XTC: Drums and Wires

John Kelman By

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XTC—Drums and WiresXTC
Drums and Wires
2014 (1979)

Sometimes a little added TLC can make a good album great. I'll admit it: a self-proclaimed prog and jazzhead in the '70s, the emergence of first Punk and then New Wave was the closest I'd come to knowing what it was like to be boiled in oil. Even groups like XTC, that were clearly cut from something, well, more as early as "Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!)," from its second 1978 Virgin Records album, GO2—despite rehearsing an instrumental version with a band that never got off the ground—didn't really capture my attention in a big way until a little farther down the road, when they'd evolved into something else.

By the time of its fifth album, 1982's English Settlement (Virgin)—the same year retiring from live performance, largely due to primary singer/songwriter Andy Partridge's crippling stage fright—XTC had become something that, while, not in any way like progressive rock bands from the '70s, was nevertheless a progressive group in its gradual growth towards an even more sophisticated form of pop music that increasingly incorporated a broader palette of sound, color and approach.

Still, while Steven Wilson's first crack at remixing the XTC catalog with one of its latter-period records, 1992's Nonsuch (Panegyric, 2013), was absolutely superb—rendering songs like "The Smartest Monkey" so clear, punchy and transparent that it became one of the test recordings for the Tetra 333 speaker stack that is, in part, the raison d'être for this Rediscovery column—it's even higher praise to say that his new stereo and surround sound mixes (in particular, the high res versions available on the double-disc CD/Blu Ray edition) have made me a believer in the group's third album in its first two years, 1979's Drums and Wires.

More decidedly in the New Wave camp the album included the fast-paced hit "Making Plans for Nigel"—a song clearly either influenced by or an influence upon contemporaries The Police but even knottier in its approach to rhythm, despite revolving around a two-note guitar and synth pattern that was part of its instantaneous accessible appeal. But even in the song's vocal harmonies there was a sophistication that suggested much more to this group than met the eye. And if one of the founding premises of the Punk movement was that instrumental capability—let alone virtuosity—was to be frowned upon, it was a great relief when groups like XTC emerged under the New Wave rubric, once again making it okay to actually be able to play your instrument.

No, there are no pyrotechnic displays of ELP or Yes-like bombast...but it is clear, even from Dave Gregory's brief solos on tracks like "Real by Reel" and the thumping bass and drums, from Colin Mouldjng and Terry Chambers, that drive "Helicopter" (with its Beach Boys-inspired background vocals) that these were guys who could play. And the cross-rhythms at the beginning of the almost-funky "Day In Day Out" revealed much about the work this group put into constructing its music.

Lyrically, Partridge and fellow songwriter Moulding were already a cut above the pack, whether it was the simple idea of looking forward to the weekend after a week of 9-to-5ing it on "Day In, Day Out" and "Life Begins at the Hop," to the more oblique analogy of "Helicopter" or invasion of privacy on "Real by Reel."

Panegyric's 2014 reissue of Drums and Wires comes loaded down with with extras. In addition to the six bonus tracks appended to the original 12- song CD, the Blu-Ray includes (along with the same tracks mixed in high resolution stereo and 5.1 surround), an instrumental mix of the album, demo material from the "Saucy Plate Sessions," two collections of Swindon Town Hall sessions, and songs from "Toots Garage," in addition to the Tudor Barn album rehearsal, two promotional videos and additional DJM stereo mixes.

The whole package reveals much about how Moulding and Partridge's original conceptions were ultimately shaped into the music of Drums and Wires. Burning Shed, the British online vendor, describes Drums and Wires as "revolutionary" and that ..."yes, Pop music really was this good at one point in time." Truer words are hard to come by, and with this new, upgraded version of Drums and Wires, it's now a great time to Rediscover the record and, finally, understand what all the hubbub was about, now having the luxury of time and distance from those early years of preconception and misplaced bias.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you know this record, and if so, how do you feel about it?

[Note: You can read the genesis of this Rediscovery column here.]

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