In 1980, XTC released Black Sea to great success spawning countless singles and lyrics punchy and jagged today as back then
My entry into the world of XTC was the video and song for “Dear God” and the release of Skylarking. The song gave us an epistemological grievance to a very rigid social expectation and for me and several of my high school friends, the song clicked with its rebellious spirit much like “Ballad of Peter Pumpernickel” nestled in like a lost artform professing ‘90s counterculture. The smooth introspective pop and glistened alt rock always seemed to come at the right time, taking influences from the past (I never wanted to listen to Ray Davies more than after listening to XTC) while paving the way to future genres of music (Britpop, I’m looking at you). But where “Dear God” did not suffice to fulfill the amount of angst some of us needed, we found solace going back to the Drums and Wires days. It was their early years where you really learned who XTC was. Their psychedelic influential leanings as kids and an angular perspective from the ‘70s punk era developed and exploited by their teenage angst all came together into the pointiladed jangle that spun at the epicenter of the band’s first three albums.
What we got out of “Making Plans For Nigel,” or “Helicopter” only meant amplified intricacies on Black Sea be it “Majors and Generals” or “Tower of London.” It is here where we not only got a chock full of singles from the album—the most from any XTC album— but a mastery of what the band was working on since the late ‘70s. It almost feels like an all or nothing scenario for the band and this was going to be their greatest achievement or they were going to die trying.
Julian Cope called Black Sea XTC’s “Revolver.” Todd Totale of Glorious Noise described the climate, “perfection” as he wrote, “With each album, they got better and Black Sea shows the perfection that all their rehearsing and touring provided.”
Digging into the Aesthetics of the early ’80s
If you go back to watch the YouTube live shows here and here (as well as here – if you want to catch Sting and Andy Partridge being completely ridiculous on The Police song “So Lonely”), you soak in the aesthetics of what Black Sea sounds like at its most organic. If you transition over to the their videos of their singles, you incorporate the sheen with highly exasperated emotions played out by the band members. Colin Moulding seems much more excited to whisk through “Generals and Majors” than their live versions.
Partridge on the other hand is the visual jack in the box ready to spring out at any given moment over and over again like a kid just learning out to do the jerk.
The album is a monument to many things with the band. The hero of this album is the exasperated production. The BBC made a 60-minute documentary on how one song took days to record and process.
Steve Lillywhite, the man who was responsible for so many influential ‘80s albums, was obsessed with all the musical elements of XTC and a goal to perfect their sound. He mulled over for days trying to get the sound of Terry Chambers’ snare just right while working diligently on Moulding’s bass amongst Partridge and Dave Gregory’s slashing guitars. This process became a critical integer into the perfection of this album.
On the opener “Respectable Street,” the guitars cut through air like shards of glass leading the way to some of the biggest beats in rock. It would make Phil Spector’s eyebrows raise. A song about a white-bread English neighborhood harps back to the silliness that lies in the reality of Partridge’s upbringing.
Much like his obsession with comic books, “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” exploits teenage awkwardness much like the “how to get six-pack abs and win over girls” ads that are inside the comic books. Partridge sings the song like he is equally envious of the fictional character just as much as he looks up to its mythical qualities. It’s the song that came back to haunt him as Partridge cites it as his least favorite. “The least favourite of all my songs. It was written as a joke about a little weed who looked up to Sgt. Rock. It was a nerd’s sad fantasy.” Dave: “It got a lot of airplay.” Andy: “I know, but I just wish we hadn’t released it. There’s something very . . . crap, really. Something banal about it.”
What is the exemplary XTC song comes from “Tower Of London.” A more modest song by the band, it showcases the purity in social rebellion they are so good at, this time using history as a catalyst. When the song was first recorded, it was slower but the band thought it was too sad, so they upped the tempo to current standards. What results is that recollection of a dismal time in English history and architecture that implored grief and death fueled fire and boredom in Partridge’s voice. He treats the oppressiveness of this symbol through sharp, jagged pop. The Beatles turned “Rain” into a mantra, but XTC looks at Britain’s symbol of oppression with an exhaustive eye roll.
XTC pays as much attention to their exit strategy as they do their strengths. The seven-minute “Travels in Nihilon” seems like a science fiction dystopian landscape when the shell of this song comes from a book written about a non-existent Communistic dictatorship somewhere in Europe. The internal structure of the song is an antithesis to George Harrison’s “The Inner Light,” where here, Partridge tackles the mantra of youth culture and, again, religion being a con. It’s a song about nothing that takes you into sense of nothingness, which makes us feel like the first time we were told there was no Santa Claus.
The Hackskeptic summarizes this album best: “When a collection of songs can embrace the listener and take you on a journey where every sense is awakened in an all enveloping cloud of intrigue, innovation and adventure then “Black Sea” stands as a magnificent and truly essential example to treasure.”