Real by Reel: XTC’s Drums and Wires at 40

It might not be one of their best albums, but it certainly was a most important one

Cover of XTC’s Drums and Wires / remix by Ron Hart

Having spent most of the 1970s revising their sound, line-up, management and moniker, English outfit XTC finally made their name in 1978 with a pair of very promising LPs: White Music—which followed 1977’s 3D EPand Go 2.

Despite sticking closely to the burgeoning post-punk and new wave styles that would soon dominate the international pop culture zeitgeist, the duo also hinted at the band’s singular knack for cheeky experimentation and pop music catchiness.

Yet, it wasn’t until their third full-length outing, 1979’s Drums and Wires, that XTC truly began discovering their musical identity, paving the way for them to become one of the most characteristic, consistent and celebrated acts of the 1980s. Forty years later, Drums and Wires may not hold up as well as it once did—especially when compared to some superior follow-ups—yet it warrants distinction simply for being such a substantial starting point.

Drums and Wires marks a couple of big behind-the-scenes changes for XTC. Keyboardist Barry Andrews left the group in December 1978 to work on other projects, namely English new wave group Shriekback, and while songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Andy Partridge wasn’t entirely devastated (since their relationship wasn’t entirely pleasant), he nonetheless feared that it would be the end of XTC. After holding some auditions for a direct replacement—none of whom were the rumored Thomas Dolby—they instead hired guitarist Dave Gregory. Although he feared not being accepted by fans at first, he’s now considered an essential part of XTC’s pinnacle period, which began with Drums and Wires. Likewise, White Music and Go 2 producer John Leckie (who still has a successful career) was swapped with Steve Lillywhite; together, he and engineer Hugh Padgham gave Drums and Wires a warmer and more colorful palette (including the implementation of their famous ‘gated drum’ sound).

 

AUDIO: XTC Peel Sessions 1979

Released on August 17th—and initially bundled with a three-song, 7-inch EP—the record peaked at #34 in the UK—slightly higher than White Music but significantly lower than Go 2’s #21 spot—and at #176 in the US. The previous April, they’d released their first song with Gregory, “Life Begins at the Hop,” which went to #54 on the UK Singles Chart. Although it wasn’t included on the UK version of the LP, it did show up on the US sequence, so it sort of counts as the first charting single from Drums and Wires (and for the band overall). Of course, album opener “Making Plans for Nigel”—still one of their most beloved tunes—became an even more successful single that September (peaking at #17 in the UK), helping XTC sell out concerts and appear on Top of the Pops twice. (In July 1979, Russell Mulcahy directed music videos for both tracks.) Finally, March 1980 saw a re-recorded take on “Ten Feet Tall” land XTC their first single in America.

Over the past forty years, Drums and Wires has continued to be renowned far and wide. For instance, Pitchfork placed it at #38 in their 2014 ‘Top Albums of the 1970s’ list, whereas AllMusic writer Chris Woodstra looked back in 2011 and decided that the “aimless energy of the first two albums is focused into a cohesive statement with a distinctive voice that retains their clever humor, quirky wordplay, and decidedly British flavor.” Even Partridge and co-songwriter/vocalist/bassist Colin Moudling acknowledge that the LP saw them push themselves further as serious craftsman, with Moudling recently remarking to TIDAL: “I started writing more in my own self; I think in the first two albums I was trying to find my niche, what was me and what wasn’t. Drums and Wires was a new start for me and I was writing in the vein that I wanted to write in.”

XTC Drums and Wires, Virgin 1979

Every aspect of XTC’s aforementioned growth can be heard on Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel.” Inspired by British playwright/actor Alan Bennett—which as the song goes “who writes principally about home life and these guys who spent most of their time with their mothers.” It is a semi-autobiographical tale of an obedient boy being groomed for a career in British Steel is told with a sort of ironic authoritarian POV akin to that of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen.” (Obviously, it’s more lighthearted, but in both cases, the pseudo protagonist is assumed to be happy by his regulators because he’s not allowed to say otherwise.) Musically, Partridge’s endearingly English timbre, coupled with the zany background groans, makes his melodies unavoidably fetching; meanwhile, its percussive pattern—an intentional inversion to mirror what Devo did with their cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”—and recurring guitar lick keep you hooked from start to finish.

Fortunately, a few other gems maintain that exceptional pop allure. The Clash-esque “Day In Day Out,” for example, is more dissonant, unruly and distancing—with wonderfully odd rhythmic changes—yet it’s catchy and conventionally structured all the same. Afterward, “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” clearly takes a page or two from The Beatles (particularly, “Please Please Me”), but it still packs plenty of idiosyncratic playfulness. Moulding’s “Ten Feet Tall,” which conjures the harmonious angsty of classic Elvis Costello, is another highlight of Drums and Wires because of its highly focused and charming formula. The surprisingly orchestral and sophisticated “That Is the Way” evokes the back-and-forth frenzy of The Kinks’ “Victoria,” too.

Elsewhere, XTC veer toward more rambunctious and superficial entries that, despite not always being wholly enjoyable, meaningful, or refined, nonetheless showcase their willingness to go off the deep end. The purposefully childish “Helicopter”—which Partridge claims has a real “fire” as “a cross between a TV ad from the early ‘60s and just a novelty song about a goofy girl who’s half helicopter”—is, more than anything else, a fun but mildly irritating manic novelty. Correspondingly, his Captain Beefheart-homage concerning to car enthusiasts, “Roads Girdle the Globe,” is dominated by incoherent, almost inebriated groans and little appeal otherwise.

XTC 1979

Persisting onward, the 1950s American rock vibe of “Real by Reel” is fleetingly satisfactory but ultimately superficial and grating; sadly, the same can be said for Partridge’s slightly more adventurous and singular ‘Millions,’ whose mild Asian tinges reflect Partridge’s “fascination with China” (that “lasted until [he] saw the Tiananmen massacre of TV” a decade later). The final trio of tunes—“Outside World,” “Scissor Man,” and “Complicated Game”—and the new EP songs—“Limelight” and “Chain of Command”—offer their own surface-level specialties without leaving behind anything deeper. As such, they’d be disposable if not for their in-the-moment splendor and place as precursors to more developed attempts at similar styles.

Drums and Wires is flawed and dated in spots, but its greatest moments stand the test of time as some of the best English pop music of the era. While its weakest selections aren’t nearly as worthwhile and drag down the LP as a whole, they remain fascinating for their boundless ambition and outlandishness, not to mention their retrospective rank as prototypes for stronger work down the line. In any case, Drums and Wires is the type of transformative statement that’s rarely made by modern artists, so any lover of XTC should make plans to dig it out and reevaluate it every once in a blue.

 

AUDIO: XTC Drums and Wires (full album)


   

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

One thought on “Real by Reel: XTC’s Drums and Wires at 40

  • September 18, 2019 at 6:39 am
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    I remember precisely where I was (driving from Manhattan to Queens) when I first heard this LP. On the radio, no less, every track. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember “Drums and Wires” on the old WPIX-FM in the car.

    I disagree about “Roads Girdle The Globe.” Sound appropriate during my commute to and from work.

    Reply

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