With Apple Venus Vol. 1, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding make their masterpiece
In a parallel universe, Apple Venus Vol. 1, the 13th album of XTC’s remarkable career, would be lauded with the same sort of praise bestowed on Sgt. Pepper, Village Green Preservation Society and Pet Sounds.
It should be rightly deemed a masterpiece of craft, creativity and as a high water mark for a band that was always destined to achieve some sort of singular distinction. In reality, however, it mustered little more than adoring cult status, distinguished only as an effort of great ambition, but one which lacked any real commercial credence.
That’s not to fault the two men at its helm, erstwhile provocateurs Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, given that they faced an array of challenges and complications during its recording. For a start, it led to the departure of erstwhile guitarist Dave Gregory midway through the sessions, effectively removing the third leg from the creative trifecta that had bolstered the band from the beginning. For another, it found the band grappling with budgetary constraints, an uncertain relationship with a new record label and a grand vision that proved entirely overwhelming as far as the ultimate execution. Originally conceived as a double album consisting of two very different discs — one a symphonic set of songs, the other pared down to a more conventional rock regimen — it eventually appeared only as the former, although two spin-offs were spawned in the form of leftover songs and formative backing tracks.
Although XTC had proven its prowess by successfully transitioning from punk to pop to a sumptuous pastoral motif, the band’s absence from the recording scene for the better part of a decade due to a dispute with their record label, Virgin Records, also intruded on the collective mindset. Nevertheless, Partridge had built up a substantial stash of songs, relegating Moulding’s contributions to a secondary stature. However, it wasn’t the music that caused the divide. Partridge was reeling from a marriage that was on the verge of collapse, while Gregory’s disruptive behavior had as much to do with his health issues as it did to his dissatisfaction with the music. Meanwhile, economic concerns forced them to record all the orchestral parts in a single day, further aggravating the stress and strain that permeated the proceedings overall.
It’s remarkable, then, that the ultimate results were as striking as they were. Stylistically, “River of Orchids,” “Easter Theatre,” I Can’t Hold Her,” “Greenman,” and “Frivolous Tonight” proved an ideal evolution from such earlier triumphs as Nonsuch, Mummer, Skylarking, and Oranges & Lemons. Sadly though, despite the continuity — the title itself tapped into a lyric from “Then She Appeared,” a song which featured prominently on Nonsuch — these were to be the final sessions recorded under the XTC banner. Within a year, the band had effectively splintered, leading the musical mainstays — Partridge in particular — to carry on under their individual aegis.
Nevertheless, Apple Venus Vol 1 remains a shining testimonial to the band’s willingness to reach beyond its limitations and craft a work that still resonates as one of the great unsung masterpieces of the past two decades. On this, its 20th anniversary, it offers apt cause for admiration and inspiration as well.