“It’s ostentatious and even maddening at times, but there’s no faulting the ambition”: XTC’s The Big Express

Neglected 80s progressive pop gem gets the Steven Wilson treatment

XTC - The Big Express
(Image: © Ape House)

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In 1984, seven albums deep into their career, things weren’t quite going XTC’s way. Having been chastened by the indifference that greeted 1983’s Mummer, the Wiltshire progressive art-rockers stubbornly sought to up the ante with follow-up The Big Express, a concept record largely influenced by their home town, Swindon, and its famous railway shed, Swindon Works.

Train Running Low On Soul Coal became the spring from which the songs would flow, with chief songwriter Andy Partridge exploring his existential tribulations through the titular metaphor over a chugging, industrial sample.

It wasn’t all insular parochialism – This World Over addresses geopolitics, and in particular the oh-so-80s topic of the proliferation of nuclear warheads and the feeling that it could only be a matter of time before somebody used them (the line where the protagonist’s children ask, ‘What was London like?’ speaks volumes).

If the plan had been to get commercially back on track, then what XTC actually made was a stubbornly baroque pop album where Partridge and producer David Lord demonstrated a wilful lack of restraint. With new toys at their disposal, including a Mellotron and a full 24 tracks to play with, The Big Express feels like a labyrinthine opera with harmonic vocal passages that come off like the British answer to Brian Wilson’s then-mythical Smile album. It’s ostentatious and even maddening at times, but there’s no faulting the ambition.

Almost inevitably, the record-buying public at the time were as incurious as they had been about Mummer, but disdain also came from some quarters of XTC’s fanbase. Yet The Big Express has weathered far better than the Swindon Works that inspired it, demolished in 1986. 

Nearly 40 years on, the album teems with invention and surprises: Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her is a swirly, psychedelic trip to the seaside where madness can be purchased almost as easily as a bucket and spade. I Bought Myself A Liarbird and Shake You Donkey Up are emphatically, naggingly insistent, the latter hypertrophying on 5/4 tangents that prove irresistible, despite their complexity.

This is XTC in excelsis, for those who can handle such a riotous melodic imposition. Steven Wilson’s mixes arrive on CD a year after The Big Express was reissued on vinyl, and his steady hand brings some much-needed clarity to an album brimming over with ideas. It’s as though it was made for 5.1 Surround Dolby Atmos three decades before the technology even existed.

The Big Express is available now via Ape House.