XTC were a rock band from Swindon, England led by Andy Partridge (guitars, vocals) and Colin Moulding (bass, vocals). Active between the late 1970s and the mid 2000s, XTC's music ranged from jerky new wave/punk riffs to lushly-arranged progressive pop. They also drew heavily from vintage pop rock and psychedelia from the 1960s, genres which they began to explore more deeply after creating The Dukes of Stratosphear side-project. While XTC failed to maintain significant commercial success after the 1980s, they have earned a devoted cult following, influencing many alternative and indie musicians.
First coming together in 1972, the core duo of Partridge and Moulding went through numerous band names (including The Helium Kidz and Star Park) over the next five years. Drawing influence from the New York Dolls and the emerging New York punk scene, they played glam rock with homemade costumes and slowly built up a following. Drummer Terry Chambers joined in 1973. Keyboard player Barry Andrews followed in 1976, and the band finally settled on a name: XTC. By this time, the punk rock movement was in full swing, and XTC had found their style, a unique brand of hyperactive pop mixed with funk, punk, ska, reggae, and art rock.
The touring years, 1977–82
In 1977 XTC was signed by Virgin Records. They recorded the 3D EP that summer, and followed it up with their debut LP White Music in January 1978. White Music received favorable reviews and entered the British top 30, but lead single "Statue of Liberty" was banned by the BBC for making supposedly lewd references to the famous statue. An early TV appearance to play "Science Friction" on children's show "Magpie" caused additional stir with the graffiti banner on Andrew's Hammond organ saying "Petra's Dead" - a reference to the much loved pet dog on rival show "Blue Peter"
After their second effort, Go 2, and its accompanying Go+ EP (a collection of dub mixes of songs from the album), Andrews left and was replaced by guitarist and keyboardist Dave Gregory. Andrews went on to form Shriekback and also worked with Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen. With Gregory's arrival, the band scored their first charting single, Moulding's "Life Begins at the Hop".
The loss of Andrews' distinctive keyboard playing started the band on a path towards a more traditional rock sound, although Gregory also contributed occasional keyboards (and later, string arrangements). The resulting album, Drums and Wires, contained the band's first big hit, "Making Plans for Nigel", which caused a minor controversy because of its lyrical reference to British Steel. The album found the band branching out into more overtly political topics, culminating in the unhinged ranting of Complicated Game, which became one of the band's most well-known non-hits. Drums and Wires also marked their first sessions at London's Townhouse Studios. The studio was at the time much sought after for its highly reverberant "live" drum room, and it was greatly favoured by their producer of the time, Steve Lillywhite and his engineer Hugh Padgham.
During this period, Partridge also further indulged his love of dub, releasing a solo LP under the name 'Mr Partridge'. The album, Take Away/The Lure of Salvage, featured radical dub deconstructions of music from the preceding XTC albums.
Their 1980 LP, Black Sea spawned the hit singles "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" and "Generals and Majors." The song "Sgt Rock" namechecks a cartoon character of the same name and reflects Partridge's lifelong obsession with American comics, particularly the work of Steve Ditko.
The last major hit of XTC's touring phase was "Senses Working Overtime," the first single from their double album English Settlement and a top 10 hit in 1982. At the peak of their popularity, the band embarked on a major tour, but Partridge suffered a breakdown on stage during one of the first concerts of the tour in Paris on March 18, 1982.
The studio years, 1982–1992
Andy Partridge's breakdown, which manifested itself as uncontrollable stage fright, was reportedly precipitated by his wife throwing away his supply of Valium. According to the band's biography, Andy had become dependent upon the drug after it was prescribed to him as a teenager during his parents' divorce. He reportedly was never withdrawn from the drug and became dependent on it, although many fans were surprised that the group's frenetic early output was produced by a man who was addicted to tranquilisers.
Concerned about her husband's dependence on the drug, Partridge's wife ill-advisedly threw his tablets away—without seeking medical advice—just before the Paris concert. Not surprisingly, Partridge suffered anxiety attacks of such severity that he was soon forced to withdraw from touring permanently. The European and British dates were cancelled and after one show in San Diego the whole U.S. leg was also abandoned. Since then, XTC has been exclusively a studio band, although they have given occasional live-to-air performances from radio stations, and have made a handful of TV appearances as well.
Chambers left the band shortly thereafter, during the recording of their 1983 album Mummer. He was unhappy with the confines of the studio, and also felt the loss of income that resulted from their withdrawal from touring—he did not write, and so received no publishing royalties. Another major factor was his relationship with his Australian girlfriend—they subsequently married, and Chambers migrated to Australia and settled in Newcastle, New South Wales. Rather than finding a replacement, XTC has used a series of session drummers over the years, including Peter Phipps, Prairie Prince of The Tubes, Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, Pat Mastelotto of Mr. Mister, Chuck Sabo, and Dave Gregory's brother, Ian Gregory (as "E.I.E.I. Owen").
If Mummer saw Partridge cooling his heels with pastoral gems like "Love on a Farmboy's Wages", the band's next album took a noisy left turn. 1984's The Big Express, surprised both their record company and fans alike with its abrasive sound and became XTC's poorest seller to date. The album nonetheless was a personal high point for Partridge, who considers songs such as "The Everyday Story of Smalltown" and "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" amongst the best he's ever written.
In 1986, the band traveled to Todd Rundgren's studio-in-the-woods in Woodstock, New York to record what many consider to be the best album of their career, Skylarking. Although the pairing of XTC and Rundgren was highly anticipated by fans, the sessions were less than enjoyable for the band. Rundgren had insisted that the band send him, in advance, demos of all the songs that they thought they might tackle for the record. When the band got to Woodstock, Rundgren had already worked out a running order for both the recording and sequence of the album itself. True to his "hands-on" studio production style, Rundgren insisted that everyone adhere to his scheme. This did not sit well with the band, Partridge in particular. The two egos of Rundgren and Partridge clashed frequently during the recording of Skylarking and when it was finished Partridge said that he was not at all happy with the result. Partridge has since softened his view, describing the album as "a summer's day baked into one cake."
Skylarking revived the band's commercial fortunes, earning critical accolades and spawning the controversial hit "Dear God", which was originally issued as the B-side of the album's first single, "Grass." Interest in the song saw the album re-pressed with "Dear God" included and the new version of the LP sold 250,000 copies in the USA. ("Dear God" replaced "Mermaid Smiled", which was absent from the album until it was finally reinstated for the remastered "Skylarking" CD in 2000.)
The band's follow up, Oranges and Lemons, produced by Paul Fox, was their biggest seller yet, with "Mayor of Simpleton" and "King for a Day" getting heavy airplay on MTV. It was during this period that Partridge began a relationship with an American fan, Erica Wexler, the niece of famed American record producer Jerry Wexler. Although signs of the failing of Partridge's first marriage were evident as far back as English Settlement (notably on the album's closing track, "Snowman"), it was some time before the still-married Partridge felt comfortable with Wexler's advances; this awkward situation is chronicled in the song "Another Satellite". However, the relationship finally came to fruition after Partridge's first wife Marianne left him, and Wexler and Partridge are now in a long term relationship.
During their long career, XTC have also released material under a variety of pseudonyms, including two albums of psychedelic parodies as "The Dukes of Stratosphear" (ultimately released on a single CD, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, simultaneous with the second album's vinyl release), a Viz comics promotional single as "Johnny Japes and his Jesticles," a Christmas-themed single as "The Three Wise Men" and a guest appearance on their own tribute album Testimonial Dinner as "Terry and the Lovemen."
Their 1992 album, Nonsuch (named after Henry VIII's fabled palace), united them with famed UK producer Gus Dudgeon and drummer Dave Mattacks. The album featured the US and UK hit tune, "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead", which brought the band perhaps its greatest success after the early eighties. (The video for "Peter Pumpkinhead" made an unusual comparison between Jesus and John F. Kennedy.) Despite its success, soon after its release, a contractual dispute with their label, Virgin Records, saw XTC go "on strike" from 1992 through 1998, finally resulting in the termination of their contract. They issued no new material during this time, although two compilations were released: Upsy Daisy Assortment and the 2-CD set Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles Collection, which featured remastered versions of their singles, including many tracks not issued on CD before.
Management and contractual problems had dogged the band throughout their career, and around the time of the recording of Nonsuch they had to make a legal settlement with their former manager; although most fans assume (and the lyrics of "I Bought Myself a Liarbird" from The Big Express imply) that there was some financial impropriety involved, the terms of the settlement imposed a "gag" on the band and have prevented them from speaking publicly about the matter.
The final straw for the band was Virgin's scuttling of their 1992 single "Wrapped in Grey", which was pressed up in the tens of thousands, and then recalled and destroyed by the label. The band asked that Virgin either allow them to re-negotiate their contract or release them, but the label stalled for years until finally agreeing to release them after a change of management at the company.
Going independent, 1992–2006
After leaving Virgin, Partridge had their accounts audited and it was discovered that the company had withheld substantial royalty payments from them. The settlement of the accounts provided the group with much-needed cash flow, allowing Partridge and Moulding to install fully-equipped studios and work comfortably at home. They are now able to record the majority of their work themselves, although they have used major commercial studios (including Abbey Road Studios in London) for some sessions. Finally released from Virgin, they formed their own label, Idea Records.
Dave Gregory quit the band during the recording of the 1999 album Apple Venus Volume 1 after 20 years' service. His contribution to the mature XTC sound had been immense: the technical skill of his guitar and keyboard playing, and his orchestral scoring, had facilitated a huge expansion in the group's sonic possibilities. His skills also encouraged, perhaps goaded Partridge to new heights of musicianship.
However, without him, Partridge and Moulding delivered Apple Venus Volume 1. Its successor, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), though favorably reviewed, was considered less strong. The two volumes were originally envisioned as the two discs of a double album, and in October 2005 they were reissued together in the 4 CD Apple Box collection.
Now in control of their own work and with their own small studio, Partridge and Moulding have released instrumental and demo versions of their first two albums on Idea, Apple Venus and Wasp Star. Having left Virgin, relations have improved and Andy Partridge has since released a series of albums of demos of his songs (mainly from the Virgin years) under the title of Fuzzy Warbles in 2002, on a new label imprint APE, which could stand for Andy Partridge Experiments or Andy Partridge Editions or any one of a thousand connotations of the letter E. Colin Moulding declined to contribute his demos to the series. As of January 2006, the Fuzzy Warbles series has run to fully six volumes; volumes seven and eight are slated to appear by mid-2006.
A boxed 4 CD compilation, Coat of Many Cupboards spanning the band's time with Virgin, was also released in 2002.
Though the immediate and medium-term future for XTC still remains uncertain, the inclusion of the first new tracks for five years, "Spiral", penned by Partridge, and "Say It", written by Moulding, on the Apple Box release offers some hope of the band's continuance.
In November 2006, Partridge told several interviewers that Moulding no longer had any interest in writing, performing or even listening to music. Partridge has said he would not continue XTC without Moulding, and that therefore he has been forced to regard XTC "in the past tense," with no likelihood of a new project unless Moulding should have a change of heart.
As of December 2018, five XTC albums (Nonsuch, Drums and Wires, Oranges and Lemons, Skylarking and Black Sea) have been given expanded reissues on APE featuring 5.1 Surround mixes and new stereo mixes by renowned remixer Steven Wilson, with a yet-unnamed sixth in the works as confirmed on Andy Partridge's Twitter. Further vinyl and CD reissues have been released of English Settlement, Apple Venus Volume 1 and Wasp Star, with more planned for 2019 and 2020 according to sleeve notes on the Apple Venus/Wasp Star vinyl.