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XTC's iconic soundtrack of British life: 'Drums and Wires'

This week marks the 42nd anniversary of XTC‘s third offering, the art-rock masterpiece, Drums and Wires. A refined departure from their earlier blueprint, the album was named after its emphasis on guitars (wires) and drums. The album represents a turning point for the band, who at this juncture, had become frustrated with the “quirky” label they were frequently given in the media. Fed up with the quaint comparisons as the ‘British Talking Heads’, the band cast of the shackles of expectance.

Thus XTC started to take a more open songwriting approach, which was kicked off with the band’s non-album single ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ in April 1979. Subsequently, the band then set about making their career-defining opus. Recorded in west London at the Townhouse Studios, the band worked with two of the era’s most influential producers, Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham.

At this point, Lillywhite and Padgham were starting to develop and perfect their era-defining gated reverb production technique. This technique would become ubiquitous in the 1980s and helped to define the era’s increasingly polished sound. XTC was to be at the forefront of this reverb-drenched wave, and the band’s most iconic track, the atmospheric album opener ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, wouldn’t be the same without the production hallmark of Lillywhite and Padgham. 

The album also represents an important juncture in the band’s career, as not only was it a sonic departure from their second album Go 2, but integral member Barry Andrews had departed the band in December 1978. Immediately before his leave, he told journalists that he saw the band “exploding pretty soon”. The meaning of this you can assess for yourself.

Regardless, in 1990, frontman and mastermind of the band, Andy Partridge, recalled the effect Andrews’ departure had: “He enjoyed undermining what little authority I had in the band. We were bickering quite a lot. But when he left I thought, Oh shit, that’s the sound of the band gone, this space-cream over everything. And I did enjoy his brainpower, the verbal and mental fencing.”

In an interesting U-turn, the band opted to hire a second guitarist rather than a replacement keyboardist. The man they chose was Dave Gregory of the Swindon based covers band, Dean Gabber and His Gabberdines. XTC held a “pretend audition” for Gregory, where he was asked to play their 1978 song ‘This Is Pop’. Gregory then asked the band which version they wanted to hear, album or single. To which Partridge remembers that they thought, “‘Bloody oh, a real musician.’ But he was in the band before he even knew.”

Namely, it was bassist Colin Moulding who “wanted to ditch (our) quirky nonsense and do more straight-ahead pop,” he later explained. In 2009, he recalled that during the Andrews era of the band, Partridge had “no kind of foil” to work with because he “used to like the real kind of angular, spiky, upward-thrusting guitar… if one is angular, the other has to kind of straighten him out, you know? It was just going too far the other way, I felt. So when Dave came in, and was a much straighter player, it seemed to make more sense, I think.”

If you’re wondering how the brilliant team of XTC – Lillywhite and Padgham came together – it was directly through XTC’s efforts. The band contacted Lillywhite as they wanted a drum sound that would “knock your head off”. In the band’s 1998 biography Song Stories, Partridge claimed that their main inspiration for contacting Lillywhite was his work on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1978 debut, The Scream. In a 1999 interview, the XTC frontman claimed: “Lillywhite mainly contributed to the drums’ sound, very Siouxsie, more voodoo”. 

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In a tale that is synonymous with the band that seems to have many contradicting opinions inherent to it, in 2019, Partridge retracted his claim. He then alleged that it was actually Ultravox’s 1977 debut, Ultravox!, that made the band want to work with Lillywhite. Either way, it was the correct decision, and one that has cemented XTC as heroes in alternative culture.

Lyrically, the album focuses on the trappings of the modern world, a highly new wave sentiment. Best described as “polychromatic”, the album is an off-kilter, angular offering. With the effective production and compositional aspects of the album, they are matched by Partridge’s insightful lyrics and worldview. 

The album features no end of references to themes essential to suburban, westernised living. ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ was actually written from the point of view of the parents. Capturing the Boomer vs younger generation sentiment that defined the time, the caustic emotion of the song is evident. The parents claim that their son Nigel is “happy in his work”, and that his future career in British Steel “is as good as sealed”, and that Nigel “likes to speak and loves to be spoken to.” In fact, the last line is so reflective of the era that it basically sums up the entirety of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’, which would be released later that same year. 

Track seven, ‘Real by Reel’, is an unhinged take on Partridge’s anxiety towards increased government surveillance. Matched with a dub-esque bassline, the song’s narrative embodies that of Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1974 classic, The Conversation. It was the age of paranoia, after all. 

Another standout is ‘That Is the Way’, which was written by Moulding about how parents struggle to relate to their children. It is also a significant point in the band’s career as it was the first time XTC hired a session musician. Flugelhorn player Dick Cuthell marks the track out as one of the high points of the whole album. Coming in around the halfway point of the track, the Flugelhorn drenched in reverb takes the piece on a swirling adventure, ramping up the pace in tempo, and augmenting a few rather succulent key changes. 

‘Outside World’ is one of the more upbeat moments. It features the duelling guitars of Gregory and Partridge, bolstered by the strong bass-line of Moulding. The track exemplifies the song’s reference to wires best. Understandably, it was a live favourite of the fans, and it is regarded by many as the band saying goodbye to their punk-inspired early days. In fact, Partridge called it “the last gasp of punky XTC”. 

No discussion of Drums and Wires would be complete without mentioning the album’s droning closer, ‘Complicated Game’. Sounding like they were taking off from where The Sensation Alex Harvey Band left on 1973’s ‘Faith Healer’, the song grows to a sinister crescendo that sounds like an embodiment of insanity. It also represents the band at the most visceral point they would reach in their career. 

Now hailed as the band’s magnum opus, it is not hard to heed why. Drums and Wires represents a band truly finding their form whilst honing all of XTC’s disparate influences. Dissonant yet melodic, serious yet playful, it is an art-rock masterpiece in every sense of the word. Taken from the jaded suburbs of Swindon and spun through the reverb tunnel of Lillywhite and Padgham, the band helped to soundtrack the resentment of the old order as society moved into the ’80s, taking the ethos of punk and repackaging it.

Across 46 minutes, XTC provides you with a lyrical and sonic journey touching on every facet of British life, and many of these themes are still relevant today. It is this that makes it such an enduring work.