The members of XTC hate the adjective “quirky”; it’s been used too often by critics and others trying to capture the elusive sound of this maverick English band. Fronted by Andy Partridge, a bookish singer-songwriter-guitarist who prefers a domestic life in the British countryside to the urban frenzy of rock stardom and has a morbid fear of live performance, and sporting another talented singer-songwriter in bassist Colin Moulding, the group has escaped critical pigeonholes since its inception in 1976. Despite a lack of major sales, chronic difficulties with producers, and an outright refusal to tour since 1982, the band has cultivated a reputation as one of the best songwriter-oriented pop bands around.
Partridge was born on the island of Malta, but moved to the small English town of Swindon with his family when he was a boy. “I have a very split background,” he told Guitar Player in a 1992 interview. “One half of me wanted to be in [1960s TV pop group] the Monkees, and use the guitar as a fishing rod to get girls,” while the other half discovered the mysterious delights of jazz,
Origiral members include Terry Chambers (left group 1982), drums; Colin Moulding (born in Swindon, England, 1956), bass, vocals, keyboards; and Andy Partridge (born in Malta, 1954), guitar, vocals, keyboards; later members include Barry Andrews (band member 1977-1979), keyboards; Dave Gregory (joined group 1979), guitar, keyboards; and John Perkins (left group 1977), keyboards.
Band formed in Swindon, England, 1976; originally called the Helium Kidz; signed with Virgin Records, 1977, and released 3D-EP; released debut album, White Music, 1978; signed with Geffen Records, 1983; released Mummer, 1983; recorded two records, 25 O’Clock, 1985, and Psonic Psunspot, 1986, as the Dukes of Stratosphear.
fusion, and various experimental forms thanks to a more “bohemian” friend. “So I would get exposed to a lot of out-there stuff. [Free-form jazz legend] Sun Ra was quite shocking. I heard Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica for the first time ever. These were albums that stuck with me forever and ever,” along with recordings by jazz greats including saxophonist Sonny Rollins and guitarist John McLaughlin. Out of Partridge’s desire to fuse the exploratory impulses of modern jazz and avant-rock with the melodic imperatives of pop songcraft would grow his mature style.
At age sixteen, Partridge told People, he left school and played in what he described as various “loud and horrid” bands including one called Helium Kidz; these groups, influenced by glam-rock superstars like the New York Dolls, served as his “fishing rod for girls.” In 1976 he, Moulding, and drummer Terry Chambers— the Helium Kidz lineup—formed XTC, hoping the group’s name would suggest “short, sharp, shocking, wonderful music.” Partridge recalled to Rolling Stone: “We wanted to make records, but we weren’t quite sure of what.”
Keyboardist John Perkins was in and out of the band before XTC managed to get the attention of Virgin Records; Barry Andrews had replaced him by the time the group put out their debut effort, 3D EP, in 1977. The first full-length album, White Music, appeared in 1978—“with clamorous applause from the critics,” according to Melody Maker—as did its successor, Go 2. The latter album saw guitarist and synthesizer player Dave Gregory take over for the departing Andrews. “At first I was attempting to copy Barry’s keyboard style with my guitar,” Gregory explained to Guitar Player, “but Andy said, ’Forget Barry. Let’s reinvent the band. From now on we are a guitar band.”’
It wasn’t until their third release, Drums and Wires, that XTC earned any serious attention in the United States. Thanks to Moulding’s small-scale New Wave hit “Making Plans for Nigel,” and such Partridge ditties as “Helicopter” and “Life Begins at the Hop,” the group created great expectations; surely they would soon be massive alternative-pop stars like fellow Englishman Gary Numan or American “spud-rockers” Devo. Jon Pareles of Rolling Stone was frustrated by the band’s willful experimentation; their music, he observed, “alternately accepts and abuses pop” and the songwriters are “firmly entrenched in Brain Pan Alley”—an allusion to Tin Pan Alley, the old district of hack tunesmiths. Pareles owned that Partridge’s “This Is Pop” was “XTC’s finest three minutes.”
Don Shewey’s Rolling Stone review of 1980’s Black Sea, however, claimed that “the band’s youthfully aggressive, revved-up, white-noisy style has settled like dust around an industrious sculptor, leaving a finished product that combines streamlined originality with Beatles-type buoyancy.” The singles “Generals and Majors”—which translates Partridge’s fondness for toy soldiers into an indictment of real-life military game-playing—and the acerbic “Respectable Street” widened the band’s following.
On 1981’s English Settlement, according to Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh, “XTC [had again] managed the difficult feat of sounding accessible even while moving into evermore abstruse and adventuresome territory.” Settlement features the single “Senses Working Overtime,” another hit on college and alternative radio stations.
In 1982 Partridge had what he and his bandmates would later recognize as a breakdown. A growing fear of crowds culminated in a kind of paralysis before a show in Hollywood. “The only good thing about touring was that for an hour you had a good sweat and a jump around,” he told People. “It was like a high-decibel sauna. But when I started to get stage-fright, that ended it.” He added that “I was forced by the manager to feign physical illness so promoters wouldn’t have my legs broken.” The band has since declined many tempting offers to return to the road.
Moulding and Gregory decided to adjust to Partridge’s decision, but Chambers quit; his place has since been filled by a roster of session drummers. Even so, the band’s disdain for the trappings of stardom has insulated them from any ill effects from not touring—except, of course, the lack of a huge commercial breakthrough. Gregory admitted to Musician, “We just got used to the idea of being always the bridesmaids, never the brides.” The bandleader appeared to have few regrets about his non-stardom. “Our band doesn’t have any rock & roll lifestyles, I’m afraid,” insisted Partridge in a Rolling Stone interview. “We’re horribly mundane, aggressively mundane individuals. We’re the ninjas of the mundane, you might say.”
XTC racked up more good reviews with its first album of new material for the U.S. label Geffen, 1983’s Mummer. J. D. Considine insisted in his Rolling Stone review that “all too frequently, the group’s gimmickry gets in the way of its songs,” but this effort “finds the band concentrating on reinforcing, not cluttering, its material, and the result is XTC’s most accessible album yet.” The Big Express, released in 1984, impressed Erica Wexler of Musician as an album “compulsively bursting with invention, originality and wit”; it includes the single “The Everyday Story of Smalltown.”
In 1985—on a lark—the group recorded an EP as a psychedelic alter-ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear. The record, 25 O’Clock, was such a sensation that the label begged them to record a follow-up; the group finally relented, delivering the full-length album Psonic Psunspot in 1986. Rolling Stone called Psunspot “a loving mimicry of British post-[Beatles album Sgt.] Pep-per pop.” Meanwhile, paired with strong-willed producer Todd Rundgren, XTC repaired to the laboratory to make Skylarking. Partridge and Rundgren reportedly struggled for control in the studio, leaving the former frustrated, but the results impressed even longtime fans of the group.
The initial good reviews, however, didn’t prepare anyone for the sudden popularity of a B-side called “Dear God.” The song, not on the album’s first printing, was an emotional burst of agnosticism from Partridge, and caused enough controversy to promote the band to new listeners. Geffen promptly added the song and reissued the album.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the group released another album, this time the double-length Oranges and Lemons, featuring Partridge’s “The Mayor of Simpleton” and Moulding’s hit “King For a Day.” It sold reasonably well, though Partridge wasn’t entirely thrilled with the endeavor. “I wanted to make a very simple, banal-sounding record,” he told Musician’s Scott Isler, “and it got lost in translation a little and came out rather multilayered—in fact, very dense.” Despite the band’s somewhat improved fortunes, Partridge still disdained stardom. “I like people to buy the records,” he reflected in Isler’s profile, “but I’d be quite happy if we were faceless musicians and it was just the name XTC they bought, like a steak sauce. I always felt uncomfortable with fame. [Reclusive American tycoon] Howard Hughes is my hero.”
1991 saw the release of Rag and Bone Buffet, a collection of XTC B-sides and other curiosities that earned an “A” grade from Audio magazine. The following year the group put out a new collection, Nonsuch. Isler, reviewing the album for Musician, admired its “solidly constructed songs,” and People’s Craig Tomashoff called the record “perhaps their best.” Meanwhile, Rolling Stone’s Michael Azerrad, who noted that overall the record “makes the band’s noise beautiful,” also clarified the group’s commercial impasse: “Too lovely for college radio, too challenging for legions of baby boomers unwilling to progress, XTC has built itself a very gorgeous golden cage.” Partridge opined to Brett Milano of Pulse!, “These songs are more labyrinthine, more maze-like [than those on Oranges and Lemons]. You just have to wander around in them a little more.”
The group played some live radio performances, but continued to resist the lure of touring. As for long-term fame, Moulding—whom Partridge has usually overshadowed in interviews—probably spoke for the band when he admitted to Karen Schlosberg of Musician, “I’d like to be remembered as having some really good songs.”
3-D EP, Virgin, 1977.
White Music, Virgin, 1978.
Go 2, Virgin, 1978.
Drums and Wires (includes “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Helicopter,” “Life Begins at the Hop,” and “This Is Pop”), Virgin, 1979.
Black Sea (includes “Generals and Majors” and “Respectable Street”), Virgin, 1980.
English Settlement (includes “Senses Working Overtime”), Virgin, 1981.
Waxworks: The Singles, 1977-1982, Geffen, 1982.
Mummer, Geffen, 1983.
The Big Express (includes “The Everyday Story of Smalltown”), Geffen, 1984.
Skylarking (includes “Dear God”), Geffen, 1986.
Oranges and Lemons (includes “The Mayor of Simpleton” and “King For a Day”), Geffen, 1989.
Rag and Bone Buffet, Geffen, 1991.
Nonsuch, Geffen, 1992.
BBC Live, 1993.
Demo Tracks, Virgin, 1993.
As the Dukes of Stratosphear
25 O’Clock (U.K.), 1985.
Psonic Psunspot, Geffen, 1987.
Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (contains 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot), Geffen.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Audio, November 1991.
Guitar Player, June 1992.
Melody Maker, January 13, 1979; August 13, 1983.
Musician, February 1981; June 1984; January 1985; July 1985; May 1989; July 1992.
People, June 19, 1989; June 15, 1992.
Pulse!, August 1992.
Rolling Stone, February 21, 1980; March 6, 1980; February 5, 1981; April 29, 1982; March 29, 1984; March 25, 1987; December 17, 1987; May 28, 1992.
Spin, June 1992; September 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Geffen Records press materials, 1992.
British group XTC garnered a cult following that some music scribes contend rivals only the devotion of Grateful Dead’s “deadheads.” The group was centered around the songwriting team of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Before the group was known as XTC, it was Star Park and Helium Kidz. Partridge was at the helm during those early incarnations in the early 1970s. Moulding joined the Swindon, England based group in 1973 when they became Helium Kidz, as did Terry Chambers. In 1975 there was a move afoot to abandon glitter rock and change the group’s name. Keyboardist John Perkins was added to the group, and was replaced by Barry Andrews in 1977 before XTC began recording.
The following year, XTC signed with Virgin Records and released their debut album. White Music reached number 38 on the U.K. album charts. Andrews stayed with the group long enough to record their first American album, Drums and Wires. While most of XTC’s recorded output would be considered pop/rock they were originally associated with both punk and new wave. “The best thing about punk,” Partridge said in a 1999 Boston Globe interview, “was it had a timeless quality all music should have—which is anyone can do it.” Partridge’s band was only nominally a punk group, but he was there when it was first gestating, and he, too, was learning how to play music on the job. “It’s not about musical ability; it’s about doing it. It’s about the fire in your belly and saying, “I could do that.”
In its early years, XTC toured almost endlessly. That all changed in 1982 when Partridge fell ill from a combination of fatigue and stage fright. He reportedly suffered from stomach ulcers, as well. The band bailed out of their U.S. tour after a San Diego show, and all remaining tour dates were cancelled. He announced that the band would continue to record and shoot promotional videos, but would no longer perform live. Partridge spent the next year in seclusion. “I don’t like it,” Partridge said of touring in a 1999 interview. “I don’t feel the need to do it. I got that out of my system in my 20s.”
In 1986 XTC entered the studio with producer Todd Rundgren to record Skylarking. Despite widely reported tension between Rundgren and Partridge, the album proved to be the group’s breakthrough recording. Skylarking saw XTC take the plunge into pool of psychedelic pop that they had merely dipped their toes into on their previous two releases, Mummer in 1983 and The Big Express in 1984. Ironically the song that pushed Skylarking— and XTC—into the limelight, “Dear God,” was initially left off the album. Originally released as the flipside of the single “Grass,” subsequent pressings of Skylarking included the track after it was discovered by a college disc jockey and received more airplay than its
Members include Barry Andrews , keyboards (1977-78); Terry Chambers , drums (1976-82); Dave Gregory , guitar, keyboards and vocals (1978-98); Colin Moulding , bass and vocals; Andy Partridge , vocals and guitar; and John Perkins , keyboards (1977).
Signed recording contract with Geffen and released debut album, White Noise, 1978; band quit all future live performances after Partridge breaks down at U.S. show, 1982; released the first of three records as their psychedelic alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear, 25 O’Clock, 1985; recorded Skylarking with producer Todd Rundgren, and the single “Dear God” emerges as a breakthrough hit for the group, 1986; Oranges & Lemons gains massive airplay from U.S. college radio, and “The Mayor of Simpleton” hits number 72 on Billboards Hot 100 and number one on Modern Rock Tracks chart, 1989; due to legal problems the band stops recording after 1992’s acclaimed Nonsuch; released Apple Venus, Volumes I and II, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —TVT Records, 23 East Fourth St., New York, NY 10003.
A-side. Their next album, 1989s Oranges & Lemons, was also heartily embraced by U.S. college radio. Bolstered by the strength of its first single, “The Mayor of Simpleton, “Oranges & Lemons was hailed as the top college album that year. The infectious, melodic ’The Mayor of Simpleton” reached number 72 on Billboards Hot 100 and number one on its Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Riding the crest of their two biggest recordings to date, XTC then hit a series of setbacks. According to Kyle Swenson writing in Guitar Player, “After releasing the acclaimed Nonsuch in 1992, which when to the top of college charts, the band became embroiled in legal difficulties with Virgin Records, and refused to enter the studio to track any music. During their self-imposed studio exile, bandmates Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding wrote enough songs to spill into the next decade. ‘By the time we got out of our legal mess and were able to record what we wanted, ’ says Partridge, ‘we had 42 songs.’ This project became Apple Venus, Volumes I and II. Splitting their material into two releases had one advantage: Partridge and Moulding were able to indulge their cravings for acoustic/orchestral sounds on the first album, and then resume traveling their longtime electro-pop path on the second.
Because the pair chose to record the orchestral songs first, Dave Gregory left during recording Apple Venus, Volume I. “T
Guitar Player, “is that he left before we made the album he wanted to make. He was much miffed that we always asked him to play keyboards. We’d always say, This needs a piano, ’ and then we’d look around the room and our eyes would slowly land on Dave. He got sick of being the piano player by default.”
Partridge said the songwriting during the band’s legal problems and absence from recording was cathartic. “In the past six years,” he told Billboards Dylan Siegler in early 1999, “I got divorced; I was prevented from legally doing my art; an infection burst my eardrum; I felt betrayed, rejected, and useless. And I found all of it vastly inspirational.” The string of tribulations seemed to have only strengthened Partridge’s resolve, “The older and more ornery we got about the music we wanted to do, the more entrenched we got in the craftsmanship side of it,” he explained to Siegler. “It was like this: We wanted to make our chair the best chair that ever was, and ourformer label [Virgin] wanted us to knock out cheap plastic chairs and ’Have you got a few tables and a settee as well.’”
Although XTC never became the massively successful band that many critics and fans believed they should have, it wasn’t for a lack of strong pop songs. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in the All Music Guide, “XTC’s lack of commercial success isn’t because their music isn’t accessible—their bright occasionally melancholic, melodies flow with more grace than most—it has more to do with the group constantly being out of step with the times. However, the band has left behind a remarkably rich and varied series of albums that make a convincing argument that XTC is the great lost pop band.”
Go 2, Geffen, 1978.
White Music, Geffen, 1978.
Drums And Wires
Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982
Oranges & Lemons
Nonsuch (includes “My Bird Performs”), Geffen, 1992.
Rag ‘N’ Bone Buffet, Geffen, 1990.
Transistor Blast —The Best of the BBC Sessions (four-CD set of radio performances, 1977 to 1989) TVT Records, 1998.
Apple Venus, Volume I, TVT Records, 1999.
as The Dukes of Stratosphear
25 O’Clock (EP), Virgin UK, 1985.
Psonic Psunspot, Geffen, 1987.
Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, Geffen, 1987.
Buckley, Jonathan and Mark Ellingham, eds., Rock: The Rough Guide, Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1996.
Erlewine, Michael, et. al., editors, All Music Guide, third edition, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, Editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1995.
Billboard, February 13, 1999.
Boston Globe, March 14, 1999.
Guitar Player, April 1999.
“XTC,” http://www.allmusic.com (April 16, 1999).
“XTC Artist Biography,” http://imusic.com/showcase/rock/xtc.html (April 16, 1999).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
Formed: 1976, Swindon, Wiltshire, England
Members: Colin Moulding, bass, vocals (born Swindon, Wiltshire, England, 17 August 1955); Andy Partridge, vocals and guitar (born Swindon, Wiltshire, England, 11 November 1953). Former members: Barry Andrews, keyboards (born West Norwood, London, England, 12 September 1956); Terry Chambers, drums (born Swindon, Wiltshire, England, 16 July 1955); David Gregory, guitar, keyboards (born Swindon, Wiltshire, England, 21 September 1952).
Best-selling album since 1990: English Settlement (1982)
Hit songs since 1990: "Mayor of Simpleton," "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love"
The quirky and idiosyncratic critics' darling XTC is a band that owes much of its inspiration to fellow Brits, the Beatles, and the 1960s American sensation the Beach Boys. Combine a heavy dose of irony, political skepticism, and the band's own uniquely British humor and you have the appeal of XTC. Intellectual without being too heady and boring, playful without resorting to inane or goofy tactics, XTC is a quintessentially British pop band that found itself recording several unusual albums through the 1990s, most notably the two-volume set, Apple Venus (1999).
Andy Partridge started off in 1972 as Star Park and added Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers, and Dave Cartner to become Helium Kidz. This line-up was short-lived. Cartner dropped out and keyboardist Johnny Perkins passed through. Shortly after XTC signed to Virgin Records, keyboardist Barry Andrews joined them. In many ways XTC is an atypical rock band, from its intellectual leanings, to its social reticence, to the high and, at times, nasal vocals of Partridge. Their brand of high-mindedness and sharply drawn observation is generally best received in their native country. The melodic single "Senses Working Over Time," from English Settlement (1981), scored them a Top 5 hit in England in 1981. XTC did not debut an album in the United States until Drums and Wires (1979), after making a successful start of their career in the United Kingdom.
Shortly into their career, XTC discovered how ill-suited they were for the trappings of the music business when Partridge suffered an onstage collapse in the early 1980s. Because of this experience, Partridge declared that XTC would only be a studio band and would never perform live again, much to the chagrin of fans.
After catching the attention of British radio with "Senses Working Over Time," XTC released Skylarking (1986). A nearly epic collection of quirky story-songs that seamlessly flow from track to track a la the Beatles' album Abbey Road, Skylarking is a delightful listen from start to finish. The logical transition moves the listener from the imaginative "Ballet for a Rainy Day" to the chamber pop of the sad love song "1000 Umbrellas" to the appropriately sunny "Season Cycle." It is a tapestry of carefully orchestrated pop songs, produced by 1970s progressive rocker Todd Rundgren. The album also features the spiritually inquiring "Dear God," which begins innocently enough and climaxes in an angry, wordy fury. It is one of the band's best-known songs.
Although Skylarking did not exactly tear up the charts, it did please critics and diehard fans. With the somewhat psychedelic and sprawling Oranges and Lemons (1989) the band made more of an impression on American listeners. The album spawned a hit with the witty, self-deprecating "Mayor of Simpleton," which hit number fifteen on Billboard 's Mainstream Rock Tracks. It also fared well in England. Their next release, Nonsuch (1992), succeeds where Oranges and Lemons fails. It is a cohesive paean to both the Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds and the Beatles' Revolver in its intricacies, guitar work, and lush sound.
After a seven-year absence, marked by music business woes and Moulding and Partridge declaring a "strike" against their former label, the band, consisting at this point of only the pair, scored a deal with TVT Records. They headed to the studio, and by the late 1990s they had released two sophisticated albums, the orchestral-pop Apple Venus (1999) and Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume Two) (2000), which together serve as a two-volume testament to their pop prowess. The seamless quality of Skylarking is in full-force on these albums but it is more beautifully and dramatically realized with lyrics that are expansive in their scope and reach.
Apple Venus starts off with the rich, symphonic syncopation of "River of Orchids," and slips into the galloping, whimsical ode "I'd Like That," in which Partridge sings "I'd laugh so much my face would crack in two / And you could fix it with your kissing glue." The album continues at a varying, though never too dizzying pace. Wasp Star features a catchy, self-deprecating, smart admission in "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love." The pair of albums, released a couple of years apart, were critically hailed and landed on many Top 10 lists. Because the sessions that created these two albums were so productive for the band, they released outtakes and demos from Apple Venus on Homespun later in 1999.
English Settlement (Virgin, 1982); Skylarking (Virgin, 1986); Oranges and Lemons (Geffen, 1989); Nonsuch (Geffen, 1992); Apple Venus (TVT, 1999); Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume 2) (TVT Records, 2000).
N. Farmer, XTC: Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music (New York, 1998).