Not eccentrics after all?

Rolling Stone (Germany)
No. 4/99, April 1999

XTC, now shrunk down to a duo, surprise with new sounds on their new album, but are down-to-earth family men

If you believe the stereotype, the most eccentric of all pop musicians live in the small English city of Swindon, spend a lot of time with their families, and cut a new record every couple of years or so (or maybe not). These albums are really amazing, because they're full of perfectly played songs with wonderful melodies and complex arrangements. On top of all this, the zenith of eccentricity, the band's leader collects tin soldiers. What else can I say: Groovy!

But in all seriousness: If you consider the work of XTC from the new wave beginnings through the pop years in the 80s and on to the 60's retro-beat (as The Dukes of Stratosphear), or better, if you actually meet the group members, you end up having to ask yourself why these Britons are always described to be exotic and somewhat crazy. Musically, they have always been as down-to-earth as it gets, both in terms of the material and its arrangement. And the musicians themselves have egos so small you can hardly sense them. Andy Partridge is a smart but very reserved 45-year-old "boy next door" from whom you have to pull every word out of his mischievously grinning mouth. However, in comparison to his 43-year-old colleague Colin Moulding (with whom we conducted this interview, Partridge had the flu), he's an egomaniac blabbermouth.

The man with the 60s-style mop haircut tries to hide behind a low table during the interview. "I'm a bassist," he says, while he tries to work his fingers like clay into a homogeneous mass, "I stand in the background. I like it that way. That's why there are only 2 songs of mine on the new record."

It took seven years to follow up the album Nonsuch with the opulent orchestral pop that is Apple Venus Volume 1. The guilty party was ex-label Virgin, who refused to renegotiate a contract that had been in effect since 1977. Back then, the group had settled for royalties typical for newcomers in the business. When, after 15 years, the band wanted a well-deserved raise, Virgin referred them to the stipulations in their contract. XTC countered this with the method of the proletarian struggle: a strike. After 5 years, the label released the band from its contract. While scouting for a new partner, XTC was cautious, finally landing at the London indie label Cooking Vinyl, where Pere Ubu and They Might Be Giants had also found a home.

"Martin Goldschmidt, the president of Cooking Vinyl, kept calling us. Eventually, he made us an offer we couldn't refuse." Moulding smiles; it looks as if at least the monetary problems have finally been solved. The tragic aspect of it all is that this has only happened after Dave Gregory left the band. "Dave was the only one of us who took care of the financial side. We (Moulding & Partridge) never really bothered with that." However, Gregory's unilateral role was not without its problems. For example, there were serious arguments about Neville Farmer's biography XTC: Song Stories: "Dave thought we got a bad deal. But Andy and I just wanted to have fun."

Thus XTC will continue as a duo, which isn't really a problem, since they didn't plan on doing any live touring anyway: "People don't have to see us to hear our music. Andy and I weren't made for the stage." We can live with that -- this is a band you can also love from afar.

- Peter Lau

"Apple Venus Volume 1"
* * * *
"Transistor Blast"
* * * *

The truth of the matter is that this band, which changed its name from The Helium Kidz to XTC in '75, has always consisted -- regardless of its lineup -- of 80% Andy Partridge and 20% Colin Moulding. Partridge -- who, being a cross between an obstinate egg-head and self-admitted eccentric, can be considered to be a "true Englishman" -- always wrote most of XTC's songs, and most of their best songs.

For seven long years, the little dictator ("Oasis? Embarrassingly empty lyrics!") from the idyllic town of Swindon held XTC's "Bag of Pop Tricks" shut, only to open it and shake out a surprisingly opulent bunch of goodies including a 4-CD box set (of BBC sessions and live shows) and a brand new studio album.

For those of you who never had the pleasure of experiencing XTC live on stage (Partridge's antipathy for live shows quickly developed into a phobia; the band played its last concert on April 4, 1982, in the Hollywood Palladium), Transistor Blast is one record you must have. The first two CDs are live BBC sessions from 1979-89 for the John Peel Show, the third is taken from concert appearances in 1978 and '79, and the fourth presents XTC in full swing at London's Hammersmith Palais in 1980.

Right off the top, track 1 of CD 1 ("Life Begins at the Hop") sweeps the "insider" myth of Partridge and Moulding being simply studio magicians ("Miraculixes") into the pop-gossip garbage can. The almost frightening pure power, the speed that leaves you needing to catch your breath, and the ability to capture the incredible chord and tempo changes live on stage -- all of this makes almost every studio version, be it "Snowman", "Jason and the Argonauts", or "Runaways", sound clinically sterile or artificial in comparison. In a word: XTC -- who flipped back and forth musically as if pushing Beatles/Monkees or Beefheart/Zappa buttons on a pinball machine, reaching new high scores with each new studio release -- were masters in the studio, but gods on stage.

Which doesn't mean you shouldn't acquaint yourself with Apple Venus Volume 1; with their new, 11th studio album, Partridge and Moulding have said "adieu" to standard pop music (which is in a bad enough state anyway), and have opened the doors to a new pop adventureland that only they know about. Drums and guitars play only supporting roles in this new XTC cosmos (which led Dave Gregory, XTC's guitarist for 20 years, to exit in frustration), what is offered here is pure pop chamber music, in both score and arrangements.

When Partridge sings the line "I wanna see a river of orchids where there was a motorway" in the opener, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra, it becomes very clear that he, whose purpose and destiny was once manifested in the glam biz with tunes like "Life Begins at the Hop" and "This is Pop", has now discovered real life right at his own front door. This orchestral piece, in which violins and mellotrons lead the way, and which seems to send greetings to Pink Floyd (in the days of Syd Barrett), Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys (the Pet Sounds era), requires the listener to enjoy it quietly, with reverence. But the faction of fans who lived for the amazing pop-rock adrenaline rushes XTC guaranteed in the past needn't fret: the rocking sequel Volume 2 is scheduled for release at the end of this year.

- Joerg Guelden

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[Thanks to and translated by Jeff Thomas]