8/27/2010

Fits of Ecstasy


[The Dukes of Swindon, l-r: Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory.]

XTC
White Music [Virgin-1978]
Go 2 [Virgin-1978]
Drums and Wires [Virgin-1979]
Black Sea [Virgin-1980]
English Settlement [Virgin-1982]
Mummer [Virgin-1983]
The Big Express [Virgin-1984]
Skylarking [Virgin-1986]
Oranges & Lemons [Virgin-1989]
Nonsuch [Virgin-1992]
Apple Venus Volume 1 [Cooking Vinyl-1999]
Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2 [Cooking Vinyl-2000]

It’s been 10 years since the release of the last XTC studio album—the band officially broke up in 2006 after half a decade of inactivity—so we’ve decided to look back on one of the more influential British acts you may not be familiar with. Throughout a dozen studio albums—not counting the recordings of their psychedelic alter ego The Dukes of Stratosphear—the Swindon-based group transcended their new wave beginnings to become purveyors of elaborate, sophisticated Beatles/Beach Boys styled pop, earning them major praise from such disparate artists as Blur, Peter Gabriel, Jellyfish, and Primus.

Originally a quartet, the lineup on XTC’s debut and sophomore efforts (main songwriters Andy Partridge - vocals/guitar and Colin Moulding - vocals/bass; Barry Andrews - keyboards, and Terry Chambers - drums) made a couple of herky-jerky, ska tinged, punk-influenced, Farfisa organ-inflected new wave discs of their time and place. White Music is the better of the two, exhibiting flashes of their future brilliance in “This Is Pop?” and “Statue of Liberty”. Go 2 does not fare as well yet has its moments, albeit, fleeting ones at that.

With ├╝ber talented new guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory replacing the departed Barry Andrews, and Ultravox/Siouxie and the Banshees producer Steve Lillywhite ringleading the sessions, XTC blended the best aspects of their first two albums—namely the art-y new wave and pop sensibilities—on Drums and Wires, an impressive leap forward littered with great songs ("Helicopter", "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty", "Ten Feet Tall", the often-covered "Scissor Man") and anchored by two stellar Colin Moulding compositions: “Life Begins at the Hop” and their first bonafide hit, “Making Plans for Nigel”.

The ‘80s would bring 3 classic albums from XTC and they started off the new decade in full swing and not wasting any time. Lillywhite returned to produce an album which is not only a timeless collection of songs but is considered by many to be the band’s best. Although Black Sea was not that dissimilar from their previous release, it packed more of a sonic wallop—much props to drummer Chambers for his always inventive but rockin’ playing—and coincided with Partridge and Moulding being on a songwriting roll. Not a bad tune in a bunch that includes the singles “Respectable Street”, “Generals and Majors”, “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)”. If you are unfamiliar with XTC this is undoubtedly where you should start.

The band broke their annual release schedule with a double vinyl album, English Settlement, in 1982. Hugh Padgham, who’d produced The Police’s Ghost in the Machine [A&M-1981] and Synchronicity [A&M-1983]—and was Lillywhite’s engineer on the 3 previous XTC albums—was behind the boards this time and the results, once again, were top notch: singles “Senses Working Overtime” (one of their very best and a UK Top 10 hit) and “Ball and Chain”, as well as the two tracks that close out the album, “English Roundabout” and “Snowman”, are the highlights.

Despite his rank as the band’s leader Andy Partridge had always been an unwilling front man. And when a mental breakdown (due to his debilitating stage fright) ended XTC’s career as a touring band after only 9 shows on the English Settlement tour, it began a new chapter in the band’s career. Unfortunately, it meant the end of the band’s classic lineup with the departure of drummer Terry Chambers, who contributed to a few tracks on the newly studio-bound group’s next album.

No wonder Chambers left: the resulting album, Mummer, is a lackluster, same-sounding acoustic-based album that has little besides Moulding’s “Wonderland” to show for it. Without a doubt, not the most auspicious beginning for the new incarnation of XTC. On their next album, The Big Express, they tried to recapture some of that Black Sea magic, but unfortunately the songwriting just wasn’t there. “Wake Up”, “This World Over”, and “I Remember the Sun” are the best of the batch. But another XTC classic was just around the corner.

Mostly recorded at his Woodstock, NY facilities and sequenced and arranged as a song cycle by the great Todd Rundgren, Skylarking is arguably XTC’s finest moment. Lush sounding and chock full of wonderful tunes ("Summer's Cauldron", lead single "Grass", "That's Really Super, Supergirl", "Ballet for a Rainy Day", "1000 Umbrellas", "Earn Enough for Us", "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul", "Dying", "Sacrificial Bonfire"), Skylarking is widely regarded as one of the top albums of the 1980s and for damn good reason. By the way, b-side “Dear God” was added to the album when it became an unexpected college radio hit in the US, also reaching no. 15 on the Billboard Rock Album Tracks chart. “Mermaid Smiled” was later jettisoned from subsequent pressings of the album to make room for XTC’s newest US hit. (Both are included on the 2001 remaster.)

Following Chamber’s departure in 1982, XTC hired a different drummer on each album. Mr. Mister and future King Crimson sticksman—as well as avowed XTC fan—Pat Mastelotto was chosen for Oranges & Lemons, a big sounding and even more lush and psychedelic record than its predecessor, courtesy of first time producer Paul Fox.

The double album—possibly named after a line in Skylarking’s “Ballet for a Rainy Day”—is also the band’s most varied effort: stadium rock (“The Loving”), power pop (“The Mayor of Simpleton”), orchestrated ballads (“Chalkhills and Children”), touches of African highlife and other influences (“Merely a Man”, “Poor Skeleton Steps Out”, “Across this Antheap”) all inhabit Oranges & Lemons, alongside XTC’s classic songwriting (“King for a Day”, “Cynical Days”, “Pink Thing”). Far-reaching but mostly on-point, Oranges & Lemons—along with Black Sea, and Skylarking—is one of XTC’s crowning achievements.

(To promote the album, Partridge, Moulding and Gregory embarked on a two-week radio tour of the US, culminating with a live studio audience performance in Toronto for some 200 fans. They also performed “King for a Day” on TV’s Late Night with David Letterman, in June of 1989. These were XTC’s first performances in front of an audience since the short-lived English Settlement tour seven years prior.)

Was Nonsuch recorded by the alt-rock/college radio Steely Dan? Not quite, but they come close on this rather antiseptic production by the late Gus Dudgeon, best known for his work on most of Elton John’s records of the 1970s. A bit too polished and lacking in warmth, Nonsuch has some decent tunes (“My Bird Performs”, “The Smartest Monkeys”, “Rook”, “That Wave”, aborted single “Wrapped in Grey”) but suffers from the occasionally artless obtuse lyric (the aforementioned “The Smartest Monkeys” and “Books are Burning”) and a sonic sheen more akin to Dire StraitsBrothers in Arms [Warner Bros-1985] than what they’d accustomed us to in the past.

After a protracted battle with their label, Virgin Records, that saw the band go “on strike” and not release any music for more than half a decade, Partridge decided XTC’s next two albums should be a mostly acoustic, orchestral disc and a rock-oriented record, respectively.

Vehemently opposed was guitarist/keyboardist/arranger Dave Gregory, who preferred culling the best tracks for a single, and presumably more high-quality, effort. Unfortunately, the mounting tension led to Gregory’s departure during the recording of Apple Venus Volume 1, effectively ending his 20 year tenure with the band and robbing XTC’s music of a gifted sonic craftsman, whose contributions to the band’s work are immeasurable.

Partridge’s dual album plans for XTC came to fruition first in 1999 and a year later with Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol.2. Both albums include a few gems (“I’d Like That”, “Easter Theatre”, “Harvest Festival”, “The Last Balloon”; and “You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful”, “Church of Women”, respectively) but Vol.2 is the significantly weaker of the two, and one can’t help but think Mr. Gregory was right in wanting both combined into one album. (We’ve made our own track listing, of course.) Gregory is definitely missed here; the absence of his instrumental and arranging skills--and the rather pedestrian material included--render Vol.2 closer to Partridge's demos than an XTC album, proper sonic fidelity aside.

In 2006, with Colin Moulding stating his disinterest in continuing to make music and unhappy with the band’s internal business dealings, XTC called it quits.


Where are they now?

Andy Partridge writes and records for TV, film, and other artists, as well as busying himself with various solo projects released on his own Ape Records label. Colin Moulding is said to have recently spoken about recording a solo album of his own, despite his previous statements regarding a lack of desire to make music. Dave Gregory is an in-demand session guitarist who not too long ago patched up his differences with Partridge and may be collaborating with his old bandmate. Barry Andrews co-founded Shreikback in 1981 and of late has collaborated with Partridge in a trio called Moonstrance. Shortly after leaving XTC, Terry Chambers moved with his wife to her native Australia where he was briefly the drummer for the band Dragon. He is no longer involved in the music business.

Aside from the above studio albums and their respective reissues there is a veritable treasure trove of compilations, box sets, demo collections, and rarities issued by Virgin, Cooking Vinyl, and the band’s own Idea Records, respectively. (Partridge has released many of his XTC demos via the Fuzzy Warbles series on Ape.) Of note, due to XTC’s relatively brief stint as a live act, is the hard-to-find 1980 Live at the BBC 1 [Windsong-1992], a worthwhile addition to any XTC collection and a rare document of the band’s mesmerizing live show.