Swindon band XTC formed in the early 1970s, initially playing glam rock. The original band featured singer/guitarist Andy Partridge, singer/bassist Colin Moulding, and drummer Terry Chambers. The band’s early work was nervy new wave – they transitioned towards more mainstream pop/rock after keyboardist Barry Andrews was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory. Moulding wrote the band’s first hit, 1979’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’.
There are effectively two different eras of XTC. They stopped touring in 1982 and Chambers quit, leaving the band as a studio-based entity with Partridge, Moulding, and Gregory. The band struggled initially in their new guise, but enjoyed success on college rock radio with songs like ‘The Mayor of Simpleton’. XTC quietly broke up in 2006 after 2000’s Wasp Star failed to meet the standards of their previous work.
Andy Partridge has recently released his first pop material for years, while I’ve been enjoying digging into his extensive Fuzzy Warbles collection of outtakes. It’s a good time to revisit XTC’s stellar catalogue. More than any other band, their best work comes closest to emulating iconic Beatles’ albums like Revolver and Sgt. Peppers.
#13 Go 2
XTC’s first two albums sound like the work of an entirely different band. With keyboardist Barry Andrews in the band, they play quirky and frantic zolo music. Go2 was the group’s second album of 1978, and Partridge and Moulding’s material isn’t up to their usual standards. It is better than the two songs written by Barry Andrews – ‘My Weapon’ is the group’s career low-point.
XTC’s first album as a three-piece is often tentative and low on energy. But even on a weaker XTC album, there are gems. Partridge’s ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’ is a gorgeous pastoral song, and ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ is a terrific Moulding song with its bouncy, McCartneyesque piano.
#11 Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
XTC’s final album collects more of the songs written during their recording hiatus in the 1990s. It’s much weaker than the first volume. Without Dave Gregory the arrangements sound thin – promising songs like ‘Stupidly Happy’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Murdered Love’ don’t reach their potential. There is, however, a great stretch at the end of the record – in particular, closer ‘The Wheel and the Maypole’ is one of the finest moments in the XTC catalogue.
#10 White Music
XTC’s debut was recorded in two weeks – Andy Partridge describes it as “Captain Beefheart meets The Archies”. Partridge and Moulding would both hone their writing skills with subsequent releases, but their debut has its own charm. Partridge is the stronger writer at this point with songs like ‘Radios in Motion’ and ‘Statue of Liberty’, while there’s also a bizarre cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’.
#9 Drums and Wires
XTC’s third album is their first to feature guitarist Dave Gregory and moves into more conventional new wave territory – the album title refers to the 2 guitars, bass, and drums lineup. The record boasts XTC’s first hit – Moulding’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, with its distinctive beat from Chambers. Drums and Wires sounds thin in places, and Moulding’s songs like ‘Ten Feet Tall’ and ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ outshine Partridge’s.
#8 Oranges & Lemons
Oranges & Lemons covers some interesting territory, bringing the psychedelic 1960s sounds of side-project Dukes of Stratosphear to XTC. But after the succinct perfection of Skylarking, the hour-long Oranges & Lemons feels a little self-indulgent. There’s great stuff – Moulding’s ‘King for a Day’ is arguably a bit close to Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ but it’s enjoyable anyway. Partridge’s best material is tucked away at the end – ‘Miniature Sun’ and the Beach Boys pastiche ‘Chalkhills and Children’, while the single ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ boasts a terrific Moulding bassline.
#7 English Settlement
This double-LP was XTC’s most successful record and XTC’s last as a four-piece band. It reached the top 5 on the UK charts. With more emphasis on acoustic instruments, it’s often brilliant – songs like ‘Runaways’, ‘Senses Working Overtime’, and the 5/4 ‘English Roundabout’ are terrific. But it probably should have been trimmed to a single album, as Partridge songs like ‘Down in the Cockpit’, ‘Melt The Guns’, and ‘Leisure’ outstay their welcome.
#6 The Big Express
The Big Express is one of XTC’s odder records, with an industrial edge to tracks like ‘Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her’. It’s a concept album, about the band’s hometown of Swindon and its railway heritage. A couple of tracks on the back half don’t work, but most of it is terrific – ‘Wake Up’, with its stereo guitars, is a terrific opener, and there are quirky pop songs like ‘You’re The Wish You Are I Had’ and ‘I Remember The Sun’. Partridge’s sea shanty ‘All You Pretty Girls’ is an effective single, and ‘Train Running Low on Soul Coal’ is the best of Partridge’s lengthy album closers.
#5 Black Sea
XTC’s fourth album is the strongest from their early era. The band opted for simple arrangements that they could play live, and it’s closer to The Beatles and power-pop than ever before. Moulding’s ‘Generals and Majors’ and Partridge’s ‘Towers of London’ sound like they should have been hits in a just world. Deep cuts like ‘Burning with Optimism’s Flames’ and ‘Living Through Another Cuba’ are memorable and full of personality.
Andy Partridge wrote most of his compositions on piano for Nonsuch, resulting in an album of sombre and sophisticated songs. Nonsuch is seventeen tracks long and probably could have used a trim, but most of it’s great – the silly ‘Omnibus’, the elegant ‘Wrapped in Grey’, and ‘Books are Burning’ with its fading guitar duel between Partridge and Gregory. Colin Moulding’s efforts on Nonsuch are less endearing, although ‘My Bird Performs’ is excellent. Nonsuch was the band’s last album for seven years, but that’s not a reflection on its quality.
#3 Apple Venus Volume 1
After a seven-year gap in recording, caused by label disputes, XTC returned to the studio. Dave Gregory quit XTC during the sessions, which Partridge describes as “orchoustic”- largely acoustic songs with orchestral arrangements. Partridge is a sophisticated enough writer to pull the project off with aplomb, with magnificent orchestrations on songs like ‘Green Man’ and ‘Easter Theater’.
#2 Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (the Dukes of Stratosphear)
XTC released two discs at their psychedelic alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear – the 1985 EP 25 O’Clock and the 1987 album Psonic Psunspot. They were released together on CD as Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. 25 O’Clock outsold the group’s previous two albums, Mummer and The Big Express, even though the band didn’t admit their alternate identity until later. Joined by Gregory’s brother on drums, the band record their original compilations in the style of 1967-era Pink Floyd and The Beatles on 25 OÇlock.’The band expand their reach on Psonic Psunspot, taking on The Hollies on ‘Vanishing Girl’ and Brian Wilson on ‘Pale and Precious’.
Everything came together at once for XTC on Skylarking – their most fertile period of songwriting coincided with working with drummer Prairie Prince and producer Todd Rundgren. Rundgren butted heads with Partridge in the studio, but the results were terrific. He organised Partridge and Moulding’s songs into a concept album about the passing of time. He emphasised the gorgeous pastoral elements of XTC’s music, such as the brilliant opening pair of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ and ‘Grass’. It’s full of great tracks – the piano pop of ‘Ballet for a Rainy Day’, the power pop of ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’, and the jazz of ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’ are just three standouts.
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