Keyboardist Barry Andrews was out and new guitarist Dave Gregory came onboard for XTC’s 3rd album, Drums And Wires, as the band’s sound palette expanded. Written & sung by bassist Colin Moulding, “Making Plans For Nigel” became XTC’s first big hit. This episode, we explore the production, performance and the origin of this XTC classic.
“Making Plans For Nigel” (Colin Moulding) Copyright 1979 EMI Virgin Records Ltd
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Welcome, friends. There’s no thugs in our house, so come on in and join us here at the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on the Pantheon Podcast Network. My name is Brad Page and each episode of this show, I pick a favorite song and we explore it together, discovering all the elements that go into making it a great song. We don’t get into music theory here, so don’t worry if you’re not a musician or technically inclined. All that’s required here is a desire to listen.
This time, we’re exploring a song from one of the most creative bands ever. This is “Making plans for Nigel” by XTC.
Guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Molding started working together in the early 70’s. Both were singers and songwriters. Along with drummer Terry Chambers, they played in various bands with various names. By 1976, keyboard player Barry Andrews joined the band, and they changed their name to XTC.
They released their first album, “White Music”, in January 1978. And then, less than a year later, they released their second album called “Go To” in October 78. Two months later, Barry Andrews quit. He would go on to work with Robert Fripp and form the band Shriekback. But XTC decided to go into a different direction. They recruited a guitarist, a guy named Dave Gregory, who they knew from back in their hometown of Swindon.
They set to work on their third album, “Drums and Wires”. “Drums and Wires” earned its name due to the increased focus on drums and guitar sounds. The album was produced by Steve Lillywhite and engineered by Hugh Padgam, who were both the architects behind the gated, reverb drum sound that would pretty much define the sound of the 1980s.
Andy Partridge was the primary songwriter in XTC. He wrote eight of the twelve songs on the album. The other four tracks were Colin Molding songs. “Making Plans For Nigel” was one of Colin’s.
By this time, Colin was getting a little tired of the more quirky, angular stuff the band had been doing. And with the addition of Dave Gregory on guitar, he was able to push the band in a more pop direction. Not necessarily more commercial, just more accessible.
The fact is the band had all kinds of influences and with Barry Andrews’ departure, they could explore and incorporate sounds and styles beyond just the punk and new wave approach.
When Colin first presented “Making Plans For Nigel” to the band, he was strumming it on a nylon string classical guitar, and that wasn’t going to cut it for XTC. Andy Partridge contributed a lot to the arrangement of the song, and he worked with drummer Terry Chambers on the drum part. Influenced by the sounds of Devo, Andy referred to it as an “upside down drum part”, where Terry was moving a conventional rhythm around to different drums on the drum set.
Colin is following the tom pattern on his bass. Dave Gregory is playing staccato spiky chords on his guitar, while Andy is playing a two-note riff over the top.
You can hear a slow flanging effect on the drums. Terry is playing an insistent pattern on the floor tom instead of the hi-hat or symbol, as a drummer would typically do. In fact, he’s playing the hi-hat along with the bass drum. And just before the rest of the band kicks in, one of the guitars sounds like it’s momentarily stepping on a wah-wah pedal.
Again, that’s Dave Gregory’s guitar playing chords panned somewhat to the left and Andy playing that two-note bit on the right. Here comes Colin’s vocal:
Andy has to inject some weirdness… he just can’t help himself. So he adds that odd little backing vocal part.
The lyrics tell the tale of a boy with overbearing parents who’ve already mapped out the path of his life. It’s a song about parental domination. Colin said he chose the name “Nigel” because he knew a few Nigels at school, and thought the name fit the song. But the lyrics are somewhat autobiographical. Colin’s dad did not approve of him being in a band and wanted Colin to cut his hair. Back in those days, you could get expelled from school for having long hair and sure enough, Colin was expelled for refusing to cut his hair.
The song isn’t really a depiction of Colin’s life, he just used that as a starting point. But Colin did say that there’s “a bit of Nigel in myself”. There’s probably a little Nigel in many of us.
And some more quirky backing vocals from Andy there. Doubled on guitar, I think.
Little bit of a guitar fill there from Andy.
There’s a voice whispering, we’re only making plans for Nigel behind the lead vocal. Check it out.
Colin imagined Nigel working in middle management, so he gave him a corporate job at British Steel, more or less at random. Turned out to be a good choice because a month after the album was released, 100,000 union steel workers went on strike.
The British Steel Company was upset enough by the song that they found four of their employees named Nigel and had them tell the press just how great it was to work for British steel. And, as usual, this kind of publicity only helped XTC to sell more records.
They used a keyboard to create that metallic, industrial crashing sound that, along with the unique drum pattern, give the song a mechanized production line feel that matches the corporate industry conformity of the lyrics.
Now we’ve reached the bridge; Andy adds his distinctive harmony vocals here.
Andy is going to add a background vocal here, singing the line “In his work” with kind of a howling delivery that makes you wonder just how happy Nigel really is with his work.
That last time, Andy sings “In his world”. And then they repeat the main verse.
Let’s focus in on the drum part, and listen again to the way Terry Chambers plays the floor tom like it was the hi hat and uses the hi hat for accents.
And there’s another short guitar break played by Andy.
They repeat the verse again, but with different harmonies that add a sense of urgency to it. this time.
Andy adds a new high pitched vocal to that part.
Lyrically, the song is never sung from Nigel’s perspective. The whole song is sung from the perspective of Nigel’s overbearing parents. Nigel never gets to share his thoughts or feelings in his own song.
Another reference to British Steel. Here, the song breaks as they repeat the word “Steel” with that heavy echo. I imagine this was influenced by the reggae dub sound.
The rhythm guitars get a little busier here at the end.
“Making Plans For Nigel” – XTC
When the record company heard “Making Plans For Nigel”, they wanted it to be the first single from the album, and it turned out to be their first big hit, at least in the UK.
XTC is often compared to the Beatles, and I think that’s an apt comparison, at least in the sense that there was a certain tension between the two primary songwriters; there was a constant evolution from album to album; that no two records are the same; and that they were always exploring new sounds and new approaches to making records. Their songs were always smart, always clever and they knew their way around to catchy melody.
The fact that XTC never got the attention they deserved, especially in America, is just one of those frustrating things about the music business. But it doesn’t change the fact that as far as I’m concerned, they made some of the greatest albums ever.
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Until then, thanks again for listening to this episode on “Making Plans For Nigel” by XTC.