Classified as post-punk, power pop, New Wave, art-rock, neo-psychedelia, alternative rock, chamber pop and various combinations thereof, XTC forged a path that inspired many, yet remains utterly unique. In its 22 years of making albums, this ever-changing band from Swindon, England, achieved something musically akin to the Beatles — substantial tunes, kinetic musicianship, social commentary and evolving studio craft — with a fraction of their popularity. Like the Fab Four, this quartet transitioned from being a dynamic live act to becoming a reclusive studio ensemble. Singer/guitarist Andy Partridge wrote most of the songs and typically called the shots, but bassist Colin Moulding wrote and sang several of the hits in a John Lennon/Paul McCartney-esque division of labor complimented during its early years by drummer Terry Chambers and through most of its existence by guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory.
Like their contemporary, Elvis Costello, XTC has created an extraordinarily eclectic body of work linked by the particular cohesion of its key players and defined by a nearly equal emphasis placed on songwriting and arrangement. And like Costello, XTC managed to harness the vitality of punk in ways that had otherwise little to do with its stylistic origins; the XTC of 1986′s Skylarking, for example, bears little resemblance to the one that released its earliest records in ’77 and ’78 with keyboardist Barry Andrews. Its artistic restlessness means XTC’s influence is harder to pinpoint than, say, the Clash’s, but it has nevertheless spread throughout the most melodious and finessed end of indie rock. Whenever a band sings guitar-based Anglo pop tunes with an instrumental facility that outstrips its vocal polish, there’s a little bit of XTC.
The XTC that recorded its January 1978 debut is barely recognizable as the polished studio-only ensemble remembered for "Dear God" and other '80s and '90s college-rock hits. This one is frantically fast, herky-jerky, super tight and lacking the overdubbed layers that eventually helped define XTC. Guitarist Andy Partridge puts his punk voice on; like the frontmen of most contemporary young English bands, he sings as if emulating Johnny Rotten's bug-eyed stare. Barry Andrews's carnival-organ-on-speed riffs distinguish the band during an era that had only begun to embrace the keyboards that would soon shape New Wave. Most of the melodies are considerably simpler than what the band would produce only a year later when Andrews was replaced with second guitarist Dave Gregory, but enthusiastic hooks are abundant, particularly on the singles "Statue of Liberty" and "This Is Pop." XTC plays each frantic note as if willing itself out of Swindon, a South West England town so sleepy it's yet to produce another significant rock band.
XTC's second album of 1978 is only marginally less agitated and aggressive than its first. But Go 2's tempos are markedly more varied than White Music's, and the band is already reaching beyond punk in ways that predate most of their peers: Opening track "Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!)" lyrically references the Munich disco sound that would inspire New Romantics like Duran Duran while its jagged syncopations anticipate Gang of Four. Concert favorite "Crowded Room" similarly accelerates ska a year before the Specials hit the U.K. charts. And while both Devo and Talking Heads worked with Brian Eno, the deadpan weirdness of "Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian)" proves XTC could evoke the producer's renegade creativity on its own. (Eno — who at one point contemplated joining XTC — admitted as much.) Keyboardist Barry Andrews's revenge-sex fantasy "My Weapon" is lyrically regrettable, but it does point to the darker mood of his future dance band, Shriekback. Although Go 2 is kindred to its predecessor, its experimental cuts confirm XTC as a band to take chances: The catchiest and most fully realized track, "Are You Receiving Me," was initially left off the LP.
With this 1979 breakthrough, XTC replaces its most distinctive player and gets much better in the process. Out went keyboardist Barry Andrews, who then played in prog-rock maestro Robert Fripp's short-lived New Wave band the League of Gentlemen before fronting punk-funk's Shriekback with ex-Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen. In came guitarist Dave Gregory, who'd soon affirm his own art-rock chops on Peter Gabriel's 1980 album Peter Gabriel 3. Gregory buttresses frontman Andy Partridge's staccato guitar attack while bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers expand their parts with slightly slower but far more unorthodox rhythms. Like Talking Heads with their contemporaneous Fear of Music, XTC here evolves into a dance band just as the first New Wave discos sweptNew York. The huge bass and drum sound achieved here with producer Steve Lillywhite would become a sonic template of the '80s.
Moulding also comes into his own on Drums and Wires both as a songwriter and singer; his "Making Plans for Nigel" becomes XTC's first U.K. Top 20 achievement. Moulding's smoother vocal delivery and newfound melodic facility shifts XTC in the unique position between suddenly hugely successful power pop bands like the Knack and uncompromising post-punk acts like Public Image Ltd. Chambers lays on the tom-toms, and the guitars maintain the tightness of the previous two albums while gaining complexity and drama; original album closer "Complicated Game" gets as angst-ridden as anything from Siouxsie and the Banshees. Drums and Wires remains one of the most pleasurable albums of its era because XTC's joy in discovering its true identity here is palpable. On "Helicopter" or practically any other cut, the precise yet elated interaction of sticks and strings prove these guys had a ball inventing this brainy, beguiling stuff.
Everything great about 1979's Drums and Wires gets bigger and brighter on 1980's Black Sea. XTC had evolved into a vivid and invigorating live band, and it shows on their first successful record in theU.S.; the four members play together as one, even as star New Wave producer Steve Lillywhite studio-hones their wallop. Having scored their first substantial U.K. pop success the year before with bassist Colin Moulding's "Making Plans for Nigel," XTC's confidence substantially increases, along with their ambition. As that single confirmed, social commentary routinely found a place on England's late-'70s/early-'80s hit parade, and both Moulding and leader Andy Partridge contribute several smart ones here. Partridge's opening "Respectable Street" in particular evokes the Kinks' at their peak and presages Blur's Brit-pop best, even if the BBC wouldn't touch its references to abortion and sex positions.
Moulding's "Nigel" success may have inspired some competition in Partridge, who contributes his most politically inspired lyrics ("Living Through Another Cuba") as well as his most upbeat testimonials ("Burning with Optimism's Flames"). The biggest hit was Partridge's least favorite of his songs, "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)," in which an anxious teen turns to comic books (or maybe even rock 'n' roll) to give him the confidence he lacks with girls. Although the original LP ended with the band's most abrasive track (the Joy Division-ish "Travels in Nihilon"), Black Sea is XTC's most immediate and New Wave-iest disc. Nearly every cut sounds like a hit from a time when crunchy but perceptive rock was potential (if not always actual) pop.
Before working on XTC's much-loved 1982 double album, leader Andy Partridge gave away his acoustic guitar in a TV contest. He wrote a batch of songs on a new one, and its presence freed up sonic space to fill in ways the band hadn't yet attempted. English Settlement was the first XTC album to ignore the parameters of what a four-member band can accomplish onstage, and it was recorded while the quartet was still a live band. But when it came time to tour it, Andy Partridge's wife tossed away the Valium to which the singer had long been addicted. The sudden withdrawal triggered panic attacks, a nervous breakdown, and the end of XTC as a touring ensemble.
Where there were once jagged post-punk riffs, there are acoustic, 12-string, Rickenbacker and fretless bass guitar intricacies. The result is cleaner, more spacious and dynamic: XTC's sole Top 10 U.K. single "Senses Working Overtime" starts out quiet, builds with some Who-like flourishes, and then explodes into the first of the band's many Beatle-y choruses. The tension that aligned XTC with contemporaries like Talking Heads dissipates as the group strengthens its bond to Brit-pop's past. Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding still write social commentary songs ("Ball and Chain," "Melt the Guns," "It's Nearly Africa"), but with a gentler touch. English Settlement is XTC's most timeless album; its hooky songwriting is still very much New Wave, but less direct, more finessed sounds position it some heavenly world above.
Disheartened and economically diminished by leader Andy Partridge's decision to quit touring and discouraged by a de-emphasis on rhythm, longtime XTC drummer Terry Chambers left early in the making of this pastoral and strikingly low-key 1983 disc: He appears only on the first two tracks and on the bonus cut "Toys," and it's obvious that this home-run-hitter was forced to punt.
Chambers's exit isn't the only reason Mummer is XTC's least physical album. Recovering from a nervous breakdown and the sudden realization that the band had been robbed of a great deal of money made during the constant touring he hated, Partridge dials down most of the band's most compelling elements — its unrelenting hooks, nearly telepathic instrumental interaction, and limitless enthusiasm that together made XTC's art-pop exceptionally playful. Without Chambers, Colin Moulding seems lost; the bassist's three contributions ("Wonderland," "Deliver Us from the Elements," "In Loving Memory of a Name") lack his usual snappiness. Mummer is much more enjoyable if you accept it as a collection of bucolic B-sides from a band that had crafted album after album full of quirky but pleasure-packed A's.
Whereas XTC's Mummer sounds better than in did in 1983 because its rural aural greenery seems to exist out of time, The Big Express hasn't aged well because it's packed with the clattering industrial drums of 1984. It's much more energetic than its predecessor; the angular guitars that first distinguished XTC return at slower tempos. But the songs rank among the band's least memorable; there's little in the way of hooks, and the lyrics lack the band's characteristic wit: Neither revealing much about their creators nor speaking eloquently about the world, they're either unnecessarily convoluted, bitter, or both. Bassist Colin Moulding hasn't yet returned to writing classic singles and attention-grabbing album tracks; his cautionary opener "Wake Up" isn't ostensibly aimed at the band or himself, but this was XTC's second album in a row without hits or major contributions to its formidable songwriting cannon, the second to have lost momentum. Drastic measures were necessary; they arrived via a pushy record company, an unlikely American, and 1986's Skylarking.
By the mid '80s, years of Reagan and Thatcher had worn down the resistance of many a countercultural U.K. musician. Initially edgy acts like Eurythmics, OMD, Thompson Twins, Simple Minds, Billy Idol and even Public Image Ltd. had all by mid-decade released slick albums that blatantly courted Yanks. So when Virgin Records pressured XTC to work with a pre-approved producer who might return the band to the U.K. charts and put it in touch with the American mainstream once nearly in its reach, it wasn't violating the compromising spirit of the times: The same indie recently squeezed flattering if out-of-character hits out of the Human League and China Crisis by respectively hooking them up with R&B smash-makers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Steely Dan's Walter Becker.
XTC chose Todd Rundgren, a wildly eclectic solo artist and producer of everyone from Hall & Oates to the New York Dolls. Picking up stylistically where the threesome left off on 1985's 25 O'Clock EP pseudonymously released by the Dukes of Stratosphear, Skylarking exchanges flower-power parody for sincerity. Sequenced as a quasi-concept album that begins with the summer's morning sun and ends at night, this 1986 release evokes the Beatles, Beach Boys and Kinks of 20 years hence while restoring XTC's own strengths. Bandleader Andy Partridge and Rundgren may have clashed during its creation, but the friction brings out the best in all involved; both Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding contribute their catchiest melodies since '82's English Settlement, and Rundgren helps to present them in contexts both more nuanced and accessible than even that band milestone.
The highlights are many, but the connections between songs are just as key; the trio — here joined by the Tubes' Prairie Prince, the most empathetic of the post-Terry Chambers studio drummers — play the knockout transition from "Summer's Caldron" to "Grass" without pause or tape edits. Like most New Wave vocalists, Partridge typically favors character over chops, but he here sings sweeter and smoother, matching Moulding's subtler delivery to the point where their voices nearly merge like the Hollies and other British Invasion heroes.
All this makes Skylarking XTC's most serene album, so it's ironic that its most famous song, "Dear God," is the band's angriest ever. A non-LP B-side swiftly added to the disc when it became an unexpected rock radio hit, Partridge's denunciation of sins committed in the name of a higher power puts him on par with his idols.
Released pseudonymously by the Dukes of Stratosphear on April Fool's Day 1985, 25 O'Clock — a six-track tribute to psychedelia's heyday — is catchier, funnier and far more energetic than what XTC had been releasing under its own name for its last couple of albums. And although 1986's Skylarking re-established the band as a major creative force, it was difficult to make and a hard act to follow. So the threesome and fellow Duke, Ian Gregory (guitarist Dave Gregory's drummer brother), reunited for another paisley-fueled blowout, 1987's Psonic Psunspot.
Chips from the Chocolate Fireball combines the two records in straightforward consecutive order, and the result ranks among the most consistent sets in the later half of XTC's discography. From the non-sequitur lyrics to the extreme stereo separation of the era, these simulations of psychedelic pop — largely the British variety, but also the Byrds and the Beach Boys at their trippiest — are extraordinarily exacting: "25 O'Clock" starts with a thrillingly accurate recreation of the Electric Prunes' pioneering psych-punk "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night"; "Have You Seen Jackie?" revisits the mischievous titular tranny of Pink Floyd's very first single "Arnold Layne," and "The Mole from the Ministry" goes whole hog for the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus." All that's missing from XTC here is the LSD.
A rare logical occurrence for a band too clever to regularly achieve them, XTC's 10th and most accessible album brought it closest to the American mainstream. As suggested by its title and artwork, Oranges & Lemons is bright, sweet, tart and fabulously groovy; the psychedelia of the band's Todd Rundgren-helmed Skylarking and spoofing but sharp Dukes of Stratosphear output keeps coming, but here it's shaped into fizzy and recognizably late-'80s pop.
The sound is particularly trebly; Rickenbacker guitars, snappy snares, tambourines, woodblocks, handclaps, sitar-like effects, and horns both synthetic and actual abound. Mr. Mister/King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto brings syncopated swing that suggests the era's new jack R&B, and the band maintains the fun of its Dukes records. Even if bassist Colin Moulding sings, "You've got to help me get through these cynical days," the overall feeling here — like the sound mix itself — is light and unclouded. XTC once sang of burning with optimism's flame; here they're consistently doing it.
The vibrant opening salvo of "Garden of Earthly Delights," "The Mayor of Simpleton" and "King for a Day" is the closest XTC ever got to pop-rock commercialism, but they do it on their own crafty terms. Promoted with a suitably Anglo-whimsical video, "Mayor" became a major modern rock radio hit, and deservedly so; it's blatantly Beatle-esque and disarmingly guileless.
As announced upfront by the MLK/JFK/Jesus-alluding modern rock radio hit "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," 1992's Nonsuch is considerably darker than its predecessor, '89's Oranges & Lemons. Longtime Elton John collaborator Gus Dudgeon occupies the producer's chair, but aside from the greater emphasis on piano, the instrument on which Andy Partridge for the first time wrote many of his songs, the results suggest that all concerned aimed not to make a typically lush Dudgeon production. (Thankfully, that apparent rule is beautifully broken on "Wrapped in Grey," which suggests prime-era Elton backed by the Beach Boys, and "Bungalow," which echoes the complex chords of Burt Bacharach.)
Former Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks rarely syncs into a satisfying groove with bassist Colin Moulding, and although there are far fewer guitars, jarringly ordinary arena rock solos punctuate "That Wave" and "Books Are Burning." Although Partridge and Moulding's lyrical smarts are still in place, their melodies are sometimes substandard, and although several songs are linked with crossfades, Nonsuch lacks XTC's usual momentum. Still, "The Disappointed" ranks among its latter-day best; it's certainly the saddest.