The story of Limelight, The XTC Bumper Book of Fun and What Do You Call That Noise?

Mark Fisher in XTC T-shirt
Mark Fisher in his Drums and Wires T-shirt – a long time ago

Mark Fisher set up the XTC fanzine Limelight in 1982 when he and his friend Paul Badger were still at school. Many years later, he republished the fanzines as The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology.

Since then, he has published What Do You Call That Noise? An XTC Discovery Book and launched What Do You Call That Noise? The XTC Podcast with guests including Colin Moulding, Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory.

Here, he looks back across the decades to an era of happy coincidences, Cow Gum and the birth of Limelight.

Next you’ll be telling me it’s 1990

Mark Fisher reads What Do You Call That Noise

IN THE LATE-70s, it used to be said that everyone who wasn’t in a band was making a fanzine. It was a spin-off from the punk ethos that reckoned “the kids” had just as much right to have their voices heard as all those bloated, professional hacks on the NME.

The kids claimed that right with alacrity. Home-typed, hand-written, cheaply photocopied, smudgy black ‘zines were everywhere, singing the praises of bands you’d never heard of, were never likely to, but kind of felt you ought to. They generally cost about 30p, and you’d find them in backstreet record stores, or through mail-order small ads.

This was the background from which Limelight sprang. Oh yes, we were in a band as well, but it was very much a bedroom affair. Tupperware drums never caught on in quite the way we’d hoped. But, against the odds, it was the fanzine that took off.

The first idea we’d had – me and my school mate, Paul Badger, 15 going on 16 – was to make a fanzine. Any fanzine. Who or what it would be about was only the second question.

Thanks for Christmas

It just so happened that for Christmas 1979, I’d been given a copy of Drums and Wires by a band called XTC. I’d read loads of great things about this outfit in the music press, but I’d never actually heard them – at least, not until Making Plans for Nigel scraped into the charts. I knew if Santa Claus did his shopping in one particular record shop up the road, he’d still be able to pick up a copy of their third album with the free Limelight/Chain of Command single attached. And he did.

I was intrigued by what I heard, and when my family went on a British Rail winter mini-break to London, I took my Christmas cash to Virgin Records (still the rough-and-ready vinyl wonderland, not yet the ubiquitous High Street retailer, nor yet the vacated stores of the Spotify era), and I bought up all the XTC I could find. I got White Music, Go 2, the Life Begins at the Hop clear vinyl single and possibly another 7in or two.

In the short space of the Christmas holidays I’d become a hard-core collector. Badger also liked the raw rhythmic energy of what he heard on my Dad’s old mono record player. So when we asked each other what our fantasy fanzine should actually be about, XTC was the obvious choice.

To say we were naive is to understate the case. We knew virtually nothing about this band apart from what we’d heard on record. For all we knew they could have had a fan club a million-strong already. And we had no idea about how you’d get in touch with them.

Are you receiving me?

One of us thought of checking out the Swindon phone directory in the library. We wrote to any A Partridge, D Gregory, C Moulding, and T Chambers we could find. The band members were, of course, ex-directory. But by a bizarre coincidence, surely the hand of fate, the D Gregory we wrote to just so happened to be a friend of Andy Partridge’s mother. The letter was passed on in a Swindon hairdressers, and on 11 March, 1981, Dave Gregory wrote to us saying we had “a lot of really good ideas . . . which would make for a great liaison between ourselves and our fans, something that has been sadly lacking in the past”.

The next thing I knew, I was talking to manager Ian Reid on the phone, babbling away about our plans. When I put the receiver down, my mum said it was the first time she’d heard me talking in whole sentences. Perhaps my enthusiasm persuaded him, or perhaps he just spotted a cheap way of catering to the band’s growing fan-base, but Reid gave us the go-ahead. If we sorted out all the technical stuff, he’d foot the printing bill.

So we found out where one of the local Liverpool fanzines got their stuff typed and printed, bought a tin of Cow Gum and some layout sheets, sent some questions off to the band, got my dad to write an article about Victorian architecture (in response to Towers of London), transcribed a couple of radio interviews, and knocked up a few pieces ourselves. In the spring of 1982, 1000 copies of Limelight Issue One rolled off the presses.

The Limelight collection reproduced in The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls
The Limelight collection reproduced in The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls

Big on my block now

Helped along by a mention in Smash Hits magazine (which meant there was many a breathless teenybopper among the first readers), Limelight survived through nine erratically produced issues, plus a couple of supplements and specials, slowly but surely selling out of each 500-copy print run. It could have sold many more if the band hadn’t stopped touring almost as soon as it had appeared, but it developed a keen and enthusiastic following all over the world, and I like to think it fulfilled its brief of being by and for the fans.

Of course, we could never have known back in the early-80s what a perfect band XTC would be to write about. The quality of the music they produced, the variety of artists they collaborated with, and their readiness to talk with wit, inventiveness and insight meant it was never a problem to fill magazine after magazine.

A decade of stamp-linking, envelope-sealing and order-form mailing, coupled with the demands of work and family, led to my reluctant decision to give Limelight a rest. That was until today, 25 years later, when a chance conversation about XTC between my now grown-up daughter and comedians Jo Neary and Stewart Lee (see page 164) led to my digging out the old fanzines, rediscovering my inner fanboy and creating The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology.

This is pop

The article I enjoyed writing the most in The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls was the one in which comedians talked about each other’s favourite XTC songs. Despite their jobs, Kevin Eldon, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Joanna Neary and Paul Putner were not trying to be funny; they just spoke with passion and insight about the music they loved. It was a joy to hear.

I wondered if I could take the idea further. If comedians could be as interesting as this, I reasoned, how much more fascinating would musicians be? What fresh perspectives could we get from people who knew their way around a fret board and could tell their ride cymbal from their hi-hat? XTC fans are unusually blessed in having a front man as articulate as Andy Partridge, who shared his insights so revealingly with Todd Bernhardt in Complicated Game (Jawbone Press). That’s fantastic, but I wanted to know what the music sounded like on the receiving end.

That idea was at the heart of What Do You Call That Noise? An XTC Discovery Book, which came out two years later. It was, for example, an indulgent privilege to talk to the 40 professional musicians who chose their favourite moments from the XTC catalogue. Even better that they seemed to enjoy the conversations as much as I did.

Tunes of good

An equal honour was to pick apart the beats that make Terry Chambers such a formidable rhythm machine in the company of drummers including Rick Buckler from the Jam and Debbi Peterson from the Bangles. Great too to read the trials, tribulations and triumphs of tribute acts in David White’s chapter about fans reproducing the band’s material live.

Then, of course, is the input of XTC themselves, not least Dave Gregory who generously gave up a day to give his most in-depth interview ever. Quizzed by musician Hugh Nankivell, he spoke lucidly about guitar solos, keyboard parts and orchestral arrangements. Elsewhere, Andy shared his home-recording tips and talked about his happy ignorance of musical theory. As well as the post-Chambers drummers recalling their time with XTC, Barry Andrews wrote about his changing relationship with the piano and explained why he had “a lot more sympathy with Partridge”.

And if it’s music you’re after, there was plenty going down at Swindon Arts Centre where Colin and Terry played live for the first time in 36 years as TC&I. The book includes a full report of the first four gigs.

Keeping the fanzine spirit of Limelight alive, there are also chapters about exploring the sights of Swindon, discovering XTC for the first time, turning to XTC in periods of heightened emotion, understanding the physicality of Andy’s songwriting and finding illuminating parallels between the songs of Colin Moulding and the poems of John Betjeman.

Keeping the spirit alive, I launched What Do You Call That Noise? The XTC Podcast in 2000, bringing fans and musicians together from around the world. I hope they give you as much pleasure to read as they’ve given me to make.

Get in touch – 

by email: Mark Fisher

on Facebook: XTC’s Limelight

on Twitter: LimelightXTC