Spiritual granddads to Blur in their affection for English themes, writerly musical flourishes and unfashionable accents, XTC currently exist in mystifying exile from the canon. Although thematically uncool (they were a decade too early for the celebration of rural England) this full-career reissue reveals Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding's songs as a fantastic motherlode of rampant imagination after all.
They took a while to get going, mind. Driven by the outsider's chip-on-shoulder (they were from Swindon and nobody else was), XTC's formative punk days were characterised by angular, broken-ankled gawk-rock in the New Wave style. 1977's White Music saw Partridge shrieking and keyboard player Barry Andrews splurging a nightmare of lo-fi electronics over a bludgeoning noise that was part Buzzcocks, part Captain Beefheart.
Go 2 in 1978 was the same only less fun, Andrews departed to invent heavy metal space-jazz in Shriekback, and XTC began to find themselves in the thwacking rock of Drums & Wires in 1979. Here Moulding's pop powers were at their height, and in Making Plans For Nigel he delivered a song with such sticking power it is now a roving headline for stories about PopStars.Partridge then began to get in gear. On 1980's Black Sea, love, insecurity and the evils of the city began to creep into a monolithic pop-rock sound. By '82's English Settlement, he'd gone totally agrarian with the loamy single Senses Working Overtime and a chalk horse on the album cover, a nod towards Swindon's pre-Roman glories. Though the music's mood had lightened, Partridge's had darkened; a mental and physical breakdown in 1982 put an end to XTC's live career. Mummer, the first work from the studio-bound XTC and a double set, expanded the pastoral themes into a gentler, sonically expanded world which could never have been played live anyway. When it flopped it set a pattern - the more XTC followed the path of Englishness, the less they'd sell at home.
What else to do at this point but record a series of perfectly realised '60s psychedelia pastiches? At first, few cottoned on that The Dukes Of Stratosphear were XTC in paisley disguise, least of all its unexpected audience on the Floyd/weed/dole axis. The album outsold The Big Express, XTC's overproduced, Linn Drum-plagued "real" LP, but the experience re-energised Partridge.
The result was two masterpieces. They recorded the summery reverie Skylarking in 1986 under conditions of outright hostility between Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren, but it came out bright, beautiful, fragrant and - a first for XTC - sexy in a DH Lawrence style. Embolded, in Oranges & Lemons they turned out a rocking, modern psychedelic experience which Oasis might want to consult some time soon. The medieval-tinged Nonsuch dropped a gear but impressed America - the most English of bands was now more valued abroad than at home.
And then nothing. After serial domestic flops, XTC's relations with Virgin soured so badly that the band went on a seven-year recording strike. The recent Apple Venus/Wasp Star albums suggest an artwards trajectory. There will be no Making Plans For Nigel in XTC's future, but this is past enough for anyone.
Reviewed by Andrew Harrison