I will admit to being really late to the party as far as XTC are concerned. It must have been 1988 when I bought one of those re-issued re-issue ‘Best of’ compilations. My dad had been in a band, who pressed a single that was given away to more people than actually purchased a copy. I’d read his lyrics that he’d kept on loose sheets of A4 in a battered old army suitcase. They were about life in the city, love, life in the city and oh yeah, love. When I first played him XTC and raved about them (“Senses working overtime”) his response was “yeah, whatever”. I longed him to write something like XTC — a song that could go from whimsical to angry in a heartbeat. He never did, but he did come into my room one evening when “Generals and Majors” was blasting out of the crappy little speakers of my hi-fi and mutter, “Quite a good one this is, son”. Thanks dad, I know. I did try to tell you.
The song starts with the military style drum beat and an understated, very English vocal style: “Generals and Majors/A-ha/They’re never too far/from battlefields so glorious”. It sucks you in to what you think is going to be a quaint little ditty along the lines of “Oh what a lovely war!” but then Colin Moulding’s lyric hits you like a SCUD missile: “Generals and Majors/always seem so unhappy unless they got a war!” before reverting back to a gentle melodic cry of “Calling Generals and Majors!” and then some nutty military whistling over angular guitars.
I can’t quite believe it only made Number 32 in the UK singles charts of 1980. Perhaps its wry look at the craziness and futility of war and those in charge was mis-timed, but the point is XTC were a band that really didn’t care. It was their art and it was for everyone else to decide if it was any good or not. They just kept doing it. And a major thanks to them for doing so and being a part of my life. This is a song that is like a frightening echo of the current round of war-mongering in the world. Never before has the lyric “Your World War III is drawing near” seemed less like a prediction and more like a news report.
(Song recommendation by Lee Thompson)