#635: Senses Working Overtime by XTC
In Swindon, UK, Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers invited Andy Partridge to be their guitar player and join Moulding on vocals. It was 1972 and the bands initial name was the Helium Kidz. The UK pop music magazine, New Musical Express, wrote an article about them. Swindon, in Wiltshire, England, was known for several other notable musicians including Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Gilbert O’Sullivan (“Alone Again Naturally”), late 90s UK pop singles chart topper Billie Piper (“Because We Want To,” “Girlfriend”), and Josh Kumra who provided vocals on the #1 UK single, “Don’t Go” with Wretch 32 in 2011.
As the Helium Kidz, the band was shaped by the music and style of the New York Dolls, especially their 1973 hit “Jetboy.” The Helium Kidz fused the early punk rock scene with glam rock. After getting Barry Andrews to join them on keyboards, they renamed themselves in 1976 as XTC.
When XTC emerged on the scene with their 1978 White Music studio album they offered listeners a art-rock band with vocal phrasing and synthesizer riffs woven into a proven pop music formula successfully championed by groups like the Beatles, Kinks and Small Faces. Both Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were excellent songwriters. Between 1979 and 1992 XTC charted 18 songs on the UK singles chart, though only “Senses Working Overtime” cracked the UK Top Ten. XTC, like Human League and Gary Numan, were more accessible than other British New Wave art-rock bands Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and Scritti Politti.
Asked about how they understood themselves, Andy Partridge said, “I’d like to be considered in the tradition of bands like the Kinks and Small Faces when bands weren’t quite naive, but they had a sort of group feeling about them and were gently experimental and psychedelic within pop song formats. It was like they had this little round soap bubble which was the pop single and they just sort of pushed it slightly out-of-shape with experimentation. Perhaps it was a little bit of studio phasing or double-tracking or some other new technique of the time.”
However, XTC only had one of their final songs crack the Billboard Hot 100, “Mayor of Simpleton,” which peaked at #72 in 1989. Andy Partridge in a 1981 interview in the Musician lamented, “I don’t know what to think about America. We can only play here and hope. We’re not an American sounding group. We don’t conform to any popular American fantasies – we don’t have any strains in our music that Americans like because it’s their culture or recent past history, such as that country music feel. If I sat down now, I could write the kind of song that Americans like to buy. Not to say they would, but every country loves its own reflection, it’s that narcissistic thing. America likes that romantic, denim cowboy – expensive and cool in their music. Our music is different. We don’t live American life-styles. I want to be successful for what we are. To everyone in England, everybody in America is either John Wayne or Farrah Fawcett. For Americans, every Englishman is Terry Thomas and every woman is the Queen.”
XTC released four singles that missed the pop charts in the UK. But their fifth single release, “Life Begins At The Hop,” expanded their fan base, including over in Canada. After “Life Begins At The Hop,” XTC made several more appearances on the Vancouver pop charts. These were “Making Plans For Nigel,” “Generals And Majors” and “Senses Working Overtime.”
“Senses Working Overtime” explores functions of the senses, each of which is evoked several times in the course of the song. For example the chorus line about trying to taste the difference between a lemon and a lime (taste); The similarity of sounds between black skies, black eyes and black ice (hearing); pain and pleasure (touch); night fighting day (sight); turds and treasure (smell). Along with the senses there is awareness of bullies, crime and people who are “fodder for the cannons.” Andy Partridge (guitar and vocals) once said of this song, “It’s about what it’s like to be alive in England.” The struggle to make a living and the hectic pace made everyones five senses function on overdrive.
At the time of the recording, Barry Andrews was also part of XTC. The band had several other Top 40 singles in the UK at this time, “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock,” which failed to chart in Vancouver or elsewhere in Canada. Between 1977 and 2005 the band released 41 singles and 14 albums. In 2006 Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding found they’d drifted apart as a creative team and Partridge told the press that XTC as a band was now “in the past tense.”
October 25, 2017
Farmer, Neville. XTC : Song Stories (The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music). Hyperion, New York, NY, 1998.
Looking Back to 1979, Swindonweb.com, 2014
XTC Biography, Oldies.com
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