Wednesday, March 12, 2014

XTC - Making Plans For XTC And More

About ten years ago I purchased a, long overdue, collection of the ‘best of’ British post punk/new wave band XTC.  I’d purchased a number of their singles over the years, but had yet to explore the band for all they were worth.  The purchase of the double CD release ‘Fossil Fuel - The XTC Singles’ (UK#33) featured 31 tracks in all and allowed me the chance to explore the band’s music a little more seriously.  There was barely a poor track in the songs assembled, and it left me with the question of why had XTC not been a bigger commercial success.  The short answer is they never actively pursued it - well that’s one reason - but for a more detailed appraisal of their career and more, please read on.

XTC were one of the leading constituents of the British post punk/new wave scene of the late 70s into mid 80s.  They were also one of the most enduring and eclectic acts to emerge from that era.  Though lumped by some observers as ‘new wave’, XTC resided more in the power-pop zone of the movement.  Early days their music was a meticulously crafted brand of art-pop, featuring inventive rhythm patterns, and sometimes weirdly placed melodic contortions.  Early critical appraisal compared them to ‘Rubber Soul’ era Beatles, but XTC were never ones to be pigeonholed, even by their loyal cult following.

The band’s roots burrowed back to 1973, in Swindon, a rustic outcropping of London.  Twenty year old Andy Partridge (vocals/guitar), recruited Colin Moulding (bass/vocals), Terry Chambers (drums), and Jonathan Perkins (keyboards), all three still in their teens.  They dubbed themselves the Helium Kidz, and took to local music circuits to hone their craft and build an audience.  Initially their style was born of a New York Dolls influenced brand of glitter-pop, mixing straight up rock& roll with quintessential English psychedelia that would inform their later work.

By 1976, the Helium Kids moniker had blown away, and was replaced by the concisely dubbed XTC.  By now, the group were playing a lot of originals, mostly penned by Partridge and Moulding, and influenced by the likes of The Beatles later work, The Move, ‘Pet Sounds’ era Beach Boys, The Small Faces, and Captain Beefheart.  Though not pandering to the prevalent punk movement of the time, XTC retained some of the harder edged aspects of their early guise, and by 1977 had been identified by Virgin as having major potential, and signed to their label.  Before entering the recording studio, keyboardist Jonathan Perkins was replaced by Barry Andrews (ex-King Crimson).

In late ‘77, XTC released the debut single, ‘Science Fiction’, followed in quick succession by ‘Statue Of Liberty’, and ‘This Is Pop?’ (which puts me in mind of Australia’s Sports - see separate posts), the latter garnering some critical attention for the band, and revealing XTC to be a power-pop outfit in punk clothing guise.  Amongst the post-punk frenzy of Britain’s music scene in 1978, XTC found a loyal audience who pushed their debut album, ‘White Music’ (recorded in just one week), to #38 on the British charts. The album bubbled along with bursts of chaotic energy, capturing XTC at their early era rebellious best.

The frenetic single ‘Are You Receiving Me’ hit the airwaves in October of ‘78, and soon after featured on Australia’s ‘Countdown’ national TV program - that’s when and where I first saw XTC in action.  The song reached #86 in Australia, likely on the back of that one ‘Countdown’ appearance.  The source album, produced by John Leckie (later worked with Stone Roses and Radiohead), was titled ‘Go 2’, and proceeded to go all the way to #21 in Britain (OZ#93).  Partridge and Mouldings skills as song-smiths were becoming more evident, and ‘Go 2’ stretched the band stylistically into more adventurous art-pop territory, influenced in parts by a Brian Eno brand of idiosyncratic electronica.  A standout was the song’s opening track ‘Meccanic Dancing (Oh We Go!)’, featuring jolting rhythms and a burst of guitar driven power-pop in the middle eight.  The band were still keeping up a hectic touring schedule but soon after the release of ‘Go 2’ Andrews left the band (to join League Of Gentleman, and later to co-found Shriekback - see separate post), and was replaced by Dave Gregory (keyboards/synthesisers/guitar).

During the first half of ‘79, XTC laboured away in studio to record their third album, ‘Drums And Wires’ (UK#34/OZ#40), the band’s first U.S. release.  The lead out single, ‘Life Begins At The Hop’, did reasonable business (UK#54/OZ#94), but it was the quirky follow up single, ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ that promised a major commercial breakthrough for XTC.  Penned by, and featuring the lead vocals of bassist Colin Moulding, the song was backed by an eccentric video clip featuring the band members playing in some kind of asylum setting.  The combination of music and video worked, pushing ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ to #17 on the British charts (OZ#94).  The album wound back on some of the frenzied energy of its predecessors, offering a more cohesive sound, yet one that retained the band’s eccentricity and humour, evidenced by tracks such as ‘Day In Day Out’, ‘Ten Feet Tall’, and the anthemic ‘Roads Girdle The Globe’.  In amidst a hectic performance schedule the prolific song writing of Andy Partridge found a vehicle beyond the frontiers of XTC, in the form of the February ‘80 album release ‘Take Away (The Lure Of Salvage)’, released under the unassuming name of Mr. Partridge.

XTC spent the English summer in doors recording their next album, titled ‘Black Sea’.  Although the band had yet to register any commercial recognition in the U.S., the back catalogue release of their earlier work, and a burgeoning legion of fans on college campuses, saw ‘Black Sea’ reach #41 on the U.S. album charts (UK#16/OZ#27). The 1980 released album was less frenetic than earlier chapters of their career, and cast a stylistic haze of nostalgic psychedelia, harbouring hints of an elegiac model Kinks between its covers. Lyrically speaking, ‘Black Sea’ also saw XTC presenting a more overtly socio-political approach.  The single ‘Generals And Majors’ marched to #32 in Britain and to #24 here in Australia, and two further single releases, the drum heavy ‘Towers Of London’ (UK#31), and pop-ish ‘Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’ (UK#16) further broke down the walls of commercial resistance for XTC.

The critically lauded album ‘English Settlement’ (UK#5/ OZ#14/US#48) was released in February of ‘82, and immediately made an impact, thanks in part to the lead out single, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ‘Senses Working Overtime’.  The track became XTC’s first foray into the British top ten (#10/OZ#12), and was followed up by the single ‘Ball And Chain’ (UK#58/OZ#97) two months later.  ‘English Settlement’ was, and has been, regarded as XTC’s finest hour, blending strains of folk rock, exotic rhythm patterns, and cutting edge synthesiser pop, blended through a prism of psychedelic rock - all up a more stylistically complex offering.  Furthermore, Andy Partridge’s acerbic wit, and eccentrically challenging lyrics lured the listener to be immersed by each and every track.  ‘English Settlement’ was released as a double album in Britain, but (minus four cuts) was reduced to a single album release in the U.S.  Like so many British post-punk bands, significant mainstream crossover success in America eluded XTC, but the band’s profile continued to grow on the indie and alternative scenes, via college-radio.

All signs were pointing to a major commercial breach by XTC, and the band set off on a major world tour, taking in Europe and the U.S.  But all was not well within the band, and more specifically with Andy Partridge’s health.  The band’s European tour had ended badly with Partridge collapsing on stage in Paris from exhaustion.  But he and the band pushed on through the discomfort which bellowed into Partridge suffering a nervous breakdown in California due to intense stage fright, just a few dates into their U.S. tour. XTC abandoned the rest of the tour, and it was announced subsequently that they would never tour again.  Partridge took the best part of a year to come to grips with agoraphobia, becoming a virtual shut-in.  In the fallout from events, drummer Terry Chambers left the band, and XTC were reduced to the core trio of Partridge, Moulding, and keyboardist Dave Gregory, with drummer Pete Phippes (formerly of Glitter Band) a regular contributor in-studio.

An XTC ‘best of’ was released in late ‘82.  ‘Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982’ (UK#54), also featured a limited edition companion album in the form of ‘Beeswax: Some B-sides 1977-1982’, to keep fans happy until XTC resurfaced once more to charm them with new material.)))

No comments: