Formed Swindon, England, 1975.
 "The problem is that none of us have a streak of showbiz in us." Andy Partridge

One of the most admired and frustrating British bands of the last twenty years, XTC provoke a fervour which bands selling ten times as many albums would kill for. Drawing heavily on angular melody, pure pop psychedelia, rural folk, and straightahead 60s Beat, XTC combine a love of all things English — steam trains and fairgrounds, suburban gardens and village summers, West Country bitter and bungalows — with 50s Americana, the atom age, science fiction.

After ditching the name The Helium Kidz, XTC signed to Virgin in 1977, riding in on the coat-tails of punk. Chief songwriters Andy Partridge (vocals/guitar) and Colin Moulding (bass/vocals) were ably supported by Terry Chambers (drums) and frenzied keyboard player Barry Andrews. Their debut, the punchy WHITE MUSIC (1978), was welcomed warmly by the music press, and with the same year's follow-up, GO 2 (1978), it became clear that Partridge and Moulding were fine new writers, throwing conventional pop off-kilter with intricate melody lines and quirky lyrics.

Recruiting Dave Gregory (guitar/keyboards/vocals) to replace Andrews (whom Robert Fripp had persuaded to join The League of Gentlemen), XTC allied themselves with producer Steve Lillywhite and stepped up a gear, releasing a string of albums that would take them from also-rans to contenders. First up was DRUMS AND WIRES (1979), so named to describe the band's new sound, a subtle, imaginative, coherent album, which spawned a UK Top 20 hit, "Making Plans For Nigel".

Banged out remarkably quickly, BLACK SEA (1980) was stuffed with cracking songs ("Generals And Majors", "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)", "Living Through Another Cuba"), all held together in a full but fuss-free production. Partridge imposed a strict discipline to the record: no overdubs unless they could be played live, keep the drums loud and the guitars ‘cranked up’. Faced with their strongest album (and chart placings in both the UK and US), XTC did what all bands in that position do: embarked on a world tour of lunatic proportions, which was to have serious consequences.

After dispensing with Lillywhite's services, the band fashioned their masterpiece. ENGLISH SETTLEMENT (1982) showcased an impressive variety of styles: the folk-tinted "All Of A Sudden (It's Too Late)"; the rousing "Senses Working Overtime" (their highest chart placing); Moulding's warm, enveloping "Runaway"; and the bright and cheerful "Ball And Chain". Contemporarily, unashamedly English, it matched sales to reputation and further enhanced XTC's name in the US.

With a fearsome live reputation and a war chest of top-class material, XTC seemed to be merely a step away from the world stage. But the steps became a stumble, then a fall. Partridge, though happy with ENGLISH SETTLEMENT, viewed another world tour with fear and loathing, and his behaviour on the road was becoming ever more bizarre. He began to suffer from crippling stage fright: in Paris, in acute distress, he abruptly left the stage, causing the cancellation of the European and British dates. After just one performance in San Diego, he decided enough was enough. The whole US leg was abandoned and Partridge flew home. XTC would never recapture the high ground again. Released as singles, "Ball And Chain" and "No Thugs In Our House" flopped; Chambers, disillusioned with the tour debacle and the new direction, upped sticks and left.

Once the dust had settled, XTC regrouped (drummer Peter Phippes came in for recordings), but successive producers were to struggle with Partridge over the interpretation of XTC's mercurial ideas. MUMMER (1983), an album with real charm and melodic grace ("Love On A Farm Boy's Wages"), was confused by the lack of continuity that three producers inevitably brought to it. THE BIG EXPRESS (1984) was little better — fussy, overproduced, underperformed.

With time and money in hand after an abortive Mary Margaret O'Hara production, Partridge set out on an all-out celebration of English psychedelia under the guise of band alter ego, The Dukes Of Stratosphear. Their 25 O'CLOCK (1985) outsold THE BIG EXPRESS and rekindled the band's appetite for the real thing. Virgin committed themselves, and XTC flew to America to work with Todd Rundgren (theoretically a marriage made in heaven) for SKYLARKING (1986). Out of the chaos brought about by rows between Rundgren and Partridge came a luscious pop album, richly textured, cinematically arranged, laced with a healthy dose of Brian Wilson. "Grass" unexpectedly began to pick up airplay in the US on the strength of its flip side, "Dear God", a track not on the album. Hastily re-pressed to include it, SKYLARKING sold 250,000 copies in the US, and it seemed as if a corner had been turned.

The Dukes reconvened, released PSONIC PSUNSPOT (1987), and the CD-only compilation CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL, and then retired. Virgin wanted to consolidate on SKYLARKING'S success in America but Partridge couldn't face another Rundgren run-in, so chose, by way of a Boy George remix, rookie producer Paul Fox. Recording, by and large trouble-free, though at times frustratingly slow, produced ORANGES AND LEMONS (1989), another wonderful album. Preceded by "The Major Of Simpleton", Partridge's lexicon wordplay set against a big twelve-string guitar sound, it was an inspiring set, and its reception encouraged XTC to embark tentatively on an acoustic ‘tour’ of US radio stations, setting foot outside the protective bubble of the studio at long last.

It's a recurring theme of XTC's career that, when it's all going right, it all goes wrong. ORANGES AND LEMONS finally ran out of steam (Partridge refusing any more live duties) and Virgin rejected two sets of songs that Partridge felt represented some of his best work. XTC ended a five-year lawsuit with one ex-manager and promptly lost the services of his replacement; dozens of producers auditioned for a new album, with veteran Gus Dudgeon winning selection. Once again, recording became a bruising affair: Partridge was aghast at what he felt was Dudgeon's blasé attitude to some of the more personal songs; Dudgeon felt it was high time XTC sold some records to reinforce their critical acclaim. Dudgeon was eventually fired, but NONSUCH (1992) was another splendid collection, a combination of the highly reflective ("Rook"), the soaringly melodic ("The Disappointed", "Dear Madam Barnum", "My Bird Performs"), and the downright menacing ("Books Are Burning"). At this point, the XTC story disintegrated for a while. NONSUCH faded fast, which was strange given the direction British music was about to take, with XTC and Virgin finally parting company amid some confusion.

Partridge and Gregory have indulged in several separate collaborative projects and productions with, amongst others, Harold Budd. Belatedly some appreciation for a band to whom the new generation of groups, whether they know it or not, clearly owe a debt has been forthcoming; 1995 saw the release (in the US only) of A TESTIMONIAL DINNER: THE SONGS OF XTC (Thirsty Ear Records), and Virgin themselves issued FOSSIL FUEL: THE XTC SINGLES COLLECTION (1996), by far the best of the various compilation efforts.

XTC, demos in hand, finally signed to Cooking Vinyl and proceeded with APPLE VENUS VOLUME 1 (1999). A stunning piece of work, with magnificent orchestral arrangements, the album won lavish praise from the UK music press, with stand-out track "River Of Orchids" showing XTC at their heart-stopping best. Dave Gregory left the band during the recordings, though Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding pressed ahead with a four-CD set of BBC-recorded and live material, TRANSISTOR BLAST (1998).

A second set of the Apple Venus Volumes, WASP STAR (APPLE VENUS VOLUME 2) was released in Spring 2000. Forsaking the orchestrated and somewhat experimental nature of VOLUME 1 for more conventional sounding material, VOLUME 2 simply offered further proof that quality pop song-writing comes naturally to some people irrespective of age, major label status or chart position. Freed from an increasingly incompatible relationship with Virgin Records and with their future by and large in their own hands, these will be interesting times out West. Still love to see 'em live again, though.

CD Recommendations

Skylarking (1986; Virgin).

A fabulous record — sensuous, summery and shimmering. Just be certain to make sure your copy has "Dear God" on it.

Oranges And Lemons (1989; Virgin).

Not as retro as the cover would have you believe. It's breezy ("The Mayor Of Simpleton", "The Loving"), witty ("Pink Thing"), and earthy ("Garden Of Earthly Delights"). Messrs Partridge and Moulding are still there with the best of them.

Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles Collection (1996; Virgin).

Nobody else put out the kind of commercially suicidal singles that XTC dreamt up. So this may be a by-the-book vault-raider, but when that book is as beautifully diverse as this, who's complaining?

Apple Venus Volume 1 (1999; Cooking Vinyl).

Their first studio album in ages — clever, considered and cool. Work of this quality, created by a studio-bound duo, is bound to draw comparisons with Steely Dan. No bad thing, either.

Homespun: Apple Venus Volume 1

Apple Venus Volume 1 — XTC's first release for seven years, was a glorious return to form. It's a shame then, that this set of related demos sheds so little light on that album's evolution — orchestral backing and vocal overdubs aside, it seems the songs sprang into life almost fully fledged, despite generous sleevenotes which indicate the contrary. It's an impression reinforced by the track sequencing of Homespun, which apes Apple Venus, leaving a nagging feeling that adding a few outtakes might have better illustrated the creative process. Still, ‘Greenman’ remains a jaunty slice of English pastoral-meets-Bollywood whether stripped down or string-laden. Also present are the stronger McCartneyisms of ‘I'd Like That’ — removed from the later album mix. Great stuff in itself — though fans may feel somewhat underwhelmed by its familiarity.

Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000; Cooking Vinyl).

Wasp Star, a companion piece rather than a sequel to Apple Venus Volume 1, sees the band set aside the orchestrations and acoustics of its sister-release, dust down the old electrics and present a fine slice of guitar 'n' drums pop. The idea, to show us the full extent of XTC's range across the two albums, might have ended up as so much whimsical self-indulgence were it not for the sheer quality of the songwriting — ‘Playground’, ‘I'm The Man Who Murdered Love’ and ‘You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful’ lay out some sublime vocal melodies and arrangements across the most conventional of pop structures. Elsewhere ‘Boarded Up’ reminds us that things are less than idyllic in Britain's rural towns and ‘Standing In For Joe’ turns a well-worn story into a stunning 45. XTC are still a class act and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) is the best album to have been recorded in a garden shed for many a long year.

A Coat Of Many Cupboards (2002; Virgin).

In 1977 The Helium Kidz changed their name to XTC, signed to Virgin and spawned a legend. Though they never quite managed to break through to achieve mainstream success, they have, over the years, generated a following of almost obsessive fans and produced some of the most remarkable music of our time. In 2001 these fans were rewarded by the remastered release of the band's catalogue, and now comes A Coat Of Many Cupboards, a four-CD box-set of demos and the band-picked favourites from down the years. Listening to these discs, the group's ability to transcend their punk beginnings to become a distinct, eccentric British pop entity is perfectly communicated. Both their influences and influence shine through — modern indie music would be nothing without the legacy of XTC.

Copyright 2001

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