Mark Fisher, editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls, takes a sonic journey into the land of Black Sea, freshly spruced up by Steven Wilson in a stereo remix and glorious 5.1 surround sound . . .
SORRY for stating the obvious, but XTC were a studio band for a long time. The last album they played live was English Settlement in 1982 – and then only about half the songs. After that came another seven albums, plus Dukes of Stratosphear outings, all of them created for the studio alone.
That’s why all these years later, Steven Wilson’s remix of 1980’s Black Sea, officially released on 24 November 2017, comes as such an ear-opener. What you hear, thanks to the booming bass and thudding drums, is a band at the height of its live powers. This Black Sea is a tight set of adventurous pop gems which, for all its angular arrangements and atypical subject matter (neighbours, navvies and nihilism) is raw, unadorned and ready for action.
Yes, as you’d expect, the tone is chunkier than the spidery lines of its predecessor Drums and Wires, the result of producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham thickening up their era-defining drum sound, but it’s also the noise of a band that would play close to 150 gigs in 1980 alone. As our American friends would say, this album rocks.
On an initial hearing, at least, it’s not one of those Wilson remixes that pinpoints sounds you’ve never noticed before. Unlike subsequent albums with their baroque arrangements, Black Sea is all matter-of-fact directness. (Further listening shows this isn’t entirely the case, but stick with me for now.) Rather, what Wilson offers is a bigger, brighter album than the one I bought on the day of its release 37 years ago complete with green paper bag and 12in lyric sheet. The hi-hats are sharper, the drums more resonant, the bass warmer, rounder and closer to Colin Moulding’s vision of “bassial surround”. It feels bolder.
Under Wilson’s guidance, the 11 songs, ranging from the sprightly chart-pleaser Generals and Majors to the tongue-tied anguish of No Language in our Lungs, are rooted in Moulding’s bass and Terry Chambers’ take-no-prisoners drumming. Dave Gregory’s lead-guitar flourishes and Andy Partridge’s rhythm-guitar stabs seek out those rare places not occupied by the thumping rhythm section. Whether a song is as joyful as Burning with Optimism’s Flames, as esoteric as Towers of London or as instant as Love at First Sight, it is underpinned by the drive to be played fast and furious in front of an up-for-it audience (reader, I was in that audience and, reader, I was up for it).
What Wilson draws out is the sound of a band accustomed to jigsawing their contributions together on stage; every part distinct, every song a model of interlocking sonic clockwork. It’s a sensation reinforced by the Blu-ray package’s XTC Phonogram Studios Recordings, a series of live studio demos, unfinished roughs and early versions recorded before the band got access to the Townhouse Studio and its famous drum-friendly ambiance. These recordings demonstrate how clearly worked out the arrangements were, how little was left to chance.
Fans will enjoy hearing variations like the grumbling guitar chord swells on the verses of Towers of London and the mesmerising instrumental workout of Cuba Dub, but mostly they’ll be impressed by how much stayed the same. That was something Lillywhite appreciated about the group. “I would always tell subsequent bands I produced to prepare themselves as well as XTC had done for this one,” he writes in the liner notes, which also include extensive commentary by Andy, Terry and Dave, plus Hugh Padgham.
It’s like power pop; it starts with this little
Not for the first time when playing a Wilson remix, I keep finding myself wondering if the neighbours are banging the wall for me to turn down the volume or if the phone or doorbell is ringing. The reason – to modify my earlier comment – is that I’m suddenly hearing sounds on these familiar recordings that I hadn’t previously been aware of. There’s a fullness to the drums on Love at First Sight and a clarity to the anvil clanks on Towers of London, to use two prominent examples, that catches you off guard. It’s like you have to re-educate your ears and listen afresh.
More typically, though, what you notice is the crispness of the cymbals or the sheen of the guitars cutting through the mix. Some moments take your breath away. In my notes I’ve put three exclamation marks in response to the final drum crash of Paper and Iron. There are sounds on here that will knock you backwards.
Elsewhere, it’s easier to pick out curious instrumental details, such as a scratchy riff on Burning with Optimism’s Flames, when two or three guitar parts are playing at once. Towers of London has a new stridency and there seems to be fresh space around the spiky rhythm guitar stabs of Sgt Rock.
It’s the same with the additional mixes: the single version of Respectable Street is radiant; the drums have new force on Smokeless Zone; and Dave’s guitar line has added clarity in Don’t Lose Your Temper. That’s a song delivered by the band, here and in the Phonogram sessions, with maximum commitment, showing no sign it was destined for a B-side. Likewise, so confident has Take This Town become that you’re compelled to give this neglected track, written for the movie Times Square, new respect.
Back on the main album, the apocalyptic closing number, Travels in Nihilon, is more terrifying than ever. As Andy puts it:
In my post today, got some BLACK SEA 5.1 sets, O, what a beautiful thing. When NIHILON hits you, you will be absolved.
— XTC (@xtcfans) 11 November 2017
All of the above is what I was thinking after playing the new stereo mixes, but that changed again when I took the collection down to the flat of fellow fan Mark Reed to hear it on his magnificent 5.1 system. Now it feels like the album I remembered from my teenage years has been given back to me – and then some. The drum and bass still sound formidable, of course, but there’s also room for the vocals and guitars to assert control. Rather than simply the sound of a live band rocking out, you get a clear sense of the musicians working in the service of the songs, the vocals full and forward in the mix. “Up until now, Oranges and Lemons had been my favourite 5.1 mix,” says Mark. “But now listening to this, Black Sea is my favourite.”
Wilson uses the three-dimensional space of the surround-sound system not as a gimmick but as a way to breathe life into the tracks. It works particularly well on Love at First Sight and Sgt Rock where each of the band’s clearly defined parts is able to hold its own corner. It’s also fun to hear Andy’s one-note solo on Love at First Sight circling round the room, not to mention catching the clanks of Towers of London and the rattles of Living Through Another Cuba sneaking up from behind you. There are times when Wilson uses 5.1 as a dynamic tool in its own right: “It was good because the first half was quite separate and then it came together,” says Mark after giving Towers of London a first listen. “And Sgt Rock always sounded a jerky song to me – 5.1 makes it feel more of a whole.”
Along the way, you do hear previously unappreciated vocal harmonies and cymbal triplets, and it’s nice to have the running water swelling around you at the end of the immersive Travels in Nihilon, but it’s the overall depth and warmth you appreciate the most. I strongly recommend you find yourself a friend with a 5.1 system (thanks, Mark!)
Aside from the remixing, the Blu-ray is notable for including the ultra-rare Ban the Bomb, a Colin Moulding song that, in sound as well as subject matter, is right out of the 60s peacenik movement. With its skiffle beat, acoustic folk guitar and Partridge harmonica solo, it’s like something by Pete Seeger. It’s quite out of character with anything else XTC was doing either then or since, unless you can imagine the Dukes of Stratosphear having a pre-psychedelic phase.
Completists will also be pleased to hear Andy’s lost lounge-jazz classic Pearl and a set of Town Hall Recordings of instrumental jams that morphed into Living Through Another Cuba and Travels in Nihilon. There are also videos of Towers of London, Generals and Majors and Respectable Street – none of them major contributions to the artform but fun to see the youthful XTC larking about.
Any complaints? I have a friend who has not forgiven Wilson for losing the crossfade between That Wave and Then She Appeared on Nonsuch, denying us what he calls “a moment of near-synesthetic bliss”. Likewise, I yearn for the fast turn around between the end of Burning with Optimism’s Flames and the start of Sgt Rock, which always propelled the album forward. But let’s not go too far into nerd territory. Like all the albums in the surround-sound series, this is an extensive package crammed with rarities, offering several fresh perspectives on a classic album (the karaoke community will be outraged to note I haven’t even mentioned the Black Sea instrumental mixes).
In terms of the record you already know, it’s the difference between a regular pizza and one from a wood-fired oven: both pretty good pizzas, but one has that extra zing. And when it comes to the 5.1 surround sound, well, then we’re talking Michelin stars.
Order the new-improved Black Sea from Burning Shed: https://burningshed.com/xtc_black-sea_cd-blu-ray
And while you’re there, you should pick up a Bumper Book of Fun T-shirt: https://burningshed.com/xtc_xtc-bumper-book-of-fun_t-shirt
And if that’s not enough Black Sea revisionism for you, give a listen to my YouTube cover version playlist, XTC Black Sea Reinvented:
Finally, here’s a recent podcast review of Black Sea (the original album not the Blu-ray) in the Lo-Fidelity series hosted by Jeff Heller and Mike LaBrie:
• 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 and Majors and Respectable Street.
Back after 25 years, the classic 1980s fanzine about XTC is on sale again. The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls is a 256-page edition of Limelight, featuring the original copies published between 1982 and 1992 plus new material for 2017, including interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers.
“The most comprehensive and incisive book about XTC yet published” Dom Lawson, Prog Magazine.
“A delicious thing to dive in and out of” Iain Lee, Talk Radio.
“Music publication of the year” Dave Jennings, Louder than War