Shedding Light in the Darkness

Why XTC Was the Hippest, Most Creative British Band of the ‘80s

xtcWhen you think about stellar British rock/pop bands of the 1980s, probably Duran Duran, The Cure, Queen, The Police, The Clash, The Smiths, and maybe Eurythmics come to mind. It’s unlikely XTC would make that list. Mentioning this quintessential English band to friends recently I got quizzical looks. Who they asked?

My love affair with XTC was just reignited by a new Showtime documentary “XTC: This is Pop,” which brought me to the realization that they were actually the hippest, most creative British band of the ‘80s.

XTC were led by genius musician Andy Partridge, who in a hilarious opening to the film moans, “Rockumentaries, I really dislike them. They get these old farts waffling on. They always have that lugubrious keyboard player from that prog rock group…” And then, ho ho, up pops Yes’ keyboardist Rick Wakeman – “I remember XTC.”

Partridge continues: “The only thing that’s worthy about making a documentary on XTC is it’s not about the rock and roll bollocks that constitutes 99% of other bands.”

Think about the lyricism and creative genius of the Beatles flavored with the harmony sophistication of the Beach Boys and the quirkiness of the Incredible String Band and you get a sense of XTC’s brilliance.

Emerging from the late 1970s punk and new wave explosion, XTC never experienced wide commercial success, but they developed a devoted following with hit singles like “Making Plans For Nigel,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Dear God,” and “Mayor Of Simpleton.”

Among those singing their praises in the film are Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Blondie’s Clem Burke and Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer.

Probably too eccentric for mainstream America, they hardly made a ripple in the U.S., though their controversial single “Dear God” ended being banned on some radio stations. It had originally released as a B side and left off their “Skylarking” album.

According to Partridge, the track had been left off “Skylarking” because a Virgin Records executive advised that the song may upset American audiences. Sarah McLaughlin later covered it on a 1996 XTC tribute CD, “A Testimonial Dinner.”

Tour mates with The Police in their early days, the band came into their own on the “English Settlement” double album in 1982 (chopped down to a single album for the US), which featured a cover of the famous prehistoric chalk figure the Uffington White Horse.

Highlighted by more complex and intricate arrangements Partridge reported the band “wanted to move in a more pastoral, more acoustic direction.”

Full of pop gems the record spawned three UK singles: “Senses Working Overtime,” “Ball and Chain” and “No Thugs in Our House.” A Pitchfork review hailed it as one of the best albums of the 1980s. Audiophile Review called it, “one of the best sounding albums by any band or artist to come out of the new wave movement of the late 70s and early 80s.”

 “My, my, sun is pie
There’s fodder for the cannons
And the guilty ones can all sleep safely
All sleep safely”-
Senses Working Overtime

Talking about the song Partridge explained in an interview: “It’s like a little prog operetta. The verses sound like medieval reggae, before it opens up like The Who and the chorus is almost The Strawbs-meets-Manfred Mann. Then it goes sideways into something else for the middle section. I’m notorious for sticking bits together.”

And then with Partridge basically experiencing a mental breakdown the band abandoned touring and became, like the Beatles, a genius studio outfit.

Screwed by their management and record label (Virgin), the band managed a couple more poor selling albums, with one reviewer hoping they’re not too far ahead of their time. While their label reportedly told them they weren’t selling well because they sounded “too English.” “Can you make something between ZZ Top and the Police” Partridge was told.

Enter Todd Rundgren who produced the superb “Skylarking,” which Rolling Stone praised as one of the best albums of the 1980s. “Skylarkings fourteen songs abound in elemental imagery and music that is pastoral, understated and carefully arranged,” noted RS. “The album is a celebration of nature and particularly of summertime. Skylarking is the most inspired and satisfying piece of Beatle-esque pop since … well, since the Beatles.”

More pop perfection followed with “Oranges & Lemons,” with such jubilant gems as “King for a Day” and “Mayor of Simpleton,” and the sublime “Chalkhills and Chidren,” which rivals some of Brian Wilson’s epics.

XTC entered the ‘90s with “Nonsuch,” which was actually nominated for an alternative music Grammy and praised by AllMusic as a minor masterpiece.

An Audiophile Review of a re-release noted how it was released at a time when Nirvana was raging. “And there were our heroes from Swindon swinging keen pop gems like “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” chockfull of chiming guitars and crisp production. Sweet pastorals like “Humble Daisy” and the circular “My Bird Performs” were the antithesis of the driving teen spirit of the time.”

By the close of the’90s XTC resurfaced with “Apple Venus Volume 1,” which received zero promotion. Critically acclaimed Rolling Stone praised, “instead of evoking the Sixties, Partridge and Moulding suggest a timeless pastoral past rich with melody and subtlety.” And AllMusic – “There is really no comparable record in XTC’s canon, given its sustained mood, experimentalism, and glimpses of confession … [it] easily ranks as one of XTC’s greatest works.”

Summing up XTC’s extraordinary creative arc Steven Wilson, who remixed reissues of the band’s Drums & Wires, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, and Nonsuch, concluded: “I would say that only the Beatles made a similar journey with such consistently brilliant results.”

In a Prog interview Partridge was asked will XTC ever happen again? “I don’t think so. We made a lot of good albums, and became one of the very few bands in existence to get better as we went along. In fact, we got really fucking good. It’s a shame that we were never recognized in our own country for that.”

So here’s a taste of the cream of XTC

  1. King for a Day – from Oranges & Lemons Mayor of Simpleton – from Oranges & Lemons

    3. In Another Life – from Wasp Star

    4. Ladybird – from Mummer

    5. My Bird Performs – from Nonsuch

    6. Rook – from Nonsuch

    7. Chalkhills and Children – from Oranges & Lemons

    8. Senses Working Overtime – from English Settlement

    9. Smartest Monkeys – from Nonsuch

    10. Dear God – from Skylarking

A mini overview of the band –

And possibly MTV’s first unplugged session in 1989 – with XTC

One response to “Why XTC Was the Hippest, Most Creative British Band of the ‘80s

  1. Timothy Alan Lamb November 18, 2019 at 2:33 am

    Absolutely lovely, well-written, and well-referenced article on the world’s most underrated band of all time, XTC. Thank you for this tremendous effort.


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