Meanwhile, Back At The Castle...
I wrote up our very first gig and, as everyone else has taken a turn since, it looks like the baton has been passed to me again. Rather than simply doing another blow-by-blow account, though, what I'd really like to do this time is step back a little, get some perspective on this whole X-sTatiC deal.
Actually, this is in part because every time I try to think about the gig all I can remember is being too hyped to be able to think in terms other than "Ohmigod! Did that really just happen? Wow! I mean, just... Wow!" The problem with attempting to get some perspective is I've felt like that after every X-sTatiC gig.
Aww, what the heck, people will only complain if I don't mention the gig at all...
I must admit to a little apprehension beforehand, as the Castle last year was "that difficult third gig". We were mostly playing songs that we'd already performed twice, and for the first time we were playing to an audience that wasn't necessarily made up of hardcore fans. It was, in fact, the first gig that felt like a working gig, rather than an event. After many years of playing the covers/tribute circuit I should be used to this, but this time it took a bit of readjustment. After all, X-sTatiC isn't simply a band, it's a mission. So how would we fare in the same venue, one year on?
Even before the whole band have arrived, some of the usual suspects make their appearance. By the time we've finished setting up and soundchecking, a crowd is beginning to gather on the pavement outside the pub. As we approach them with flyers to try and tempt them into the gig, it seems that more often than not they turn out to have come specifically to see us. But they don't necessarily have flyers with them. It actually seems like we're pulling in some genuine XTC fans who haven't heard about us through the Forum.
It also gradually dawns on us that one or two of them look a little familiar... they turn out to be Stewart Lee, one half of Lee & Herring, and Kevin Eldon of Big Train, among other things. (For the confused-looking non-UK readers, they're comic performers who've been in some of the more left-field shows on UK TV in the last few years, and Lee is also responsible for Jerry Springer: The Opera.) And once we get talking to them it becomes clear they've come specifically to see us.
So, no pressure...
When it comes to opening the X-sTatiC set, Dan has a simple rule: try and kill off the drummer in the first three numbers. He may phrase it in terms of hitting the crowd hard and fast and get them warmed up quickly, but I know what he's really thinking; personally, I think he just can't stand the competition. This time round he gives me some respite by opening with Peter Pumpkinhead, but straight after that we're into the debut airing of Science Friction, whereafter we don't venture beyond the first three albums for another four songs. Oh, my poor aching arms! But it's worth it; the applause as the off-kilter guitar intro starts, and again when we reach the end without faltering, is deafening.
The first real break is nine songs in, in the form of another newie, The Loving.. This tends to be a lot harder to play that it looks, mainly because of the restraint required to hold it down to the right tempo after the adrenaline build-up of the previous eight songs. And then, sticking with Oranges And Lemons for a while, a first performance of One Of The Millions. This was a relatively late addition to the set, as a thank you to One Of The Millions and Melt The Guns who flew over from Israel to see us. Again. We're very fortunate to have such enthusiastic and devoted support as theirs, and seeing them sway along to it really makes it all worthwhile.
The acoustic interlude of Yacht Dance and Snowman is one of my personal highlights. For the former I can sit back and relax, listening to Dan and Mick duelling while the audience sway in time. The latter remains one of the hardest tracks in the entire set. It's one of Terry Chambers' finest moments; the repetitive pattern shifts and inverts throughout, and it's a real test of memory and concentration to get through it.
During the encores Dan makes a special plea for silence for the intro to Complicated Game, and the hyped crowd somehow manages to comply. In the hushed room the intensely-whispered opening verse is mesmerising, and the kick as the whole band join in never sounded more powerful. The finale is even more magnificently shambolic and dissonant than usual, with Dan stumbling away from the mic as the song finally implodes. At this point I have to reach urgently for a gulp of water and a towel to wipe the sweat from my eyes, so I miss the next few moments and it's not until I read the forum a week or so later that I realised he'd actually fainted onstage. How rock'n'roll is that?
Just as Snowman is one of my bugbears, so Wake Up is one of Ed's; no matter how he counts in, the off-kilter intro throws him every time. Tonight he watches intently as I count across the guitar riff, and lo and behold he nails it! There's a cry of "Yesss!" and a grin you could use to bridge the Thames. And finally there's just time for a solidly frantic Beatown.
I tend to be somewhat monosyllabic after gigs, so I spend time alternating between trying to grab a few words with the crowd and retreating to the dressing room when my vocabulary runs out. But there's plenty of time for me to get hugged by OotM, and to hear Kevin Eldon tell us he spent half the set saying to himself, "they're not doing that, are they? ...my god, they are!". I feel stunned, humbled and smug all at once. Confusing? Oh yes.
So, yeah, Perspective.
Two years ago elsewhere on this very site, Dan wrote: "We may never play a gig. We may pull off just the one. [...] I guess, whatever happens, the Chalkhills massive and other XTC fans can read about it here. And no doubt laugh at our misguided optimism."
Well, it's a couple of months shy of two years since we first stepped onto the stage at the Hope and Anchor. In that time we've played all of six gigs, at intervals ranging from 24hrs to 9 months. Not an intensive schedule by anybody's standards. "Today, London; Tomorrow... ermm, we can talk about plans, I suppose. Anyone up for Swindon in 6 months? (The World has been tentatively pencilled in for February 2017)." But it's not like we intended this to be a full-time job. We wanted it to stay fresh and exciting. So, what have we done in these two years that's made X-sTatiC so special, both to others and to ourselves?
We've taken songs we love, and brought them to people who heard them live first time around, to some - ourselves included - who never had the chance to hear them live, and to others who might never have heard them at all. We've played to dedicated fans and left them satisfied, and (at the Castle last year) to the much harder-to-please London punters who didn't know any of the songs, and managed to win them over.
We've brought people together. Fans who only knew each other online have been able to meet in person, having made the pilgrimage to see us play from as far afield as France, Sweden, Israel, California, even Kettering. We've had the families of the band themselves come and see us, and thank us for keeping the flame burning. (Hearing that from Holly Partridge and Carol Moulding set my personal standard for "knowing I've given something back".)
We've grown in confidence, as musicians and as a band. Musically I don't think I've ever played a tougher gig than X-sTatiC. XTC songs are constructed like no others, and you really have to know them inside out. Even when the parts are relatively simple you can't blag them, because the cues you would expect in anyone else's music just aren't there. It took over a year for Dan to put the band together, including at least 6 months of steady rehearsals leading up to the first gig. Yet a year later we were able to put the acoustic set together in a mere 3 rehearsals. We've taken songs that would have seemed impossible when we first started, and nailed them. Despite the long breaks, it seems we've improved with every gig. Yet we've never burned ourselves out and wound up going through the motions; if anything it seems like the intensity has increased every time as well.
We've proved that that optimism was anything but misguided.
If there's one moment tonight that sums up the bond between the band, the audience and the music, for me it's in No Language In Our Lungs, where we drop the band out completely and let the audience sing. Given the mix of fans and total newcomers at the last Castle gig I'd wondered how well this was going to work, but tonight it seems like there isn't a person present who doesn't know the songs completely. And as Dan sings, "I would have made this instrumental but the..." and the band stop dead, for a moment we're in freefall as the whole crowd sings back "...wo-o-ords got in the way". And just for that moment time stands still.
Adrian Ogden, 19 July 2004. email@example.com