XTC were an English rock band formed in Swindon in 1972 and active until 2006. Led by songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, their music ranged from tense, jerky riffs to lushly arranged, meticulous pop. After emerging from the late 1970s punk and new wave explosion, the band failed to maintain popular success in the UK and US, partly because their music was generally out of step with the times. They nevertheless amassed a devoted cult following.
Under the name Star Park, the group began as a trio with drummer Terry Chambers, then changing their name to Helium Kidz. As the punk movement took off, they settled on the name XTC, debuting on Virgin Records in 1977. In 1982, the group stopped concert touring and became a studio-based project centred on Partridge, Moulding, and guitarist Dave Gregory with various session musicians. A spin-off group, the Dukes of Stratosphear, was invented as an outlet for the band's excursions into 1960s psychedelic music. For most of the 1990s, XTC were mired by record label difficulties. The band ceased activity following the disintegration of Partridge and Moulding's creative partnership.
XTC's only records that placed within the UK top 20 were the singles "Making Plans for Nigel" (1979), "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" (1980) and "Senses Working Overtime" (1982), as well as the albums Black Sea (1980) and English Settlement (1982). In the US, they're additionally known for the songs "Dear God" (1986) and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" (1992), while "Mayor of Simpleton" (1989) was their only US single to chart. Skylarking (1986) is considered one of the greatest albums of the 1980s by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
First coming together in 1972, Colin Moulding (bass & vocals) and Terry Chambers (drums) asked Andy Partridge (guitars & vocals) to join their new band and went through a large number of band names (including The Helium Kidz and Star Park) over the next five years. As the Helium Kidz, they were featured in a small NME article as an up-and-coming band from Swindon. Drawing influence from the New York Dolls, particularly the "Jetboy" single, and the emerging New York punk scene, they played glam rock with homemade costumes and slowly built up a following. The band recorded a set at the Swindon Viewpoint studio in 1975. Keyboard player Barry Andrews joined in 1976, and the band finally settled on a name: XTC.
1977–82: touring years
In 1977, XTC were signed by Virgin Records. They recorded the 3D - EP that summer, and followed it up with their debut LP White Music in January 1978. These and future XTC releases found Partridge writing and singing about two-thirds of the material, while Colin Moulding would write and sing approximately one-third. (White Music additionally featured a version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", sung by Partridge.) White Music received favourable reviews and entered the British top 40, but lead single "Statue of Liberty" was banned by the BBC because of its supposedly "lewd" reference to the famous statue ("in my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt"). The group additionally picked up a cult following in Australia thanks to the support of community radio (4ZZZ, 3RRR), the Sydney rock radio station 2JJ (now Triple-J) and the nationally broadcast weekly music TV show Countdown, which screened all of the band's early videos (beginning with their first Australian single release - "This Is Pop"); thanks to this interest, the group made two well-received tours there in 1979 and 1980. Their second album Go 2, released later in 1978, featured a typewriter-text cover (designed by Hipgnosis) and early pressings were accompanied by a bonus disc Go +, a collection of dub mixes of songs from the album.
Following the release of Go 2, in January 1979 Barry Andrews left the group (joining Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen and subsequently co-founding Shriekback). XTC initially sought a new keyboard player - Thomas Dolby was among those considered - but Dave Gregory, guitarist and long-time friend of Partridge's, was eventually selected as Andrews' replacement. Gregory's 1960s-influenced guitar style steered the band on a path towards a more traditional rock sound; he would additionally contribute occasional keyboards (and later, string arrangements).
Coinciding with Gregory's arrival, XTC scored their first charting single in the UK with "Life Begins at the Hop", which was additionally the first XTC single penned by Colin Moulding. Their third album Drums and Wires contained the band's first major hit single "Making Plans for Nigel" (another Moulding composition). Drums and Wires additionally marked their first sessions at London's Townhouse Studios. The studio was at the time much sought after for its highly reverberant "live" drum room, and it was greatly favoured by their producer Steve Lillywhite and his engineer Hugh Padgham, who were at that time additionally creating influential recordings with Peter Gabriel and Genesis. The Lillywhite-Padgham connexion additionally led to Dave Gregory contributing to Gabriel's third solo album.
During this period, Partridge released an LP of dub in 1980 under the name 'Mr Partridge'. The album, Take Away / The Lure of Salvage, featured dub reconstructions of music from the preceding XTC albums. Later the same year Moulding and Chambers released the "Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen" single under the name "The Colonel". In March 1980 XTC released a non-album single, the reggae-styled "Wait 'Til Your Boat Goes Down", but it failed to chart. Hoping to crack the American market, they undertook a gruelling US-Canada tour which included numerous support spots with The Police. The band opened three shows for The Cars at Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum between their own headline gigs at smaller area venues.
Their fourth LP Black Sea (Sept. 1980) featured the singles "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" and "Generals and Majors", both of which made the UK Top 40, with the album reaching No. 1 in Australia. In the film clip of 'Generals and Majors' (directed by Russell Mulcahy), Virgin Records founder and chair Richard Branson has a cameo role as one of the 'majors'.
Withdrawal from touring
In early 1982, while at the peak of their popularity, XTC embarked on a major tour. This was abruptly cut short when Partridge suffered a mental breakdown on stage throughout one of the first concerts of the tour in Paris on 18 March 1982.
On 4 April 1982, XTC were scheduled to play at a sold-out show the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, with opening act Jools Holland, but the packed club was told that the show wouldn't take place due to the "illness" of one of the band members (later revealed, in Chris Twomey's book XTC: Chalkhills and Children as Partridge's ongoing stage fright, manifested as leg paralysis). The previous day, the band had performed one unsuspecting last concert at the California Theatre in San Diego, but then never played another tour date.
Partridge's breakdown, which manifested itself as uncontrollable stage fright, was reportedly precipitated by his wife throwing away his supply of valium. According to the band's biography, valium was prescribed to him as a teenager, but he was never taken off the drug and became dependent on it. Concerned about her husband's dependence, Partridge's wife threw his tablets away — without seeking medical advice — just before the Paris concert. Partridge particularly needed valium to cope with the grinding monotony of concert touring, which he had always disliked but endured for the good of the band. In addition to "memory loss and limb seizures", the sudden withdrawal of medication brought on anxiety attacks of such severity that he was soon forced to withdraw from performing permanently. The European and British dates were cancelled and after completing that show in San Diego, the whole US leg was additionally abandoned. After this XTC became exclusively a studio band (apart from occasional live-to-air performances from radio stations, and a handful of TV appearances).
1982–98: studio-only transition
Adapting to their new studio-based existence, XTC recorded the album Mummer. Released in 1983, it took the group's music away from the more performance-friendly new wave rock of their earlier years in favour of a consciously pastoral direction (and songtitles such as "Love on a Farmboy's Wages").
Terry Chambers left the band throughout the Mummer sessions (his last recording was on the track "Toys"). Chambers had always preferred touring over working in the confines of a studio, and was uncomfortable with the band's desire to experiment with new rhythmic possibilities such as drum machines and found percussion. The main reason for his departure was a desire to be with his Australian girlfriend; they subsequently married and Chambers migrated to Australia, and settled in Newcastle, New South Wales. There, Chambers joined the band Dragon from 1983 to 1985, drumming on their 1984 album Body and the Beat and associated hit single "Rain" (#2 AUS, #88 US). He has after withdrawn from the music industry. Rather than finding a replacement, XTC used a series of session drummers over the years, including Peter Phipps, Prairie Prince of The Tubes, Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, Pat Mastelotto (of Mr. Mister, and later of King Crimson), Chuck Sabo, and in their "Dukes of Stratosphear" incarnation, Dave Gregory's brother Ian (credited as "E.I.E.I. Owen").
XTC's next album, 1984's The Big Express marked a return to the harsher and more abrasive sounds of their early albums, but the combination of the group's 'no touring' status and the growing disenchantment of their label made it their poorest selling LP to date. The album was nonetheless a personal high point for Partridge, who ranks songs such as "The Everyday Story of Smalltown" and "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" amongst his best work.
Later in 1984, the members of XTC created their alter-ego, "Dukes of Stratosphear" (a suggested band name that the group had considered when they first formed). With this project, they reunited with original producer John Leckie to record a series of affectionate parodies that indulged their love of classic 1960s psychedelic music. The first Dukes release was the EP 25 O'Clock, issued on April Fools' Day 1985.
In 1984 the band were the subject of the documentary Play at Home for Channel 4. Filmed in July 1983 and broadcast on 16 October 1984, the programme documented the band in their native town of Swindon and included a live acoustic version of "Train Running Low on Soul Coal", as well as six promotional video clips:
In 1986, the band travelled to Todd Rundgren's rural studio in Woodstock, New York to record Skylarking. Although the pairing of XTC and Rundgren was highly anticipated by fans, the sessions were less than enjoyable for the band. Rundgren had been hired to trim the band's studio excesses and return them to commercial success. Prior to the recording sessions, Rundgren listened through demos of the songs, chose 15 for the record and worked out a sequence for the album. Being accustomed to creative independence in the studio, Partridge resisted Rundgren's decision-making role as producer. Rundgren and Partridge clashed frequently throughout the recording of Skylarking and when it was finished Partridge said that he wasn't at all happy with the resulting product. Partridge has after softened his view, describing the album as "a summer's day baked into one cake."
Skylarking spawned the controversial track "Dear God", which was originally issued as the B-side of the album's first single, "Grass". Interest in the song saw the US album re-pressed with "Dear God" included and the new version of the LP sold 250,000 copies in the US, reviving the band's commercial fortunes and earning critical accolades. "Dear God" replaced "Mermaid Smiled" on the American version of the album and the latter track was finally reinstated for the remastered reissue of Skylarking CD in 2000.
Temporarily returning to work as Dukes of Stratosphear, XTC released the LP Psonic Psunspot in 1987. Although it was a full-length album, it wasn't intended to be the follow-up to Skylarking. The tracks from this album and the 25 O'Clock EP were combined for the CD Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, which additionally came out in 1987.
The band released their official follow-up to Skylarking in 1989. This album, Oranges & Lemons, produced by Paul Fox, was their biggest seller yet, with the videos for "The Mayor of Simpleton" and "King for a Day" getting heavy airplay on MTV and additional international music TV programmes. Sonically lush and tightly produced, the album continued along the psychedelic influence of Skylarking while drawing from the energetic pop sound of their earlier work. Like its predecessor, it was additionally well-received critically.
During this period Partridge began a relationship with an American fan, Erica Wexler, daughter of writer Norman Wexler. Although signs of the failing of Partridge's first marriage were evident as far back as English Settlement (notably on the album's closing track, "Snowman"), it was a few time before the still-married Partridge felt comfortable with Wexler's advances and his mixed feelings about the situation were chronicled in the song "Another Satellite". The relationship finally came to fruition after Partridge's first wife Marianne left him.
XTC's 1992 album Nonsuch (named after Henry VIII'sfabled palace), united them with UK producer Gus Dudgeon, known for his 1970s work with Elton John, and with drummer Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention). The album featured the US and UK hit tunes "Dear Madam Barnum" and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead", the latter bringing the band perhaps its greatest success after the early 1980s. (The video for the song drew intriguing parallels between the deaths of Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.) Despite the LP's success, soon after its release a contractual dispute with their label, Virgin Records, saw XTC go "on strike" from 1992 through 1998, which finally resulted in the termination of their contract. They released no new material throughout this time (aside from the track "The Good Things" on the tribute CD "A Testimonial Dinner", credited to Terry and the Lovemen), although Virgin did issue two compilations - the US-only greatest hits collection Upsy Daisy Assortment, and the 2-CD set 'Best Of' collection Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992, which featured remastered versions of their singles, including a large number of tracks not previously issued on CD.
Management and contractual problems had dogged the band throughout their career, and around the time of the recording of Nonsuch they had to make a legal settlement with their former manager. Although most fans assume (and the lyrics of "I Bought Myself a Liarbird" from The Big Express imply) that there was a few financial impropriety involved, the terms of the settlement imposed a "gag" on the band and have prevented them from speaking publicly about the matter.
By now, XTC's relationship with their label had almost totally broken down; the final straw was Virgin's scuttling of their 1992 single "Wrapped in Grey". Vinyl 7" singles, CD singles and a few cassette singles were pressed but the vast majority were recalled and destroyed by the label, who unilaterally decided it had no prospect of charting: the few copies that made it into circulation are now highly prized collector's items. The band asked that Virgin either allow them to re-negotiate their contract or release them from it, but the label stalled for years until finally agreeing to release them after a change of management at the company.
1998–2005: independent labels
After leaving Virgin, Partridge had the band's accounts audited and it was discovered that the company had withheld substantial royalty payments from them. The settlement of the accounts provided the group with much-needed cash flow, allowing Partridge and Moulding to instal fully equipped studios and work comfortably at home.
Though able to record the majority of their work themselves, they additionally used major commercial studios (including Abbey Road Studios in London) for a few sessions. Finally released from Virgin, they formed their own label, Idea Records, and embarked on the recording of the ambitious "Apple Venus" project, a collection of the best material written throughout the band's dispute with Virgin. The band's initial plan had been to record a double album, featuring one disc of acoustic and orchestral songs and one of electric songs. Financial constraints forced the band to abandon the double album plan and finish and release the first volume (released 1999) before completing the second (2000).
During the recording sessions for Apple Venus Volume 1, Dave Gregory left the band after 20 years' service. Ostensibly, this was due to "musical differences"—Gregory was unhappy with the plan to record an album whose arrangements relied largely upon orchestral instruments and keyboards rather than guitars.
In the end, Gregory was credited as a session musician rather than as a band member on the finished album, as he left before it was completed. Partridge later claimed in a press interview that he and Colin were going to sack Gregory anyway because of his sullen attitude throughout the recordings, and that they had waited for him for six years to write the orchestral arrangements, and had finally told him that they wouldn't let him stop the project.
The band's next record, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was the guitar-heavy collection Gregory would have preferred. Partridge and Moulding then released instrumental and demo versions of the two Apple Venus albums. In October 2005, the two original albums and the demo versions of the albums were reissued together in the four-CD Apple Box collection.
Having left Virgin, relations between XTC and their former label improved and Partridge released a series of albums of demos of his songs (mainly from the Virgin years) under the title of Fuzzy Warbles beginning in 2002, on a new label imprint APE. Colin Moulding declined to contribute his demos to the series. The Fuzzy Warbles series eventually included eight volumes, which were collected in a boxed set (designed to look like a stamp collector's album) that additionally included a bonus CD of demos called Hinges.
A four-CD compilation—Coat of Many Cupboards—spanning the band's time with Virgin was additionally released in 2002. Timed to coincide with the release of remastered CDs of their back catalogue, the set included remastered album and single tracks along with voluminous demos, live tracks, unreleased songs, and alternate versions, culminating in the Partridge and Moulding recording of "Didn't Hurt A Bit", built from the studio reference recording of Moulding's composition (with drums and percussion intact, played by Dave Mattacks), taped throughout the Nonsuch sessions.
Gregory reunited with Partridge and Moulding when the three got back together for a charity reunion of their Dukes of Stratosphear alter-egos in 2003. Though Gregory wouldn't rejoin XTC, he was once again an official member of the Dukes, who recorded and issued the track "Open a Can (Of Human Beans)" that year for a charity project. In late 2006 Partridge revealed that he and Gregory had rekindled their friendship.
The 2005 inclusion in Apple Box of the first new XTC tracks in five years ("Spiral", written by Partridge and "Say It", by Moulding), offered hope that the band might continue. These songs were available to purchasers of the box set in digital format only, with the use of a special download code. A follow-up internet-only single, Moulding's "Where Did the Ordinary People Go?", was issued in December.
In November 2006, Partridge told several interviewers that Moulding no longer had any interest in writing, performing or even listening to music. Partridge has said he wouldn't continue XTC without Moulding, and that therefore he has been forced to regard XTC "in the past tense," with no likelihood of a new project unless Moulding should have a change of heart. In an interview on a Todd Rundgren fansite in February 2008, Partridge revealed that Moulding had moved and changed his phone number, effectively ending all contact between the two and reducing their correspondence to emails exchanged via their manager to discuss the division of the band's assets. Partridge additionally said he and Gregory — their differences now resolved — had considered working together again.
On 30 July 2008, Partridge summed up the status "Yes I believe my musical partnership with Colin Moulding has come to an end. For reasons too personal and varied to go into here, but we had a good run as they say and produced a few real good work. No, I won't be working with him in the future." In December 2008, Moulding resurfaced to confirm his recent disillusionment with music, but revealed that he was thinking of working on solo material. His given reasons for the break-up were financial discord, disagreement over the extent of the Fuzzy Warbles project, and a "change in mindset" between him and Partridge. He additionally stated that he and Partridge were once again communicating directly by email.
In 2010, Partridge announced that a follow-up to 'Rag And Bone Buffet' entitled 'Bric-a-Brac Breakfast' was in the pipeline and he asked XTC fans via his own APE Blog which tracks should be considered for inclusion on this new compilation. As of 2014, this collection hasn't yet appeared, but a new re-release campaign was announced that would involve their entire catalogue being mixed in 5.1 surround sound and released in expanded editions beginning with their 1992 album Nonsuch.
Following the band's cessation of touring and the departure of Terry Chambers in November 1982, the band continued with a variety of session drummers on studio recordings.
- White Music (1978)
- Go 2 (1978)
- Drums and Wires (1979)
- Black Sea (1980)
- English Settlement (1982)
- Mummer (1983)
- The Big Express (1984)
- 25 O'Clock (1985, as the Dukes of Stratosphear)
- Skylarking (1986)
- Psonic Psunspot (1987, as the Dukes of Stratosphear)
- Oranges & Lemons (1989)
- Nonsuch (1992)
- Apple Venus Volume 1 (1999)
- Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000)