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Joe Jackson on XTC

Three years ago I mentioned that Joe Jackson was writing a music blog on his website.

It was called ‘What I’m Listening To’ (WILT) and I always enjoyed reading it, even when the artists and albums he was writing about were incredibly obscure (to me at least).

Earlier this week I re-read ‘What Joe Jackson is listening to’ - in which I quoted several passages from WILT - and bits of it made me laugh because Joe can often be very funny in a rather dry way.

Sadly, the last WILT appeared in December 2017 and that seemed to be that. The good news is that, for two posts only, WILT is back and the subject is Joe’s 2019 US and European tour (I went to his sold out show at the London Palladium) plus reviews of a handful of records he’s currently listening to.

The second of the new WILT posts (Tour Edition, Part 2) appeared on Thursday and it features a very generous appreciation of XTC who just happen to be one of my favourite bands.

I bought my first XTC album, Drums and Wires, in a tiny record shop in Kendal (in Cumbria) in 1979. It was brimming with ideas and sounded fairly unique, to my ears.

The band enjoyed a few hit singles before commercial success ebbed away, their situation not helped by the fact that they stopped touring in 1982 and never played on stage again.

However, as ‘This Is Pop’, a wonderfully warm and engaging documentary broadcast on Sky Arts in 2017, made clear, having more time to write and record brought out the best in the band.

From 1986 to 2000 XTC produced a series of outstandingly good albums. Skylarking (1986), Oranges and Lemons (1989), Nonsuch (1992), Apple Venus (1999) and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Pt 2), the latter released in 2000, are all marvellously inventive and melodic. No two songs sound the same and the attention to detail is remarkable.

The seven-year gap between Nonsuch and Apple Venus was the result of a long-running dispute with their record company and when they were finally released from their contract a large pile of songs had built up.

I believe that Apple Venus was originally intended to be a double album, with one half favouring a more orchestral sound, the other being more guitar focussed.

I read however that the band’s new record company balked at the cost of a double album, so the songs were released as two separate albums. According to Joe:

Apple Venus is rather serious and very beautiful, taking XTC's acoustic/orchestral leanings to new heights. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Part 2) is simpler, happier, and more 'back to basics'. Taken together, they stand with XTC's very best work, but I can't help feeling that releasing them as two contrasting albums, a year apart, took something away from each.

He may be right but if you enjoy lush, melodic and occasionally quirky pop music, beautifully performed and produced, I imagine you would enjoy both albums and probably any XTC album from Skylarking on.

Anyway, it’s rare to read what is effectively a fan letter from one highly regarded musician to another (in this case two, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) so do read Joe’s comments on XTC. He concludes:

XTC seem to be gone for good, but to quote Spinal Tap (which Andy would probably like): Their Legacy Lives On. There are so many things I love about XTC: their misfit awkwardness, their omnipresent humour, their gleeful mishmashing of irresistible pure-pop catchiness and seriously out-there ideas, their creative ambition, all the clever little references to the music they love, and their Englishness - a very particular timeless, rural and small-town, rather than London-cool, Englishness. I could say much more; I haven't even mentioned any individual songs, because if I started, I wouldn't know where to stop. And like most of what I've written about music, this is just an appreciation, and a signpost for anyone who's interested. Which they should be.

Funnily enough, I was looking for a video of ‘Mayor of Simpleton’, one of my favourite XTC singles and one of many that inexplicably failed to trouble the charts, to embed in this post when I found a cover version by none other than ... Joe Jackson.

Apparently, Joe has only performed it twice. I love the fact that it’s very different to the original. You can listen to them both below.

Update: Joe has been nominated for a Boisdale Music Award. The 2019 Awards, hosted by Jools Holland, take place at Boisdale of Canary Wharf on Thursday (October 10). To book click here.

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