The British terraced house is a humble dwelling. I’m not talking the huge Edwardian terraced villas that sell for obscene amounts of money in London, no I’m talking about the rows upon rows of two and three bedroom houses that make up the bulk of the majority towns and cities across Britain. Houses where your every day working folk anonymously go about their daily lives and have to save up for months on end to be able to go on holiday. Many of these terraced houses were built by factory owners to house their work force, so they’re nothing too fancy and as such the majority of them are still owned by ordinary working class folk who just want their own bricks and mortar and are quite happy to live in close proximity with other similarly salt of the earth folk. It’s certainly not the type of property you’d expect to find one of the UK’s finest songwriters.
XTC never had that much luck with money, so that probably explains why Andy Partridge still lives in a small terraced house not unlike my own. Bad record deals, disputes with management and a refusal to tour meant that XTC never had the money to indulge in the rock n’ roll lifestyle, which probably explains why they’re one of the least rock n’ roll guitar bands you are ever likely to hear. It also explains why XTC wrote such fantastic songs about normal, everyday life. More than any other band XTC never had a problem when it came to ‘keeping it real’, simply because they couldn’t afford to do anything else.
There was a flurry of interest in XTC in the last decade, though that’s mainly due to a host of Tie-rockers (or Future Dogs Die in Kaiser Ferdinand’s Hot Hot Car Party as Partridge dryly refered to them as) taking more than a little inspiration from XTC’s early sound. Apple Venus Vol. 1 finds XTC twenty years after they abandoned the sound that so inspired the Tie-rockers, still earning little more than the average man on the street and realising that they are unlikely to ever earn any more. In many ways that makes Apple Venus Vol. 1 an even more remarkable album though, as XTC came back after a seven year lay-off following a dispute with their record label, not with the guitar-heavy album that would confirm them as one of the unheralded inspirations behind Brit-pop, but with a lush orchestral album that celebrated an ordinary life.
When an act decides that they are going to write an orchestral album, it’s usually the act of people with more money than sense. Not for Partridge and Moulding though, as they never had any money in the first place, Apple Venus Vol. 1 is an orchestral album because it has to be, there is no other way that the songs here would work. The subject matter is oddly straightforward as well, “River Of Orchids” encourages us to abandon our motor cars and travel on foot, “Your Dictionary” is a bitter kiss-off to a former partner, “Fruit Nut” highlights the joys of owning a greenhouse and “Frivolous Tonight” celebrates the simple pleasures of the middle-age dinner party (indeed if my middle-age was as enjoyable as this song, I would embrace it happily). It’s hardly rock n’ roll, but then again, as I mentioned earlier, XTC aren’t rock n’ roll guys.
Apple Venus Vol. 1 was evidently not an easy album to make, with some well publicised production problems and longtime band lynchpin Dave Gregory making the difficult decision to quit the band that had been his life for the past two decades (because he didn’t write the songs Gregory made even less money than Partridge and Moulding). On the upside they managed to acquire the services of former Womble and future Katie Melua mentor Mike Batt to pen some of the orchestrations and it resulted in one of XTC’s best sounding albums. From the heartbreaking “Harvest Festival” to the pomp of “Green Man”, Apple Venus Vol. 1 is a luxurious sounding album, which given it’s humble and unassuming subject matter results in an utterly unique listening experience.
XTC were one of those bands that didn’t make albums to make money, or to satisfy their own vein whims, they recorded music because it’s what they were actually good at. They are normal men who live with their wives and children in normal houses. They just happen to have made remarkable music and over twenty years into their career they were still getting better.
Lets just see if Future Dogs Die in Kaiser Ferdinand’s Hot Hot Car Party manage to do that.