XTC – Black Sea (1980): Review


Produced by Steve Lillywhite
Label – Virgin/RSO

Whilst there’s much to admire from the continuing improvement found on 1979’s “Drums And Wires”, “Black Sea” is the point where the Swindon four piece perfectly married their previously jagged musical idiosyncrasies with an intelligent pop sensibility to create a masterpiece that is undoubtedly the greatest performance from a career of consistent highlights. The eleven songs cover cold war paranoia, middle class suburban hypocrisy, love and the sacrifices committed for a “glorious” English heritage. Producer Steve Lillywhite’s attention to detail and his experience from working with Peter Gabriel on the “Melt” album add hugely to the recording, particularly Terry Chambers ‘ drum and rhythm tracks. In addition, by 1980 the relentless touring had honed a tight unit and the astute addition of guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory makes for a team that experiment without losing focus on the structure of the song. There’s taut aggression, shining melodious bonhomie, or contemplative sustain in the vocals, all dependent on the song, painting a truly vivid three dimensional sonic picture.


The sneering opener, “Respectable Street” sets the tone with immense thuds driving Colin Moulding’s flowing bass and Andy Partridge’s barbed guitar stabs. The singer’s words spit fire and brimstone at the double standards of “curtain twitching” middle England, with the spotlight on the judgemental neighbours who spend “Sunday church and they look fetching, Saturday night saw him retching over our fence”. Moulding contributes two songs to the collection, both highlighting his unique sense of English pop eccentricity. “Generals And Majors”, a sly attack on those who celebrate the act of war is heavily influenced by the movie soundtrack “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”. There must be a nod to David Bowie’s “Low” when one hears the booming rhythms on the excellent “Love At First Sight”. The expansive “Living Through Another Cuba” captures feelings of the uncertainty for world conflict that were prevalent in the early years of the decade. “Rocket From A Bottle” is unadulterated joy for falling in love, and for this reviewer is one of the most underrated songs Andy Partridge has ever written. “I’ve been up with the larks, I’ve been shooting off sparks, and I’m feeling in love” swirls around with a mixture of treated phase effects and the singer’s natural bliss.

Side two kicks off with the best single from the album, “Towers Of London”. The outstanding enhancement is the bridge. So often it seems that bands just casually throw in this important section of the song with little thought, whilst this one is equal if not better than the verse. Andy Partridge would comment that the band were musically more muscular than at any other time and worthy examples are the punchy “Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)” and “Burning With Optimism’s Flames” as the dual guitars frenetically fill out the singer’s wordy calls. The one song Partridge claims to dislike is “Sgt Rock. (Is Going To Help Me)”. It’s a pop song that’s undeniably humourous and in view of the fact that it may well have introduced new listeners to XTC is justified in its inclusion.

When a collection of songs can embrace the listener and take you on a journey where every sense is awakened in an all enveloping cloud of intrigue, innovation and adventure then “Black Sea” stands as a magnificent and truly essential example to treasure.


Track Listing
1. “Respectable Street” 3:38
2. “Generals and Majors” 4:05
3. “Living Through Another Cuba” 4:44
4. “Love at First Sight” 3:08
5. “Rocket from a Bottle” 3:30
6. “No Language in Our Lungs” 4:53
7. “Towers of London” 5:24
8. “Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)” 4:17
9. “Burning with Optimism’s Flames” 4:16
10. “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)” 3:57
11. “Travels in Nihilon” 7:04

Respectable Street

Rocket From A Bottle

Towers Of London

Burning With Optimism’s Flames

See also…

XTC – The Big Express (1984): Review

6 responses to “XTC – Black Sea (1980): Review

  1. Well put Sir. This LP is part of my dna. Not a duff song on board. Nary a duff note either. The tunes bristle with life, the band is at the peak, just before the fear and expectation dulled the live pallette. Lillywhite at the time was also the best he’d ever be, before the mid-80’s bombast took hold. I actually bought records that he produced as a bench mark of quality.
    Dave Gregory is the unsung hero here. He’s splashed all over the record. Economy of technique reigning back Partridge’s natural instinct to fill every space. Lushly recorded, his playing warms like a coal fire and glows accordingly.
    Love it.
    Kenny Badham.

  2. There’s nothing I can add Kenny, other than you’ve summed up a truly wonderful record. Every home should have this.

    • It’s noteworthy that xtc WERE able to offer this record live. I have a bootleg of the Swindon Supersonics in philadelphia and the playing is joyous and so close to lillywhite’s canvas. Too true is your observation that Towers of London is the focal point of the record. At the time I preferred generals and majors but towers has revealed it’s true majesty over time.
      And in Paul McCartney’s image, it’s a nursery tune made into a symphony. Nothing takes me to victorian England in quite the same way. You can almost smell the never never navvies.

      • XTC At The Manor. Recording Towers Of London. It’s a good documentary (sorry that the video isn’t great).

  3. Right now English Settlement has pride of place on KKEN FM and I wonder if it’s on the Hackskeptic radar for review…

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