XTatiCally Yours

Record Buyer and Music Collector
April 2002

As XTC receive the box set treatment, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding talk to Ian Shirley about their careers, their songwriting success and their aversion to playing live

The Cover

Having created timeless monuments to orchestrated pop in albums like 'Skylarking' and 'Apple Venus Volume 1', XTC seem content to let the music take centre-stage as they get on with life in the wings. Now, with Virgin's 4CD box set 'A Coat of Many Cupboards' (released this month) stirring up a tidal wave of renewed interest, can the Swindon-based band be persuaded to play live one last time?

Their last live date was back in 1982, and for Andy Partridge it's more a question of taste than stage fright. "I would just find it too distasteful and not something you do when you are a lumpy 48 year-old."

XTC started life in pre-punk 1975 as the Helium Kidz, Partridge (guitar, vocals), Colin Moulding (bass, vocals) and Terry Chambers (drums) being joined by two other musicians. In 1976 they changed their name to XTC and recruited Barry Andrews (keyboards) when the nameless pair left.

From the start, they were a pop band with an abrasive edge, as Moulding explains. "I don't think we could write anything where we didn't stop in the middle of it. It was always a stop or a stop where people were not expecting it. I think we were trying to catch our audiences out."

With constant gigging in the punk maelstrom, XTC began to attract attention. "The punk thing was to get in, really," recalls Andy. "In 1977 the record companies went mad and signed anything that had short hair." XTC had short hair.

Early songs were frenetic and energetic. Like the Stranglers, the keyboard antics of Barry Andrews gave XTC a different sound to the three-chord hordes. "With the early stuff, there was a lot of trying to shock and challenge audiences," says Andy. "It was a cross between Captain Beefheart's Magic Band and the Archies. We wanted people to see it as pop music and very acceptable and very modern but still wanted to challenge people by putting stuff in there that is not in your average pop single and we thought should have been."

Demos were recorded for CBS, but a contract wasn't forthcoming. "We bombarded John Peel with the demo and he gave us a radio session," says Andy, "so then we had four more demos from the radio sessions. We used all this stuff congealing around us as demos for Virgin."

The label that had signed the Sex Pistols acquired XTC in August 1977. At this time the single was king and Virgin wasted no time in recording the band and getting product like 'Science Friction' and 'Statue of Liberty' into the marketplace. The following year, 1978, saw two albums 'White Music' (February) and 'Go 2' (October) released to critical acclaim.

The second contained a bonus 12-inch single of Partridge's dub experiments. "As soon as we got in the studio it was 'Okay John (Leckie), show us how you work the desk then! Let's dub up one of our tracks! More reverb!' It was like being allowed into the sorcerer's laboratory."

Looking back, Partridge feels these first two albums were very much a learning experience. "It's like translation. You get chucked into the studio with a producer. John is a wonderful bloke, but those first two records was him translating from our language into English. But with any translation, however good it is, you're going to lose something."

Actually, both albums retain great charm and musically, XTC had a lot in common with bands like Wire, Talking Heads, the Buzzcocks, Devo and Television with an approach that was firmly routed in left-field pop sensibility.

In 1978 Barry Andrews left the band. There was personal friction between him and Partridge as the keyboard player wanted more musical experimentation. "Barry was taking it too different too quickly. Colin and I were thinking 'Help! The rug's being pulled from under us!' We were trying to establish the band's identity and grow slowly. He wanted to change immediately." As Andrews formed Shriekback, Partridge thought that XTC might sink as "those 'rocking goose' kind of fairground keyboards were 50 per cent of the sound".

Rather than try to fill the keyboard chair, the band recruited another Swindon-based guitarist, Dave Gregory, whom Partridge had known for some time. He was an excellent musician, but had no interest in songwriting and so was no challenge to the writing axis of Partridge and Moulding. New recordings also began to pay dividends and the infectious 'Life Begins At The Hop' crept into the lower reaches of the singles charts in May 1979. Four months later 'Making Plans For Nigel' went Top 20.

Third album 'Drums and Wires', released in the same month, introduced the new XTC sound. "It was much more the two guitars weaving in and out and the keyboard was background ornamentation here and there. It wasn't central any more. On the first two albums the central axis of the band was those fairground keyboards."

'Drums and Wires' was the first mature musical statement from XTC and, apart from the singles, there were excellent tracks like 'Helicopter', 'Ten Feet Tall' and 'Reel by Reel'. Now they had scored a hit, Virgin wanted more. As Colin recalls, "I think at that time we were leaned on quite a bit by the record company because the pressure was on to get the next single and for it to be a success. Once you get on Top Of The Pops, that starts a momentum you can't drop: the record company won't let you, they want blood."

The success of 'Hop' and 'Nigel', both written by Moulding, was galling to the ultra-competitive Partridge, who had not, to date, crafted a hit. After two further singles failed to chart, this state of affairs was corrected the following year with 'Generals and Majors' and 'Towers of London' which put XTC back into the lower reaches of the charts.

January 1981 saw 'Sgt Rock' climb to Number 16 - higher than 'Nigel', which pleased Partridge no end. All three tracks were culled from the band's fourth album 'Black Sea' (1980) which, like 'Drums and Wires' was another assured collection. At this stage XTC played the pop game. They toured the globe and were willing to undertake any promotional duties Virgin threw their way. "They wanted us to be the power-pop teen dream thing. We had our stint doing Smash Hits and the girlie mags and stuff," recalls Andy. "It was always 'I'm not standing in the middle because no-one wanted the staple in the middle of their face for the centrefold!'"

The band decided to self-produce their fourth album. "We did a couple of albums with Steve Lillywhite as producer and Hugh Padgham as engineer," says Andy, "and we twigged that it was Hugh who was getting all the great sounds and we were making the music, so what did we need Lillywhite for? We thought that we'll get us and Hugh and go in the studio and it would be a great album."

The resulting double 'English Settlement' (1982) satisfied all parties. 'Senses Working Overtime' was to become XTC's biggest hit when it went Top 10 in January 1982. The album went Top 5 with gems like the clattering magnificence of 'Jason And The Argonauts' and the electronic pulse of 'Fly On The Wall'.

Then the wheels came off. The band had toured hard for five years. Partridge had began to develop stage fright and things came to a head during promotional duties for 'English Settlement'. He had a breakdown and a European tour had to be cancelled. Then, one date into a tour of America, he literally could not go on and the remaining dates had to be cancelled.

"I stopped playing live because I was very malcontent with it and it did scare me and I honestly did feel that I wanted a normal life. I was sick of the road. After five solid years, it was a prison sentence. I just wanted a normal life and to be quiet," Andy explains. This was the last thing Virgin wanted. With pop video and MTV not yet out of the pram, touring was the most effective way for a band to promote their singles and albums.

XTC also had managerial problems that took time, effort, energy and money to resolve. With a musical sea change taking place, their time as a UK pop band was coming to a close. As Colin recalls, "I remember when we came back from America after our aborted tour of 1982. We came back and people like Spandau Ballet had moved onto the scene; new groups were coming up and there was no place for us."

As if to emphasise this point, a great single 'Ball And Chain' only scraped into the Top 60 in March 1982. "Our career in England ended about 1981, '82 at the most. That's it!" recalls Andy. "They've had their 15 minutes, pull the plug!"

With Partridge piecing his soul back together, work commenced on sessions for the next album. However it was completed without Terry Chambers who left the band. He had married an Australian who wanted to go home and, with the band no longer touring, could see no reason not to go with her. Staying with XTC - up to their necks in debt to Virgin - would have been nothing but love on a farmboy's wages.

The next two XTC albums 'Mummer' (1983) and 'The Big Express' (1984) were the sound of a band in transition. Armed with session drummers, they are respectable efforts and evidence of Partridge and Moulding's continued upward trend as songwriters, but there was something missing. To Virgin it was obvious - hit singles! In truth, how a track as beautiful as 'Wonderland' never made an impact remains a mystery.

Virgin retained blind faith or, more likely, were desperate to get some kind of return on their heavy investment. But the next album would be made on their terms. "They had grown short of patience with us," says Andy. "They told us that to break America we needed an American producer. Here's a list, pick one from there. We didn't know any on the list; it was like a load of solicitor's names."

They came up with a second list, on the bottom of which was Todd Rundgren. Dave Gregory was a huge fan and had "paroxysms of delight" when he saw the name and so this fantastic musician and arranger was chosen.

X T C  U K  D I S C O G R A P H Y
Oct 1977 Science Friction
Nov 1977 3D-EP
Jan 1978 Statue of Liberty
Mar 1978 This is Pop?
Oct 1978 Are You Receiving Me?
Apr 1979 Life Begins at the Hop
Aug 1979 Chain of Command
Sep 1979 Making Plans For Nigel
Mar 1980 Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down
Aug 1980 Generals and Majors
Oct 1980 Towers Of London
Nov 1980 Take This Town
Dec 1980 Sgt. Rock (is Going to Help Me)
Mar 1981 Respectable Street
Jan 1982 Senses Working Overtime
Feb 1982 Ball and Chain
May 1982 No Thugs In Our House
Apr 1983 Great Fire
Jun 1983 Wonderland
Sep 1983 Love On A Farmboy's Wages
Sep 1984 All You Pretty Girls
Oct 1984 This World Over
Jan 1985 Wake Up
Aug 1986 Grass
Feb 1987 The Meeting Place
Jun 1987 Dear God
Jan 1989 Mayor Of Simpleton
Apr 1989 King For A Day
Aug 1989 The Loving
Mar 1992 The Disappointed
May 1992 The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
Apr 1999 Easter Theatre
Jun 1999 I'd Like That
Jan 1978 White Music
Oct 1978 Go 2
Aug 1979 Drums And Wires
Sep 1980 Black Sea
Feb 1982 English Settlement
Nov 1982 Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982
Nov 1982 Beeswax: Some B-Sides 1977-1982
Aug 1983 Mummer
Oct 1984 The Big Express
Oct 1986 Skylarking
Jan 1987 The Compact XTC: The Singles 1978-85
Feb 1989 Oranges and Lemons
Aug 1990 Explode Together
(The Dub Experiments '78-80)
Sep 1990 Rag & Bone Buffet
(Rare Cuts & Leftovers)
Mar 1992 Nonsuch
Nov 1992 BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert
Oct 1994 Drums and Wireless: BBC Radio Sessions 77-89
Sep 1996 Fossil Fuel - The XTC Singles 1977-92
Nov 1998 Transistor Blast 4-CD box set
Feb 1999 Apple Venus Volume 1
Sep 1999 Homespun - The Apple Venus Volume 1 Home Demos
May 2000 Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
May 2001 Homegrown (The Wasp Star Home Demos)
The Dukes of Stratosphear
Apr 1985 25 O'Clock
Aug 1987 Psonic Psunspot
1989 Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

In the studio, Partridge - as main songwriter - was used to getting his own way. Working with the equally strong-willed Rundgren became a case of irresistable force meeting immovable object. "He did his job," recalls Andy, "which was to keep us in line - we had to do what we were told and we didn't want to do that. He was also a fellow whose ego was as big as his height. You were on his turf, it was his studio, he had been paid the whole amount of money to produce the album, engineer it and organise the whole thing and to get that done smoothly, you were going to darned well do as he said!"

Rundgren chose the tracks to be recorded and the running order of the album. He chose Moulding compositions at the expense of Partridge, which led to friction all round. "It was not pleasurable for me," says Andy. "It was one of those two unpleasant times that we made an album, the other one was all the problems with Dave going 'Apple Venus'. Funnily enough, the two albums that were the hardest to make were the best ones."

Rundgren 'produced' a fantastic album, with tracks like 'Summer's Cauldron', 'The Meeting Place', 'That's Really Super, Supergirl', 'Season's Cycle' a delight. When released in the UK 'Skylarking' received a rapturous reception from the critics who added 'pastoral' to the XTC review phrasebook.

Though the album spent one week in the charts at Number 90, things were taking off on the other side of the Atlantic. The B-side to the beautiful Moulding-penned single 'Grass' was a non-album Partridge track 'Dear God'. It began to receive strong airplay on the American college circuit and struck a chord with its questioning of religious orthodoxy. Released as a single, it was also placed on the American issue of 'Skylarking' which went on to sell 250,000 copies.

When it came to recording their next album, Partridge passed on Rundgren. Fellow American Paul Fox got the job. "He was a fan of ours," recalls Colin. "I don't think he wanted to upset us. The only times we ever got near a nasty scene was when he didn't want to side with one or the other of us on a decision!"

'Oranges And Lemons' (1989) was the musical equal to 'Skylarking'. Songs like 'Chalkhills And Children' and 'King For A Day' remain XTC classics. Serious units were shifted on both sides of the Atlantic and Virgin danced with delight when 'The Mayor Of Simpleton' became a hit single. Partridge and Moulding had reached maturity as songwriters.

When pressure was exerted for XTC to tour again, things got to the ridiculous stage of considering the employment of Thomas Dolby as some kind of singing body double for the reticent Partridge. Thankfully, this did not happen and no amount of flattery would change his mind. He did, however, consent to play a small tour of US radio stations and acoustically 'busk' a few numbers.

The three-man XTC also appeared on MTV. "We kind of started the whole unplugged thing - I stand guilty for that!" Partridge enjoyed the intimacy of these appearances and it was not trying on his nerves. As Colin recalls, "It depended on how much of an event they made of it. If they had 50 or 60 people on the other side of the glass in the radio station you were playing to a small audience. The other side of the coin was turning up at some radio station in Texas and there was only two people."

A similar promotional tour in Europe was cancelled after Partridge visited Paris and discovered that the 'radio' show was going to be broadcast from a 5,000-seater venue where all the tickets had already been sold!

By this time Partridge had indulged a long-cherished fantasy project. As early as 1978 he had wanted to put together an album by a band called the Dukes of Stratosphear to recreate the sound of psychedelic singles he had enjoyed as a boy. The Dukes finally got an outing in 1984. "I was still burning to do it and we had some studio down time and I knew John Leckie had nothing to do. It was a case of going into the studio and knocking it up," he explains.

To recreate the '60s sound, original gear was tracked down and most songs were banged down in a few takes. With the addition of Dave Gregory's brother Eewee on drums, XTC assumed fake names. "It is a bit like going to a fancy dress party," says Andy. "There's no pressure to be yourself so you can be anything you want to be. In this case we chose to be an English band from the time who sounded a little too much like every other band from the late '60s.

"I didn't want Virgin to reveal it was us, but they wanted maximum sales. They put some sticker on that said 'You'll be in XTC when you hear this!' Not very subtle!"

The first Dukes mini-album, '25 O Clock' was released on April Fool's Day 1985 and actually outsold official album 'The Big Express'. After the success of 'Skylarking', the Dukes were reactivated - at Virgin's request - for another outing. Both mini-albums are now collected together on the CD 'Chips From The Chocolate Fireball'.

According to Partridge, there could have been a third Dukes outing, "because we had not touched the Who's psychedelia. They had a psychedelic bent and the Bee Gees had an entire psychedelic career. But how many times can you tell the same gag?" The Dukes won many converts and, through this busman's holiday, John Leckie got to work with the Stone Roses, Kula Shaker and the Shamen who adored the sound.

XTC's tenth studio album 'Nonsuch' was released in 1992. Although it spawned the minor hit 'Peter Pumpkinhead' Virgin were not really behind was was an excellent album. In truth, the label was in turmoil after being taken over by EMI who set about a serious spring-clean of the roster. XTC asked to be released but "the bastards wouldn't throw us off, so we were obviously making them too much cash."

If Virgin would not let them go XTC decided to add another string to their bow; the band that did not tour became the band that refused to make albums. They went on strike and, between 1992 and 1999, there were no new XTC records apart from singles compilations like 'Fossil Fuel' (1996). "I loathe to call it greatest hits," says Andy. "It was more our greatest attempts."

Ironically, at this time there was a growing XTC generation with the rise of the Brit-pop masses like Pulp, Blur, Suede and Ride. Partridge was even called in to produce Blur's second album, 'Modern Life Is Rubbish'. Three tracks in, he fell out with a record label executive and left the project. He also composed the theme music for TV's Never Mind The Buzzcocks, but it was rejected!

In 1995 XTC became contractually free of Virgin and, securing a deal with Cooking Vinyl, they set about recording an orchestral pop album. "That was something that I had wanted to do for a long time," says Andy. "You could see it creeping in on 'Nonsuch' where I think the best tracks were the ones that went that way, like 'Wrapped In Grey', 'Bungalow', 'Rook', and 'Omnibus' - ones that were not rock'n'roll instrumentation.

"'Omnibus' sounded to me as if it could have been from a stage musical, Lionel Bart could have written it; you could have had Anthony Newley singing it. For me, those particular four tracks were pointing the way I wanted to go."

As with 'Skylarking', there was creative tension in the studio. Dave Gregory was not happy that Partridge and Moulding wanted to make an orchestral record and employ a string arranger. But having to for out £15,000 for a single day to record an orchestra and various solo players in Abbey Road required perfect musical notation. "The biggest rub for him," says Colin, "was the fact that there would be very few guitar-orientated songs, and playing guitar was his gig. We decided we would like to do the orchestral acoustic side of things before we got on with the meat and two veg and that did not sit with him very well."

As he was not a songwriter and only got mechanical rather than publishing royalties, Gregory had probably resented XTC not touring. During the lean years, to make ends meet, he had worked in a car-hire business. His departure would leave the band a two-piece, but 'Apple Venus Volume 1' (1999) was nevertheless a triumph. It plays like an effortless suite and all tracks are outstanding, although special mention must go to 'I Can't Own Her' and 'Harvest Festival'. It received great reviews and sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.

The guitar-driven pop of 'Wasp Star' followed in 2000. Both albums confirmed Partridge and Moulding's ability to craft beautiful pop songs that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson. Of course, such praise is water off a duck's back to Andy. "It's very flattering being compared to writers who have earned a lot more money than you have. Unfortunately, the earning a lot of money voodoo does not wear off. We've never got the cash."

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to Paul Rodgers]