While XTC have not announced a formal break-up, in 2006 band member Andy Partridge announced that the only other remaining member of XTC, Colin Moulding, was no longer interested in writing, performing or recording music. Partridge has stated that he will not issue new recordings under the XTC banner without Moulding's participation; accordingly, he now speaks of XTC "in the past tense."
After their second effort, Go 2, and the accompanying bonus disc Go + (a collection of dub mixes of songs from the album), Andrews left and was replaced by guitarist and keyboardist Dave Gregory. Andrews went on to form Shriekback and also worked with Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen. With Gregory's arrival, the band scored their first charting single, Moulding's "Life Begins at the Hop".
The loss of Andrews' distinctive keyboard playing started the band on a path towards a more traditional rock sound, although Gregory also contributed occasional keyboards (and later, string arrangements). The resulting album, Drums and Wires, contained the band's first big hit, "Making Plans for Nigel", which caused a minor controversy because of its lyrical reference to British Steel. The album found the band branching out into more overtly political topics, culminating in the unhinged ranting of "Complicated Game", which became one of the band's most well-known non-hits. Drums and Wires also marked their first sessions at London's Townhouse Studios. The studio was at the time much sought after for its highly reverberant "live" drum room, and it was greatly favoured by their producer of the time, Steve Lillywhite and his engineer Hugh Padgham.
During this period, Partridge also further indulged his love of dub, releasing a solo LP in 1980 under the name 'Mr Partridge'. The album, Take Away/The Lure of Salvage, featured radical dub deconstructions of music from the preceding XTC albums. Later the same year Moulding and Chambers released the "Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen" single under the name The Colonel.
Their 1980 LP, Black Sea spawned the hit singles "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" and "Generals and Majors". In the film clip of 'Generals and Majors', Sir Richard Branson (the then chairman of the band's record label Virgin Records) has a cameo role and can be seen as one of the 'majors'. The song "Sgt Rock" namechecks the comic book character of the same name and reflects Partridge's lifelong obsession with American comics, particularly the work of Steve Ditko.
The last major hit of XTC's touring phase was "Senses Working Overtime", the first single from their double album English Settlement and a top 10 hit in 1982. At the peak of their popularity, the band embarked on a major tour, but Partridge suffered a mental breakdown on stage during one of the first concerts of the tour in Paris on March 18, 1982.
Concerned about her husband's dependence on the drug, Partridge's wife threw his tablets away — without seeking medical advice — just before the Paris concert. Not surprisingly, Partridge suffered anxiety attacks of such severity that he was soon forced to withdraw from touring permanently. The European and British dates were cancelled and after completing only one show in San Diego the whole US leg was also abandoned. Since then, XTC have been exclusively a studio band, although they have given occasional live-to-air performances from radio stations, and have made a handful of TV appearances as well.
Chambers left the band shortly thereafter, during the recording of their 1983 album Mummer. He was unhappy with the confines of the studio, and also felt the loss of income that resulted from their withdrawal from touring (he did not write, and so received no publishing royalties). Another major factor was his relationship with his Australian girlfriend; they subsequently married, and Chambers migrated to Australia and settled in Newcastle, New South Wales. Rather than finding a replacement, XTC have used a series of session drummers over the years, including Peter Phipps, Prairie Prince of The Tubes, Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson and Mr. Mister, Chuck Sabo, and Dave Gregory's brother, Ian Gregory (as "E.I.E.I. Owen").
If Mummer saw Partridge cooling his heels with pastoral songs like "Love on a Farmboy's Wages", the band's next album took a noisy left turn. 1984's The Big Express surprised both their record company and fans alike with its abrasive sound and became XTC's poorest seller to date. The album was nonetheless a personal high point for Partridge, who considers songs such as "(The Everyday Story of) Smalltown" and "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" amongst the best he has ever written.
In 1986, the band travelled to Todd Rundgren's studio-in-the-woods in Woodstock, New York to record Skylarking. Although the pairing of XTC and Rundgren was highly anticipated by fans, the sessions were less than enjoyable for the band. Rundgren had been hired to trim the band's studio excesses and return them to commercial success. Prior to the recording sessions, Rundgren listened through demos of the songs, chose 15 for the record and worked out a sequence for the album. Being accustomed to creative independence in the studio, Partridge resisted Rundgren's decision-making role as producer. Rundgren and Partridge clashed frequently during the recording of Skylarking and when it was finished Partridge said that he was not at all happy with the resulting product. Partridge has since softened his view, describing the album as "a summer's day baked into one cake."
Skylarking revived the band's commercial fortunes, earning critical accolades and spawning the controversial hit "Dear God", which was originally issued as the B-side of the album's first single, "Grass". Interest in the song saw the album re-pressed with "Dear God" included and the new version of the LP sold 250,000 copies in the USA. ("Dear God" replaced "Mermaid Smiled", which was absent from the album until it was finally reinstated for the remastered Skylarking CD in 2000.)
The band's follow up, Oranges and Lemons, produced by Paul Fox, was their biggest seller yet, with "The Mayor of Simpleton" and "King for a Day" getting heavy airplay on MTV. It was during this period that Partridge began a relationship with an American fan, Erica Wexler, the daughter of famed American screenwriter Norman Wexler. Although signs of the failing of Partridge's first marriage were evident as far back as English Settlement (notably on the album's closing track, "Snowman"), it was some time before the still-married Partridge felt comfortable with Wexler's advances; this awkward situation is chronicled in the song "Another Satellite". However, the relationship finally came to fruition after Partridge's first wife Marianne left him. Wexler and Partridge are happily together.
During their long career, XTC have also released material under a variety of pseudonyms, including two albums of psychedelic parodies as "The Dukes of Stratosphear" (ultimately released on a single CD, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, simultaneous with the second album's vinyl release), a Viz promotional single as "Johnny Japes and his Jesticles", a Christmas-themed single as "The Three Wise Men" and a guest appearance on their own tribute album Testimonial Dinner as "Terry and the Lovemen".
Their 1992 album, Nonsuch (named after Henry VIII's fabled palace), united them with famed UK producer Gus Dudgeon and drummer Dave Mattacks. The album featured the US and UK hit tunes "Dear Madame Barnum" and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead"; the latter bringing the band perhaps its greatest success after the early 1980s. (The video for the song drew intriguing parallels between the deaths of Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.) In spite of the LP's success, soon after it was released a contractual dispute with their label, Virgin Records, saw XTC go "on strike" from 1992 through 1998, finally resulting in the termination of their contract. They issued no new material during this time, although two compilations were released: Upsy Daisy Assortment and the 2-CD set Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992, which featured remastered versions of their singles, including many tracks not issued on CD before.
Management and contractual problems had dogged the band throughout their career, and around the time of the recording of Nonsuch they had to make a legal settlement with their former manager. Although most fans assume (and the lyrics of "I Bought Myself a Liarbird" from The Big Express imply) that there was some financial impropriety involved, the terms of the settlement imposed a "gag" on the band and have prevented them from speaking publicly about the matter.
The final straw for the band was Virgin's scuttling of their 1992 single "Wrapped in Grey", which was pressed up in the tens of thousands, and then recalled and destroyed by the label. The band asked that Virgin either allow them to re-negotiate their contract or release them, but the label stalled for years until finally agreeing to release them after a change of management at the company.
Though able to record the majority of their work themselves, they also used major commercial studios (including Abbey Road Studios in London) for some sessions. Finally released from Virgin, they formed their own label, Idea Records, and embarked on the recording of the ambitious "Apple Venus" project, a collection of the best material written during the band's dispute with Virgin. The band's initial plan had been to record a double album, featuring one disc of acoustic and orchestral songs and one of electric songs. However, financial constraints forced the band to abandon the double album plan and finish and release the first volume before completing the second.
However, this did not prove to be the end of their problems. Dave Gregory left the band during the recording sessions for Apple Venus Volume 1 after 20 years' service, and to the horror of the band's loyal fans. Gregory was unhappy with the plan to record an album whose arrangements relied largely upon orchestral instruments and keyboards. What was not mentioned was that the cutting back on his part on the new XTC recordings, particularly the string arrangements (taken over by Andy Partridge), meant considerably fewer "points" in the calculating out of royalties; as Gregory never wrote any songs for the band, this resulted in a significant dent in his potential income from the album, basically reducing his payments to that of a session musician.
In the end, Gregory was credited as a session musician rather than as a band member on the finished album, as he left before it was completed. Partridge later claimed in a press interview that he and Colin were going to sack Gregory anyway because of his sullen attitude during the recordings, and that they had waited for him for six years to write the orchestral arrangements, and had finally told him that they would not let him stop the project.
Dave Gregory's contribution to the XTC sound had been immense; the technical skill of his guitar and keyboard playing, and his orchestral scoring, had facilitated a huge expansion in the group's sonic possibilities. His skills also encouraged, perhaps goaded Partridge to new heights of musicianship. It is some measure of how liked he was by the XTC fanbase that they gave Moulding & Partridge pelters on the band's official forum for his departure — and some measure of their mutual respect for their fans and Gregory that the criticism went uncensored. The three got back together for a charity reunion of their Dukes of Stratosphear alter-egos years later, and in late 2006 Partridge revealed that he and Gregory had rekindled their friendship.
The band's next record, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was the guitar-heavy collection Gregory would have preferred. Partridge and Moulding then released instrumental and demo versions of the two Apple Venus albums. In October 2005, the two original albums and the demo versions of the albums were reissued together in the 4-CD Apple Box collection.
Having left Virgin, relations between XTC and their former label improved and Andy Partridge released a series of albums of demos of his songs (mainly from the Virgin years) under the title of Fuzzy Warbles beginning in 2002, on a new label imprint APE. Colin Moulding declined to contribute his demos to the series. The Fuzzy Warbles series eventually included eight volumes along with a bonus CD, Hinges.
A boxed 4-CD compilation, Coat of Many Cupboards, spanning the band's time with Virgin, was also released in 2002.
The 2005 inclusion on Apple Box of the first new XTC tracks in five years ("Spiral", written by Partridge and "Say It", by Moulding), offered hope that the band might continue. However, in November 2006, Partridge told several interviewers that Moulding no longer had any interest in writing, performing or even listening to music. Partridge has said he would not continue XTC without Moulding, and that therefore he has been forced to regard XTC "in the past tense," with no likelihood of a new project unless Moulding should have a change of heart.
Partridge said, in an interview with Todd Rundgren for his website on February 2008, that Moulding has moved and changed his phone number, effectively ending all contact between the two. The only correspondence they have is through e-mails via their manager, discussing the dividing of the band's assets. Partridge also said he and Gregory, their differences now resolved, have considered working together again, though Gregory now lives in the United States and Partridge is still in Swindon.
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