Looking for your entry point into the XTC’s catalog? Start here.
As the 1970s stormed to their smoldering conclusion, the last vestiges of the punk aesthetic of 1977 had begun filtering out of the music industry. With the less-than-descriptive post-punk having taken over in the wake of punk’s anarchic rampaging, the focus once more began shifting towards a certain musical proficiency rather than a requisite attitude and trend-setting look. Having quickly made a name for themselves with their debut EP in 1977 and first two full-lengths the following year, XTC had proven themselves to be a band of note at the close of the decade – harbingers of what was to come as punk’s basic DIY premise continued to permeate the musical landscape, democratizing the creative process and expanding the potential for unlimited possibilities.
It’s within this creatively fertile time that XTC would make their first major declarative statement with the release of their third full-length album in two years, Drums and Wires. Where before they’d relied on the caffeinated essence of post-punk’s jittery, skittering approach, here they began solidifying the sounds by which they would later come to be defined. But there would need to be more than a few changes before they managed to get there.
Early 1979 saw the departure of keyboardist Barry Andrews, leaving the band without a key component to the sound of their first two albums. Yet rather than seek a replacement for Andrews, the remaining members of XTC elected to add a second guitarist in Dave Gregory (who would also double on keyboards). Not only this, but the band moved on from producer John Leckie to Steve Lillywhite, then a mere two years into what would become a rather storied career. And with a new producer came yet another new studio – White Music having been recorded at The Manor and Go 2 at Abbey Road.
Built by the head of the band’s label, Virgin, Townhouse Studios had been completed for barely a year when the band entered. Later revered for its drum sounds courtesy of Studio 2 and engineer Hugh Padgham’s ability to capture live, reverberant drums (he’s the one behind the massive sound of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”), Townhouse in 1979 helped lend itself to a change in the XTC sound.
While still nervy and jerky rhythmically and lyrically, the addition of Gregory and the sonic opportunities afforded by Townhouse – not to mention Lillywhite and Padgham – helped create a richer, more fully-realized sound for the band. It was here that XTC moved beyond post-punk, fully embracing new wave and quickly establishing themselves as one of the burgeoning genre’s standard-bearers. Reigning in their more esoteric tendencies while still retaining their inherent quirkiness, Drums and Wires saw the band truly coming into their own. It didn’t hurt that the album kicked off with what was to become, at the time, their single biggest hit in the new wave classic “Making Plans for Nigel.” And while this is certainly one of their more well-known songs, it’s not necessarily the best Drums and Wires has to offer – though it does nicely showcase the aforementioned drum sound for which both the studio and Padgham would become renowned.
“That is the Way” shows a burgeoning musical sophistication – horns! tempo and dynamic shifts! – that would be more fully realized in the coming decade, while “Ten Feet Tall” and “Life Begins at the Hop” (admittedly a single released in advance of the album’s release and not appearing on the original track listing, it has appeared on international and reissue versions of the album and is therefore included in this discussion) showed bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding’s continued growth as a formidable songwriting talent. Elsewhere, Gregory proves a fine creative foil for Andy Partridge’s guitar, offering interesting augmentations to the band’s sound and helping to make Andrews’ departure anything but jarring. “Outside World” reins in White Music’s more free-wheeling tendencies, streamlining the band’s energy and efficiency, while “Scissor Man” – later covered by Primus, along with the aforementioned “Nigel” – is a perfectly weird slice of pure pop perfection.
Then there is the whisper-to-a-scream that is “Complicated Game.” Featuring a searing, unhinged vocal performance replete with more than a few studio tricks that help add to the disconcerting nature of the song itself, “Complicated Game” finds Partridge engaging in a bit of social and political commentary: “A little boy asked me should he put his vote upon the left/ A little boy asked me should he put his vote upon the right/ I say it really doesn’t matter where you put your vote/ ’Cause someone else will come along and move it.” Escalating from the personal to the divine in the course of five minutes, “Complicated Game” is the perfect example of a song being one long crescendo both musically and emotionally, collapsing in on itself by track’s end.
While their first two albums helped establish the XTC name, Drums and Wires solidified the group’s status as a creative force to be reckoned with. That they would go on to even bigger and better things over the next decade is merely a testament to how declarative of a statement Drums and Wires was. With the soon-to-be-classic quartet of Partridge, Moulding, Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers firmly established, Drums and Wires announced XTC as more than just a band to watch and something far more musically and creatively vital. Looking for your entry point into the band’s catalog? Start here.