Sunday, March 2, 2008

XTC -- "Senses Working Overtime" (1982)

I do not recall any English band since the Beatles who raised pop to an art form as much as XTC. With what can be called a rabid international cult fan base, the Swindon group certainly owe a great deal to the Fab Four's psychedelic era, yet write very biting political and utopian lyrics, with a satirical streak.

What's remarkable about XTC is that they have succeeded despite the extremely British nature and subject matter of their music. They understood the tricks of writing pop songs, the twisty kinds of things that made them stick in your head. You may even call them "gimmick," although you could never call XTC "slick." They constructed their songs as pieces of a puzzle in which you could not look away. Yes, they were quirky, but with such strong pop hook sensibilities, that they were one of those bands that made it seem effortless.

XTC has ridden a roller coaster of record sales, with their early singles and albums leading up to the incredible Black Sea album, followed by English Settlement, which contains the single I discuss today. I first heard "Senses Working Overtime" on WLIR-FM, Long Island's alternative rock and pioneering New Wave radio station. A minor chord dirge on the acoustic guitar, a booming drum like the kind you'd hear slaves rowing a ship to, and Andy Partridge's slightly-off gurgling vocals:

Hey, hey,
The clouds are whey.
There's straw for the donkeys,
And the innocents can all sleep safely,
All sleep safely.

My, my,
Sun is pie.
There's fodder for the cannons,
And the guilty ones can all sleep safely,
All sleep safely.

The song then rang out in a major key, Partridge's chiming English voice swooping in for the build up:

And all the world is football shaped,
It's just for me to kick in space
And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste

And I've got one, two, three, four, five...
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in,
I've got one, two, three, four, five...
Senses working overtime
Trying to taste the difference 'tween the lemons and limes
The pain and the pleasure and
The church bells softly chime...

The brilliant "trick" is the chorus in which the drummer snaps his snare with each count of "One two three four five!" And then the whole thing goes into the upbeat chorus, accompanied by that tambourine, the key to any good pop chorus. The video below displays the song's intricacies, including the ringing black and white Rickenbacker seen clearly in the pre-chorus.

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