The only notes that count are the ones that come from Wilts
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and XTC are up in London from their home town of Swindon in Wiltshire recording their slot for Top Of The Pops.
There’s a break in proceedings so they pass the time by hanging round their record company offices, all except new guitarist Dave Gregory who stuck around at the studios ‘to ogle Legs And Co’.
The lady from Virgin Records is about to take bassist Colin Moulding out to buy him a new jacket for the occasion.
“You can have anything so long as it’s red,” she says. Colin turns his nose up.
Drummer Terry Chambers, he of the dry wit and colourful language, occupies a sofa and explains his plans to use giant oil containers instead of drums. He allows himself a private smile at the thought of the confusion this will cause among certain BBC employees, then launches into a hilarious impression of an effeminate floor manager trying to restore order.
“Destroy” T shirt
They shouldn’t really have to do this at all. They’ve already made two videos for ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. They weren’t very happy with the first one however. The director had hired an actor to play Nigel and dressed him up in leathers and a “Destroy” T shirt.
“Looked more like a bloody UK Subs roadie than Nigel,” comments Andy Partridge, adjusting his rather strange sunglasses on the end of his nose.
This is the second time that XTC have claimed a spot on the box’s most influential pop show. ‘Life Begins At The Hop’ was their previous stab at a hit.
It made the lower reaches of the Top 50 before sliding back into the void. The fact that nobody played it on the radio didn’t help matters. They have however managed an appearance on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test”.
“Have you ever stood near Anne Nightingale?” enquires Andy. “You ought to smell her perfume. Talk about smellyvision!”
A hit single at this point is top priority in the XTC camp. As Terry explains it. “We’ve got about thirty two or three thousand ardent XTC fans who buy our albums and, unless we penetrate the singles market, I can’t see us gathering any more who are prepared to spend a fiver on a record.”
I put it to him that such calculated pursuit of a hit might smack of selling out to some of their fans. The new album ‘Drums And Wires’, is undoubtedly their most commercial to date.
“When a group gets signed by a record company they have to be a bit fashionable or a little bit ‘next year’s thing’, otherwise the record company won’t touch ’em. If you just stick like that . . . if, you don’t progress with the times, then you become a bit of a dinosaur. Like Budgie or something.”
It’s true that at the time of their initial emergence in 1977 they were in danger of becoming rather too remote; their music was full of sudden stops and swerves and bursting at the seams with literary trickery. When set against most of the more basic things going on at the time, they were almost “arty”.
“I think it was the fact that we were based in Swindon,” explains Andy. “We weren’t fashion conscious. If we’d been based in London we might have got swept along by the punk thing.”
“Yeah,” interrupts Terry, “we had to make our own entertainment, like during the war. See, at the time there used to be no more than two name bands visiting Swindon in any given year. If we ever wanted to see a group we had to go to Bristol or Oxford.”
So, who were their influences? The Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, The Glitter Band, Mozart?
“In the beginning it was The Stones and The Beatles,” Colin explains, “and all the big groups. But gradually, when you get playing together and you’re doing it yourself, you don’t feel so much like watching other bands and you take on your own identity.
“All of a sudden the people around you, like Andy and Terry in my case, influence you more than the bands you hear.”
Andy just reckons that “initially we were trying to avoid all the old cliches like the guitar solos and things.”
However, they do admit that about a year ago they were in danger of falling under the spell of some different cliches – their own.
The toy organ sound that Barry Andrews had pioneered was being taken up by any number of new bands plus XTC’s own tendency to make their own material too complicated was adding up to a loss of direction.
“We were trying to be a dance band and we thought, this can hardly be dance music if it keeps stopping and starting here and there,” Terry recalls.
The result of all this soul searching was the departure of organist Barry Andrews to pursue his own career (currently playing with Iggy Pop) and the drafting in of van driver Dave Gregory with his guitar. Barry had apparently been unhappy for a while.
“There just wasn’t room for me and Andy and Barry to write songs,” says Colin,. “There just wasn’t an outlet for him. And he got fed up with the fact that most of his songs ended up as outtakes.”
Things have been definitely looking up of late. Their last album and recent stage shows have been well received. most people seem to welcome their simpler arrangements and the way the songs are less flimsy and a mite more human than before.
we have this urge to be interesting
“We just have this basic need to be interesting,” offers Colin, “but not to be so different as to be out of the game. We’re trying to do things that are interesting to ourselves; things with a bit of a tune, a bit of a melody. Just . . . interesting.
“I look at it from the point of view that if we don’t succeed on a mass scale then at least it’s better than working. It’s better than going back to a day job. We’re one up from there.”
Most of Colin’s day jobs before the formation of XTC were out of doors. Groundsman was a favourite. Terry worked for a printers while Andy designed posters for a department store. All of them left school at fifteen, disgusted with the shortcomings of conventional secondary education.
“They’re teaching people the wrong subjects,” Andy reckons. “They’re not preparing them for the outside world. You leave school and it’s a big shock. I spent years learning about ore deposits in Peru. Now, I’d much rather learn how to drive a car.”
It’s a point of view that finds an echo in Colin’s lyrics for ‘Nigel’, the weak character who’s pushed around by people who think they know what’s good for him and who’s pushed into a slot regardless of his own wishes.
XTC have a strong streak of individuality and independence which, with their realistic sense of their own capabilities, should see them through. They can make plans with confidence.
Smash Hits, November 1979