Life begins on the stage
God almighty, four discs of XTC live--two consisting of material recorded for British DJ John Peel's show from 1979 to '89, one of random live shows dating from 1978 and '79, the last taken entirely from a December 1980 concert at the Hammersmith Palais. In other words, a boxed set for completists and cultists (most of whom never heard the band live--they stopped touring in 1982), though the nice price ($44 retail) makes it an accessible addition to the casual fan's collection as well. Actually, better this than a straightforward retrospective culled from the cold-storage facilities at Geffen or Virgin, XTC's homes till abandoned to the reissue bin. After all these years of hearing studio-sterile recordings that proved even the best intentions could squeeze a little necessary quintessence out of punchy, wry art-pop, the box offers evidence that these boys rocked fast, loud, and loose and had more fun at it than the official output ever revealed. Disc one alone provides a suitable fix; no more skipping around Black Sea and wishing it ran instead of merely walked.
The very first song on the very first disc makes it all worthwhile: "Life Begins at the Hop," originally on Drums and Wires, comes on like a heart attack, popping and pounding until it renders the studio standard moot; finally, the song about finding love on the dance floor really moves. The track, like so many on the first two discs of Transistor Blast, detonates the myth that Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding--the dueling songwriters and singers--best manufactured their magic behind the studio's steel curtain. Same goes for versions of "Snowman" (funkier), "No Thugs in Our House" (faster), "Jason and the Argonauts" (tighter, oddly enough), "Runaways" (just, well, better). Take your pick--not a dud in the lot.
Maybe the appeal stems from the fact that unlike most lost tapes culled from Peel Sessions, you can actually hear the vocals on these tracks; not being disappointed with quality makes any odds-and-sods four-fer an interesting diversion. But the revelations and pleasures are best revealed on the in-concert discs: Where once you couldn't tell whether XTC--long ago written off as a band for critics and other egghead popsters--wanted to be art (say, Emerson, Lake, and Rick Wakeland) or pop (say, Elvis Costello...or the Dave Clark Five), this set gets their ya-yas out without losing the precision and structure that defined this band. There's a never-before-heard rage/amusement in Moulding's and Partridge's voices as they tear through, play with, and generally rip apart the likes of "Generals and Majors," "Living Through Another Cuba," "This is Pop," "Science Friction," and the lesser-known deep tracks adored only by the fetishists. In all, proof that XTC was punk after all, even if they never knew it.
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