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Pop Music: The state of XTC

Beloved British band returns with its first studio work in seven years

Friday, March 19, 1999

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Andy Partridge never meant to keep his public waiting seven years between albums.

But what can a poor boy do?

His band, XTC, was on strike against Virgin, the UK label it signed to in '78.

And that was just the first of many cruel and unusual punishments facing Partridge on the road to "Apple Venus, Volume 1."

He went through a painful divorce. A middle ear infection blew out his eardrum. Guitarist Dave Gregory left in a huff. The band ran out of money and had to finish recording in Colin Moulding's living room (after a false start at the home of Chris Difford of Squeeze that effectively ended their friendship).

It was not an easy time, to say the least - which kind of makes the carefree, upbeat vibe of "Apple Venus" tunes "I'd Like That" and the stunning "Easter Theatre" a little surprising.

But Partridge had sworn - "when I found myself looking dumped, cuckolded, dispensed with" - that he wouldn't "turn into the classic country and western cliche of sitting there drinking at the bar, blubbering into my beer. So I cut down drinking and also said, 'Well I'm not going to write any divorce songs.' I really don't want to turn into Phil Collins, for Christ's sake. He doesn't even want to be Phil Collins, I can assure you."

He did allow himself the luxury of one divorce song, the scathing profanity-laced "Your Dictionary."

When he played it for his daughter, she said, "Ooh, that's gonna really hurt Mummy."

It's not why he wrote it, he says.

"I wrote it to help me through the hurt. And as soon as I wrote it, I felt better. I actually thought 'Well, we don't need to record this. Just writing the song and making the demo of it should be sufficient.' But I suppose vanity got the better of me and I played it for a few people, 'cause they asked to hear my demos . . . and to a man, they all said 'God, you've got to record that one.' And I thought 'Oh no, you might be right.' It's not a bad song. It's certainly now historically misplaced because I don't feel like that now. But I did feel like that when I wrote it."

He felt a lot better about himself and the prospect of love the day he wrote "I'd Like That."

"What happened," he says, "was pretty much after I was put in the trash can by my wife - dispensed with - I sort of ran into a New York girl I'd known since 1980 . . . We'd never done anything physically with each other, but mentally you just know when there's something between you and somebody else. I sort of spoke to her in solace and we very, very quickly, because I wasn't married and she was relatively unattached, struck up a relationship and sort of fell head over heels in love with each other. So you've got the funny roller coaster mixture of sentiments on the record. You've got some rather dark things and some kind of fluffy-headed love songs."

Reviews have been of the overwhelmingly favorable variety. And deservedly so.

"Yeah, everyone's been saying good things," Partridge says, with a laugh. "But I'm sort of mentally prepared for a good kicking. You have to be if you're English. The nature of England is that if you're English, you're gonna get kicked in England. Although the reviews are saying good things, they have that backhanded English compliment to them, you know? They can't say, 'We like this.' They have to say, 'We like this but it sounds like Blur' or something like that."

Repeating the words "It sounds like Blur" incredulously, he scoffs, "That's like saying Richard III looks a bit like Peter Sellers."

The songs that make up "Apple Venus, Volume 1" were written, for the most part, while the band was still on strike. A second, more electric volume should be out this fall.

"It wasn't just lazy time in front of the television for us," says Part-ridge. "We were very busy doing other stuff, not the least of which was personal hell for me - divorce and illness and drink and blah blah, life goes off the runners, that kind of stuff. Despite all that, I felt compelled to write. I enjoyed writing and I think I found great solace in it, almost a religious fervor, thinking, 'Gee, this is the best stuff I've ever written and nobody's ever going to hear it.' It kind of powers you on in a bizarre way."

The band was on strike, he says, because "there was no way of us making any money on the Virgin label. And you have to make money to keep your head above water, to carry on doing your art. We were on Virgin 20 years and never went into the black. That's some indication of how bad the contract was. So I said, 'Please make it better or release us so we can go make a living.' And they would do neither. So we had to stop. The only thing we could do was to be on strike."

Moulding says they soured even more on Virgin when the label passed on a bubblegum album they'd hoped to record using some sort of pseudonym, in the style of the classic Dukes of Stratosphear records they cut in the '80s.

"We had these tracks that were kind of fun things and we thought they weren't really suitable for people over the age of 18," Moulding says. "So we just thought they'd lend themselves to doing a sort of late '60s/early '70s bubblegum album, probably in the style of something like the Archies' "Sugar Sugar." So we had some demos, and we went to them and played them in the office and it was a few jaws dropping, you know. 'My God what's that?' And it would only have taken a few thousand quid to record it."

They finally turned to a powerful lawyer and, free from Virgin, Part-ridge and his bandmates signed to TVT, an American indie label, and set to work on "Apple Venus" with an orchestra and acoustic guitars.

"It's a bit of a departure for us," says Moulding. "But that was the general idea. We wanted to come back, I suppose, after seven years, with something where people would say, 'Hmmm, this is different.' But it's still a pop album. It's not like 'XTC Meets the London Philharmonic.' "

They recorded the orchestrated parts at Abbey Road, moving to Moulding's house for vocals and bass when they ran out of cash.

Asked about the Difford sessions, Moulding says, "God, do I have to go through that again? We fell out over it and we're not really on speaking terms at the moment. To cut a long story short, he offered us the studio time on the cheap and we took it, but the studio wasn't really up and running as you know it, as you think a studio should be. And in the end, we just packed up and left and fell out. We wasted probably about six weeks."

The split with Gregory, he says, was probably years in the making.

"I think Dave had been unhappy for quite some time. And he would say he left the band because he didn't want to make the record we wanted to make. And I suppose there is some truth to that. But I don't think it's just that."

Partridge, never one to pull a punch, says, "Dave's just full of frustration. It's hard to explain if you don't really know him. But he's a very angry person, just an immensely unhappy person. There's nothing you can do to pull him out of it, and it's been getting worse and worse over the years. Dave didn't want to do anything. He didn't want to do the orchestral record . . . He didn't want to sign to TVT. Some people just get too negative to live, you know, and it became impossible to work with him. If Dave hadn't left when he did, I was preparing somehow to try and tell this person I'd been working with professionally for 20 years that I couldn't work with him any longer. So I'm glad he jumped 'cause I didn't want to push him."

It's actually helped his relationship with Moulding.

"We just seem more mutually supportive," he says, "a bit more brotherly."

There won't be any touring in support of "Apple Venus." Then again, they haven't toured since 1982, so it's not as though anyone actually thought they'd do it now.

"No, I don't see the need for that," says Partridge. "I got that out of my system a long, long time ago. I'll leave that to young kids. They need the adulation and they've got something to prove. And because of that, they probably do it best. But what we do best is make records. That's the only magic thing we do. We don't cure lepers or levitate. We're not amazingly wonderful people. We just happen to be pretty good at writing songs and making records."

Fans who feel the need to hear them live can always buy the recent four-CD BBC sessions collection, "Transistor Blast."

Says Partridge, "Well, you're supposed to say it's a historical document. I think in some places it's a hysterical document . . . a naive young band who were doing their darnedest to do their stuff, doing their best to displease. It's OK. I forgive them. I forgive him. He was little and skinny and maybe a little pretentious at times. And they didn't know what they were doing but they certainly did it loud. And it was good fun to do at the time . . . but the idea of going back to that, I would find stupid. Always move on. Always look to the future."

If that future isn't likely to hold any platinum albums for XTC, that's fine by Partridge.

"I'm not interested in fame and the personality cult kind of thing," he says. "I find that rather cheap and appalling. I think a lot of people who bask in fame and bask in their own glory are rather inhuman and cold. I just want to have the facility to continue to make records. That's what I like doing. That's my art."



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