life begins at the hop, again

By MIKE GEE, Music Editor

Andy Partridge is a musical architect. A builder of magnificent sonic structures that defy dimension, seemingly shimmer and shift in and out of focus, complex and challenging. Conversely, others are simple, easily recognisable, nearly categorisable, effortlessly melodic, insidiously harmonic.

Along with Elvis Costello, Partridge is the archetypal English songwriter of his mid-'70s generation. And he's a survivor. Now celebrating 24 years, his band, XTC, define a unique vein of lavish, sometimes symphonic, sometimes psychedelic, Brit pop and folk. That they have survived is something else again.

It's seven years since the last XTC album, the criminally-under-rated Nonesuch; since then Partridge has been at war — with the band's label Virgin against whom XTC staged a five-year strike which ended with the release of a double Best Of (Fossil Fuel: The Singles 1977-92) and a sigh of relief from Partridge who had managed to keep fellow songwriter and founder Colin Moulding and long-term member Dave Gregory enlisted over the lean years.

However, life is a funny and unpredictable beast, and as soon as the band finally re-entered the studios with dozens of songs primarily written by Partridge who never stopped writing, Gregory up and quit. Partridge and Moulding didn't look over their shoulders and, finally, the first XTC album in seven years, Apple Venus Volume 1, was ready for their new label Cooking Vinyl.

That it's a mini-masterpiece just underscores how remarkable Partridge and his merry men are. As their bio correctly declares “Apple Venus Volume 1, as one would expect, is non-conformity at its most brilliant, luscious orchestral pop that sounds like nothing else you'll hear in 1999. Until Volume 2, that is”.

It's incomparable, simply because XTC at its most inventive has always hoed a quirkily, eccentric, furrow, combining medieval airs and graces and an essential folkiness with acid-drenched psychedelia, post-Beatles and Beachboys harmonies and acoustic intermissions.

Partridge, like his songs and music, is equally eccentric and profound. Last time we spoke he was shut in a storeroom at Virgin plugging the hell out of the ‘Best Of’ but mostly shafting the record company and revving up the future without them. As he spoke, he crawled round the room, digging up old gold and platinum discs by long lost acts, providing a rapid-fire commentary that was as comic as it was scurrilous.

Today, he is far more relaxed. Sitting in his English home, somewhere outside London, sipping almond tea, clothed in a “fetching” dressing gown, Partridge admits to having one eye on the window.

“My parents are about to descend on me,” he moans. “My mother hasn't spoken to me since Christmas when I got incredibly drunk, had a fight with her while I was dressed in a Santa suit which resulted in me staggering off into the night and falling flat in mud, returning splattered and bedraggled to continue the row.” He doesn't sound particularly contrite.

Apple Venus Volume 1 then . . . “If it doesn't sell like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours I'll be disappointed,” he quips. “It was a toughy. The build up was so monumental. From 1992 to getting free of Virgin was one long epic, then entering the studio, all the stuff that went down in the studio, Dave leaving, this problem and that, honestly it makes what Fleetwood Mac went through look tame.

“Am I happy with it? Yes, because it contains some of the best material we've ever done. Yes, because we came through in a ‘I am woman, I am man’ way.” He starts singing. “No, because I can never be satisfied with what we've done.

“I'm told a couple of French journalists after hearing it have declared that ‘XTC is the only true alternative band’. They may have a point. Wait until they hear Volume 2 — it isn't going to sound anything like Volume 1. This album is the best of the songs written from 1992-94. By '94 and onwards I started wanting to hear big electric guitars in songs, so that's what we've just begun recording — the best of the songs from 1994-96 with lots of electric guitar.”

Such whims and fancies are well known to XTC fans. The history stretches over 10 albums beginning when they rode in on the coat-tails of punk with the punchy, jerky, muscular, angular rhythms of White Music and Go 2, both released in 1978. A brace of albums with producer Steve Lillywhite added to their initial reputation — as pop academists with spunk. Drums And Wires (1979) spawned their first top 20 hit — the utterly splendid “Making Plans For Nigel”; “Generals and Majors”, and “Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)” from Black Sea (1980) and “Senses Working Overtime”, one of the highlights of their first masterpiece, English Settlement (1982), followed suit.

That year Partridge viewed yet another world tour with fear and loathing, his behaviour on the road becoming ever more bizarre. He began suffering crippling stage fright: in Paris, in acute distress, he left the stage and the rest of the European and British dates were cancelled. Eventually, XTC jetted off for the US, but after just one performance in San Diego, Partridge decided that was it. No more touring. XTC have not performed since.

“Not about to either,” Partridge says. “Why would you want to see my corpulent frame sweating on a stage.” It isn't a question.

A couple of average XTC sets, Mummer and Big Express, filled in 1983 and 1984, respectively, while Partridge unveiled an all-out celebration of English psychedelia in 1985 with the alterego Dukes Of Stratosphear whose 25 O'Clock outsold Big Express.

The next XTC masterpiece followed a year later, the luscious pop dressed, cinematically arranged Skylarking, which somehow benefited from a series of blazing rows between producer and legend Todd Rundgren and Partridge. Three years later Oranges and Lemons became their third masterpiece as Partridge embraced a big twelve-string guitar sound. The fact he could make two such contrasting yet companionable albums is as good a declaration of the essential nature of XTC as it is Partridge's lifelong commitment to unpredictability.

“Do you think I'm difficult then?” he asks. Mmmm, I think you ask a lot of your fans. “That's why they are there though isn't it; they respect the fact that we will always strive to go further, refine, whatever,” he counters. “I could write ABBA songs but none of XTC's fans would listen to them.” Actually, they probably would, if he dressed them appropriately.

As it is Apple Venus Volume 1 has some supreme XTC moments: the album opening “River Of Orchids”, the all-encompassing and vast “Greenman”, the razorsharp wordplay of “Your Dictionary”, the picturesque “Harvest Festival” and the closing “The Last Balloon”, perhaps one of his finest songs and atmospheres — though he doesn't necessarily agree. Yet if one sense lingers it is the medievalness that seeps across the work. It's thoroughly modern yet antique.

“Yes, there's still that folk element there,” he says. “By that I don't mean people in clunky hand-knitted jumpers with one finger in an ear, but a pagan, earthy sense, a landmaking music sense. That's a big element in it. But I think I've also acknowledged for the first time the role musicals play in my songwriting and musical sense — the big part. I like and have an appreciation of classical music but it leaves me cold and doesn't talk to me.

“I wanted to work with an orchestra because of the stuff I heard on the radio as a kid in the late '50s. The light orchestras and musicals. I didn't particularly like it but the I figure it went in deep. The reason I wanted to work with an orchestra has more to with James Last and Mantovani than anything else. You can't underestimate the pungency of an orchestra. If it gets too syrupy or sickly it gets lopped off — although there is an element of MOR-ness. And if that annoys people then it gives me a mischievous sense of glee. They deserved to be annoyed.”

He chooses “River Of Orchids” and “Easter Theatre” as the two songs he's most proud of. The former because it represents a new way of looking at a song — he put together a guitar piece using an orchestral sample: “Initially I was excited by its buoyancy, so much so I took off my shoes, socks, and so on and danced around the studio for two hours; my own personal rave. It's really exciting, very groovy, has no conventional instrumentation.” He talks about it for a while. “Easter Theatre” was derived from his plonking around on his daughter's $60 school guitar where he found “these lovely ascending chords — very pagan sort of shapes”. To these he added a melody that had been lingering in his head since Skylarking.

However, for honesty, there is nothing more personal than “Your Dictionary”: “HATE — is that how you spell love in your dictionary? FUCK is that how you spell friend in your dictionary? SHIT is that how you spell me in your dictionary?”

There is a genuine pause: “That song is so exposed. The lyrics rams up your nose. I didn't really want to record that song. I woke up one morning and found that I was a divorced man. It was hard to take. I decided to quit drinking and not write divorced hurt songs. But the pressure was so strong inside me. I had to write something to ease the pain. When I did I felt immediately better. It was a releasing the pain exercise.

“Eventually, vanity got the better of me. I played it to a few people and they all said ‘You've got to record it; it's “Dear God” [one of his greatest songs] for the divorced man’. It was still a tricky song to record.”

But for all the pain, there is pleasure and beauty liberally spread throughout Apple Venus Volume 1. No more so than in the last two minutes of “The Last Balloon” when a flugelhorn picks up the last note of his voice and falls perfectly off the end. It is utterly glorious and utterly heart-rending. “That's a song about really the only people who can make a difference now are children who we have to hope don't make the mistakes we do. I do feel optimistic they'll learn from us and get away from the old crap we've left over. They may yet make a brave new world.”

Andy Partridge is his own general and major again.

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