Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After the release of Nonsuch in 1992, XTC essentially went on strike against Virgin Records for various contractual reasons that I couldn’t possibly summarize here. Both parties stood their ground until the label finally gave in after more than 5 years and released the band from their contract. During this forced hiatus they stockpiled songs, especially singer/guitarist Andy Partridge and to a lesser extent singer/bassist Colin Moulding. They also formed their own record label, Idea Records, and signed a deal to distribute their newly recorded music with UK indie label Cooking Vinyl (and TVT Records in the US). Initially the plan was to release a double album, with one disc focusing on their orchestral side (last explored on the Nonsuch track “Rook”) and the other disc in the classic pop/rock vein they were best known for, but then it was decided to split them into two separate albums. I think this was a smart decision, since it would be a tough sell to re-introduce the band after a 7-year absence with a sprawling 2-disc set. Choosing to release the aforementioned orchestral album first may not have been the best move, commercially speaking, but from an artistic standpoint it was a bold declaration of their mindset at the time. Andy described this side of their music as “more rosin-ville than plectrum place,” a clever way of explaining the use of classical strings over traditional rock guitars.
In this post I’ll discuss these two records, which are also currently the final two albums in their catalog. After the release of each of these albums they put together a disc of demos for every song. In most cases the demos don’t reveal much that isn’t there on the finished recording, although in some cases it was fun to discover how a basic idea was enhanced in the studio by Andy, Colin, producers Haydn Bendall & Nick Davis and various session musicians. Since these demo collections are so closely associated with each studio album, I’ll be discussing each pair together. Going into this series, I was only slightly more familiar with these two albums than I was with White Music, Go 2, Mummer and The Big Express. Revisiting them over the past month has allowed me to discover a lot of great music that I had overlooked in the past, and even though none of those albums has surpassed my existing favorites, they’ve certainly grown in stature. That’s what I was hoping for as I approached the end of their discography. I should note that during the long layoff Andy went through a divorce and began a new relationship (which I believe is still going strong), so his new songs often contained a mixture of anger & elation as he dealt with these powerful events in his personal life. Guitarist/keyboardist/arranger Dave Gregory eventually grew weary of the band’s new orchestral direction and, depending on who you believe, was either forced out of the band or resigned. Whichever is true, it’s hard to imagine XTC without his brilliant contributions. He may not have written songs for the band, but since his arrival on their third album he was an integral part of their sound and their records wouldn’t have been as good without him.
The first fruit of the new 2-man XTC lineup (Dave is credited merely as a guest performer) was Apple Venus Volume 1 (1999), and the related CD of demos was Homespun (1999). On first or second listen it’s hard to gauge the strength of these songs, but they slowly bloom like the beautiful flowers Andy envisioned in the first track, “River Of Orchids.” Beginning with a 90-second instrumental section that’s all dripping sound effects & pizzicato strings, a frantic melody & jarring horns then join the fray. My favorite hooks are at “push…your…car…from the road” and those “Mmmm” grunts at the end of certain lines. I like the sentiment of a fantasy world where roads are replaced by flowers, showing Andy’s hippie side. The demo version is nearly 2 minutes shorter, without the extended intro. “I Like That” is a bouncy Paul McCartney-esque ditty with thigh-slapping percussion. I love the way the verses build to an anticlimactic end (“Really high, really high, like a really high thing, say, a sunflower”), even though the “like a really high thing” lyric makes me cringe a little. I also hear hints of Jeff Lynne/ELO. The demo switches from the original rough cassette recording to a more fully formed take. The sparse orchestral arrangement of “Easter Theatre” gives way to some gorgeous harmonies from Colin (“Stage left…stage right”), and I have to assume that’s Dave delivering the guitar solo that reminds me so much of Queen’s Brian May. Although the verses sound impressive with those horn stabs, they’re a bit tuneless, while the other sections are very pretty…especially the late-60s Beach Boys homage at “Easter…in her bonnet.” In the notes for the demo version, Andy described this song as “one of the best things I’ve ever written.” “Knights In Shining Karma,” with that awful title aside (and I’m someone who enjoys a good pun), is a soft lullaby written by Andy as “a song to salve my worried mind…I needed hugging & guarding…so I tried to do it to myself.” It’s a lovely respite from the intense orchestral arrangements that precede it. Although the song came to him as he worked with the chords to The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” it captures more of the mood from their song “Julia.”
Colin only contributed two songs here. For the first, “Frivolous Tonight,” he references Music Hall, various British entertainers I’m not familiar with, as well as The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine,” but to me it sounds more like the theme to a ‘70s children’s show. It’s a playful but minor song, certainly not one of his finest moments, but I love his voice at “We’re all so frivolous…tonight.” His other contribution is “Fruit Nut,” a fun little song with an insistent repeated musical motif, about various activities men undertake in their sheds (the British equivalent to the “man cave,” I suppose). It has the simple playfulness of The Beach Boys’ “Vegetables” with a stronger melody that’s more in the vein of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” The two best hooks come at “Some people say…that I am out of my tree” and “A man must have a shed to keeeeep him sane.” Sitting between these Colin songs are two of Andy’s most notable contributions to the album. “Your Dictionary” was the first song that caught my ear back in 1999, featuring clever or cringe-worthy lyrics (depending on your tolerance for lines like “H-A-T-E, is that how you spell love in your dictionary? K-I-C-K, pronounced as ‘kind’.”) Some of the other four-letter spellings, which get into expletive territory, are even more bitter & angry. Musically it’s an immediately catchy song with strong acoustic guitar work, and the addition of piano & strings in the second verse is a nice touch. He gets into Beach Boys territory again at “Now your laughter has a hollow ring.” Apparently, Andy wanted to leave this as a demo, but the others thought it was too good to discard. The highlight of the album for me has to be “Greenman,” of which Andy said: “The music seemed to suggest the land & forests…a Pagan ritual, a celebration of timelessness.” Although he claims it’s rooted in English folk music, there’s no denying the Arabic/Middle Eastern vibe conjured up among the steady loping percussion & sweeping strings. Even though it runs longer than 6 minutes, it remains interesting throughout, and I simply love the melody at “And you know for a million years he has been your lover/father.”
Two more Andy compositions offer up some interesting musical ideas but don’t completely work for me. “I Can’t Own Her” has a baroque quality & is slightly dissonant at times. I do like the overall cinematic quality of this song, but the only discernible hook is, “But I can’t own her and I never will.” “Harvest Festival” is a peaceful piano ballad that has a nice build leading to the ecstatic “Longing look you gave me, that longing loooook” section. The recorder(s) at the end bring to mind The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill.” I hear Brian Wilson’s influence all over album closer “The Last Balloon,” of which Andy said: “Balloons make me think of escape, maybe from a besieged place…It’s primarily a sad song.” That melancholy feeling is enhanced by the harpsichord. There are some amazing vocals at “Climb aboard, climb aboard you menfolk/you women/you children.” This is almost as good as “Chalkhills And Children” from Oranges & Lemons, and the addition of flugelhorn gives it a slight Burt Bacharach quality. All in all, Apple Venus Volume 1 is a gorgeous album that stands proudly among the best of their discography, even though it often comes across as an orchestral Andy Partridge solo album as opposed to a group effort. The Homespun collection of demos is a fun listen but would only be worthwhile for devoted fans. I think I can put myself in that category, now more than ever.
It’s ironic, and a little sad, that Dave Gregory was no longer a member of XTC when they recorded their next (and, to date, final) album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000), since these are the types of typical XTC songs that he could have elevated with his diverse musicality. The corresponding CD of demos, Homegrown (2001), is equally as interesting as its predecessor, occasionally including more than one early version of certain songs. “Playground” jumps out with its fuzzy guitar tone & stomping drums, yet still has a lightness of touch. The theme of this song is summarized in its final line, “You may leave school but it never leaves you,” as Andy explains how adulthood is similar in many ways to childhood. I love Colin’s singing at “It’s a playground/every day ground” and Andy’s soaring voice at “Rehearsing for the big square wooooorld.” Andy described “Stupidly Happy” as “a song about me being happy to be in love.” Although he compared it to The Rolling Stones when he said, “I’d hit on the ultimate (Keith Richards) riff that he’d never found,” to me it sounds more like Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go.” While I’m not a fan of that band, it’s a very catchy song and indicates that XTC had a potential hit on their hands, had radio been more open-minded. The demo version is fairly complete but a bit rougher around the edges. “My Brown Guitar,” originally known in demo form as “Some Lovely,” features John Lennon-esque guitar work as well as a number of melodic vocal hooks (“You want some lovely, I’ve got some lovely…in my heart/in my head”). I like the way it opens up at “We can play, every day, we can play at being lovers.” This is one of a handful of songs that has slowly been burrowing its way into my head, even a couple of days since I last played it. “I’m The Man Who Murdered Love” is a super catchy power-pop song with fun/silly lyrics about how, by killing “love,” he’s freed people from the related “mess.” If they were still a touring band this would be a great sing-along. The demos of this tune are most revealing, with a Joni Mitchell inspired take that’s a drastically different song, a swinging Motown version and then a fairly complete run-through.
The highlight of this album, and probably my favorite track on the two Apple Venus releases, is “We’re All Light.” Moving along on a repetitive, bouncy, mildly psychedelic groove, and featuring “don’t you know?…” as a recurring motif, this track would easily fit among the best of Oranges & Lemons. It has an interesting arrangement, with a Theremin-like synth line, lovely harmonies and a tight-but-loose rhythm (with a great snappy snare drum sound). The addition of what sounds like a Hammond organ near the outro was a perfect embellishment. Colin delivered three songs here. The first, “In Another Life,” is his low-key celebration of matrimony, and the harmonica melody is probably the catchiest thing about it. His next contribution, “Boarded Up,” is something different for him. I love the slow footstep rhythm, sparse guitar work, raggedy percussion & Colin’s hushed vocals, as he evokes the feeling of a deserted town. With a few tweaks this could be a Tom Waits song. “Standing In For Joe” immediately had a familiar sounding melody, which I attributed to having heard the song before, but then it was pointed out how the verses have nearly the same vocal line as Steely Dan’s “Barrytown.” The music, especially the steady 4/4 groove, is completely different than that song, but I agree about the strong resemblance between the two, yet I don’t see it as a negative. I like the “lounge version” demo with hummed vocals, as well as the fuller demo with some Beatle-isms thrown in.
Of the four remaining tracks, all written by Andy, two are very strong: “You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” and “Church Of Women.” The former has a slinky rhythm track and a very clever guitar solo. The verses are a little too crowded with lyrics, but the line “But no matter what the weather” leading up to the song title makes this a winner for me. The latter has a programmed reggae vibe with decent half-spoken verses, powerful choruses (“Let me worship at the church…of women”) and some nasty guitar work from Andy. My only complaint is that it’s unnecessarily long at 5+ minutes. The other two songs have elements I enjoy but don’t work for me as complete works. “Wounded Horse” has a bluesy feel that I don’t think I’ve ever heard from them, recalling The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” Album closer “The Wheel And The Maypole” attempts to stitch together two separate demos, “The Pot Won’t Hold Our Love” and “Everything Decays,” both of which work as brief melodies but don’t form a cohesive whole, and at just under 6 minutes it definitely overstays its welcome. Of the two Apple Venus releases, Wasp Star is probably the one that casual fans & XTC newbies would gravitate toward, but even though it’s packed with tons of great pop melodies it’s not quite in the same league as their best work. Apple Venus Volume 1 takes a little more time to fully embrace, but one of the things that has drawn me to the XTC catalog over the years is the diversity they display between & within each album, and Vol. 1 has its own personality.
That brings me to the end of the XTC catalog. I entered as a big fan with a lot of blind spots throughout their discography, and now I have an even bigger appreciation for this one-of-a-kind band. Becoming familiar with those lesser-known songs & albums has been the highlight of this series. Andy has continued releasing new recordings since XTC split up (or is it just an indefinite hiatus?), issuing various CDs in his Fuzzy Warbles series. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll revisit them, but for now I’m happy to leave with a better knowledge of the nearly 25-year recording career of XTC. As I’ve pointed out in each of these posts, the excellent Chalkhills.org website has been an invaluable resource, and I can’t thank them enough for the work they’ve done to keep the music of XTC alive. Please bookmark that page & visit them anytime you need an XTC fix. I’m also pleased to finally finish the Song Stories book that I initially mentioned in my first post. If you ever find yourself working your way through their catalog, I can’t recommend this book highly enough as a worthwhile companion. Thanks to everyone who’s visited my blog during this series, and especially to all you wonderful people who have shared your thoughts & insights in the Comments section. I look forward to reading your opinions on these final(?) two XTC albums. Please stay tuned for my next artist series…still to be determined.