Andy Partridge, the chief songwriter and coleader of the band XTC, has a chip on his shoulder about being from Swindon, a city of 233,000 in Wiltshire, about 70 miles west of London, England. In 2016, he explained why to an interviewer from Louder: “To the English, anything that comes from Swindon must have comedic value. And I think it’s held us back terribly.” He went on to say that if the band had been American, or even came from the northern city of Manchester, birthplace of many great English groups, it would have been held in higher esteem. “We were f**king brilliant,” he asserted: “One of the greats.”
I don’t know anything about Swindon. Perhaps a group from what appears to be a small, provincial English city can expect the same level of respect accorded to an American band from, say, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Partridge is correct in his appraisal of the band, though. XTC is among the greatest bands of any era of rock music, and Partridge’s songwriting is as varied and accomplished as that of any composer of his generation. His coleader, bassist Colin Moulding, was less prolific but wrote tunes that were every bit as strong as Partridge’s.
Andy Partridge was born in 1953 on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where his father was stationed as a navy signalman. The family soon moved from what was then a British colony to Swindon, where Partridge grew up in a council estate. He caught the pop-music bug when The Beatles became the rage, but only gave real thought to being a musician from watching the TV show The Monkees. “I thought this being in a group thing looks great,” he told Contrast in 1990. “You all get to live in one house, you get to come down on a fire pole in the morning, and you can just turn up anywhere with your guitar, plug in, and you sound great.”
Partridge submitted a caricature of the Monkees’ drummer, Mickey Dolenz, to a contest sponsored by Monkees Monthly, a UK fanzine. He won £10, which he put toward a Grundig tape recorder. He would later use the Grundig to record his early attempts at songwriting when he started playing guitar. In time, his musical tastes broadened.
He quit school at 16 and started the first of several “loud and horrid” bands. Partridge got a job at a record shop in 1972, which helped further expand his musical interests, and was listening to The Stooges, New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, and Pink Fairies. He also had a firmly established band, Star Park, that included Colin Moulding on bass and Terry Chambers on drums.
Moulding and Partridge grew up in the same council estate in Swindon. Moulding, like his neighbor, became interested in music during the rise of the great British bands in the ’60s and started teaching himself to play bass at 15. “I thought that playing a bass, with four strings, would be infinitely easier than playing a guitar, with six strings,” he told Bass Player magazine in 1992. “That was a horrible misconception!” Chambers, another Swindon native, was also self-taught.
Other musicians drifted in and out of Star Park, but Partridge, Moulding, and Chambers were the band’s core players. The band renamed itself The Helium Kidz in 1973 and settled into a lineup that included guitarist Dave Cartner. The Helium Kidz began submitting demo tapes to record companies and received a mention in the influential British rock-music newspaper New Musical Express.
In 1975, Partridge decided to change the name again, and briefly considered “The Dukes of the Stratosphear.” He told one rock journalist that XTC came from something he remembered hearing Jimmy Durante say in a comedy routine: “That’s it! I’m in ecstasy!” Cartner had left the band, and other musicians drifted in and out. Keyboard player Barry Andrews joined in 1977, and by that point XTC had a manager who was getting them regular bookings.
John Peel, a highly influential BBC radio personality, heard XTC when the band was performing at Ronnie Scott’s, a club in London. Peel was impressed and asked the band to appear on his BBC Radio 1 show. “John Peel was the man that was responsible for us getting a recording contract,” Partridge told Hit Channel magazine in 2017. “He was incredibly, incredibly important to the whole XTC story.” Several labels courted the band, which eventually signed with Virgin Records.
In April 1977, XTC recorded three tracks at Abbey Road Studios with producer John Leckie for its debut release. On 3D EP, only “Dance Band” hints at the unique sound the band would soon create. Moulding’s bass thumps solidly, Partridge’s guitar slashes, Chambers’s drums are rock-solid but fluid, and Andrews’s keyboards are slightly off-kilter and evocative. The tune combines ska, garage rock, and AM top-40 to create a track that is eccentric yet hummable.
Leckie and the band moved in to The Manor, the studio owned by Virgin Records, to record XTC’s first full-length LP. White Music was released by Virgin in January 1978. “Captain Beefheart meets The Archies” was how Partridge described the album to Mojo magazine in a 1999 feature on the band. “It’s just everything we ever listened to. The Beatles, Sun Ra, Atomic Rooster—anyone who’d done anything we liked.”
The strange, dissonant guitar chords on some tunes on White Music, especially “Cross Wires,” show the debt to Beefheart, but “This Is Pop?” is the song on the album that shows where Partridge’s musical interests lay. While White Music is influenced by everything from ska to punk, Partridge maintains it’s all pop music in the end. His bright-toned guitar chords, played higher up the neck, helped define XTC’s sound at that point, along with his slightly eccentric vocal delivery.
White Music created enough buzz that the band rerecorded “This Is Pop?” with producer Mutt Lange for a single, which didn’t chart. Neither did a single release of “Statue of Liberty.” The album went to number 40 on the UK charts, and in August 1978, XTC were back at Abbey Road with Leckie to record another album. Go 2 appeared in October and received generally positive reviews. The cover featured a long essay, in white letters on a black background, about how album covers are used to attract buyers.
When XTC went back into the studio that fall, Steve Lillywhite was the producer. Lillywhite and his engineer, Hugh Padgham, were just beginning to develop the impressive drum sound that would define their production technique and influence the sound of much of the pop music of the ’80s. Moulding was eager for the band to be more popular. “I wanted to ditch that quirky nonsense and do more straight-ahead pop,” he told Mojo in the 1999 piece.
In December, XTC was on a tour of the US promoting Go 2 when Andrews left the band. He had written tunes he hoped would make their way onto Go 2, but they had been rejected. The band asked guitarist Dave Gregory to join as a replacement. Gregory was also from Swindon and had auditioned for XTC earlier, but the band had preferred Andrews’s keyboards. Soon after Gregory started touring with XTC, the rest of the band realized he would help to refine its music. “We knew [Gregory] played his instrument very well,” Partridge told Mojo. “I was relieved that he didn’t write.”
Moulding wrote “Life Begins at the Hop,” with Gregory helping him develop the chord progression and coming up with a riff that pulls the song together. Lillywhite produced the recording and Virgin released it as a single in April 1979. It became the first XTC single to chart, reaching number 56.
Moulding’s next song hit number 16. “Making Plans for Nigel” opens with a great drumbeat, which Lillywhite processed to grand effect, and a solid rhythm-guitar line from Gregory. Partridge plays a bright, aggressive riff against Gregory’s chord progression and Moulding’s popping, firmly played bass lines fill things out. The song had a great melody, an ear-friendly hook, and enough XTC strangeness to make it stand out in a radio playlist.
Virgin Records released XTC’s third album, Drums and Wires, in August 1979. With that album, Moulding told Mojo, XTC’s “career officially started.” He and Partridge were writing better, more tightly structured songs, and the band became more focused with the addition of Gregory’s guitar. Andrews had been a colorful keyboard player, but Gregory added a firmer grounding to the songs.
Moulding gave XTC its first two hits, but Partridge’s songs, including “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” and “Reel by Reel” also showed chart potential. Drums and Wires was positively received, reached number 34 on the UK charts, and sold well in Europe and Canada. It was the first XTC album to be released in the US, with an altered song lineup, and charted at number 176.
Lillywhite and Padgham were in the studio with XTC in June 1980 to record a follow-up to Drums and Wires. Virgin released Moulding’s “Generals and Majors” in August as a preview of XTC’s fourth album, Black Sea, which the label released the following month. The song is another example of Moulding’s talent for writing memorable pop melodies, and is aided by Chambers’s steady and muscular drumming. The sound of whistling at various points in the song is a charming touch, and the backing vocals and guitars during the chorus demonstrate XTC’s growing sophistication in building strong arrangements for its songs.
Partridge wrote the next three singles from Black Sea. “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)” both charted well in the UK. “Respectable Street” might have done better if the BBC hadn’t banned it because of references to abortion and Sony hi-fi equipment. The syncopated, slashing guitars of the verses give way to a pop-music chorus that shows a Brian Wilson influence. Black Sea was even more disciplined than Drums and Wires, while retaining the slightly off-center qualities that made XTC unique. Partridge and Gregory play cross-cutting, occasionally dissonant chords on “Love at First Sight,” but the song is bouncy and enjoyable.
Virgin Records suggested Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley as producers for XTC’s follow-up to Black Sea. Langer and Winstanley had been having success in the early 1980s with Madness, but decided they weren’t right for XTC after recording three tunes with the band. Hugh Padgham, who had engineered Drums and Wires and Black Sea, came onboard to help the band produce the new album.
The band spent November and December in the studio, and Virgin released the two-LP English Settlement in February 1982. “With English Settlement I wanted to move in a more pastoral, more acoustic direction,” Partridge told The Quietus in 2012. English Settlement is XTC’s first masterpiece. The group’s instrumental skills and songwriting were fully developed and the instrumental pallet had been expanded by integrating keyboards back into the mix.
The strongest set of songs XTC had yet penned were aided by smart recording choices and well-developed arrangements. Chiming guitars accompany the opening chorus on Moulding’s “Runaways” before he begins playing a rolling, melodic bass line that is buoyed along by Chambers’s vigorous drumming. The verses contain disturbing images of children escaping difficult home lives (“Daddy hit you in a temper / But he’s sorry now / (Please come home.)” Gregory plays keyboard lines that enrich the song, and Partridge’s acoustic guitar in the right channel subtly fills out the arrangement.
Partridge’s “Senses Working Overtime” became XTC’s highest-charting single in the UK. In the 2017 documentary XTC: This Is Pop, Partridge says he had accidentally stumbled on a two-chord progression and thought: “Oh, that’s very nice. That sounds medieval.” The verses contain images of the way everyday life overwhelms our senses, while the cheery melody and lyrics of the chorus counsel using them to separate “the goods and grime / turds and treasure / And there’s one, two, three, four, five / senses working overtime.”
Some releases of English Settlement outside the UK were trimmed down to fit on a single LP, but even across four sides there are no fillers. Every song is innovative in melody and structure, and the band had learned how to use the recording studio effectively. “Jason and the Argonauts” employs a lush array of multitracked guitars to magical effect; Moulding’s “Ball and Chain” brings its criticism of Thatcherism home with stabbing guitar chords and slamming, explosive drums. The band shows its ska credentials with “Down in the Cockpit” and “English Roundabout,” and takes its own stab at world music with “It’s Nearly Africa.”
XTC had been touring for five years, but wasn’t seeing any money from its efforts. More problematic was Partridge’s aversion to performing live. Even the thought of performing could make him physically ill, and he endured some disturbing mental-health issues, such as memory loss. Shortly after English Settlement was released, he made the decision to stop touring altogether. None of the other band members were pleased, but Chambers in particular wanted the life of a touring musician and left the band.
XTC had already started recording Mummer (1983), its sixth album, when Chambers quit. He plays on three of its ten tracks; as soon as his drums ring out on “Beating of Hearts,” the song that opens the album, it’s clear that Chambers would be missed. He was a distinctive musician who knew how to deliver what Partridge and Moulding needed. Mummer moved XTC further into pastoral themes and includes one of the band’s best songs, “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages.” Despite some good songs, however, the album has the feel of a band trying to adjust after a significant personnel change, and drummer Peter Phipps, who took Chambers’s place on the recording sessions, sounds tentative.
The band regained its footing with The Big Express, released in the fall of 1984. Phipps seems to have a better grasp of what XTC needed than he did on Mummer. In addition, either David Lord or XTC, who share production credit, brought the drums back up in the mix. The album features denser, more complex arrangements and feels more confident than its predecessor. Guitars dominate on “Wake Up” and “Shake You Donkey Up,” but the Mellotron, a new acquisition for the band, brought depth and variety to several songs, especially the beautiful mid-tempo ballad “This World Over.” There are plenty of surprises, such as Partridge’s bluesy harp-playing on “Reign of Blows,” and overall The Big Express is a return to form.
Soon after XTC completed The Big Express, Partridge revealed a project that had been bouncing around in his head for a while. He and Gregory were fans of 1960s psychedelia, and Partridge convinced Virgin Records to fund a recording of the band, with Gregory’s brother Ian on drums, as the Dukes of the Stratosphear. Partridge and Moulding wrote songs in the style of the psychedelic bands they admired, and recorded them on vintage equipment in no more than two takes, with John Leckie returning as producer.
Virgin released the six-song EP 25 O’Clock on April Fools’ Day 1985. It’s a skillful re-creation of 1960s psychedelic rock, and an affectionate tribute to the genre. The label presented the record as a lost ’60s recording, and the band members are credited under pseudonyms: Sir John Johns (Partridge); The Red Curtain (Moulding); Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregory); and E.I.E.I. Owen (Ian Gregory).
The title track owes a bit to “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” the 1966 hit by the Electric Prunes, but stands on its own. “My Love Explodes” sounds a little like Jeff Beck–era Yardbirds, and “What in the World?? . . .” is the obligatory nod to The Beatles. Fuzz-toned bass lines, Farfisa organ sounds, and stereo-channel phasing made it possible to believe 25 O’Clock was a forgotten masterpiece from the past. It was a humorous and loving look back at the music that had inspired XTC.
XTC’s sales had been declining in the UK, where 25 O’Clock sold twice the number of copies that The Big Express managed. To broaden the band’s appeal, Virgin Records, and XTC’s American label, Geffen Records, proposed bringing in an American producer. When the labels mentioned Todd Rundgren, Gregory was pleased. “Of course, I’d reckoned without the ego problem,” he told Mojo. Struggles began even before the band flew to Rundgren’s studio in upstate New York.
Rundgren chose songs from the band’s demos and sequenced them around the vague concept of the songs unfolding over a single day. Partridge was used to more flexibility and having a bigger say in things. When it came time to record, he and Rundgren clashed frequently. Even with all the complaints about Rundgren that Partridge has made in interviews over the years, he has often agreed with the consensus that Skylarking (1986), the album that resulted, is XTC’s sublime pinnacle, and one of the best rock albums of any era.
The sound of crickets and birds leads into the album’s opener, Partridge’s “Summer’s Cauldron,” a song filled with rural images and memories of summer. Rundgren plays melodica on the track, which adds to its bucolic charm, and a swirling, processed organ gives the track a hazy, nostalgic feel. Partridge’s voice carries the melody with ease, aided at points by beautifully layered harmony vocals. The song moves easily into Moulding’s “Grass,” which features a Beatles-style string arrangement, ca. 1967. The lyrics playfully suggest it’s about cannabis (“Shocked me too the things we used to do on grass”), but the song is actually describing outdoor romantic activities.
Moulding wrote five of the tracks, and Partridge wrote the rest of the songs on the original album. All 14 of them are remarkable. It’s hard to pick standouts, since every tune is perfectly written, arranged, and presented on the record. Rundgren’s synthesizer style on “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is immediately recognizable but doesn’t dominate the song, and Gregory’s solo is one of his best and a high point of the album. “Ballet for a Rainy Day” is delicately beautiful and upbeat without becoming treacly, and “Earn Enough for Us” would surely have been a hit if it had been released as a single.
Rundgren’s arrangement for “The Man Who Sailed around His Soul” was based on John Barry’s film soundtracks, especially his music for the Bond films, and the tune has a Swinging Sixties vibe. The magical “Season Cycle” helps tie together the album’s themes, and with its stunning instrumental arrangement, matched to luxurious Beach Boys–style harmony vocals, it could be a lost track from that band’s Smile.
The 1960s psychedelic-era music that the Dukes of the Stratosphear used as a jumping-off point for 25 O’Clock seemed to have stayed with XTC, pushing it to new heights of creativity. The sitar lines on “Summer’s Cauldron” or Dave Gregory’s Beatlesque string arrangement on “1000 Umbrellas” hark back to the glory days of British rock, even as XTC made those elements of the songs sound fresh and current. It helped that Rundgren’s production gave the instruments space, and that the drummer he had hired for the recording, Prairie Prince, is inspired and brilliant throughout Skylarking. I was stunned to learn that Prince added his drum parts later to tracks Rundgren had already laid down with the band.
One song the group recorded but initially left off the album became an unexpected hit. “Dear God” was released as a B-side for the UK single release of “Grass,” and DJs at American college stations started playing it. The B-side became so popular that Geffen demanded it be returned to the album. It’s hard to nail down the reasons for removing it in the first place. The song’s cynical look at religion and belief in a deity caused some uproar, especially in the US, but it also drove album sales. Skylarking became XTC’s bestselling LP.
25 O’Clock had been so popular that Virgin asked for more Dukes of the Stratosphear material, and the quartet went back into the studio with John Leckie in June 1987. Psonic Psunspot was another skillful look back; paying tribute to the Hollies on “Vanishing Girl” and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds on “Pale and Precious.” Syd Barrett–era Pink Floyd peeks through on “Have You Seen Jackie?” but I also hear some early Frank Zappa on the track. Psonic Psunspot was again more popular, at least in the UK, than XTC’s own records, but it would be the last album by its alter-egos.
Another American producer, Paul Fox, came onboard to help with XTC’s 11th LP, Oranges & Lemons. The band spent three months during the summer of 1988 recording the album in Hollywood, California, and Virgin and Geffen released it in February 1989. While 1960s psychedelia is a touchstone for XTC, Oranges & Lemons fully embraced the era’s melodic pop. “Garden of Earthly Delights,” the first track, is probably the oddest tune on the album—and the trippiest—but it has an irresistible melody and hook.
“The Mayor of Simpleton” and Moulding’s “King for a Day” and “One of the Millions” would have fit nicely in any AM playlist, while other more complex tracks, such as “Poor Skeleton Steps Out” or “Miniature Sun” were ready-made for FM radio. XTC’s experience with Rundgren might have been unpleasant, but the albums that followed Skylarking demonstrate extraordinary confidence in the recording studio. The closing track of Oranges & Lemons is the stunningly beautiful “Chalkhills and Children,” a tribute to English beauty and culture that owes much to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” while still managing to sound quintessentially XTC.
It would be three years before XTC returned to the recording studio; this time with Gus Dudgeon, the veteran English producer who had worked with Elton John, among many others. Nonsuch (1992) is sparer than the two albums that preceded it, but it’s still rich in instrumental detail. Expansive, brightly ringing guitars set the tone for Moulding’s “My Bird Performs,” and Guy Barker’s flugelhorn lines are an inspired choice to sweeten the song. “Humble Daisy” is a simple paean to the English countryside, a travelogue in under four minutes.
“Books Are Burning” addresses censorship and the Salman Rushdie fatwa without hectoring. “Bungalow” shows Moulding to be as capable of capturing the flavor of English tradition as Ray Davies, and on “The Smartest Monkeys” he expresses cynicism about mankind’s progress while remaining tuneful and clever. The 17 songs on Nonsuch are consistently strong and confidently played. Partridge, not surprisingly, disagreed with Dudgeon’s decisions during the mixing stage of the album and fired him. Recording engineer Nick Davis finished the job, and the result is an album of great songcraft that’s sonically pleasing.
After Nonsuch, problems with Virgin Records, along with various financial woes, meant that XTC didn’t return to the studio for another seven years. When the group was finally ready to record again, it ran into funding shortfalls and delays. Gregory was frustrated with the slow pace of recording, as well as the nature of the music, which Partridge intended to be accompanied by orchestral arrangements. Gregory played on some tracks on Apple Venus, Volume 1, but left XTC before sessions were completed in August 1998.
When the album appeared on CD and vinyl the following February, it was on the small independent label Cooking Vinyl in the UK and TVT Records in the US. Partridge had overseen the recording of the string and woodwind arrangements, some of which he wrote, at Abbey Road Studios and spent time editing the results for use with his and Moulding’s songs. “River of Orchids” displays a complex array of instrumental textures used in support of an enchanting melody, with Partridge’s multitracked voice adding layers with each verse.
“I’d Like That” is a vision of simple pleasures, such as riding a bicycle in the rain, while “Knights in Shining Karma” is a lullaby, with images of chivalry and protection. Those songs gain their lavishness from layered vocal harmonies, while Moulding’s “Frivolous Tonight” is carried aloft by a gorgeous string arrangement. The album’s closer, “The Last Balloon,” is an invitation to float away from past mistakes toward something better. The song develops calmly, small orchestral touches growing in intensity, with Guy Barker’s flugelhorn solo bringing the track to a beautiful and moving conclusion. It’s ambitious and delightful, reaching for something grand but avoiding pretentiousness.
Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), released a year later, is XTC’s last album of new material. It’s a return to power pop after the previous album’s orchestral approaches. “Playground” is both whimsical and rocking, with sterling, forceful rhythm guitar from Partridge, whose driving riff on “Stupidly Happy” is only one of several elements in what should have been a hit single. Moulding’s “In Another Life” balances romance’s triumphs and difficulties, and “Boarded Up” is a sad look at the effects of urban planning—especially when it results in the closing of music venues. Partridge’s “The Wheel and the Maypole” looks at life’s cycles, and is divided into two distinct movements that work together seamlessly.
The album brings the XTC saga to a tuneful close, with one great song idea following another, brought to life by two musicians who had mastered the recording studio. Despite both Apple Venus and Wasp Star having been made on tight budgets, they are filled with many subtle surprises that come to the surface only with repeat plays. They were also expertly played. Prairie Prince was again on hand for the drum parts, and many other great musicians helped out, but Partridge and Moulding are noteworthy themselves on guitar and bass, respectively. Colin Moulding’s bass playing had been a key part of XTC’s recordings from the beginning, rhythmically sure-footed and melodically inventive enough to compare with the best players in rock.
Andy Partridge is also a formidable and unique player, and Dave Gregory’s contributions as guitarist, keyboardist, and arranger were essential to the band’s growth, especially after Chambers’s departure. It’s notable that after Gregory left, XTC soon ceased working together as a band. Partridge has continued to write songs, many of them recorded by other artists, and has collaborated with musicians as varied as Harold Budd and Robyn Hitchcock. Moulding has drifted in and out of music since XTC ended, and is currently spending more time with his family. Gregory is in demand as a session musician.
It’s hard to think of another musician or band in rock whose music is as varied and accomplished as XTC’s, or one whose recordings show such willingness to keep changing and growing. XTC absorbed the lessons of the great 1960s bands—in particular, the necessity for risk-taking to ensure creative vitality. As a result, over a roughly 20-year period, the band made a series of records that expertly show how rock’n’roll can be constantly reinvented.
. . . Joseph Taylor