Making Music: Fossil Fuel

Making Music (UK)
February 1997, Issue 131

After four frustrating years un-negotiating their record contract, XTC's Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory hope to have new XTC material in the shops in the very near future. But for those of you who can't wait that long, they've agreed to take Making Music on a track-by-track trawl through their final Virgin release Fossil Fuel, The XTC Singles 1977-92. Happy to acknowledge their influences and reference points, humorously self-deprecating, candid and blessed with total recall (obviously didn't take enough drugs)... here's the edited highlights.

Interview by Andy Basire.

Science Friction (1977, prod: John Leckie)
Colin: "Definitely a case of a band in the studio for the first time getting red-light nerve fever." Andy: "It's weird because you start to think about really odd things like, 'Did my trousers squeak in that take?'."
Statue Of Liberty (1978, prod: John Leckie)
Colin: "Barry (Andrews) was still with us then, and the keyboards were a dominant part of the sound." Andy: "Yeah, that cheap fairground organ - I was well into that. Barry had a ludicrously idiosyncratic style." Dave: "It was banned by the BBC for the lyrics: 'In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt'."
This Is Pop (1978, prod: Mutt Lange)
Andy: "The things I remember most about these sessions are Mutt's dog, a big basset hound, whose balls kept dragging on the thick pile carpet. And him cooking the groove out of us. He just made us do it over and over and over." Colin: "He was one of those old-fashioned producers; he insisted on doubling a lot of guitar parts to make them nice and fat, but the end results did sound more polished than John's."
Are You Receiving Me? (1978, prod: Martin Rushent)
Andy: "I remember Martin didn't turn up until really late. We were all plugged in, buzzing and ready to go at ten, and he turned up about seven in the evening."
Life Begins At The Hop (1979, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
The band's first minor hit.
Andy: "By this time he's in [points at Dave]." Colin: "We should mention Barry's leaving here." Andy: "Yeah, he'd written these songs I thought were half baked, though they were probably as good as mine at the time. We ended up arguing a lot, so he decided to leave." Colin: "This was also the first single I'd written up until that point. I think the introduction of Dave, and Barry leaving, helped me find my own style." Andy: "Our attempt at a modern Tamla-Motown track..." Dave: "Or maybe The Equals."
Making Plans For Nigel (1979, prod: Steve Lillywhite) Their longest stint in the charts.
Andy: "People comment on the rhythm and how inventive it was, but it's just a normal pattern played on the wrong drums. I've got to say I was lividly jealous of him at that point [nods towards Colin] because he just couldn't put a foot wrong." Colin: "It's nice to see a song taken into a nation's consciousness. I saw a headline about Nigel Lawson..." Andy: "That's it, you're HP sauce at last."
Ten Feet Tall (1980, prod: Phil Wainman)
Dave: "Only a single in America - our first, in fact..." Colin: "Personally I prefer the album version." Andy: I remember Chambers [Terry, the drummer] getting quite irate because Phil kept trying to put timbale breaks in. I think he managed to slip them on while we were away on tour, and Terry wasn't around to nut him."
Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down (1980, prod: Phil Wainman)
Andy: "A great melody, but in hindsight something in the rhythm came out sluggishly; it's a bit turgid."
Generals & Majors (1980, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
Andy: "You were reluctant about this, weren't you?" Colin: "It was a half-finished song, really. It only came to life when Andy came up with the chorus - most of it was created in the studio." Andy: "It's related to "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines"."
Towers Of London (1980, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
Andy: "Supposed to be a bit Beatlesy..." Colin: "I think it was more akin to Ray Davies..." Andy: "Really? I always had "Rain" in mind..."
Sgt Rock (1981, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
Andy: "The least favourite of all my songs. It was written as a joke about a little weed who looked up to Sgt Rock. It was a nerd's sad fantasy." Dave: "It got a lot of airplay." Andy: "I know, but I just wish we hadn't released it. There's something very..." [he searches for the right word] "crap, really. Something banal about it."
Love At First Sight (1981, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
Colin: "This was only released in North America, and they thought it was a bit sluggish." Dave: "So rather than do a proper edit, they simply cranked up the speed." Andy: "Ludicrous. Real Mickey Mouse territory, like it was done on helium."
Respectable Street (1981, prod: Steve Lillywhite)
Andy: "The A&R man decided the BBC wouldn't play this with words like 'abortion' and 'contraception', so he took out all the words he didn't like. It wasn't a big hit, though, because the BBC still didn't play it. A couple of bands have covered it, and they always get the chords wrong. The second one's a seventh, formed from the E-string up. They always miss it." Dave: "It's not really a guitarist's chord, that one." Andy: "Nope, but it's a Partsy one."
Senses Working Overtime (1981, prod: Hugh Padgham)
Colin: "I think this was our highest chart entry." [Their only top ten hit, in fact]. Andy: "Made up from two songs. It's also the only song we've ever done with crows on."
Ball & Chain (1982, prod: Hugh Padgham)
Andy: "This is based on [the Beatles'] 'Getting Better'." Colin: About the destruction of Swindon town centre, but it wasn't much of a song. I think I'd gone off the boil." Andy: [a little surprised]: "You reckon?" Colin: "Yeah, I do. The least favourite of my contributions. I don't think I got it back until Skylarking."
No Thugs In Our House (1982, prod: Hugh Padgham)
Andy: "It's based on those old rock & roll-driven acoustic things, not a million miles from 'Summertime Blues'." Dave: "We decided to record the guitar in the stone room at the Manor, with a really loud old 50 watt Marshall bass amp and a 4x12 at one end of the room, and a couple of ambient mikes at the other. But I couldn't stay in there. I had to have a long lead, shut the door, and stand in the studio. And I could still hear it without any headphones on." Colin: "This was a more acoustic record, so I decided to use a fretless bass, but I wasn't all that proficient, and if you listen closely, you can hear it."
Great Fire (1983, prod: Bob Sargent)
Colin: "We're really off the pace around this time..." Andy: Up against the old Casio troops..." Dave: "Bob was drafted in for this because he'd just had a hit with Haircut 100." Andy: "I got to play the sax..."
Wonderland (1983, prod: Steve Nye)
Andy: "We were trying to get a tropical sound." Colin: "Do you remember that cheap echo chamber...?" Andy: "We dragged out the mono Korg synth again."
Love On A Farmboy's Wages (1983, prod: Steve Nye)
Andy: "This track did for Chambers. I wanted a sort of shuffly jazz rhythm, and he put his sticks down, said "That's it", and walked out." Colin: "You have to remember we'd stopped touring [in 1982] and Terry missed all that."
This World Over (1984, prod: David Lord)
Andy: "This track, in fact most of the [Big Express] album was written on an open-E tuning. The squeaky feedback noises are Stuart Gordon playing harmonics on a violin. I won an award for the sleeve design on this, but nobody sent it to me."
Wake Up (1985, prod: David Lord)
Colin: "I'm responsible, but it's not much of a song." Andy: "Great intro, though." Dave: "Syncopated intro." Andy: "It was on the jukebox in Eastenders."
Grass (1986, prod: Todd Rundgren)
Dave: "We were called in and told; 'Look lads, your career's down the toilet unless you start to sell records in America.' So we were given this long list of American producers, and the only name on it I know was Todd's." Colin: "He said he could do it all for $150,000, so we said OK." Andy: "In hindsight, it was a very good move." Dave: "It saved our careers, really." Colin: "But this single sank without trace."
The Meeting Place (1986, prod: Todd Rundgren)
Andy: "The rhythm track is taken from a soundtrack of industrial sound effects." Dave: "It starts with the sound of a local factory hooter in Swindon. They were closing factories down, and I thought it might be a nice tribute to the old town."
Dear God (1986, prod: Todd Rundgren)
Andy: "This was the B-side to "Grass", but radio stations started to flip it over. The lyrics really got up some people's noses, and it became a big radio hit. Whoever first flipped it probably saved us."
The Mayor Of Simpleton (1989, prod: Paul Fox)
Andy: "This went through a lot of different changes before we finally hit on the Byrdsy approach." Dave: "It was a whole new experience for us making this record. We spent five months in Hollywood. Lots of fun."
King For A Day (1989, prod: Paul Fox)
Andy: "Like all records, it reflects your state of mind at the time - we wanted to do a big bright noisy record. Our version of music for driving with the top down."
The Loving (1989, prod: Paul Fox)
Andy: "I wanted something anthemic like "All The Young Dudes". The crowd's faked up with multi-tracking."
The Disappointed (1992, prod: Gus Dudgeon)
Andy: "I remember Dave [Mattacks, drummer] couldn't get the shuffle beat I wanted..." Dave: "He did actually get eight bars of it." Andy: "Then we looped it. This was nominated for an Ivor Novello award. Never won it, though."
Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead (1992, Prod: Gus Dudgeon)
Andy: "This one's about a pumpkin I carved for my kids one Halloween. Started as a Dylan/harmonica sort-of song." Dave: "I play a Gretsch County Club that was a gift from a fan in New York."
Wrapped In Grey (1992, prod: Gus Dudgeon)
Andy: "This was the final straw. I was really proud of this track - we put a lot of time and thought into the whole thing, including the video, and Virgin just pulled it."

"It's funny when you think about it," Andy ponders as we draw this DIY review to a close: "Singles collections are a bit like the desserts from all the meals - there isn't any of the spuds and the meat. I think all our best stuff tends to lurk around in the corners of the albums.

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[Thanks to Lee Beddow]