Course A002:  XTC - The band and the music


A history of the middle ages

As the eighties ended and the Berlin Wall fell, the band settled back into life in Swindon, with Colin playing his favourite role – homemaker – and Andy being his usual ubiquitous production whore, doing work for The Mission, Lilac Time, Peter Blegvad, Marc Almond and Johnny Hates Jazz! 

By 1991 another album had been written, which Andy dubbed “The Last Balloon”. Oranges & Lemons had convinced all parties that they should return to recording in England – much to the relief of the Moulding family. Andy now had two young kids also – Holly and Harry – and he didn’t want to miss their childhood as Colin had missed much of Lee’s and Joanne’s. 

Using former Fairport Convention drummer, Dave Mattacks, they booked Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham to produce and engineer. As a team, these two had scored huge hits throughout the 80s with the likes of Genesis. 

However, Lillywhite dropped out at the last minute to sort out his ailing marriage to Kirsty McColl and Padgham wouldn’t go it alone. There they were with all the recording time booked and no producer, until Mattacks suggested Gus Dudgeon – a wonderful English eccentric and raconteur who has forgotten more about producing than most people will ever know. His list of credits reads like a who’s who of British stars – Bowie, Elton, Queen, Clapton . . . and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The final one swung Partridge and Moulding. 

Andy claims his instincts have saved XTC from a number of disasters – so why he chose to ignore them at this point, even he can’t say. He knew the moment Dudgeon creaked out of his blue Aston Martin – four hours late – in his tight leather trousers, cricket sweater (he was pushing 50) and expensive cologne, that this wasn’t going to work. But he felt “this was so wrong it had to be right.” He was wrong. 

Andy: "He'd read about me and Todd so immediately adopted this Mr Amiable stance. Gus is old school, full of blusters and bluff – 'Elton gave me this Rolls-Royce and I said, Oh Elton darling. . .' We called him Guff Dungeon because he was so flatulent. 'Are you going in the Guff Dungeon yet?' 'Let's give it half an hour, eh?'" 

For his part, Dudgeon recalled, "You can flip between thinking Andy's superb and wanting to fucking kill him, in a matter of minutes. Half the time he doesn't realise the effect he's having on people." 

The two worked like dogs to get the album going, but Gus had heard Andy was awkward and had come in armed with a heavy supply of vitriol for “uppity artists”. Andy, for his part, saw this developing into another “Todd Rundgren” situation – and despite Skylarking’s success, Andy had vowed he would never again lose artistic control like he did on that album. 

When Dudgeon suggested dumping the track Rook, one of Andy’s personal favourites, the battle lines had been drawn. However, during the recording, things stayed civil – in fact, the merry banter and in-studio wit between the two (which, according to some, the late Dudgeon kept on tape and regularly entertained party guests with) was worth the price of admission alone. 

However, when Dudgeon told Andy he didn’t want him at the mixing sessions, Andy flatly refused to stay away. Gus was insistent on producing the album his way – but eventually even Virgin weren’t happy with what he was doing to the tracks. For the first time in their career, the band sacked a producer before the finish of the album. In came Genesis engineer Nick Davis and, with a swish of fairy dust was born Nonsuch (right) – named after a palace supposedly built by Henry VIII, who destroyed a whole village in the process. 

As with Mummer there seems to be some debate as to the status of Nonsuch in the pantheon of XTC releases, but to this humble consumer there is very little here that fails to inflate my proverbial dinghy. Seventeen tracks, none of which suck, and numerous of them classics, Nonsuch was a gem – and a damn long gem at that. The seventeen tracks are best heard from start to finish, with minor classics peppering the whole show. 

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead is another Partridge narrative number one that never was, and brought XTC briefly back into the public eye by scraping the lower reaches of the top 100 (it was later murdered by the Crash Test Dummies and hit the top 20!). Andy said of it, "he's every hero, every politician, every religious leader who's far too good to be true and by telling the truth becomes a martyr. Is Peter Pumpkinhead Jesus or JFK or Buddha? Actually the name's from a jack-o-lantern I carved. After Halloween, I stuck it on a fence post in my garden and every day I'd go past it on my way to my composing shed. And every day it would decay a bit more. I felt so sorry for it, I thought I'd make it a hero in a song."

Dear Madam Barnum is seen by many as another lament by Andy about his crumbling marriage – which he denies – while Holly Up On Poppy, an ode to his daughter on her rocking horse, was another example of Partridge’s ability to make the mundane seem magical. 

The difficult, brooding Rook is Andy’s most perfect nursery rhyme – and if you remember singing London’s Burning as a ‘round’ when you were a kid, check out what Andy does with the strings on this one. This anthem to his own mortality began as a set of dark chords discovered whilst noodling on his daughter’s three-quarter size guitar in his back garden deckchair. 

The chords led him to the (not unreasonable) realisation that he was going to die sometime – which led to the lyrics of the soul rising out of the body as the bell tolls. "I was frozen with writers block. Then suddenly this song came out. I was really frightened. I mean, I couldn't even finish the demo because I was in tears. It felt like seeing yourself in a mirror and recognising your own mortality. Maybe it's something in the chord changes. I don't understand the lyrics, which is rather exciting." 

That Wave combined Andy’s lifelong fear of water with the emotion of love – into the sensation of drowning in a wave of love. This ‘psychedelic grenade’ as Moulding calls it, is perfectly complemented by one of Dave Gregory’s greatest guitar solos, which Andy still talks of in awe today. Then She Appeared was a paean to the birth of daughter Holly, containing lyrics such as: 

Then she appeared, apple venus on a half open shell
Then she appeared, the first photograph on Fox Talbot’s gel
I was a little frightened, flying with my senses heightened
Cherubim cheered, then she appeared

Then she appeared, as the giggling crew of Marie Celeste
Then she appeared, pale Atlantis rising out of the west
I was a little dazzled, Catherine wheeled and senses frazzled
Know it sounds weird, then she appeared

And the sun which formerly shone
In the clearest summer sky
Suddenly just changed address
Now shines from her blue eyes

Andy: A slice of whimsy and a chance to mention Fox Talbot. You don't hear many pop songs invoke the name of one of the founders of photography.”

Somewhere out there are about 1,000 CD singles of Wrapped In Grey. You’ll see them periodically appear for ridiculous amounts of money on Ebay – and rightly so. “It was the great cot-death single – they pressed it and then changed their minds, such a shame” says Andy, who was so proud of this song he even drew the storyboard for a never-made video. 

His fury at Virgin’s mistreatment of the track was also about to have serious repercussions. It’s now seen as one of Andy’s best ever songs, a beautiful, soaring melodic epic about the allowing the colours in your soul to burst through against those who would drag life down to the grey and monotone. 

'Wrapped in Grey' 7 inch single

Bungalow was Moulding's finest hour for many years – his finest moment ever according to Partridge. Memories of childhood holidays in Weymouth (“Swindon-on-Sea”) gave Colin the inspiration for a tribute to the glorious awfulness of a British seaside holiday – cheesy organs, sandwiches with real sand and the traditional white-bread dream of a retirement by the beach. When Dave Gregory found the welsh male voice choir, the track was complete. “It’s really a little film. A bit of Mike Leigh-On-Sea,” says Andy. 

Books Are Burning, is the perfect concluding track, as good as anything the band has yet produced. Written in response to the furore over Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ Andy’s passion for freedom of expression shone through. The song features a fascinating fade-out featuring the duelling guitar solos of Partridge – all instinct and improvisation, and Gregory – precise, intricate and note perfect. See if you can work out which is which. 

XTC’s understanding of what makes a good tune, a compelling arrangement, or an engaging lyric were never bettered than on this album. However, with no hit singles and no ingenious promotional activities, Nonsuch fared slightly worse than the previous two albums, but well enough for Virgin to expect a follow-up. The next batch of XTC demos had already arrived and it looked like business as usual.

For many XTC fans who had grown with the band, Nonsuch marked the logical progression – beautiful melodies, smart and moving lyrics and an overall sense of maturity not seen before. But many others saw it as ‘XTC-Lite’ – the closest they had come to easy listening. 

Had they known what was to follow, they would have treasured Nonsuch far more.

Part 7