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Friday, 22 February 2019

Stan & Ollie

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Jon S. Baird.

Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston.

The horse was eventually sacked by the studio, but Laurel and Hardy continued as a duo.
It's a cruel shame that John C. Reilly's 2018 features a Razzie nomination for Holmes & Watson, but not an Oscar nomination for Stan & Ollie. Hidden under a fat suit, his turn as Oliver Hardy is one of the key reasons to watch this decent biopic about the latter days of iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

Coogan's performance as Laurel is also good (if a little caricaturish at times), and this starring pair goes a long way toward making up for the shortcomings of this dramedy.

After an impressive single-take intro that shows Laurel and Hardy at work in their heyday in 1937, the story skips forward to 1953, where the ageing pair begin a lengthy theatre tour of England and Ireland amid lacklustre promotion from their producer Bernard Delfont (Jones). As the tour progresses and Delfont finally gets some publicity happening, the crowds begin to improve, but the relationship between Laurel and Hardy is on the decline.


For a film about one of the greatest comedy pairings of all time, Stan & Ollie isn't as amusing as you hope it would be. The recreations of some of their best bits is a hoot (their "Double Door" routine is a classic), as are some of Laurel's one-liners, but it's not as funny as you would expect.

The drama element is also a little underdone. Tensions supposedly simmering for many years aren't evident in the way the relationship is predominately portrayed - instead they burst almost out of nowhere in one scene, and the damage is then repaired all too quickly. Thankfully there are other issues to overcome, so the film is never dull, but given that the relationship is the centrepiece of the film, some more ups and downs would have helped.

In spite of the slightly undercooked drama and the need of a bit more comedic spice, Stan & Ollie is an enjoyable meal. As mentioned, Reilly's performance is the highlight, and the way he and Coogan work together, particularly in the skit recreations, is a real joy.

The story itself is interesting, and a good vehicle for exploring the nature of Laurel and Hardy's legacy. In many ways, it's a nice tribute to their careers, as well as the obvious fondness they shared for each other. 

I wanted to laugh and cry more in this, in part due to the obvious affection the filmmakers, Reilly and Coogan seemingly have for these two giants of comedy - an affection you can't help but share by the time the credits roll. In lieu of these emotional extremities, Stan & Ollie suffices as an okay-enough look into the later lives of two legends. 

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

(M) ★★★

Director: Robert Rodriguez.

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. 

Tomato sauce - the next big thing in cosmetics.
If you're working in the sci-fi/action/horror/superhero genres, there's no such thing as making just one film anymore. No, every movie is merely a pretext for a franchise; a trilogy at least, but more likely a full cinematic universe of spin-offs, sidequels, prequels and other such moneymakers. As much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has a lot to answer for in this regard.

The latest of these franchises-in-waiting is this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm AKA Battle Angel Alita, which has already been made into an anime series. In the hands of Rodriguez and writer/producer James Cameron, it aims for the sci-fi heights with its blend of Astroboy, Rollerball, Blade Runner, and Cameron's own Dark Angel.

But, as is the case with so many of these wanna-be cinematic universes, there are too many eyes on the future, and not enough on the film at hand. Alita: Battle Angel is like a wounded magpie - it's close to flying but is distracted too often by shiny, fast-moving things.

The titular Alita (Salazar) is a cyborg, salvaged from a scrapheap by cybernetic surgeon Dr Ido (Waltz). Despite not remembering her past, it soon becomes clear Alita is something special. She's a warrior, and she has awakened in an unrecognisable and dangerous future where people are out to get her.


Amazing CG work is par for the course these days: if your effects look shitty, you haven't given your visual FX houses enough time or money. So it should go without saying that Alita looks amazing. Alita herself, despite sitting pretty in the uncanny valley, is an impressive piece of motion-capture, and her not-quite-realness works because she's not-quite-human. 

The action sequences are also excellent. They're well choreographed and packed with slow-mo and wide shots to make them easy to follow and enjoy. But as pleasing to the eye as these scenes are, so many of them, particularly those featuring the violent sport of motorball, feel superfluous. The script does its best to make them important to the plot, but they regularly slow and bloat the story. 

The screenplay borders on excellent at times, especially in its opening half and early worldbuilding. However it stumbles too often as it progresses, not just with dire dialogue, but with its characters. Love interest Hugo (Johnson) is not conflicted enough or as well-drawn as he should be for someone who is supposedly a nice guy doing bad things, while the changes of heart displayed by him and other players feels overly simplistic. 

Perhaps worst of all though is the obvious "save it for the sequel" mentality that is going on. A largely unseen Big Bad and Alita's mostly unremembered past could be seen as enigmatic, but the film doesn't have that vibe. Instead it feels like its keeping too many pay-offs up its sleeve, instead of telling a full self-contained, well realised story. 

Alita: Battle Angel is at its best when Rodriguez embraces the noirish tones he brought to Sin City. The murky underworld filled with bounty hunters and body-part bandits is fascinating and gives the film a sense of style that's more interesting than many of the video game-esque CG bonanzas. The brawls and encounters that take place in the bars and back alleys have a look and tone to them that make them stand-out.

The other aspect that makes the film work much better than it probably should is Salazar. She gives a solid, endearing and at-times powerful performance from beneath a layer of pixels. Her turn is all the more impressive because her character is so richly written, which is in stark contrast to the parts of Waltz, Ali and Connelly; all of whom do their best with some questionable material.

It remains to be seen whether the box office will propel Alita to its desired status as a franchise, so the real question "is does it deserve to be one?". The best answer I can muster is a Futurama quote: "All I know is my gut says maybe." It has its moments, and in Alita it has a worthy heroine to hang sequels on, but the film itself doesn't have me clamouring for more.

Friday, 8 February 2019

On The Basis Of Sex

(M) ★★★½

Director: Mimi Leder.

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Stephen Root, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaeny, Callum Shoniker, Jack Reynor, Ronald Guttman, Chris Mulkey.

It's tempting to make a fart joke here, but I'm better than that.
The life of Supreme Court Justice and civil liberties lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg is certainly worthy of a film. While not the first woman to take on the male-dominated courtrooms of America, she was a trailblazer in helping to overturn laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.

Hence the title of this biopic, which explores a pivotal decade-or-so of Bader Ginsburg's life. It's an earnest effort to distil some of her influence and experience into two hours, buoyed by a strong latter half and solid performances from Jones and Hammer, but let down by a patchy start and an inability to be as groundbreaking as its subject.

Jones is The Notorious RBG (as she would come to be known, but don't expect any of that stuff here), who we meet as a first-year Harvard law student. Her husband Martin (Hammer) is a second-year student, and together they share the duties of raising their daughter Jane (Spaeny). But as a strong and intelligent woman in a man's world, Bader Ginsburg faces many obstacles as she strives to be a lawyer.

Finally Martin presents an opportunity to tear down some of those obstacles - a taxation case in which a man has been discriminated against... on the basis of sex. It's the chance to change the world that Ruth has been waiting for, but is she up to the challenge.


On The Basis Of Sex works best as a courtroom drama. When it gives Bader Ginsburg her big opportunity as a legal eagle, the film blossoms, and the seeds sown in the preceding hour of patchy storytelling start to bloom.

It's not that the first half is unwatchable - it's just that it meanders and feels secondary compared to the better latter half. It sets up the characters well, but it doesn't have the tension, urgency or drama of the big court case that dominates the final acts. The opening sections, while interesting and contextual, feel underdone and have all the hallmarks of a by-the-numbers biopic. And for a film about an incredibly intelligent woman, it has a few too many dumb lines in its first hour.

But it gets better. The courtroom scenes and lead-up sequences where the case is built focus the various ideas and personalities into a tighter, punchier piece of storytelling.

Jones does an excellent job in the lead role, aided by a script that thankfully paints her as far from flawless, particularly in some central moments regarding Bader Ginsburg's relationship with her daughter Jane. Hammer is also good, despite the script struggling to find extra dimensions to his character - Martin is portrayed as an exemplary man of his time, but little more, and some added depth might have elevated the opening portions of the film. Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux and the under-rated Stephen Root help ignite the much-needed spark in the second half.

On The Basis Of Sex isn't truly disappointing, like say, Mary Queen Of Scots, but you can't help but feel it could have been better. It comes home with a head full of steam, which makes its opening chapters suffer by comparison.

Overall it's a heartfelt and decent-enough portrayal of an important person, and it does a thankful and well-meaning job of paying tribute to her.


Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Five things learnt from Double J's 1998 Hottest 100 redux


Youth broadcaster triple j and their grown-up sister station Double J have had a bit of fun lately, stretching the Hottest 100 party out for a full week and a half. In the wake of the official countdown, triple j has played the songs that came 101-200, and replayed the full countdown from 100 to 1. Meanwhile Double J replayed the Hottest 100 from 1998, and then announced they were going to have a re-vote on it.

It wasn't going to change the official 1998 result, but it would be an opportunity for the masses to overturn one of the more controversial results of Hottest 100 history - finally, we could right the wrong that saw The Offspring's Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) top the poll! The do-over results were both incredibly surprising, but also very unsurprising.

It appears unlikely that Double J will release the whole list, but here's what we know (original 1998 positions in brackets):

  1. The Offspring – Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) (#1)
  2. Regurgitator – ! (Song Formerly Known As.) (#6)
  3. Rob Zombie – Dragula (#75)
  4. TISM – Whatareya (#36)
  5. Garbage – I Think I'm Paranoid (#57)
  6. Metallica – Unforgiven II (#67)
  7. Beastie Boys – Intergalactic (#25)
  8. Josh Abrahams & Amiel Daemion – Addicted To Bass (#16)
  9. Rage Against The Machine – No Shelter (#66)
  10. Marilyn Manson – The Dope Show (#44)

And from Twitter we have learnt the following:

12. Massive Attack - Teardrop (#23)
20. Hole - Celebrity Skin (#4)
29. Radiohead - No Surprises (#55)

So let's break it all down, and see what it means (because I'm somewhat obsessed with the Hottest 100).

Pretty Fly? Again?

Despite The Offspring even tweeting that they shouldn't have won in 1998 (and urging people to vote for The Living End's Save The Day in the redux), in hindsight it was probably inevitable that Pretty Fly would win again.  This is because three key voting groups were always going to vote for it again - 1) the genuine fans of the song, 2) the trolls, and 3) the weird people who didn't seem to get the idea that this was all a bit of a lark and not officially rewriting history (seriously, there was a surprising number of comments on Double J's Facebook page along the lines of "how dare you rewrite history?"). The bad news is that with the masses confirming the 1998 result, it's probably unlikely Double J will bother doing this again, as fun as it was. With more than 65,000 votes and The Offspring apparently "clear victors (winning) by a truckload of cargo shorts", it seems the people have spoken. Again. And said the same thing.

Couldn't we have at least picked this far superior Offspring song, which came in at #62?


Metal forever!

There's more metal in this re-voted top 10 than most Hottest 100s in recent years. Seeing Marilyn Manson's Dope Show at #10 was a genuine surprise, but Rob Zombie's Dragula up #72 spots had me picking my jaw up off the ground. Throw in Metallica and Rage Against The Machine, and it seems the voters are sending a clear message - Double J needs more metal. And preferably retro metal (probably). What's Andrew Haug doing these days?


At least we've still got a sense of humour

I'm fairly certain Pretty Fly being re-instated at #1 shows the voters have a sense of humour. But if you really needed confirmation, TISM landing at #4 with Whatareya? nails it. Given the huge amount of songs with a touch of the comedic in the 1998 Hottest 100, especially compared with, say, the oh-so-serious 2018 countdown, it was always likely some jokier numbers would be among the reduxed 1998 top 10. Add in Regurgitator, who always loved a gag (pun intended), and it's good to see those of us who were voting again still think humour belongs in music.


Aussie, Aussie... wait, what?

The re-voted top 10 saw the number of Aussie entries drop from seven to three. What's really fascinating about this fact is that some of our biggest '90s legacy bands (Powderfinger, Jebediah, You Am I, The Living End) were tipped out to make way for underdogs such as TISM, Regurgitator, and Josh Abrahams & Amiel Daemion. TISM and Regurgitator certainly have their fans, are iconic Aussie bands, and their top 10 entries come from landmark albums, but this somehow feels like a win for the little guys.


No Surprises? Nah, lots of surprises

Pretty much everything about the new-look top 10 was a surprise (which is great). It's hard to say what was the bigger surprise. Beastie Boys, Regurgitator and The Offspring make sense to me in some way, but it was genuinely surprising that people had such undying love for Rob Zombie's Dragula, Metallica's Unforgiven II, and Marilyn Manson's Dope Show after all these years. Especially those latter two songs, which came at points in their respective careers when these bands supposedly jumped the shark (Metallica cut their hair and Manson went glam). The whole thing was an exercise in nostalgia, so these songs obviously speak to the teenagers hidden inside the 30/40/50-somethings who have migrated from triple j to Double J. And that's what made this whole thing so great.



Monday, 4 February 2019

The story of XTC, as told in 50 songs


I want to spread the word about XTC; The Gospel according to Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory et al, as it were. They are the most criminally under-rated band in the world, and I say that as a massive Ween fan, so that's saying something.

But how best to demonstrate the genius of this long-running British band? Obviously the answer is a blog featuring an impractical amount of tracks from their four-decades-or-so in the game.

So here is the story of XTC, as told through 50 incredible songs.



Statue Of Liberty

So let's start somewhere near the start, circa 1978, and the second single from Swindon's finest. It was inspired by the domestic vision of Andy Partridge's then-future-and-now-ex-wife Marianne (who plays an important part in this story) holding an iron aloft while untangling the chord, reminding XTC's singer/guitarist of the New York attraction. Despite its insanely catchy chorus, the single wasn't exactly huge, partly because it was banned by the BBC due to the line "I sail underneath your skirt". It would be the first in a series of cruel events that sadly punctuate the XTC story.



This Is Pop?

XTC's third single is spiky and punky, with Partridge gnarling every word like he's chewing on the very bones of the critics who would dare to call them "spiky" or "punky". "I liked the energy of punk, but I didn't (want) to pretend to be stupid," Partridge said of this musical manifesto, which he imagined soundtracking A Clockwork Orange moloko. This single version, recorded by Mutt Lange, perfectly captures Barry Andrews' keyboard oddities, the lockstep rhythm section of bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers, and the fledgling songcraft of Partridge. Like Statue Of Liberty, it failed to set the music world on fire, but something was brewing.



Are You Receiving Me?

Debut album White Music snuck into the UK charts at #38, but the first of their tunes to get any real traction around the world was the non-album single Are You Receiving Me?, which made it to #86 in Australia thanks in part to a bit of TV airplay for the film clip. We Aussies would prove to be one of the band's biggest fan bases, and the track's minor success would see it added to some versions of second album Go2. The song is a great example of how XTC's early work blended the jagged with the smooth, the punk with the pop, the unexpected with the easily digested.




Things Fall To Bits

XTC had two songwriters - Partridge and Moulding - and keyboardist Barry Andrews fancied himself as a third. So a glut of songs and egos bottlenecked on Go2. Andrews presented six songs, two of which made it on the record, but the band (particularly Partridge) and Andrews were at loggerheads and the sessions for Go2 were fraught. Things inevitably fell to bits, much like Andrews predicted in this Go2 offcut - the keyboardist quit the band after the album's release but would go on to play with League Of Gentlemen, Shriekback, and Iggy Pop.




Life Begins At The Hop

Andrews was out, and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory was in by the time between-album single Life Begins At The Hop was released. Like Go2 tracks Meccanik Dancing and The Rhythm it was an ode to the joys and sorrows of the courting ritual undertaken by most youths at a local dance hall. But the track is more than just a snapshot of adolescent life in towns like Swindon - it saw Moulding coming into his own as a songwriter, with a modicum of success. "It was our first demihit," he said. "We even played on Top Of The Pops." Life Begins At The Hop was their first charting single in the UK, reaching #54, and earning it a spot on some copies of third album Drums & Wires.



Into The Atom Age/Hang Onto The Night/Neon Shuffle (live)

XTC was a cracking live band, touring with the likes of The Police and Talking Heads. This medley of two tunes from their debut White Music (with B-side Hang Onto The Night snuck in between) is further proof of their on-stage excellence. The latter song, Neon Shuffle, dates from Partridge, Moulding and Chambers' previous band The Helium Kidz, who regularly rocked the various halls and bars of Swindon prior to them changing their name to XTC. By the time Australia's much-loved youth radio network triple j recorded this version at Sydney's Marconi Club in 1979, Dave Gregory was fitting in beautifully on guitar and keys, changing the sound of the band forever.



Making Plans For Nigel

Terry Chambers' Devo-inspired inside-out drumbeat and Moulding's chugging bass helped propel this up the charts, making it more than a "demihit". It reached #17 in the UK, and also sold well in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand. For Moulding, it was further confirmation his songwriting was on the up and up; for Partridge, it was another visit from the green-eyed monster, which would spur him to take his own songwriting to new heights. To this day, it remains one of XTC's best known songs.



When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty (unused single version)

XTC's label Virgin would often "umm" and "ahh" over potential singles, clearly unable to grasp the pointy edges of Partridge's hooks. So this angular anthem for those of us who turn into a jellyfish mess when our crushes are close got the special re-recording attention, destined for single status, only for Virgin to chicken out (which is fitting given the song's subject matter). Still, this tune exemplifies so much about their burgeoning sound - the guitar interplay, Moulding's wandering bass, Chambers' interesting beats, and Partridge's surprising marriage of melody, wordplay, and chords.



Respectable Street

The curtain-twitchers, caravan owners, and wall-thumpers of suburban Swindon caught Partridge's attention and frustration for this cracking opener to fourth album Black Sea. "When I wrote that, we were touring ourselves stupid," Partridge noted. "It was in the midst of touring hell. They'd give you a few weeks off to write an album - I don't know how I did it." It's perhaps no surprise the album is "the live machine captured with minimum trimmings", as Partridge put it. "We were about as muscular sound-wise as we would ever be - it sounded like our live set, raucous and very tight and pumped up," he said. What is surprising given the hasty conception and birth is how good Black Sea is - for mine, it's their best album, and this track is one of their greatest.



No Language In Our Lungs (live)

Oh the irony - No Language In Our Lungs is Partridge's word-perfect tribute to not being able to find the right words. The book XTC - Song Stories hit the superlative on the head - "there is general consensus that this is one of XTC's finest moments". Gregory called it "one of our best things ever", while Moulding named it as a favourite. The space and punch in the song, particularly in this water-tight live version, is all the more impressive because of its slow groove (it's often harder to stay in sync when playing slow). But Partridge's words are the stars: "I would have made this instrumental but the words got in the way" is an all-time-great piece of meta-lyrical genius.



Take This Town

Partridge was stoked to be asked to pen this song for the apparently rubbish film Times Square, the soundtrack of which is now a coveted item due to it featuring XTC, Ramones, Suzi Quatro, The Pretenders, Roxy Music, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, Lou Reed, The Cure, Patti Smith Group and more. XTC's contribution eventually turned up on the recent Black Sea 5.1 remaster as a bonus track. But more importantly to the story, it saw Partridge invited to the film's New York premiere where he met a young girl named Erica Wexler, who would play an important role in the Andy Partridge (and, by turn, XTC) story.



Sense Working Overtime

The five singles of Black Sea enjoyed some moderate success, with Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me) reaching #16 in the UK and Generals & Majors giving them their first hint of respect in the US. But Senses Working Overtime from the subsequent album English Settlement was the big one. Partridge purchased an acoustic guitar in the wake of Black Sea, and its calloused fingerprints are all over the sprawling pastoral fields of the follow-up double album. It's certainly there on this lead single, which rolls through medieval plainsong, new wave build-up, jangly celebratory pop, and a stomping middle section. "I must admit I was trying to write a single when I wrote it," Partridge admits. "I did feel a little embarrassed ... because there was no discussion about it - everyone knew that this was going to be a single." It gave the band their only top 10 single in the UK, and reached #12 in Australia and #38 on the Billboard rock chart.



No Thugs In Our House

This always struck me as a sort-of sequel to Respectable Street, but instead of coming from Partridge's POV on the other side of the road, it gets inside the front door (and superficial veil of normality) of Mr and Mrs Respectable as they come to grips with the fact their son Graham is a neo-Nazi who's been kicking the shit out of Asians and thus come to the attention of police. It's a witty and incisive piece of social commentary, delivered as a three-act play in the key of A. It's also one final punkish burst from the band, closing the door on that part of their career. The door was about to get some serious nails in it too.



Great Fire

XTC played their last live show in San Diego on April 3, 1982. A combination of exhaustion, anxiety, mental breakdown, and Valium withdrawal (his wife Marianne had tipped his pills down the toilet on a previous tour) left Partridge physically incapable of finishing their American tour in support of English Settlement. Their record label Virgin was pissed, especially when Partridge decided XTC was "doing a Beatles" and becoming a studio-only band. "I was in terrible pain and my nervous system was just going wild, like somebody had just run me over in a car," he recalled. "I really believed that I was going to die, it was that bad. I just had to get off the stage. And that was the end for me and touring. I just couldn’t do it anymore." The first results of this new tack failed to get them back in Virgin's good graces. Mummer was their first album to fail to reach the UK top 50, despite boasting such amazing tunes as this loping piece of art-pop which equates love to London's Great Fire of 1666.



Love On A Farmboy's Wages

It was during rehearsals for this song that drummer Terry Chambers reportedly downed sticks, never to return. Having thumped the tubs as hard as he drank, Chambers was not enthusiastic about the new studio-bound band and headed home to Australia to be with his wife and new baby. It's easy to see why he had no time for this piece of pastoral pop - as gorgeous and clever as it is, it's a million miles from the powerful punk that Chambers' drumming had motored for the previous six or seven years. As for the song itself, its theme of money woes is a recurring one in the XTC songbook, and it's easy to see why this idea pops up on Love On A Farmboy's Wages - despite touring to breaking point and selling a decent amount of records, the band weren't seeing the monetary results. Cue the next song.



I Bought Myself A Liarbird

A gag order has prevented the members of XTC talking in great detail about their former manager Ian Reid, but Partridge's I Bought Myself A Liarbird does a pretty good job of dodging that. The less-lyrical version of the story is that Reid ripped the band off for many years, leading XTC to be tied up financially and legally in a running battle in the courts with Reid that lasted for seven years. Not only was Reid ripping them off, but the deal he'd done with Virgin was also a disaster for the band - Partridge would later call it "the world's worst record deal". Partridge spells it all out here without getting sued in the process. That's a pretty magnificent feat of songwriting in anyone's book.



The Everyday Story Of Smalltown

The seeds of the band's Swindon upbringing are planted throughout their career, but the particulars of life in a regional centre and the industrial clank of the former railway town are most evident on The Big Express, which Partridge suggested "might be a concept album by stealth". This tune, which marches through Swindon like a cocksure Salvation Army band, is part of that undercover theme. "A celebration of ordinariness", as Song Stories put it, it's a theatrical, autobiographical tribute to the town that Partridge, Moulding and Gregory still call home.



Wake Up

Partridge claimed that stopping touring changed XTC's output from black-and-white to technicolour; something perhaps best exemplified by this Moulding single from The Big Express. From the left-right bounce of the guitars to its breathy synths, this is another smart slice of pop that sounds like a full-blooded remake of the "woke up, got out of bed" bit from The Beatles' A Day In The Life. And yes, this is the first Moulding song mentioned in this blog since Making Plans For Nigel, which is not to say the bassist didn't write some crackers in that time (Generals & Majors, Runaways, Deliver Us From The Elements) but this was a period when a prolific Partridge really asserted his dominance in the band with some incredible tunes.



25 O'Clock

Partridge and producer/engineer John Leckie were all set to record an album for Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara, only to be sacked because of "bad vibes" and the age-old "creative differences". "(She was) a few spoons short of a full cutlery set," Partridge said. With time on their hands, Partridge convinced Leckie, Moulding, Gregory, Gregory's drummer brother Ian, and even Virgin to make a psychedelic album under the name of The Dukes of Stratosphear. Armed with vintage gear, suitably acid-drenched pseudonyms, and a grab-bag of great influences, they made a mini-album called 25 O'Clock. This title track takes a huge helping of Electric Prunes and sets the tone for a period-true dose of late '60s British freak-outs. Legend has it that 25 O'Clock sold better than Mummer and The Big Express.



The Mole From The Ministry

Most XTC film clips are terrible, but this one is deliberately so, making it awesome. A charming piece of cod-Walrus, this takes a magical mystery tour through every vaguely psychedelic camera effect available circa 1985. One could argue that their Dukes diversion was exactly the kind of levity XTC needed at that point in time. There's certainly nothing as frivolous in the band's back catalogue as this superb LSD-in-your-tea piece of fun.



Dear God

Richard Kingsmill, triple j guru and XTC fan, called this the greatest B-side of all-time, which is true. It was so good that after a bit of radio love from US DJs, it became a single itself, forced its way onto the album Skylarking, caused controversy, and inadvertantly became XTC's magnum opus. Which all begs the question "why was this incredible song relegated to the underside of A-side Grass?". Producer Todd Rundgren, who butted heads in a big way with Partridge during the recording of Skylarking, suggested Partridge wussed out of saying something so shit-stirringly profound. The songwriter has a different take. "I honestly thought that I'd failed," Partridge said. "It is such a big subject ... how can you cover it in three-and-a-half minutes?". But that's the beauty of Dear God - it does cover the flawed argument for a supposedly omnipotent deity in three-and-a-half minutes, perfectly, profoundly and succinctly. It's the god dilemma, in an unlikely mixture of Rocky Raccoon and Gershwin. Greatest B-side ever? How about one of the greatest song ever.



Another Satellite

Partridge was a married man, but Erica Wexler (remember her from the bit above about Take This Town?) kept popping into his orbit like some kind of alluring Sputnik. It tortured Partridge into writing this kiss-off that he now regrets (spoiler alert - Wexler and Partridge ended up together! Yay!). I can't help but love everything about this astral weep. The imagery, the metaphor, the strange notes, the vocal delay, the emotion, the sampled guitar sound, the strained falsetto notes, the spacey "xylophone" beeps of the chorus -  it's sadly magical and perfect. There's a resignation in here that makes it truly special, as if Partridge knows he can't shake Wexler. "So circling, we'll orbit another year/two worlds that won't collide" is laden with such will-they-won't-they inevitability, like autumn chasing summer. Rundgren snidely dismissed the song and didn't want it on the album, but the intervention of Virgin's Jeremy Lascelles ensured it made the cut, accidentally ensuring Wexler would hear it. She was deeply hurt, but we can only assume Partridge eventually made it up to her.



That's Really Super, Supergirl

This poppy dose of retro-futurism - a Fairlight! Sampled snares! - tapped into Partridge's love of two things: comic books and irony. A dig at an amazingly talented woman who happens to be a terrible partner, That's Really Super, Supergirl is one of the many stellar standouts on the wonderful Skylarking album, which is often proclaimed to be their best. But the highlight moment on this highlight track has to be Gregory's guitar solo, played on Eric Clapton's old psychedelic "Fool" Gibson SG no less, which Rundgren had bought for just $500 and had lying around in his attic.



Earn Enough For Us

XTC have often been described as Beatlesy, and outside of their Dukes Of Stratosphear work, this is easily their Fab Four-est moment. From its chiming Harrison-esque intro lick (created by Gregory at the prodding of Rundgren) through to its 3/4 time signature-slip ending (check out the end of I Want To Hold Your Hand and We Can Work It Out for the lineage), it feels like the kind of tune an alternate universe Beatles would have done had they reunited in the '80s (and Mark Chapman never existed). The lyrics - sharper and more grounded than anything Lennon and McCartney would have penned - is cut from the same discount cloth as Love On A Farmboy's Wages, and further evidence XTC still weren't making the money they deserved.



Extrovert

Dear God isn't the only incredible song lurking on the flipside of a Skylarking single. This Grass b-side was among the first songs written for the album but the last recorded, with a drunk and relieved Partridge at the mic. "I was feeling pretty bad about the project and I wanted to celebrate the end of the sessions," he said in Song Stories. "I thought, 'this is only a b-side, so fuck it!' and got quite drunk'." Moulding rightly points out it belongs on The Big Express, not Skylarking, hence its relegation to B-side. Most bands would give their drummer's right arm for an album cut this good.




Collideascope

After the success of the first Dukes Of Stratosphear outing, Virgin came cash-in-hand to XTC asking for another helping of psychedelic goodness. And presumably looking for some fun after the angst-ridden recording sessions of Skylarking, XTC obliged, donning their flared pants and tie-dyed shirts for a full-length album. Psonic Psunspot dips its toe into Pink Floyd, The Hollies, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and more, but Collideascope is pure Lennon at his most dark and acid-drenched. The ability to ape other musicians while creating something new is an under-rated talent, and it's one of  the many skills of Partridge (and Moulding and Gregory for that matter).




Brainiac's Daughter

The Dukes (or specifically Partridge) could do McCartney as well as they could do Lennon, as this slice of faux Pepper/Submarine demonstrates. It's another peak into Partridge's passion for comics - DC in particular with its mentions of Superman villain Brainiac, the Daily Planet, and the Bottle City of Kandor. In a wonderful nod to the song and the band, DC Comics did give Brainiac a daughter... and named her XTC.




Garden Of Earthly Delights

After the relative success of Skylarking and Dear God, Virgin lengthened the leash, resulting in the bigger-budgeted, LA-recorded burst of technicolour sunshine that is Oranges & Lemons. Tracks like opener Garden Of Earthly Delights could have ended up under The Dukes Of Stratosphear banner, making this song the place where the "two" bands meet. It's an explosive Middle Eastern feast where every member is on fire, particularly Moulding (check out what the bass is doing) and Gregory (the solo and those harmonised guitar lines).



Mayor Of Simpleton

"And I don't know how to write a big hit song," lied Partridge in this sparkly pop tune. It would be their biggest hit since Senses Working Overtime and helped propel the album higher in charts around the world than any XTC record had been since English Settlement seven years earlier. While the lyrical conceit - brainiac Partridge writes from the POV of a heartfelt dumbarse - is pulled off beautifully, it's the musical mechanics that are really something to behold, in particular that Bach-like bassline that dodges its way through the verse and chorus. The bassline is written by Partridge but played beautifully by Moulding - another example of their combined genius.




King For A Day

While Partridge proclaimed himself Mayor Of Simpleton, Moulding yearned to be King For A Day. "The song's a commando knife, dark and cutting," Partridge said. It prove to be Moulding's biggest hit since Generals & Majors, but he wasn't happy with it. "It's not one of my best songs," Moulding said, while one critic likened it to Tears For Fears' Everybody Wants To Rule The World (which isn't a bad thing). There's a remix out there (the Czar miz) which the band hated and somehow manages to sound more like Billy Joel's You're Only Human (again, I don't see that as a bad thing). The song led them to perform on Letterman as part of a "radio" tour of the US - the closest the band ever came to returning to the live stage. And it's worth noting that Garden Of Earthly Delights, Mayor Of Simpleton and King For A Day are the first three tracks on Oranges & Lemons - how's that for a way to kick off Side 1 on an album?





Merely A Man

"Write something like ZZ Top," implored an obviously baffled record exec and Partridge responded with this magnificent slice of rock-pop that is nothing at all like ZZ Top. While Gregory does let his wah-wah wail all over the stomp of studio drummer Pat Mastelotto (of Mr. Mister), the stratospheric melodies and wonderfully self-aware lyrics couldn't be further removed from the bearded band of Billy Gibbons and co. Despite not being a single, Merely A Man is another of those great XTC songs where everyone shines. Merely men indeed.



Books Are Burning

Andy Partridge's ability to condense incredibly deep thoughts about the state of the world and turn them into amazing pieces of art-pop is unrivalled in my (unburnt) book. Here he pulls out his most majestic collection of chords and melodies to essay on censorship, fascism, religion, knowledge, literature, and the power of the written word. It's remarkable stuff, but he never forgets that this is, after all, just a "rock" band. And so, as a closing chapter to the song, we get the to-and-fro of face-melting solos from Partridge and Gregory. This is the final track on their hefty (17 songs!) 12th studio album Nonsuch. and the best closer for any of their records.



The Disappointed

The band's final big hit earned Partridge a nomination for the coveted Ivor Novello Award for songwriting and helped spur the album to a Grammy nomination. He and the band won neither award (fitting given this song;s title) but the track stands as a highlight and something of a bookend to this part of their career. It proved portentous regarding Partridge's marriage and also the band's relationship with their record label (more on that in a bit). Again, Partridge's ability to find the universality in an emotion, yet express it in a novel way, came to the fore. Anyone can write a break-up song, but who else imagines themselves as the accidental leader of a movement filled with fellow disappointees? This is the main reason why I love this band.



Wrapped In Grey

The Disappointed could make you weep in self-pity, but Wrapped In Grey was a cry of joy and beauty. Imploring us to awake from our dreams and paint the world with the colours of our destinies, the song was described by reviewers as "transcendent", a "fitting epitaph", "a sparkling firework" and "truly touching". Virgin felt otherwise and scrapped Wrapped In Grey as Nonsuch's third single, and threw the initial pressings in the bin. It was the final insult from a seemingly uncaring label and XTC had had enough.



Ship Trapped In The Ice

In the wake of the Wrapped In Grey dump (see above), XTC tried to negotiate a better deal with Virgin. Virgin said "no". So XTC asked to leave Virgin. Virgin said "no". With few other options, the band went on strike. The impasse would last for five years before Virgin finally agreed to release the band from its contract. During the course of the strike, the band was unable to release anything. "If we'd done anything as XTC, Virgin would have owned it," Partridge explained. "If we'd farted in the bath, they would have owned that." Despite the downing of plectrums, Partridge kept writing. His efforts included this frigid gem which was an "un-subtle metaphor of feeling trapped in our Virgin contract". The song was in contention for their comeback albums (spoiler alert!) but didn't make the grade, eventually seeing the light of day on Partridge's remarkable nine-disc demo series Fuzzy Warbles. To write songs this good that never make it onto an album is mind-blowing.



Papersnow - The Heads feat. Andy Partridge

Although on strike, Partridge kept busy. And when the David Byrne-less members of Talking Heads came knocking for their No Talking Just Head album, Partridge turned up in the studio with this beat-poet jam about paper. His presence on this record alongside other guest vocalists such as Michael Hutchence, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Shaun Ryder and Gordon Gano shows the esteem he was held in.



The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul - Rubén Blades

In 1995, in the middle of their strike, XTC found themselves the subject of that ultimate of musical compliments - a tribute album. Joe Jackson, Sarah McLachlan, They Might Be Giants and Crash Test Dummies were among the XTC fans that lined up to pay their respects on A Testimonial Dinner. Partridge's favourites on the covers collection are McLachlan's haunting take on Dear God, and The Verve Pipe's distorted spin through Wake Up. But it's Panamanian singer-songwriter Rubén Blades' Latin jazz version of XTC's pseudo Bond theme The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul that takes the salsa cake. "Rubén Blades version of The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul really makes my spine tingle, which is quite a feat as I haven't owned one for the last thirteen years," quipped Partridge. Jokes aside, this takes an already-astounding song to places it amazing places it never dare dreamed to travel to.



The Good Things

Playing on your own tribute album under a pseudonym is akin to showing up at your own funeral in disguise. But XTC is a band known for dressing up as other bands (The Dukes Of Stratosphear for example) so it shouldn't seem that unexpected for these japesters. Donning metaphorical fake moustaches and calling themselves Terry & The Lovemen, they managed to slip this Oranges & Lemons offcut into the testimonial dinner. Written by Moulding, this one goes to show it wasn't just Partridge who wrote enviably good b-sides -  the demo of The Good Things was the flip-side to Mayor Of Simpleton, which made it seem like Terry & The Lovemen really knew their XTC deep cuts.



All I Dream Of Is A Friend

Somewhere there's an alternate universe where Andy Partridge is Pixar's go-to song guy, not Randy Newman. No disrespect to Mr Newman - I'm a fan - but there's a real "trousers of time" moment here (stay with me). In the mid-'90s, while on strike, Partridge was approached by Disney to do some songs for the upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl's James & The Giant Peach. He immediately knocked out three incredible songs that would have been ideal, including All I Dream Of Is A Friend, which would have been "James' poor me song, you know, sat alone in room, looking out of window wistfully", as Partridge put it. But Partridge and Disney couldn't agree on a contract, and Randy Newman got the job, and we're left wondering what might have been. Partridge's Peach pennings were released on Fuzzy Warbles, while Newman went on to be an in-demand soundtrack go. Ah, what could have been.



River Of Orchids

Finally free of their Virgin contract, XTC reconvened in 1998 to record its 11th album (if you don't count the Dukes Of Stratosphear stuff). In typical XTC fashion, plenty went wrong. Initial recordings proved to be a false start, the budget was meagre, and Dave Gregory left after a mighty row with Partridge. A sticking point (among many) between the songwriter and the guitarist was Partridge's idea of a two-disc album, which ultimately became two albums - one "orchoustic" (Apple Venus), the other "eclectric" (Wasp Star). It was certainly not what fans expected, especially when they chucked on the first XTC album in seven years and heard the opening track. A continuation of the anti-motorcar theme espoused by Partridge on Drums & WiresRoads Girdle The Globe, the songs rolls like a wheel through plucked basses, violins, cellos and violas, then trumpets, and an array of acrobatic counter-melodies. It was a clear statement of intent from the band - that they were still inventing, still evolving, and still exciting.



Your Dictionary

What I love about Andy Partridge's songwriting is best articulated by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson: "Every song he writes has a very strong concept or idea behind it. He's not just rattling off love songs or songs about how lonely he is. Every song has a little twist to it, and it's so clever, so smart." So a break-up sing like Your Dictionary is not just a "woe is me" wail - it runs through a badly written dictionary to get to the bottom of the dissatisfaction in an unravelling marriage. Partridge dismissed the song as a cathartic "musical tantrum" and was uncertain about its inclusion on Apple Venus, but Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and the record company all agreed it was a definite starter. They were right.



I'm The Man Who Murdered Love

As mentioned above, Partridge doesn't simply write a break-up song - he gives it a singular idea and motif to express the theme and takes it places other songwriters would never think of. Here he casts himself as the cold-blooded gunslinger who did the world a favour by assassinating the personification of love at point-blank range. It's all told with gorgeous sugary melodies (listen to the descending notes in the choruses "I'm") and sweetly spiced guitars to make a pop song that would make Paul McCartney proud. Except Macca would never have written lyrics this clever (there, I said it).



Standing In For Joe

Speaking of The Beatles, Colin Moulding's Wasp Star contributions include this jolly tale of adultery that has a Getting Better vibe. Moulding penned it for the abandoned "bubblegum" project, in which Partridge proposed XTC pretend to be a bunch of '60s bubblegum pop bands (an aghast Virgin said "no"). Of all the potential cuts for that project, Standing In For Joe stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, with Moulding employing some devilish wit to go with the multitude of '60s pop flourishes that abound.



Church Of Women

Finally, a church I can get behind. Partridge's Hymn to Hers is a minor miracle of pop that pays homage to the fairer sex before ascending to the heavens on a bed of church organ and angelic harmonies. "I really like women," said Partridge. "I feel bad that they've had a bad deal, and they still get a bad deal." This is a more-than-worthy piece of worship to leave on the altar. And once again, we see Partridge's way with words and a unique idea - he doesn't just write a love song to a woman, or even all women. Nope; he builds a church in their honour.



Wounded Horse

The flipside to Church Of Women (metaphorically speaking) is this country-fried lope about a man who done been wronged by a lady friend whose been "riding another man". The simple interplay of the guitar parts is king here, as is the way Partridge's vocals and that empty-bottle tempo captures the sentiment of the song. Yes, it's a pretty basic double entendre lyrically, but if you can writer a smarter lyric with a dumber line I'd like to see.



Say It

In 2005, Partridge and Moulding released the Apple Box, which collected Apple Venus, Wasp Star and the accompanying demos. As a bonus gift, two new songs were thrown in on a 7" single - Partridge's ode to records Spiral, and this jaunty number from Moulding about not leaving things unsaid. It's a piece of "granny music", as Lennon would famously deride McCartney's old-timey ballads, but it contains the beautiful notion to tell the ones you love that you love them, lest you be one of those "who wished they had said it at the cemetery gates". The sessions for Spiral and Say It would be the last time Moulding and Partridge recorded together. I guess this blog is my response to Say It, of saying the things about one of my favourite bands before it's too late.



I Unbecome - Erica Wexler

Partridge had this song in the mix for Apple Venus (and the demo ended up on the Fuzzy Warbles series). Once again, it's an offcut that would be an album track for most artists. Rather than leave it languish, Partridge gave it to his wife Erica Wexler for her 2012 album Sunlit Night. She does a beautiful job with a beautiful song, ably produce by her husband himself.



I Don't Want To Be Here

Another Fuzzy Warbles gem is this track Andy and Colin whipped up in 1999 or 2000 for a now-forgotten AIDS fundraiser album pulled together for a US radio station. Once again, as one YouTube commenter put it, "I'd pay for the stuff he throws in the bin". It's all here - the killer melodies, the clever bass lines, and the cool guitars. This track would have been at home on Wasp Star, and is one of the many reasons to lash out and buy the Fuzzy Warbles series.



Winterwerk - Monstrance

There have been many extra-XTC activities from Partridge and Moulding, but one of the most intriguing was Partridge's re-teaming with former XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews for the fully improvisational project Monstrance. Playing together for the first time since 1978, this 2007 release saw them join drummer Martyn Barker for a wealth of material that wandered the terrain of "Can, 1970s Miles Davis, Marc Ribot, Brian Eno and King Crimson". It's pretty incredible stuff that demonstrates the musical intelligence and idiosyncrasies of these marvellous musicians.



Scatter Me

Some people still hold out hope that XTC will play live again, despite it being 37 years since that happened and Partridge remaining adamant it will never transpire. Those idealistic people need to start focusing on things more likely to happen, such as pigs flying or hell freezing over. The closest thing to a full XTC reunion concert came last year when Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers got back together for an EP and a series of shows in Swindon under the name TC&I. Moulding has retired again since then, making the smattering of concerts all the more special for the lucky bastards who got there. Those of us stuck on the other side of the world have to make do with the handful of illegally filmed videos floating around on YouTube (probably not for long). This song from their EP shows the genius remains, even after all these years.





SOURCES
https://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/09/arts/music-adventurous-punk-of-a-troubled-past.html
http://diffuser.fm/andy-partridge-nervous-breakdown/
http://chalkhills.org
Complicated Game by Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt
XTC Song Stories by XTC and Neville Farmer
Chalkhills & Children by Chris Twomey
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XTC
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/arts-the-agony-and-the-xtc-1071947.html