40 Years Ago: XTC Find Their Rhythm on ‘Drums and Wires’
There were a few songs before XTC's third album that hinted at something more than the workmanlike post-punk and New Wave that marked their earliest records. Like the 1978 single version of "This Is Pop?," a reworked track from their debut album, White Noise, that was smarter. sharper and more tuneful than the original release.
But when Drums and Wires arrived on Aug. 17, 1979, the band suddenly found itself hurdling over the many now-forgotten English groups that sprouted in punk's shadow at the end of the decade. Suddenly, XTC mattered.
Changes came before the band started recording the album in London that spring. Keyboardist Barry Andrews was no longer a member, and guitarist Dave Gregory joined frontman Andy Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers. Plus, Steve Lillywhite produced the first of two XTC albums (he was also behind the following year's excellent Black Sea), helping to steer the previously directionless crew toward a more unified sound.
These personnel shifts wouldn't mean as much if Partridge hadn't grown so much as a songwriter between Go 2, XTC's second album, released 10 months earlier, and Drums and Wires. Even Moulding, who shared in the writing duties and penned a third of the songs on the third LP, reached for Partridge's new heights. The result was the band's first great album and one its most essential in a catalog that spans more than a dozen LPs.
It all starts with Moulding's "Making Plans for Nigel," the album's only single, and one of XTC's best songs. Even though initial buzz boosted the band alongside its peers in the U.K., lukewarm mainstream reception to White Noise, Go 2 and assorted singles prevented the group from cracking the charts. "Life Begins at the Hop," which was also penned by Moulding and recorded just before the Drums and Wires sessions, made it to No. 54, becoming their first charting single upon its April 1979 release. (The song was left off Drums and Wires, but ended up on some later pressings of the record.)
Listen to XTC's 'Making Plans for Nigel'
"Making Plans for Nigel" climbed to No. 17, beginning a string of Top 40 hits over the next three years that culminated in the Top 10 "Senses Working Overtime." XTC were now stars in their native England, selling out shows and earning them a spot among the era's greatest bands. A string of musically ambitious records helped them get there, starting with their third album.
The rest of Drums and Wires also helped the band break away from the limitations that were set upon punk, and to a lesser degree New Wave, groups at the time. Another of XTC's milestone albums, 1986's Skylarking (which was produced by one of the original art rockers, Todd Rundgren), is their art-pop masterpiece, but that willingness to take risks with their music starts here. Even today, Drums and Wires sounds like an unconventional work among the period's angular, arty and evolving New Wave. In a way, it's as close to the Beatles' merging of pop melodies and studio invention that any of these bands came.
The album became XTC's first to chart in the U.S.; a re-recorded version of the LP's "Ten Feet Tall" was their debut U.S. single. In the U.K. the record almost made it into the Top 30, and even eventually went gold in Canada. It also set up the band for the coming decade. The follow-up, Black Sea, was their highest-charting album at the time, just missing the U.S. Top 40 and giving the band its only No. 1 LP, albeit in New Zealand.
More significantly, Drums and Wires laid out the musical template XTC expanded on such essential albums as Black Sea, English Settlement, Skylarking and Apple Venus Volume 1 over the years. It's a finely tuned 45 or so minutes of art-rock that shaped a fledgling genre, a blossoming band and a new decade of exciting experiments in sound.