Of all the bands that emerged from the British post-punk scene, XTC has been one of the hardest to pin down. You could peg them as an ’80s dinosaur whose most recognizable tracks pop up on cut-rate compilations of new wave or classic alternative rock. Or they could slot into an adult alternative playlist, to be heard between semi-hits by Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega on a Pandora playlist. Or they could simply be relegated to the bargain bin of your local used CD shop, copies of their later albums collecting dust next to a dozen copies of R.E.M.’s Monster.
All of those categorizations are actually dead on. The ever-evolving group had its biggest successes in the ’80s with driving, off-kilter pop songs that made hay of socio-political critiques and Beatles-like guitar hooks, and as they moved into the ’90s, they were beloved by the post-collegiate crowd that didn’t cotton to mainstream radio but was also turned off by what the post-Nirvana or Lollapalooza worlds had to offer. And as the band reached its autumn years, critical and commercial interest waned almost entirely — particularly here in the States — leaving their last two albums to be virtually ignored by the record-buying universe.
Yet looking at XTC through any one of those lenses is terribly myopic. The group, which started in Swindon, England back in 1976, has gone through one of the most fascinating career trajectories right up until their dissolution in 2000. They evolved from amphetamine-fueled imps to a sturdy modern rock group to psychedelia’s second cousins to a kind of amalgam that kept an eye on each of these musical stopping points. And through it all, the band’s two preternaturally gifted songwriters, guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge and bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding, created work that only got deeper, more thoughtful, and more complex.
For all their good works, XTC have long been beset by drama, which hampered their chances at achieving mass recognition. Some of it was self-inflicted, born of Partridge’s inflated ego and inherent stubbornness. Some of it was due to the shady business dealings of a former manager and mishandling by their longtime label, Virgin Records. Add to that the fact that the band stopped touring in 1982, with Partridge claiming crippling stage fright, and XTC was doomed to the cut-out bin of musical history.
In the darker, dustier corners of the pop universe, where folks like me reside poring over the sleeve notes of Go 2 and making regular visits to the exhaustive fan site Chalkhills, these gents will remain titans of literate, craftsmanlike music that ripens with age. Yet, even as a fan, I’m not blind to the moments where their ideas or execution fell flat. But their failures tend to be fascinating ones worth discussing. I hope you’ll join in that conversation with me.
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