Rock Beat: XTC

© The Associated Press
AP-NY-04-28-99 1205EDT

NEW YORK (AP) -- Twenty-five years have passed, so Andy Partridge finally feels comfortable confessing.

During his teen-age days in England, the singer for the rock band XTC used to scatter David Bowie and Iggy Pop records around his room when his friends came over to visit. He had an image to protect, and Bowie and Iggy made him look cool.

What his buddies never realized was that before they came over, Partridge would be listening to his dad's old albums of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Now the story can be told.

“You get older and more comfortable with yourself and you say, ‘Sure, I like a lot of the music that my parents liked,’” he said.

It's a telling admission since Partridge and his partner, Colin Moulding, have emerged from a seven-year exile with an album his dad could probably appreciate. Apple Venus, Volume I leaves the traditional instruments of rock 'n' roll behind for a sound Partridge describes as “orchustic” -- orchestral and acoustic.

The combination is heralded by the plucked violin strings and dissonant horns that form an extended intro to the album. It's not easy listening music, however. Dedicated followers will see the parallels with XTC's artsy, tuneful rock that's made songs like “Dear God” and “Senses Working Overtime” cult favorites.

“I think some XTC fans will think of this stuff as possibly a jump too far,” Partridge said. “If they fall off, I'd rather like that if they can't handle it, if they're not tough enough.”

One person who has already abandoned ship is Dave Gregory, XTC's guitarist for 20 years. His departure, partly because he didn't want to play this kind of music, just added to XTC's catalogue of woes during the 1990s.

For seven years, XTC refused to record until they were released from their record contract. Partridge also suffered through a divorce during the time on the shelf.

XTC believed it was on the wrong side of a one-sided deal with its record label, hardly unusual in the music business. Partridge and Moulding sought either a better contract or a release from Virgin Records, and got neither.

“Being the individuals that we are, we just refused to address the situation because we're just not money-minded,” Moulding said. “...I think we tried to resist putting that side of it right for so long and in the end we just confronted it.”

They effectively went on strike, since any music they made as XTC would be owned by Virgin. It was a depressing time.

“Who wouldn't feel sat upon after all those years and the future looking so bleak?” Moulding said. “But you just sort of hang on. You write some songs and you nurse them, thinking, ‘One day I'll get to record these.’”

Partridge, who writes about three-quarters of XTC's songs, was more manic. Wondering if his music would ever be heard again just drove him to write more.

“If you lose your car keys and you look for them, you can't find them,” he said. “If you don't look for them, you'll find them. I was sort of backed into not looking for any songs because we couldn't record them or release them, and suddenly loads of them came out.”

Writing was also cathartic for Partridge as his marriage crumbled. He resisted releasing these songs, fearing they'd sound pathetic. But two made it onto the new album: the profanely bitter “Your Dictionary” and “I Can't Own Her,” which reflects on the fragile state of relationships after he met someone new.

Eventually a settlement with Virgin allowed XTC to sign with two independent labels, including TVT Records in the United States.

After years of silence, suddenly there's a flood of XTC material. The band says it's a way of thanking fans for their patience. Apple Venus, Volume 2, an electric rock 'n' roll record, will come out later this year. Transistor Blast is a box set consisting of live recordings from XTC's early days. XTC has not performed public concerts since the early 1980s because of Partridge's stage fright.

“Our early stuff is kind of naive and funny,” Partridge said. “When we heard all the tapes I laughed my socks off. I thought it was so saucy, this young band, trying to pull this stuff off. It's like someone who can't paint trying to do a painting. The perspectives are all wrong, the colors are all wrong, the blurry stuff is in the foreground, but you can enjoy it.”

XTC wanted to release its stockpile of new material roughly in the order in which it was written. That meant finishing the orchestral material first, and dealing with a disgruntled Gregory.

Gregory didn't want to hire an orchestra, believing it was too expensive, and resented not being able to play electric guitar. Partridge and Moulding tried to persuade him to hang on, since XTC wasn't abandoning rock, but to no avail.

“He was willing himself out of the band,” Partridge said. “I think he never felt part of it.”

Despite all the problems, Partridge said he and Moulding never considered pulling the plug on XTC.

“Not at all,” he said. “The more we couldn't work, the more we wanted to do it. It's sort of the backwards principle of if you deny something to someone, they'll want it even more.”

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[Thanks to Brad]