Back in the car-cassette days of the late twentieth century it was a mandatory part of any road-based holiday to prepare a compilation tape for the journey. These became known as the ‘In-flight Entertainment’ series and included a number of pleasant destinations in the state of Victoria.
With the aim of spicing up the listening experience of the compiler/driver, I’d often include tracks from recently acquired CDs, especially those ‘free’ magazine discs that normally receive one or two unfocussed listens before being filed on a shadowy carpet-level shelf in the music room.
Last weekend I came across IN FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT PROGRAM: APOLLO BAY, recorded and transmitted in April 1999. Although uninspired in cover design it does adhere to the major mix-tape guidelines:
- Music worth listening to (in the compiler’s irreproachable opinion);
- Songs that Ms Connection might enjoy (or at least not demand their immediate ejection);
- A mixture of old, new, known, unfamiliar, pop, obscure, recent acquisitions and dusty relics;
- Mandatory style variation, yet the tape must flow pleasingly.
- Stretch the tolerance of the audience (see 2, above) where safe to do so.
To illustrate the point with Apollo Bay, the two sides are named ‘One way’ and ‘Second way’. The latter begins like this:
Blondie – ‘Heart of glass’ (the rhythmic Giorgio Moroder influenced hit)
Ashra – ‘Don’t trust the kids’ (by German Moroder-influencing electronic/guitar man Manuel Göttsching)
David Bowie – ‘John, I’m Only Dancing Again’ (disco-funk single re-make included in the 1991 Sound+Vision CD re-issue of Young Americans)
… you get the idea.
But the song that caught both ear and memory was the inclusion, from a CD included with the February 1999 edition of MOJO magazine, of a new XTC song called ‘Easter Theatre’.
Now a new album from a much loved band silent, lo! these seven years was sure to generate more than a frisson of excitement. How would it compare with the brilliant ‘Nonsuch’? That 1992 album was positively dripping with Andy Partridge’s edgy melodicism, satisfyingly leavened by Colin Moulding’s astute and often whimsical observations.
But on the basis of new song ‘Easter Theatre’, things seemed to have changed and I felt uncertain. Here was a song of lush arrangement and gentle demeanour. At first listen it seemed as soft as a pillow and as succulent as a Lindt Lindor ball.
Easter, in her bonnet
Easter, in her hair
Easter, are the ribbons
She tied everywhere
But it is always worth digging a bit, staying just a little longer with XTC songs. Often they give up their riches a trifle reluctantly. And yes, so it unfolds here. What’s that about ‘the son has died the father can be born’? Not quite doctrinal, especially when soon after we have Norse god Odin mounting a tree. Wind back, wasn’t that opening couplet something about breasts?
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
Ah, not so much Church as something much older, more earthy, more Pan. Perhaps the album might be a bit special after all.
Apple Venus is indeed special.
Opening with a drip of water into water, some plucked bass notes and spare pizzicato strings, the sound builds slowly, moving forwards into the space. When some odd jaunty brass notes announce Partridge’s vocal entry and he sings, you know that this is not just any album.
I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
Take a packet of seeds
Take yourself out to play
I want to see a River of Orchids where we had a motorway
Push your car from the road
The melody lines dance and interweave with vocal refrains like an eccentric pagan hymn. It is both reverential and playful and ends with a single water drop.
This is an album of rich orchestral lushness (‘Easter Theatre’ for example) that would be reduced by the term ‘chamber pop’. The yearning of ‘I Can’t Own Her’ could only be born of unrequited adult attraction. Sonically meticulous, it yet manages to be both as rich as a velvet brocade bodice (‘Knights In Shining Karma’) and as everyday as a faded denim jacket (‘I’d Like That’). And once again, thank heavens for Colin.
While he only contributes two songs to Apple Venus, Colin Moulding’s gentle observations provide essential grounding for this strangely spiritual album. My favourite is ‘Frivolous Tonight’. It’s almost like he’s saying, sure Andy, fly to the stars but remember you come from Swindon.
Let us tell our favourite story
About some poor chap who put it on display
Hip hooray! and let the girls gather in their slacks
To talk about husbands’ hairy backs;
Some might think were a bit of a shower
But this could be our finest hour
We’re all so frivolous tonight
Remember how Christopher Robin used to say, with infinite love, ‘Silly old Bear’? Moulding manages the delicate balancing act of being both warm and satirical. Which cannot be said for the mid-album track that lands like wire brush on cheek. Partridge’s furious ‘Your Dictionary’ might well update us on his marital status with pinpoint acidity, but it does rather stick out like kick-boxing in church.
S L A P, is that how you spell kiss in your dictionary?
C O L D, pronounced as care
S H I T, is that how you spelt me in your dictionary?
Four-eyed fool, you led ’round everywhere
Rageful, clever, brave even. But out of place.
After equanimity is restored via Moulding’s affectionate ‘Fruit Nut’ (about the mental health benefits of gardening; Andy take note), Apple Venus finishes with a trio of songs that are almost overwhelming in their beauty and finely burnished craft.
The afore-mentioned ‘I Can’t Own Her’ leads off with glowing melancholy. It is followed by ‘Harvest Festival’, another song of yearning and heart-melting longing. The church setting might, when considered with ‘Easter Theatre’, suggest an underlying Christian message, but this is more about exploring the interior and exterior cultural landscape of England than particular beliefs. Balance is achieved exultantly with ‘Greenman’, perhaps the centrepiece of the album and definitely amongst my favourite XTC songs.
After the gloriously flawed humanity seeping through many of the songs, album closer ‘The Last Balloon’ provides a musically sumptuous but lyrically ominous exit. Slow, stately verses with a soaring refrain that invites humankind to ascend towards… what? It may be fortunate that Mr Partridge is not himself the ‘Dear God’ of an earlier song, as the words suggest humanity is celestial ballast worthy of being jettisoned. Just as well, then, that we are seduced by the lovely trumpet solo that takes us towards a future that has much of the beauty of ‘Chalkhills and Children’* if a lot less innocence.
XTC’s 1999 album is a complete, beautifully crafted work that exceeds the sum of its glorious parts. I once borrowed someone else’s use of the ‘m’ word for a piece on In The Court Of The Crimson King, this time I will deploy it myself; in my dictionary, Apple Venus is a masterpiece.
* Final sublime song on the 1989 XTC album Oranges and Lemons