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.