The iconic soundtrack of British life at XTC: “Drums and Wires”
This week marks the 42nd anniversary of XTC’s third offering, the art-rock masterpiece, Drums and Wires. A refined departure from their previous plan, the album was named after the emphasis on guitars (wires) and drums. The album represents a turning point for the group, who by this point had become frustrated with the “offbeat” label they were frequently given in the media. Fed up with picturesque comparisons like the “British Talking Heads”, the band that threw the chains of expectation.
So, XTC began to take a more open-ended approach to songwriting, which was launched with the band’s non-album single “Life Begins at the Hop” in April 1979. Subsequently, the band then began to create his decisive opus for his career. Recorded in West London at Townhouse Studios, the band worked with two of the most influential producers of the time, Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham.
At this point, Lillywhite and Padgham were beginning to develop and perfect their era-defining gated reverb production technique. This technique would become ubiquitous in the 1980s and helped define the increasingly refined sound of the time. XTC was to be at the forefront of this reverberating wave, and the band’s most iconic track, the atmospheric debut album ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, wouldn’t be the same without the production brand of Lillywhite and Padgham. .
The album also represents an important turning point in the band’s career, as not only was it a sound departure from their second album Come on 2, but full member Barry Andrews had left the group in December 1978. Immediately before his departure he told reporters he saw the group “explode very soon”. You can assess for yourself the significance of this.
Anyway, in 1990, the leader and mastermind of the group, Andy Partridge, recalled the effect Andrews’ departure had had: “He liked to undermine the little authority I had in the group. . We bicker a lot. But when he left I thought, Oh shit, this is the sound of the band gone, this space cream over everything. And I appreciated his intelligence, verbal and mental fencing.
In an interesting turnaround, the band opted to hire a second guitarist rather than a replacement keyboardist. The man they chose was Dave Gregory from Swindon-based cover band Dean Gabber and His Gabberdines. XTC set up a “mock audition” for Gregory, where he was asked to perform their 1978 song “This Is Pop”. Gregory then asked the band which version they wanted to hear, album or single. What Partridge remembers them thinking: “Bloody oh, a real musician. But he was in the group before he even knew.
Namely, it was bassist Colin Molding who “wanted to ditch (our) weird nonsense and do more direct pop,” he later explained. In 2009, he recalled that during the band’s Andrews era, Partridge had “no kind of foil” to work with because he “liked the true kind of angular, spiky, spiked guitar pushing towards the top … if one is angular, the other has to sort of straighten it out, you know? It was just going too far the other way, I could tell. So when Dave came in and he was a much straighter player, it made more sense, I think. “
If you are wondering how the brilliant team of XTC – Lillywhite and Padgham came together – it is directly thanks to the efforts of XTC. The band contacted Lillywhite because they wanted a drum sound that “would knock your head off”. In the biography of the group in 1998 Song stories, Partridge claimed that their main inspiration for contacting Lillywhite was her work on the early days of Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1978, The Scream. In a 1999 interview, the frontman of XTC said: “Lillywhite mainly contributed to the sound of the drums, very Siouxsie, more voodoo”.
In a story synonymous with the group that seems to have many inherent conflicting opinions, in 2019 Partridge retracted his request. He then alleged that this was in fact the debut of Ultravox in 1977, Ultravox !, which made the group want to work with Lillywhite. Either way, it was the right move, and the one that cemented XTC as an alternative culture hero.
Lyrically, the album focuses on the attributes of the modern world, a very new wave feeling. Better described as “polychromatic”, the album is an offbeat and angular offering. Along with the efficient production and compositional aspects of the album, they match Partridge’s insightful lyrics and worldview.
The album contains countless references to themes essential to suburban and westernized life. “Making Plans for Nigel” was actually written from the perspective of parents. Capturing the boomer vs. younger generation sentiment that defined the era, the song’s caustic emotion is evident. The parents say their son Nigel is “happy in his job”, and that his future career at British Steel “is as good as it is sealed”, and that Nigel “loves to talk and loves to be talked to”. In fact, the last line reflects the era so much that it essentially sums up the entirety of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall,” which will be released later that year.
Track seven, “Real by Reel,” is an unbalanced take on Partridge’s anxiety about heightened government scrutiny. Paired with a dub-esque bassline, the song’s narrative embodies that of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic, The conversation. It was the age of paranoia, after all.
Another headline is “That Is the Way,” which was written by Molding about how parents struggle to build relationships with their children. It is also an important moment in the band’s career as it was the first time that XTC hired a session musician. Bugle player Dick Cuthell marks the track as one of the highlights of the entire album. Coming halfway through the track, the reverb-drenched Bugle takes the track on a whirlwind adventure, picking up the pace and cranking up some rather luscious tonal changes.
“Outside World” is one of the most optimistic moments. It features Gregory and Partridge’s dueling guitars, enhanced by Molding’s powerful bassline. The track better illustrates the song’s reference to the sons. Naturally, it was a fan favorite live, and it is considered by many to be the band saying goodbye to their punk-inspired debut. In fact, Partridge called it “the last breath of punky XTC”.
No discussion on Drums and Wires would be complete without mentioning the album’s closer buzz, ‘Complicated Game’. Looks like they were taking off from where The Sensation Alex Harvey Band left on 1973’s “Faith Healer”, the song becomes a sinister crescendo that sounds like an embodiment of madness. He also represents the group at the most visceral point he would reach in his career.
Now hailed as the band’s magnum opus, it’s not hard to see why. Drums and Wires represents a band that truly finds its shape while refining all of XTC’s disparate influences. Dissonant but melodic, serious and playful, it is an art-rock masterpiece in every sense of the word. Taken from the jaded suburbs of Swindon and threaded through the reverberation tunnel of Lillywhite and Padgham, the band contributed to the soundtrack of old order resentment as society entered the ’80s, echoing the ethos of punk and repackaging it.
For 46 minutes, XTC offers you a lyrical and sonic journey touching all facets of British life, and many of these themes are still relevant today. This is what makes it such a lasting job.