Graded on a Curve:
XTC, “3D EP”

Celebrating Barry Andrews, born on this day in 1956.Ed.

In their early days XTC released a copious amount of singles, with this output appropriately corralled onto a handful of compilations situating the band as one of the more interesting acts produced in the late-‘70s UK. Amongst these songs were the three cuts that comprise their debut, ‘77’s “3D EP.” Many consider it as a strong but minor first effort in a scenario of future greatness, but investigating them apart from the group’s initial prolific tide provided this writer with the key that unlocked XTC’s substantial value.

By the time I became acquainted with them in the mid-‘80s, XTC was essentially a critics’ fave and one that was largely functioning as an album band. This was the era of Skylarking, and while “Dear God,” the b-side of that LP’s first single “Grass,” kicked up quite a bit of dust via MTV and even replaced “Mermaid Smiled” on the US version of the disc, in the US it only managed to land on a now defunct barometer of radio play named the Billboard Album Rock Chart, where it found modest success.

And on their home turf it barely even entered the Singles Chart, peaking at the severe back end at #99. This really is no surprise, since “Dear God” is a truly eloquent dispatch of religious disbelief, a song that likely would’ve caused their countryman Bertrand Russell to stand up and cheer had he only lived to hear it.

“Dear God” was so cogent (while simultaneously manifesting a well-harnessed anger) that more than a few believers in my personal circle considered it a legitimate expression of doubt and questioning rather than quickly dismissing it as merely sacrilegious. The tune’s that good. But even though ‘86’s Skylarking and its follow up Oranges & Lemons were both strong sellers and the group was very popular on college radio, the rise of their singles during this period seemed mainly tied to video play.

Living out of range of a university station at the time, I never once heard XTC via FM waves until far into the next decade. So for getting a deep taste of the band, buying the records was required, which I promptly did, picking up ‘84’s Big Express and Skylarking in one impulse purchase. And while I liked them, I must admit my enjoyment in the moment was rather temperate.

I will relate being more taken by their pseudonymous neo-‘60s incarnation as Dukes of Stratosphear, getting to hear both their ’85 mini-album “25 O’Clock” and the ‘87 LP Psonic Psunspot through the generosity of a psych-loving, paisley-sporting friend. For a few years however, XTC was a group I appreciated more than actively championed.

Many of their devoted fans will surely chalk this appraisal up to youthful inexperience, and will furthermore take serious issue over the supposed belittling of XTC as an singles outfit, wielding the titles of Waxworks: Some Singles 1977–1982, The Compact XTC: The Singles 1978-1985 and Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977–92 as evidence that the songwriting core of guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge and bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding was far more than an album entity.

And that’s correct. It just didn’t connect that way to me circa ’86. Had I heard the following year’s The Compact XTC directly upon its issue, my impression might’ve changed pretty quickly. But unfortunately my reassessment took a few years to transpire, as I slowly started nabbing inexpensive second-hand copies of early XTC LPs throughout ’90-’95, a period that I’ve taken to calling the Great Vinyl Purge of the late-20th Century.

During those years cheap used XTC wax was abundant in my neck of the woods, specifically due to consumer’s digital upgrades. Luckily the proprietor of my local music shack was far more concerned with keeping a steady flow of interesting product moving in and out of his doors than in squeezing every last possible cent out of the castoffs, so in that rough half-decade I scored Waxworks, Beeswax: Some B-Sides 1977–1982, ‘78’s White Music and Go 2, and ‘79’s Drums and Wires, all for approximately the suggested retail price of a then new compact disc.

By the point of my filing all these finds (adding significant width to the X section of my growing shelves in the process) I really had no problem admitting that XTC possessed quite a few top-notch songs, but even then I still wouldn’t have described them as a singles band. This a partially due to my persistence in viewing XTC as part of the punk revolution, a belief that still rings true to the present.

In those days I clung tight to the idea that punk was the very antithesis of pop. And back then, when I used the phrase “singles band” it really meant “pop group,” even if their 45s sold diddly-squat. While XTC’s 7-inches moved far more units than that, my general interest in their early material and that hard-set notion over what punk embodied led me to continue thinking of them in non-pop terms.

It might seem like I was just being uncommonly thickheaded, but the punk phenomenon held such resonance for myself and others that any music made in the late ‘70s that was generally deemed unlikely or impossible just a few years earlier could very easily end up getting attributed to the movement. And it’s not like XTC didn’t utilize a few punkish flourishes on their early recordings.

What turned me around? Well, the first step was collecting the nine volumes in Rhino’s DIY series, a set of CDs issued in 1993 that served as a fantastic overview of the new musical environment of the ‘70’s second half. While intrinsically tied to the punk upheaval, the series also included four discs, two from the UK and two from the States, unashamedly labeled as pop in nature.

It took me a little while to grab them all (for I paid full retail price for the lot), snagging the also geographically based punk volumes first and then moving on to the US pop entries. But upon scooping up the profiles in UK pop in one final splurge some rather large scales fell from this correspondent’s peepers. For Teenage Kicks – UK Pop I (1976-79) and Starry Eyes – UK Pop II (1978-79) each contained an XTC song in their track listing, the former offering “This is Pop?” and the latter “Life Begins at the Hop.”

I was already familiar with both, but hearing them in connection with so many great and more importantly, formally linked efforts made the previously obscured obvious suddenly quite plain; XTC was indeed a singles band, and at times a great one. But in truth my full conversion was still developing. While I considered “This is Pop?” and “Life Begins at the Hop” to be pretty great tunes, they didn’t immediately pull my figurative chain like a bunch of the other cuts that surrounded them on those two DIY volumes did.

This is no surprise, given the inclusion of bruising heavyweights and/or flat-out masterpieces from Nick Lowe (two, “So it Goes” and “Marie Provost”), Wreckless Eric (“Whole Wide World”), the Tom Robinson Band (“2-4-6-8 Motorway”), The Only Ones (“Another Girl, Another Planet”), Jilted John (“Jilted John”), The Undertones (two, “Teenage Kicks” and “Get Over You”), Buzzcocks (“Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”), Joe Jackson (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”), Starjets (“Schooldays”), Squeeze (“Up the Junction”), The Records (“Starry Eyes”) and Mo-Dettes (“White Mice”).

Over time and repeated listening I’ve come to appreciate “This is Pop?” and “Life Begins at the Hop” as much as most (well, about half) of what’s mentioned in the above paragraph (it’s really quite a list.) But the occurrence that really helped to personally solidify XTC as a great singles band was the retrieval of their debut, ‘77’s “3D EP.”

Yes, I was already conversant with two of its three cuts via Waxworks and Beeswax, but this was a case where the circumstances of format played a key role. “3D EP” is greatly enhanced by its trimness. While technically not a single, a-side “Science Friction” and the flip’s first track “She’s So Square” were initially issued as a 45. For whatever reason, Virgin quickly withdrew the 7-inch in the UK (but apparently not on the Continent, Australia, and New Zealand) and replaced it with this EP. But even after the switch, the functionality of a single largely remains.

Because while I already dug “Science Friction” as the opener on Waxworks, the fact that it sashayed directly into “Statue of Liberty” on that LP couldn’t help but reduce its power somewhat. On the “3D EP” though, it sits all by its lonesome, with nothing but the sound of the stylus departing the groove following its completion.

And “Science Friction” is basically tailor made for repeated listens before the wax’s flipside even gets cued-up for inspection. At least that’s what happened in my case, but since my discovery of the tune’s full glory I’ve noted that it isn’t especially prized as one of XTC’s finer moments. Perhaps this is due to its intensity being at odds with their later sophistication. The track’s 3:14 duration flies by in what seems like half that, with the energy the group wields certainly punk-like in execution.

It was 1977, after all. “Science Friction” is catchy as a wintertime flu bug, but as it plays my head is filled with visions of finely disheveled club audiences doing the pogo. In retrospect, XTC’s inaugural forcefulness shares more with the spastic anxiety of the early New Wave (with Barry Andrews’ keyboards adding to this atmosphere) than with the spit and anger of raw punk, but there’s no doubt they were caught up in the spirit of the moment.

In the end, “Science Friction” is just a terrific little pop/rock number, with a sense of proportion completely appropriate to its status as XTC’s recorded debut. Partridge’s songwriting ability is already in evidence; while not as cerebral as what was soon to come, it’s still plenty smart. And though it doesn’t rise to the same heights, similar compliments can be awarded to “She’s So Square,” which serves as a fully functional b-side.

If lesser, that’s mainly down to the lyrics (which are not as ambitious but still worthwhile), for the structure is sturdy and the attack as powerful as that of “Science Friction,” and with some aggressive soling from Partridge and Andrews to boot. And while the song’s topical jab at a ‘70s gal living in a ‘60s world is apropos to punk, it’s also curious coming from a group that ended up taking so much inspiration from that decade.

The inclusion of the Moulding composition “Dance Band” has resulted in some observers (including Partridge, who has described it as “a ludicrous little tune”) downgrading this EP, but to my ear it doesn’t really inflict that much damage. Reportedly the first thing Moulding wrote, it is surely the least of the three offerings, holding words that are far from profound as the other tracks’ punch is replaced with a non-toxic reggae influence, forecasting the dub excursions soon to come on Go 2’s bonus EP Go + and the “Take Away”/”The Lure of Salvage” EP (which came out under the name Mr. Partridge in 1980.)

So if minor, “Dance Band” is also indicative of XTC’s future range and its presence only diminishes “3D EP” from a great first effort to one that endures as very good. The release ignited a busy three years, the fruits of their labor accompanied with an inconsistency stemming from high aspirations that were alternately admirable and frustrating, but there are many jewels to be found amongst the lesser cuts and occasional misfires. It continues to be the era of XTC I esteem most.

But mainly due to the scrappy, small-scale grandeur of “Science Friction,” “3D EP” is the moment from this period that I persist in loving the best of all. It took far too long for me to arrive at the conclusion, but XTC really was a great singles band.


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