On their debut UK release, White Music, XTC were truly a new wave band, utilizing synthesizers and guitars in a punky, yet accessible and quirky manner. But before making their debut in the US with Drums and Wires, the band lost their keyboard player Barry Andrews. Rather than find a replacement keyboardist, the band opted to double-up on guitars, adding new stringman Dave Gregory, who also happened to have some keyboard playing ability for times that warranted it. So when America first heard XTC’s herky-jerky new wave sound, it was that of a heavily guitar-oriented band, showing off their chops rather than delving further into synth-pop territory.
Though it’s not often said about the band, XTC had some awesome guitar work, particularly on Drums and Wires (the “wires” were strings, y’know). Between the scratchy post-punk chords of their singles and the “Don’t Fear The Reaper”-sounding riff from “Ten Feet Tall,” there was no shortage of impressive riffage and solos, something that XTC never overdid but never ceased to amaze in terms of impressiveness.
In some ways, Drums and Wires was a debut for XTC, not just in countries outside of their British home, but stylistically as well. White Music had a very different sound and, to critics and fans, Go 2 was a big disappointment. Drums and Wires, however, was a greatly different, showing not only musical virtuosity, but monumental songwriting, some of the best of the post-punk era. Take early dub-influenced single “Making Plans for Nigel,” with it’s narrative about planning a young boy’s future (“he’s got this future in British steel“) or its predecessor “Life Begins at the Hop” (included on some copies of the album, not on others) with its bouncy melody and lyrics telling of the awkwardness of youth.
While there were only two actual singles released from this album, and only technically one as “Life Begins at the Hop” was not included on the original pressing, several of the other songs were easily catchy enough to be singles, had Virgin Records the foresight to milk the album for a few more. “Helicopter,” for instance, with it’s irresistible refrain of “Oh heli-/Oh heli-” and bouncy, jerky rhythms. It may have been a bit on the agitated side, but “Real by Reel” may have made up for that with its driving rhythms, Andy Partridge’s falsetto “ooh-oohs” and wailing guitar solo. One thing that isn’t mentioned nearly enough when it comes to XTC is how much Partridge shredded on his axe (though not necessarily in those terms).
For every instantly accessible song, however, there was one that announced its presence by way of tight craftsmanship and subtler charms. “Roads Girdle The Globe,” for instance, is bound by plodding, über-heavy drums and tectonic bass. And then there’s the paranoid, abrasive chug of “Millions,” with it’s jazz-meets post-punk arrangement. And “That is the Way” somehow combines the worlds between the singles material and the more understated tracks, interspersing catchy, danceable verses with dreamy, trumpet-led refrains.
In 1979, XTC were a rare musical gem. They not only melded scratchy, scraping post-punk with British pop, but they did so by means of excellent musicianship. XTC knew how to play their damn instruments and they didn’t care if anyone knows it. Screw Sid Vicious, forget No Future, let’s jam!
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.