What Do You Call That Noise
An XTC Discovery Book
By Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher, XTC guru and driving force behind one of the leading fanzines of the Post-Punk era and beyond, Limelight, has followed up the brilliant Bumper Book of Fun anthology of all editions of Limelight plus new material with an equally strong ‘Discovery Book’. This time however, in addition to intriguing contributions by band members, there are insightful and in-depth features from the perspective of musicians on the great XTC Songbook. Put together, you have the perfect overview of one of British music’s most fascinating, essential but also elusive bands.
Mark has managed to get Barry Andrews, distinguished original keyboard player and the man responsible for XTC’s distinctive early sound, to write a feature on the “vexed topic” of keyboard players in rock bands. More than an eye-opener, I can guarantee you will never listen to a track with keys in the same way again. Likewise, the most in-depth interview Dave Gregory has ever done is indispensable to fans and wider music lovers as he talks about not just his vital guitar contributions, but also the art of arrangement. Personally, I find the subject of how songs morph from an original idea into the finished article irresistible, but when you consider the complexities of later XTC work, this is an essential chapter. If that’s not enough for you, how about tips on mixing from Andy Partridge himself?
Fellow drummers focus on the work of one of the finest exponents of the art, Terry Chambers and there are interviews with every drummer who played for XTC after his departure. Throw in contributions from Rick Buckler, Chris Difford, Debbi Pederson and Peter Gabriel and What Do You Call That Noise becomes indispensable. Plenty for Louder Than War to discuss then when we caught up with Mark Fisher on the eve of its release.
Louder Than War: Tell us about the origins and importance of Limelight
Mark Fisher: It used to be said in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, that either you were in a band or you set up a fanzine, which many people did and obviously we did that. I’d had Drums and Wires for Christmas 1979 so my friend Paul Badger and I decided that we would try to do a fanzine on XTC. We had no idea how to contact them so started off in a library on the Wirral with a Swindon phone book looking for C. Mouldings, A Partridges and D. Gregorys. It happened that the one we addressed to Dave Gregory was to the wrong one but they actually knew Andy Partridge’s mum and so the letter was handed over in the hairdressers or somewhere. I received a letter back from Dave who said the band were really interested. In that pre-digital age, they were a reasonably successful band with no real way of connecting with their audience so this was a good opportunity for them. We effectively became a fan-club, or fulfilled that role really.
It was small scale and put together in my bedroom and only went out once a year but Andy said once that “Limelight and The Little Express (our Canadian equivalent) were our two lifelines to the world that helped us breathe publicity wise”. It’s interesting to come across people from all over the world all these years later who were fans of the band and they tell me how important Limelight was to them. Looking back on it and comparing the originals, put together with letraset and gum, and the possibilities now, it really is astonishing. I look at the internet now and to me it’s just one big fanzine. We had this sort of attitude where we were against the media establishment like the NME in London. The whole idea of fanzines, with the word ‘fan’ in there was getting our own voice heard as fans. That’s something that we’ve become used to now where anyone can go online on a social media platform and say what’s on their mind.
LTW: Over the last couple of years, there’s a sense that XTC have moved their way forward in the sort of ‘independent music consciousness’. They’ll never get the recognition they deserve, but do you get a feeling that they are becoming more well-known?
MF: It’s coincidental that the Bumper Book of Fun came out in 2017 shortly before the documentary (This is Pop) that has been on Sky Arts and American channels few times, and always seems to lead to a surge in renewed interest every time it airs.
Then of course Colin and Terry released an EP in 2017 and shocked us all with the live performances late last year which obviously increased exposure of XTC. There’s also been one convention in Swindon and talk of another in 2020 so the XTC profile does seem quite high at present. I think it’s a bit more than people looking back to their youth and feeling nostalgic. You can see that in What Do You call That Noise, the new book, when I talk to around forty musicians about their favourite XTC tracks. Some of them were around when XTC were going but some are younger ones who are discovering them for the first time. I’m getting a sense that a younger generation are taking them seriously and in one chapter of the book there’s actually two teenagers discussing, almost as pen pals, their love for the band. Their passion is the same as you would have read in Limelight years ago. I can still certainly find lasting value in them as I still find new things to write after all these years.
LTW: The musical evolution of XTC was certainly not predictable from the quirky, ‘New Wave’ band we got into. That must have helped your writing about the band over the years?
MF: The first two albums are certainly different, quirky records, with the distinctive keyboard sound. We got into them around the Drums and Wires period which was the start of their growth into a sort of powerful, drum and guitar unit, whereas a number of Americans who may have found their way in via Skylarking see them as a 60’s style band, which is a route I would never have envisaged as a way to get into them.
I dropped really lucky with XTC from a journalistic point of view. There were lots of good bands round at the time I could have done a fanzine for, but a lot of them, whilst being very good, do tend to sound the same from album to album. The good thing from a journalistic point of view is XTC kept giving you new things to discover, be it Andy’s imagery or the lyrics of Colin, which an article compares to the poetry of John Betjeman in the new book. There is the musical directions they took which were not always obvious – just look at the Dukes project for instance. Who could have predicted that? And of course, that led to more fans who discovered them through a side-project.
In What Do You Call That Noise, we spent a day in the company of Dave Gregory who wanted to discuss his string arrangements and piano parts as he’d never really talked about them before. When you think about it, Dave came into the band to play guitars on Drums and Wires, there was no indication then that he would be the person who did, for example, the string arrangements on 1000 Umbrellas and yet he did turn out to be a very accomplished musician. He showed us his musical notations and when you think that he left school at sixteen, yet was able to create scores that can be put in front of classically trained musicians, it really is amazing. I think all the others had the capacity and interest to go into other areas in a way we, as fans, would never had expected.
Dave Gregory also says in the book that it’s typically contrary of XTC when, early in their career, they’re building their reputation with a very distinctive keyboard sound, when the keyboard player leaves, they bring in a guitarist to replace him. There is a strong independent, unpredictable streak to them which means life is certainly never dull and that makes them a very interesting band to write about.
LTW: A striking aspect of What Do You Call That Noise, is the way in which it features strongly the views of other musicians on the band and their work. They are a band that lend themselves to this sort of analysis?
MF: I wanted the view of musicians, while still making it accessible to non-musicians like me. It’s really interesting to hear other musicians say certain things that make you realise why a song works in the way it does. But there’s also a sense of the things they do, particularly Andy, that are unconventional. A great example is Andrew Falcous from Future of the Left who says he has a sort of rule that no one is allowed to see, when someone presents a new song, what chord they are playing. That way, the rest of the band will listen and play what they think suits the sound best. There is a sense of that with XTC when Andy will go for something because it feels right, rather than what Dave Gregory may tell him is theoretically correct.
There are a couple of chapters in the book about Terry’s drumming where a group of drummers, including Rick Buckler from The Jam get together to discuss it. I know absolutely nothing about drums but now it’s made me more conscious of listening, not just on XTC records but on other songs too where I find myself wondering what the drummer is doing in that part of a song. I have always been a huge fan of Terry Chambers and probably pay less attention to the drums on records after he left. He’s a bit like Ringo Starr in that you can tell instantly that it’s Terry drumming on a record and it seems to have an indefinable hallmark.
LTW: You mention the unconventional approach of Andy Partridge to song writing. Where do you think he rates in the all-time list?
MF: Well I’m biased and I will be try to be cautious but he is right up there. What he doesn’t really have is the mainstream recognition that you would expect someone of his talent to have. It may be because he’s too clever or too unorthodox and there may be something more obvious or accessible in something like REM Losing My Religion for example. But in a different universe Stupidly Happy may be a as well-known as that song as it certainly seems to have all the ingredients of a hit to me and once a record takes off with the public, it can find itself gaining legendary status, so maybe you need a break which he hasn’t had on a huge scale.
The Jam had Number One songs and maybe he just doesn’t have that popular touch but then again he’s written songs for The Monkees and they seem pretty catchy so he’s definitely got that intelligence and melodic sense. I think Senses Working Over is the archetypal XTC song in that it’s got that very catchy chorus but every time I listen to the verses I always think how weird it really is. That combination of melody and uniqueness is so typically XTC to me. It’ like, nobody told him he couldn’t use that image of peasants in the fields and nobody said he couldn’t play that strange chord as he doesn’t have musical theory behind him. I am always reluctant to compare song lyrics to poetry because I don’t think they should be the same thing, or viewed in the same way, but his lyrics are just astoundingly beautiful and his subject matter is so original. Who writes a pop song about the Towers of London for example? It’s far from obvious subject matter.
That’s me trying to maintain an unbiased perspective, but in summary I think he’s the best.
LTW: One of the recurring issues when discussing XTC over the years has been the decision not to play live after 1982.Obviously we both know it won’t happen, but with Colin and Terry returning as TC&I so successfully last year, can we just close by considering a live XTC performance?
MF: When this argument, or even fantasy, comes up I always think I was lucky to see them live twice when they were in their prime and I wouldn’t want to go and see a bunch of old men doing bad versions of things they used to do very well. I’m satisfied that they did their body of work and it’s all there for posterity so generally I’m not the sort to want to see them back together again. However, the TC&I gigs showed it is possible to perform all those songs that it was always thought wouldn’t work live. They played a set that wasn’t just a string of hits, but a really interesting showcase of their career. The Swindon Arts Centre was intimate and allowed the textures of the songs to come out beautifully, in a way we probably never thought they could.
Andy has made it very clear that he won’t ever perform and. despite some lucrative offers, money certainly wouldn’t ever tempt them. It would have to be about art and it seems to me that if they were interested, there’s lots of possibilities of how you could do a live rendition of XTC songs, even possibly with an orchestra. Ultimately, however, they’ve said so many times it won’t happen that I don’t know what it would be that could tempt them. It’s best to be grateful for what we’ve had and leave it at that.
What Do You Call That Noise is a very well conceived sequel to The XTC Bumper Book of Fun and together, both books provide the essential overview of the career of XTC that has been long deserved. Mark Fisher has taken the enduring spirit of the Fanzine, applied it forensically to the work of the elusive Geniuses of Swindon, and in the process conjured a testament of their legacy for fans old and new.
What Do You Call That Noise is available now from: