Our man, Chris Merriman charts the path trod by one of the most consistent and original bands in popular music. From New Wave to quintessential English Pop to Indie via the avant-garde, they were accused of not being aware of their commercial opportunities, luckily this did not phase XTC, it only left them to their own delious devices, just as well
Swindon, England 1975. XTC are taking to the stage for the first time. Although veterans of the local music scene, not least with their original incarnation Star Park and their later glam-tinged reinvention, Helium Kidz, this is the real beginning of our story – the story of the most consistently inventive bands of the past three decades, and yet also one of the most consistently plagued upon and troubled.
The original core of the group, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and Terry Chambers, took the name from a line in a Jimmy Durante movie (though with a touch of phonetic spelling). On becoming XTC, they were joined by keyboardist John Perkins. The latter’s stay with the group was short, and by the time that they were invited to audition for CBS Records in early 76, he had been replaced by Barry Andrews. The session led to a recall in May of that year, and it looked like the good times were about to roll for the Swindon stalwarts, but the second audition yielded nothing, and discouraged, but un-beaten, they returned to the chalk hills. Some material from those early demos has resurfaced on the new box set.
Their frustration, however, was short-lived, after John Peel received an intriguing flyer through the post later that year. Promising “Twilight! Insects! Iron! Lust! and Rays!!” it was enough to get the group their first national exposure in the form of a Radio 1 Peel session. Suddenly, the empty promise of the CBS auditions was forgotten as a gaggle of A&R men fought to sign up the group, in a flurry of passion for guitar-heavy bands. Punk was ever-present – New Wave doubly so. Pye, Decca and renewed interest from those that had previously spurned them, all lost out to a deal with Virgin, relative newcomers to the industry that promised to provide them with the holy grail – freedom to create. The first fruits of the union came in October, 1977, with the ’3-D EP’ -a dazzling debut with John Leckie (later to work with the likes of the Stone Roses and Radiohead) at the controls. The lead track, ‘Science Friction’, demonstrated the pop sensibilities that would stand them in good stead over the coming years, while ‘She’s So Square’ realised Partridge’s dream “to make a record in the style of and of the calibre of Be-Bop Deluxe’s ‘Maid In Heaven’.”
With acclaim ringing in their ears, it took the group (and Leckie) a mere week to create ‘White Music’, the group’s first LP. Immediately, the industry was forced to realise that this was more than just another product of the New Wave. This was something else. Something special. The album peaked at 38 in the UK, and spawned 2 further singles, ‘Statue Of Liberty’ and a two-fingered salute which asked ‘What do you call that noise that you put on/THIS is POP!’ with an inoffensive arrogance echoed by Adam Ant’s statement two years later, that “That music’s lost its taste…”. ‘White Music’s’ biggest achievement, however, was that it gained XTC a place on the first European tour by the fledgling Talking Heads, exposing them to an ever-increasing audience.
Their position established, Partridge & Co. retreated to the studio to produce ‘Go2′. Respecting Brian Eno’s flourishing reputation as a producer for groups like Roxy Music, they approached him to step into Leckie’s shoes. He declined in the most flattering way possible, suggesting that they should do it themselves. However, the Eno influence ran like a rash through the new recordings, not least in the form of the ambitious ‘Go +’, a dub-heavy, experimental second disc which allowed the group to explore less commercial avenues. After all, even pop outfits need a change! ‘Go2′ showed better than its predecessor, hitting 21 in the UK album chart, but while later reissues would include the single, ’Are You Receiving Me’, the album in its original form was devoid of such cuts.
In the aftermath of ‘Go2′, Barry Andrews dropped a bombshell. Internal tensions within the band (all water under the bridge of course) had taken their toll. He was leaving the group to appear alongside Robert Fripp in The League Of Gentlemen, and later still, in Shreikback. Frantic auditioning followed to find a replacement, applicants including a certain Thomas Dolby, who was eventually rejected in favour of Swindon local Dave Gregory. It was a watershed moment for the band. Future recordings saw them shed the Wire-esque spikiness of the first two albums in favour of the rich pop epics that we know and love today. The first of these was the infectious ‘Life Begins At The Hop’; a precursor to the ‘Drums & Wires’ album released in the summer of 1979 that gained XTC their first singles chart placing. Number 54 is a long way from number one – but it was the start they needed. The aforementioned album fared slightly less well (comparatively speaking), reaching a ‘mere’ 34. But the greatest triumph of the period followed, when Moulding’s hypnotic and unnerving ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ finally saw the group hit pay dirt, with a Top 20 single. After a few further cuts, ‘Mr’ Partridge (as he billed himself) took the opportunity at the dawn of the new decade to embark on a solo album, ‘Take Away (The Lure of Salvage)’, returning to the dub and discord of ‘Go+’. (The two projects would eventually be united on a CD compilation, ‘Explode Together’). Meanwhile, Thomas Dolby continued his links with the group, as Partridge offered to produce his early solo waxings ‘Urges’, ‘Leipzig’ and ‘Puppet Theatre’.
Meanwhile, the group’s next single, ‘Generals And Majors’ (an encouraging sign of what was to come), acted as a curtain raiser to September’s ‘Black Sea’ album. For the first time, an XTC LP made the US charts, and as their notoriety grew, radio became awash with singles – ‘Sergeant Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’ saw them gleefully miming on Top Of The Pops, but ‘Respectable Street’ proved calamitous after a BBC executive had the record banned – objecting to some of the lyrics.
It was the last thing that they needed – their grip on fame, although still firm, was starting to slip. The only solution? Tour like hell! So they did.
On returning, ‘Senses Working Overtime’ became the group’s biggest hit to date reaching the UK Top 10 – more TV, more tours, a solid album ‘English Settlement’, then came the most tumultuous event in the group’s history.
Twice in less than a month, Partridge collapsed mid-gig. Officially, the two events were blamed on exhaustion and a stomach ulcer, respectively, but the truth was far simpler. Partridge hated touring. Finally the stage fright that had been plaguing him since the beginning of his career had become too big a cross to bear. A US tour was cancelled after one gig, and one sound check. XTC have never played a live show since. And it very nearly destroyed the band. Instead of building on the success of ‘Senses…’, ‘Ball And Chain’ showed poorly, the tragically under-rated ‘No Thugs In Our House’ more so.
‘Waxworks’, the first of what was to be many XTC retrospectives, attracted little interest in the Christmas market – despite being packaged in a gatefold sleeve along with a collection of B-sides, entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Beeswax’. Also showing little interest was Chambers, who parted from the group at around this time, emigrating to the USA. It seemed like the beginning of the middle of the end. The band started recording again almost immediately; recruiting Peter Phippes instead of the erstwhile Andrews, but Virgin rejected their efforts. A stopgap single, ‘Great Fire’, failed to chart. ‘Wonderland’ faired even worse. By the summer, the group finally had an album accepted for release – but it was to be a hollow victory, with the band refusing to play to promote the release, and the record company seemingly sceptical of throwing good money after bad. The public responded in kind, and ‘Mummer’ charted at 51. After one last cut (the we-can-all-be-wise-in-hindsight-tastic ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’), the group began a twelve month silence broken only by a low profile release, ‘Thanks For Christmas’ recorded under the moniker of ‘Three Wise Men’.
A change in producer was the next thing. David Lord took the band’s next album, ‘The Big Express’, in a completely different direction. This was the era of electronics – the possibilities offered by Fairlights and Linn Drums took the music into a highly accessible and highly polished direction. But to no avail. ‘All You Pretty Girls’ failed to justify the ever-increasing costs attached to XTC releases; lavish videos offsetting the lack of live footage, receiving little air-play. Number 55 was to be their last UK chart placing for five years. ‘Wake Up’, with its syncopated dual guitar riff, despite being their most intriguing work to date, was sadly given virtually no exposure. ‘This World Over’ went unnoticed. It was time for a radical re-think.
April Fools Day, 1985, saw Virgin release an album from a new psychedelic revivalist outfit. The Dukes of Stratosphear were caught between The Rutles and The Beatles and ’25 O’clock’ was awash with swirling guitars and tripped out lyrics. But there was something familiar about the group’s members. Could that possibly be Colin Moulding sporting a silly hat? XTC had found that the best way to pacify the taxman, who had come calling with a rather large bill a few months earlier, was to record a record that sounded like… ‘Taxman’.
But patience at Virgin was wearing thin. Though the band were close to breaking even, their refusal to tour was making this potential goldmine of pop into a money pit. The group’s royalties were frozen and an ultimatum issued – sell 70,000 units of the next XTC album, or be dropped. They say that crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin, and both brought them together with American producer Todd Rundgren during 1986.
The atmosphere was volatile at times, but the resulting ‘Skylarking’ was the band’s most edgy and innovative work yet, and courted controversy. Stand-out track, the excellent, ‘Dear God’, a prayer to a deity that the narrator questions the very existence of, was originally the b-side to ‘Grass’ but after radio DJs started to turn the record over… the tracks notoriety increased after accusations of blasphemy surfaced. Intrigued, people sought out ‘first edition’ copies of ‘Skylarking’ to such an extent that Virgin was forced to release the maverick track as a single – banned from the album, but with a video shown on Saturday Superstore. Funny how these things work out.
The 70,000 target had been nearly quadrupled and the group’s popularity soared (especially in the States). Two poor showing singles were irrelevant -XTC were still focused in people’s minds and Virgin were prepared to give them another chance. So they did the most natural thing they could do. Relent and tour? No. Follow their success with their first Number One? No. They recorded another Dukes of Stratosphear album.
‘Psonic Psunspot’ was more of the same – featuring the knees-up single “You’re A Good Man, Albert Brown’ bringing pleasure to a knowing few, but seemingly very uncomfortable about knowing exactly why. It was time to move on; stopping only to reissue the ‘Dukes’ collaborations on a single CD entitled ‘Chips From The Chocolate Fireball’.
‘Oranges & Lemons’ was recorded in the US during 1989. Soon after ‘Skylarking’ became so huge in America, with Britain not far behind – 28 being their highest English album placing since ‘English Settlement’ back in 1982. Cute and infectious, the album drew on the psychedelic influences of their other persona, whilst further developing songwriting structure and experimental arrangement. ‘The Mayor Of Simpleton’ broke the band in the US singles chart, narrowly missing the Top 40 in the UK. It also gave Partridge a chance to plead his case – ask any XTC fan for the band’s most personal song and most will come back with ‘Chalkhills & Children’, a song dedicated to the things that single out Partridge as an artist rather than a pop star. It stands as a melancholy V-sign to all those that questioned the band’s self-enforced low public profile. One slight softening of the ‘no touring’ policy came about during this period. Partridge and Moulding undertook a circuit of American campuses – albeit from the safe confines of college radio studios.
It was to be four years before any new material would surface, despite writing and recording taking place sporadically throughout. Virgin were becoming unsatisfied with the quality of the material being offered – as a tenth song was written, the first was rejected. The sound was an issue: producers were hired and fired at regular intervals, and even when Gus Dudgeon was finally settled upon, he failed to survive the mixing process.
The resulting ‘Nonsuch’, however, showed none of this tarnish – a joyously uplifting pure pop album that seemed to suggest a renaissance for the band’s commercial attributes, not least after several Radio 1 DJs (including Chris Evans and Kevin Greening) began championing the singles as personal crusades.
‘The Disappointed’ proved apt, barely scraping the Top 40, and ‘The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’ (a work of sheer genius – proving metaphors don’t have to be shrouded in clandestine mystery, though Partridge claims it was merely an ode to a discarded Halloween Jack O’Lantern) fared worse – only capturing any of its full potential in a cover version by Canadian band Crash Test Dummies to accompany the film Dumb & Dumber. Again, inexplicably, the group had side-stepped being catapulted into limelight and profit – despite having everything in their favour, tracks like the sublime ‘My Bird Performs’ should surely have made the album huge. A third single, “Wrapped In Grey’, was pulled before it even reached the shops.
And so began a seven year hiatus. Things had gone from bad to worse. The legal action that had seen them split with their manager at the time of the ‘Skylarking’ album came back to haunt the band. Settlement had been reached and resulted in a further cut in the band’s royalties. In a move partly motivated by necessity and partly as a protest, XTC refused to record, instead devoting their time to session work, or in the case of Partridge, production.
Partridge himself resurfaced on an album with Harold Budd, ‘Through The Hill’, and another with Cleaners From Venus vocalist Martin Newell titled ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ (Humbug Records), but XTC were effectively dead – anything they earned from recordings effectively belonged to Virgin – so why record? Meanwhile, Thirsty Ear Records took the opportunity to release ‘A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC’, a tribute album featuring artists as diverse as They Might Be Giants and Joe Jackson. Plus a certain Dukes Of Stratosphear also putting in an appearance.
In the wilderness of the mid-Nineties, XTC were quietly dropped by Virgin, amid a final flurry of Radio Session compilations, and a definitive best-of album, ‘Fossil Fuel’, that formed part of the (English?!) settlement. The latter sped chronologically through the band’s three decades of singles, restoring forgotten items like ‘No Thugs In Our House’ and “Wrapped In Grey’ to the canon. For the XTC novice, it is truly the place to start.
And that should be the end. But, rather than being the final nail in the coffin, Virgin had offered XTC a lifeline. Without their smothering contract, the group could set about seeking a new deal and finally return to the studio.
Seven years is a long time, and by the time their new record deal was secured in 1999, they had built up a healthy portfolio of new songs, far more than could comfortably fit on one album. The solution? Two albums released in less than a year under the banner ‘Apple Venus’. The first, released to a stunned reception (there had been very little publicity or warning that XTC were even recording again!) showed the group – now a duo of Partridge and Moulding in introspective mood, dealing with themes largely connected with love, idyllic happiness and retrospective nostalgia. The songs were mellower and gentler. But equally resonant. Was this a new direction?
Kind of “Wasp Star (aka Apple Venus vol 2)’ redressed the balance – showcasing the more traditional XTC songs that had been written in the midst of the hiatus and reassuring excited fans that the glory days were far from over. Shortly after the release of each volume, an accompanying CD of demos and outtakes from the sessions materialised – ‘Homegrown’ and ‘Homespun’, proving that nothing about XTC is completely definitive.
The story continues. A DVD of promo videos is in the pipeline. There’s even speculation about a Dukes of Stratosphear film (despite the fact that Partridge has persisted in saying that the Dukes were killed in a bizarre kitchen accident, possibly involving custard.) At about the time that ‘Fossil Fuel’ was released Partridge told Making Music magazine “It’s funny when you think about it. Collections are a bit like the desserts from all the meals – there isn’t any of the spuds and the meat. I think all our best stuff tends to lurk in the corners of albums”. Perhaps that sums up XTC… the singles are only part the story. To truly appreciate all they have done you have to immerse yourself in all aspects of their music. The management humbly recommend that you do.
Finally, for now, here is the song that first sparked WithGuitars attention, it should come as no surprise…