25 Years Ago: XTC Produces Lush ‘Nonsuch’ Amid Continuing Label Turmoil
Bookended by label standoffs, Nonsuch found XTC trying new things. There was a new producer, a new drummer, and a newfound interest orchestral settings. What hadn't changed was America's general indifference, as the album barely cracked the Top 100. That only worsened XTC's relationship with Virgin Records, which completely fell apart after Nonsuch arrived on April 27, 1992.
They'd struggled mightily to even get the project underway. "Basically, we were (messed) around a lot by various people," Colin Moulding told the Orlando Sentinel in 1992. "A guy at the record company did his darndest to stop us making a record – why, I don't know. Every time we came up with songs, he'd say, 'Oh, there are no singles here, fellas. Go back and write some more.' He did that too many times, and we said, 'Look, take him off the case.'"
There followed a lengthy search for a producer. "Hugh Padgham and Steve Lillywhite, whom we had worked at the beginning with, had in mind to produce the album – but finally, Lillywhite had no time for it," Andy Partridge told Guitare et Claviers in 1992. "We contacted John Paul Jones, but he was too expensive. Then Bill Bottrell, the engineer of Michael Jackson's Dangerous, was ready to come in our homes with his studio. But the deal did not work."
The arrival of drummer Dave Mattacks, formerly of Fairport Convention, led XTC to producer Gus Dudgeon. Mattacks had heard that Dudgeon – most famous for his collaborations with Elton John – wanted to work with XTC. That opened up new creative vistas: The sessions found Partridge adding dollops of strings, even as the band tightened their focus on introspective pop.
"We hadn't messed much with the orchestral thing [until Nonsuch]," Partridge told the Dallas Observer in 1999. "At least now I got to, if not exorcise a huge ghost from me, I certainly got to give the beast a name. Should I wish to kill it, it certainly would be easier for me to kill it now. But for the time being, I certainly got something out of my system that has been bugging me for a long time – which is non-rock-and-rock-flavored meal."
The results, typically quite lush and measured, fit somewhere between the pastoral quirks of 1986's Skylarking with the sleek modernity of 1989's Oranges and Lemons, though Nonsuch was often far more reflective than either. Partridge was gaining an ever-growing appreciation for accompaniment, and song construction – and it showed.
Watch XTC Perform 'The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead'
"There was no full conscious decision to make it wildly different from the last," Moulding told the Sentinel. "But it was a different studio, different musicians – a different drummer, different producer. It's going to come out a little different."
Not that this 17-song set couldn't rock, as evidenced by the quirky "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead." XTC's softer, detailed musings on "The Disappointed," "My Bird Performs" and "Holly Up on Poppy," however, were far more representative of Nonsuch.
Partridge and Moulding constructed the songs separately, as per usual, then worked things out live with long-time multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory and the newly arrived Mattacks. "We never collaborate," Moulding told Bass Player in 1992. "Each person puts his little prints on them, but we don't write together. There's a lot of freedom to do what each of us likes with the other's songs, however."
Despite it all, they ended up – once again – coming away with something that was quintessentially XTC. Fans back home seemed to get that. "The Disappointed," like Nonsuch, crept into the U.K. Top 40. Unfortunately, "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" stalled at No. 71, just before the next conflict opened up with Virgin Records.
Andy Partridge wanted to release "Wrapped in Grey" as the third single from Nonsuch, and even shot a video for the song. XTC's label, however, vetoed the idea. Before it was over, XTC had called a strike against Virgin, hoping to extricate themselves once and for all from a relationship that dated back to 1977. As the standoff dragged on, they remained inactive for most of the '90s. In fact, XTC didn't emerge again until 1999's similarly orchestral Apple Venus Vol. 1 – and, by then, Dave Gregory was being eased out the door.
Even back in 1992, Gregory seemed resigned to sitting by as pitched disagreements unfolded. "If push comes to shove, it must be done Andy's way," Gregory told Guitar Player. "I've learned to live with it, and it usually bears fruit. Andy always knows what he wants; there are never any gray areas. But occasionally the fur does fly."
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