Hailing from the bland English exurb of Swindon, XTC emerged from an early punk-manic phase to produce several ambitious and now-classic records: the spiky art-pop gems Drums and Wires and Black Sea, the flawed epic English Settlement and the exquisite pop pastorale Skylarking. For many years a trio of Andy Partridge (guitar/vocals), Colin Moulding (bass/vocals) and Dave Gregory (keyboards/guitar), XTC — one band that made the description “clever” a criticism — is one of the last of England’s original class of ’77 still in active and unbroken existence. By this point, though, the group’s increasingly safe, mellow music is a candidate for the Adult Alternative chart; as time goes on, XTC’s studio- bound perfectionism flirts more and more heavily with soullessness — imagine Steely Dan playing the Beatles songbook.
XTC has always defied both convention and categorization. At first they seemed like one more high- spirited new wave band, gleefully trampling on rock conventions set the day before. On White Music, XTC delights in dissonance, unresolved melodic lines and playful lyrics; guitarist Andy Partridge’s hiccupping vocals are matched by equally nervous music. Amid hyperactive material like “Radios in Motion,” “This Is Pop” and “Spinning Top,” only a version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” shows respect for the past. (Packaged in an appropriately stereographic sleeve, the 3D EP is a 12-inch of “Science Friction” and two other songs; the White Music CD appends all three tracks, as well as four early B-sides.)
The follow-up, Go 2, is even further out. The songs, mostly by Partridge, excoriate conformism and other hang-ups in kaleidoscopic imagery; the music is alternately herky-jerky and menacing. (If that sounds too coherent, a bonus 12-inch EP called Go+ pulverizes five of the album’s tracks with retitled dub remixes.) Probably XTC’s least-known record, Go 2 yielded no singles whatsoever, although the insidiously wonderful “Are You Receiving Me?,” released the same month as the LP, was later added to its CD.
The band settled down on Drums and Wires, proving they could make commercial-sounding music without sacrificing their considerable intelligence. The departure of organist Barry Andrews — replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory — seemed to take some helium out of the arrangements. XTC’s funhouse world on Drums and Wires is more accessible, but still booby- trapped: “Making Plans for Nigel” (deleted from the Virgin-Epic US edition), “Real by Reel,” “Life Begins at the Hop” (a spectacular single added to US editions of the album, both of which have different track sequences from the original LP), “Scissor Man,” “Complicated Game.” Released in 1991, the US CD puts back “Nigel” and “Day in Day Out” (the UK LP track initially deleted in favor of “Life Begins at the Hop”) and appends two obscurities — “Chain of Command” and “Limelight” — from a 1979 single given away with early copies of the album.) As Mr. Partridge, a separately released “solo” album, ‘Take Away’/’The Lure of Salvage’, finds Andy playing more games with tracks from Drums and Wires. “This used to be some XTC records,” the sleeve notes. “It is now a collection of tracks that have been electronically processed/shattered and layered with other sounds or lyrical pieces.” (Explode Together combines this record with Go+ for a complete retrospective of XTC in dub.)
Black Sea refines Drums and Wires‘ approach. Heedless of fashion, XTC builds up the music with multiple strains, undanceable rhythms, intricate interplay and gloriously literate lyrics. The dazzling result is the band’s finest achievement up to that point: an album that, like its songs (“Respectable Street,” “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London”), unsentimentally employs the past to make new statements. (The CD appends three B-sides, all of them included on Beeswax.)
English Settlement continues in the same vein but succumbs to rococo excess. (Five songs were pruned from the original British two-record set to fit it onto one US disc, but the 1984 Geffen reissue returned it to two.) Partridge evidently feels compelled to match musical sophistication with like words; he unfortunately outdoes himself. His prolix lyrics on offbeat but straightforward topics (war, paranoia, even love) read better than they sing and, as recorded, must be read to be understood. English Settlement tilts like an over-frosted wedding cake. That it doesn’t quite topple is a tribute to the band.
XTC’s most winning material, much of it written by bassist Colin Moulding, invariably turns up on their EPs and 45s. 5 Senses gathers a few non-LP sides (including “Smokeless Zone” and “Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down”) from 1980 and ’81. But that EP was soon superseded by Waxworks — Some Singles 1977 — 1982, which cleverly assembles the band’s 45s, almost all originally drawn from albums, on one superb LP. The accompanying second disc, Beeswax — Some B-Sides 1977 — 1982, collects their non-LP B-sides — not deathless music, but inventive as always and decidedly unpretentious. The advent of new technology a few years later yielded The Compact XTC, an 18-song CD-only singles compilation which picks up all of Waxworks and then continues, starting with “Great Fire” and running up through “Wake Up.”
With drummer Terry Chambers’ departure, XTC next found themselves in a precarious position with their British record label, which was reportedly hesitant to release another brilliant but uncommercial album. That hitch delayed the appearance of Mummer for quite some time. As far removed as it may be from the quirky pop that originally characterized XTC’s music, it’s a lovely record, resplendent in a quiet, rural sound and ethos. Co-existing with the invigorating whomp of “Great Fire” and the loud rock and disgusted lyrics of “Funk Pop a Roll,” there’s Partridge’s rustic “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” and Moulding’s lazy “Wonderland,” offering a perfect summery escape from the pressures and excitement of rock. Mummer: music for picnics. (The CD has six bonus cuts — all Partridge songs — including two from the UK Dear God EP.)
Continuing on as a trio, The Big Express returned XTC to the world of urban reality: disgruntled songs about life in the big city, celebrating the alternative (“The Everyday Story of Smalltown”) but, more surprisingly, again playing full-blast rock rather than bucolic lyricism. “All You Pretty Girls,” incorporating a British folk idiom, is as catchy a number as they’ve ever done; the record’s overall sense of recharged enthusiasm is quite infectious.
Partridge’s regrettable post-release sniping notwithstanding, XTC’s collaboration with Todd Rundgren on Skylarking yielded an album as good as any in their catalogue. The songs are thoughtful, winsome, introspective and melodic; Rundgren’s likeminded production (and sequencing) brings them out in a cavalcade that is resonant and memorable. Moulding’s best numbers — “Grass,” “The Meeting Place” and “Big Day” — address (respectively) sex al fresco, illicit romance and the dangers of marriage. Partridge, meanwhile, worries about making ends meet in “Earn Enough for Us” and a dicey relationship in “Another Satellite.” Adult, provocative and plainly brilliant. (A pre-LP UK 12-inch of “Grass” b/w “Extrovert” and “Dear God” focused unexpected attention on Partridge’s controversial song about religious skepticism. Those three numbers were then released as an American EP, adding “Earn Enough for Us.” Finally, the album was withdrawn and reissued with “Dear God” replacing “Mermaid Smiled,” as it does on the CD. The British Dear God EP, available only on CD, is entirely different from the American.)
With demerits for an unpleasant electro-drum sound and an overzealous arrangement or three, Sides 1 and 2 of Oranges & Lemons are very nearly Skylarking‘s equal. Unfortunately, it’s a double album, and there isn’t much in the second half (beyond “Pink Thing,” a delirious ode to the Partridge phallus) to rave about. Producer Paul Fox helps the trio tip its sonic hat to the Beatles while giving full attention to the band’s usual soaring melodies and inimitable lyrics. (Moulding wrote just three of the 15 songs; while none is on a musical par with his best, the frank admission of immobilizing insecurity on “One of the Millions” carries an unnerving ring of sincerity.) Making another wonderful and lasting contribution to the XTC classics library, Partridge — in an obviously joyous mood — welcomes a child into the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” reaffirms the old hippie faith in “The Loving” and dismisses intelligence as a romantic necessity in “The Mayor of Simpleton.”
Some EPs: The Generals and Majors and Towers of London 12-inches each contain three non-LP tracks. Two of the three songs added to the Senses Working Overtime 12-inch (and subsequent 3-inch CD) appear on Beeswax; the leftover is Moulding’s electronic instrumental, “Egyptian Solution (Homo Safari Series No. 3).” The Ball and Chain 12-inch has two B-sides that turn up on Beeswax, plus a Partridge remix of the full-length English Settlement‘s “Down in the Cockpit.” King for a Day is a cassette single joining that Oranges & Lemons track with three oldies, including “Generals and Majors” and “Towers of London.” The Mayor of Simpleton is a 3-inch CD: a second track from the 1989 LP joined by a pair of home demos and another tune.
Partnered with producer John Leckie, XTC undertook a pseudonymous side project in 1985 as the Dukes of Stratosphear. The day-glo watches and peace symbols on the cover of the carefully appointed satirical 25 O’Clock mini-album match the six Rutlesque rewrites of ’60s classics like “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Unfortunately, the gaily psychedelic put-on is so clever and careful that it winds up less funny than notable for its accomplishment. The full-length Psonic Psunspot downplays the pose with a far lighter parodic touch — the most prominent touchstone is White Album-era Beatles — and basically amounts to a very casual XTC LP with an intuitive ’60s feel rather than a conscious art context. By not striving for specific imitation and merely enjoying the romp, the Dukes have a better time, and so do listeners.
Although Psonic Psunspot was issued on its own CD, it was also paired with 25 O’Clock and released as the CD-only Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. Completists can also rest easy about the You’re a Good Man EP, as it merely contains a pair of selections from each of the group’s two records.
Compiling two dozen rarities from throughout the band’s career, Rag & Bone Buffet (Rare Cuts & Leftovers) is an XTC freak’s dream — but probably no one else’s. There’s a wealth of disposable material here, with some exceptions: the mad ska workout “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen,” the fine English Settlement outtakes “Tissue Tigers (The Arguers)” and “Blame the Weather,” the creepy “Pulsing Pulsing,” and the wonderfully jolly “Take This Town” from the Times Square soundtrack. Rare versions of album cuts like “Ten Feet Tall,” “Scissor Man” and “Respectable Street” provide even more bait for hardcore gourmands.
Nonsuch was released during the commercial explosion of American underground rock; produced by Elton John veteran Gus Dudgeon, the album’s mannered, polished Angloisms stood in direct opposition — emotionally, musically and sonically — to the prevailing raw edge. The often oversweet group had long since begun to overplay the McCartney side of its Beatlesque musical psyche. “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” rocks out in that amiably nerdish way that only XTC can manage, the eloquent anti-censorship anthem “Books Are Burning” attains a certain majesty and “Wrapped in Grey” wears its Beach Boys influences well. But the preachy, wordy “The Smartest Monkeys” (sung by Moulding) and precious, overwrought pop IQ tests like “Rook” and “Crocodile” are more the rule.
XTC: Live in Concert, documenting a fierce 1980 show, stands in stark contrast. Goaded by Terry Chambers’ workmanlike yet brutally crafty drum work, the band sprints with tight, adrenalized velocity through a tuneful set of post-punk classics including “Life Begins at the Hop,” “Burning With Optimism’s Flame” and “Making Plans for Nigel.” Partridge’s droll blow-by-blow liner notes clinch this nifty release. Oh, for the good old days.
The four-CD Transistor Blast set includes that 1980 concert, along with another terrific live CD (mostly taken from a 1978 show) and two discs of BBC recordings, ranging from the band’s earliest days through the end of the ‘80s (most of which had been included a few years earlier on the Drums and Wireless CD.) The earlier concert recording, with Barry Andrews in the lineup, leans toward songs from White Music; the band’s performance (and the audience’s response) is quite enthusiastic, and the sound quality is excellent. As for the BBC tracks, the songs from Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons are surprisingly lively in this setting; material from The Big Express, however, sounds like Partridge singing over pre-recorded tracks.
Some more compilations: Fossil Fuel expands The Compact XTC, gathering all 31 of XTC’s Virgin singles onto two CDs. The Geffen release Upsy Daisy Assortment augments a haphazard selection of singles with three LP tracks for the American market. Neither collection offers anything new for fans — and the US disc seems inclined to not make any new ones. Its cutesy title (with the subtitle “A Selection of the Sweetest Hits”) and cover illustration are practically guaranteed to make any self-respecting shopper put the album back in the racks rather than risk being seen buying it.
The four-CD box Coat of Many Cupboards, on the other hand, is loaded with extras of real value. Only about a third of the 60 tracks (including two Dukes of Stratosphear songs) are the familiar versions; instead, there are demos, outtakes (including “Things Fall to Bits” and “Us Being Us” from the Go 2 sessions sung by Andrews, and the Nonsuch leftover take “Didn’t Hurt a Bit”), alternate and “rejected” versions (including a ska rendition of “Life Begins at the Hop”) and live recordings. The booklet is rich with track-by-track commentary by Partridge and Moulding. Essential for fans.
Meanwhile, back to the future. Unexpected and unprecedented, Through the Hill, a joint album by Partridge and California-born avant-garde composer Budd (known in rock circles for his 1986 collaboration with the Cocteau Twins and work with Brian Eno), is a generally placid but occasionally pepped up set of ambient instrumentals performed mostly on guitar and keyboards. Budd’s reading of two poems by Partridge and the merest wisps of “aaahing” vocals offer the only discernible evidence of the latter’s presence. Partridge’s solo EP, released by John Flansburgh’s subscription-only CD club, contains four otherwise unavailable tracks, including two from the rumored but unreleased Bubble Gum Album.
Ending its two-decade relationship with Virgin, XTC launched its own label in the UK and announced plans to record a double-album: one disc of songs rendered with acoustic and orchestral instruments and one disc of electric material. Financial constraints, however, forced the group to stretch out this plan; Partridge and Moulding opted to record and release the acoustic half first. Apparently dismayed at this agenda, Dave Gregory quit the band, leaving XTC to carry on as a duo. (He appears as a session musician in the credits.) Gregory’s departure would turn out to be a major loss, but the album that followed, Apple Venus Volume 1, is nevertheless a stunning return to form. The opener, “River of Orchids,” entices with plucked string instruments and muted horns gradually building an intricate contrapuntal web. “I’d Like That” is a lightly strummed invitation to romantic frolic. “Easter Theatre” and “Harvest Festival” reflect wistfully on the start and the end, respectively, of the growing season. “Greenman” opens with an almost cartoonish-sounding oboe motif before bursting into a majestic, Eastern-influenced orchestral score. “I Can’t Own Her” and the album-closing “The Last Balloon” are more solemn numbers, both reflecting on how possessions can’t bring happiness. “Your Dictionary” sets an acid-dripping missive to an unfaithful spouse (“F, U, C, K / Is that how you spell friend in your dictionary?”) to spare, brooding acoustic guitar. True to their titles, Moulding’s two songs (“Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut”) seem lightweight by comparison, but they fit well into the flow of the album. A distinctive standout in XTC’s catalogue, Apple Venus Volume 1 combines the complex, ambitious hooks of English Settlement, the pastoral charm of Mummer and the lushness of Skylarking into one glorious album.
By contrast, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) is the most ordinary-sounding album of XTC’s career. This is the rock-oriented album Gregory would’ve preferred to make; unfortunately, Partridge and Moulding had to make it without him. Lacking Gregory’s guitar talents (Partridge handled all the guitar parts himself) or arranging skills, the album has few of the stylistic flourishes that distinguish XTC’s best work. A small orchestral ensemble appears on a couple songs (“Church of Women” and “The Wheel and the Maypole”), and Partridge’s daughter Holly makes her vocal debut on the opener, “Playground.” Otherwise, the basic pop-rock arrangements leave the songwriting to stand or fall on its own. Partridge’s “You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” stands out, with its jazzy chord changes, and Moulding’s “Boarded Up” sets a sad tales of stores closing for good to shuffling, mournful music. Most of the songs on Wasp Star, though, are uninspired, revisiting fields that XTC has worked before with much more imagination and style.
If the appearance of two new albums in quick succession and the artistic freedom of autonomy implied a productive era for XTC, which spent most of the ‘90s in silence, the Moulding and Partridge were evidently of a different mind. They proceeded to squeeze the last drops of juice and pulp from both halves of the Apple. Homespun and Homegrown offer demo versions of all the songs on Apple Venus and Wasp Star, respectively; Apple Box collects those four CDs into one package. (Later editions of the set include an access code that enables buyers to download two new XTC recordings, Partridge’s “Spiral” and Moulding’s “Say It.”) Instruvenus and Waspstrumental present the originally released tracks sans vocals, for those planning a night of XTC karaoke.
The brief 1995 tribute album offers an impressive array of sophisticated commercial heavyweights and critical favorites doing a bizarre assortment of XTC oldies. Freedy Johnston countrifies “Earn Enough for Us,” Sarah McLachlan embraces “Dear God” as if it were one of her own and the Rembrandts take the nervous edge off “Making Plans for Nigel” in a cloyingly sweet treatment. The Crash Test Dummies make handsome work of “All You Pretty Girls,” They Might Be Giants throw a vintage kitchen sink at “25 O’Clock” (a Dukes of Stratosphear song), Ruben Blades puts Latin rhythm and energy into “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” and Joe Jackson, who was actually on the English new wave scene when XTC released the original on its debut album, treats “Statue of Liberty” with utmost respect. But if there’s something awfully familiar about the sound of “The Good Things,” recorded by the previously unknown Terry & the Lovemen in — of all places — Swindon, that’s just as it should be.