Warming up with XTC on a chilly Wednesday

XTC in the early ’80s: Moulding, Chambers, Gregory, Partridge .
XTC in the early '80s: Moulding, Chambers, Gregory, Partridge . Virgin Records
XTC in the early ’80s: Moulding, Chambers, Gregory, Partridge .
XTC in the early '80s: Moulding, Chambers, Gregory, Partridge . Virgin Records

Warming up with XTC on a chilly Wednesday

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XTC in the early '80s: Moulding, Chambers, Gregory, Partridge (Virgin Records).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about XTC. A longtime fan, I was prompted to revisit the New Wave British art-pop band’s rich catalog when a friend posted on Facebook that he was reveling in doing the same. At the same time, I stumbled across a story on Dangerous Minds linking to an obscure 1980 BBC documentary that tracked the recording of “Towers of London,” the second single from the band’s brilliant fourth album, Black Sea.

Now I’m playing the group more than I have at any time since I first saw it live (by accident), opening for the Police at Madison Square Garden in 1982. My fandom deepend a few years later courtesy of my old pal and XTC super fan Frank O’Toole, who made the band a constant on his never-to-be-forgotten radio show on New Jersey’s legendary free-form WFMU-FM. And I remained steadfast through the end of the band’s active period in the early ’90s, mourning its eventual demise.

Seeing vocalists and songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding working with multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers at Richard Branson’s Manor Studio in Oxfordshire in that BBC doc is revelatory. The band had earlier recorded its 1978 debut White Music at the studio, and it would return to lay down the disc I’d peg as its masterpiece, 1982’s English Settlement—though Black Sea is perhaps a close second, along with several other strong contenders among the 12 albums released between ’78 and ’92.

I often wonder why hasn’t XTC hasn’t been “rediscovered” and undergone the sort of posthumous resurgence among musical hipsters that has benefited so many other artists, from Krautrock bands like Can and Neu! to Big Star and Nick Drake. Perhaps the group was just a little too popular to qualify as a buried treasure, though certainly it never won the mainstream success it absolutely deserved. Then there was Partridge’s infamous stage fright, which, Brian Wilson-like, took live performance out of the equation, as well as some later-day friction with Moulding (though the two are said to be talking again now).

Who knows? Maybe the XTC revival is still to come. (We can hope.) In the meantime, whether you’re a fan who just hasn’t thought about the band in a while, or someone who ‘s never thought about it at all, you may enjoy this documentary, a rare look inside the studio at a group at the height of its powers, followed by the chunk I devoted to Partridge & Co. in my book Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.

Senses Working Overtime

Chris Twomey’s definitive biography XTC: Chalkhills and Children opens with the central incident in the band’s story. After years of steady touring, the group was playing in support of its best album to date, 1982’s English Settlement. Onstage at Le Palais in Paris, bandleader Andy Partridge froze only thirty seconds into the set, then ran off. In the weeks that followed, he attempted to come to terms with his paranoia and stage fright, but hours before a sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium, he simply decided that he would never perform live again. After all, the Beatles had done it, and they had proceeded to do some of their best work.

XTC’s guitarist and vocalist was born in Malta in 1953 to Vera and John Partridge, who was serving in the Royal Navy. When Andy was three, the family returned to a quiet, working-class life in Swindon, a small farm community seventy miles west of London. Andy was exposed to music from early on—his father was a singer who performed in local skiffle groups—but the interest really took hold when he saw A Hard Day’s Night at age ten. As he entered his teens, he spent hours listening to psychedelic rock singles such as the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” the Move’s “Fire Brigade,” and Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”—“a three-minute thing of a very memorable tune but with a big dollop of magic injected, either some strange effect or totally nonsensical lyrics that painted great brain pictures,” as he told Musician magazine in 1987. He eventually bought a guitar and a used reel-to-reel tape recorder, partly with money that he won in a “Draw Your Favorite Monkee” contest, and he began making music himself.

Life wasn’t always rosy. Reacting badly to his parents’ marital problems, Partridge was put on Valium to control wild mood swings at age twelve, and he didn’t stop taking the drug until thirteen years later. He quit Swindon College in 1971 after a year and a half. By 1973, he was playing in a glam band called Star Park—later the Helium Kidz—with hard-drinking drummer Terry Chambers, quiet bassist Colin Moulding, and Dave Cartner, who was soon replaced by keyboardist Barry Andrews. As musical fashions shifted, the group moved from glam to pub-rock with science-fiction overtones, and a new name was needed. In late 1975, the Dukes of Stratosphear was passed over as “too psychedelic,” and the band became XTC.

Even though its music had little to do with punk, the quartet landed a contract with Virgin Records in the rush of excitement following the Sex Pistols. At Partridge’s insistence, early press releases referred to him as a “nuclear-powered Syd Barrett.” XTC’s first album included a herky-jerk cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (a very un-punk choice) and a hyperenergetic declaration that “This Is Pop.” Even the title—White Music—could be considered a statement against the punks’ “white noise.” The album and XTC’s tense live shows (which many compared to the Talking Heads’) began to win an audience, and by August 1978, the band was ready to record a follow-up. XTC considered working with Brian Eno, who was a fan, but Eno said the band didn’t need a producer. Virgin disagreed and paired the group with John Leckie. The resulting album, Go 2, is more ambitious and experimental. “Battery Brides” is a mechanical pop song that pays tribute to Eno, and Moulding’s “X Wires” shows a serious desire to experiment in the studio.

From the start, Partridge wrote most of XTC’s material, with occasional contributions from Moulding. Frustrated by this arrangement, Andrews quit and was replaced by Swindon pal Dave Gregory on guitar and keyboards. (Thomas Dolby lobbied for the spot but was rejected, since he was also an ambitious songwriter. Like Gary Numan, he went on to craft low-rent versions of Eno’s and Kraftwerk’s synthesizer-pop albums.) XTC toured non-stop through this period in what it called “stupidly hard work,” and albums (including the wonderfully poppy and Beatlesesque Drums and Wires) were crafted in a rush between commitments. Black Sea originally had the protest title Working Under Pressure, hence the deep-sea diver suits on the cover. Adding to the edginess, Partridge quit his long-time Valium addiction cold turkey. Ironically, the mounting tensions produced a serene and beautiful double album.

English Settlement was crafted in the summer of 1981, the group’s first extended down time in four years. It’s a subtle and textured effort that makes extensive use of twelve-string guitar, fretless bass, synthesizer, and tom-heavy drum parts that draw on a variety of global rhythms. “Until English Settlement, I’d felt like a child in a sweet shop wanting to try a bit of everything, but only being allowed to choose licorice allsorts,” Partridge told Twomey. “I’d broken from this moral chastity belt that told me it was wrong to put anything on our records that we couldn’t reproduce live.” Like the Soft Boys, XTC took a shot at wannabe punks with “No Thugs In Our House,” while other songs such as “It’s Nearly Africa,” “Melt the Guns,” and “Jason and the Argonauts” found Partridge exploring distant lands and musing on global politics issues from the safety of his own comfortable Swindon armchair. “I felt more English in the face of traveling the world,” he said. But the strongest tune is about an inner voyage. If “Senses Working Overtime” wasn’t inspired by a pleasurable acid trip—Partridge has never directly addressed the question—its sentiments and expansive sound certainly evoke the feeling. “All the world is biscuit shaped/It’s just for me to feed my face,” he sings. “I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste/And I’ve got one, two, three, four, five/Senses working overtime/Trying to take this all in.”

The song’s title took on a different connotation in the wake of Partridge’s onstage breakdown. Returning to Swindon, the band leader, who was now plagued by agoraphobia, decided against straying far from home again any time soon. The band was deeply in debt, and it was left without a drummer when Chambers quit because of the no-touring edict. The group forged ahead, but the problems contributed to the tentative, stilted sound of Mummer, and the album ends with a bitter declaration. “The music business is a hammer to keep you pegs in your holes,” Partridge sings in “Funk Pop A Roll.” Released in 1984, The Big Express has more upbeat moments—including the idyllic “Everyday Story of Smalltown”—but it is often over-produced and leaden. If XTC’s earlier albums were limited by time constraints, its work after English Settlement suffers from a lack of urgency. The band clearly needed to blow out the cobwebs.

Partridge and Leckie were slated to produce Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, but she fired them when she discovered they didn’t share her strict Roman Catholic beliefs. Virgin owed the pair money, and Leckie convinced the company to give it to XTC for a bit of fun in the studio. The musicians had long been itching to pay tribute to the psychedelic rock they loved as teenagers. Working at a small studio in Hereford, they recorded six songs in two weeks, forcing themselves to use only vintage ’60s equipment. The 25 O’Clock EP was released on April Fool’s Day 1985, under the guise of the Dukes of Stratosphear. XTC’s name didn’t appear anywhere in the artwork, but the strong melodies and West Country vocals left little doubt about who the culprits were. Like many of the psychedelic revival bands recording in America at the time, the Dukes’ faithfulness to late ’60s sounds, styles, and themes produced a classic psychedelic rock parody and homage. In a lengthy interview with the XTC fanzine The Little Express, the group offered detailed footnotes for each song: “Bike Ride to the Moon” is sung in a sort of “loopy Cambridge” accent over a Move bass line with lyrics that owe “My White Bicycle” and Syd Barrett’s “Bike”; “25 O’Clock” is a cross between the Amboy Dukes and the Electric Prunes, and “The Mole from the Ministry” layers Beatles-style Mellotron over a jaunty “I Am the Walrus” singalong.

While the EP breaks no ground, it’s hard not to enjoy the Dukes’ spirited musical forgery. On its release, 25 O’Clock outsold The Big Express two-to-one, rekindling enthusiasm at Virgin for what had become a reclusive cult group. The company geared up for another go at making XTC a hit, insisting that the group work with a “name” producer. The band was enthusiastic about the prospect of recording. “With XTC, we’d lost sight of how to enjoy ourselves making a record,” Moulding told Twomey. “We spent a lot of time and money on our records and they weren’t necessarily any better for it. The Dukes taught us how to have fun again.” But Partridge’s enthusiasm soon waned as he butted heads with the equally strong-willed producer, Todd Rundgren.

As a member of the Nazz and a quirky solo artist in the ’70s, Rundgren had displayed an aesthetic similar to XTC’s. He sifted through the group’s demos and developed a concept for a song cycle that traced a passing day from dawn to midnight. Skylarking returned to the pastoral tranquility of English Settlement while adding a new sophistication that represented influences such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles coming even further to the forefront. Moulding produced two fine pieces of psychedelic rock—“Big Day,” which had originally been considered for the Dukes’ project, and an homage to making love while lying in and/or high on “Grass”—while Partridge presented an irresistibly catchy three-minute slice of existentialism, “Dear God.” This direct and angry letter to the deity became XTC’s first major American hit, resurrecting the band’s career, generating tons of press by kindling a controversy in the conservative south, and preserving the band’s future for some time. But its author hadn’t even wanted it on the album, and Rundgren had to insist. (The producer also recruited a ten-year-old girl named Jasmine Veillette over Partridge’s objections to play the part of the young Andy addressing the Almighty and asking the timeless question of why the hell He allows so much pain and suffering down here on earth.)

“The band was at a point in their career where if they didn’t get some kind of response to their records, they weren’t going to be making any more records,” Rundgren told Twomey. “It had to be a record that people would listen to and enjoy. There were times when I was at loggerheads with Andy’s natural propensity for excess.” Though Partridge bad-mouthed Rundgren in countless interviews after the album’s release, in time, even he admitted that the producer had done his job and done it well.

XTC followed Skylarking with a second Dukes of Stratosphear release, Psonic Psunspot. The album has less of the EP’s joy and spontaneity, and XTC really didn’t need its alter-egos any more: Skylarking had successfully married XTC and the Dukes. “I had always wanted to be in a group that made that kind of music,” Partridge told the band’s biographer. “There was a split image, and now they’re merged.” Unfortunately, he never heeded the lesson he should have learned while working with Rundgren, which was that the group needed an editor and mediator. When the band was limited by the time constraints of vinyl LPs, extraneous material was relegated to B sides, EPs, and rarities collections. After Skylarking, Partridge simply emptied his notebooks onto bloated and overlong albums. He had often eclipsed Moulding in the past, despite the fact that the bassist wrote many of the band’s best songs, and in the absence of a strong producer, he became even more dominant. Oranges and Lemons (1989) and Nonsuch (1992) are good albums that could have been great if Partridge had accepted some discipline. Too many of the tunes seem like re-writes of earlier material, and Partridge’s propensities for wordiness, cloying cuteness, and fussy baroque arrangements go unchecked.

The band lost its British and American recording contracts after Nonsuch, and it went on an extended eight-year hiatus. When it returned, the valuable multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory was no longer in the fold, and 1999’s Apple Venus Volume I and 2000’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) failed to measure up to its finest moments in the past. The band’s auteur remains unrepentant; in the grand tradition of English eccentrics, he lives by his own rules and makes music today primarily to please himself. XTC is basically “a paying hobby,” he has said, a pleasant diversion that ranks up there with arranging his armies of toy soldiers, drinking at the pub, and sitting up nights reading Jules Verne. “People who like XTC like us for precisely the reason we aren’t like everyone else,” he maintains. “If you like cheesecake, you don’t like it because it reminds you of some other form of cake so you’ll put up with the cheese element. You like it because it’s cheesecake.”

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