The true success stories of contemporary music are attributable not only to musical talent but to business savvy and a substantial amount of good luck. Numerous factors come into play when gauging the creative and commercial success of a band, and several artists who have seemingly had everything going for them artistically but never became as publicly popular as the quality of their music would suggest. XTC is once such band. Rising out of the “gritty little concrete industry blob” of Swindon (as it was described by guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter Andy Partridge), the band careened through multiple changes in personnel and musical direction, but never became nearly as popular with the record-buying public as they were with critics. Furthermore, bad business decisions left them financially struggling even as their audience grew. They did, however, maintain a consistent high quality of music that, in retrospect, puts their musical stature head and shoulders above some of their more popular contemporaries.
The band began in 1972 as Star Park, a glam rock band featuring Andy Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, drummer Terry Chambers, and an assortment of New York Dolls-inspired outfits mostly pilfered from their mothers’ wardrobes. The band then morphed into The Helium Kidz, a name that saw their musical style evolve into a unique brand of space-age pub rock. The final piece of the puzzle was keyboardist Barry Andrews, whose cheap fairground organ sounds and lively stage persona sent the energy of the band’s live performances to near-punk levels. Sensing the need for a more immediate band name, they chose the moniker XTC and caught the attention of influential British DJ John Peel. A 1977 session on Peel’s show, combined with British record companies’ desire to cash in on the punk phenomenon that was exploding, led Virgin to offer XTC a record deal. They accepted and a contract was signed between the band, Virgin, and manager Ian Reid. (Andy later quipped of Reid’s surname: “The G’ is silent.”)
Although they were lumped in with the burgeoning punk movement, XTC was unique from the get-go. When asked to classify their genre, the band responded with the name of their first major single: “This Is Pop!” Their debut album “White Music” further solidified the band’s unwillingness to fit in with popular musical trends (an attitude that stayed with them for their whole career). Where punk was political, serious and full of attitude, XTC was nostalgic, witty and full of melody. Still, the album and their intense live shows cemented them as one of the tightest bands of the era. Following a hastily-written second album, “Go 2,” Barry Andrews left and was replaced by fellow Swindonian, guitarist Dave Gregory. Dave’s highly proficient style encompassed anything from Hendrix-fueled solos to Harrison-esque jangle to Montgomery-styled jazz chords. Additionally, he was a fan and friend of the band and fit in quickly with the band’s demanding schedule.
The new guitar-heavy incarnation of XTC debuted with 1979’s “Drums and Wires” (the wires in question being guitar strings), which brought the band new commercial success thanks to Colin’s budding songwriting skills. “Life Begins At The Hop” and “Making Plans For Nigel” became hit singles and established Colin as a force to be reckoned with, much to Andy’s initial annoyance. “I’ve got to say I was lividly jealous of him at that point because he just couldn’t put a foot wrong,” Andy later admitted, and took the band’s next album, “Black Sea,” as an opportunity to step up to the bat and regain his leadership of songwriting responsibilities. The resultant album was at once more powerful and subtler than their previous works, thanks to Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham’s drum-heavy production technique (which would later become famous when used by the Police, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and U2) and the new-found pronounced influence of the Beatles and the Kinks on Andy’s songwriting. A rigorous tour of America supporting the Police followed, introducing the band to the USA.
The band’s demanding schedule continued, as they spent 1981 in the studio recording the double album “English Settlement.” Propelled by new instrumentation (Dave’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, Andy’s acoustic guitar and Colin’s fretless bass), they experimented with different textures, culminating in the Top 10 UK hit “Senses Working Overtime.” However, the sensory overload described in that song’s lyrics foreshadowed the stress that was beginning to take its toll on Andy. While on tour, Andy’s wife Marianne took it upon herself to end his 13-year Valium addiction by flushing his pills down the lavatory. The effects of cold turkey withdrawal topped with the band’s substantial work schedule were too much for him to bear. On March 18, 1982, not a minute into a concert being simulcast to TV and radio, Andy had a massive panic attack and left the stage, never to return. This chronic stage fright forced the band to cancel their upcoming tour and put a permanent moratorium on live performances. Like the Beatles, XTC’s retirement from touring began a new chapter in their careers, where they were free to experiment with their sound as a studio-only band.
This new direction was met with considerable resistance from Terry Chambers. The songs Andy wrote while recuperating from his breakdown were much softer in texture than previous XTC songs, which did not suit Terry’s hard-hitting style. Terry, who loved performing live, quickly left the band and moved to Australia. The band decided against hiring a permanent replacement, opting instead to play with a rotating cast of session drummers or to program drum machines. Their following two albums, “Mummer” and “The Big Express,” were solid but unremarkable and did not sell well on either side of the Atlantic.
Virgin was becoming worried about the band’s withering commercial appeal, and convinced them to record their next album in America with Todd Rundgren. The group, being fans of his work, agreed, but almost instantly tensions began forming between Todd and Andy. Both were forceful personalities, accustomed to getting their own way artistically. Andy said the situation was akin to “having two Hitlers in the same bunker.” The atmosphere became so ominous that Colin quit the band; he was persuaded to rejoin as long as he could record his bass tracks separately. However, the album that resulted from these sessions, 1986’s “Skylarking,” was perhaps their greatest to date. It effortlessly evoked the ebullient exuberance of a youthful summer day, and seamlessly integrated their rock roots with the folk and psychedelic experimentation of their post-touring work. The first single, Colin’s “Grass,” did respectably well, but when college DJs in America began playing the single’s b-side, Andy’s “Dear God,” the band found themselves with a hit on their hands. The song’s bluntly atheistic lyrics caused extreme reactions across the country; one Florida station received a threat that they would be firebombed if the song was played again, while a student in New York held a high school secretary at knife-point and ordered her to play the song over the school’s PA system. Controversy never hurts the success of a work of art, though, and the album was XTC’s biggest selling yet.
After a short spell masquerading as a psychedelic 1960s band, recording music under the name The Dukes Of Stratosphear, XTC returned to America to record 1989’s “Oranges And Lemons,” a double-album as colourful and garish as its cover. The album spawned a few hits with “Mayor of Simpleton” (which hit the top of the American Modern Rock’ charts) and “King For A Day,” a feat helped considerably by Andy’s brief acquiescence to live performances. The band toured radio and TV stations with acoustic guitars in tow, playing a relaxed set of their greatest hits that in many ways was a precursor to the MTV Unplugged series that debuted a few years afterwards. They followed this up with “Nonsuch” in 1992, a splendid autumnal set of songs recorded with famed producer Gus Dudgeon. However, the tension between band and record company that had appeared before “Skylarking” resurfaced with a vengeance.
XTC, despite being the longest-lasting act on Virgin, had only barely begun breaking even. Although they had sold approximately 3 million records worldwide, the only money they received after deductions was publishing royalties, which naturally excluded non-songwriter Dave Gregory. Dave and Colin had found themselves working odd jobs as truck drivers to make ends meet at their modest Swindon homes. Virgin was not hearing any talk about renegotiating their contract, and the final straw came with deciding the single for “Nonsuch.” Andy’s first choice for the single was the Bacharach-esque “Wrapped In Grey,” and he set about storyboarding a music video. Virgin pressed about 5,000 copies of the single, but had sudden second thoughts and quickly withdrew its release. Andy likened the situation to ‘smothering a baby in its crib,’ and the band decided to do what other professionals did when their working conditions were unacceptable: they went on strike.
During the strike, the members of XTC found themselves in various states of stress. Complications from Dave’s lifelong diabetes and impending middle age left him irritable and unfriendly with the rest of the band. Colin’s wife suffered an illness that sapped much of Colin’s songwriting drive. Andy’s marriage to Marianne ended tumultuously, and his health worsened when an ear infection left him temporarily deaf. However, the setbacks fired Andy’s creativity and he began stockpiling songs secretly (as playing the demos to Virgin would have given them the copyright, courtesy of a creative contractual clause). After a five-year stalemate, the Virgin contract expired and the band finally began recording the backlog of material written during the strike. However, Andy’s demos had become so intricate that Dave’s arrangement skills were not required, which led to further disconnect between Dave and the band. Following a fight-ridden pre-production, Dave quit the band for good, leaving XTC as just a core duo of Andy and Colin.
Undaunted, the two began recording the material, which seemed to fall into two categories – orchestral and acoustic (which Andy termed ‘orchoustic’) and XTC’s eclectic brand of electric guitar-driven power pop (or ‘eclectric’). The material was compiled accordingly to 1999’s “Apple Venus Volume 1” and 2000’s “Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2).” Although the album’s main audience was the sizable cult that had been following the group throughout their hiatus, the albums were critically hailed as being well worth the wait. “Apple Venus Volume 1” in particular had built upon the stately arrangements of “Nonsuch” to create an expansive and genre-defying collection of top-shelf music equally indebted to the classic pop songwriting of The Beatles and the avant-garde orchestrations of Philip Glass. Furthermore, the band owned the masters to these two albums, and celebrated by releasing the album as a box set, a collection of singles, a set of demos and an instrumental mix. (A 5.1 remix is reportedly in the works.)
Unfortunately, the band’s new-found creative drive was short-lived. Colin’s songwriting output had slowed to a crawl (many fans noted that some of his contributions to the “Apple Venus” series were written during the “Nonsuch” sessions), and Andy began his own record company in order to release a series of his home demos called “Fuzzy Warbles.” Apart from a few tracks recorded for the “Apple Box” reissue and some consulting on a Virgin box set, the pair seldom contacted each other. All was quiet on the XTC front until Colin called Andy, telling him “he wasn’t interested in music any more.” Furthermore, he moved houses and changed phone numbers without updating Andy on his contact information, which essentially left Andy as the last man standing.
In a sense, XTC had been slowly dissolving ever since their decision to quit touring. One by one, members began dwindling after that event until the band was suddenly no longer a band. However, it is a testament to their graceful aging and peerless songwriting and musicianship skills that they built a remarkable catalog of consistently excellent music even as their professional career undertook a series of setbacks that would have derailed a less talented and persistent group. Although unjustly unsuccessful from a commercial point of view, Andy Partridge argues this lack of success was ultimately the band’s saving grace: “I have to be honest, the only reason we had such a long career, maybe 30 years, is through failure. There is no better motivator than failure! You think you’re doing the world’s best music and no bastard’s buying it, it makes you more righteous and angry – the more we failed, the better I wanted to get. I’ll tell you, failure was fantastic to us: more bands should try it!”