Formed in Swindon around songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC started their career as an abrasive new wave band with their 1978 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. Their career changed course drastically in 1982, when Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown onstage, 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 .
I’ve started this page with 1979’s Drums and Wires – I haven’t heard their first two albums, but based on the singles I’ve heard, they’re a different band at that point with a more abrasive approach and Barry Andrews’ organ. From Drums and Wires onward, they’re remarkably consistent – I count only two sub-standard albums in their discography, 1983’s lethargic Mummer and their 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 do 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, and he even sounds like The Muppets’ Miss Piggy on some tracks. But I find XTC consistently interesting and entertaining, and they easily rank among my favourite bands.
XTC Album Reviews
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 measured 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 comtributes 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 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 ExpressXTC 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 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 album 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 were 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 homogenous, 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 together as the psychedelic 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 does end 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 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.
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 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 well worth hearing for its best tracks.
Ten Favourite XTC Songs
The Meeting Place
Wrapped in Grey
The Wheel and the Maypole
Chalkhills and Children
Making Plans for Nigel