Let’s begin!” These two seemingly innocent words gleefully open the 1992 Nonsuch track “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” yet another notch in the sonically pleasing crown of the British new-wave collective known as XTC. Vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge’s opening yelp is quickly followed by a melded burst of melodic harmonica, dramatic drum attack, jangly soundstage-challenging guitar, and somewhat quirky lyrics. Let us all raise a hearty “Hooray!” in unison for dear old “Peter Pumpkinhead,” a song that’s wholly typical of the infectiously clever earworm confectionaries that can be found all across XTC’s still somewhat underrated catalog, now entering its sixth decade of existence.
“Back in the day, if XTC put out an album, I was front and center to check it out and explore it,” admits longtime Beck keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., also a fine solo artist in his own right and a co-founder of the late, great cult-favorite 90s band Jellyfish. “I really enjoy their wordplay, sarcasm, sense of humor, and just witty lyrics. With people like XTC roaming the planet, it’s really been a challenge to get anywhere within that neighborhood creatively—but I’ve sure had fun trying.”
Principally led in tandem by the aforementioned Partridge and his main counterpoint and foil, bassist/guitarist/vocalist Colin Moulding, XTC initially emerged from Swindon in Wiltshire, England as a four-piece during the British punk heyday of the 1970s, choosing instead to spit in the face of youth-culture fashion by proffering a fresh sound consisting of an idiosyncratic mélange of Beatlesque art-rock and new-wave pop. Indeed, the Partridge-penned 1978 single “This Is Pop”—with its opening F chord directly referencing the one George Harrison ever-so-stridently strummed on his 12-string Rickenbacker at the outset of The Beatles’ seminal 1964 classic “A Hard Day’s Night”—served not only as the band’s perpetual aural manifesto, it was also deployed as the name of an insightful, no-punches-pulled 2017 band documentary.
The core of XTC’s rich catalog was released through Virgin abroad and Geffen in the United States, with their turn-of-the-century indie releases courtesy of Cooking Vinyl/Idea. In 2002, Ape House was formed to better enrich the XTC coffers with higher-quality reissues in multiple formats. To date, six key XTC catalog entries have been given the finest hi-res DTS-HD Master Audio and LPCM stereo and 5.1 24-bit/96kHz upgrade treatment for double-disc CD+Blu-ray release: 1979’s Drums and Wires, 1980’s Black Sea, 1987’s Skylarking, 1989’s Oranges & Lemons, 1992’s Nonsuch, and most recently in late 2019, Psurroundabout Ride, a comprehensive collection of their more psychedelically inclined mid-1980s output originally released under the guise of their notable nom de plume, The Dukes of Stratosphear. (Though the upgraded reissues series remains an ongoing concern, XTC called it quits as a recording entity back in 2006.)
Each of these releases comes housed in double-disc slipcase sleeves with a combination of audio elements that usually include the album-at-hand’s original stereo mix; updated stereo, 5.1, and instrumental mixes; home and working demos and work tapes from Partridge and Moulding respectively; and other extras and outtakes accordingly. Naturally, all the 5.1 duties have been handled with much aplomb by noted surround sound guru, Steven Wilson.
“Steven’s done a great job with the 5.1,” enthuses Partridge. “It’s excellent. It’s not going to disappoint people who want, for all intents and purposes, the original XTC sound. That’s all still there. Perhaps to the casual listener it’s going to sound the same, but it’s better. It’s wider. It’s more dynamic. The louder bits are louder, and punchier.”
Using “punchier” and “wider” as descriptors are practically understatements here, as Wilson has given these six XTC surround offerings a breadth only hinted at in their two-channel form. Among the myriad highlights are the off-kilter all-channel lurch of “Making Plans for Nigel,” a Drums and Wires track that surely whetted Primus bassist/vocalist Les Claypool’s appetite back in the day (and was quite handily proven via their energetic 1992 “Nigel” cover). Black Sea’s “Generals and Majors” moves along in almost dub-step fashion, complemented by dreamy, fully enveloping whistling monophonic-synth fills. And “25 O’Clock,” the opening track of the Psurroundabout Ride compilation, shimmers in all its uber-trippy, Pink Floydian Syd Barrett-era glory, with organ fills rotating through each channel like a calliope on LSD.
Comparable vinyl reissues for most of the above releases, along with other vital catalog entries—including 1982’s English Settlement, 1999’s Apple Venus Volume I, and 2000’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume II)—have all been pressed onto 200-gram LPs from the original master tapes as overseen by respected Loud Mastering engineer John Dent, who sadly passed away in December 2017.
“The 200-gram LPs do sound a little steadier, and more solid,” Partridge observes. “I do prefer vinyl, because it’s fuller. It’s got all the sound there, while a CD has three-quarters of the sound missing. A CD is built like a Lego. It’s not all smooth sand dunes—it’s sand dunes made out of large block Legos.”
The late Dent’s main claim to XTC fame: He was the first person to discover the above-noted Skylarking—originally produced by Todd Rundgren with an iron fist, sans any band involvement at the mixing/mastering stages—had actually been recorded and released out of polarity.