For everything bad that has happened to Andy Partridge and XTC over the past seven years, good fortune nearly always answered back.
Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory (now no longer with the group) staged a five-year strike against Virgin Records after the record company refused to renegotiate or release the British pop band from its international contract. After much hand-wringing, Virgin finally relented; XTC was set free and signed with Idea Records abroad and TVT Records in the United States. The group’s restoration project began late last year with “Transistor Blast,” a four-CD box set of early BBC recordings, and now, sounding none worse for the wear, XTC reappears this week with “Apple Venus Volume 1,” the long-overdue follow-up album to 1992’s “Nonsuch.”
Along the way, Partridge went through a bitter divorce, raised their children on his own and suffered a variety of ailments, including a burst eardrum. Now he’s feeling fine, and he’s in love again.
Was it all worth it? Oh, yes, he says.
“Virtually every bad thing that happens to you, you treat it as a lesson,” the singer-guitarist said recently from his home in Swindon, England. “You learn from it, and you say, ‘That hurt like hell. That was really difficult. That left a bad taste in my mouth.’ You then say, ‘Well, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have learned.’
“When, for example, my wife left me, which hurt like hell, it was a great motive for writing songs. All that hurt was great for channeling into songs, and it also enabled me to get together with the woman I’d loved for many, many years but never ever thought I would get together with because I was a married, faithful husband. We live together now, and it’s wonderful. They say that the draft from a slamming door opens another one, and it’s true.
“It was a big five years for me, and then at the end of that, when Virgin said, ‘Oh, for god’s sake, go away then,’ it was fantastic. It was the result I wanted. Luckily, all the time we weren’t able to work, I was able to try something that I hadn’t tried, which was co-writing with other people (such as The Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark on a track for ‘The Avengers’ soundtrack). That was good fun. I also learned to cook, I brought up my kids virtually singlehandedly, had the time to write a load of material and concentrate on getting good quality material, which I think ‘Apple Venus’ is. It’s head and shoulders above all of our other albums, hopefully.”
It’s no “Oranges & Lemons,” but the orchestral acoustic feel of “Apple Venus” is wonderfully vibrant, full of Partridge’s trademark witticism and Beatles hook-sense. Hearing such standout tracks as “River of Orchids,” “Greenman” and the first single “I’d Like That,” it’s as if XTC never left.
Partridge originally wanted “Apple Venus Volume 1” and its electrical companion piece, “Volume 2,” to be packaged as one, but to paraphrase a line from “The Simpsons,” “One way to ruin a career is to release a double album.”
“Everyone kicked against it, the least of which was Dave Gregory and all the record companies we spoke to,” Partridge said. “No one thought it would be a good idea financially, because the price might scare people off. We sort of halfheartedly recorded some of the electric stuff, but I realized pretty soon that we had to concentrate on doing the orchestral acoustic stuff and leave the electric stuff for later on. All being well, and I’m obscenely optimistic, I would like to start recording ‘Volume 2’ in April. I’d love to have it out by the end of the year. I’d like to see all the ‘Apple Venus’ material come out in one year.
“It’s too bad, because some of my favorite records have been double albums. They’re needlessly fat; there’s something kind of attractive in the mass of the stuff you can get. I think it was Stalin who said that quantity has a quality all its own, and it’s true. A mass of something is very appealing.”
Such as “Transistor Blast”? Partridge can’t help but chuckle.
“I actually laughed myself into a coma reviewing that stuff and try to pick what to use, forgiving the kid that was playing on those things,” he said. “Jesus, he was such a gauche, what a noisy little bastard he was. I forgive him now. It’s a real hysterical document. We were very noisy, very spiky, very angular. One of the quotes in (the liner notes) was that my guitar playing was like Robbie the Robot knocking crockery off department store shelves. It’s very space-age, sort of modern; there was more energy than wisdom going on there, but it has a naive charm.”
The one thing that has remained constant with Partridge is his disdain for touring. He stopped in 1982 after collapsing several times during shows, later admitting he had a phobia about being in front of crowds.
“I enjoy making records,” he said, “but the thought of standing up physically in front of people and shaking my stomach at them and saying, ‘Look, I’m wonderful,’ just fills me with horror and disgust. It’s so needless. It’s a pointless ritual, and the audience enjoys the sensation because it’s the same sensation, it’s the mass audience feeding off itself. It’s the same sensation you get if you go to a wrestling match, the Grammy Awards, the Nuremberg rally. A large gathering of people get themselves into this hysteria of static electricity or whatever it is.
“These tiny little match sticks walk out onstage and suddenly people are having orgasms in their chairs. You could replace those match sticks with anything … cardboard boxes on very fine string; they could be puppets. It doesn’t matter. It’s all to do with audience hysteria and nothing to do with artistic ability. I just don’t like gigs and I don’t go to other people’s gigs, because they really suck the wet one.”
Partridge thanks loyal XTC fans for keeping the faith, but he finds their devotion equally reassuring and scary.
“You think, ‘What are all these people doing in the meantime?’,” he said. “I’m struggling with doing all this stuff, but what are they doing? They just sat on the Internet all that time for chrissake? They had like a wake and they were consoling each other … ‘I miss those poor boys. When’s Virgin gonna let them go?’
“I’m not on the Internet. A few times, people have sent me print-outs of stuff they’re talking about. Not only is most of it incredibly wrong, it’s the disinformation highway. Rumor is rife on there; it’s Chinese whispers. Not only is it wrong, it’s so congratulatory and effusive; it’s so ludicrous, I don’t believe it. They say, ‘They’re better than the Beatles’ and ‘They picked up where the Beatles left off,’ blah-blah.
“So, wait a minute, we’ve got some part of it that’s just plain lies, and the effusiveness can’t be true because it feels wrong to my ears. And the other part of it is criticism, which you don’t want to believe because it’s so hurtful. They say things like, ‘I bought this album and was disgusted. It’s the unraveling of a once fine songwriter. It’s terrible to see the deep degradation of this fine young man to being a middle-of-the-road blah-blah-blah.’
“It’s like being at your own funeral and people are talking about you and some people are saying what a great fellow you were and some say what an asshole you were and then some people have come to the wrong funeral.”
Partridge vows XTC will go the distance this time.
“We haven’t even peaked with this one,” he said. “I don’t even want to make an album where we peak, because if we do, I think it’ll be useless finishing it off. I don’t want to put the bullet into my own brain. I want to keep making better and better records until the day I die.”
BWF (before we forget): Experience XTC on the Web @ xtcidearecords.co.uk. … The XTC album discography – “White Music” (Virgin, 1978); “Go 2” (1978); “Drums and Wires” (1979); “Black Sea” (1980); “English Settlement” (Epic, 1982); “Waxworks – Some Singles (1977-1982)” (1982); “Mummer” (Geffen, 1983); “The Big Express” (1984); “Skylarking” (1986); “Oranges & Lemons” (1989); “Rag ‘n’ Bone Buffet” compilation of unreleased tracks (1991); “Nonsuch” (1992); “Upsy Daisy Assortment (The Sweetest Hits)” (1997); “Transistor Blast” box set (TVT, 1998); “Apple Venus Volume 1” (1999); “Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)” (May 2000); “Homegrown” (TVT, 2001); “Coat of Many Cupboards” (Virgin, 2002); “Instruvenus” (Idea, 2002); “Waspstrumental” (2002); “Apple Box” (2005).
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