Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Bookending the exquisite Skylarking album, which I discussed in my previous post, XTC released an EP & an LP that showcased their love for late-60s psychedelic “nuggets.” Since the majority of these “original” songs were more of an homage or outright copy of existing music, as opposed to being merely influenced by them, they decided these records wouldn’t make sense coming from XTC so they billed themselves as The Dukes Of Stratosphear instead. They each adopted a typically ridiculous pseudonym: Sir John Johns (Andy Partridge), The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding), Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregory) and E.I.E.I. Owen (Dave’s brother, Ian Gregory on drums). Even producer John Leckie, who helmed the first two XTC albums, chose the name Swami Anand Nagara. Using mostly vintage equipment and trying to stick with a one-or-two-takes-per-song philosophy, they effectively (re-)captured the sound of that era. Also, Andy Partridge’s art direction was a perfect complement to the music. Just check out those trippy album covers.
For their debut EP, 25 O’Clock (1985), it’s all killer & no filler. Andy described opening track “25 O’Clock” as “all doom-laden nonsense poetry & doomier chords,” but it’s not nearly as dark as that. Taking a cue from The Electric Prunes, they use a huge bass sound, swirling organ & phased vocals to set the tone for what’s to come. Dave delivers a searing guitar solo that I had previously overlooked. The deeper I get into their catalog the more I’m convinced that he’s an unheralded guitar hero. “Bike Ride To The Moon” mixes Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with The Move, and those pitch-shifting vocals recall David Bowie’s “The Laughing Gnome.” It’s probably the silliest song here, but maybe the most fun as well. “My Love Explodes” immediately brought to mind The Yardbirds, which is what they were going for. It really swings while also incorporating bits of Eastern sitar-based psychedelia. Colin’s sole contribution, “What In The World?,” is a great one. It’s clearly a Beatles homage (mostly songs like “Only A Northern Song” and “Rain”), with McCartney-esque bass, and a cool hook each time he sings a year (“2032” through “2035”). “Your Gold Dress” is the one slight misstep, although I love the piano-led section (“Vibrations are coming my way”). “The Mole From The Ministry” is another Beatles take-off, this time going into “I Am The Walrus” territory. I love the deep, squishy vocals in the intro.
The expanded CD version, which was released in 2009, includes demos for four of the songs, plus two additional demos and one recently-recorded song: “Open A Can Of Human Beans.” Recorded for a multiple sclerosis charity album, it actually featured all four of “The Dukes” years after XTC stopped playing together, with up to three of them in the studio at one time. It sounds less like a particular song or band and more of a modern take on an old sound, but it fits in nicely as a well-selected bonus track.
For their one & only full-length album, Psonic Psunspot (1987), The Dukes spent a little more time (and money) on recording and expanded their influences beyond purely psychedelic. Colin’s “Vanishing Girl” is a Hollies tribute that sounds more like the early- to mid-‘60s. There’s a great guitar figure and I love the close beat group harmonies. I should like “Have You Seen Jackie?,” which recalls Syd Barrett, but it’s a little too jokey & weird to stand up to repeated listening. “Little Lighthouse” was rejected by producer Todd Rundgren for Skylarking, so they gave it a late-60s West Coast treatment (especially those horns, which had me thinking of the band Love) and made it a Dukes song. “You’re A Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)” is one of those British sing-along pub songs that were popularized by The Kinks & The Small Faces, among others. Written about Andy’s grandfather & his wife (none of the references refer to her as his grandmother), it’s “knees up” fun with barrelhouse piano & a stomping drum beat. They turn to John Lennon for inspiration on “Collideascope,” which moves along slowly with sparsely strummed acoustic guitar & a thick bass line. The big hook comes at “wakey, wakey, wakey little sleeper.”
“You’re My Drug” is clearly indebted to The Byrds, but it’s so infectious that it has its own unique charm (especially the Latin cabasa, the driving percussion heard throughout the track). For Colin’s “Shiny Cage,” Andy explained that “we decided…to make it sound like every track from Rubber Soul smashed into one” (I’ve also seen him reference another Beatles masterpiece, Revolver), and it’s an apt description. I especially love Colin’s super British vocals at “Well the sun’s getting higher, think I’ll take a flyer…”). “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a McCartney-esque piano piece about the supposed daughter of the titular comic book villain. Andy’s fantastic vocals, especially his falsetto, deserve special mention. Colin’s “The Affiliated” is a song that they all agree doesn’t feel like a Dukes song, but I don’t think it’s out of place. It’s a more grounded, “real people” song that goes into a lounge/jazz section and features a typically tasteful guitar solo. “Pale And Precious” is a stunning ode to post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys. Sure, it might even be a blatant rip-off, but that’s pretty much the idea of The Dukes Of Stratosphear. Andy plays the drums in the “up she rises each & every morning” section, and my favorite part is the multi-layered harmonies at “fade away, ah-ah, fade away.” The six demos included on the expanded CD are all songs included on the album, so there are no additional tracks. They’re all enjoyable but don’t add anything to an already excellent album.
Following Psonic Psunspot, they closed the book on The Dukes, retaining some of the psychedelic trappings for a collection of new songs under the XTC name, Oranges & Lemons (1989). As I’ve stated before, this was my first foray into the world of XTC and it continues to be my favorite. I wasn’t sure if spending so much time with their prior releases would affect my opinion, but it holds up incredibly well and I still love just about every song. The recording process, which took place in LA with noted remixer/novice producer Paul Fox, was long & tedious but you wouldn’t know it from the joy that emanates from the disc. Just looking at that day-glo, Yellow Submarine-inspired album cover you know it’s going to be a lighthearted journey, and even with a running time of more than an hour over its 15 tracks, it never feels too long. Since I have so many good things to say about Oranges & Lemons, addressing every song, I’ll start with Colin’s 3 contributions. “King For A Day” was a minor radio hit that isn’t a favorite of the band, but I think it’s an off-kilter gem about people’s constant quest for fame & fortune. The backing vocals (“we’re living…no giving”) are unique, and the slick production & overall left-field pop sound reminds me of the band Toy Matinee, whose one & only brilliant album was released the following year. “One Of The Millions” is Colin’s song to himself “for not speaking out” more. It has a slight sea shanty feel and chiming, circular guitar. I love the overlapped vocals at “never seem to do anything,” the dense arrangement and the melodic hook at “so I won’t rock the boat ‘cause I’m scared what might happen.” “Cynical Days” is one of only a couple of songs that hasn’t held up for me. Despite the title, it’s more about the melancholy feel than any cynicism in the lyrics. The music is a little formless compared to what he usually delivers, but I really enjoy the jazzy section that recalls contemporary artists like Simply Red & Everything But The Girl.
The rest of Oranges And Lemons belongs to Andy, and he’s at the top of his game as he celebrates the birth of his son as well as his satisfaction over the band finally getting some notoriety in America. “Garden of Earthly Delights” is a swirling, Middle Eastern psychedelic fanfare/overture of which Andy said, “I wanted it to sound like a Persian rug.” The groove is programmed but it still feels loose, and Andy’s falsetto is great. “The Mayor Of Simpleton” was the biggest hit from the album, and even though Andy was “rather embarrassed by its simplicity,” I think that’s part of the charm. Not every song needs to be a complicated, multi-movement extravaganza. This is simply a perfect pop song with amazing verses & choruses and a brilliant bridge. “Here Comes President Kill Again” is slower, with a military drum pattern and impressive trumpet work from Mark Isham (who appears throughout the album). Based on the book Travels in Nihilon (which birthed a song of the same name on Black Sea), Andy said “this is about our powerlessness over governments’ ability to kill,” but it’s a lot more upbeat than that description. “The Loving” has always been a highlight of their catalog for me, so much so that I made sure it was played at my wedding. Lyrically & musically it’s about as happy & positive as they’ve ever been, with a grand statement that could be considered an update of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Dave’s brief but melodic guitar solo cements this as a pop classic.
Although Andy has given credit to Captain Beefheart for inspiring “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” most likely due to the clattering arrangement, I think that’s a loose connection. I love the whistling as well as the backing vocals at “step out step out step out step out.” Andy has stated that “Scarecrow People” is his favorite song on the album, and it’s an excellent choice. It has a clattering sound, as if Tom Waits chose to write a slick yet quirky pop song, and Andy really belts out the line “now aiiiin’t weeee?” “Merely A Man” is about not following leaders, set to a big drum sound & searing guitar while remaining super poppy & upbeat. “Across This Antheap” is carried along by a work-song arrangement, clanging percussion & “hey hey” vocals. It’s densely packed with synth washes & strong harmonies. “Hold Me My Daddy” carries a nice sentiment about connecting with his father, but could also be him projecting his feelings onto his kids. The African “high life” feel of the ending guitar part is a nice addition, and Dave rips off another memorable melodic guitar solo. I used to enjoy “Pink Thing,” which is equally about Andy’s penis & his son, a lot more. It’s still clever & catchy with fantastic guitar work, but now it comes across as somewhat incomplete. “Miniature Sun” is all about Isham’s synth-y trumpet and the gleaming, jazzy vibe. Album closer “Chalkhills And Children” is a lush, gorgeous Beach Boys homage that Andy described as “one of the best things I’ve ever written.” Dave said it’s “a landmark track…if we’re remembered for anything it is this song.” The melody at “Even I never know where I go when my eyes are closed” is fabulous, and it’s a haunting sentiment. Not only is it a perfect way to end a nearly perfect album, but the song is so powerful and definitive that the name of the top XTC-related website was inspired by it: Chalkills.org. I’m so glad that Oranges & Lemons has stood the test of time for me. Even though I get the sense that longtime fans rate this somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to their discography, I don’t think they’ve released a more definitive statement. Of course, I still have a few more albums to revisit before I can confirm this.
Rag & Bone Buffet (1990), subtitled Rare Cuts & Leftovers, is an odds-and-sods collection of b-sides, alternate versions, BBC recordings, rejected album tracks & more. In the past I haven’t given this CD much attention, with only a handful of tracks making an impression. This week, however, I spent a lot of time with it and, even though it’s a hit-and-miss affair, at least half of its 24 tracks stand up to repeated listening. Those are the ones I’ll discuss here. “Ten Feet Tall” is an electric version of the Drums & Wires track that was re-recorded for a US single release that never happened. It sounds a little faster than the album version, and it’s a nice alternative. “Mermaid Smiled” is the Skylarking track that got removed so they could include the popular radio hit “Dear God” on that album. There’s a slight hint of The Zombies’ “Tell Her No” in the opening riff, and the rest is a mellow, subtly-played tune (with vibes, congas & acoustic guitar). The slightly ethereal “Heaven Is Paved With Broken Glass” was cut from English Settlement but deserved a better fate. It has a catchy whistle-y melody, and Andy described it as “a song about disappointment…a bit Talking Heads.” Colin’s “The World Is Full Of Angry Young Men” was attempted for Mummer but only Pete Phipps’ drum track remained on this new recording from the Oranges & Lemons era. It’s moody & jazzy, recalling Joe Jackson circa his Night & Day LP.
Two Christmas songs, recorded as The Three Wise Men, show up here and they couldn’t be more different from one another. “Thanks For Christmas” is gorgeous jangly pop that belongs on any definitive pop/rock holiday compilation. Although I haven’t seen many positive things written about it, “Countdown To Christmas Party Time” is an insanely addictive techno dance/funk track that might go on a little too long but had me smiling each time I played it. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. A 1987 BBC performance of “Another Satellite,” with a drum machine providing the rhythmic accompaniment, is very good. Colin’s “Officer Blue” is another one that doesn’t seem to be highly rated (Andy described it as one of the two worst songs they’ve ever recorded), but this Black Sea outtake has cool echo-y percussion and fits in nicely with the other songs from that era. A 1979 BBC recording of “Scissor Man” is fantastic, especially the ska/dub vibe that begins at around the 3-minute mark. This is one of those songs that keeps getting better, and has been stuck in my head for quite some time. “Pulsing Pulsing” is a brief, claustrophobic tune with just tom toms, sparse bass & a nifty little guitar figure. Colin’s “Blame The Weather,” the b-side to “Senses Working Overtime,” has decent verses but a super-catchy pop chorus (“You blame the weather, whoah-oh”). Rag & Bone Buffet was clearly compiled for existing fans, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for an XTC novice.
I’ll return soon to discuss another studio album and a couple of CDs of archive recordings, as well as one other XTC-related project I almost forgot that I owned. Until then, I look forward to hearing what you think of the albums covered here, and I’m curious to find out if anyone else considers Oranges & Lemons their favorite.