’80s music’ is a phrase that seems to conjure up some very negative images nowadays. Yet as all Louder Than War readers will know, this was actually a hugely creative period in British music with a range of outstanding albums delivered. One of the most underrated in my opinion, and one that never dates because it floats above any genre categorisation, is XTC’s The Big Express. It doesn’t need this article to make the case for this band being our most undervalued, the evidence is repeatedly clear in a string of classic, innovative and hugely influential albums. It’s 30 years this week since The Big Express was released, in some ways a product of its time, but in many others, completely timeless.
Britain was an interesting place in 1984, with the battle of Orgreave the set piece for a polarised political and social scene. The England cricket team had been thrashed 5-0 by the West Indies but an event in Parliament a few months before gave us a hint of a possible influence on this outstanding album.
On December 5th 1983, Hansard records questions to David Mitchell, the Conservative Minister for Transport regarding the future of the Railway Workshops in Swindon and York. The Minister is evasive at best as Gwyneth Dunwoody and Robin Cook attempt to pin him down regarding a failure to place orders that can help to modernise the rail network and save the workshops. Eventually the truth is squeezed out as Mitchell states that orders can’t be justified. The future of the Swindon works was sealed and they eventually closed in 1986.
The impending Swindon Works closure is a backdrop to an album that does not scream about politics or fashion but simply chugs along like the perfectly unique tracks that XTC had spent years labouring on. The Big Express pulled out of the sidings in Swindon in the autumn of 1984 with no pretensions and no huge fanfare, but for me it will always be a landmark album. The political and social issues of the time are in the picture, but like many a classic Old Master, the artist has not focused on one issue at the expense of others. The fine background detail is often as fascinating as the main subject. This brilliant canvas is a broad sweep of issues, large and small, brought together as only XTC were capable of doing.
XTC in 1984 were not the chart-busting force they had been from 1978-1982 when their brand of angular but highly infectious pop regularly graced the charts. What many critics consider their finest album, the excellent English Settlement, had been released two years previously but since then there had been a few changes.
They no longer played live, the punishing schedule they’d endured for years had led to Andy Partridge suffering a stress related illness and taking the brave but creditable decision to quit touring for self-preservation. In a separate development, powerhouse drummer Terry Chambers had quit to start a new life in Australia, which left Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory to operate a guerrilla rearguard in defence of musical innovation from their Swindon hide-out. This they have managed to do successfully into 21st Century, producing along the way rare album gems such as 1986’s Skylarking and 1999’s Apple Venus (which I think Andy Partridge would nominate as their best) and successfully going ‘on strike’ against their Virgin label.
A year earlier in 1983 XTC had released the pastorally triumphant Mummer, an album that still serves as the perfect foil to The Big Express, Venus to Mars in the Solar System of the XTC catalogue. Drums have always been so essential to the XTC sound and Pete Phipps had stepped in for Mummer and kept the stool for The Big Express, and what a performance he turned in. There is a distinct hammering beat throughout the album, with the drums seemingly higher in the mix as the sounds conjure pictures of this great steam engine powering through the mid-80s landscape. This image is reinforced by the cover shots of the band dressed as engine drivers and a wheel-shaped sleeve design that I misguidedly thought at the time would be rare.
Like all good train journeys, The Big Express begins in early morning with one of only two Moulding contributions, Wake Up. This is not one to ease yourself into the day with as the bleary-eyed commuter is smacked between the eyes with the sentiment, “Who cares, you might be dead”, as the realisation dawns with the day that you’re ultimately alone in a harsh world. Trademark Partridge guitar riffs clash with Dave Gregory’s piano to create a suitably unsettling opener which ends with the gentle choral encouragement to rouse oneself.
It would be a good idea to wake up as the Express next heads to the coast for the rumbustious refrain of All You Pretty Girls; a sea shanty type hymn of devotion to the fairer sex. Lusty vocals combine with a powering drum beat to ensure a rattling sing-along but the real joy of The Big Express, the genius even, is the total unpredictability of what station it will stop at next. This is a classic collection of boundary-pushing, genre-bending, irresistible songs that sit perfectly together simply because they do.
Shake You Donkey Up is a full-on ‘country and west-country’ style ho-down with the jilted lover portrayed as a jackass. ‘Look at he long ears, and he big brown eyes, and with them the truth he’s seeing’. This is superb imagery and should be played on repeat on the radio until someone realises there is an alternative to the tired love song formula we repeatedly endure. We return to the seaside theme in Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her with the image of a damp brass band and a sea that’s ‘warship grey’ as a dithering lover attempts to pluck up the courage to kiss his new love. Here is reason enough to label this album as ‘classic’.
The predictable format of a love song, which would be thrashed within an inch of its life during the 1980s, is picked up, turned inside out and presented as something utterly original. The lover who has blown it lumbering round as a donkey while the one who can’t even get started is shivering nervously on the Prom. Four songs in and four totally different styles of music including fiddles, euphoniums, accordions and choirs and we’re just getting started.
The final stop on side one of the journey has a deceptively gentle introduction as Partridge wistfully sighs “Ah well that’s this world over”. However, the pounding drum backdrop ensures that what seems at first an acoustic lament is actually one of the most powerful anti-nuclear songs written in that period. Andy Partridge lyrics are never less than fascinating but here he zeroes in on the most vulnerable spot any parent will ever have, their children’s welfare and future; so we hear of the new born twins’ mother drying odd numbered limbs and the father showing his children a London that’s now reduced to rubble. All this due to Ronald Reagan, the leader with a famous face, and his limited nuclear war theory.
After taking on more coal and water, the Big Express pulls out for Side 2 with a track that you can enjoy if you live in the city or the countryside. However, it’s better for those of us who live in a small town as we don’t get many songs, certainly not of this standard anyway. Without reproducing all the lyrics, it’s hard to share the full joy of (The Everyday Story of) Smalltown that eulogises the life so many of us lead, but “Smalltown, coughing in the toilet, who on earth would spoil it, would they pull down smalltown” captures the essence of life as sure as a Lowry painting. Kazoo opening and a driving drum pattern merge with brass at the triumphant ending of yet another XTC masterpiece of the mundane.
I Bought Myself a Liarbird is a track that has attracted some debate as the subject of the song is apparently XTC’s ex-manager. However, if we focus on the use of imagery, “he grew too greedy, bough will break and then we will find that liarbirds are really flightless on their own” alongside an irresistible chorus and guitar riiff you have a perfect lead into a Cold War classic album highlight.
Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence) takes us deep into the reality of a world where super powers still fought each other, but just used other countries to do it in. “And iron maidens will slam, and by the half-light of burning republics, Joe Stalin looks just like Uncle Sam” captures the era perfectly and with a screaming guitar and thumping drums, you almost feel as if your pleasant train journey through the shires has suddenly taken a nasty diversion through the US invasion of Grenada.
After that, it’s a blessed relief to hear the gentle, almost jazz-like nostalgia of Colin Moulding’s I Remember the Sun. In a manner that is continued with Grass and The Meeting Place on 1986’s Skylarking, Moulding looks back fondly on younger days in what is the calmest part of the journey on The Big Express. You’re The Wish You Are I Had is something of a conundrum as we try to fathom if the character that Andy Partridge gives voice to is trying to justify an affair, met the woman of his dreams or is “going off his head” in a song of tension-filled verses broken by a joyous chorus.
Like all journeys, this one must come to an end but sadly there won’t be a happy ending. In fact, we’re heading for disaster, both mentally and physically as the thumping and creaking start of Train Running Low On Soul Coal soon gives way to the realisation that this train is out of control. In an instant, the concerns Andy Partridge feels about record company pressures, being seen as ‘old’ in the music business and the fate of the Swindon Works collide as he sings “I’m a thirty year old puppy doing what I’m told and I’m told there’s no more coal for the older engines”. This is a track of immense power and Dave Gregory later described the middle eight as the best thing the band had written up to that point and it is a thing of dark beauty as once again, the band create a vivid image with music that actually places you in the careering carriage as the “Hammer goes down, brakes all scream, me and a couple of empty carriages slide downhill, still, next stop bad dreams ville”.
The Big Express crashes, the journey is over and all that’s left is the sound of the train falling apart as the driver, Andy Partridge, is left on the footplate mumbling repeatedly “me train running low”. Crawling out of that wreckage for the umpteenth time, I’m going to say it, this album is a masterpiece. If you’ve heard it, you may agree; if you haven’t, take the ride and see where it takes you.
XTC then had their longest sabbatical before returning nearly three years later with the sumptuous Skylarking which has recently been re-released with corrected polarity after it was discovered that the recording of the bass had been wrongly engineered. The band will also soon be re-releasing their classic 1979 album Drums and Wires in re-mastered format so there is plenty still to excite the many loyal followers of one of our greatest musical institutions.
Andy Partridge is on Twitter.
For further information on XTC recordings and Andy Partridge solo work, collaborations and productions visit the APE HOUSE website: ape.uk.net.
All words by Dave Jennings, find his Louder Than War archive here.