Here’s a clip of Swindon-based orchestral pop boffins XTC with their 1999 track “Green Man” taken from my favourite album of theirs Apple Venus Volume 1.  The band had come out of a seven year ‘strike’ when the album was released, after a dispute with their record company.  ‘Return to form’ doesn’t quite cover the quality of this album, or each individual song on it, especially this one.

XTC are one of my favourite bands, and the album off of which "Green Man" comes, Apple Venus Vol. 1, is one of my "save it from a burning house" albums. The band made interesting music as an angular new wave outfit in the late 70s, and made even more interesting music in the 80s and 90s, when they decided to embrace their love of the Kinks, Brian Wilson, and Judee Sill. They are an example of a band who was able to shift their musical focus, while retaining their identity too.

Songwriter Andy Partridge has used pagan imagery in his songs before, most notably on the group’s most highly respected record Skylarking from 1986 on songs like “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Season Cycle”.  For the group’s comeback record, he does what that earlier record hinted at – a sumptuously orchestral take on British heritage, as well as a few love songs thrown in for good measure.  And of course, the pagan imagery remains.  And what is more pagan than the Green Man, a mythical figure in British mythology who makes his appearances in the architecture of the middle ages too, as well as in the literature of the time – remember reading Sir Gawain & the Green Knight in high school?  Well, there you go.  If you haven’t read that particular work, stop reading this and go find a copy.

For someone who has been a pretty vocal atheist (“Dear God”), this tune is infused with spiritual joy, which I suppose  shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive to a belief in a personal god.   My favourite line in this song is:

“See the Green Man blow his kiss from high church wall/And a knowing church will amplify his call”

In this song, spirituality has to do with embracing one’s own identity, not trying to get away from it.  This to me makes the ideas in it more wonderful, that is full of wonder.  This is what spirituality is supposed to be in my book.

The song is danceable too, like a celebration.  This is a joyful record, one that makes the petty squabbles often associated with religious thought into what I think it is – an excercise in missing the point.  I think this song is saying that we have a rich history, one which is full of imagination and wonder, not just greed and bloodshed.  Our heritage is to be embraced, because we’re tied to the Green Man – we are a part of nature, as common to each other as any other part of the natural world.

As an ironic element when compared against the universal harmony communicated in “Green Man”, the recording of the album cost the band a guitarist in long time member Dave Gregory, who was at odds with Partridge through out the sessions.  Further, some of Partridge’s most pointed bitterness is also on this album in the song “Your Dictionary”, which is about the acrimonious end to a marriage.  Yet the songs really hang together as a whole, even more than ever before.  Unfortunately, after the band followed it up with Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) the next year,  they went on hiatus, with bassist/singer Colin Moulding having lost interest in the music business, and Partridge allegedly lamenting the loss of Gregory as a collaborator within the group.

Since then, Partridge has released an album with former XTC member and founding member of 80s cult-pop band Shriekback, keyboardist Barry Andrews.  The record is an improvisational instrumental album under the name Monstrance.

For more about XTC, check out the XTC/Idea Records website.

And for more music, get ye to the XTC MySpace page.

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