XTC remain a critically-acclaimed band. They were formed in the post-punk New Wave of the late 1970s, but, once on the verge of greatness, their fall from grace was as shocking as it was sudden. Theirs is an everyday story of rock 'n' roll.
After playing in several local Swindon bands, notably Star Park and The Helium Kidz, the line-up that would become XTC were: Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar); Colin Moulding (bass); Terry Chambers (drums); and Jon Perkins (keyboards). They had sacked previous vocalist Steve Hutchins and Partridge had taken over the lead vocals role. When it came to naming the new band, they finally arrived at two choices: The Dukes Of The Stratosphear (which was eventually dismissed as too psychedelic)1, and XTC.
As the Helium Kidz, the band had already recorded some demos, and with the new line-up, they went back to the studio to record more demo songs to try to secure a recording contract. They eventually signed to Virgin. By this time, keyboardist Jon Perkins had been replaced by Barry Andrews. This was the line-up that would remain for the first two albums.
In 1977, having secured a recording contract and toured extensively2, XTC recorded their first release, The 3D EP, including 'Science Friction'. while receiving critical acclaim in the music press, it failed to impress the record-buying public. Returning to the studio, the band recorded their first album, White Music, and in early 1978 they released another single, 'Statue of Liberty'. The single was banned by Radio 13. Unfortunately, in those days, being banned did not automatically result in the single reaching the Number 1 spot; it failed to trouble the chart compilers.
After touring through much of the first half of 1978, XTC returned to the studio in August to record their second album, Go 2. The album was again well-received critically, but the first single, 'Are You Receiving Me?' failed to reach the Top 75.
The recording of Go 2 had seen acrimonious scenes between Partridge and Andrews. While touring in the US to promote the album, Andrews announced he was leaving XTC4. Although it was widely rumoured that XTC were seeking a new keyboard player (among those who auditioned was Thomas Dolby), Andrews was eventually replaced by Dave Gregory, a guitarist who Partridge knew from his early Swindon days5.
Fame At Last
In April 1979 the new line-up recorded songs for a new album, Drums And Wires. A single, 'Life Begins At The Hop', was released in May and reached 54 in the charts, and also afforded them their first appearance on the BBC Chart rundown show Top Of The Pops. The album was released while XTC were touring in Australia and Japan. On returning to the UK, they were again subjected to an arduous touring schedule to promote the album, and another single was released: 'Making Plans For Nigel'. It proved to be the breakthrough single the band had been looking for. A second leg of the tour was hurriedly arranged, and instead of playing to half-full venues, XTC were now selling out around the country.
Things were finally looking up for XTC, and they released a follow-up single to consolidate their success, 'Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down', in March 1980. The band had meanwhile undertaken a massive tour of the US and Canada, including some gigs supporting The Police6, hoping to crack the American market. The single bombed.
Black Sea, their fourth album, was recorded in mid-1980. The album yielded four singles: 'Generals & Majors' and 'Towers of London', both of which reached the lower realms of the top 40; 'Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)', which peaked at number 16; and 'Respectable Street', which failed to reach the top 40. After touring Europe with The Police, The (English) Beat and UB40, the band took off for another tour of Australia and New Zealand, where their album went to number one on the basis of four concerts and sales of 7,500 copies7. It finally looked like XTC had a firm grip on chart success. XTC returned to the States, again supporting The Police, who by this stage were playing stadium gigs.
Early in 1981 XTC returned to the US headlining their own tour. In Athens, Georgia, they were supported by a local band called REM. The tour also included, bizarrely, two concerts in Venezuela. By the middle of the year, they took a break from this relentless programme to write, rehearse and record the songs that would become their fifth album, English Settlement. This double album was released in February 1982, to rave reviews and the first single, 'Senses Working Overtime', became XTC's first8 top 10 hit. English Settlement covered a range of musical styles, and also allowed Gregory to showcase his virtuoso guitar-playing in a way that hadn't been apparent on Drums And Wires. The songs on the album ranged from topical concerns such as conservation, the arms race, unemployment, feminism and racism, to more emotional themes of longing, missed opportunity, and the elusiveness of being English.
The previous five years had seen XTC undertaking a punishing touring schedule. This had had a debilitating effect on Andy Partridge's physical and mental health, which came to a head on the English Settlement tour. The European leg was abandoned after he managed to play just 30 seconds at a concert in Paris before running off stage, collapsing, and being rushed to hospital. The UK leg of the tour was postponed. He was persuaded to start the US leg of the tour, but was unable to even take the stage for the first concert. The UK and US tour was cancelled, at considerable expense to the band. XTC announced that they would never play live again.
Their record company, Virgin, could hardly believe their ears: on the verge of world domination, it seemed that XTC had sabotaged their own career. Partridge was undergoing therapy and was virtually housebound at the time. The effect was catastrophic: the next two singles from English Settlement, 'Ball & Chain' and 'No Thugs In Our House', failed to reach the top 40. The band were in severe financial difficulties due to the cancelled tour; they had sacked their manager and were now suing him; and they had to renegotiate their contract with Virgin. The record company agreed to loan them the money to cover their immediate debts, but this was the start of what would ultimately lead to an acrimonious relationship with Virgin as the band were, from here on, effectively 'owned' by the record company.
In August 1982, with Partridge's health improving, the band began rehearsing songs for a new album. However, drummer Terry Chambers, who was still unhappy about the decision to stop live performances, decided to leave the band. Fortunately they were able to hire a session drummer for the recording of their sixth album, Mummer. None of the singles released from the album reached the top 40. With no promotion, sales of the album were negligible. Mummer was a mishmash of an album, having had three producers as the project stalled and restarted. It does, however, contain many good songs and shows the continuing development of the band as they threw off the strictures of having to reproduce the sound of the album in a live environment. Freed from the requirement to play live, XTC began to experiment more with form and structure; although, on some songs, they just wanted to go back to making a big noise! It also contained the heartfelt 'Funk Pop A Roll', where Partridge complained how he'd 'already been poisoned by this industry'9.
XTC were in a bind. From being amongst the rising stars of a small, independent record company, they were now a minor act on a label that included Phil Collins, The Human League, Culture Club, and Simple Minds. Virgin were simply unwilling to promote a band that would not promote itself. With a minuscule budget10, XTC recorded The Big Express in the spring and early summer of 1984. A single, 'All You Pretty Girls', was released. It failed to reach the top 40. Follow-up singles 'This World Over' and 'Wake Up' fared no better. The album sold as poorly as the previous, Mummer.
Despite their dismal sales, however, XTC were still recognised by their peers and the critics as a vital force in the music industry. Their sound had evolved from the high-energy post-punk feel of the first two albums, through to a more mature electric sound on the next three albums, the elegiac Mummer, and now a more industrial style of rock on The Big Express.
The Dukes Of Stratosphear
As a result of a cancelled production deal arranged by Virgin for Andy Partridge, in late 1984 the band found themselves with a small recording budget, a producer with whom they'd worked previously, and a handful of songs which they felt weren't suitable for an XTC release. So began the bizarre project which took their original alternative band name. Partridge had grown up on 1960s psychedelia, and had wanted to record something similar for a long time. Dressing themselves in paisley shirts, using deliberately old and lo-fi equipment, and recruiting Dave Gregory's brother Ian to play the drums, they recorded a mini-album of six songs entitled 25 O'Clock11. The songs were in the style of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and The Small Faces. XTC were not mentioned anywhere on the album – they were credited as Sir John Johns (vocals, guitar); The Red Curtain (bass); Lord Cornelius Plum (guitar); and E I E I Owen (drums). The mini-album was critically acclaimed, both by those who knew who was behind it, and the surprisingly large number of people who bought it as it was presented, a bunch of 'lost' recordings from an unknown band in the 60s that had recently been discovered.
Sales of 25 O'Clock helped to restore some financial viability to XTC (it outsold The Big Express). It also helped restore some morale to the band, who were, by Virgin's own admission, now 'part of the furniture'. However, the band needed a new project, and Virgin wanted to see them back in the limelight again.
In 1986, with Todd Rundgren as producer, XTC recorded their seventh album, Skylarking. The recording process had been bruising, as Partridge and Rundgren continually battled. Even Moulding and Gregory, normally the most easy-going members of the band, found him difficult to work with, and the bad atmosphere affected relationships within the band. At one stage Colin Moulding quit XTC, but was persuaded to return. Eventually XTC left the studio, leaving Rundgren to mix the album alone. After his original mix was rejected by the band, and subsequent mixes also found unacceptable, he eventually said he'd had enough of the project and submitted his final version to Virgin saying 'take it or leave it'.
The resultant album, with its theme of a life in one day, containing songs about childhood, adolescence, adulthood, disillusionment, lost love, affairs and divorce, middle age and mid-life crisis, old age and death, is acknowledged as XTC's masterpiece. The variety of the musical styles, layered structure, strong lyrical content (as always), and quintessential Englishness and XTC-ness, surpassed even that achieved on English Settlement.
As usual, they released a single, 'Grass'. As usual, it failed to reach the top 40.
US sales were originally modest; the single had also been released there, and a strange phenomenon started: sales of the single started to grow, based not on the A-side, but on the B-side, a song which hadn't made the cut for the album, called 'Dear God'. Described by Partridge as 'a one-way letter to God', it was picked up by the influential college radio circuit. The US version of the album was rapidly re-pressed to include the song, and US sales of Skylarking grew to quarter of a million, a respectable figure for a band who didn't play live or promote their recording.
Following the success of the first Dukes Of Stratosphear project, Virgin persuaded the band to record a new album in the guise of their alter egos. Although initially hesitant, Partridge in particular not wanting to repeat the joke, they eventually recorded ten songs, most of which had already been written and had been intended for XTC. The new recording had less of a psychedelic feel to it, although the 1960s influence remained very strong, with pastiches of the styles of The Kinks, The Byrds, The Hollies and The Beach Boys. The album achieved respectable sales.
The two Dukes albums were later amalgamated and issued as a CD entitled Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (An Anthology).
Oranges & Lemons
XTC were now bigger in the States than they were in the UK, and this influenced the choice of producer for their next album. In the summer of 1988, XTC recorded Oranges & Lemons in Los Angeles, an album of diverse styles. Released at the beginning of 1989, the album was successful in the US, selling half a million copies and reached 44 on the Billboard chart. In the UK, a single was released, Mayor Of Simpleton. Despite widespread radio play, it failed to reach the top 40, but did substantially better in the US.
Also at this time, the long-running dispute with their former manager was finally settled. However, XTC were still poor12, and despite the success of their last two albums, were forced to renegotiate terms with Virgin, to their detriment.
Recording of their next album, Nonsuch, was delayed by a number of factors and finally got under way in 1991, and the album was released in 1992. The album yet again showed the band's range, from haunting wistfulness to exuberant power pop. Many of the songs were reflections of Partridge's personal life as his marriage was breaking down. The first single, 'The Disappointed', bucked the trend of previous albums and reached the top 40, peaking at 33. The follow-up, The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead, didn't meet with the same fortune, but was covered by Crash Test Dummies who had international success with the song in 199513. The album failed to live up to the sales performance of Oranges & Lemons, except in Japan, where it reached the No 1 spot in the international chart.
In October 1992, Virgin told the band that they wanted to release a third single, 'Wrapped In Grey', from the album. Partridge was delighted as he felt that this was one of the best songs he'd ever written. The band started planning the video, when the hammer blow struck. Virgin cancelled the video and withdrew and destroyed all pressings of the single14.
This was too much for XTC. Virgin's roster of artists had been sold in the summer of 1992, to EMI, who took the opportunity to cull around half the repertoire. XTC, however, were not on that list, despite their pleading to be released from their contract: although their album sales weren't massive, the back catalogue continued to sell reasonably well. The terms of their contract meant that the band cost the label nothing, but were, in Gregory's words, 'a nice little earner'. The only people not making money were XTC themselves. They had only one option left: XTC downed plectra and refused to record another note.
After some to-ing and fro-ing XTC eventually agreed terms with Virgin for a severance. Part of the deal was that Virgin would retain the rights to some of their songs. Although the initial deal was struck in 1996, it was not finalised until 1998. These were eventually compiled into a 4-CD box set entitled A Coat Of Many Cupboards, released in 2002.
During the strike period, all members of the band found alternative collaborative work. Partridge in particular was in demand from partners as diverse as Blur, Captain Sensible, Terry Hall and Cathy Dennis. They even appeared on an XTC tribute album compiled in the States in 199515, A Testimonial Dinner, which featured The Rembrandts, Crash Test Dummies, Joe Jackson and They Might Be Giants, amongst others.
Following the settlement with Virgin, they approached a number or record companies in the UK and the US with demos recorded in Partridge's garden shed, eventually striking a deal with Cooking Vinyl in the UK and TVT in the US.
The original plan to come back with a bang was to release a double album of the songs written over the previous seven years; one album to be orchestral and acoustic, the other to be electric. However, due to the timing of funding from the two record companies, they eventually decided to release Apple Venus Volume 1 first. This was the orchestral album, and Gregory was becoming increasingly unhappy with being sidelined while this was in production. Tempers frayed in the studio, and eventually Gregory decided to leave XTC permanently.
Apple Venus Volume 1 was released in February 1999. Once again the critics loved it, but the public largely ignored it, except in Japan where it rose to 14 in the charts (where XTC still had a huge following). The singles 'Easter Theatre' and 'I'd Like That'16 didn't trouble the UK charts.
XTC now turned their attention to Volume 2. Since Gregory had left, they had to re-record all his tracks. Following pressure from TVT in the US, they decided to rename it Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2). The album's style returned to the guitar-based pop of earlier years, and the band had high hopes of better sales. These were dashed upon the rocks of reality, and Wasp Star fared no better than the previous album. The single, 'I'm The Man Who Murdered Love', made no impact.Since then, XTC's future has been uncertain. Partridge has busied himself with a project to release as much of the unreleased material as possible on his own label, Ape House Records - a project which originally involved Moulding, who has since abandoned it. These are entitled Fuzzy Warbles Volumes 1- 6, the last two of which were due to be released at the end of September 2004. Partridge has also collaborated with Peter Blegvad on another project, Orpheus: The Lowdown, released in November 2003. Will the world again see an XTC album? In 1992, it was thought not, and the world was proved wrong. Here's hoping XTC can rise from the ashes once more.
For more information on XTC:
www.xtcidearecords.com XTC's record label, Idea Records.
www.guitargonauts.com Dave Gregory's site.
chalkhills.org Chalkhills, the longest-running XTC fan site, and a repository for all things XTC.
XTC: Chalkhills And Children, by Chris Twomey
XTC: Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorised Story Behind The Music, by Neville Farmer & XTC
- White Music
- Go 2
- Drums And Wires
- Black Sea
- English Settlement
- The Big Express
- Oranges & Lemons
- Apple Venus Volume 1
- Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
As The Dukes Of Stratosphear
- 25 O'Clock
- Psonic Psunspot
- Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (An Anthology)
Compilations & Other Releases (UK only)
- Waxworks/Beeswax (Some Singles 1977 - 1982)
- The Compact XTC (The Singles 1978 - 85)
- Explode Together (The Dub Experiments 78 - 80)
- Rag & Bone Buffet (Rare Cuts & Leftovers)
- BBC Radio 1: Live In Concert
- Drums And Wireless (BBC radio sessions 77 - 89)
- Fossil Fuel: The Singles 1977 – 1992
- Transistor Blast (The Best Of The BBC Sessions)
- Homespun (The Apple Venus Home Demos)
- Homegrown (The Wasp Star Home Demos)
- A Coat Of Many Cupboards (4 disc box set)
- Fuzzy Warbles Volumes 1 – 6