For reasons I’ve never been able to adequately explain, the majority of my favourite musicians have never achieved the level of success that their talent deserved, instead achieving artistic integrity while other, lesser talents, enjoyed far bigger commercial success and radio play. Super Furry Animals, Eels, Cud, are all bands that deserved to be much much bigger than they were, but it has been far less interesting acts that have enjoyed mega-selling albums and fame at a time that they did their best work. There is one band though whose minimal commercial success was inverse to their peerless recorded output, who during a period when the likes of The Police, The Smiths and U2 were releasing their most celebrated albums and soulless synthetic production methods blighted countless acts, released a string of compelling albums that continue to stand up to scrutiny in the same manner that only the most enduring cultural icons have.
That band is XTC.
The year was 1972. The place, Swindon. Guitar player Andy Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding formed the core duo that would sustain XTC for the next three decades, however before they settled on a name and image, they flirted with glam rock, dabbled with progressive rock and experimented with some truly terrible band names. Drummer Terry Chambers had joined them in 1973 and the final piece of the jigsaw was keyboard player Barry Andrews, who joined in 1976 just before they named themselves XTC.
Signing to Virgin records at a time when record labels were signing anyone who they could even vaguely pigeonhole as punk, XTC had a vaguely geeky image and made allusions to comic strips and science fiction in their jagged stage act. Partridge was the frontman and primary songwriter, though Moulding would be the primary vocalist on his own compositions, Chambers was a dynamic no thrills drummer and Andrews was the barely-controllable demented keyboard wizard. Sure, beyond their grasp of pop dynamics and the contrast of characters between the four individual band members, there was nothing obviously unique about XTC to make them stand out from the punk hoards, but by early 1978 they had released their debut album, White Music, and they were up and running.
As a debut album, White Music finds XTC as relatively fresh-faced youngsters. They make simple slip ups and errors of judgement, but they also had the nerve to stick their neck out and take a few more risks than your average punk band (Let’s face it, while Jimi Hendrix may have done the most famous cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, XTC’s is much more interesting). White Music is the sound of a band finding their way, with their career path in front of them not entirely clear, but forging ahead with enthusiastic naivety and a bounce in their step. It’s not the greatest album ever made, but it was a start and even at this early stage, they were different enough to stand out from their peers.
Follow up Go 2 found Andrews playing an ever more prominent role in the band’s sound and on stage, possibly much to band leader Partridge’s annoyance. As an album, it’s not got the pop dynamics of their debut, but it’s not a disaster by any means as it finds them making some tentative steps away from the punk mainstream. Writing duties were split in Partridge’s favour, with seven songs on the album penned by him alone, with Moulding having four tracks featured and Andrews having two. While there are some questionable lapses in taste, particularly the Andrews’ penned “My Weapon”, Go 2 gave notice that XTC wouldn’t disappear when the Punk movement lost steam.
Go 2 would be Andrews’ last album with XTC. The split was vaguely acrimonious, but it would allow XTC to evolve into a far more interesting band and Andrews would go on to make his own mark on the musical tapestry of the last few decades.
Power Pop and Beyond
Drums And Wires was a huge step forward in terms of sound and style for XTC. They had lost anti-star keyboard player Barry Andrews and replaced him with (gasp!) a proper musician, in the unassuming shape of retro-obsessed guitar player Dave Gregory. The sound had significantly tightened up, becoming more guitar based and considerably more rhythmic, with Colin Moulding’s deceptively complex bass playing and Terry Chamber’s drumming propelling the whole album forward. On top of this relentless rhythm were jagged riffs from Partridge and Gregory bouncing around as XTC confirmed that they were the country’s premier geeky post-punk power-pop group. Moulding’s songwriting had also improved dramatically, with no less than five songs present on the Drums And Wires .
At the end of the day though XTC was still Andy Partridge’s baby and he pens the less commercial and more weighty material here. The contrast between Moulding’s approachable and commercial songs and Partridge’s more complex musings makes Drums And Wires sound a little lopsided in places, but it’s still one of the best of their early albums and is to date the only XTC album that mentions Ian Anderson in the credits (during the recording sessions for the album Jethro Tull’s dictator popped his head around the studio door and ever so politely asked for them to turn the noise down. Partridge apparently insisted that Anderson be mentioned in the credits as a mark of respect from one musical dictator to another).
XTC’s first album of the 80s was Black Sea, which wasn’t a huge leap forward from Drums and Wires released the previous year, but it did mark a steady improvement in the skills of primary songwriter Partridge and the musical skills of the band as a whole.
Black Sea is arguably XTC’s greatest power-pop album and where they started to consistently deliver on their early promise. While it isn’t so much of an obvious influence on Future Dogs Die in Kaiser Ferdinand’s Hot Hot Car Party as Drums And Wires was, it’s arguably the better album, as it finds XTC expand their musical range even further. It was obvious that Virgin were trying to push the band as chart contenders, with five of the eleven original tracks were released as singles in different parts of the world, with the simplest of the five “Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” giving XTC their biggest hit to date at home. The other six tracks aren’t exactly filler either, with “Living Through Another Cuba” and “Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)” being particularly strong. Best of all though is the album closer, the spectacular “Travels In Nihilon” where the tribal drumming of Terry Chambers making it sound for all the world like a viking invasion.
Actually much of Black Sea’s success can be credited to Chamber’s drumming. Listening to the album now, it’s obvious how vital he was to the sound of the early XTC albums and he is in particularly fine form here. This was probably the height of the Chambers / Moulding rhythm section, as they became more supple and expressive than they had previously, yet still retained their formidable power.
With Black Sea XTC had perfected geeky power-pop. Their next move would be interesting.
English Settlement comes galloping over the horizon towards you until it engulfs you in sound. This is “Runaways” and it opens XTC’s first double album. After perfecting geeky power-pop with Black Sea, XTC headed for lusher and more diverse territories and English Settlement finds them drawing ever more influences from the green and pleasant land that they called home and ensuring that this album sounds organic, loamy even.
Having broken his hit single duck, Andy Partridge penned a series of potential hit singles for this album and one of them, the wonderful “Senses Working Overtime” became the one and only top ten hit for the band. Colin Moulding also provided four strong tunes, the best of which “Ball And Chain” was also released as a single. It was Partridge that was on a roll though, with great songs like “Yacht Dance”, “Jason And The Argonauts” and the elegant “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)”. My personal favourite is closing track “Snowman”, a tasty metaphor and a smart examination of a relationship that has turned inexplicably frosty.
Such inspiration came at a cost though as several of the songs are a little too long and would have benefited from some well chosen edits to make them a more pleasurable listening experience. As it happens most of these tracks are in the second half of the album, which means that it does drag a little towards the end until the whole thing is pulled back together and finished perfectly with “Snowman”.
Although not an all out success, English Settlement proved that there was a lot more to XTC than wiry power-pop and angular riffs and it was a vital album in the band’s development and it remains a significantly more enjoyable listen than anything that the likes of more successful bands were putting out at the time.
The Wilderness Years
After the loamy textures of English Settlement, XTC had to quit touring due to Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright. This would have an obvious and major effect on the future of the band, both in terms of sound and income, as the band would now only make money through album sales and airplay. With Partridge and Moulding being the only songwriters in the band, it meant that Chambers and Gregory’s income from the band was going to be significantly reduced. Having loved touring, Chambers (always XTC’s most ‘rock ‘n’ roll member) quit the band, leaving the band without the formidable engine room that they had previously relied on.
The lack of Chambers, Partridge’s self-confessed ‘mental-breakdown’ and a feeling of genuine frailty meant that Mummer was going to be XTC’s softest album to date. The three singles taken from the album, the soft and pretty “Wonderland”, the pastoral splendour of “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” and the compelling “Great Fire” failed to chart highly, despite being easily the best songs on the album. These three songs are cleared in the first four tracks of this album, leaving the rest of it to slip into a strange twilight zone of reasonably good songs that just fail to hold the listeners attention. There are a few moments when you are jolted out of restful slumber, as “Deliver Us From The Elements” is a strong contribution from Colin Moulding and the closing “Funk Pop A Roll” is a clumsy attempt at pop.
Mummer is one of those albums that the XTC fan will want to investigate as it is one of those that mark the transition between the power-pop of Black Sea and the artistic peak of Skylarking, however it really should be one of your lower priority XTC purchases.
After the slightly limp offering that was the disappointing Mummer, XTC took a long hard look at themselves and decided to make the most of their Britishness and particularly their Swindonian origins. Swindon is an industrial town, therefore their next album had to reflect this and as such The Big Express is the most mechanical sounding of all XTC’s albums.
The Big Express is a considerably louder and more potent album than Mummer and saw XTC taking risks with stuff like Linn drum machines and backing singers. Once again the singles are the best tracks on it, with “Wake Up” being a jumpy call-to-arms and “This World Over” being the softest and most comfortable listen on the album. In addition to these two strong additions to XTC’s catalogue of near-miss singles, there’s also “All You Pretty Girls”, one of my all time favourite XTC songs and the highpoint of the album. That’s not to say that the rest of the album is filler, as there are some gloriously rhythmic moments to be found when you ride The Big Express, such as the oddly upbeat “Shake Your Donkey Up” and the description defying “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her”.
The things is that the use of the Linn drum machine created a rigid and occasionally unforgiving sound, which is slightly at odds with the organic and fresh sounds that XTC usually produce. The tracks that are easiest on the ears are those that Pete Phipps drummed on while Dave Gregory spent hours screaming in frustration at the drum machine he had been left to programme. That said XTC made a better job of assimilating this knew technology into their music than many other acts.
At the end of the day The Big Express is a curio in XTC’s history. It wasn’t an artistic failure as such and a lot of the songs work very well, however after this album their music improved immeasurably, leaving The Big Express sitting rather glumly with Mummer as the XTC albums in my collection that don’t get played very often.
Through the early 80s, it was obvious that XTC were on the cusp of something unique and really rather special. At a time when horrible synthetic sounds and empty gestures held sway, they provided something that was emotionally genuine and grounded in human nature. 1986 saw the band at a crossroads though. Commercially they’d just about fallen off the map and they were about as far away from critics darlings The Smiths and commercial behemoths U2 as it was possible to get within a guitar band format. They needed something significant to reverse their fortunes.
It starts with some chirruping insects, a psychedelic swirl of melodica and you are swept along with the current. You are a very lucky listener, you are listening to Skylarking, one of the best albums of all time, the finest album of the 80s and XTC’s towering achievement. As the glorious warmth of “Summer’s Cauldron” comes to an end, one of the greatest and most uplifting segues in music history takes place when the strings of “Grass” burst through between your toes and up to your ears. The insects are still chirruping and the world is good.
After the commercial failure of The Big Express it had genuinely looked like XTC were all washed up. On the brink of falling into the critical and commercial abyss both Partridge and Moulding hit a particularly productive streak and had the making of a great album. American record label Geffen demanded a hit and had sent over a list of possible producers and the only one that band dictator Partridge recognised was production and power pop genius Todd Rundgren. Demo tapes were then sent to Rundgren, who then took matters into his own hands, discarded much of the material and formed what remained into a loose concept album. It was a genius decision, although Partridge was incensed that liberties had been taken with his previously untouchable creative veto. After months of work, for much of which Rundgren and Partridge were at each others throats, Skylarking was revealed to be XTC’s masterpiece but Partridge refused to ever walk with Rundgren again and hated the resulting album. It barely charted.
Skylarking was a creative, not a commercial success and despite the experience being apparently a grim one for everyone concerned, it has now been accepted as XTC’s finest album. Rundgren’s production smarts and XTC’s innate talent produced an album of staggering brilliance. Every song here is vital to the album and not one of them dips below being superb, with each one floating out of the speakers without giving you time to catch your breath and often being linked by toe-curlingly good segues like the one between “Ballet For A Rainy Day” and “1000 Umbrellas”.
The songs themselves are just brilliant. “Earn Enough For Us” goes on to express the money worries of the working class man and his future wife to a shimmering guitar-pop tune, “Another Satellite” is a slow burning kiss-off to someone whose romantic intentions you are trying to shake off, “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a journey of self discovery and “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a smouldering pagan ritual to end the album. Or it would have done were it not for the song that can split XTC fans down the middle. “Dear God” was originally a B-side, however it was picked up on American college radio and gained extensive airplay, prompting Geffen to reprint the album with “Dear God” taking the place of the pretty “Mermaid Smiled” and destroying the concept of the album. On recent reissues it is put where it sounds best, at the end of the album, the conceptual ‘end of the day’ after the sun has set, where it fits in well as a private conversation with God before your head is put down to sleep.
Almost three decades later, Skylarking remains a stunning musical statement and an impossibly perfect album from a time when this type of thing just wasn’t done. It’s human, it has a pulse, it’s brimming with brilliance and makes you grin like an idiot. It sends a message from the edge of the abyss that confirms to you that you are alive and no matter what life throws at you, there are still moments of joy to be had.
After the astounding artistic success of the knee-weakeningly brilliant Skylarking, XTC had to prove that the album hadn’t been a freak success which could be put down to the input of Todd Rundgren. An alternative producer in tow, our heroes recorded an album of vaguely psychedelic individual guitar tunes that were significantly different from the material on Skylarking, yet maintained the high quality of that album.
Many people mention the pop production of this album being a negative aspect of the album, but to me it suits the music and when you compare it to other albums recorded that year, it really hasn’t dated that badly. XTC had written an album of bright, fizzy songs, so it only followed that it required a bright, fizzy production job.
After the healthy sales of Skylarking in the USA (solely down to “Dear God”), XTC found a new level of confidence and this positivity bled through to some of the songs on Oranges & Lemons, such as “Garden Of Earthly Delights”, “King For A Day” and “Pink Thing”. There was still time for self doubt though, as the fantastic duo of “Merely A Man” and “Cynical Days” proved.
Oranges & Lemons also betrayed the fact that XTC had found new levels of confidence in their musical abilities, particularly Colin Moulding’s surprisingly complex bass lines throughout the album and Dave Gregory’s uncharacteristic guitar-heroics, which reached a pinnacle with the obvious solo during the joyous “The Loving”. Combined with some of Partridge’s career-best songwriting, all these elements combined to re-establish XTC on the album charts for the first time in years. The album is full of accessible tunes and smart guitar pop music, but for me the best track is “Mayor Of Simpleton” which featured an insanely brilliant bass line by Moulding (you can keep your math-rockers, Moulding managed to outplay them all within the confines of a four minute pop song) and a great set of lyrics from Partridge.
Oranges & Lemons had re-established XTC as a commercially viable act as the 90s dawned and it seemed obvious to all in the music industry that they would be big players in the new decade. Nonsuch was a brilliant statement of intent, kicking off with one of their finest pop songs in “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” and one of the best hit singles the 90s never had.
If Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons were the sound of XTC finding their way back to commercial acceptance, Nonsuch was the culmination of it. It’s one of their strongest albums, yet is often overlooked by the tastemakers these days in favour of their angular early albums and Skylarking. Listening to it now, it’s a demonstration of just what a diverse band XTC were, from the guitar pop of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” and “Dear Madam Barnum”, to more reflective material like “Holly up on Poppy” and “Rook” to the angry (but mature about it) “War Dance”and “The Ugly Underneath”. Best of all for me though are “The Disappointed” one of the great songs dealing with a broken heart, “Then She Appeared”, a head-spinningly optimistic song of new-found love and “Wrapped in Grey”, one of Partridge’s most genuinely moving songs and a call to creative arms for the more sensitive souls in this world.
Nonsuch found both Moulding and Partridge at the top of their game in terms of their peerless songwriting and Gregory was in demand as producer and side man for all manner of acts. The 90s were XTC’s for the taking.
Then they went on strike…
During XTC’s attempts to renegotiate their deal with Virgin, they ended up in a stand off. Despite being one of the longest-tenured bands on the label, and undergoing a steady commercial renaissance, Virgin refused to offer them a more favourable deal, so the band downed-tools. For seven years.
Except it wasn’t as black and white as that. Obviously Moulding and Partridge continued to write songs, they just didn’t present them to Virgin or record them. Instead they built up a stockpile of songs while they awaited Virgin to tire of the situation and release them from their restrictive contract. When Virgin finally did release them from contract, they set about recording the very best of these songs.
When Apple Venus was finally released in 1999, a three things were obvious. It was obviously one of the best albums XTC had ever recorded – lush, orchestral and easily one of the best sounding albums they’d ever released. Secondly, the extended creative lay-off had not had a negative effect on the songwriting skills of either Partridge or Moulding. From Partridge’s arresting opener “River of Orchids” to the mean-spirited and simmering anger of “Your Dictionary”, he was still an amazing songwriter and Moulding’s two offerings “Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut” demonstrated that he had mastered the art of balancing comfortable domestic middle-age and songwriting in an entirely unique way.
The third thing was the most crucial though. Dave Gregory, despite being a member of the band for twenty years, didn’t make much money from it and was getting tempting offers from elsewhere. As the recording sessions for XTC’s first album in seven years commenced, he didn’t agree with the more orchestrated sound and wanted to record more guitar-heavy material. Rather than disrupt the most crucial recording sessions of the band’s career, he simply left the band with the minimum of fuss. Despite this vast hole in their creative armoury, Moulding and Partridge soldiered on as a duo and Gregory received a modest credit on the album.
Ironically XTC’s next album would be their most guitar-heavy to date. Wasp Star (aka Apple Venus Part II), was an unashamed celebration of guitar pop and while not all the material was as strong as that on the previous album, it showed that XTC still had it in them to be a great rock band. “Stupidly Happy” and “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love” may be deceptively simple, but they’re still cracking guitar-pop songs and “In Another Life” and “You and the Clouds Will Still be Beautiful” are oddly romantic in their own way.
Word was that Partridge’s original idea was that both Apple Venus albums should be released together as a double album, with the orchestral and guitar material mixed together. When this idea was put aside on cost grounds, Apple Venus was the priority due to its complexity and it’s unique sound. Arguably if they’d returned with the straight guitar-rock of Wasp Star, Gregory may not have left the band at that point, but the album may not have caught the ear like Apple Venus did and they would have returned with a whimper rather than catching the attention of so many of their old fans in the way that they did.
There was this other band too…
In 1985 an EP snuck out by a band called The Dukes of Stratosphear, which harked back to the heady days of the first wave of garage-psychedelia. It created a moderate stir at the time, sold healthily without actually charting. A couple of years later the same band popped up to release an album called Psonic Psunspot, which was a more lush and less raw exploration of psychedelics.
Shortly after the release of Psonic Psunspot it was combined on CD with the 25 O’Clock EP on a compilation album called Chips from the Chocolate Fireball and unless you particularly want the expensively packaged individual reissues that were put out a few years ago, it’s the cheapest way to acquire both releases.
It’s the material from 25 O’Clock which really seduces the ear, being a six-track whistle-stop tour through psychedelia, taking in such diverse influences as Pink Floyd, The Move and The Electric Prunes. Oh and The Beatles. A bit.
The best tracks from 25 O’Clock are from the pen of Sir John Johns, with the single song by The Red Curtain being little more than filler in such exalted company as the title track, “My Love Explodes”, “Your Gold Dress” and the legendary “The Mole From The Ministry”. All in all 25 O’Clock is the equivalent of locking the legendary Nuggets compilation in your shed. Then blowing it up.
After such lofty heights, the Psonic Psunspot album is inevitably a mellower and less adventurous affair, though it does have the benefit of being thematically linked by acid fried nonsense phrases by one Lily Fraser. On Psonic Psunspot the fluid and languid guitar work of Lord Cornelius Plum is utilised more fully, as the album relied less on simple riffs and more on the lacquered sound provided by LCP.
If anything Psonic Psunspot is a more mature and tamer work than 25 O’Clock , but that does not mean that it is not a great album – it is. Undoubtedly so. The lyrics are once again miniature works of wonder, with The Red Curtain proving an equal talent to the more celebrated Sir John Johns and as established on 25 O’Clock, E I E I Owen proves to be one of the great unfussy and solid drummers ever captured on record.
Of course it was XTC all along, but The Dukes of Stratosphear allowed them to re-charge their creative batteries and arguably paved the way for their return to form in the second half of the 80s.
There have been a few XTC compilation albums available over the years. Both Waxworks and The Compact XTC are solid selections that highlight the angular guitar years and the latter follows them as they come to terms with being a studio-based act.
The best compilation available these days is Fossil Fuel, an double CD selection released by Virgin while the band were in dispute with them. In this case Virgin did the decent thing for the band’s fans 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 the band’s career up until the stalemate with Virgin, from their wiry and angular post-punk beginnings, through the power-pop years, into the 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 of XTC’s albums) and it still has space for the B-side “Dear God”, 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 their angular guitar driven days until Andy Partridge’s nervous breakdown which meant that XTC ceased touring. Disc 2 covers their transition from pastoral rockers through to the smart pop of Nonsuch. Which do I prefer? 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 slip ups as far as their albums were concerned, so their improvement cannot be plotted in a smooth curve, but the declines have been minimal and the inclines have been dramatic.
Over the course of their long and often confusing career XTC recorded ten albums for Virgin and each one has its own character, which means finding the right studio album as your introduction to the band can be a minefield. Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992 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.
For those with deeper pockets and long established fans, Virgin released the Coat of Many Cupboards boxed set, which serves as an alternative history of XTC, and is the only XTC compilation that acknowledges that they were also The Dukes of Stratosphear. It’s not so easy to track down these days, but it’s a worthwhile investment for the fan who has everything else.
XTC spluttered to an end sometime in the first few years of this century. No one seems particularly sure when, not even Partridge and Moulding. Partridge has gone on to develop a cottage industry selling exquisitely packaged compilation albums of demos of his XTC songs, an exercise which Moulding avoided as he didn’t like the idea of de-mystifying the creative process, something which I’m inclined to agree with. In more recent years Andy Partridge has collaborated with various artists, but released little under his own name, though it’s notable that twenty years after their grumpy split, he recorded an album with Barry Andrews. Partridge has more recently been putting his efforts into limited editions of gorgeously packaged reissues of XTC albums, though to date only Skylarking and the two The Dukes of Stratosphear releases have hit the shelves.
As for Colin Moulding, he seemed to abandon music for a few years following the dissolving of his creative partnership with Partridge in favour making stained glass, though he has made a special guest appearance on a number of albums by various artists over the years.
Dave Gregory has remained a relatively in demand session player since leaving XTC and has even appeared on stage with, of all bands, Marillion.
While XTC may never have achieved the commercial success they truly deserved, they actually had a far reaching influence on more music than you’d expect and each of their albums has something to recommend it, leaving them as one of the few bands that continued to improve as their career progressed.
(note: apologies for the lack of Apple Venus material on the playlist – it just isn’t available on Spotify)