The Encyclopedia of Pop Rock and Soul: XTC

The Encyclopedia of Pop Rock and Soul, revised edition
by Irwin Stambler
St. Martin's Press, New York, 1989.

XTC: Vocal and instrumental group. Original members (1976): Andy Partridge, born Malta; others all born U.K.: Barry Andrews, Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers. Andrews replaced by Dave Gregory in 1979. Chambers left in 1982.

A group that provided melodically challenging and high-vitality postpunk rock, XTC might be bracketed with Talking Heads as a thinking person's band, though the two groups' styles weren't directly comparable. XTC gained enormous popularity in the U.K. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but remained essentially a cult favorite in the U.S. during those years.

The group's members mostly grew up in working class areas of Swindon, England, where all forsook formal education in their teens in favor of essaying pop music careers. Andy Partridge, born on the Mediterranean island of Malta, was taken to England by his family at an early age and stayed in school until age 15. After that, he worked as a “teaboy” (English equivalent of a U.S. “gofer”) at a newspaper and then took art classes at a local technical college while teaching himself to play guitar in his off hours. About the same time, Colin Moulding, who lived on the same block as Partridge, was learning bass guitar while bringing in spare change as a milkman's assistant, day laborer, and council worker. Their drummer acquaintance Terry Chambers had been thrown out of school at 15 for an incident in which he overimbibed hard cider. Like others of his age group, he dreamed of music success as he worked at a series of jobs including builder's merchant and lithographic printer.

Those three played with many different bands, sometimes together, sometimes separately, including Star Park, the Helium Kids [sic], Skyscraper, and Snakes, before getting together to found XTC in 1976. The group started as a foursome with Barry Andrews joining as keyboards player. By early 1977, they had build up a substantial following in the Swindon area. Encouraged by that reception, as well as favorable comments by local writers about the band's combination of humor and incisive comment on the depressing teen-employment environment, Partridge and friends felt the time was ripe to move to London, where the punk movement was in full flower.

In mid-1977, the group signed with Virgin Records, which issued its debut single, “3 DEP,” [sic] in October, followed by five more singles through 1979 including “Making Plans for Nigel,” a top 20 U.K. hit in late 1979. In 1978, Virgin released the band's first two British albums: White Music and Go 2. Both made the English top 30.

The band supported its records with almost non-stop touring, initially in the U.K., but later in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, Continental Europe, and eventually the U.S. The band's debut in the States came on New Year's Eve 1978 on a bill that included the Talking Heads. The audience reaction was good enough to bring porposals for a dozen more appearances in 1979. It also spurred the record company to make plans for a more ambitious tour later in the year to coincide with the band's first LP to be released in the U.S., Drums & Wires. Before that took place, XTC had to reorganize a bit back in Swindon when Andrews decided to leave. His place was taken by Dave Gregory, who had played keyboards on occasion with the band in the past. His previous credentials included working as a guitarist/keyboardist with Dean Gabber and his Gabberdines.

The new alignment still won praise from British critics. Writing in New Musical Express, Paul Morley enthused that XTC continued to excel at “making multilayered music of wit and elegance . . . music that demands new adjectives.” John Orme of Melody Maker called Drums & Wires a very impressive album in which “with a bit of complexity, contrast, fluency, and humour, XTC has broken cover and broken ground.”

Partridge stated in record company bio notes: “I came into music about the time of psychedelia and it was magic. It was sort of R & B plus magic -- which is really what we do. . . . I like lumps and spike bits and music that makes you think ‘Oh! Gosh! What's that?’ XTC have always made people say ‘Gosh’ and for all the right reasons.”

The Drums & Wires album, backed by a number of live appearances in the U.S., made a respectable number of stateside fans aware of the band. Its excellent follow-up, Black Sea (1980), moved into the top 50 region.

However, by late 1981, there were signs of burnout among band members that caused a hiatus in live performances. Partridge, for one, had developed a strong antipathy to crowds of all kinds. The band's newest LP, English Settlement, was released both in the U.K. and in the U.S., but while it did well at home, it didn't expand the audience acquired with Black Sea, perhaps because of the dearth of concert support. In late 1982, Terry Chambers, disgruntled with the lack of activity, left the group for new pastures in Australia. Partridge, Moulding, and Gregory decided to carry on as a threesome.

During 1983, they began work on another studio album, one that emphasized acoustic instruments. Mummer (fall 1983) was released on a new U.S. label, Geffen Records. The album did not spend much time on the charts in either Britain or the States, suggesting some confusion among fans about its softer tone compared to the previous album's.

In 1984, band members returned to the hard-blues approach of its salad days for the next studio compilation. Partridge stated: “With our new album I wanted to crank it up again, to let the music have a more boisterous feel. The lyrics of Mummer had a very small horizon about the size of my back garden. The new album (The Big Express) is a harder record that has us looking out at the world again.”

The album, released by Geffen in the U.S. in October 1984, was an interesting one, but again did not catch fire with record buyers beyond the band's hardcore following. (In 1985, the group's psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, completed the LP 25 O'Clock, issued only in England.) Geffen executives expressed confidence that the band's importance would eventually be realized by a larger number of rock fans as the label issued the new LP Skylarking in 1986.

Despite the group's problems in winning large-scale respect outside England, optimism has always been part of Partridge's outlook. He expressed that to Kristine McKenna (Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1982): “Pop music is full of lots of fun and carnage -- the microphone bending, shirt-slashed-to-the-waist stuff. We don't deal with that, not only because we're not particularly handsome, shirt-slashed-to-the-waist types, but because we have different goals. Music can't change the culture, but I do believe it can reflect hope. Perhaps it's naïve of me, but that's something I want to do.”

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