XTC’s 1999 album, Apple Venus Volume 1, announces itself with a literal splash: Opening track “River Of Orchids” begins with the amplified sound of water dripping in what sounds like a subterranean cavern. A low, plucked string tone responds; then, another droplet splashes to introduce a higher, singular plucked note. In rapid succession, the sounds of plopping water and dancing strings intertwine and intensify, like chatter echoing through a high-ceilinged room. As “River Of Orchids” progresses, the song adds layers on instruments like a stone gathering moss. Elliptical horns, a trumpet fanfare, stacked harmonies, and songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge’s full-throated vocals, hollering about the ways nature triumphs over the trappings of modern technology.
Partridge credited “River Of Orchids” for sparking Apple Venus Volume 1’s sonic direction since he initially composed the song while experimenting with orchestral samples. “I just hit upon this wonderful two-bar phrase and let it repeat around and around,” he told Pulse. “I couldn’t stop dancing for hours to it and hundreds of songs came into my head.” That colorful orchestral inspiration permeates Apple Venus Volume 1. It was the band’s first album since 1992’s Nonsuch, and this Sunday, it turns 20.
Whimsical strings, woodwinds, piano, and the occasional splash of horns dominate this music. Most of the songs were written by Partridge, and you can heard that especially well on the psychedelic effort “Greenman”; the sunrise-optimistic theatrical tune “Easter Theatre”; and the sighing, pastoral ’70s-rock march “Harvest Festival.” Not to be outdone, bassist/vocalist/songwriter Colin Moulding wrote two songs on the album, including the Mothersbaugh-esque, absurdist carnival midway strut “Fruit Nut.” His elegant approach also elevates several songs that veer more toward XTC’s previous rock efforts: “I’d Like That” is a skipping-down-the-lane acoustic guitar gem with throwback harmonies, while “Knights In Shining Karma” is gorgeous, manicured pop driven by a sparkling, lonely guitar line.
In the end, Apple Venus Volume 1 ends up making XTC’s lush 1986 masterpiece Skylarking sound like a lo-fi bedroom recording by comparison. “I like to call it an orch-ustic record really,” Partridge said of Apple Venus at the time, in a press release announcing the album. “It’s not rock-n-roll and we like it.” The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is certainly an obvious companion album to Apple Venus Volume 1, although it’s far from the only thing programming this album’s musical DNA. For example, astute listeners have pointed out the influence of cult songwriter Judee Sill, while Partridge acknowledged in a 1999 San Francisco Chronicle interview how much his long-time favorites seeped into the songwriting. “I just think that the English psychedelic music I liked as a teenager has left a lasting impression on me. I don’t try to be overtly psychedelic, but it creeps out without me knowing. It’s like leprosy. Once you’ve got it, you leave little trails everywhere.”
The beautiful textures of the album occasionally contrast with the tone of the lyrics. For example, the lovely lament “Your Dictionary,” a song stemming from Partridge’s reaction to his acrimonious divorce, toes the line between bitterness and melancholy. “C-O-L-D, pronounced as care/ S-H-I-T, is that how you spelt me in your dictionary?” And the regret-filled “I Can’t Own Her” is another song about finding someone elusive, although to whom the “her” refers is unclear.
In other interviews, however, Partridge frequently tossed around the descriptor “pagan” for Apple Venus Volume 1’s lyrics, which points to how his fantastical imagery is used to illuminate timeless truths about rebirth, loss, and joy. The romantic daydream “I’d Like That” contains the line, “I wouldn’t Hector if you’d be Helen of Troy, oh boy,” while punny main characters of “Knights In Shining Karma” protect the innocent from vengeful blowback.
That Apple Venus Volume 1 sounds so cohesive is impressive, since tension between XTC and long-time label Virgin Records boiled over in the years after the band released Nonsuch. “We were never going to make any money on that label,” Partridge told The Washington Post in 1999. “We were on the label for 20 years, and we were still in the red. We were living off of bits of publishing money, and I was doing some producing. It was crazy, because Virgin was making fine sums, but our deal was so stacked against us that we were never going to make anything.” A contract renegotiation didn’t go well, Partridge added: “In ’92, I said, ‘Look, can we have a sensible deal? Because we’d like to make a living after all this time. Or can we go to another label?’ And they said no on both accounts. So that was it. It was, ‘Down, plectrum.’ We had to go on strike. They just sat on us for five years.”
Prior to the strike, XTC were enjoying a sustained period of mainstream commercial success in America. Thanks to the rise of college and alternative rock, the band’s music actually aligned (for once) with prevailing US trends. Oranges And Lemons’ “Mayor Of Simpleton” topped Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1989 and became the group’s biggest mainstream rock hit ever, peaking at #15 on what was then the Album Rock Tracks chart. In 1992, Nonsuch’s “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead” continued this momentum by also landing at #1 on the Alternative chart. Things were going so well that even the lesser-known Nonsuch cut “Dear Madam Barnum” crested at a modest #18 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Despite the success, Partridge felt like XTC received lackadaisical support from his label. “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 about 5,000 copies of ‘Wrapped In Grey’ as the third single. I thought, ‘Wow, something a bit chewier, a bit of quality there.’ And 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,'” he told Mojo.
In the same article, XTC’s then-A&R man, Paul Kinder, shed some light on the internal turmoil plaguing the label at that time, which he attributed to the fact that it had been bought out by EMI: “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 did a bad job deliberately; it was just circumstances. Virgin always had a strong feeling for XTC.” Still, it was clear the band would be happier away from their long-time label home. After finally extricating themselves from Virgin in 1995, XTC formed Idea Records and licensed Apple Venus Volume 1 to TVT Records. (Amusingly, apparently Creation Records was also wooing XTC, albeit with a “pathetic start-up band deal,” as the band termed it to Mojo.)
Having so much time on their hands naturally meant that the group had stockpiled songs — and rather well-formed ones at that. “I would say that his songs were not only fully baked, but well-done,” drummer Prairie Prince, who also contributed to Skylarking, recalled in 2009. “I received a batch of demos in the mail, and I was very excited to get it … After I’d sat down and listened to the demos, I just went, ‘Do I really need to go do this?’ [Laughs] I mean, the drum programming was flawless, and the songs sounded great. Probably the only thing missing was real strings, which they ended up doing at Abbey Road.”
That Abbey Road visit — which ended up being a one-day session with a 40-piece orchestra — cost 15,000 pounds, an enormous expense, and was then followed by laborious editing of the music. Although the flourishes and time spent were certainly worth it on the final results, the decision to indulge ended up exposing the fraught relations within XTC. More specifically: Earlier in the Apple Venus Volume 1 recording sessions, long-time guitarist Dave Gregory, who had been with the band since 1979, ended up leaving XTC. The reasons were the usual creative differences — Gregory reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the full-on orchestral direction, as well as how expensive the strings were to record — and personality conflicts.
“One minute he’d be quite jolly, the next minute he’s ‘This is all shit, destroy it, wipe it, it’s all terrible,'” Partridge told Mojo. “It got to the point at [studio] 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.” Gregory’s attitude also had something to do with his own issues with Partridge. “He had the nerve to sit in that control room and tell everyone, ‘You bastards are sabotaging my career,'” the guitarist added to Mojo. “It was couched in such offensive terms. He was being a cunt, frankly.”
After Gregory’s departure, the band polished off Apple Venus Volume 1, which ended up peaking at #106 on the Billboard Top 200. In 2000, XTC followed up Apple Venus Volume 1 with the intended rock-leaning follow-up, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), which peaked at #108 on the charts. It was the last proper studio album XTC released. These days, both albums feel like hidden gems in the band’s catalog, not least because neither effort is currently streaming on Apple Music or Spotify.
However, in fall 2018, Ape House — the current repository for lavish XTC reissues and merchandise — issued Apple Venus Volume 1 and Wasp Star on vinyl. It’s a fitting way to encourage a reappraisal, since both efforts — but especially Apple Venus Volume 1 — remain singular moments within XTC’s catalog. “It sounds like unlike anything else out there at the moment,” Partridge told CNN in 1999, with his usual irreverence. “It’s pagan, verdant, greasy, idiosyncratic, salacious.”