Thursday, 9 February 2017
Oliver!: XTC - Into The Atom Age (7 March 1992)
I'm ashamed to admit that until I heard this track, I'd never knowingly listened to anything by XTC. Of course, I'd heard of them and was aware of the fact that even though they had made their name during the punk rush of 1977-78, they were much more complex and multi-layered than that. They had a keyboard player for goodness sake! It wasn't until I listened to their debut album, White Music (and how bitterly ironic a title like that sounds in 2017) that I saw just how utterly different they were from many of the other bands that made their name at the time. It's one of the key touchstones in pointing a direction that would lead to post-punk, fusing as it does the virtuosity and ambition of prog rock (a genre I have very little time for), the immediacy and fun of Glam Rock and the humour and attack of punk. There's weird key changes and time signatures, lyrical richness and even a 1977 psychedelia style cover of All Along The Watchtower. I don't acclaim it all, but it deservedly laid the foundations for the next 20 years. The level of invention on show meaning that they had the groundwork laid for their move to a studio-only collective by 1982.
Into The Atom Age though is, speed keyboard solo aside, very much leaning towards punk-pop more than many of the tracks around it. Big opening guitar chords, while a high rippling electric guitar note plays underneath. And then into a verse that's pure Buzzcocks. Lyrically, the song is a prime specimen of that fascination with everyday futurism which seemed to go out of vogue by 1985, when people realised that the futuristic 1980s meant the ZX Spectrum, but not jetpacks, teleports or three course meals in a pill. I don't think that the song has any connection to "atomic" concerns; there's no trace of nuclear fear in Andy Partridge's lyric. Well, who cares about Armageddon when, your wife is worried about coffee tables and a matching settee. It embraces the excitement of the new and current, even while inviting us to picture and pity a nuclear family obsessed with status and numbed by gadgetry and 3D porno movies. In some respects, this track makes a good companion piece with William Klein's 1977 film, The Modern Couple, in which a young couple participate in a nationally televised experiment by moving into a home of the future for a year. One half of the couple glories in the new things that they are able to enjoy which they weren't previously - kettles, cookers, irons, juicers etc. It's a film in favour of futurism, the humour coming out of the strain of essentially living under laboratory conditions. I cannot recommend the film highly enough if you can get to see it.
Of course, as fascinating as all these theories are, the real clincher has to be the "Da-de-da-da-da" refrain in the verse lines. Be warned within 48 hours, you'll be singing it under your breath wherever you go.
We can trace the fact that this record was played by Peel at 12:40am on Sunday 8 March 1992 down to the fact that he was playing as a dedication to a prisoner called Skippy, who could only listen to Radio 1 via Medium Wave, "...which would have been switched off 40 minutes ago."
Videos courtesy of seargeantrock & John Peel Archive.