We report back from a Heavenly performance by Swindon legends.
The invitation had hit my inbox, simply titled Go 2 This Event. Not recognising the sender (Millions PR) I deleted it. This merely served to trigger hundreds more of the same until I opened one and read the words “Go 2 Platform 2 tomorrow and await The Big Express”.
Unsure of where exactly “Platform 2” was I decided to try Wrexham General (as most people would) and bought myself a new notebook on the way. On arrival, I found a number of people there looking just as confused as me although one guy, slightly older than me and wearing a T shirt that simply said “Cartrefle College 9/11/77”, did give me a knowing wink. I smile back but silently seethe as every time I see the name of that former educational establishment I only think of the time one of the greatest bands came to play in Wrexham and I was too young to go.
Tired of staring in vain up the tracks I glance at a message on my phone; “it’s too late” it says. Before I have time to ponder that, a train arrives at the platform and, as the others climb aboard, I decide I have no choice but to follow suit. The journey seemed to last a lifetime or no time at all before an announcement came that we would soon be arriving in Avebury and the train would terminate here.
“Avebury?” I could hear people repeat incredulously, “There isn’t even a station in Avebury”. Well, there certainly was today and we dutifully disembark.
I notice that the train has become incredibly crowded despite not stopping. There are people from Japan, Italy, Germany (one proudly doing a ‘disco trot’) a lot from America and as I step down from the platform a Canadian couple smile at me and say “well, this is quintessentially English isn’t it?” That’s a phrase I recognise but I simply smile back as my attention is diverted by a sign that bears an arrow and is pointing towards the ancient stone circle. “This way to the Jukebox with a conscience” it states. That rings a bell from a dim and distant past but I can’t think of where from.
The sun is setting as we walk through the stone circle towards a stage set just beyond it. This being the Longest Day, the Summer Solstice, the sunset seems to linger in shades of soft red as I take up a position right in front of the stage. I notice a sign bearing stage times which says that The Gas Men will be onstage at Midnight with a curfew of 4.30 am. “Who the hell are The Gas Men?” I wonder as people all round me start to question who or what has dragged us to this place for an unknown band, if a band is what they actually are.
As stage time nears, I can’t help thinking about the remarkable phenomenon of veterans from the Battle of the Somme. When asked about their most vivid memory, many spoke about the sound of birds singing that briefly floated across the battlefield between the end of the shelling and the order to attack. Now I am struck by the silence and darkness as the very large stage which was previously dimly lit is now in total darkness and there is no intro tape of any description.
Suddenly we hear the sound of distant drumming, a repetitive pattern that grows louder and louder. Has anyone ever hit those skins harder than who exactly is whacking these? It’s familiar and deafening, full credit to the sound guy but still no lights on the stage. Then comes the moment when mine, and I guess everyone else’s, blood runs cold as the vocals start. A familiar and pitch perfect Wiltshire accent sings above the hammering drums, “You’ve learned no lessons, all that time so cheaply spent”. This is Travels in Nihilon; this is XTC; this explains everything; this is exhilarating and very, very strange. Now I get it, ”The Gas Men”, The Helium Kidz – XTC’s previous name.
Nihilon ends and suddenly the stage is bathed in the brightest of light and there they are. Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and yes, Terry Chambers is back there smashing the drums like there’s no tomorrow (is there one?) and he’s off again. This time with that impossible to imitate intro to Making Plans for Nigel as Colin Moulding takes up vocal duties on a song that was so well known it was even parodied on Crackerjack (“Crackerjack”).
Behind the stage is a large backdrop of the White Horse of Uffington which I suppose is unsurprising as it has been associated with the band since 1982’s English Settlement and is there a better logo than one that speaks of thousands of years of mystery, culture and tradition. The White Horse is associated with the Swindon area every bit as much as XTC, to the extent that many music lovers can’t even see the town on a map or road sign without instantly thinking of the band. Tonight, “Swindon’s finest” are looking like they’ve never been away; they are lean and lively. Andy Partridge, in a suit and topped off with a baggy cap, is a ball of energy while Moulding and Dave Gregory are charging round the stage as if it was 1980 again.
“Don’t expect this again” says Partridge, “This is valediction, this is closure” as the band remind us that, at their live peak, their rivals would struggle to live with the energy of their performance. They were, as someone once said of a different band, “a great little rock and roll group”. On we go with the pop-perfection of This is Pop? and Life Begins at the Hop before the striking intro to The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead fills the night air.
This is the first in a series of songs that demonstrate the ability XTC always had to go way beyond the beauty of their melodies and perfection of their arrangements with hard-hitting lyrical content, albeit often wrapped in the perfection of Partridge poetry. First we get the hammering tones of Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence) followed by the jerky rhythm of Melt the Guns and Moulding’s ever-topical Wardance. Living Through Another Cuba seems to capture the mood of the summer very well and makes you wonder how much anything really changes, especially when the band launch straight into the cascading chords of General and Majors. Fittingly, the crushing lament of This World Over perfectly sets in context the current madness of our “leaders” and their approach to international affairs. No words are necessary from the band but it’s almost a relief when they burst into Burning with Optimisms Flames followed by a frenzied Outside World then Beatown. The latter reminds us of the jerky, quirky sound that set them apart from many of their contemporaries at the height of Punk and Post-Punk. It was a unique sound and one that undoubtedly spawned a host of protégés, but was never likely to detain these musical pioneers for too long.
Melody-maestro Moulding takes centre-stage with Ball and Chain, In Loving Memory of a Name and King For a Day before dedicating Limelight to Mark, long-standing fanzine editor, with thanks for all his support. The psych-tinged Garden of Earthly Delights is followed by the delicious drones of Beating of Hearts, the ever-poignant Books Are Burning and then an absolute stand-out moment. Knuckle Down is one of those songs that you can just listen to as part of an album and move on but listening to it tonight (or more accurately this morning) you wonder if it should be sung in schools every morning, such is the power of the inclusive lyrics and tonight Andy Partridge has the whole crowd singing along.
This may have been an appropriate place to end, so much they haven’t played but that would always be the case, but the whole vent was about to move onto a totally different level. The stage darkens, a resounding thud on the kick drum by Chambers (who has done an admirable job on all material tonight), the backdrop rises and we see a full orchestra in place. Now this is the first thing that really makes sense; an orchestra to present this wonderful music in glorious Technicolor.
The string intro to Me and the Wind is intriguing and alluring and is swiftly followed by River of Orchids and I’d Like That. The first three tracks had mainly used string sections to add depth and following a first encore of texture but Easter Theatre followed by Greenman sees an explosion of sound to match the vision of compositions that became increasingly cinematic as the band’s career progressed.
Skylarking, one of “those albums” that no home should be without is well represented with Summer’s Cauldron, Grass, The Meeting Place and That’s Really Super, Supergirl. The beauty of a summer’s day; the joys of early love and the searing pain of lost love are played out in this timeless arena. Memories flash by as the show plays out; Rabbit Record Shop, Cob Records; Saturday afternoons on the bus gazing at vinyl and inner sleeves; that priceless first listen and the bursting urge to share what you heard.
“Here’s one you should listen to” says Andy Partridge as he introduces The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul and glancing round I notice that everyone is engaged with the stage but no one seems to be interacting with each other. The sun is just starting to rise as the set ends with a blistering rework of Across This Antheap.
The sky is every shade you could imagine now and the rising sun is looking like I’ve never seen it before. That is remarkable in itself, but at this moment it seems to pale in comparison with what is playing out on this increasingly eerily lit stage. Lines of the genius Partridge poetry hit the audience shield wall like a storm of arrows; so strong, so well-written, that they will pierce any defence. This is never better shown than after a first encore of Church of Women, English Roundabout and Dukes of the Stratosphere classic Vanishing Girl, we are treated to a full orchestral version of The Everyday Story of Smalltown; “coughing in the toilet, now who on Earth would spoil it, would they pull down Smalltown?”. Andy Partridge truly is the Pop Laureate and seeing XTC perform a career retrospective is something none of us ever thought we would see in our lifetimes. Maybe we haven’t.
“This is our last song.” says Partridge “When you leave, you can’t go back the way you came, you have to go towards that light.” We turn to look at what is now an incredible rising sun.
“Mind where you put your feet,” comes a shout from the drums, “that field’s covered in cow shit!”
They slip into a dreamy version of The Last Balloon and, as the song nears the end, one by one they disappear from the stage as the orchestra keeps playing. The last thing we see is a truly a sight to behold. The band are in a helium balloon, green with the White Horse logo on it, that rises from behind the stage, Partridge still singing the closing lines. We watch as they head towards the light and disappear and then, bearing in mind the Chambers advice, we pick our way towards our own way out.
Leaving the field, I notice a red Ford Fiesta with an old man I haven’t seen for a few years, but thought about a lot, waiting across the road. I climb into the back and he speaks some familiar words,
“Was it worth it?” he asks smiling?
“Yes” I reply, “every single minute.”
XTC have no further plans to play live.
Travels in Nihilon
Making Plans for Nigel
This is Pop
Life Begins at the Hop
The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence)
Melt the Guns
Living Through Another Cuba
Generals and Majors
This World Over
Burning With Optimisms Flames
Ball and Chain
In Loving Memory of a Name
King for a Day
Garden of Earthly Delights
Beating of Hearts
Books Are Burning
Me and the Wind
River of Orchids
I’d Like That
The Meeting Place
That’s Really Super, Supergirl
I Can’t Own Her
The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
Across This Antheap
Church of Women
The Everyday Story of Smalltown
Senses Working Overtime
The Last Balloon
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.