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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

October 2019: Tour Edition, Part 2

Return of Ghost of Son of WILT Strikes Back


When this tour was in its first planning stages last year, I think I was kidding myself a bit, that a new album and tour 40 years after my first was something special. It is, of course, but it's not unique. For instance, at the Bospop Festival in Holland, we played back to back with The Specials, whose first album (I'd forgotten) came out the same year as mine. (As did the first albums by Madness, Rickie Lee Jones, and the B-52s). There seem to be hundreds of 30, 40 and 50-year anniversary tours, comeback tours, 'farewell' tours, 'legacy' tours, and best-known-album-played-in-its-entirety tours out there. They don't all have new albums, but they're out there anyway, probably because:


(1) Given the abysmal depths to which the traditional 'record business' has sunk, now is the time for older artists to 'cash in' before it's too late.


(2) Now is the time for older fans to see their heroes live before we all die. And the time for younger people to see living legends while they're still living.


(3) Looking at it in a more positive light, now is the time for older artists to show the younger ones how it's done. At our best, anyway, we 'paid our dues,' as the saying went, and built a foundation of experience which doesn't come to new artists overnight. A stereotypical young artist today might be someone who's made an album on their laptop, generated a buzz on social media, and then, when faced with the prospect of playing live, has no idea how to actually put on a show. 


On the other hand, it's possible that fewer and fewer people even give a damn about any of that. And these are big generalisations. And who knows how the landscape will look in, say, another ten years?


I used to occasionally see a very old man, perhaps sitting on a park bench, wearing a helpless and vacant expression, and I'd think: poor old bastard, he's lost the plot. But more and more, God help me, I think I know how that guy feels. I wonder how many changes, how much new information, anyone can absorb as not just years, but decades, accumulate, layer upon layer. 


I'm still not complaining. In 1978 or '79, the early days of London pub gigs, I might be standing in a queue at the bank (this was before ATMs, kids!) and someone might come up and astonish me by recognizing me. I saw you at the Hope and Anchor last week! Wow, really? Yeah, you were great! Oh, thanks very much, you've just made my day! In 1984, I headlined Madison Square Garden and hated it. In 2019, I mostly play 1000-2,000-seat theatres, to people who seem really interested, and it feels real again. 


I've sometimes been accused of being cynical, or at least writing 'cynical' lyrics. I suppose I do have some of that English vice of being sarcastic or ironic. But that's a pretty superficial habit, and at least it allows for the saving grace of humour. Genuine cynicism, on the other hand, is an entirely negative mindset that goes nowhere except down and down, and I hate it. Whether I tour, or make records, or not, I'm generally pretty damn happy just to be alive.


Now, some more WIBLTOT.



VARIOUS ARTISTS: Cuban Jam Session Vols. 1-5



In the bowels of the earth, somewhere in the maze-like sprawl of New York's Times Square Subway station, lies something miraculous. It's called Record Mart, and it has come back from beyond the grave.


Latin music was one of the things that made me fall in love with New York in the early 80s, and part of that magic was a little latin record shop down in the Subway, blaring the latest Ray Barretto or Willie Colón album for passing commuters and a regular crew of music-loving malingerers. A thump of congas, a rattle of timbales, and a screech of trumpets would mingle with all the clamour of a rush hour in the heart of Manhattan, to produce a quintessential New York experience. Until, like most record shops, it wasn't there. This was quite a while ago, so when I happened to walk through an unaccustomed part of the maze recently, the unmistakable sound of Eddie Palmieri's piano was like the musical equivalent of a mirage. I followed it to its source, and I swear I thought, for a moment, that I'd gone through some kind of Star Trek time-travel portal. There it was: Record Mart, selling a lot more computer games and junk than before, but still bursting with great latin CDs, LPs, and DVDs. It had, apparently, re-opened back in 2007 after an 8-year hiatus. This kind of thing doesn't happen in NYC any more.


They were clearly so delighted at being able to sell latin CDs to this staring, grinning, drooling gringo, that they wouldn't let me go without a big bagful of them. My favourites are this five-CD set of rare grooves from the Havana of the 50s and 60s; and the latest from Palmieri, still a force to be reckoned with at 82, and backed up by a huge, almost orchestral band of A-list latin-jazzers. One track alone, Mi Congo, is practically a 4-minute encyclopedia of latin-jazz, and even features Carlos Santana as the cherry on top. Not that they really need him.


FATBOY SLIM: Palookaville


Listening to this takes me back to 2004-5, when I was living mostly in London for a while, and it sometimes served as an early evening get-the-party-started soundtrack. It has none of Fatboy Slim's hits; instead it's an album that still holds up surprisingly well from start to finish. Huge beats, clever references and samples, vocals by the likes of Damon Albarn and Bootsy Collins (on a cheeky version of Steve Miller's The Joker) and some surprisingly dated rapping. Not that I'm an aficionado, but tracks like Slash Dot Dash and lines like 'the search engine need a tuneup' remind me of a time when people were saying things like, can you believe it, even the local Chinese laundry has one of these website thingies now? Anyway, it's still a great get-the-party-started record.


YE VAGABONDS – The Hare's Lament


When a friend in Dublin gave me this, I politely pocketed it thinking, this isn't my kind of thing. Some time later, in a hotel room in Québec City, I got around to listening, and I was entranced. Ye Vagabonds are two brothers from the County Carlow, who play various string instruments and sing in spine-tingling harmony. The songs, in both the English and Irish languages, go back as far as the 18th century, and listening to it I feel as though I could actually be in the 18thcentury, or the 15th or the 29th. The arrangements, adding a fiddle here or a harmonium there, are starkly simple; not because they're dumb, but because everything non-essential has been pared away. Every word, note, and chord stands out like a black figure in a field of snow. It's not my kind of thing at all, but I love it.


XTC – Everything


I'm going to finish with something that's not only What I'm Listening To but an Appreciation I've been wanting to write for a long time. There are two kinds of people in this world: XTC fans and, well, the rest of you, who might want to skip this.


One of my favourite down-time pleasures over the last few months has been re-listening to pretty much everything this un-classifiable band did on their dozen albums from 1978 to 2000, while also dipping into the two essential books, XTC – Song Stories, by the band themselves with Neville Farmer, and Complicated Game – Inside the Songs of XTC, in which Andy Partridge talks to Todd Bernhardt about a selection of his songs while going off on endless fascinating and hilarious tangents. Andy is a very funny guy, who buzzes with enough ideas for a dozen bands. It's a kind of miracle that this one also found room for Colin Moulding, a less prolific but fine songwriter, whose three or four tracks per album I always looked forward to. He was the George Harrison of XTC, with a bit of Paul thrown in, and an exceptional bassist to boot.


With the luxury of hindsight (not to mention presumptuousness) it strikes me now that XTC's work can be divided roughly into four periods. On the first two albums, White Music and Go 2, they sound like a snotty young pop-punk outfit trying to create a retro-futuristic soundtrack for The Jetsons, but with some great tunes. Listen more closely, though, and you could imagine them getting much more interesting over time. Which, of course, they did.


The second period begins with the departure of keyboardist Barry Andrews and the recruitment of Dave Gregory, mainly a guitarist but also a pianist, arranger, and all-rounder with the skills needed for a band growing more ambitious by the day. Now a formidable live gigging machine, they toughened up their sound, while writing songs that were somehow both more solid and more sophisticated, on Drums And Wires and especially Black Sea—a critical and commercial hit and still a lot of people's favourite XTC album.


Their next release, the fascinating and adventurous double album English Settlement, seems to me to have one foot in that second period and one in their third, in which they retired from the road, causing drummer Terry Chambers to quit—from then on, they would use a different drummer on each album (the best, for my money, being Dave Mattacks on Nonsuch). XTC became an ever-more creative studio band, with Mummer showing a more reflective, acoustic, pastoral side, and The Big Express its noisier counterpart. This is their transitional period, and I remember thinking at the time that although there were plenty of brilliant moments, the express might just be running out of steam a bit.


I couldn't have been more wrong, because Skylarking—despite its well-known 'difficult' beginnings with producer Todd Rundgren—turned out to be a masterpiece. It was the start of XTC's mature period, in which they surpassed expectations (well, mine, anyway) to produce work which was no longer just clever and fun but often moving and inspiring. (Skylarking was also probably Colin's finest hour, with five great songs). How do you follow a masterpiece? In this case, with the big, bright, shiny and confident Oranges and Lemons, their second double album, about which I remember thinking at the time: the bastards, they've done it again!


I'm not sure, after that, whether anyone was quite prepared for yet another double album, but Nonsuch, while perhaps less immediately accessible, is a treasure trove to be dipped into again and again. Picking a favourite XTC album feels a bit like having my fingernails pulled out, but if I really, really had to, this would—tentatively, possibly, maybe, perhaps—be it.


Then came a five-year hiatus in which the band dealt with various personal crises while fighting their way out of their unhappy relationship with Virgin Records. They reconvened with an unmanageable pile of songs and, logically enough, decided to split them into two piles. 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. Though I'm not sure if that's really what's bothering me, so much as the retrospective melancholy of knowing that this project would be their last.


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.