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Too Much of a God Thing

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XTC
Apple Venus Volume 1
Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
(TVT)

For almost two decades XTC has been English pop's most celebrated hothouse flower. Instead of moving to London or New York or LA, as so many British pop stars have before them, the members still live in their dismal hometown of Swindon, a former railway hub that once connected London with the West Country. The band hasn't toured since 1982, when its driving force, singer-songwriter Andy Partridge, suffered a nervous breakdown before a concert in Los Angeles. After releasing Nonsuch in 1992, the band fell silent for seven years while they haggled for a better deal with their British label, Virgin Records. Then last year XTC resurfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, with a new label and a new album--the orchestral/acoustic Apple Venus Volume 1--that's drawn critical raves and renewed their status (in America, anyway) as one of the key bands in British music.

Virgin didn't stand a chance against Partridge: he could have waited them out for another 30 years. An only child with a pinball wit and a feverish imagination, he's used to getting his way, and since XTC formed in 1975 he's nudged out numerous record producers and four bandmates. The last of them, soft-spoken guitarist Dave Gregory, ended his 19-year tenure during the recording sessions for Apple Venus Volume 1. Once a dynamic quartet, XTC now consists only of Partridge and his docile lieutenant, bassist and songwriter Colin Moulding. The pair have just completed their comeback project with the electric-oriented Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), and despite all the critical fawning, both volumes show how far XTC has succumbed to Partridge's stifling creative control. He may be an extravagant bloom, but his leaves are beginning to rot.

Gregory was a superb talent--a pianist, arranger, and gifted guitarist whose nimble, neatly shaped solos were often the high point of the band's songs. He'd joined XTC in 1979 but found his income and his role in the band significantly reduced when Partridge refused to tour anymore. The seven-year recording hiatus was tough on him: unlike Partridge, he had no income from song publishing, and though he kept moderately busy with producing and session work, at one point he was reduced to working for a car rental company, tracking down vehicles that hadn't been returned. After the band was released from its Virgin contract and signed with TVT, Gregory wanted to make a hard-rocking single album, but Partridge had a grander design--a two-part opus whose first installment would incorporate a 40-piece symphony. He rejected Gregory's orchestral arrangements and consigned him to keyboard and rhythm guitar. According to Partridge, Gregory grew more irate and negative until one day the bandleader asked him to disappear for a week so he could record some vocals, and Gregory never came back.

Partridge hasn't minced words about his old friend's departure. During the press junket that followed the album's release he repeatedly laid the blame on Gregory's diabetic mood swings and declared that Gregory had saved him the trouble of sacking him. When David Veitch of the Calgary Sun asked Partridge if he'd ever want to mend fences, Partridge revealed that once or twice he'd gotten drunk and dialed Gregory's number, only to hang up before anyone answered. "What am I going to say to him? I'm just going to say to him, 'Why haven't you called me, you jerk? What have I done to you? My songs bought you a house, my songs bought you your beloved guitar collection, and you won't even fucking call me.'" His feelings haven't mellowed in the past year; earlier this month he told the Phoenix New Times, "I think he was jealous that Colin and I wrote the songs and he never wrote any songs. And he'd just come out of a love affair with Aimee Mann, 'cause she'd thrown him. He had a brief fling with her and he was too negative for her and she told him to fuck off and get a life, I think was her closing phrase."

Of all the musicians to quit the band, Gregory had clocked the most years. Jon Perkins, the band's original keyboard player, walked after about a year. "He got his own band who were going to do as he said as opposed to him doing what I said," recalls Partridge in XTC: Song Stories, a book the band recently wrote with Neville Farmer. Barry Andrews, who replaced Perkins, played in a heavy blues-rock style when he joined. Partridge encouraged him to be more original but got more than he'd bargained for when Andrews's wiggy, atonal keyboard runs and wild stage antics made him the focus of the band for its first two albums, White Music and Go 2 (both 1978). After Andrews started showing up with his own songs, Partridge and Moulding froze him out; he quit in early 1979, later joined Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen, and eventually formed Shriekback. In Chris Twomey's XTC biography Chalkhills and Children, Partridge admits, "Looking back it was inevitable he'd have to go from the minute he joined and was given permission to just be himself."

With Gregory's arrival XTC came into its own. His brainy, melodic guitar work handsomely complemented Partridge's songs, and the two of them knit together perfectly as rhythm players. Moulding began writing hit singles like "Making Plans for Nigel," "Life Begins at the Hop," and "Generals and Majors." The wild card was drummer Terry Chambers, portrayed in both books as a working-class yob who loved his pint and lived to tour; he wasn't a very sophisticated player, but his strange, off-kilter rhythms pulled the songs in directions the others could never predict. The three studio albums they recorded--Drums and Wires (1979), Black Sea (1980), and English Settlement (1982)--form the cornerstone of XTC's reputation. Though heavily influenced by the Beatles and the Kinks, they feed off the brash energy of punk, the aggressive experimentation of Brian Eno and Captain Beefheart, and the tribal groove of world music.

They were a fractious bunch, but part of the music's thrill came from the possibility that it might fly apart at any moment. The live import BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, recorded in December 1980 during the Black Sea tour, shows how exciting the band could be onstage, where it was truly a democracy and fans could make their own contribution to the volatile chemistry. On "Burning With Optimism's Flames," Chambers lays down a busy hi-hat rhythm while Gregory plays jazzy, syncopated chords against Partridge's wordy vocal line. On "Respectable Street" the audience supplies the relatively complex vocal intro before the band explodes into the rocking chorus. The Eno-like "Battery Brides," recorded originally with Andrews, gives Gregory and Partridge several minutes to stretch out in dreamy, interweaving guitar patterns before the first verse. And Chambers winds up the tempo on the encore, "Making Plans for Nigel," whose bizarre, inverted beat has him pounding out eighth notes on the bass drum instead of the hi-hat and marking time on three with cymbal splashes instead of snare.

The frantic performance makes Partridge's nervous collapse 14 months later seem almost inevitable, but in retrospect one might argue that he took advantage of the situation to consolidate his power in the band: now that they were confined to the studio he could exercise more control over his songs. Chambers quit during the recording of the next album, Mummer (1983). In a scene similar to Gregory's exit, Partridge was hectoring the drummer to get a part just right when Chambers stood up, collected his cigarettes and keys, gave notice, and disappeared. XTC has never been quite as good without him. He may not have been as intelligent as Partridge, but that had its creative dividends; talking to Modern Drummer, Partridge recalls how Chambers would misunderstand what he was asking for on a song and as a consequence invent something truly unusual. On the next album, The Big Express (1984), Partridge mostly used a drum machine.

As a collection of songs, that record ranks with the band's best work, but as a recording it's weighed down by the leaden drums, which Partridge and producer David Lord spent days programming. "Andy tends to analyze down to the minutest detail," says Moulding in Chalkhills and Children. "We'd be listening to bass drums all fuckin' day to see if they had any feel!" Gregory, quoted in the same book, agrees: "I went into it with a good attitude, but we were in the studio too long, dicking around with ridiculous, totally self-indulgent ideas." "This World Over," a moving ballad about nuclear annihilation, plays out against a reggae guitar and a metronomic, vaguely jazzy beat that make it sound like something by the Police. "Reign of Blows," an equally bleak reverie about the right-wing climate in England and America, is buried under clattering electronic hand claps that clash with Partridge's bluesy harmonica. The biggest shame is "You're the Wish You Are I Had." With its intricate verse and superbly catchy chorus, it rivals the band's 1982 hit "Senses Working Overtime," but its dense arrangement and dull mix flatten it out into a minor album track.

The story behind Skylarking (1986) has become part of XTC lore. Backed into a corner by their dwindling commercial fortunes, the band agreed to work with an American producer, and Partridge finally met his match in Todd Rundgren, who picked through the band's demos, assembled them into a concept album, and allotted only enough tape to record those songs. Partridge described it as "having two Hitlers in the same bunker." He began to take his frustration out on Moulding, and like Chambers before him, the bassist reached the end of his rope and quit in the middle of a recording session. Rundgren coaxed him into sticking around long enough to complete the album. "I told Todd I'd do the rest of the bass tracks so long as Andy was kept out of the picture," Moulding reports in Chalkhills and Children. "I didn't want him in the studio leaning over me all the time." Despite all the trauma, Skylarking yielded a surprise hit, "Dear God," and sold a quarter million copies in the U.S., rescuing the band from oblivion.

The record's success confirmed what Moulding and Gregory had believed all along: XTC needed a strong producer to curb Partridge's excesses. Yet ironically, its strong sales gave Partridge more leverage with Virgin and a stronger hand in the studio. Interviewed last year by the Washington Post, Partridge defined the producer as "a funnel through which I can talk to other members of the band....They'll accept it coming from another person, but they won't accept it from a contemporary." Oranges & Lemons (1988) was produced by "Paul Fox & XTC," but Fox didn't have much of a track record, and apparently Partridge rolled right over him. Gus Dudgeon, the esteemed veteran who produced Nonsuch, clashed with Partridge throughout the recording and was sacked after trying to ban him from the mixing sessions.

After a decade of fussing around in the studio Partridge's songs had become increasingly ornate and mannered, recycling the same psychedelic guitar riffs and Beatles-esque countermelodies that the band parodied in its hilarious side project, the Dukes of Stratosphear. Despite its glossy sound, Oranges & Lemons is mostly rewrites of earlier songs ("The Garden of Earthly Delights" drawn from "Beating of Hearts," "The Loving" from "Towers of London," "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" from "It's Nearly Africa"). Nonsuch is downright awful, and its album cover, a two-dimensional drawing of a Tudor palace, is an apt illustration for its opaque sound. "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and "The Disappointed" are boilerplate XTC pop, and most of the record is given over to tuneless jazz ballads like "Wrapped in Grey" and "Rook" (which Partridge considered one of his most personal songs and Dudgeon urged him to shelve). By far the most electric moment is the guitar duel between Partridge and Gregory that ends the last track, "Books Are Burning." Gregory wins the battle, but of course he'd long since lost the war.

Not surprisingly, his version of the events surrounding his departure differs markedly from the one Partridge dealt out to the press. Apple Venus Volume 1 began with a false start when the band, augmented by producer Haydn Bendall and drummer Prairie Prince, struck a deal to record on the cheap at the new home studio of Squeeze guitarist Chris Difford. The studio itself was in disarray, the recording went badly, and at one point, as even Partridge admits, he flew into a tantrum, bawling out everyone involved. Quoted in Mojo, Gregory recalls, "He had the nerve to sit in that control room and tell everyone, 'You bastards are sabotaging my career.' It was couched in such offensive terms....Haydn nearly went home. Prairie felt really terrible, he'd been working really hard and had his nose rubbed in the dirt. After that, we weren't allowed to play; nothing was up to standard. It was getting like a neurosis with him and I was losing my temper."

Gregory wanted XTC's comeback effort to be a masterpiece; culled from seven years' worth of material, it should have been. According to Song Stories, he, Moulding, and Bendall all favored a single album, but Partridge won out, and 23 songs were spread over two 50-minute discs. (Three, in fact--between volumes one and two, TVT released Homespun, which took to its logical conclusion the band's penchant for releasing their home recordings by reconstructing the entire first volume in demo form.) Partridge was wrong: both volumes have their high points, and winnowed down to a 45-minute unit Apple Venus might hold its own against English Settlement or Skylarking. But Partridge has never shown any talent for editing himself, and, aside from Rundgren, no one else has been up to the task.

The first volume is the better of the two. "River of Orchids," a strange, cyclical composition with plucked strings and muted trumpets, makes good on XTC's reputation for pushing pop into the realm of the avant-garde. "Easter Theatre" and "Green Man" benefit from lush orchestral arrangements, and in contrast, the brutal kiss-off song "Your Dictionary" is chilling in its simplicity, a single vocal and acoustic guitar augmented with piano on the later verses. (Partridge didn't want to record the song, and for once the others prevailed.) But the last four songs are disposable, and "I'd Like That," the record's most accessible tune, is a foolish ditty with stock pastoral images of sunflowers and bicycle rides.

Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) has been promoted as the ice cream after the asparagus, an old-fashioned rock album to gratify fans after the snooty symphonic adventures of the first volume. Surprisingly, the tracks are dry and uncluttered, with warmly distorted electric guitars and relatively simple arrangements, and it's hard to fault the shimmering guitar lick and cascading, Hollies-style vocals that decorate "Stupidly Happy." But even the best songs--"Playground" and "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love"--sound overly familiar, cut from the same cloth as radio bait like "The Mayor of Simpleton" from Oranges & Lemons. Moulding cites Noel Coward as his new songwriting hero, and his bouncy acoustic tunes "In Another Life" and "Standing in for Joe" are as whimsical as they are forgettable. The feeling of complacency is overwhelming, and the standard bass-drums-guitar format makes Gregory's absence even more glaring. The sleeves to both volumes carry the legend "Do what you will but harm none." Unfortunately, Partridge has never had any trouble doing what he will, and there's been plenty of harm to go around.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Valerie Phillips/Allan Ballard.

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