It is the mid-90s, you are the Virgin record label, you have been in dispute with one of your best acts for years and there seems to be no end in the deadlock. The act in question has never sold that many albums, but they have a small and incredibly loyal fanbase, and contemporary pop and rock trends owe a lot to the act’s past output. Fans old and new are crying out for a new release, and there’s a market for a decent intro to the band. What do you do?
In this case Virgin did the decent thing and compiled all of XTC’s singles, including the one that Virgin themselves pulled, put them all in chronological order and released them as Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992, thus creating one of the best two disc retrospectives in the history of recorded music.
Fossil Fuel covers XTC’s career up until their early 90s stalemate with Virgin, from their wiry and angular post-punk beginnings, through the power-pop years, into the more pastoral rock years, the idiosyncratic pop years, and then to their ultimate goal as mature pop rockers. 31 singles, many of which are different to the album versions of the same songs. Some of the stand-alone singles had never been on an album previous to this (but all have since been included via the 2001 reissue campaign of XTC’s albums) and it still has space for “Dear God”, the b-side which had single handedly revived the band’s fortunes in the USA, which in turn had convinced their record label to keep them on the rosta.
Disc 1 covers XTC’s angular guitar driven days until Andy Partridge’s nervous breakdown which meant that they ceased to be a touring act. Disc 2 covers their transition from pastoral rockers through to the smart pop of Nonsuch. Which is best? In truth it’s almost impossible to choose between them, because XTC are that rare thing, a band that actually continually got better over time. Sure there were albums which required a little more digesting than others, so their improvement cannot be plotted in a smooth curve, but the few declines have been minimised and the inclines have been dramatic.
It was, and still is, all too easy to underestimate XTC. On the surface they were a standard four piece guitar orientated group, but what they managed to achieve with rhythm and melody within the four piece format is quite remarkable, and for all their stylistic diversity, they were never anything less than instantly recognisable as XTC to their fans. One of the major things that shines through on Fossil Fuel is just how adaptable XTC were, from angular riffing, to melody, to power pop, they could pretty much do anything they set their mind to. Sure, there was a distinct shift in sound with the departure of keyboard player Barry Andrews and the introduction of guitar player and general arrangement genius Dave Gregory, but throughout it all the individual song writing talents of Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge were never in doubt. Moulding, although seemingly less prolific than Partridge, wrote many of the songs that would be selected as singles, whereas Partridge would often have a greater influence on XTC’s overall creative direction.
In regards to song craft, XTC are among the finest purveyors of the guitar pop song. From early gems like “This is Pop” and “Making Plans for Nigel”, via more mature material like “Senses Working Overtime”, “Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down” and “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages”, and ultimately on to the head-spinning brilliance of “The Mayor of Simpleton”, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” and “The Disappointed”, few have ever managed to maintain a stretch of brilliance than ran so long or so wide. Oddly, the only album not represented so well, is their 1986 masterpiece, Skylarking, though inevitably Fossil Fuel will do such a good job of convincing you of XTC’s genius, that you will inevitably investigate it at some point, and it will be a revelation.
Over the course of their long, and sometimes disorientating, career XTC recorded a grand total of ten albums for Virgin (and that’s not including their Dukes of Stratosphear alter-ego), and each one has its own distinct character, which means that finding the right studio album as your introduction to the band can be a minefield. Fossil Fuel allows you to neatly sidestep this problem as it accurately represents every stage of their career, allowing you to discover different albums as you feel necessary, without you blowing money on an album that may not appeal to your tastes.
Much like XTC themselves, on the surface Fossil Fuel doesn’t do anything that your standard two disc compilation doesn’t do, however after a little while you come to the inescapable realisation that it does it far, far better, and as a result it is simply one of the great compilations of all time.