How we made: XTC on Making Plans for Nigel

Colin Moulding, singer and songwriter

Making Plans for Nigel was my attempt at an Alan Bennett-type vignette about someone who’s a bit put-upon. There had been Nigels at my school. The name felt very English. I couldn’t imagine myself in a song about a Graham or Colin. I had the title first, and the rest came very quickly. I finished the whole song in an afternoon.

The theme of parents trying to dictate their child’s path in life was something I had experience of. When I was 15 I wanted to be in a band, and had a big battle with my dad over my not staying on in sixth form. In those days you could get expelled for having long hair – and I was! It took five dispiriting years and a lot of dead-end jobs to break into music, so there’s bit of Nigel in myself.

The music industry was run by public-school boys in those days, not council estate lads like us. But once punk opened the doors, we could explore what we could do. I imagined Nigel working in an office, but not in a top job – probably lower middle management. During the 1970s, British Steel was in the news over industrial disputes, so I gave Nigel “a future in British Steel”.

I played the song to the band on my old acoustic guitar, and we demoed it in a council studio in the catacombs under Swindon Town Hall. The record company were convinced it was a single, so gave us Steve Lillywhite as producer. We loved his work with Ultravox and he spent a lot of time crafting and polishing our song.

Our previous single, Life Begins at the Hop, got us on Top of the Pops, but dropped down the charts after our appearance. We had played a tour to fairly meagre audiences, but once Nigel became a hit it was just mayhem. We were straight back out on tour and on Top of the Pops again. Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze even sang it on the teatime kids’ TV programme Crackerjack. My greatest honour.

The steelworkers’ union were very excited by what they saw as a fraternal anthem, but once I told the official that Nigel was from the management side it curtailed the conversation. Meanwhile, I put the wind up British Steel with the song’s suggestion that a future in the industry wasn’t all that fantastic. They rounded up lots of Sheffield steelworkers called Nigel to tell the press how great their jobs were.

Forty years on, the recent steel closures suggest that the song’s as relevant as ever. I’ve had countless Nigels come up to me over the years and say: “That song is my life.”

Terry Chambers, drummer

Early days … XTC in London in 1977.
Early days … XTC in London in 1977. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Rex/Shutterstock

As children, my generation had always been seen and not heard. If you went round to anyone else’s house, you were told to sit in the corner and be quiet, which I think Colin tapped into for that line where Nigel “likes to speak, but loves to be spoken to”.

Making Plans for Nigel came along in a period of drastic change for the band. Keyboard player Barry Andrews had left, and guitarist Dave Gregory joined for the Drums and Wires album, so we were more guitar-oriented, with more guts and grime, which suited me.

When I first heard the song, I just kept time on the drums, but started thinking: “How can I make this more interesting?” Because of the subject matter, I wanted to make the beat a bit more industrial. So instead of keeping the rhythm on the hi-hat, I played it on the floor tom and used the hi-hat for the accents. It was the opposite to what drummers usually do but it gave it a juddering, production-line feel.

We used a keyboard to make a smashing sound, like an anvil in a foundry. Singer and guitarist Andy Partridge did the distinctive “in this work” backing vocal lines. I think he was a bit put out that Colin had written and sung our first smash hit, so he raised his game for hits such as Sgt Rock (Is Going to Help Me) and Senses Working Overtime. Colin and I played together for the first time in decades last year, as TC&I, in our home town, Swindon. We saved Making Plans for Nigel until last – and everyone went crazy.

  • TC&I’s Great Aspirations EP and Steven Wilson’s 5.1 surround-sound remix of XTC’s Drums and Wires are available at