Formed in Swindon around songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC started their career as a glam band. Their recording career started in 1978, with a pair of abrasive new wave albums. Once keyboardist Barry Andrews was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory, XTC became a more conventional, guitar-based band and built their reputation with strong albums like Black Sea and English Settlement.
XTC’s career changed course in 1982, when Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown on stage, abruptly stopping their touring career. Drummer Terry Chambers left the group, leaving Moulding, Partridge, and Gregory as a studio-based band, supported by various session drummers. XTC also found artistic success with this second phase of their career, with acclaimed albums like Skylarking and their Dukes of Stratosphear side project. The group effectively petered out after 2000’s Wasp Star; Gregory had already left the band, and Moulding had largely stopped writing songs around 1992’s Nonsuch.
XTC are remarkably consistent – I only count two disappointing albums in their discography once Dave Gregory joined for 1979’s breakthrough Drums and Wires; 1983’s lethargic Mummer and 2000’s under-developed swansong Wasp Star. Andy Partridge is one of my favourite songwriters, able to navigate complex harmonic structures and sophisticated lyrics. Colin Moulding is the bass player and secondary songwriter – his simpler and more direct songs are a great foil for Partridge, while he’s one of my favourite bass players, reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s work in The Beatles. Dave Gregory doesn’t contribute songs, but he’s an excellent utility musician with his keyboard and guitar parts, and he’s clearly missed on the band’s last album.
XTC have weaknesses – they can sound quite mannered and overly clever. They’re certainly not innovators – their studio based era is more like a continuation of the sixties work of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Even more significantly, Partridge isn’t a first-class vocalist; his squealing voice suits the band’s early raucous material better than their studio-based work. But I find XTC consistently interesting and entertaining, and they easily rank among my favourite bands.
XTC Album Reviews
White Music | Go2 | Drums And Wires | Black Sea | English Settlement | Mummer | The Big Express | Skylarking | Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (The Dukes of Stratosphear) | Oranges And Lemons | Rag and Bone Buffet | Nonsuch | Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992 | Apple Venus Volume 1 | Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
Andy Partridge: My Failed Songwriter Career, Volume 1
Best Album: Skylarking
Overlooked Gem: Apple Venus, Volume 1
XTC’s two 1978 albums are different from anything else in their catalogue. They feature keyboard player Barry Andrews, whose zany, extroverted playing push the band in an avant-garde direction. The combination of jerky rhythms, fast tempos, and electronic bleeps is referred to as Zolo; similar contemporaries include Devo and The Tubes. Andy Partridge himself describes the music as Captain Beefheart meets The Archies. XTC originally wanted to name the album Black Music, drawing a parallel between their songs and black humour, but the record company insisted on the change to White Music.
While it’s foreign from the band’s later material, and the band would improve markedly with the acquisition of guitarist Dave Gregory for 1979’s Drums and Wires, White Music does work as long as the material is strong. Like on every XTC album, Andy Partridge is the dominant writer on White Music. Partridge is not only the most prolific writer here, but also the most accomplished – Colin Moulding’s songs are less confident than what he’d produce later.
The first side of White Music is tangibly stronger than the second. Frenetic opener ‘Radios in Motion’ is a terrific start to the band’s career, and ‘Statue of Liberty’ features bizarrely twisted lyrics, with Partridge writing a song of lust for the famous New York landmark. The White Music take of ‘This Is Pop’ is less punchy and less effective than the later single version. The most controversial piece, though, is the band’s deconstruction of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, transforming Dylan’s beloved song into strange, screaming ska. The CD versions of White Music include the band’s debut EP, 3D, which features XTC’s first single, ‘Science Friction’.
White Music has moments that hint at future greatness, but XTC would become a better band after upgrading Barry Andrews into Dave Gregory.
XTC’s second album is cut from the same cloth as their first. Go2 is a classic sophomore slump record, where the material isn’t as strong as the debut; other English acts from the late 1970s, like The Jam and Kate Bush, had the same issue, where they were expected to write an album of material in 6 months for a quickly released sequel. One positive for Go2 is that Colin Moulding’s bass is much higher in the mix, and his creative bass lines are a focal point. Barry Andrews’ only two songs for XTC are featured here, and they’re both terrible. Another notable feature of Go2 is the cover, with the memorable marketing spiel that starts with “This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record…”.
Colin Moulding’s material is a step up from his songs on White Music – songs like ‘Crowded Room’ and ‘I Am The Audience’ aren’t as good as his later triumphs, but show him moving towards the melodic, straightforward song-craft he’d later excel at. Andy Partridge does most of the heavy lifting; his opening duo of the energetic, sophisticated ‘Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!)’ and the spacious Eno tribute ‘Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian)’ are among the best material to come from XTC Mk 1.
Go2 has its moments, but as with White Music, I enjoy XTC much more once Dave Gregory came on board.
Drums And Wires
After releasing two frenetic new wave albums in 1978, XTC made a fresh start with Drums And Wires. Frenzied organist Barry Andrews was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory, giving XTC a more conventional approach. Steve Lillywhite gives Drums And Wires a curiously rigid production; compared to the denser Black Sea, also produced by Lillywhite, Drums And Wires is jerky and brittle, and the only intense moment is the riveting culmination of the album closer ‘Complicated Game’.
This production approach is hypnotic on the more interesting songs, but stultifying on the lesser tracks. Colin Moulding’s simple writing style is well suited to the treatment; ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ is the obvious single, with ironic social commentary lyrics, while the funky ‘Day In Day Out’ and ‘Ten Feet Tall’ are similarly captivating. Andy Partridge turns in quirky compositions such as ‘Helicopter’ and ‘When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty’, but the second half of the album is less impressive.
XTC are consistent, and most of their albums are consistently good – I generally prefer their later, lush studio creations, so I’m rating Drums And Wires possibly a little lower than it deserves.
1980’s Black Sea is my favourite album from XTC’s early period. With a fuller sound from producer Steve Lillywhite, it’s a more conventional sounding rock album than the thin Drums and Wires. Black Sea actually topped the charts in Australia and New Zealand, XTC’s only number one album anywhere to my knowledge.
Moulding only contributes three songs, which are all in a similar vein, with upbeat bouncy tunes contrasted with pessimistic lyrics about militarism, lust and pollution. Partridge contributes the social commentary of ‘Respectable Street’, the political ‘Living Through Another Cuba’, while ‘Towers of London’ sounds like a hit single. Partridge has disowned ‘Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’, but the punning lyrics are really cute: “get the expert on mademoiselles/he could diffuse, any bombshell.” Partridge also gets adventurous with the seven-minute experimental ‘Travels in Nihilon’ and the surprisingly effective dub track ‘The Somnabulist’.
Black Sea does drag a little in the second half, and arguably could have benefited from more Moulding tunes, but it’s still the highlight of their early career.
Double album English Settlement was a pivotal moment in XTC’s career, as they started to progress to a more studio-based sound. English Settlement has distinctive textures; Partridge began using an acoustic twelve-string guitar to give the album a folk feel, which is contrasted with inventive and energetic rhythm patterns. Moulding’s opener ‘Runaways’ sets the tone for the album’s textural experimentation, with a smooth groove generated from the tasteful drum machine, Moulding’s fretless bass, and catchy rhythm guitar parts.
Moulding is in fantastic writing touch throughout English Settlement; ‘Fly on the Wall’, ‘Ball and Chain’ and ‘English Roundabout’ are all concise and vigorous, providing the most accessible entry points to the album. In contrast, virtually all of Partridge’s tracks are drawn out longer than five minutes; great for strong material like ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, but problematic for weaker songs like ‘Melt the Guns’, and the third quarter of the album, in particular, is heavy going. Partridge’s highlights include the group’s sole UK Top 10 single ‘Senses Working Overtime’, ‘Snowman’ (with the classic line “people will always be tempted to wipe their feet on anything with welcome written on it,”) and the punkish ‘No Thugs in Our House.’ English Settlement marked a commercial highpoint for XTC in Britain; shortly afterwards the group ceased touring due to Partridge’s chronic stage fright.
English Settlement tends to be a favourite of XTC fans; there’s tons of great stuff here, but that weaker third quarter pushes it out of XTC’s top tier of records.
XTC fell off the map with Mummer, to the extent that many fans assumed that the group broke up after English Settlement. Drummer Terry Chambers, frustrated that the band had quit touring, emigrated to Australia. Partridge recast himself as a composer, virtually relinquishing instrumental duties, so that his energetic rhythm guitar parts are conspicuous by their absence. Coupled with lethargy and some of XTC weakest material, Mummer ranks among XTC’s least accomplished albums.
Moulding certainly isn’t to blame; his forgotten ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ benefits from the most upbeat and organic arrangements on the album, while ‘Deliver Us From the Elements’ is the one place that the synthesisers work, giving the piece an ominous edge. His sweet single ‘Wonderland’ is a great song, even if its greatness would be more patently obvious if it wasn’t buried beneath layers of dated synthesizers. Partridge contributes the pretty acoustic ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’, but his vitriolic music industry take-down ‘Funk Pop A Roll’ would have benefited from a more organic production, while lesser tracks like ‘Human Alchemy’ and ‘Me and the Wind’ expose his vocal limitations. On a relatively weak album, the bonus tracks are especially notable; ‘Desert Island’ and particularly ‘Toys’.
There’s still strong material on Mummer, but it’s one of the few XTC albums that’s tangibly second-rate.
The Big Express
The Big Express comes across as a kneejerk reaction to 1983’s overly tepid Mummer. Colin Moulding’s opener ‘Wake Up’ bursts out with a dazzling dual rhythm guitar pattern, and throughout The Big Express XTC crank up the energy levels, wisely reintroducing electric guitars as Andy Partridge’s frenetic rhythms drive ‘All The Pretty Girls’ and imitate an express train in the excellent closer ‘Train Running Low on Soul Coal’.
The Big Express is also reliant on drum programming; the effect on the louder songs is surprisingly invigorating, while XTC wisely utilise a session drummer on the more sensitive pieces. ‘Shake Your Donkey Up’ is the closest XTC ever came to country, while ‘I Bought Myself a Liarbird’ mixes Beatlesque verses with an abrasive chorus. Again sensibly, there’s some prettiness buried amongst all the noise; Partridge’s blatantly poppy ‘You’re The Wish You Are I Had’ should have been a single, while ‘This World Over’ and Moulding’s ‘I Remember The Sun’ are lovely ballads.
It’s a jarring and dated album in some respects, but The Big Express still stands up very well.
XTC made many strong albums, but Skylarking is the consensus pick for their finest work. Producer Todd Rundgren was still feuding with Andy Partridge thirty years after working on Skylarking, but he did a fine job, choosing songs from the band’s demos based on their theme, and pushing the group’s arrangements in more diverse directions than usual. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’ swings, while ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ arrangement is psychedelic and off-kilter.
The summery first side of the album is practically flawless, while the second is less cohesive but still features the strident ‘Earn Enough For Us’, the affecting ‘Dying’, and the climactic ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’. Bass player Colin Moulding’s songwriting feels weightier than usual; instead of his typical quirky stories about his garden, he tackles the big issues of sex, marriage, death, and animal sacrifice. Partridge uses bright analogies to mask dark thoughts in ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ and ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’, and creatively rhymes “cycle” with “umbilical” in ‘Season’s Cycle’. Dave Gregory contributes some lovely piano work; his fills in ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ are beautiful.
Skylarking features many moments of magic, like the switch from the messy psychedelia to the refreshingly direct piano in the chorus of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, and the harmonised chorus of ‘The Meeting Place’. Skylarking is one of the best albums of the 1980s, and the jewel in XTC’s excellent catalogue.
Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (The Dukes of Stratosphear)
1983’s Mummer and 1984’s The Big Express were so spectacularly unsuccessful that many people assumed that the group had split up. By 1985 XTC was at a crisis point and recorded a cute little EP in the spirit of their psychedelic sixties influences under the pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear to cheer themselves up. To enter into the spirit of things Andy Partridge became Sir John Johns, Moulding became The Red Curtain, Gregory became Lord Cornelius Plum, while his brother Ian drummed as E I E I Owen. Embarrassingly 25 O’ Clockoutsold XTC’s previous two albums, but it also served to revitalise them. In 1987 Partridge had written several more light-hearted songs that didn’t fit into the XTC mould, so the Dukes reconvened to record the album Psonic Psunspot. Psonic Psunspot was inappropriately short for the CD era, so the Dukes’ two releases were combined onto one CD as Chips From The Chocolate Fireball.
25 O’Clock is relatively homogeneous, with obvious reference points including psychedelic-era Pink Floyd and Beatles, while Psonic Psunspot takes in a broader spectrum of sixties styles with homages to The Kinks, The Byrds, The Hollies and The Beach Boys. While their material is more purposefully trivial than usual, some of XTC’s best songs are to be found here: Moulding’s sweet Hollies tribute ‘Vanishing Girl’, ‘Brainiac’s Daughter’ and ‘Pale and Precious’ are among the highlights. Some of Partridge’s vocal performances are surprisingly convincing; he does a passable Lennon on ‘Mole From The Ministry’ and a McCartney on ‘Brainiac’s Daughter’. Moulding and Partridge’s harmonies intertwine convincingly to recreate The Hollies on ‘Vanishing Girl’, although they don’t have quite enough vocal presence to fully emulate The Beach Boys on the excellent ‘Pale And Precious’.
It’s easy to see why XTC enjoyed playing 1960 psychedelic garage pop as The Dukes of Stratosphear, and it’s some of their best work.
Oranges And Lemons
After fighting with Todd Rundgren during the Skylarking sessions, XTC hired producer Paul Fox, a fan of the group, for double LP Oranges And Lemons. While Rundgren bought a discipline and thematic unity, Fox allows XTC the freedom to indulge themselves, and coupled with the extra running time that the CD format provided, the result is a less coherent album. The raw material isn’t necessarily inferior to that on the surrounding albums, but Oranges And Lemons is a less satisfying record. The mix is often very busy, with loads of percussion and horn parts thrown into XTC’s already ornate arrangements.
Sometimes this works – the vibrant ‘Merely A Man’ showcases over-driven guitars and a lovely horn section – and sometimes it doesn’t – opener ‘Garden Of Earthly Delights’ is messy, and never really gels. ‘President Kill Again’ is musically predictable and ‘Across This Antheap’ is preachy, while a lot of the songs have promising ideas that aren’t properly disciplined into a cohesive form; ‘Pink Thing’ has hilariously ambiguous lyrics, while ‘Hold Me Daddy’ has a lovely guitar riff. ‘The Mayor Of Simpleton’ is a catchy single, but is surprisingly formulaic by XTC’s standards, while Moulding’s ‘King For A Day’ is enjoyable but slight. Oranges And Lemons ends superbly with two of its best songs; the jazzy ‘Miniature Sun’ and the beautiful ‘Chalkhills And Children’, a lovely statement of contentment.
While it isn’t as strong as XTC’s other albums from the period, Oranges And Lemons still has plenty of bright retro appeal and it’s more reminiscent of the Dukes of Stratosphear side-project than any other XTC album.
Rag and Bone Buffet
Rag and Bone Buffet is XTC’s b-sides and rarities compilation. Because a lot of the group’s b-sides were already featured on the CD reissues, it’s noticeable that a lot of the stronger material is from the albums where b-sides weren’t already included. There’s some strong material from English Settlement, which was too long to include b-sides; in hindsight, it’s inexplicable that Moulding’s charming ‘Blame The Weather’ wasn’t included on the original album, while there’s also the snappy ‘Punch and Judy’ and the Brian Eno like ‘Over Rusty Water’.
From the later era there’s the punchy ‘Extrovert’, the pretty ‘Happy Families’, ‘Mermaid Smile’ which was famously cut from some editions of Skylarking to make room for ‘Dear God’, and a nice live version of ‘Another Satellite’. There’s also a passable seasonal single ‘Thanks For Christmas’, and the novelty ‘History of Rock ‘N’ Roll’. Unsurprisingly, some of the material is superfluous, like a dance mix of ‘Down In The Cockpit’.
I wouldn’t prioritise Rag and Bone Buffet over any of XTC’s studio albums, and it’s a bit of a slog to make it through the whole album, but there’s enough strong material to make it worthwhile for hardcore fans.
XTC recorded Nonsuch with long-time Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon, with Fairport Convention alumni Dave Mattacks filling in on drums. Nonsuch is notably more mature and reserved than previous XTC albums – the exuberance from the Dukes and Oranges and Lemons has dissipated, and there are plenty of quiet piano ballads and mid-tempo pieces.
It feels like Colin Moulding lost his songwriting touch at this point – while ‘My Bird Performs’ is a well written piece, his other contributions feel sub-standard, although ‘The Smartest Monkeys’ features one of Dave Gregory’s most memorable guitar solos. On the other hand, Andy Partridge’s songwriting is excellent throughout Nonsuch, extending from quiet piano ballads ‘Rook’ and ‘Wrapped in Grey’, mid tempo pop/rock ‘The Disappointed’ and ‘Then She Appeared’, the fantastically strange ‘Omnibus’, and the more raucous ‘Crocodile’.
While Nonsuch teeters a little close to mainstream blandness, and it’s another victim of the CD format bloating album running times, there are plenty of treasures among its 17 songs.
Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992
Fossil Fuel collects all 31 of XTC’s singles released by Virgin records. It provides a helpful career overview, as the band went through major stylistic changes, transitioning from a jerky new wave band to a studio project; if you’re trying out XTC for the first time, it’s worth spinning Fossil Fuel up on Spotify to see which era you prefer. XTC’s singles aren’t always their best songs, especially in their studio era – tracks like ‘The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’ sound like Partridge writing a hit to order, while the three singles from Skylarking barely hint at its scope.
Apple Venus Volume 1
After a seven year self-imposed exile to sever their ties with Virgin, XTC returned in 1999 on a minor label. A very generous minor label: for Apple Venus Andy Partridge is given an entire orchestra to play with. As much as I enjoy Nonsuch, Apple Venus is an even more successful album of mature XTC, bringing out some of Andy Partridge’s best ever work.
The closest that Apple Venus gets to sappiness is ‘I Can’t Own Her’, which is beautiful but not a love song. Along with a nasty attack on his ex-wife in ‘Your Dictionary’ (“H A T E, is that how you spell love in your dictionary?”) and a reflection on ageing in ‘The Last Balloon’, Partridge’s major preoccupation on Apple Venus is paganism. ‘Easter Theatre’ is arguably XTC’s single finest achievement, an eyewitness account of an ancient fertility rite, with seamless integration of electric guitars and orchestral instruments. ‘Greenman’ and ‘River of Orchids’ are almost as wonderful, with Partridge voicing a vision of a green England. Colin Moulding is far less interesting here and his two relatively slight songs are low points of Apple Venus – he’d stopped writing at this point, and his songs are recycled from earlier discards.
While Apple Venus isn’t fully consistent, the best songs on offer are truly stupendous, taking pop music to the limits of beauty and literacy.
Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
Wasp Star clears out the songs that Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding wrote between 1995 and 1998. Instead of the grandiose orchestral textures of Apple Venus, Wasp Star stays in more conventional pop/rock territory. Dave Gregory quit the band at the end of the Apple Venus sessions after tensions with Partridge, and his absence is crucial here; it’s a below average batch of XTC songs, and they especially needed Gregory’s input to make them come to life.
Again Moulding’s contributions are recycled from earlier projects, but they’re a little stronger this time; still low key. And again Partridge is doing the heavy lifting, and the strongest songs are at the end, with ‘Church of Women’ and multi-part closer ‘The Wheel and the Maypole’ the highlights. If Apple Venus is Partridge’s divorce album, Wasp Star is his lust album, and he uses an exuberant amount of crass metaphors like “I’ve got the rabbit/If you’ve his burrow home”. Partridge also gets a lot of mileage from a simple riff on ‘Stupidly Happy’ and there’s a passable piece of dance-able pop on ‘We’re All Light’.
Even allowing for Gregory’s absence, Wasp Star is one of XTC’s least compelling albums, but it’s worth hearing its best tracks.
Ten Best XTC Songs
The Meeting Place
Wrapped in Grey
The Wheel and the Maypole
Chalkhills and Children
Making Plans for Nigel
My Failed Songwriter Career, Volume 1
It’s been a long time between drinks for XTC fans. Since XTC’s final album Wasp Star in 2000, there’s been very little music from Andy Partridge or Colin Moulding. Dave Gregory’s been playing with Big Big Train, but Moulding has largely retired from music and Partridge has largely stayed away from the pop/rock of XTC. Instead, he’s collaborated with other artists like avant-garde composer Harold Budd and early XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews, as well as writing songs for The Monkees’ comeback album.
My Failed Songwriter Career, Volume 1 is a four-song EP, rehabilitating songs that Partridge wrote for other artists. Apparently, Partridge has hundreds of songs waiting for a polish in his home studio.
A four-song collection is never going to satisfy enthusiastic fans like me when it’s the first release of new material for a couple of decades. But at the same time, these four songs showcase a fun cross-section of Partridge’s oeuvre. The sophisticated balladry of ‘Maid of Stars’ could have come from Apple Venus I, while ‘Ghost Train’ is a driving rocker and ‘Great Day’ recalls The Kinks. The disc closes with ‘The Mating Dance’, Partridge providing a moment of levity to balance his seriousness in the same way that Moulding did in XTC.
I’m looking forward to hearing more volumes from Partridge’s archives.
For more XTC information, check out their extremely detailed fan-site at http://chalkhills.org
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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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