was one of the smartest — and catchiest — British pop bands to
emerge from the punk and new wave explosion of the late '70s.
From the tense, jerky riffs of their early singles to the lushly
arranged, meticulous pop of their later albums, XTC's music has
always been driven by the hook-laden songwriting of guitarist
Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding. While popular success
has eluded them in both Britain and America, the group has developed
a devoted cult following in both countries that remains loyal
over two decades after their first records.
Partridge, Moulding, and drummer Terry Chambers formed the first
version of the band around 1976, calling themselves Star Park.
As punk rock took off in 1977, the group changed their name to
Helium Kidz and added keyboardist Barry Andrews. After being turned
down by CBS Records, the band changed their name to XTC and secured
a record contract with Virgin; they released their first EP, 3-D,
in October of 1977. White Music, the band's first full-length
album, was recorded in a week and released by the end of the year.
Critics praised the angular yet melodic pop, and the album reached
number 38 in the U.K. charts. However, none of the singles released
from the album charted (including "This Is Pop"), nor did "Are
You Receiving Me?," the teaser single for their second album,
Go 2 (1978).
After returning from a brief U.S. tour, Andrews quit the band;
he would eventually form the League of Gentlemen with Robert Fripp,
as well as pursue a solo career. Guitarist David Gregory was added
to the lineup after Andrews' departure and the group recorded
their first charting single, "Life Begins at the Hop." XTC released
their third album, the calmer, more pop-oriented Drums and Wires,
that summer; the record climbed to number 37 on the charts, thanks
to the hit single "Making Plans for Nigel." While Drums and Wires
began to climb the U.S. charts, Partridge released his first solo
album early in 1980; outside of the band's devoted fans, the record
appeared without much fanfare.
XTC continued to smooth out their edges on 1980's Black Sea, bringing
in elements of mid-'60s Beatles and Kinks to their guitar-driven
pop; thanks to the singles "Generals and Majors" and "Towers of
London," it was the group's most successful American album, peaking
at number 41 while reaching number 16 on the British charts. Released
the following year, English Settlement featured more complex arrangements,
as well as more intellectual lyrics, particularly from Andy Partridge.
Nevertheless, the album was XTC's biggest success in the U.K.,
reaching number five on the album charts and launching the Top
Ten single, "Senses Working Overtime."
While on tour in March of 1982, Partridge collapsed while on-stage,
suffering from exhaustion. Less than a month later, he collapsed
again with a stomach ulcer. The band canceled the tour shortly
after his second collapse, prompting Chambers to leave the group.
In November, Partridge announced that XTC would never play live
again, concentrating on recording instead; he also blamed his
collapses on intense stage fright. As the band completed their
new album, a compilation called Waxworks — Some Singles (1977-1982)
was released at the end of the year.
Mummer, the first album the studio-bound XTC recorded, appeared
in the summer of 1983; former Glitter Band member Pete Phipps
recorded the drum tracks for the record. XTC refused to tour for
the record, which caused some tension between the band and Virgin,
and was presumably the reason why "Love on a Farmboy's Wages"
didn't make it past number 50 on the charts. Recording under the
name the Three Wise Men, the group released the holiday single
"Thanks for Christmas" at the end of the year.
Released in the fall of 1984, The Big Express essentially followed
the same pattern as Mummer, yet it charted higher in the U.K.
XTC released a psychedelic parody album, 25 O'Clock, under the
name the Dukes of Stratosphear in 1985. After a difficult recording
session with producer Todd Rundgren, the pastoral Skylarking appeared
in the fall of 1986. Upon its release the album was hailed as
a masterwork by critics, even though the band were claiming they
were unsatisfied with the production. Skylarking was a bigger
hit in the U.S. than it was in the U.K., spending over six months
on the charts and peaking at number 70.
XTC recorded another Dukes of Stratosphear album, Psonic Psunspot,
in 1987; the two Stratosphear albums were collected on one disc
the following year. Oranges and Lemons (1989) reworked the psychedelia
of the Stratosphear side-project, leaving out much of the loopy
humor and replacing it with a Ray Davies-inspired nostalgia. The
album was a minor hit in both Britain and America, reaching number
28 and number 44, respectively; "Mayor of Simpleton" became XTC's
only charting U.S. single, reaching number 72 while peaking at
number 46 on the British charts. Three years later, the group
released Nonsuch, an album that recalled both Pet Sounds and Revolver.
Like every XTC record, its critical acclaim was greater than its
sales — the album dropped out of the British charts after two
weeks. In America, Nonsuch was more successful, reaching number
97 and staying on the charts for 11 weeks. Years of internal difficulties
and label battles kept the group from releasing any new material
for much of the decade, however, and not until 1999 did the next
XTC album, Apple Venus, Pt. 1, finally appear. Wasp Star (Apple
Venus, Pt. 2) followed in mid-2000.
XTC's lack of commercial success isn't because their music isn't
accessible — their bright, occasionally melancholy, melodies flow
with more grace than most bands — it has more to do with the group
constantly being out of step with the times. However, the band
has left behind a remarkably rich and varied series of albums
that make a convincing argument that XTC is the great lost pop