Animal and Panicking

Issue 3, Spring 1983

Animal and Panicking, Review by a Navaho Blanket

Sitting here in the stifling heat and frenetic activity of the multi-million pound international Limelight offices (at a desk in me bedroom, actually), I've been lucky enough to have heard four all-new XTC tracks. By the time you read this, "Great Fire", "Human Alchemy", "Wonderland" and "Beating Of Hearts" will doubtless be already emblazoned in your minds, but that's not going to stop me writing about them now....

Of the album as a whole, Andy says: "It's our most keyboard dominated album to date since Drums And Wires. It was something we wanted to do after the acoustic sounds of English Settlement. It's mostly Dave playing keyboards; he's really the keyboard person. I can just hit it with one or two fingers. I'm pretty good at the sounds, but not the physical playing, so if I come up with the sounds he'll play them. I actually find that I'm playing less and less on my own records. I'm getting into being a director or conductor; encouraging others to go in the studio and make these noises and I'm waving my arms at them, 'No, no. Play it more like this.' And it's really the part I should be in there doing!"

Of the four songs I've heard, keyboards are most prevalent on Colin's "Wonderland". The warm, tropical sound with its McCartney-esque melody reveals XTC in confident spirit and demonstrates the group's adaptability to different styles. Colin is in fine voice and the song is yet another must for Moulding Maniacs. Along with "Beating Of Hearts", it was recorded in the early autumn (i.e., with Terry still there) as a "feeler" for the new album and was considered as a single, but Virgin got cold feet and decided not to release it (a foolish move in my opinion).

I asked Andy what he thought. "The music reminds me of those Rousseau paintings; he's a Frenchman who does paintings of jungles with tigers attacking people. The song's about having a false sense of security. Actually, the music reminds me of Stevie Wonder after taking a lot of acid! It's like Stevie Wonder kind of chord changes, but they're very dream-like. Funny you should mention McCartney, because I thought that the first time I heard it, when he brought his demo along, but I think now it's finished it's more like Stevie Wonder. I think it's Colin's best song on the album. I know what you mean about it making a good single: the melody, but Virgin didn't have the same idea.

"I played acoustic guitar and electric guitar all the way through Wonderland, but we talked about it and it really wasn't wanted, so in the end all the guitar, apart from a bit at the very end, was taken off the track. What Colin really wanted was some jungle, so that's what I ended up doing. Along with some tapes, I'm supplying most of the jungle sounds. (Laughs) So that's my lot on that track: a few vocal harmonies, the jungle and a bit of guitar at the end!"

"Wonderland" is another of Colin's subtly ironic songs. Like "Generals And Majors" and "Officer Blue" (although I've always felt that the latter never lived up to the class of the former), "Wonderland" lures us into its cosy surroundings only to turn the tables on us. This "Wonderland" is transparent, evasive and superficial. Of course, this is no reason for us not to enjoy the beautifully lilting refrain crowned by the perfectly executed false ending - after all, how could we do otherwise?

"Human Alchemy" was also seriously considered for release as a single, but this time, in deciding against, Virgin made the right move. Not that it's not a fine song; Duran Duran, The Police, The Jam or Adam Ant (in their day) could undoubtedly sell it by the lorry-load, but even for a die-hard XTC fan it needs several plays before it clicks. "Alchemy", the dictionary tells me, is the transmutation of baser metals into gold, stick "Human" up front and we're talking about turning men into money; a grim song about the African slave trade. A powerful album track, yes, but surely somewhat out of place along side "Ooh To be Ah"!

Andy continues: "Again, Virgin got an attack of the brave and said "Yeah! Let's have ‘Human Alchemy’. Great single! Who cares if it's a bit strange!" We said "Wow, great, love this new attitude!" and gave them the track. They had it for a few days and then decided it wasn't really suitable. So they have these periodic attacks of being very brave, like Rough Trade or something, and then they seem to go all EMI and ring up to say it's too weird and wanting us to make something like The Rich Kids.

"‘Human Alchemy’ is a bit of work to listen to. It is quite oppressive. As a track it's meant to be about slavery from the slave trader's point of view; turning people into money, but being as much slaves as those people. So it's got to have an oppressive feel to it. The kind of flayed choir is actually real voices mixed in with a melotron.

"We were delighted when Virgin suggested that we finish the track off. We even did special single mixes; we edited out all the dub section at the end and things. And then, as I say, they had a touch of the EMI's."

"Human Alchemy", then, will remain "for fans only"; to be played in those quiet, sullen moments when you feel like being absorbed into the stark, heavy atmosphere of tormented voices and strange, electronic sounds.

I don't think that the melody for "Beating Of Hearts" is quite commercial enough to make it a hit, but this was yet another would-be single. I spoke to Andy about it.

"Possibly my favourite XTC track ever".

I remembered that his previous favourite had been "Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down".

"I think this has knocked it to number two. I don't know, I just get the shivers when I hear it. I mean every word of it".

"Melt The Guns" is anti-war, whereas "Knuckle Down" is pro-love, but "Beating Of Hearts" successfully combines the two ideas. I asked Andy if it was more one than the other.

"It's fifty-fifty. You can't really have love and war. So it's a bit of both. It gives me a shiver when I hear it; all of my very favourite XTC tracks do. I still get a shiver when I hear "Travels In Nihilon", "Making Plans For Nigel" (although, that's wearing off a little because it was a single), "Complicated Game", "Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down" and one or two other tracks. I think it's something you decide that you got when you're writing it, it becomes imprinted in you, especially if you really mean the lyrics."

The song has an Indian feel to it in places, so I asked Andy what instruments had been used.

"It's actually a 12-string guitar with every string tuned to the same note. As you drag a plectrum across it you get the percussive effect. It was just an idea I was trying out at home and it sounded very powerful.

"I was really annoyed, because we did this in early autumn to be a single, but Virgin got the E.M.I.'s. Then Blancmange came out with ‘Living On The Ceiling’ which had a quasi-Indian sound on it. I thought ‘Gasp!’ I got the paranoids. And then Echo And The Bunnymen with ‘The Cutter’ which got to about number six. It could have been ‘Beating Of Hearts’ there. I got very upset about that.

"The Indian orchestra on ‘Beating Of Hearts’ is a keyboard. The only little bit of keyboard that I played was the kind of reed pipe before ‘You have heard’. Dave did the kind of squeeze box solo in the middle of that frantic Indian bit."

Finally, the song that did bake it onto seven inch, "Great Fire". Of the four, this is the one that has "Make Me a Single" written all over it. It simply bubbles with prime time bounciness. "Beating Of Hearts" might have more deeply felt sincerity and a more important message, but this is the one that most people are going to hear and they won't be disappointed.

"The situation arose where we did the album (we finished off a dozen tracks) and then as soon as Steve Nye had finished with us, he went off to another band in Canada. So we were rather left in the lurch after just finishing the album completely. Virgin asked if we had written any other songs now we had finished the album. I said ‘I've got one called "Great Fire" and I've finished the demo with me playing all the instruments really badly on my little porta-studio.’ They said ‘ .....wait for it......Great! This is a single.’ They said they didn't want us to do it with just an engineer and they wanted a professional producer. They came up with the idea of using Bob Sargeant who's done work with The Beat and Haircut 100. We did two tracks: ‘Gold’, which was one of the ones we hadn't finished off properly with Steve Nye, and ‘Great Fire’. I thought it should sound like a piece of music from Oliver or a kind of bouncing around the baby's den music.

"There's a cello and viola; chaps with long double-barrelled names who we were a bit petrified of using, because they sounded very correct and upright. But when they came along they were charming fellows and were really into playing on the track. That's unusual for us to use other musicians. We've only ever done it once with Dick Cuthell on ‘That Is The Way’."

Given that "Great Fire" is a love song, there seems to be a more than average quantity of animals mentioned in passing. I suspected that this was another example of Andy's wild imagination adding a touch more colour to the song.

"Yeah. I thought, ‘what does fire do (physical fire), apart from burning it also scares animals.’ I did mention that the ‘animals are panicking’ and then they put me in the studio and I just played my saxophone for a couple of minutes while they recorded it. We then dropped in bits of wild saxophone one or two seconds after ‘animals are panicking’. So that's what those strange strangled noises are: me playing totally devoid of what was happening in the studio."

The first time I heard these four songs they struck me as being quite experimental. However, now that I have become more familiar with them, the less so they seem. I asked Andy if he thought that they had been any more experimental than usual.

"Possibly, in slightly different ways. I don't think we could go in and make straight music, because we'd be bored with it. So where we've experimented in the past, we've probably touched on others this time round. I don't think they'd be obvious yet. I'd have to have the L.P. released and listened to it and then decide how different it was after thinking about it."

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[Transcribed by Marcus Deininger, thanks to Mark Fisher]