At the end of the seventies Crotchety Man was writing software for the new ironworks being built for British Steel at Redcar on the north east coast of England. The music charts were a strange mix of pop and punk, either anodyne mush or raw, abrasive sounds that grated like a pumice stone rubbed over tender skin. There was almost nothing of any interest to the Man in those pre-crotchety days. Occasionally, though, a ray of light would slice through the dark sound clouds bringing hope for a sonically brighter future. One of those bright flashes was XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel.
XTC were known as a punk band but their music was too melodic and too intelligent to sit comfortably with the snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans at the core of the punk community. When they came to my attention in the early eighties they seemed to be the harbingers of a new style of music, a style that was more mature and less angry than punk but whose final shape was still uncertain. They were an intermediate form in the evolutionary tree, neither ancestral punk nor one of the new wave species that were shortly to replace them. Taking my cue from Wikipedia I’ve tagged them ‘art punk’.
During my second stint on the Redcar site posters appeared around the town advertising an XTC concert at the Coatham Bowl, the only music venue east of the big industrial town of Middlesbrough. From there you could see the gasometers and blast furnace of the ironworks across the curve of a small bay, much as it looks in the photo above. We passed close by the Bowl every day on our daily drive from our digs to the site offices where we worked and frequented the pubs a stone’s throw away in the sleepy seaside town of Redcar. This small, out of the way venue didn’t usually attract big name bands and tickets were always very reasonably priced. As concert halls go it couldn’t have been more convenient or better value for money.
I considered getting a ticket for the XTC concert for several days. I’d only heard a couple of their songs, which I liked, but they were supposed to be a punk band, which wouldn’t have been to my taste. And they might attract those snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Then, one day, I stopped and read one of the posters properly. The concert had been ten days ago!
Ever since then I’ve wondered what I missed. Yesterday I finally decided to do something about it. Doing the usual superficial online research threw up some interesting connections, but let’s get the basics out of the way first. The original members of the band were Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals), Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), Terry Chambers (drums) and Barry Andrews (keyboards). Partridge wrote about two thirds of the songs and Moulding provided the rest.
XTC was formed in 1976, signed to Virgin in 1977 and put out two albums (White Music, Go 2) before Barry Andrews left to join Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in 1979¹. Andrews was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory and the band’s material moved from punk-influenced glam rock towards a more traditional rock format. XTC’s third album, Drums and Wires, was recorded in 1979 using the services of Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham, the producer and engineer for Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work². It was this album that spawned the single, Making Plans for Nigel, which reached number 17 on the UK pop chart.
The song grabs your attention immediately with phased drums, a pulsing bass riff and guitar chords that seem to poke a punkish sneer at conventional society. When the vocals come in there is heavy irony in the words.
We’re only making plans for Nigel.
We only want what’s best for him.
That first line says it all. Nigel’s parents have his life mapped out: a steady job, marriage to a nice girl, a house in the suburbs not far from them, two lovely children for their grandparents to dote on. And when anyone asks whether their boy might have other ideas they dismiss the question with “we’re only making plans”. Nigel doesn’t have to take his parents’ advice but, of course, they know best and they would be so upset if he didn’t want their help.
He has a future in British Steel.
If young Nigel says he’s happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy in his work.
The Redcar software project was huge. It must have run for 5 or 6 years; I personally spent a total of three years there in two stints. At its peak there were nearly thirty programmers on site, mostly young, all male and all a long way from home. During that period four of our team married local girls and there were two near misses³. One of my friends left the software company to join British Steel, get married and settle in Middlesbrough.
As it turned out, a career in British Steel wouldn’t have been the well-paid comfortable job that Nigel’s parents had in mind. In the seventies the British Steel Corporation was state owned and running at a loss to provide employment in depressed areas of Britain. In 1988 the corporation was privatised and underwent radical restructuring resulting in the loss of many thousands of jobs. Although the steel industry became much more efficient market forces continued to exert severe pressure on the company and that led to a long series of site closures. The Redcar site was shut down in 2015.
Don’t tell Nigel, but a declining industry is not a happy place to be.
Notes and Miscellanies
- That’s interesting connection number 1.
- And that’s number 2.
- I was myself one of those near misses.
- For another anecdote from my Redcar days see this post.
- There’s an amusing piece about the name Nigel in this Guardian article.