The New Wave Beatles. That’s a pretty heavy label to lay on a group, but XTC would be known for smart, catchy pop. This band started as a post-punk, high energy British band that evolved into a diverse, psychedelic pop machine before they imploded.
This is a challenging group to categorize because they changed styles many times. Eclectic is the best word. Their evolution paralleled punk movement, and the band embraced the high energy and attitude, but not the musical style. Andy Partridge, the main songwriter and singer, had pop music in his veins, so the group would always stay tethered to the pop idiom.
The group would not be known as XTC until later, but they formed in the early 1970s and began releasing albums later in the decade. It was their third album, Drums and Wires (1979) where the lineup stabilized and their sound began to emerge. “Making Plans for Nigel” was a single released from this album and it would introduce what would be their sound for the remainder of their life.
Black Sea came a year later and continued to polish their quirky, pop sound. Steve Lillywhite was in the producer’s chair and young Hugh Padgham was the engineer. These two would be the hottest producers over the next decade.
English Settlement arrived in 1982, and was a triumph in songwriting and production. The songs were bouncy and infectious, yet complex in their composition. “English Roundabout,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Ball and Chain” and “Jason and the Argonauts’ led a first-class collection of songs. This was my first taste of XTC and I became a fan for life.
The band abandoned touring, a difficult thing for young bands to do since it limited exposure and reduced their earnings. Partridge was a studio rat, he didn’t really enjoy public performances, and he was able to spend his time tinkering in the studio on his song arrangements and bringing the odd sound to his recordings. Instead of touring, the band would release a series of promotional videos for each album.
Mummer and The Big Express followed in 1983 and 1984, respectively. Neither of these albums are among my favorites, the each have a song or two, but pale in comparison to English Settlement. Each of these albums has a different producer as well, Lillywhite and Padgham having departed.
If the band wasn’t already quirky enough, they decided to form a different band, The Dukes of the Stratosphere, to release songs that were more Beatlesque than XTC. 25 O’Clock arrived in 1985, full of psychedelic pop. Partridge slipped into his Syd Barrett persona (ex-Pink Floyd frontman) for these side projects. The Dukes would resurface later.
In 1986, XTC released Skylarking, their best received album yet. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the band was under pressure to adopt a more commercial sound, and they picked Rundgren from a list of producers the record label provided them. Thus began World War III, between Rundgren and Partridge, who it was reported fought over everything. “Dear God” and “The Meeting Place” were the more familiar songs on the album but the entire album reminds me of English Settlement in how the songs blend together and made a complete album. The album made many top record lists and appears on Rolling Stone’s greatest 100 albums of the 1980’s.
In 1987, the Dukes of the Stratosphere returned with Psonic Psunspot. More psychedelic pop, but this time the group relished the attention and the public was in on the joke.
Oranges & Lemons arrived in 1989, no Todd Rundgren in sight, as the band used a new producer but assumed more control over their sessions. “Mayor of Simpleton” was the lead single but the true gem on the album was “King for a Day,” the best song to emerge from XTC. Interestingly, it was not written by Andy Partridge, rather guitarist Colin Moulding penned this classic. Oranges & Lemons even charted higher than Skylarking and ended the 1980’s on a high note.
Their final major label album of original material was released in 1992, Nonsuch, and produced by Gus Dudgeon (Elton John). While the album was met with generally positive views, it did not sell as well as their previous album. The band went on strike against their record label and didn’t release anything until 1999, Apple Venus Volume 1 and then Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000) of a stockpile of material written by Partridge and Moulding.
The band was effectively over at this point, although Partridge has been busy re-releasing their old albums in re-mastered and expanded forms.
XTC will affectionately be remembered as one of the most intelligent and creative bands of the 1980’s. They weren’t satisfied to sell a lot of albums, they were challenged to expand the pop format by creating memorable story-songs by coloring outside lines of the pop structure. Often they scored, sometimes they fumbled, but they always came ready to play.