The seven-year itch

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It has been seven years since XTC released a record--so long now that Andy Partridge, the band's co-singer and co-songwriter, cannot believe there are people left on this earth who remember him, much less actually want to talk to him. He figured that by now, XTC would have been long forgotten, reduced to a fragment of memory in the cutout bins, where XTC reissues sell for The Nice Price. The band all but disappeared in 1992 after the release of Nonsuch. XTC, unhappy with the way it had been treated by its British label, went on strike, refusing to record a single note for Virgin Records. So it went into hiding, fearing that one day it would emerge from a cave and find the world had gotten along quite nicely without XTC...or whatever that band's name was.

Partridge now insists he has sat through "hundreds of interviews," but he is not complaining at all. Rather, he jokes that he must owe money to all these people calling to ask questions about the forthcoming Apple Venus Volume 1, which will be released next Tuesday. He is genuinely surprised that so many people like the album (that's what they tell him, anyway), astonished there's any interest at all left in this still-warm corpse known as XTC. And Partridge was afraid people would dismiss Apple Venus as "square...middle-of-the-road light entertainment."

The record certainly is all of those things--the sound of middle-aged men grown tired of playing electric guitars, the result of seven years spent experimenting with string sections and symphonic loops and horn charts and other concert-hall errata. It picks up where much of 1986's Skylarking and 1992's Nonsuch faded out...or is that Abbey Road? The new disc sounds so much like the soundtrack to a stage production of something very British, maybe Our Town set in the band's hometown of Swindon, right beside the railroad tracks that cut through the tiny city like arteries. It even begins with a prelude of sorts, an opportunity to allow the orchestra in the pit to warm its hands. Apple Venus will likely go aluminum in the United States, where XTC was never more than a mere tangent anyway, save for one or two accidental, minor hits.

There are moments on Apple Venus (which was once to be titled The History of the Middle Ages) when the record feels as though it was worth the wait: The opener "River of Orchids," with a 40-piece orchestra plucking and plinking its merry-go-round melody, is especially delightful; it's art-pop-meets-chamber-pop, what Elvis Costello aimed for with the Brodsky Quartet on a grander, sweeter scale. "Easter Theatre" and "Greenman" never surrender to the grand arrangements. And "Your Dictionary" is the complete package, sounding like a love song, only offering nothing but bitterness and hatred. Partridge's song to--and for--his ex-wife, who left him for another man, is the prettiest fuck-you in recorded history: "H-A-T-E / Is that how you spell love in your dictionary? / K-I-C-K / Pronounced as kind...S-H-I-T / Is that how you spell me in your dictionary?" And it goes on from there. Partridge insists, without any irony, that he would like "Your Dictionary" to become a radio single.

"I know a lot of stations just won't play it because of the implied cuss words--the cussing by spelling," he says. "That's what your mother used to do when you were a kid. They'd get the neighbors around, and they'd say, 'Oh, she's had her W-O-M-B removed,' and you knew exactly what that meant. You knew how to spell. Maybe stations will play that. Maybe it will appeal to the mischievous side of some stations."

Partridge speaks often of his desire to get on radio. It's almost as though 22 years of being ignored by the medium--with rare exception, especially in this country--has turned him into the ultimate optimist. Or perhaps having emerged from his legal woes with Virgin Records--the label that signed XTC in 1977, then kept almost every penny the band would make for the next 15 years--Partridge is simply giddy at the prospect of starting over again, even if on a smaller label like TVT Records. It must be a very British trait--hope built upon a foundation of burning rubble. Instead of retreating in defeat, Partridge and his longtime mate Colin Moulding return with a whisper of a record and the honest-to-God hope that this is the album that will make them stars.

Apple Venus Volume 1 is the record--sort of--Partridge wanted to make after Nonsuch, which had spawned the slight hit "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and featured such quasi-orchestral pieces as "Rook," "Omnibus," "Wrapped in Grey," and "Bungalow." He had grown so fixated with the idea of making what he now calls an "orchestral-acoustic" record, he went out and purchased a sampler loaded with symphonic loops. Ensconced in his home studio, he spent the next two years, from 1992 to '94, writing dozens of songs on acoustic guitar, then layering orchestral textures on their thin frames--as though he were covering skeletons in silk and lace. He had planned on releasing the songs through Virgin, but when the label refused to renegotiate the band's original contract--one that called for the label to pocket most of the royalties made from each album--XTC stopped recording and, Partridge says now, stuck the songs "in the fridge." They sat there for four years, during which time Partridge began writing again on electric guitar...and then stopped once more.

"We hadn't messed much with the orchestral thing [until Nonsuch]," Partridge says. "At least now I got to, if not exorcise a huge ghost from me, I certainly got to give the beast a name. Should I wish to kill it, it certainly would be easier for me to kill it now. But for the time being, I certainly got something out of my system that has been bugging me for a long time, which is non-rock-and-rock-flavored meal. And I can't actually tell you exactly where that comes from. I can only guess. I can only guess that as a kid, I used to listen to the radio, and on radio in the late '50s and early '60s to mid-'60s, which was when I sat in front of it with my ear to it, there was no such thing as rock-and-roll radio or even pop radio.

"Ninety-something percent of it was light entertainment or light classics, and I didn't like that sort of stuff. I just sat there and put up with it largely. It was kind of wallpaper that was happening while you were listening for the things that you did like, which were for me novelty songs--stuff with sped-up voices and too much reverb and people saying, 'Hey, we're from Mars.' Loved that as a kid. I can only guess that all the wallpaper that I sifted through affected me, like show tunes, selections from My Fair Lady. I guess that affected me as well, but I haven't been aware of it. The new record isn't a party sensation. It's not a six-pack record. It's not a hootenanny. In fact, it's not even a mumbling nanny. It's not even a silent nanny that's completely mute."

For some reason, every reformed punk winds up making a "classical" record at some point in his career, winds up swapping his guitar for a piano and a string section (or at least a cellist). Elvis Costello had his Juliet Letters, Joe Jackson his Will Power, Paul Westerberg his brand-new Suicaine Gratifaction; even Nirvana rounded up a cellist for its Unplugged sessions. (Maybe the Moody Blues were far more influential than anyone cares to admit.) Partridge insists that Apple Venus was almost "more out there...more for the sake of art with a capital F," but that he held back when it all began to sound a bit too...British.

Besides, it was hard enough trying to finish the damned record: Guitarist Dave Gregory quit during recording, claiming he was frustrated with being stuck behind the keyboards. He wanted to plug it in and turn it up, to rock; Partridge wanted to keep things hushed, serene. Gregory does appear on Apple Venus, but he has since washed his hands of the band. (Not exactly the most ringing endorsement of the album.)

Partridge says there were "101 torturous reasons" why the new disc was the most difficult of XTC's 11 albums to make; Gregory's departure was only one. Indeed, during the seven-year layoff, so much happened to XTC it's rather astonishing they got an album made at all: Not only had Partridge's wife left him, sparking a bitter divorce, but Moulding's wife, Carol, became so ill that Colin was forced to stay home with her. Colin spent several years making stained glass to kill the time, going into the studio only occasionally to work with such folks as Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann. And when Partridge and Moulding did try to give Virgin an album for release--one full of fake 1960s-styled pop songs "newly discovered" by the label--Virgin told the boys to stick it. (In the U.S., Geffen released XTC's albums--rather clumsily, actually, deleting and adding songs found on their U.K. counterparts without rhyme or reason.)

When Virgin finally let XTC out of its contract, it did so almost out of exasperation. And, Partridge says, Virgin was rather embarrassed by the whole affair. After all, XTC had been signed to the label longer than any other act. Why Virgin insisted on bilking XTC was no mystery: The band sold well in the U.K., getting their records in the Top 10.

But in 22 years, XTC never made it big in the States for the same reason the Jam and the Kinks remain cult heroes: Partridge and Moulding are just so damned British, filling their songs with characters named Nigel whose parents want them to work for British Steel and who complain about Shakespeare's sonnets leaving them a bit cold. XTC is to rock and roll what rugby is to football or Guinness is to Budweiser. These boys were never gonna be famous in the good ol' U.S.A. playing their brand of white music.

And there is little joy to be taken from XTC's catalog: The early albums leave little room for the audience; the later ones, almost too much. White Music (released in 1977) and Go 2 ('78) contained songs that sounded as though they were strands of unfinished ideas tied together with chicken wire. White Music especially doesn't stand still long enough to let you get near it: It's music made by four men who seem to have heard of punk but never actually experienced it first-hand. So they wind up with songs such as the Brill Building-esque "She's So Square" sandwiched between the play-till-ya-bleed "Science Friction" and the static-and-distortion chaos of "Dance Band." Years later, when talking to Neville Farmer for his book XTC: Song Stories (released at the end of 1998), Partridge admitted that the early albums sounded like some old man's idea of futuristic--like a punk band fashioned in 1956. The songs, Partridge says, were "obvious and poppy and bizarre"--or, more to the point, Captain Beefheart meets the Archies.

But Drums and Wires, released in 1979, proved XTC was more than just some art student's idea of a rock-and-roll grin. Songs such as "Teen Feet Tall" (the band's first real acoustic-pop song, inspired by Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind") and "Life Begins at the Hop" (about finding true love on the dance floor) and "Making Plans for Nigel" (parents conspiring to keep their son under their control) were miniature gems that sounded like everything else on pop radio, only better. By the time of Black Sea (1980) and English Settlement (1982), Partridge and Moulding proved themselves quite the visionaries: Not since Ray Davies had anyone written songs about the grimy English middle class with such heart and humor.

But somewhere between "Respectable Street" and "Snowman," the band lost its footing and its sense of humor. Subsequent records, among them 1983's Mummer and The Big Express the following year, were so dull they bored even the dead; Partridge and Moulding hadn't grown up--they'd grown old in only a year's time. In the end, XTC's songs became as rock-and-roll sexy as HTML programming; they could be dense and unfulfilling, taking forever to make their tiny point. (Which might explain why XTC has so many fan-produced Web sites, each run with a fetishist's eye for detail.) Ironically, the best XTC albums of the period were recorded under the pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear, when the boys stopped treating rock and roll as though it were math homework. Songs such as "25 O'Clock," "My Love Explodes," "What in the World?," and "Collideascope" sounded like White Album outtakes recorded by the world's best garage band. So that's what XTC sounded like on fun.

It was only appropriate that the less eclectic and memorable XTC's records became, the more popular the band got in the U.S. Not that Skylarking or Oranges and Lemons were unlistenable atrocities; they were just so bland compared to the manic free-for-alls that came before them. "Dear God," which would become a pop single on the basis of some manufactured controversy (Good Lord, dear, it's an atheist's anthem!), sounded like an outtake from an Andrew Lloyd Webber production of Jesus Christ Superstar; and "The Mayor of Simpleton" off Oranges and Lemons sounded like the mayor himself had penned the tune, which droned on and on without any sense of purpose. Gone forever was the scattered, schizo energy of the early records; suddenly, inexplicably, Partridge and Moulding had become hell-bent on proving themselves Serious Musicians, willing to trade rock for Art.

It's rather ironic that as XTC prepares to re-enter the marketplace with a disc as quaint as Apple Venus, TVT is also promoting the recently released Transistor Blast, a four-disc set of live material recorded during the late 1970s and early '80s. And though Partridge insists the box isn't meant to serve as a retrospective, it's every bit as wired and frenzied as Apple Venus is subdued and serene. So many of the tracks, recorded for BBC radio, crackle with an energy missing from their studio counterparts. The box offers final evidence that XTC was indeed a punk band after all--maybe a bit straighter than the rest, a bit more square, but no less a part of the jagged time line than a band like Gang of Four.

Partridge is currently in the midst of transferring years of demos and outtakes to digital audiotape for a series of official "bootlegs." He repeatedly insists he is comfortable with the idea of releasing so much of XTC's older recordings, referring to them as his "naked baby photos," ones he is happy to revisit. If nothing else, he says, years of refusing to perform live have made decades-old songs sound a little brand-new all these years later. But it does seem a bit odd--so much backward glancing even as he and Moulding begin work on a more rock-tinged Apple Venus Volume 2, scheduled for release at year's end.

Partridge considers this for a second, then answers as only he can--making a joke out of a serious question, revealing everything and nothing at all.

"XTC's not a band," he says. "It's more of a brand, I think. It's like a favorite steak sauce. You know what you're getting when you buy that bottle. It's a certain quality. Not to everyone's taste, mind you. I know a lot of people don't take to us at all. That's one of the problems, but we may win them over. Another problem is that we don't get heard on the radio, and if we got heard on the radio--I swear that if we get heard--people would like it. I don't know how to correct this, if it's just a prejudice or unknowing on the part of radio people.

"And it does bug me a little, but I don't lose sleep over it...There's no way you can ram this down people's throats, and I wouldn't want to. It's just human nature that not everyone's going to like it.

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