XTC are one of the most influential British pop bands to have emerged from the punk and new wave eruption of the late ‘70s. They’re known for bucking contemporary trends, due in part to their vast and varied influences, from disco and ska to dub and avant-garde.
XTC developed a cult following and are recognized for their influence on the post-punk, Britpop, and power pop bands that would follow them.
Today we’re talking all about XTC and their seminal double album, English Settlement.
XTC first formed under the name Star Park in 1972, and then Helium Kidz in 1973. The band spent a time trying out different styles, at one point wanting to be like the New York Dolls. Between ’73 and ’75, frontman and primary songwriter Andy Partridge wrote hundreds of songs in that vain that failed to gain any real traction.
The group rebranded itself again, finally settling on the name XTC. Partridge at least partially credits hearing the Sex Pistols in 1976 for taking the band in a new direction, saying: “[Hearing ‘Anarchy in the UK’] sort of spurred me on – watching this stuff that I thought was rather average.”
XTC began pursuing their own voice, recording four albums between 1978 and 1980. The group saw their first commercial breakthrough with Drums and Wires in 1979, which featured two charting singles written by bassist Colin Moulding: “Life Begins at the Hop” and the breakthrough “Making Plans for Nigel.”
Moulding has said of both tracks, “I wanted to ditch that quirky nonsense and do more straight-ahead pop.” -Colin Moulding
The album was also the band’s first collaboration with the powerhouse production/engineering duo Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham, which introduced a thunderous drum sound to XTC’s arrangements.
Padgham’s invention of gated reverb while working with Phil Collins became the quintessential drum sound of the ‘80s.
This sound was further explored on the band’s fourth album, Black Sea, in 1980, again with Lillywhite and Padgham handling production and engineering respectively.
Partridge recalls, “[Black Sea’s production was like] Drums and Wires to the Nth degree … The drums got boomier and bigger and more gated and more aggressive, and the guitars got slashier, with more punch to them.”
With two breakthrough albums under their collective belt, 1982’s English Settlement marked a departure from their previously successful style. This time, Partridge pushed the group towards pastoral pop, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments, longer songs, and more intricate arrangements.
The ambitious double album would be the band’s highest-charting record, and have a lasting impact on music in the decades that followed.
Writing and Recording
Most of English Settlement was recorded in the summer of 1981 after an exhausting touring regimen that left Partridge in poor mental health. He unfortunately suffered momentary amnesia, at times forgetting songs on stage and even his own identity.
During this period, XTC’s music was so intertwined with touring that Black Sea was written and recorded without overdubs, unless they could be performed live. English Settlement was partially conceived as an attempt by Partridge to avoid touring altogether: “[If I] wrote an album with a sound less geared towards touring then maybe there would be less pressure to tour.” -Andy Partridge
The result of English Settlement was a concentration on more complex and intricate arrangements, longer songs, lyrics that touched on political and social issues, and generally a wider range of musical styles.
This naturally introduced a new range of instruments to their sound as well. Colin Moulding purchased a fretless bass, while guitarist Dave Gregory bought a 12-string Rickenbacker. Partridge, who’d given away his acoustic guitar during a television appearance, bought another one. He also encouraged Terry Chambers to experiment with new percussion, such as timbales.
XTC recorded the album in six weeks at The Manor Studio in Oxfordshire with producer Hugh Padgham. The group opted to co-produce the record alongside Padgham without Lillywhite’s oversight, as they found Padgham to be most responsible for exploring new sounds with the band.
As Padgham remembers, “I just let the band be themselves. I’ve always been that kind of producer. … they had quite a clear idea of what they wanted and I just made sure that this could be translated as easily and as clearly as possible.” -Hugh Padgham
This philosophy helped XTC create what many consider to be their very best work.
This was XTC’s highest charting single ever, reaching #10 on the UK singles chart. It was actually a deliberate attempt at writing a commercial single, and was inspired by Manfred Mann’s “5-4-3-2-1” from 1964.
At the time, Partridge didn’t think it was good enough to be a single. To his surprise, the label picked the song and it performed remarkably well. Moulding likens it to something Queen or Genesis would have done.
English Settlement spawned two additional singles in “Ball and Chain” and “No Thugs in Our House.”
True to the band’s intent to cover social issues of the day, Moulding wrote “Ball and Chain” in response to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. “The whole Swindon area seemed to be under the hammer. Mrs. Thatcher had come to power a couple of years before, and everything was kind of being battered to the ground. 3 million unemployed — it was a difficult period.” -Colin Moulding
This four-on-the-floor rock song was musically inspired by Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Lyrically, it tells a very different story of a couple wrestling with the idea that their son is a violent racist.
From a production standpoint, there’s a slapback echo on Partridge’s vocals to capture some of that ‘50s rockabilly vibe.
The following song, “Yacht Dance,” is a complete shift in style and rhythm, highlighting XTC’s genre explorations within English Settlement.
Top to bottom, English Settlement covers so much sonic territory while always sounding like XTC. Take a track like “Down in the Cockpit” for example.
The song flirts with reggae while still retaining the upbeat, dance-y energy found in many of the album’s other tracks.
XTC’s ability to weave in and out of various influences and styles, while still creating a cohesive work, is a huge part of what makes English Settlement such an important album.
Release and Reception
English Settlement was released February 12th, 1982. XTC made many TV appearances in support of the release, including a performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test — Partridge’s first experience with stage fright! Four music videos were made for the three singles, as well as for “All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late).”
The album was the band’s best ever chart showing in the UK, peaking at #5. It additionally spent 20 weeks on the US Billboard 200, peaking at #48.
As the first single, “Senses Working Overtime” reached #10 on the UK singles chart — the highest for any XTC song. “Ball and Chain” came in at #58.
Overall, English Settlement was met with widespread acclaim. In an article for Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbagh perfectly summarized the work: “Once again, XTC has managed the difficult feat of sounding accessible even while moving into evermore abstruse and adventuresome territory. … The result is a program of numbers that resonate across all manner of invigorating wordplay with a jazzy, stoned ambiance.”
XTC’s status as a cult band should not minimize the impact that English Settlement had on pop music. They were one of the progenitors of Britpop, with Partridge himself considered the godfather of the movement. They further influenced power pop and eventually the indie/art rock of the early 2000s.
Nearly 40 years after its release, English Settlement still garners praise as XTC’s finest work and a distinguished part of ‘80s pop music.
Watch the video below to learn more about English Settlement by XTC!