X-sTatiC – The non-tour diary
13 September 2001
Well, apparently, it’s the end of the world. Or so we’re being led to believe. World-wide grief, mass media hype and utter bewilderment at events in America. And in England, it’s become one of those events where the English go all Meaningful and Sentimental – which basically means, not talking about the weather (see also Princess Di, Petrol Shortages, every World Cup et al).
For me the defining moment was during last night’s car journey, at 3am, on the M4 motorway. I was coming back from playing a fairly long and pointless gig (Briefcase Blues Brothers, Swansea Chicago Rock Café). A combination of tiredness, apocalyptic blues, finding a copy of the album Nonsuch in the glove compartment and driving past Swindon planted the seed. By the time I reached London, it was a concrete tree of an idea.
For years I’ve played in cover bands, tribute bands and bands that paradoxically called themselves ‘original’. Why not, in these Last Days, try and do something that I want to do? A tribute to my favourite band – a band that no-one seems to know about, except for a legion of fans joined at the un-hip across the internet. The band that still exists, and probably owes their existence to the fact that they famously do not play live (since 1982). A band that, when they did play live were more adept than many musicians of any genre, and went on to make albums that couldn’t possibly be recreated on stage by any musicians.
XTC – one of the reasons why I deserted a career in corporate journalism to become a broke drummer. Many of those reading this will know why they deserve a really good tribute act – after all Abba have got over two hundred in Britain alone, and they’re not that good. More popular perhaps, but that’s besides the point. Besides, XTC songs, when played live, totally rock!! (Well they do on the bootleg live albums). It has to be worth a shot. And I’d love to play some of those songs live. The fans are out there somewhere, you meet them all the time.
By the time I get home, I’m convinced that not only could the idea work, but that I could form a sort of ‘XTC mark II’ a ground force that goes out into the field and wages the battle formulated by the generals and majors in their red-bricked fortresses.
So, my challenge
3 October 2001
Point one – find the musos. This has been surprisingly easy, as it turned out. All it took was a message posted on Chalkhills (main website for XTC fans the world over), a call to arms. Loads of responses, but mostly from America ("I’d love to do it, but I can’t. Because you don’t live in the States." Yeah, thanks for that). But enough – just enough – from people close to London to make it a workable concept.
I want – I ache – to play guitar in this band. I learnt to play guitar by listening to Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory’s playing across the years. I’d even settle for bass – Moulding is one of my favourite players.
Regretfully, and predictably, I get responses from guitarists and a bass player but no drummers. The fact that good drummers are hard to find is one of the reason why I chose to play the drums professionally, but now it’s working against me. For the Good of the Band, I relegate myself to drums.
The first rehearsal was a strange, but uplifting affair. We’ve been lucky in that everyone lives within driving distance from London – our furthest commuter is Ed from Windsor.
After an initial greeting in the pub next door, the five musicians cram into a tiny rehearsal room in Camden. After setting up, we try our hand at The Disappointed. A bizarre choice because it’s one of the few songs (if not only) by XTC to have that 6/8 shuffling rhythm. A difficult groove to nail. We do OK, but the sound is cluttered. Naturally the three guitarists have all learnt the chords at home, but when you put it together, it never sounds as clear as playing along to the record at home.
We try it again, this time with different players starting to play at different points in the song. It’s better, but I can see a lot of work that will need to be done in the studio. I’m aiming to get a gig by Easter 2002.
We try some other tunes – Mayor of Simpleton, Nigel, Ten Feet Tall, a few others. Although the sound we were making was questionable, there was a certain feeling – a surreal joy in sharing these tunes with other people. The thing is, listening to XTC is a very personal thing for their fans, probably because no-one else they know are into them. So to get together and play these songs with others? It’s like having your thoughts read back to you.
14 October 2001
Through continual emailing, we have formulated a seemingly never-ending wish list of songs to play. Everyone’s really keen, and that’s a bonus. I, as always, have already started assuming the position of Bossy Band Leader. So far, everyone seems OK with it, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I get someone’s back up with an ill-timed critical comment.
There are some problems, and they become obvious after the second rehearsal. Namely, too many guitars. Not enough definition in the sound. I’ve done a lot of tributes, and I think I know something about what you need, and what you don’t. We need to ditch a member. There’s some collective decision-making, and I dispatch the tactful email to the unlucky party. However, young Steve seems happy enough, and goes off to do some proper music with his proper band.
2 November 2001
Now we have our tasteful, slimmed down four-piece, and should be ready for action. We even get together for a productive acoustic run through of the songs. Things are steaming ahead.
Except that I, in my apparently unstoppable state of megalomania, now see a way of playing guitar – because I’ve just met a drummer, Adrian, who loves XTC!
I harangue the rest of the guys into letting me replace the departed guitarist. Which means we’re back to having three guitars. So it all sounds muddy and distorted again – not least because I want to push my new guitar set-up to the max. Ed comes out of the rehearsal with a ringing in his ears and an obvious desire to return to what now seem like the old days.
And then things really start to fall to pieces.
16 November 2001
A wasted rehearsal tonight, as Crawford, our rather excellent bass player, rather unexcellently failed to turn up. The thing is, he just gets so busy with other commitments. I'm quite annoyed, especially as Ed and Adrian came from Berkshire to be here in Camden.
Plus, with myself, Ed and Mick as the guitarists – well it just doesn’t work, it’s too much.
The Christmas season is coming, which means, for a musician, more work than a simple tribute band can handle. I’m too busy to even think about the X-sTatiC rehearsals. As the next few weeks go by, my thoughts about the band begin to wander and dissipate. The emails become less frequent. Oh well……
2 February 2002
And then out of the blue, it starts again. X-sTatiC MKIII.
A cursory meeting in a pub leads to a re-evaluation of band roles, set list etc, etc. I offer to go back to drums, seeing as there appeared to be too many guitar cooks spoiling the froth. Sweetly, the boys all agree that it is workable to have three guitarists. The reasoning is: seeing as it seems to be completely impossible to be able to play the complex guitar parts and sing, we could swap between singing and playing roles. One guy sings, the others play and sing back-up. And we all swap for different songs. It seems a workable concept.
We identify a new, bigger rehearsal studio, and compare diary dates. Mick mentions an annual gathering of XTC fans in late Spring, and suggests it as an opportunity for our first gig. That gives us plenty of time.
We push things forward.
5 March 2002
We meet up at Westbourne Studios, all full of enthusiasm for the next stage – except for bassist Crawford, who it later turns out, never got our messages or our emails. There’s not a lot of work you can do with three guitars and a drummer. I try to make sure this temporary setback doesn’t get me down.
14 March 2002
Well, after a second non-showing from Crawford, he’s regretfully announced that he doesn’t have the time to do the band – he has a busy workload, plus other bands to work. It is a shame because he’s a great player, a diamond chap and also offered a cool and laid-back presence to the band.
But rather than trigger the break-up of the loose strands, it has the opposite effect of bringing us together. Both Ed and I immediately offer to take bass playing duties, and finally agree to share, depending on whoever might be singing the lead part. This means that our three-guitar-dilemma is solved, and we are once again a four-piece. Which is how it should be.
2 May 2002
It’s all come together, in an amazingly short number of rehearsals. Our first set is pretty much nailed down, and the second one coming along. There have been a few victims along the way. It’s become obvious (to me anyway) that the later portion of XTC’s material does not transfer well to live band. This is probably one of the reasons why they don’t play live themselves. There’s just too much going on in those studio albums for us to be able to honestly recreate them.
So there’s been a slight shift in emphasis to the earlier material – White Music to English Settlement, mainly. Ed, who didn’t really like the early stuff when he joined the band, is now a lot more into it, especially tunes like ‘Complicated Game’ (which he says he used to hate). He still wants to do ‘Playground’ off XTC’s recent Wasp Star, but I think we’re slowly changing his mind!
Not that I’m against trying the later stuff. We’ve got ‘Dear God’ nailed, and are finalising tunes like ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ (‘Disappointed’ was dropped). But it think it’s more likely that we recapture that atmosphere and energy of an XTC gig, rather than duplicating the musical parts (as if we ever could!). Plus we’re more likely to get gigs with other tribute bands, like the Stranglers, Blondie and the Clash, if we stick to the same period as them.
So to do this, we have to look to the live recordings of XTC gigs.
To this end, we even do an ‘XTC Videos’ night – watching a rare live performance from ’82 (Rockpalast, German TV show), which is as illuminating as it is scary. Andy Partridge spends the gig looking pained, and it’s hardly surprising to hear that it was one of their very last performances.
I believe we can do honest versions of the songs XTC played live. Once we’re totally confident on that, and maybe do a few gigs, then I think we could look again at the later material.
6 June 2002
We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Now we just need a gig! We now have some home demos that should be just good enough to swing it. We've got a website, which we’ll put the demos on, as well as this diary (just to show how far we’ve come, without playing a gig!!). If nothing else, in the website we’ll have a monument to our efforts.
We may never play a gig. We may pull off just the one (hopefully at the Hope and Anchor, Islington later this year). We may get to a US college tour, where the boys are apparently quite popular. I guess, whatever happens, the Chalkhills massive and other XTC fans can read about it here. And no doubt laugh at our misguided optimism.
Dan Barrow, July 2002. firstname.lastname@example.org