Course A002:  XTC - The band and the music

Out Brothers, Out


After Nonsuch, Partridge and Moulding took stock. They had been a successful album act for nearly 15 years – and with a few hit singles to boot, Virgin had done very nicely out of them, thank you very much. 

So why, well into their 30s and generating mass critical acclaim every time they popped their heads above the parapet, were they still skint? Colin had a three bedroom house, bought largely by his wife, Andy had a two bedroom terrace in Swindon. Hardly rock’n’roll millionaires – courtesy of a restrictive contract signed 15 years earlier


Andy and Colin tell the tale with humour, but you can feel the hurt: 

XTC, 1992


Andy: "So we made Nonsuch and there was just blankness from Virgin: ‘What are we going to do about this? No-one's going to buy this.’ They just let the thing come out and die. The real slap in the face was when they put out Wrapped In Grey as the third single. I thought, Wow, something a bit chewier, a bit of quality there. And then they withdrew it from sale. I thought, that's it, they've suffocated one of our kids in the cot, they've murdered the album, basically through ignorance." 

Paul Kinder, XTC's A&R man in 1992, puts things into context: "Virgin had just been sold to EMI and was in turmoil. People were being fired daily, all sorts of harsh decisions were being made. This obviously had an effect on XTC and numerous other artists at that time. I don't think they [Virgin] did a bad job deliberately, it was just circumstances. Virgin always had a strong feeling for XTC.""

However, stacked on top of the financial woes, it didn’t seem unreasonable to ask Virgin to either give them more money, promote them more, or let them leave the label. Virgin were having none of it. Their argument was although XTC weren’t mainstream enough to sink money into for promotion or recording, their back-catalogue earned a pretty penny – most of which was going straight into Virgin’s coffers. 

When XTC had settled with Ian Reid out of court, they had been forced to adjust royalty rates in Virgin's favour to cover resulting debts which, along with the fact that that the original 1977 low-royalty negotiation remained the basis of their deal, left them in the frustrating position of never being able to go into profit, despite healthy sales. 

Paul Kinder admits now the position suited Virgin but agrees the band were in a predicament. "This is the ideal situation that any record company wants – they do not want their artist to recoup. Having said that, XTC did have appalling management for a number of years. Usually if a manager has got any kind of business acumen he will renegotiate the contract to get a better royalty. A record company expects this, which is why they keep royalties low initially. It's just business really. Nobody addressed the contract for XTC."

Andy especially saw this as a restraint of trade – and the group began the least-publicised downing of tools ever known. Virgin said “whatever music you record is ours”. Partridge said, “right, we won’t record any music then!”. A stand-off ensued that made the protests of George Michael and Prince look like mini-tantrums in comparison – this one was to last over five years! 

In the meantime Marianne left Andy for another man. After a messy and painful divorce, the long-standing ‘non-affair’ with Erica Wexler was allowed to bear fruit and the two have lived together ever since. However, Andy was also battling with depression brought on by not being able to do what he loved, and an ear infection which left him totally deaf for a couple of months and partially deaf for over a year – a terrifying situation for a songwriter. He also briefly revived his affair with the bottle. 

Meanwhile Colin was nursing his wife through a long illness and teaching himself to make stained glass windows, while Dave was buying several guitars and a house and falling in and out of love with Aimee Mann. 

In 1996, Virgin rubbed salt in the wound by releasing the Fossil Fuel double-CD compilation, which proved very popular, propping up the label’s argument for keeping the boys on their books. Hopeful of a resolution, Andy and, to a lesser extent Colin, continued writing enough songs for an album every two years, which Virgin expected to release. The first would have been rich and orchestral, the second more electric. However, Andy flatly refused to hand anything over to Virgin. 

Ironically, by 1995, having refused any advances for future recordings that they weren't going to make, XTC went into the black for the first time in their career! Andy: "I like to think they got embarrassed and realised that what they were doing to us was not morally commendable. I like to think they met in the dark and thought, ‘These blokes are not making a living. We've had 'em all these years and we've got their catalogue and the copyright to their songs for evermore and we've stitched 'em up real good with a rotten deal so, erm, maybe we should let them go.’ I like to think that it was a guilt thing – but it probably wasn’t." 

In the end, in late 1997, Virgin finally gave up and released XTC from their contract. With a new deal from small independent label Cooking Vinyl, the boys were free to trade! However, the troubles weren’t over.

All’s not well in the orchard

With a large number of songs available, the band had to decide how to record them. Andy wanted a double album, one disc orchestral and acoustic, the other more rockish. Dave and Colin wanted to record two separate albums. Haydn Bendall – the group’s first ever producer (on White Music) was brought in – and agreed with Dave and Colin. Obviously, with a three to one vote against Andy, there was only one conclusion – Andy got his way! 

After rehearsing in Bendall’s studio, it became obvious to the band that, with the lengthy orchestrations needed, they needed a cheap but competent studio. Andy was, at this time, on a drinking relationship with Squeeze’s Chris Difford – who had built a new studio in his Sussex home. Perfect. Oh yeah? 

It was a disaster – the studio wasn’t built, it was still being built. After three weeks and very little put down except some preliminary tapes (Andy: “it’s difficult to turn machines on without power”) the band walked out. Difford, at that time completely off his head with a serious alcohol problem, promptly impounded the tapes which had been recorded and demanded twelve weeks worth of rent ‘up front’. 

Telling Difford to shove the tapes where the sun doesn’t shine, they started again from scratch in their old favourite Chipping Norton studios and decided to concentrate on the first disc and save the electric stuff for later. However deeper feelings were about to come to the surface. Unhappy with the orchestral direction of many of the songs, Dave had suggested Andy release them as a solo work – Andy refused, knowing on what side his bread was buttered. 

As the album progressed, Dave Gregory – who had spent nearly 15 years swallowing his frustration at being the only non-writing member of the triumvirate – became more negative by the day. Even the orchestrations and “dots”, which the band had always relied on him for, were being done by Andy on a computer – and there really weren’t many guitars to play on the songs they were doing. 

Although Dave was enthusiastic about the quality of the songs, his annoyance at the Difford episode and his perceived diabetes-aggravated mood swings meant that Colin and especially Andy came to regard him as an increasingly negative presence. 


Andy: "One minute he'd be quite jolly, the next minute he's ‘this is all shit, destroy it, wipe it, it's all terrible’. It got to the point at Chipping Norton where I was so depressed, I really blew up. I had a go at everyone but a lot of it was directed at Dave, telling him to pull his weight and get into it more. I don't think he ever forgave me.

Dave: "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. He was being a cunt, frankly. Haydn nearly went home. Prairie (Prairie Prince, session drummer) 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."

Andy: "You'd be doing an interview and you'd say the band's doing so-and-so, and he'd interrupt and say, ‘Band? It's not a bloody band, it's two people making solo albums and a guitarist. . . Anyway, carry on.’ Totally pulling the rug from under you. I said, ‘Look, Dave, there's nothing you can do for the next week or so, take a break, let me do some vocals.’ Within 20 seconds he'd packed away and just drove off. And the next day he dropped a letter round at Colin's house saying, ‘I resign’. I hate to say it but I wanted to sack him but couldn't bring myself to do it."


Dave recalls his departure a little differently: "I said, Look, I don't think this is the album we should be making after six years. It's the vegetarian alternative and I've been on a diet for six years and I want curry.' And I didn't want to sign to TVT records, full stop. With the way he'd behaved in Chipping Norton, the fact that he had absolutely no regard for anybody else's point of view, I said, I'm disgusted with your attitude, I can't change you, you're not going to change, so I have to go."


It turned out to be relief all round. Andy: The dynamic between Colin and I has been a lot better, fresher. There's nobody going, ‘What the bloody hell do you want to do that for?’ It's a good divorce." 


Colin agrees. "Being in the band was making him unhappy, as well as us, so it's better all round." 

Dave, comfortable with being out of XTC and looking forward to being an appreciated sideman somewhere soon, is still generous in his admiration of Andy's gift: "It was a bit intimidating. As an artist he was so much better than I was. I might have had the edge on him as a guitar player in those early days, but not anymore. He had a wonderful spark of originality that nobody else had. He still has that. There's nobody writing the way he does. Nobody at all.”

So the band-member and friend of nineteen years standing was gone in a day, although there was palpable relief on both sides. Dave was not as willing as Colin and Andy to accept the stealthy advance of middle age – to the point of throwing a major huff a few weeks earlier when Andy suggested calling the album “A History of the Middle Ages”. The other two were positively rejoicing in their maturity, Dave still wanted to rock. 

The recording passed with a blur, Andy and Colin barely having the time to worry about Dave’s absence, and Apple Venus Volume 1 (below) was born. 

With strings attached

Put simply, AV1, as it is affectionately known, is phenomenal – its orchestral and acoustic arrangements (dubbed “orchoustic” by Andy) lift XTC’s music to new planes of maturity, poignancy and brilliance. Tunes of love, death and the cycle of life are supplemented with vast swathes of strings and horns, with just the right level of additional reality thrown in. 

With the catchy, pizzicato building kit that is the opening River of Orchids, Partridge got back to one of his pet hates – the automobile. Imagining how wonderful it would be to walk into London on a bed of flowers (although on his hands?), the song is already used in Universities around the world as a classic example of modern cyclical composition, from the first watery plop through to a crescendo of strings and chorus – back to a finishing plop!

Everyone has to have a favourite ever song – and (most of the time) track three, Easter Theatre, is mine. From its early incarnation as a grungy, Cobain-type song (which they all hated) Andy fashioned a masterpiece of classical pop celebrating the cycle of life through a theatrical set. No two listens to this song are the same – you can laugh your head off to it, press repeat and cry your eyes out at the next listening. How does he do it? 

Gold sun rolls around, chocolate nipple brown
Tumble from your arms, like the ground your breasts swell
Land awake from sleep, Hares will kick and leap
Flowers climb erect, smiling from the moist kiss of her rainbow mouth

Stage left
Enter Easter and she's dressed in yellow yolk
Stage right
Now the son has died, the father can be born
Stand up
If we'd all breathe in and blow away the smoke
New life, we'd applaud her new life

Andy: “You know you're doing alright if at some point during recording a demo, your hair stands on end. Which it did when I reached the ‘Easter . . . in her bonnet’ section in the middle. Self fright or self delight is difficult to achieve at the best of times, but here, bang out of nowhere, it arrived in bucket loads. Every pore of my skin was smiling fit to bust."

Andy again: “Please don't ask me what the name of the chords are, I just don't know. This is not unusual for me, not knowing the chords or even keys of songs. I'm not really a musician, more of an ideas man who found himself holding a guitar. If it sounds right to my shell likes, in it goes!"

The beautiful and haunting Knights in Shining Karma was Andy’s message to himself to get him over his divorce (his message to Marianne, the spiteful and vitriolic Your Dictionary is in my opinion shouldn’t have been on the album). It’s interesting to note, the acoustic guitar backing was Andy’s first take at the fully complete song, as recorded in his garden shed. I think the technical term is ‘nailing it’. 

Andy: “During 93/94 I was going through a bad patch in my life and ‘Knights’ came along as a real comfort, a song to salve my worried mind. I needed hugging and guarding in a moment of pain, so I tried to do it to myself in song.” 

Greenman is another orchestral bliss-out, based on the ancient pagan fertility symbol of the Green Man (representing Father Nature) or, as Andy put it, “it’s Vaughan-Williams with a hard-on”. Thanks again, Andy. Harvest Festival shows Andy’s real recollections of the school celebration – complete with assembly chair-squeaking and slightly off-key recorders – and the endless headlong rush towards adolescence and teenage heartbreak. 

As a kid, I had no idea what the harvest festival ceremony at school was supposed to be about. This bizarre mix of Christianity, paganity, help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid, all seem to crash together (with schoolboy lust interest) in the lyrics of this song. I decided to move the arrangement from acoustic guitar to piano simply because of the evocation of an English school assembly. Music master seated at the grand in the hall, girls one side, boys the other. Furtive but powerful glances shooting between the ranks of confused white shirted trainee adults. A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart. I'm very proud of the lines ‘see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows’. This, for me, is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.” 

The Last Balloon closes AV1 – another wondrous fade-out amid a sad plea for the next generation to grasp a fading opportunity to save humanity from the system mankind has created. In Andy’s own words, “it's primarily a sad song, we, who are stained by our bad deeds, our violence, weapons, vanity, we aren't going to get on board that balloon to a better place. It's the young who are. It's the young who must not make the same stupid mistakes that we have. They are the hope. They must not listen to us, they must drop us, like ballast, if they are to rise above it all. I'm an optimist at heart and feel, even though it's grey here, that above and into the future it will be brighter, fresher where my children are going."

Plugged in again

AV1’s reception was rapturous – among the fans and those with discerning tastes. Among other musicians and the music press the band’s stock had never been higher. In terms of sales, it was the same old story. However, there wasn’t really time to worry about it, as the band pretty much stayed in the studio through into early 2000, recording and mixing the ‘electric’ tracks that were originally going to comprise the second disk of the double CD. 

In May, Wasp Star – Apple Venus Volume Two was released. More rapture, more fans falling over themselves to hail the band’s ‘return to their rock roots’ and – for many – the realisation of the plan. Finally the balance between acoustic/pastoral XTC and electric/rock XTC had been reached. 

Wasp Star is another cracker of an album – kicking off with the eclectic Playground. An album-opening riff to die for – in fact to kill for – leading into a tribute to life in the playground and how it’s no more than a dry run for the rest of your life. As the lyrics say “you may leave school, but it never leaves you”. 

Playground jumps into another opening riff, this time for the cunningly simplistic Stupidly Happy. This one’s like a good cake recipe. Produce the sponge with the riff Keith Richards never quite found, add a necessarily banal lyric about happiness as your cream in the middle and then simply build it up with layer upon layer of musical icing. Perfection – and a sure-fire pop number 1 on any planet where taste still has a part to play. So, not here then. 

Moulding’s In Another Life is described by the writer as: “A celebration of my foibles and my wife's foibles. On a canvas of heart gladdening music, with the minimum of sentimentality. Not to mention a splash of my Mum and Dad in there for good measure.”

Church Of Women was another track written on Holly Partridge’s half-size acoustic – which she rarely gets to use as Andy carries it everywhere with him “in case I get an idea.” This is another – and possibly one of the best – of Andy’s tributes to the female sex. He was terrified of women as a kid and from that grew an awe – and then an appreciation – of, as he says “how faultlessly, beautifully perfect they are.” Why praise unattainable Gods, says Andy, when the true species worthy of praise are right here. He has a point. 

Church of women is making donations
Of loving and giving
Church of women performing that miracle
Raising the living

Like us men, like us men
Will they ever like us men
Men have thorns around their minds
I'm on my mount and preaching

Want to worship at the church of women
Breathe 'em in until my head goes spinning round
Let me worship at the church of women

The final track here is The Wheel and The Maypole. Another of Andy’s tributes to the circle of life and rebirth – but this time underpinned with a melancholy air. Originally written as two songs, The Pot Won’t Hold Our Love and Everything Decays, the maypole is the link that ties us in to the life/death cycle  – a sure sign that Andy’s creeping middle age has turned full circle.

Part 8