My favorite 100 albums of all time: #31 ("Waxworks / Beeswax")
Waxworks and Beeswax are a double dose of angular, jumpy, frenetic pop from Swindon's XTC. This pairing captures the very best of XTC's early period, before they evolved into a more "pastoral" (and Beatlesque) sound on later albums.
Officially Waxworks: Some Singles 1977–1982 and Beeswax: Some B-Sides 1977–1982 are separate albums. However, I'm lumping them together because that's how I first found them, as a long-play cassette from Virgin released in 1982. At 25 songs, it was one hell of a score when I still chose new music based on how much I could scrape together from part-time jobs. "This album has 12 songs, but this one is the same price and it's 25 songs! Score!" I've never really thought of side two as b-sides, probably because XTC's b-sides were usually just as good as their singles – and certainly better than a lot of bands' singles.
You'll note that 1977-1982 corresponds with XTC's touring years, before the band stopped touring and being constrained by playing songs live.
"Science Friction" makes you wonder whether you've put on an album or set off an alarm, but that quickly resolves into a rough and discordant guitar bit, before settling into a fast-paced song that makes me think of an alternate reality where The Ramones and DEVO join forces. Or, perhaps, where they're spirits sitting on Andy Partridge's shoulders and neither one quite has sway. There's a lot of punk sneer here, but also a slightly "plastic" aesthetic.
"Statue of Liberty," "This is Pop," "Are You Receiving Me?" and "Life Begins at the Hop" are all damned good new wave-y pop songs. Lots of high-pitched keyboards, thumpy bass, solid drumming, and slightly dissonant guitar are your clues that this is late-70s XTC. Fun fact, the BBC apparently banned "Statue of Liberty" because it had a line about sailing under lady Liberty's skirt. One can only imagine the kind of things the Beeb is playing now without complaint.
Of all XTC's singles, the weakest (but not bad, just not as strong as the others) is "Wait Til Your Boat Goes Down." As an album cut, OK, but as a single it's just not going to burn up the charts.
"Making Plans for Nigel," on the other hand, has the proverbial "hook you could hang a side of meat on."
"Generals and Majors," "Towers of London," and "Sgt. Rock," all hail from the Black Sea album. XTC's rough edges are still there, but they've started to give in to their urges to channel their 60s influences here and there as well.
"Senses Working Overtime" is one of XTC's most successful singles, and it's easy to see why. People talk about "fine German engineering"? Well, this is fine British rock/pop that's every bit as finely honed as any machine ever has been.
As I've said, the b-sides on Beeswax are really as good as the singles, if maybe a little more quirky. "Instant Tunes," for example, is a solid song but also a bit on the silly side lyrically.
"Pulsing Pulsing" is more a draft of a song than the full song. At 1:39, it feels like it's a snippet of a larger song. I quite like it, but it feels like it might need a little more… somewhere. It ends rather abruptly.
"Blame the Weather," has a seductive bass line that I adore. "Hang On to the Night" is a frenzied piece of fun with keyboards on overdrive.
When I listen to "Tissue Tigers (The Arguers)" and "Punch and Judy" back to back I feel like somebody's having a rough time at home. Both songs are about domestic squabbling, "Punch and Judy" has a slightly slower pace and a bit of fiddling on the guitar that's pleasant. I guess the primary difference between "single" and "b-side" is whether XTC has its serious face on or not.
If you need a good wallow after a break-up, "Heaven is Paved with Broken Glass" is your buddy.
Some of these songs are pushing 40, but they feel as fresh as they did when I discovered them in the late 80s. I'd point XTC newbies to their later work, but if you've digested most of their later 80s and beyond work, then you're ready to start with the formative years.
If you've picked up all the albums but missed the b-sides, Beeswax is essential, not optional. Some of the XTC compilations pile on the home demos and other stuff that (even for me) really doesn't seem that vital. But there's not a bad track on either disc, so get to it.