Of all the bands thrown up by the Punk insurgency of 1977 (30 years ago today, folks! Get your Sergeant Leper facemasks here!), XTC was always one of the most intriguing.
It wasn?t simply the fact that they were older than much of the herd ? the bulk of the Stranglers, Wire and the Vibrators, to name but three, were at least the same age ? nor that they?d been around in one form or another since 1971, when Andy Partridge was guitaring in a free-form jazz band called Tongue.
What made them stand out the most was the fact that they were so weird sounding. A couple of years down the road, and there?d be all manner of bands bleeping and jerking and kicking out Byzantine rhythm shapes.
Who, among those who witnessed it, can forget that evening at the end of April 1977, when they filed out to open for the Buzzcocks, and kicked straight into what sounded like three songs at once, one built around an impossibly perfect hookline, the others constructed round the twitch of an agitated insect or two? Or the first session they recorded for DJ John Peel?s show a couple of months later; four songs that were surely selected for the absolute sense of dislocation that would crackle through the ether ? ?Cross Wires,? ?Radios in Motion,? ?Science Friction? and, most confounding of all, ?She?s so Square,? with its deliberate lift from Be Bop Deluxe (?Maid in Heaven?) amidships, just to remind us that not even eccentric genius is forged in a vacuum.
Because that?s what XTC were. They weren?t a band, they were a nutty inventor, Albert Einstein meets the old guy from Back To The Future, fiddling away in his lab, inventing all manner of grandiose gadgets and gewgaws for the sheer hell of it. Some of them worked, some fell flat on their faces. Some hummed for a moment and then went up in smoke, others changed the way we live. It was all in a day?s work for Professor Partridge and his merry men and when, at the end of the year, the band marched into the studio to record their debut album, White Music, it was in the knowledge that, whatever happened next, XTC were not going to be ignored.
New Wave blueprints
Neither were they. Time moved a lot slower in those days, and a year really was 12 months long, as opposed to the handful of weeks with a birthday in the middle that they fob us off with these days. And XTC used their time well. The band was never content to stand in one place for longer than it took to step on a fistful of thumb tacks, and White Music was barely in the stores when XTC were experimenting with a wiry dub sound that foreshadowed so much of what the ?80s would eventually be delivering ? Go appeared in late ?78, with an extra album?s worth of skeletal thumps and bumps attached, and it remains one of the most fearless English dub records of the age.
Less than a year after that, ?Making Plans For Nigel? was delivering the band?s first UK hit single, and blueprinting the musical notions of the New Wave, all clattering drums and barking guitars, while a vocal that hung just on this side of quirky expounded notions and noises that pop ? pure pop, the kind you heard on daytime radio ? had rarely even acknowledged in the past.
And the floodgates just swung open thereafter, across a string of albums that remain one of the most cohesive musical documents of the age.
Drums And Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement … in a decade whose musical sensibilities had been thrown wide open by the advent of the synthesizer and sampler, XTC beavered away instead on songs and structure, mood and melody, and so utterly eschewing whatever the prevalent mantra of the day might be that, by the end of the decade, they were arguably the most consistent hit-makers of the age ? not because of the number of hits