Formed in Wiltshire, England, in 1972 as Star Park (“Rats Krap” backwards) this widely beloved UK pop unit became the Helium Kidz in 1973 with the addition of bass player Colin Moulding, drummer Terry Chambers and a second guitarist Dave Cartner to the nucleus of Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals).
At this time singer Steve Hutchins passed through the ranks and in 1976 Johnny Perkins (keyboards) joined Moulding, Partridge and Chambers.
Following auditions with Pye Records, Decca Records and CBS Records they signed with Virgin Records – at which time they were joined by new keyboard player Barry Andrews.
The band’s sparkling 1978 debut, White Music, revealed a keener hearing for pop than the energetic new wave sound with which they were often aligned.
The album reached #38 in the UK charts and critics marked their name for further attention.
Shortly after the release of Go 2, Andrews departed, eventually to resurface in Shriekback.
Andrews and Partridge had clashed too many times in the recording studio. With Andrews replaced by another Swindon musician, Dave Gregory, both Go 2 and the following Drums And Wires were commercial successes.
The latter album was a major step forward from the pure pop of the first two albums. The refreshingly hypnotic hit single Making Plans For Nigel (UK #17) exposed them to a new and eager audience.
Singles were regularly taken from their subsequent albums and they continued reaching the UK charts with high-quality pop songs, including Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me) and the magnificently constructed Senses Working Overtime, which reached the UK Top 10.
The main songwriter, Partridge, was able to put his sharp observations and nursery rhyme influences to paper in a way that made his compositions vital while eschewing any note of pretension.
The excellent double set English Settlement reached #5 on the UK album charts in 1982, but with Chambers opting to leave the band it was the final album to feature a full-time drummer (although he contributed to two songs on the subsequent Mummer).
In November 1982, Andy Partridge (who had twice collapsed on stage during the year – once from a stomach ulcer, once from exhaustion) announced that XTC would never play live again.
Subsequent albums found only limited success, with those of the Dukes Of Stratosphear – their psychedelic pop alter-ego – reputedly selling more copies. Mummer, The Big Express and the highly underrated Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking were all mature, enchanting works, but failed to set any charts alight.
Oranges & Lemons captured the atmosphere of the late 60s perfectly, but this excellent album also offered a further, perplexing commercial mystery. While it sold 500,000 copies in the USA, it barely scraped into the UK Top 30.
The highly commercial The Mayor Of Simpleton found similar fortunes, at a desultory #46.
In 1992 Nonsuch entered the UK album charts and two weeks later promptly disappeared. The Disappointed, taken from that album, was nominated for an Ivor Novello songwriters award in 1993, but could just as easily have acted as a personal epitaph.
In 1995 the Crash Test Dummies recorded The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead for the movie Dumb And Dumber (1994) and in turn, reminded the world of Partridge’s talent. Quite what he and his colleagues in the band, and Virgin Records, had to do to sell records remained uncertain. Partridge once joked that Virgin retained them only as a tax loss.
It is debatable that if Partridge had not suffered from stage fright and a loathing of touring, XTC would have been one of the major bands of the 80s and would have sold millions of records.
Those who are sensitive to the strengths of the band would rightly argue that this would have severely distracted Partridge and Moulding from their craft as songwriters.
After almost showing a profit the band decided to go on strike in 1992, they were finally released from their Virgin contract in 1996 and signed with the UK’s Cooking Vinyl Records in late 1997.
Following the departure of Gregory, who had tendered his resignation from the team, Partridge and Moulding broke their recording silence in 1999 with Apple Venus Volume 1. This proved to be their most successful record in many years, well-reviewed and lapped up by their loyal fans.
Their familiar guitar-based pop sound was augmented by some sumptuous orchestral arrangements. Sadly, these songs, like their earlier classics, are never likely to be performed on stage in front of an audience. The following year’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was even better.
This beautifully produced record (by Nick Davis) shares the sumptuous sound of albums such as Skylarking. All of the band’s influences coalesce like never before, from the riff-laden Playground to the Beach Boys‘ simplicity of In Another Life and My Brown Guitar.
XTC remains one of the most original pop bands of the era and Partridge’s lyrics place him alongside Ray Davies as one of the UK’s most imaginative songwriters of all time.