XTC - Biography
From new wave to college rock to alternative pop, British band XTC forged a highly creative discography that spanned several decades. During that time, they achieved moderate success in the UK marketplace and managed to land the majority of their LPs on the US Billboard 200 album chart. Their greatest triumph was to score consistently high marks with music critics and to maintain a fervent fan base throughout their career, along with influencing many younger bands.
XTC took several years to find its identity and its full, original lineup. Singer and guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding first began playing together in 1972 as Swindon, England glam rock band The Helium Kidz. In 1973, drummer Terry Chambers joined, followed by keyboardist Barry Andrews in 1976. That year, they also adopted the moniker XTC. Blending The Kinks, Sparks, David Bowie, R&B, and the energy of punk, XTC forged their own sound for the newly emergent new wave scene. They signed to Virgin Records in 1977.
On their debut album, White Music (1978 Virgin), XTC displayed their highly contemporary style of kinetic new wave. Songs like "Statue of Liberty" (the album's lone single) and "Atom Age" are fast, bouncy, organ-heavy pop songs that could have come from Elvis Costello's album of the same year, This Year's Model. The Colin Moulding-penned "Set Myself on Fire," meanwhile, features the kid of off-kilter melodies Talking Heads were delving into across the Atlantic. "Radio in Motion" splits the difference, combining slashing post-punk verses with catchy choruses full of "wooh-ooh-ohh" backing vocals. White Music performed well for a debut LP, reaching #38 in the UK. In October of that same year, XTC released their sophomore album, Go 2 (1978 Virgin). As is typical with rushed second efforts, the quality of the songs isn't as high as the debut's. Still, the group's building momentum carried the record higher up the British charts, where it reached #21. Despite the newfound success, Barry Andrews left the band and was replaced by guitarist and keyboardist Dave Gregory, whose talents would allow the band to greatly expand their sound over the coming years. Andrews would go on to join post-punk supergroup Shriekback in 1981.
XTC found their first success on the UK singles chart the following April, with the non-LP cut "Life Begins at the Hop." Written by Moulding and centered on his high, loping bass line, the band are still very much in their new wave phase, but they exude more confidence. The song reached #44 in England and went Top 100 in Canada and Australia. It would be added to later pressings of XTC's third album, the Steve Lillywhite-produced Drums & Wires (1979 Virgin). This was the group's first great album, both consolidating and expanding on everything they'd explored on their first two records. While maintaining the agitated urgency of the previous year's works, Partridge and Moulding both show their growth as songwriters. The latter's highly catchy "Making Plans for Nigel" hit #17 in the UK. Moulding's "Ten Feet Tall" also introduces the more acoustic-leaning and sunnier sounding side of XTC that would rise to prominence in later years. Meanwhile, Partridge's cuts continue to explore thornier melodies with great success. "Helicopter" and "Outside World" are both complicated yet catchy songs of nervy new wave guitar pop. Strong from start to finish, Drums & Wires reached #34 in the UK and made the first dent in America's Billboard 200, peaking at #176.
XTC's fourth album, Black Sea (1980 Virgin), matched its predecessor's musical prowess and proved a greater commercial success. Despite slowing tempos and slightly more conventional melodies, the band maintained their underground edge. Lillywhite, returning as producer, imbued the band with a fuller drum sound and let the guitars ring out. Once again, Moulding supplied the band with their big single, "Generals and Majors." With its whistling and Beach Boys-esque harmony vocals, the airy-yet-propulsive tune reached the UK #32 and became their first single to chart in America, where it hit Billboard's #106. As before, Andy Partridge provided the majority of the LP's strong batch of tracks. With the head-bopping "Towers of London," he also wrote his first UK Top 40 hit. Atypically, it was the album's third single, Partridge's sing-songy and psychedelic "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)," that had the greatest chart success, landing at #16 in the UK. The critically lauded Black Sea made #17 in England and reached #41 in the US.
Two years later, XTC switched to producer Hugh Padgham and recorded the double-album, English Settlement (1982 Virgin). With this record, the band transitioned from their new wave phase and into a more mature, yet still highly exploratory, art pop sound. Andy Partridge's jaunty and Byrdsy "Sense Working Overtime" showcased the album's sound and yielded XTC their first Top 10 UK single. With its gigantic drum sound and staccato guitar, Colin Moulding's #50 single "Ball and Chain" nods to Revolver-era Beatles. While these 1960s references are apparent throughout English Settlement, the material never feels retro. Rather, XTC help formulate the sound of post-new wave UK music to come. Though Rolling Stone awarded the album only three stars on its release, the record-buying public recognized its worth, carrying English Settlement to #5 in England and #48 on Billboard. Twenty years later, Pitchfork would award the album a perfect 10. Unfortunately, after Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown on stage, XTC ceased to be a touring band. That same year, XTC issued their first compilation, Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982 (1982 Virgin). The dozen cuts offered a great sampling of the band's early, highly energetic new wave cuts.
During the recording of their next album, Mummer (1983 Virgin), Terry Chambers quit the band, primarily due to the financial constrains of no longer receiving income from touring. Session man Peter Phipps played drums on the majority of tracks, initiating an ongoing legacy of studio drummers, none of whom would ever permanently fill Chambers's vacancy. Producer Steve Nye's lighter touch, along with Partridge's more relaxed songwriting, resulted in a much more pastoral album. UK #50 single "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" typifies the record's folksier and airier overall sound. After a strong beginning, the LP sometimes lapses into patches of misguided overuse of synthesizers. Though hardly a failure, the album isn't among XTC's strongest. Critics gave it lukewarm ratings, and it reached only #51 in England and #145 in America.
The band rebounded somewhat with The Big Express (1984 Virgin). With a return to big drums, starker textures, and darker chord progression, the album returned to XTC's angstier sound of Black Sea. The LP's highest-charting single, "All You Pretty Girls," mixes the sunny bounce of recent XTC hits with the stark art rock of Peter Gabriel or Tears for Fears. Oddball album track "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her" show Partridge continuing to explore the boundaries of pop songwriting. Though not among the band's best, The Big Express is a solid entry in their discography. It received better marks than Mummer and hit #38 in the UK, although its peak of 181 on the Billboard 200 continued XTC's downward slide in the US.
Taking a break from their usual sobriquet, the members of XTC recorded a short set of decidedly '60s-inspired tracks under the name The Dukes of Stratosphear. Using pseudonyms, the band issued their debut EP, 25 O'Clock (1985 Virgin), which sported six songs of psychedelic garage pop. An LP, Psonic Psunspot (1987 Virgin), followed two years later. All of The Dukes of Stratosphear's output was then gathered together on the CD Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (1987 Virgin).
For their next LP, the group employed pop maverick Todd Rundgren as producer. Though fraught with tension, this collaboration yielded the album widely regarded as XTC's masterpiece, Skylarking (1986 Virgin). Stylistically, the band seesawed back to the pastoral pop of Mummer, but the songwriting here is far superior. Partridge and Moulding seem to be of one mind on Skylarking, with each churning out one sun-kissed song of spry and delightful pop after another. Despite the high quality of the material, UK singles buyers were less than enthusiastic. "Grass" and "The Meeting Place" each stalled at #100 on the charts there and made no impression at all in the US. Non-LP former b-side "Dear God" also faired poorly in England (#99), but it proved a big hit on US college radio. For the first time ever, an XTC album charted higher in America (#70) than it did in their homeland (#90).
One year later, XTC issued their second hits package, Compact XTC: the Singles 1978-1985. Its 18 tracks and 63-minute running time was an obvious stab at the emerging CD market, but it's a worthy collection, nonetheless. After a three-year gap between new studio albums released under the XTC banner, Oranges & Lemons (1989 Virgin) emerged. Recorded in America, the band's label was looking to create a hit. With sunny lead single "Mayor of Simpleton," the band reached their highest Billboard Hot 100 chart position, peaking at #72 in the US and #46 in the UK. More impressively, it hit #1 on Modern Rock Tracks, meaning it was a huge college hit. Despite the flat, over-produced sound from rookie Paul Fox, the album offers plenty of good, paisley-adorned pop songs, including the Moulding-penned second single, "King for a Day" (#82 in the UK). Critically acclaimed and a commercial success, the album reached #44 in America and #28 in England.
XTC's next album would be another three years in the making. Nonsuch (1992 Virgin) backs off on the psychedelic adornments of Oranges & Lemons for a relatively straightforward set of alternative pop/rock from XTC. The album has a warm and relaxed sound, as reflected in the band's second #1 Modern Rock single, "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and UK #33 single "The Disappointed," which features more Beach Boys-like harmonies from the band. Though Robert Christgau lobbed a bomb on the album, most other critics awarded high marks to Nonsuch. It made #28 in the UK, but only #97 in the US.
Though their career was going well, XTC entered into a contract dispute with Virgin in 1992. Refusing to issue any new music, the band would have to wait six years until they could record for new US label TVT. In the meantime, the band were twice anthologized. Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992 (1996 Virgin) chronicled all the band's hits across two CDs. It reached #33 in England. The following year saw the single-disc best of, Upsy Daisy Assortment. With 19 excellent tracks covering "Life Begins at the Hop" to "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," it's the perfect compilation for casual fans.
Two years later, XTC's more enthusiastic followers were finally awarded an album of new material. Apple Venus Volume 1 (1999 TVT) returned to the pastoral feel of Skylarking, while offering a more expansive, chamber jazz-like feel, thanks to its orchestral arrangements. The lovely and accomplished album received high marks from reviewers, but performed modestly on the charts, hitting #42 in the UK and #106 in the US. Its more pop-centered companion record, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), landed the following year. Reviews were decidedly mixed, ranging from lukewarm to rapturous. Sales, however, were nearly identical to Volume 1, as Wasp Star peaked at #40 in England and #108 in America. In the midst of recording the first of these albums, Dave Gregory quit the band, citing a lack of royalties.
In the long run, Gregory's departure would prove the beginning of the end for XTC, who wouldn't issue another album of new material. Still, the releases kept rolling. Two years later, the band's first box set emerged, Coat of Many Cupboards (2002 Virgin), a four-disc collection of demos, outtakes, alternate versions, and other rarities. That same year, XTC self-released Instruvenus (2002 Idea) and Waspstrumental (2002 Idea), which presented vocal-stripped versions of their two most recent albums. A few years later, Apple Box emerged, collecting Apple Venus, Wasp Star, and the not-too-enthusiastically received demo compendiums associated with those albums, Homespun (1999 Idea) and Homegrown (2001 Idea). From 2000 to 2006, Andy Partridge also released eight volumes of Fuzzy Warbles (Ape House), each of which collected demos that Partridge had recorded largely by himself, although Gregory and Moulding contributed occasional parts.
All of this newly available and re-packaged music, but nothing truly new from XTC. In 2006, Partridge announced that he and Moulding had drifted apart, that the latter was no longer interested in making music, and that XTC had come to an end. Despite the group's extended hiatus during the 1990s and their withering away during the 2000s, XTC created a lasting body of work during their twenty-plus years. At their best, they were masters of both energetic new wave and pastoral psych-pop. At their worst, they were still quite good. Their albums English Settlement and Skylarking are among the best of the '80s, during which time they found success in England and carved out a strong presence in the US college rock scene. Despite a lack of formal awards, their large fan base and reverence among critics ensures the legacy of XTC.