XTC’s ‘Drums and Wires’ at 40
XTC’s Andy Partridge was obsessed with an old, half-remembered magazine ad for LEGO. In his head, it featured two schoolboys zooming over LEGOLAND with propellers strapped to their backs. They were really outfitted with jetpacks, but no matter — the idea had already become a song in his head. “Helicopter,” the second track off of XTC’s 1979 breakout album, Drums and Wires, was the result.
“That was the fire behind that song,” Partridge tells TIDAL. “Almost a cross between a TV ad from the early ‘60s and just a novelty song about a goofy girl who’s half helicopter.” What does that sound like, exactly? A charming pastiche of wild drums and guitars that recalls, well, an ad — a very strange ad, one you’d want to manically dance to.
And that’s what makes XTC so distinctly XTC: they were like nothing anyone had ever heard before — or since. They weren’t punk, but they cut their teeth on it. They weren’t exactly pop, but they certainly veered that way. They were an explosion of melody, personality and flat-out weirdness — taking stock rock & roll topics like women and cars and recontextualizing them in bizarro ways. Their influences included school hymns, children’s parody records and Captain Beefheart. And Drums and Wires was the record that melded all that at last — thanks to the push and pull between its two principal songwriters, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding.
“We got better at writing songs [by then],” Partridge says. “I started to mentally acknowledge the music that had propelled me to that point in my life, and obviously, it was stuff I heard as a kid in the ‘50s and then stuff I heard as an older child and teenager in the ‘60s. It was like drawing on an awful lot of fuel to use. So it’s going to sound like what you’re raised on.”
Moulding agrees. “I started writing more in my own self; I think in the first two albums I was trying to find my niche, what was me and what wasn’t,” he tells TIDAL. “Drums and Wires was a new start for me and I was writing in the vein that I wanted to write in. And we had a hit! That was a surprise…”
Partridge formed what would become XTC with fellow Swindon, England, pub mates Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers in the mid ‘70s. For a while, they rode the new wave train with a changing lineup of members, releasing White Music in 1978 and Go 2 that same year. Their punk origins are very apparent on those records, which rip along at an expedient pace — far more jagged and confrontational than subsequent releases. The band chafed under the confines of leather and crew cuts, though, and soon broke free into uncharted pop territory.
“You’re influenced by other people around you when you’re not sure of yourself,” Moulding says, referring to the band’s high-energy former keyboard player, Barry Andrews, who left after Go 2. Guitarist Dave Gregory joined soon after. “Up until that point, we were viewed as a poor man’s Talking Heads or something,” Moulding adds. “People called us ‘quirky.’ But when we came out with Drums and Wires it was like a different band, really. Mainly, that was probably my fault.”
Moulding started actively writing songs on Drums and Wires, somewhat due to pressure from Partridge. Although he was the frontman, Partridge did not feel comfortable on stage; he wanted to share that time in the spotlight — or escape it all together.
“I sincerely wanted to be the side fellow who wrote the songs, kind of like the Keith Richards character,” he says. “By default, I became the main singer, and then slowly as the years went by, I bullied Colin into doing the odd backing vocal. Then bullied him saying, ‘Come on, you write some songs. You sing some songs.’”
Moulding says he came into his own around the time the band was working on Drums and Wires. Bred on ‘60s pop and school hymns, the bassist grew tired of trying to be weirder than the other guy, of suppressing his knack for a killer pop song. “I just thought, ‘Blimey, why am I writing like this when I know my sensibilities are more melodic?’” he says. “So I started to write more melodically and good things started to happen.”
Moulding scored the band a hit with “Making Plans for Nigel,” which peaked at number 17 on the UK singles chart. The song would become a kind of blueprint for Moulding’s songwriting style: pastoral, sweet and just a little cheeky. It was inspired by the plays of British writer-actor Alan Bennett, “who writes principally about home life and these guys who spent most of their time with their mothers,” Moulding says.
“Making Plans for Nigel” is a prime example of Moulding’s songwriting; the second song on Drums and Wires, “Helicopter,” is pure Partridge. While “Nigel” opens with the booming live drums made famous by Townhouse Recording Studio’s stone room (best known for birthing Phil Collin’s signature sound), “Helicopter” zips in on electric-sounding beats and a playful guitar line. Zippy, playful and futuristic, the song is perfect encapsulation of Partridge’s musical bugbears: novelty tunes heard courtesy of a junked record player his father nailed to a tea trolley. “I think he thought that was swish — that you could move it from one room to another and plug it in in another room,” Partridge says. “It was very perverse.”
After aging out of these maniac ads and novelty songs, Partridge soon got a taste for psychedelic music (what he calls “an easy bath of hot Jell-O”), then more avant-garde fare, like the frenetic free jazz of Ornette Coleman and the junkyard symphony of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. “Initially, I hated a lot of this stuff, and then something genuinely clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘This Trout Mask Replica, this is the future,’” he says. “How can that be put into pop music? How can that be put into guitars?’”
That was where Moulding came in; the bassist evened out some of Partridge’s more esoteric impulses, creating that balance between batty and boppy that defines XTC. The result is a record that boasts both poppy tunes (Moulding’s “Life Begins at the Hop,” which made it to Top of the Pops) and the very Beefheartian “Roads Girdle the Globe,” Partridge’s hymn to the religiosity of car enthusiasts.
There’s the sweet and strange “Ten Feet Tall” (Moulding), along with jerky, dance-y ode to teenage awkwardness, “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” (Partridge). Moulding contributes a rocking devotion to the workday countdown with “Day In, Day Out.” Partridge indulges a questionable obsession with Chinese culture in the deeply abstracted, chiming “Millions,” in which he casts himself as one of the massive population of that country.
“I was fascinated with Chinese culture, and I started wearing Chinese clothes whenever I could get a hold of them,” Partridge recalls. “This fascination with China lasted until I saw the Tiananmen massacre on the TV. I thought, ‘Nope, don’t want to be fascinated by that no more.’”
The names McCartney and Lennon come up often when discussing the two songwriters and how their work can be differentiated. Both Moulding and Chambers brought up the two Beatles during interviews with TIDAL — although they stressed that they do not see XTC as comparable to the Fab Four.
“They worked together as a Lennon-McCartney thing; they both did their own thing,” Chambers tells TIDAL. “There was never any collaboration. I guess that’s what made it more diverse, I suppose.
“How would you differentiate McCartney from Lennon or Tilbrook from Difford?” Moulding says when asked how their songwriting styles differ. “We come from the same town, there’s likenesses in our voices — that’s what makes it cohesive. But in terms of songwriting, I don’t know. I go into myself and it’s not like anyone else. That’s the same for him. I’m probably more melodic than him; he’s probably more discordant than me. But that’s a generalism.”
The band went on to release several more classic albums — including 1982’s English Settlement and 1986’s Skylarking, produced by Todd Rundgren. And they weathered their share of issues and triumphs as the years rolled on: the band stopped touring in the early ‘80s and focused on making albums, due in large part to Partridge’s distaste for performing live. (“Performing is very physical,” he says. “I’m not a physical [being]. I live in my brain. I barely exist outside of it.”) They also tussled with Virgin over profits. Still, there were bright spots, specifically 1986’s “Dear God,” one of their best known and highest praised songs of all time — despite its anti-religious message.
The band started dissolving in the late ‘90s, when Gregory and Chambers left XTC — finally disbanding in the early ‘00s. “I feel like that’s a journey that’s been done,” Partridge says when asked if they’d ever reunite. “The friendships were probably closer to gang mentality than would befit our mature years now. Most pop bands, rock bands, whatever you want to call them, the best ones are gangs. The XTC gang lasted a long time, and I think we got better and better. At the first sign of it starting to maybe go downhill, it was like, ‘OK, that’s time to pull the plug.’”
Moulding and Chambers reunited in 2017 as TC&I, releasing an EP titled Great Aspirations and playing a run of sold-out shows in their hometown of Swindon. They released a live album in early August 2019, but Moulding isn’t sure they’ll continue with the project.
“I want to cleanse my brain,” he says. “I’ve been doing ordinary things like going to the shops. I purposely didn’t really want to do any music for a while because I wanted to recharge the batteries totally. To come in fresh. It’s like having tennis elbow: the only remedy for it is to take a break.”
Partridge, however, keeps swinging. He’s written songs for a myriad of acts over the years, including his beloved Monkees, and he’s planning to release a collaborative EP with Robyn Hitchcock titled Planet England on September 6. He’s also working on a multi-volume release set sometime in the future featuring all the songs he’s written for other artists that didn’t make the cut. He’s calling it My Failed Songwriting Career.
“I can’t do anything else,” Partridge says when asked about his drive to make music. “I can paint a bit, but I don’t particularly want to be a visual artist. I can wrestle music into another dimension, but I can’t fix people’s roofs or I can’t unblock their drain or make them a suit. But… I can write you a song.”
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