Wednesday, December 15, 2021

XTC: Stories from Vancouver, 1980, apropos of the EXTC tour

EXTC gig poster for the Rickshaw show, March 20th, courtesy Mo Tarmohamed

Doug Smith's XTC pin (see his stories of seeing the band below!)

COVID has made for some interesting musical developments. With more time at home and less opportunity to go out to shows, music fans have had to find ways to compensate for a lack of input, which for some of us has meant delving deep into bands we hadn't paid that much attention to previously. For many of us, Sparks were the undisputed winners in this category, with a timely documentary, an immense back catalogue just bursting with ripeness for people to delve into, a high-profile feature (fictional) film based on their libretto, and a delightful, fresh new studio album (A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip) AND an impending tour that will be bringing them to Vancouver for the first time, all of which laid the ground for a deep plunge, which many, many music fans besides me took. Edgar Wright deserves a lot of credit for the huge uptick of interest in the band, but the stage was well-set for him by circumstance; the only thing that could have been better for nascent Sparks fans would have been for more of their back catalogue to have been in print, though for a certain type of music fan [raises hand] having to face slight hardship to acquire a band's music - downloading notwithstanding - only makes seeking it out more rewarding and fun. Incidentally, my interview with Ron and Russell Mael, with guest interviewer David M. in tow, appears in the new Big Takeover (along with Part Two of my talk with Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers; I know Neptoon stocks the mag, locally, though they may not have the new one yet... but you can probably still buy issue 88, with part one of my Leary interview, or issue 87, with my Eric Bloom interview, or issue 86, with... what the hell did I do in issue 86? Oh yeah - David Yow Part Two, which gives you a hint of the content for Big Takeover 85, which also has part two of my Bev Davies interview... and so it goes...). 

A strong second place for me in terms of bands I've plunged into since COVID is XTC. They had long been on my radar, of course - and I've long-loved SOME of their songs, most especially Colin Moulding's "Generals and Majors," which is a kinda top-ten 1980's British pop single for me, way up there with the most creative, fun, and catchy songs of its era, ranking with the very best of Ian Dury, the Clash, the Jam, and the Specials. But much the same as I felt the first time - a few years ago - that I tried to listen to Sparks' Kimono My House, which has that one undeniably great early Sparks tune on it, when I had previously spun Black Sea, the album that my fave XTC song is on, my feeling was - "This bears investigating and is definitely full of riches, but, ummm.... not right now."

The right confluence of circumstances to plunge deep into XTC began for me a few months ago, with the announcement of the EXTC tour - with a show at the Rickshaw just five days after Sparks plays the Vogue. Of course, there's an equally delightful documentary out there (tho' requiring a bit of digging, possibly of the illicit download type, because it isn't on Showtime anymore, isn't on physical media - I don't think - and isn't streaming in Canada that I can see). The doc amply explains why the band, in 1982, stopped touring, and also interviews drummer Terry Chambers about being the member who left the band when they ceased to play live that year. While one also completely understands and sympathizes with Andy Partridge's withdrawal from the concert circuit - which does seem to have been necessary for his well-being - the excitement some of us feel at the prospect of seeing a set of classic XTC songs performed by EXTC, with Terry on kit, underscores just how important live shows can be to getting music fans aligned towards a band; because I probably wouldn't have gotten quite as enthusiastic about burying myself in XTC's back catalogue if it didn't serve as homework for catching this show. I will enjoy a tune like, for example, "Science Friction" (a very early effort, when Barry Andrews, later of Shriekback, was still in the band) if I'm not hearing it for the first time when I see it live - especially since the band interpreting it is not (one member aside) the same band... tho' what a happy coincidence that the period when Terry was in the band, the period most represented in their touring setlist, is also the period of XTC's that I enjoy the most! 

A final delightful incentive to plunge: social media, also invaluable as a source of cheerleading for and exposure to Sparks - is rife with people (ESPECIALLY among the demographic I belong to, with many of my Facebook friends being old-school Vancouver punks, now in their 50's and 60's) who actually caught XTC live during their three Vancouver appearances here, in 1980. And best of all - Bev Davies has come through with amazing photos of the band backstage at the Coliseum, when they opened for the Police. (She also has shots of them at the Commodore a few months prior, but didn't think they were anything special). 

Here's some eyewitness testimony of friends of mine on social media, talking about seeing XTC here in Vancouver. 

(L-R: Gerry-Jenn Wilson, Nardwuar, and bev davies, photo provided by Nardwuar... if you know who took this, Bev wants to know!).

1. bev davies (Toronto-to-Vancouver transplant who became one of the documenters of the vintage Vancouver punk scene)

XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission
L-to-R (I think): Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge

I took my son the the sound check at the Commodore, I could do that in those days. The drummer was checking the drums, pound pound pound for a very long time. My son who was about 11, found me and asked me how much longer was he going to do that. Just at that time the band walked on the stage and broke into "Making Plans for Nigel," one of his favourites at the time. I took no photos of the sound check though.

2. Doug Smith (alumnus of many bands, including the (Vancouver band known as) the Replacements, the Little Guitar Army, the Strugglers, and ad-libbing vocalist on the incredible Vancouver obscurity, "Hell is a Microwave," by the Subterraneans
My friend Richard and I went to the side entrance to the backstage area (we were baked) and, the gentleman watching that area (must've been in his 60s... and, possibly hating it all) asked us for our passes. Richard saw Andy Summers walking up in our direction and whinged it - saying that we were his (pointing to Andy) guests. Andy came up and he actually vouched for us before walking away from us (didn't see him backstage again).

XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

XTC were clowning around and even attempting to make a human pyramid (in the hallway outside of their dressing room near the monitor PA and, numerous guitars on racks). We watched them for a bit, telling them how much we loved them, but didn't stay long as we were 15 and paranoid.
Their set was incredible! It was the second time that I had seen The Police where I reckoned their "support" act upstaged them...and The Police were good. The 1st act was The Specials at The Gardens.

Andy Partridge was moving very angularly, and as if sparks were flying off of him. Almost as if he had no control over his limbs. Richard and I thought that they were on LSD but I later found out that he was having incredibly serious issues with his medications...

They played mostly Black Sea and Drums & Wires songs with a couple of crowd pleasers from their debut and sophomore albums.

Doug Smith on vocals with (the Vancouver) Replacements, 1980 Smilin' Buddha, photo by Mina Shum; not to be reused without permission. L-to-R Darcy (age 19), Doug (16), Casey (15); not pictured - Craig, on drums (15). "Fun fact - Darcy and Craig are brothers a la Bob and Tommy Stinson." Doug also provides a gig poster from that period, a bill that his version of the Replacements are featured on:

3. Gerhard Regier (former co-worker of mine at a Maple Ridge Rogers Video, and member of Mother, EST, Dog Skin Suit and The Pride: "We played in and around Vancouver quite a bit in the 80's. Some people might remember us.") 

Saw them in 80 at the Commodore. Very energetic. I recall that "Battery Brides" had a long hypnotic intro, but don't remember much else except I enjoyed the show.

Also saw them open for The Police. Andy did the goofy walk from "Ministry of Silly Walks" though a lot of the show.

Again very energetic and enjoyable. I even bought an XTC pin from the merch booth which I never do.

I would have been 24. My friends and I were serious music nerds. We followed the punk / new wave scene avidly ( as well as jazz, pretty much any kind of underground music and some contemporary "new music"). We formed a band called EST and played around a bit mostly at gigs at the Abbotsford Airport Armouries that we put on ourselves. We played the Smilin' Buddha once with Tim Ray and AV, who we were friendly with, to a tiny crowd.

We went to shows a couple of times a week. We saw the first Vancouver gigs of The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Jam, Wreckless Eric, The Specials, and a million others. I missed The Clash, Tom Petty, and Patti Smith but my bandmates saw them all at the Commodore.

If I gave it some thought I could name some others but there were lots of bands we saw. I am sure we saw DOA. The Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, and Young Canadians a million times and pretty much every local band at least once.

XTC was a favourite of ours for their musicianship, off kilter musical ideas and humour.

XTC poster provided by Rob Frith of Neptoon Records

4. Andy Meyers: guitar/ bass/ songwriter for the legendary Toronto punk band the Scenics, whose comp of studio recordings is currently being distro'd in BC by Jason at Supreme Echo. Note: Andy is now a Salt Spring Island resident and mastered Chris Arnett's solo album)

I saw em... 2-3-4? times in 1979 in a small club (the Edge) in Toronto. Original lineup, sitting up close. The first line up was exactly like the footage you can see from Old Grey Whistle Test on Youtube. The show felt like that it except it was hot and sweaty and an hour+ long. We really appreciated what they were doing. The type of creativity they had and how hard they hit it.

Also saw the Drums and Wires tour in a 500 seat theatre. Sitting ten feet from the stage.. Small, sweaty club... they were energized and intelligent, all those great songs from the first two albums. Not much of a 'show' per se, but givin' er. Preferred their sound with Andrews. His acidic style was a great addition.

L-R: Brad, Andy, and Ken

Note, Scenics fans, that Andy will be "doing their next vintage LP thru RaveUp in May. it covers material from 77 (7 tracks) 1980 (one track) and 2009 (2 tracks.) It's called Scenic Caves." He also has a solo project upcoming, but more on that later, I hope... 
5. Ford Pier: interviewed at length by me here; best known as a solo artist, but also a longtime collaborator with other artists locally, from DOA to Nomeansno (and more to the point, Tom Holliston). And of course he's part of the team at Red Cat Records.

Ford Pier by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

I wasn't there (I was 10) but a good story is about Barry Taylor sitting in behind the kit for XTC's soundcheck in Edmonton at the SUB theatre when YC's toured as support. Seems Terry Chambers was off meeting distant relatives for dinner or something? That's how it was told to me. Fat chance getting BT to recall what songs they played, although I visualize him playing "Helicopter" like he was born to it. Also "Knuckle Down," except it would be another two years before that song existed.

6. John Armstrong (Buck Cherry of the Modernettes, interviewed by me here). 

Saw them, remember only thinking they were some very very good musicians and that the songs made me jealous.

7. Jaime Clay (of Vancouver bands Private School and Warsaw). 

Great show at the Commodore. Andy was in top form and looking so ultra-cool in a shirt with rolled up sleeves, looking like he was getting down to some hard work - which he did. I remember trying the rolled up sleeves the next band practice, and my singer had already beat me to it!

8. Bill Mullan: Jeez, I didn't get a bio of Bill Mullan. He's a friend of my friend Dan Kibke. Nice guy, great taste in music! 

I saw the Coliseum show in 1980. It was the "concert bowl" which meant the stage was moved forward on the floor, making for maybe half the normal capacity. Even so, my takeaway for both bands was that their sound didn't quite fill the room, didn't impress my ears the way "dinosaur" outfits like Yes, Jethro Tull, Queen had in the full Coliseum. As for XTC, I didn't know their material that well going in (didn't own any albums) but I did definitely like what I heard -- emphasis on the noisier, more driven aspect of their sound. The show I was very much looking forward to a year or so later was their English Settlement tour, booked for the Commodore, then cancelled due to Andy Partridge's health problems.

9. Sharon Steele - Vancouver music fan and rock photographer extraordinaire  

(Photo provided by Sharon Steele, taken circa 1980). 

I was at the Commodore show with the Young Canadians opening, and it was one of those iconic performances that I was lucky to have seen.

I remember Andy sweating profusely and Colin not breaking a sweat. I know...and how does this matter? 

"This is Pop" and "Helicopter" were my favourites at the time, and I remember the intense facial expressions from Andy during the show.

I was 17 in 1980 almost 18 by a few days. Back then it seems that because I was tall it was easy for me to pass for 19. I got into them earlier with White Music - fave songs were..."Radios in Motion," "I’m Bugged," "This is Pop."

I somehow never got a hold of Go 2. When I bough Drums and Wires, I liked "Making Plans for Nigel," but "Helicopter," "Scissor Man" and "Complicated Game" were more my faves, probably as they were more in alignment with their first albums stylings.

XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission
L-to-R (I think): Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge

Thanks to everyone who contributed stories and photographs! Terry Chambers brings EXTC to the Rickshaw Theatre on March 20th. Read my brief email interview with Terry and EXTC vocalist Steve Tilling here. See you at the Rickshaw (I hope!). 


Unknown said...

Sparks entire ourput minus first demos(holy grail) avail. on SPOTIFY which has a free tier or 10$/month(steal) and virtually EVERYthing is on there.
Tip. I sold most of my CDs to Ditch records(about 700); dude gave me $4000. Seriously. Well worth trip to Victoria. $4000. D

Unknown said...

One more thing I hope you asked Sparks about their last gig in Vancouver. 1974 at the Gardens!

Allan MacInnis said...

Nope! I did not ask about 1974... I actually thought this was their first time here. We mostly talked about California... Ron had a story about sharing a walking path in a park with Brian Wilson... interview didn't quite go as planned but it arrived at some cool points. Lots about the Carax movie.

Ditch is great - they truly respect the CD as a format - but I have never sold anything there.

I feel about Spotify like you feel about illegal downloading: bad karma. If I'm gonna rip off artists, I'd rather steal their music flat out from fans via free file sharing, then buy it as physical media to "atone," rather than make some assholes rich so the artist gets paid fragments. But I very nearly feel like I have enough Sparks - not a completist, but I have a dozen+ of their records now, so how many more do I need?

Don't have Whomp yet, mind you.