187. X, “4th of July”
As a band, X were in a state of flux when they went to record their sixth album, See How We Are, which was released in 1987. They were coming off of one of the strongest commercial successes, with 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand and its hit single, “Burning House of Love” (though “hit” is a decidedly relative term in this instance). But they were also continuing the process of figuring out how to persevere as a unit following the breakup of key band members John Doe and Exene Cervenka, a situation that was only complicated by founding guitarist Billy Zoom’s decision to make his exit from the lineup. To replace Zoom, X enlisted Dave Alvin, formerly of the Blasters. As it turned out, that personnel decision had the bonus of providing X with one of their signature songs. The only track on See How We Are that is not credited to the Cervenka/Doe songwriting team is “4th of July,” which also served as the album’s lead single. The song had its genesis in a lengthy poem Alvin wrote years earlier, when he was at a particularly low point. As he later noted, the story behind its creation is “all kinda there in the lyrics of the song.” He was feeling glum about the situation he found himself in, and wrote out the sorrow. Alvin explained, “It was about a previous girlfriend and I living in a neighborhood in our hometown in South Downey. We were living in a little duplex apartment and both working day jobs and I considered myself old and done at the age of 21.” The couple was so caught up the grind of their shared day-to-day that they completely lost track of the fact that a patriotic holiday was upon them, only coming to the realization when, as the song expresses, neighbor kids who hailed from Mexico started setting off fireworks. Alvin may have gifted X a great song, but his time with the band was limited. By the time See How We Are hit record stores, he’d already moved on, vacating the lead guitarist role to Tony Gilkyson. Before 1987 was up, Alvin released his solo debut, Romeo’s Escape, featuring the opening track “4th of July.”
Advertisements for The Completion Backward Principle, the sixth album from the defiantly oddball band the Tubes, offered a promise: “This is it. Say hello to a whole new way of listening. Listen to what you’ve been waiting for. You asked for something new and we heard you loud and clear. Because when you talk, Tubes listen.” The pledge was somewhat in jest (a description that can be applied to nearly every bit of the Tubes’ output), an extension of the album’s cheeky conceptual spoofing of hollowed out business rhetoric. But there was some truth to it, as well. The Completion Backward Principle was the band’s first on Capitol Records, following a multi-album tenure with A&M that ended, at least in part, because the band’s manager, Rikki Farr, deliberately antagonized Jerry Moss, who represented the second letter in the label’s name. In their new music industry home, there was a conscious effort to pursue a less confrontational approach. Some of the more challenging aspects of the band’s notoriously raunchy live shows were cleaned up, and they sought out a producer who could give them a more mainstream sound. On the latter front, they couldn’t have made a much more surprising choice than David Foster, the former Skylark keyboardist who’d recently begun making a name for himself as a producer and songwriter through collaborations on drippy soft rock junk with the likes of Boz Scaggs and Earth, Wind, and Fire. In addition to his work as a producer on the album, Foster shared songwriting credit (as did Toto guitarist Lukather, significantly adding to the accumulation of the unlikely) on opening track “Talk to Ya Later.” The song, reportedly written over the course of two hours, detailed the extension of an expected one-night stand when the woman won’t leave, despite repeated entreaties (“Get out/ I’m telling you now/ Do you catch my drift?/ What could be plainer than this?”). Released as the record’s second single, it was a significant hit on both album rock radio and MTV, but couldn’t quite cross over, stalling out at #101 on the main Billboard chart.
There’s no doubt that Andy Partridge was the chief creative force behind XTC. While the lead singer penned the majority of the band’s songs, there was room on every album for at least a couple written by bassist Colin Moulding. On the 1980 album Black Sea, the band’s fourth studio effort, one of those songs is “Generals and Majors,” which also served as the lead single for the release. According to Moulding, the song had its genesis in his rumination on the phrase “Oh, What a Lovely War!” Made famous by the British musical of the same name, the phrase was heavy with the absurdity of those in military power structures who could term certain bloody skirmishes as inherently more noble and sterling, an easy judgment to make in the safety of a planning room far from the front. When Moulding sat down to craft the music, he played with the notion of writing a song that basically utilized just a single chord, inspired by the relative simplicity of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” When it came time to record it, the track came together fairly quickly, at least as far as the musical performances from the band. Some of the other elements proved more vexing. After Moulding suggested added a whistled melody line, it was quickly discovered that no one available could whistle the part in tune, leading to a reliance on keyboard back-up to Partridge’s heavily synthesized attempt at puffing out the jaunty lilt. The hummed portion of the song was even more of a challenge, requiring a wide-ranging hunt. Moulding recounted, “We had to get somebody from the kitchen, a guy called Step, I think. The cook from the kitchen, and my, could he hum! That part was all him.”
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.