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 (Colin Ivor Moulding, 17 August 1955, Swindon, Wiltshire, England), drummer Terry Chambers (b. 16 July 1955, Swindon, Wiltshire, England) and a second guitarist Dave Cartner (b. Swindon, Wiltshire, England), to the nucleus of Andy Partridge (b. Andrew John Partridge, 11 November 1953, Valletta, Malta; guitar/vocals). The Helium Kidz were heavily influenced by the MC5 and Alice Cooper. In 1975, Partridge toyed with two new names for the band, the Dukes Of Stratosphear and XTC (an obscure reference to a Jimmy Durante film). 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 (b. 12 September 1956, West Norwood, London, England).
The bands 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 number 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 (b. 21 September 1952, Swindon, Wiltshire, England), 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. Mouldings refreshingly hypnotic Making Plans For Nigel (UK number 17) exposed XTC 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 number 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).
Partridge subsequently fell ill through exhaustion and nervous breakdowns, and announced that XTC would continue only as recording artists, including promotional videos but avoiding the main source of his woes, the stage. Subsequent albums found only limited success, with those of the Dukes Of Stratosphear, their psychedelic pop alter ego, reputedly selling more copies. Mummer (1983), The Big Express (1984) and the highly underrated Todd Rundgren -produced Skylarking (1986) were all mature, enchanting works, but failed to set any charts alight. 1989s 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 number 46. The lyric from follow-up single Chalkhills And Children states: Chalkhills and children anchor my feet/Chalkhills and children, bringing me back to earth eternally and ever Ermine Street.
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 and in turn reminded the world of Partridges 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 UKs 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, notably on the brilliant opening track River Of Orchids. Sadly, these songs, like their earlier classics, are never likely to be performed on stage in front of an audience. The following years Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was even better. This beautifully produced record (by Nick Davis) shared the sumptuous sound of albums such as Skylarking. All of the bands influences coalesced like never before, from the riff-laden Playground to the Beach Boys simplicity of In Another Life and My Brown Guitar.
XTC remain one of the most original pop bands of the era and Partridges lyrics place him alongside Ray Davies as one of the UKs most imaginative songwriters of all time. Moulding, although much less prolific, is the vital lung to Partridges ever-pumping heart.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.