White Music is easily overlooked in light of what the band would go on to achieve.
A galloping beat powered by an insistent bassline, slashing guitar chords and a lyrical mish-mash sung in an unplaceably bratty accent, only to resolve in a chorus unexpectedly backed by Beach Boy-coos: “All the kids are complaining/ That there’s nowhere to go/ All the kids are complaining/ That the songs are too slow.” A “Roll Over Beethoven” for a new era. So begins “Radios in Motion,” the Andy Partridge-penned leadoff track from XTC’s debut, White Music—one of the more auspicious beginnings to one of rock music’s most original and startling careers.
Like Talking Heads: 77, White Music is easily overlooked in light of what the band would go on to achieve on their more ambitious later albums. Listening to it now, though, it’s amazing how fresh XTC’s debut sounds—many bands would kill to sound like this today, a punch bowl of musical genres laced with a heavy dose of methamphetamines.
It gets crazier from there with the alien-ska sound of “Cross Wires,” written by bassist and foil to Partridge, Colin Moulding, who also contributed the jittery “Do What You Do” and the Cars-y “I’ll Set Myself on Fire.” By the time you get to the third song, the avant-pop manifesto “This Is Pop?,” you know you’ve got a classic on your hands. The guitar playing is especially impressive on this one, veering from rhythmic to dissonant to melodic, seemingly at the drop of a dime, while navigating abrupt shifts and unusual chord sequences, all without sacrificing any of its catchiness and appeal despite being totally nonintuitive.
“Statue of Liberty” was the first XTC song I ever heard and it’s still one of my favorites. For a band that cheekily declared itself to be making “white” music, XTC could swing with the best. The song is exactly what it sounds like, a love song to a famous monument, and the lyrics are full of silly and irresistible jokes—“I leaned right over to kiss your stony book/ A little jealous of the ship with whom you flirt/ A billion lovers with their cameras snap, snap to look/ And in my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt,” a line that got them banned from the BBC.
After an inspired, syncopated deconstruction of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” we get another dose of Partridge’s speed-pop in the satirical, Nick Lowe-style “Into the Atom Age,” followed by Moulding’s “I’ll Set Myself on Fire” and a closing quartet of Partridge tunes. Of these, “I’m Bugged” is especially memorable, both in its lyrical content (“You all look like insects/ In your brand-new sunspecs”) as well as for Barry Andrews’s manic organ playing, which is one of the strengths of early XTC. As the finale, “Neon Shuffle” sounds in part like XTC auditioning for the Star Wars cantina band—“Neon Shuffle is a dance for the human race/ Neon Shuffle is gonna pull you outta your place.” This final song shows once more what an unusually tight and technically impressive band XTC was, even on their first album.
The late ‘70s was a great era for music, with active songwriters like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Joe Jackson, and bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, Madness and many other iconic acts all making incredible music that remains relevant today. Even in this distinguished company, White Music stands out. And better still, it gives no indication of what’s to come.