XTC Redux: An Iconic Pop Band Finds Another Reincarnation

Photo: Photography by Dommett Young

There’s nothing I love more than poetic wax on poetic wax that a certain post-punk band from Swindon pressed from the late 1970s and ending in 2000. Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals), Colin Molding (bass, vocals) and Terry Chambers (drums) formed a band in this town about seventy miles west of London in 1972 as a sort of glamorous band inspired by the New York Dolls, chose the name XTC in 1975 (after several name changes) and released their full debut album, “White Music” in 1978. After XTC ceased touring in 1982, drummer Chambers left the band, decamped to Australia and got married (not necessarily in that order). Like most things with XTC (whose name was inspired by a quote from Jimmy Durante and its imprinted appearance, and not by the drug Ecstasy), delays and range changes are a complicated game.

Highlights from their 1978 debut included “This Is Pop” (the inspiration for the title of a 2017 documentary about the band) and “Statue Of Liberty”, banned by the BBC for a reference to “sailing beneath its skirt” upon her arrival in New York. Port of York. Although loved by many, I was not a fan of their second crisis, “Go 2”, notable for “Are You Receiving Me?” but not much else, except for a track written as a tribute to Brian Eno (“Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian)”), after he refused to produce the record, claiming that XTC n didn’t need a producer.

1979’s “Drums and Wires” delivered the breakthrough single “Making Plans For Nigel”, a cast composition. Although Partridge was the band’s main creative force and writer and sang the majority of the songs, Molding’s contributions frequently became the hit singles, causing friction in the creative partnership throughout the band’s life. Their label, Virgin, selected Molding’s “Ten Feet Tall” as XTC’s first US single, but truth be told, the record is an embarrassment of riches, as is the following year’s follow-up, “Black Sea.” This album included not only the British hits “Towers Of London” and “Generals And Majors”, but the searing perforation of conservative mores that launches it, “Respectable Street”, the helium and caffeine and the comic book-inspired novelty “Sgt. Rock (Go Help Me).

XTC was never really a punk band, and never really post-punk either. Given their origins, the band could more accurately be categorized as pre-punk, but the truth is that they were a pop band that harnessed frenetic punk energies and drove the punk wave into the new wave and to the -of the.

This “beyond” really began with the release of the double album “English Settlement” in 1982 and the hit single “Senses Working Overtime”. The record, despite being a track with their earlier discography, marked a move in their sonic approach away from an onslaught of electric guitar towards a more pastoral acoustic sound. Second guitarist Dave Gregory (1979-1997) contributed parts from his twelve-string Rickenbacker and began playing keyboards on this record, further complementing what had been a skeletal sound towards “Drums and Wires”. Keyboardist Barry Andrews (who went on to co-found Shriekback in 1981) had left after “Go 2”. Promotion for the record was short-circuited due to show cancellations related to Andy Partridge’s stage fright, anxiety, and possibly Valium withdrawal (or a combination of all of the above), and they have played their last show before a proper audience in April 1982 in San Diego.

Drummer Chambers contributed to “Mummer” in 1983 but saw no point in continuing with the band if they weren’t going on tour, and left in the middle of the session. His drums appear on three of the ten tracks, including the Molding-penned single “Wonderland”. This electro-acoustic ballad and Partridge’s “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” (perhaps his first recorded reference to the band’s increasingly difficult financial situation) are the only highlights of a record that has perhaps taken their pastoral acoustic obsessions too far. “The Big Express” took a harder, more dynamic direction and rocked with some real funk inflections, but produced no hits of its own, despite the stellar opener “Wake Up” and the sublime pop of “You’ re The Wish”. You are what I had. “I Bought Myself A Liarbird” references Partridge’s worries about being ripped off by their manager (allegedly they were) and “Train Running Low On Soul Coal” brought the railroad metaphor to its natural whistle stop, which may have referred to his concerns the act was proverbially panting.

But all that was before my time. I joined the XTC party after seeing the video for “Dear God” on MTV’s “120 Minutes”. “Skylarking”, produced by pop legend Todd Rundgren and released in 1986, successfully fused the pastoral acoustic approaches of releases like “English Settlement” and “Mummer” with their earlier penchant for electric guitar pop as well as the sonic layered assault of “Black Sea” and “Le Grand Express”. The sound of their ninth album was also inspired in part by their psychedelic counterparts, The Dukes of Stratosphear, who released the pseudonymous EP “25 O’Clock” in 1985 and “Psonic Psunspot” in 1987. Partridge viewed “Dear God” as a failed attempt to wrap his doubts and outrage about God and religion into a short pop song, and fought to keep it off the album, but when it’s released as a B-side for the first single, “Grass”, college radio started playing it, and the song was put back to full-length. The unique twelve-inch vinyl pressing of the B-side with ‘Dear God’ on it has the words ‘NO COMMENT’ etched into the dead wax space.

Although Partridge wasn’t a fan of working with Rundgren, he warmed to the final product, and most critics (myself included) consider him their critical zenith. “Skylarking” was formed into a kind of song cycle with lavish orchestrations (mostly at Rundgren’s request) and includes many of the best songs from XTC’s late period. It was the album that made me a fan – one of the highlights of a spring break trip to London in high school was a visit to Tower Records, in which I bought pretty much all of their discography on audio cassette, most of their recordings being impossible to find in my small Kansas town.

“Oranges and Lemons,” the 1989 follow-up, was steeped in even more psychedelia, but also took the band’s unique sonic sensibilities and clever lyrics to new heights. Buoyed by the success of Partridge’s “Mayor of Simpleton” and Molding’s “King for a Day” as singles, it was their best seller in the United States, peaking at forty-four on the Billboard charts. Again, the record has a lot more to offer, but isn’t an end-to-end success. It’s jam-packed with ideas and without the benefit of input and control from an experienced producer, given that they had hired rookie Paul Fox, who, unlike Rundgren, was perhaps too deferential.

‘Nonsuch’ followed in 1992 and it was a real disappointment, like the band had run out of ideas, which was a shame, because I was still a huge fan. “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkin Head” had some great ideas, but was a squeaky affair, and most of the rest of “Nonsuch” was kind of “Wrapped In Grey”, to reference one of the few highlights of the disc, and one of Partridge’s tracks. favourites. Apparently, this track was to be the third single, but Virgin pulled it from production at the last minute, and that was the band’s breaking point with their label.

Dave Gregory passed away in 1997, allegedly frustrated with the string arrangements Partridge wanted for their first non-Virgin release, 1999’s “Apple Venus Volume 1”. For this record and “Wasp Star, Apple Venus Volume 2” of the 2000s, XTC was essentially a duo, with Partridge still the main creative force and Molding getting a few songs per record.

Partridge and Molding had an interesting creative partnership throughout the life of the band, but their collaboration as XTC was announced by Partridge to be in the “past” in 2006, possibly due to the bassist’s reluctance to participate in the multi-volume “Fuzzy Warbles” series of demos and takes.

Molding and the former XTC Chambers drummer released a four-song EP as TC&I in 2017 and played several sold-out nights in their hometown. Live sets featured songs by XTC, including some by Partridge (with his blessing), and highlights were released as “Naked Flames: Live At Swindon Arts Centre”. But in 2019, Molding announced that TC&I was done; he had done it mainly out of curiosity but was not interested in doing more in terms of recording or touring, preferring to spend time with his family.

At the same time, he gave Chambers his blessing to continue performing his songs, and with the green light from Partridge that leading an ensemble under the name EXTC would be fine, there was hope that the audiences outside Swindon would see a version of XTC’s songs. performed live, by at least one of the original band members. Now led by TC&I guitarist Steve Tilling, EXTC features original drummer Chambers on drums, Steve Hampton on guitar and vocals, and Matt Hughes on bass and vocals.

Even if this never-ending horrible pandemic cancels EXTC’s US leg of the tour (just as the bug killed the last two scheduled XTC conventions in Swindon), XTC’s smart and engaging music is still worth listening to again and reevaluating. . But I sure hope to be front row at their City Winery show on March 30, singing some of the best songs ever written and recorded, by a band that overcame the swaying of an English backwater before pulling the plug shot almost forty years ago.

EXTC—Terry Chambers & Friends of XTC at City Winery, 1200 West Randolph, citywinery.com. March 30, $28 to $42.

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