After years of trying to break into the music industry, it was only when Colin Moulding, Barry Andrews, Terry Chambers and Andy Partridge hitched their collective wagon to the passing punk movement that things started to happen for them. Opting for XTC as a suitably edgy name (edgier it should be said than Helium Kidz), they signed to Virgin Records, released a pair of modestly selling albums which were critically well received. Things were going well. Although they wrote separately, both Partridge and Moulding knew their way around a smart lyric and a memorable tune, and it was only when Andrews started campaigning for his songs to be included that tensions started to show. Oh, and they needed a hit single.
1978’s Go 2 had included a couple of Andrews’ tunes, but no hit single, and was not met with quite the same level of critical enthusiasm as their debut. Andrews jumped ship / was pushed in order to pursue a career path that left him a little creatively fulfilled, and rather than replace him with another keyboard player, Moulding and Partridge sought out someone they had wanted in their band for years. Enter Dave Gregory, ace guitar player and arranger, and apparently one of the most ego-free individuals in rock and roll.
It would be a gross simplification to claim that it was Gregory’s arrival and the musical sophistication that he brought with him that saw XTC achieve the next level of commercial success with Drums and Wires, but that’s overlooking the fact that, after years of primary songwriter Partridge trying, “Making Plans for Nigel” was the band’s first single. It just happened to be a Colin Moulding tune. That must have gone down well.
Forty years after its original release, “Making Plans for Nigel” remains one of the truly evergreen post-punk tunes, and regardless of who wrote it, it saw XTC’s stock rise. It was the obvious opener for Drums and Wires, as it saw the band demonstrate their increased musical chops, while still maintaining the angular sound of their first two albums. In fact the whole of Drums and Wires maintains the band’s instantly recognisable angular sound, despite the fact that they had moved away from the borderline chaotic sound that Andrews’ keyboards had provided on their previous albums.
Drums and Wires has much more to offer than just XTC’s breakthrough hit single. The first side of the old vinyl is one of the greatest runs of guitar pop tunes of the late 70s, while the second half of the album is a touch more experimental, with tunes like “Millions”, “Scissor Man” and “Complicated Game” seeing the band push the sonic envelope of guitar pop, while “That is the Way” slides smoothly between the band’s angular sound to something which is distinctly jazz pop.
Drums and Wires is also the album on which you can hear drummer Terry Chambers hit a new level in his playing. He’d always been a capable kit basher, but on this album, he makes his case to be considered one of the truly great post-punk drummers. The whole band are improved players on Drums and Wires, but no one more than Terry Chambers.
While there is much to enjoy on their first two albums, Drums and Wires is the first XTC album which truly hints at what they could achieve in the future. The next few years would see further hit singles (including a bunch penned by Andy Partridge – hooray!), an upward sales trajectory, before Partridge’s anxiety forced them off the road as a touring concern, leading to Chambers’ quitting the band, and plummeting sales, all while quietly becoming the best band of the 80s.