’m surprised at the response you’re getting but it sure bodes well that this album and band still moves folks. You have done your job and pushed me towards some XTC time. Real good piece Bruce. A little networking with friends is always a good thing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Too right, CB. Quite cool that our little community of music lovers has thrown up two collaborations in a week!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes that is very cool. I was smiling the whole time thinking about how that worked out. You always sprinkle some guests in. VC is just a trend setter.

        Liked by 2 people

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