Over the Wall – #3
We’re looking at the upper tier of new wave this week, and one of the most enduring cult groups of our time.
Edition #3 – This is Pop: XTC.
As far as talent, evolution, and quality of output over time go, XTC remain an impressive entity. With a career spanning thirty years, they were a group that went through different stages and identities, remaining lively and challenging throughout and receiving much acclaim, but, despite being one of the most talented groups of the era, and having major label support from the very beginning, they always remained a cult band.
XTC was, at the core, the partnership of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, two guitarists/vocalists from Swindon, England, who began playing together in the early/mid seventies British proto-punk climate, finding influence (as many others did) in the sounds of the New York underground and England’s influential proto-punk component, glam. By 1976 the first lineup of XTC was solidified, with Partridge on guitar and vocals, Moulding on bass and vocals, Terry Chambers on drums, and Barry Andrews on keyboards. They crafted a unique brand of manic, rhythm-oriented rock that worked well in the nascent punk landscape, and were signed to Virgin Records the next year.
The band’s first record, the 3D-EP, was released in 1977, followed by two LPs in 1978. These albums, White Music and Go 2, document the first period of XTC, capturing their initial sound, which changed shortly after with the departure of Barry Andrews. He was replaced by guitarist/sometime keyboardist and backing vocalist Dave Gregory, thus establishing the lineup for the band’s breakout period, which begins with 1979’s iconic Drums and Wires. Andrews, along with former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, went on to form Shriekback, a lesser-known but long-running group in the eighties. The lead single from Drums and Wires, “Making Plans for Nigel,” was XTC’s biggest success to that date and was their North American breakthrough. The record remains a complete classic of its time, and its musical, visual, and lyrical aesthetics contributed much to what was then still developing in the mainstream as new wave, marking the band as one of the premier groups associated with the term.
XTC had always been fundamentally a pop band, albeit a challenging one, but beginning with 1980’s Black Sea LP, they began to move away from the manic energy and wackiness of their early phase, and into a more sophisticated eccentricity, and a sound more indebted to classic pop approach. The years between 1979 and 1982 brought the band to the height of their touring and promotional presence internationally, and saw the release of three of their best known and best loved records. The third, and most successful, in the series being English Settlement, in 1982, which contained one of the biggest hits they ever had, the wonderful “Senses Working Overtime.” This successful period of their history was brought to an abrupt end in 1982 when Andy Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown in the midst of a tour (a result of hating touring, compounded, as the story goes, with addiction to and withdrawal from prescription medication), resulting in the cancellation of an international tour at the height of their popularity and proficiency as a live act, and leaving Partridge with severe stage-fright that made him refuse to perform to audiences for the rest of the band’s career.
After 1983, the next period of XTC gets underway. The group was now a studio-only entity, which led to a moving away from outright rock sounds and live band dynamic, as evidenced on 1983’s Mummer. They had been playing around with acoustic textures and a distinct British aesthetic on English Settlement, but it was taken up further in what is often referred to as the pastoral phase of XTC, which began in full with Mummer and continued for most of the eighties. Mummer was also the last involvement drummer Terry Chambers would have with the group, as now that they were no longer touring, his role was significantly reduced. The group were starting to venture into new places, and this mid-period of their career is where they came up with some of their most acclaimed material. The year after 1984’s Big Express, the band released the first record as their psychedelic alter-ego band The Dukes of Stratosphear, a side-project that they would continue with for a couple of years, producing another record in 1987. In 1986, though, they returned as XTC, with one of their most acclaimed records, Skylarking. Viewed as the apex of their pastoral phase, this record contained the biggest international hit the band ever had, “Dear God,” which received significant mainstream attention (positive and negative) in America and introduced the band to new audiences who had no idea they’d been around for a decade.
Their next record, 1988’s Oranges and Lemons, with its large, clean production and jangly guitars, precedes some strands of 1990s pop, and marked the beginning of the next phase of XTC. Now over a decade into it all, they had garnered a reputation as some of the finest pop songwriters of their generation, and were further proving their ability to evolve with new sounds, having outlived new wave. XTC were firmly established college rock figures in North America, having had continued success in the underground context since the early eighties, but they were finding new levels of mainstream recognition in the alternative tide by the time they released Nonsuch in 1992, a record that both topped numerous college charts and got a Grammy nomination that year. Aside: Canadian readers will possibly remember the lead single from Nonsuch, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” as pointlessly covered, basically note for note, by The Crash Test Dummies, two years later. As for XTC two years later, they had gone silent in protest against Virgin Records, wanting to be released from their contract on account of complaints about mismanagement going back to the eighties. This protest would keep them from releasing any new material between 1992 and 1998.
After the mess with Virgin was finally sorted out in 1998, the band went to work on what was to be a double album, consisting of songs written while on strike between ’92 and ’98, to be released on their own newly-founded record label. It was to be a grand return, but it didn’t turn out quite the way it was envisioned, and the last few years of XTC’s long run would end out in bitterness. The proposed double album Apple Venus project ended up not only as a single album, but it also saw the departure of Dave Gregory, after twenty years as a contributor. The record’s primarily acoustic/orchestral sound was a new approach for this next (and last) phase of XTC, but it was largely a Partridge/Moulding affair, and Gregory’s role (like that of Terry Chambers in 1983) was reduced, causing him to leave before its completion. The record, of course, was well-received by fans who had been awaiting new material for years, and the second part, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Part 2) eventually came along in 2000, with a return to a guitar pop sound instead of the orchestral treatment of part one. It was to be the last XTC album. In the years after 2000, the group became very much a collector’s affair. Moulding and Partridge released a bunch of demo/unreleased material from the Apple Venus sessions, as well as older XTC demo material, and Partridge began releasing the Fuzzy Warbles collections, which number eight albums in all, of his demos and unreleased songs over the years. He also began his own record label, Ape. No news had come from the group in some time, and by 2006 it was finally confirmed a done deal. Moulding claimed he had no interest in music any longer and disappeared for a couple of years, while Partridge similarly claimed he had lost interest and was looking for something else. The two had split up their thirty year partnership and claimed to have no further communication with one another beyond financial or legal matters pertaining to XTC.
Not a great ending for one of the finest groups of the era, but, given the rocky course they charted through the eighties and nineties, perhaps it makes sense. For a band that stopped touring at the height of their fame, later to go on strike for six years at the crest of another wave of fame – both being very significant events in their time, as moves like that would likely have killed the careers of many other bands outright – they managed remarkably well. It is the records that speak for XTC in the end, though, as that’s where they put their efforts, creating a number of albums that, for many, are irreplaceable.