agony and the xtc

After seven years of strife, the influential U.K. band rebounds.
By Alan Sculley

February 25-March 4, 1999

Throughout a two-decade career, XTC has been one of pop's most diverse and unpredictable bands.

After several early albums that featured jagged, edgy, new-wave pop, the group shifted into a more melodic, but still forceful guitar rock sound (best represented on the 1980 album Black Sea). From there the band has shifted between folkier efforts (English Settlement and Skylarking), dense rock (The Big Express) and albums that have reflected the impact of latter-era Beatles and the Beach Boys on the band (Oranges and Lemons and Nonsuch). The group also dabbled in psychedelic rock under the pseudonym Dukes of the Stratosphear, releasing an ep (25 O'Clock) and a full-length cd (Psonic Psunspot). Even long-time fans, however, may be thrown - at least temporarily - for a loop by the group's latest.

On the long-awaited Apple Venus: Volume 1, XTC has virtually dispensed with electric guitars and created an album of orchestral songs. According to Andy Partridge - guitarist, singer and chief songwriter for the band - the idea of working in an orchestral setting took root during the latter stages of recording on the band's previous album, Nonsuch (1992). "I suppose I was feeling a little bit trapped by electric guitars," Partridge said from his home in Swindon, England. "I wanted to hear the songs' broader, more stereoscopic vision, a more Eastman color or whatever."

"I bought a keyboard device with a lot of orchestral samples in it," Partridge explained. "You get to know what oboes sound like, you get to know what cellos sound like, you get to know the difference between violas and violins. You get to hear effects of things together ... and so on and so on. So I became a lot more familiar with those textures. But most of the Nonsuch material was electric guitar material. But as soon as we finished, I was just gagging to leap in full, in the deep end."

So with all that eagerness, why did it take XTC seven years to get Apple Venus: Volume 1 into record stores? The problems began with a dispute between the band and their British label, Virgin Records. Partridge claims that despite being on Virgin beginning in 1977, the band never made a profit until 1997. It was a situation he felt he had to change.

"I said, 'Would you make our deal better or will you let us go and get a decent deal to make a living at this?' And they would do neither," Partridge said. "So the only thing that we could do was [protest] and withhold our labor. People said, 'Oh, you're making a big mistake. You're hurting yourself. People are going to forget you.' I didn't feel that. I felt confident enough that the people liked what we did enough to hold on for us."

Eventually, XTC freed themselves from Virgin and signed with TVT Records in America and Cooking Vinyl in England. The dispute with Virgin, was only one complication during the time between XTC albums. Partridge also went through a difficult divorce and suffered several health problems, including a middle ear infection that blew out his eardrum. There was also unrest within the group that culminated with the departure of long-time guitarist Dave Gregory. This left Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding as the only remaining members from the early years of the band.

"I think Dave and I had been slowly, painfully, a grain of sand at a time, drifting apart ever since we stopped touring [in 1982]," said Partridge, who having suffering severe panic attacks during tours that year decided that XTC would be strictly a studio band. "Dave's role in touring was much greater than it was after we stopped. When we stopped, he was no longer one of the sort of equal four legs at the table. It became just very difficult to work with him over the years. He didn't want to work with the orchestra. He didn't want to sign to TVT. He'd heard bad things about them and was determined that they weren't going to get him."

"He was just increasingly negative about everything," Partridge said. "It was a very strange sensation the day he left. It was very weird to think it was somebody I had known for about 25 years, and for 20 years had been a big part of my professional life, and suddenly he was gone. I felt like a billion tons had been lifted from my back."

Against the backdrop of all these distractions, Apple Venus: Volume 1 was actually recorded in reasonable time. "If you consider the album taking on and off, the best part of a year, the first few months were really taken up with plotting and mapping out what the hell we were going to do," Partridge said. "I know it sounds perverse, but over the course of a year of sort of fiddling at one end and fiddling at the other end, the big bit in the middle was one day at Abbey Road in which we actually recorded most of the album in one day."

Just how deeply Partridge and Moulding immersed themselves in the sonic palette of the orchestra is apparent from the outset. "River Of Orchids," with its plucked strings, interlaced horns and multi-layered voices provides an intriguing, idiosyncratic beginning. It's easily the most unusual song on the cd, but also quite effective.

By and large, the cd's other songs use a more conventional pop framework, but even in these settings, Partridge has found inviting ways to incorporate strings and horns into tracks like "Easter Theatre," "Greenman" and "Harvest Festival." Considering all the effort that went into the cd, it's interesting that to note that Apple Venus: Volume 1 may be just a one-time foray. He and Moulding have written a full slate of songs for Apple Venus: Volume 2. That cd promises to bring electric guitar back into the XTC sound -- and with a vengeance.

"All of the material that was written, really, between '92 and '94 was my desire to work in this orchestral vein," Partridge said. "Seeing as we really still weren't legally allowed to make a record by '94, I think I started to want to hear cranked-up guitars again. And all of the material that came out between '94 and '96 was really quite basic, in-your-face electric guitar material. That will be Volume 2."

In other words, with Apple Venus: Volume 1, Partridge suspects he got his orchestral urges out of his system - at least for the foreseeable future. "I think that's what it was, I think it was just a couple of years away [from guitar]," Partridge said, trying to explain why the electric guitar started sounding fresh again. "Having a diet of these orchestral textures and acoustic textures, it was a bit like being vegetarian for a couple of years. I guess I just wanted a big fat sausage."

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