Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986, which now shifts to the releases I didn’t discover until after 1986]
The prospect of exploring the XTC discography can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, since their sound changed multiple times throughout their career…sometimes within the same record…and not every album is an ideal gateway into their catalog. For me, 1989’s Oranges & Lemons was the perfect primer, and I soon worked my way through their earlier releases. While most of their albums likely have proponents among their fan base, 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking is probably the ideal XTC starting point. Although they never made another album quite like it, all the elements that make them so unique…melodic songs, quirky arrangements, the differing-yet-complementary songwriting styles of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory’s inventive guitar work…are on full display throughout this song cycle. I revisited each of their albums in 2013 for a 6-part series and my love of their music was reignited, 25 years after first dipping my toes in the XTC waters. Here’s what I wrote about Skylarking in Part 3 of that series.
They shifted gears in more ways than one for Skylarking (1986) by working in New York with legendary recording artist & studio wizard Todd Rundgren as producer. The band (especially Andy) has never hidden their dislike for Rundgren’s approach in the studio, but fortunately those bad vibes didn’t carry over to one of the (if not THE) most satisfyingly consistent collection of songs they’ve ever recorded. With certain tracks connected by sound effects and a running order chosen by Rundgren before recording even began, there’s a sense that this is a concept album, but if that’s the case it’s more a sonic connection rather than a continuous lyrical theme. Just about every song is a winner and worthy of inclusion on a career spanning anthology. The various summery sound effects on “Summer’s Cauldron” immediately create a unique atmosphere, and I like the shift to a more peppy tempo at “when Miss Moon lays down…” This segues into Colin’s “Grass,” which is highlighted by a slow conga groove and a great violin melody. It’s a pleasant head-nodding tune with distinctly British vocals (“Shocked me too, the things we used to do on grass”).
“The Meeting Place” is a simple, sentimental & nostalgic look back at a girl waiting at the factory gate for her man, and the bouncy melody & lovely harmonies make this one of Colin’s most instantly accessible songs. I love the electric piano in the pre-chorus (“You’re a working girl now”). “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is a sarcastic song by Andy about a conceited woman, having nothing to do with the titular superheroine. It straddles the border of lounge music & gentle pop, and Dave’s short guitar solo is a gem. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” could be a Queen ballad in the verses with its lovely, slightly melancholy melody. According to Song Stories author Neville Farmer, it’s “a rather cheerful look at a miserable day.” “1,000 Umbrellas” might be the one misstep on this record, but it packs a punch at “Now I’m crawling the wallpaper that’s looking more like a roadmap to misery, oh oh misery.” The original Side A closed out with “Season Cycle,” which was inspired by Andy walking his dog. Andy regards this as one of his favorites, even ranking it up there with one of his heroes, The Kinks’ Ray Davies. It’s sparse & lovely with vocals & accompaniment that recall the under-produced (and underrated) Beach Boys recordings of the late-60s. “Earn Enough For Us” is super catchy & upbeat, a perfect song to start off Side B (I wish I owned this on vinyl to experience that the way it was intended). Although it wasn’t released as a single, it could (and should) have gotten more exposure. The melody at “Glad that you want to be my wife, but honest” is particularly noteworthy.
“Big Day” is Colin’s pep talk for his son, who was still very young, “aimed at the time when he would be marriageable.” It’s a bit grandiose but the psychedelic folk tinges and REM-esque jangly guitars set this apart from the rest of the album. I wonder how Colin really feels about marriage: “Are you deafened by the bells? Could be heaven could be hell in a cell for two.” Ouch! Andy’s “Another Satellite” is a slightly angry song about an obsessed female fan who, ironically, he would eventually settle down with after his divorce. The haunting phased guitar figure & vaguely psychedelic touches give it a unique atmosphere. Andy described “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” as “a John Barry thing…cod spy music.” Featuring one of his strongest vocal performances, this finger-snapping tune has a great lounge jazz arrangement and a killer shift at “And the sirens that sing…” The country-tinged “Dear God” was a controversial hit single that was originally left off the album, but its success forced the record label to re-press it, replacing “Mermaid Smiled” (that one’s included on a compilation that I’ll discuss in my next post). The idea of a child’s letter to God questioning the existence of God is a very clever concept, and it’s insanely catchy, but I can understand why some religious folks might have been displeased by lines like, “Did you make mankind after we made you?” It segues into Colin’s “Dying,” which is a somber but not maudlin tune inspired by his friendship with an elderly neighbor. His voice is gruffer, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and he delivers some effective lines, i.e. “Don’t want to die like you” and “What sticks in my mind…” The haunting melody played on a Chamberlain organ is another excellent production choice. Colin described his album closer, “Sacrificial Bonfire,” as “an evil piece of music, and good would triumph over it.” I love the subtle rhythm, with shakers & syncopated beat, although I’m not a fan of the bombastic chorus. The rest of the song is beautiful, and it allows the album to slip away on a peaceful note. I can’t say enough good things about Skylarking, which has to be high on the list of must-haves for anyone checking out the XTC catalog for the first time.
I think this album is universally adored by XTC fans even if it’s not everyone’s favorite. Please let me know how you rank it compared to the rest of their discography.
Yes.I knew this was coming. Rich, now you are barking up my tree! I discovered XTC in the spring of ’86 after buying Drums and Wires on a whim, as I had a sudden urge to hear “Making Plans For Nigel.” I spent the rest of that summer buying everything else they recorded. Skylarking was my first “new” XTC album, and I am embarrassed to say I didn’t love it at first. The only thing that really stood out was “Earn Enough For Us” – how could that not have been a hit? But I also didn’t dislike any songs, and after a few more listens, It really grew on me. Pretty soon I was hailing it as the 1980’s Sgt Pepper or Pet Sounds. That may sound like hyperbole, but I still believe it. A special album, only topped, imho, by Nonsuch. And a nod to Rundgren, who, despite his thin sounding production, really helped shape this masterpiece.
Only The Beatles and Yes have had such a profound effect on me musically as XTC. I am proud to say that my original “Dear God”-less vinyl copy of Skylarking is currently framed, hanging on my wall, signed by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding.
Hi Kevin. I love hearing about your well-earned passion for Skylarking…a great first “new” XTC album…and the rest of their catalog. Surely your vinyl copy is quite valuable but you would never part with it. How/where did you manage to get those autographs?
Oranges & Lemons remains my favorite XTC album but after revisiting their discography a few years ago a lot of their other albums closed the gap. I’ve always loved Nonsuch too, and the surround sound mix on the Blu-ray is stunning. I got the O&L Blu-ray after I packed my stereo last year and it will likely be at least another 6 months until I can play it. I might have to take some time away from blogging to catch up on all the surround sound mixes and vinyl I’ve acquired over the last 12 months (and counting).
They came to Boston in May ’89 to begin their acoustic radio tour in support of Oranges and Lemons. It was their first live performance in about 7 years, and it wasn’t great (this performance was recently posted on Youtube). They started off with “Scarecrow People” (my favorite) and it was a bit shaky. Me and about a dozen other freaks waited outside for them to finish. Sure enough they came out, shook hands and signed autographs. I got Drums And Wires signed also. I was going to get O&L signed, but I didn’t want to deface that stunning cover. It was pretty surreal meeting those guys.
They also did one of Mtv’s first “unplugged” around this time, and David Letterman soon after. This led XTC fans to strongly believe that they were going to tour again. Still waiting…
I haven’t heard the Blu-ray versions. I already own their whole catalog on vinyl, cassette, original 80’s cd pressings, and all the remasters that came out periodically since, and the remasters sound beautiful. I’m sure the Blu-ray’s sound even better, but I have to draw the line somewhere!. I’ll break down eventually. As you know, so much music, so little time.
That’s a great story, Kevin…and an incredible memory for you, I’m sure.
The Blu-rays are especially great for surround sound mixes. Some people don’t care about those but when they’re done by the right person (in their case, the amazing Steven Wilson) it’s like a whole new listening experience. Also, the Blu-rays include a ton of additional material, like alternate versions, demos, instrumental mixes, in-studio videos, etc. I agree about “so much music, so little time” but those are the kinds of things I happily spend my time on when it comes to my favorite bands. I probably need to have fewer favorite bands, though. Haha.
Rich, here’s a little tid-bit for you. When Barry Andrews quit, our beloved prog hero Dave Stewart threw his hat into the ring. It’s just as well Dave Gregory got the gig, but can you imagine a band with Andy Partridge and Dave Stewart? Too many cooks in that kitchen, probably, but it would have been interesting.
That is an awesome tidbit. Thanks, Kevin. Much as I’m intrigued by a lineup with Dave Stewart, I’m not sure they could have chosen a better “replacement” for Barry Andrews than Dave Gregory. I’m so glad DG has been progging it up in recent years. More people need to know how good he is.
Great selection here. Skylarking is stunning every time I hear it and I’m happy it is getting the Wilson treatment.
As amazing as this album is my favorite is still English Settlement. This is a very close second. I like pretty much all of their music.
I had no real recollection of them even at this point in time, I think I was first introduced to them with Mayor of Simpleton. 1986 seemed to be a pretty uneventful year in music, there were no major breakthroughs but we were still treated to some pretty damn good music.
Come to think of it 2016 seems pretty similar. Maybe in 30 years I will have a different perspective. I’ll only be 73. Hopefully I will still be able to hear. 🙂
English Settlement is an excellent choice for favorite XTC album even though I don’t rank it quite as highly as you. My biggest complaint is the unnecessarily long running times of a lot of songs. I’m a prog & jazz fan so track length is rarely a problem for me, but when it comes to melodic pop/rock I tend to prefer songs to be a little more concise. That doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the songs from that album are pretty great.
I hadn’t thought about ’86 in terms of breakthrough artists, but you’re right. Based on the albums I’ve covered in this series so far, most are from artists who already had at least a few albums under their belts. Great music, for sure, but not a lot of new stuff to get excited about.
Well, I’m an XTC fan and I adore it. Proof enough that your observation is correct?
Just bought the lavish re-issues of this and ‘English Settlement’; as yet unplayed.
If/when I come out of retirement might have to bash out another XTC post. The ‘Apple Venus’ piece seemed quite popular.
Anyway, Rich, a fitting tribute to a wonderful album. Cheers.
PS. What’s the address of your mate who has the signed copy? Just wondering…
Thanks for proving my XTC hypothesis, Bruce. I saw that you got the deluxe 45-RPM double-vinyl of this album (didn’t realize you also got English Settlement), and it looks lovely. Unfortunately the price is a little too steep for me, so I’ll have to remain happy with my current CD copy and the upcoming Blu-ray edition. Skylarking should be incredible in surround sound, especially with Steven Wilson doing the mixes.
Haha, are you asking me to be an accessory to a burglary of a signed XTC record?
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Don’t tell him!!! 🙂
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Perish the thought, Rich. (Just drop me off in the neighbourhood, eh?)
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That seems to be a common sentiment about Todd Rundgren – a great producer that no one wants to work with more than once.
Most artists who complain about working with Rundgren still end up with one of the best albums of their career, or at least one of the most interesting (i.e. Hall & Oates’ War Babies), and they usually acknowledge his impact on them.
Great posts, Rich. Haven’t had a lot to say the last few weeks, but I sure enjoy reading each of your selections. I am an XTC fan, but the only disk of theirs I own is Wasp Star. I would love to find their 80’s albums on vinyl and listen to them intently. I love their songs, their wit and their overall sound. I remember hearing a lot of the Nonsuch album on the radio when it came out in the early 90’s. Maybe someday I’ll track their albums down and reread your series on them. Take care buddy and keep up the good work!
Hi Jeff. Great to hear from you, as always, and I really appreciate you checking out my posts, regardless of your interest in that particular artist. I’ve never had any XTC on vinyl. It looks like a few of them have recently been reissued in beautiful double-disc 45-RPM sets, but they’re ridiculously expensive. Perhaps I’ll find some original copies floating around one day at a decent price. Then again, I’m perfectly happy with the Blu-ray editions and hope they get to the entire discography at some point.
I bought Skylarking on CD, new, shortly after it was released. Unfortunately, I failed to connect with it and gave it away before giving it (and myself) a second chance. I’d like to remedy that! BTW, I heard an interesting podcast conversation between Marc Maron and Todd Rundgren recently. Much of the end of the segment was spent discussing Skylarking (and the re-master/re-issue). If you care to hear Rundgren’s take it is at: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_691_-_todd_rundgren
I don’t usually have the time for podcasts and I’ve always found Maron’s comedy hit-and-miss but I will scan through the link you posted and check out Rundgren’s thoughts on Skylarking. He’s always an interesting interviewee. Thanks for the recommendation.
Hi Rich, as a long time XTC fan, let me just say that I really enjoyed your post about Skylarking, which ranks up there for me too. However, you asked, so I must divulge that Drums and Wires is my favorite album by XTC, followed by Black Sea. But I sure enjoyed your post on this one and also AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock”. I plan to read many more of your album posts soon. Great job and excellent choices! Frank
Hi Frank. Thanks so much for stopping by & for the positive feedback. You chose two excellent XTC albums as your favorites. Were you a fan going back to that time? I love them both and they’re probably in my top 4 or 5.
H Rich. I’m really enjoying your site. I’m glad you asked about how long I’ve been a fan. A friend gave me a copy of Drums and Wires on a recorded cassette when it first came out. I didn’t like it at all. But on a road trip soon to follow, after listening to everything else I had handy, I popped it in the deck, and the rest is history.
Although I told her not to, my daughter recently had the XTC Drums and Wires face tattooed on her forearm. I think it would be fair to say she’s a fan too. She also bought me the book “Complicated Game” for my birthday, which I’m reading now.
As you mentioned, Drums and Wires (and I believe Skylarking by now) has been re-mixed and released in surround 5.1 on DVD. It’s quite the audio experience! Keep up the good work, Rich!
Hi Frank. Knowing how early you discovered XTC it’s no surprise that those early albums would have made such a big impact on you. As you probably read in one of my posts, I didn’t become a fan until Oranges & Lemons so that one remains a key album for me, but over the years I came to love just about everything they’ve released, and Drums & Wires/Black Sea might be my favorite era.
Great parenting job with your daughter getting the D&W face tattoed on her arm. You’re clearly influencing the next generation and that’s a good thing.
I believe there are now four 5.1 mixes on the market: Drums & Wiress, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch. I own all four blu-rays but I’ve only been able to listen to two of them so far because the others were released after I moved. I used to have a nice surround sound set-up but it’s been in limbo for nearly 2 years. My wife & I are in the middle of a whole house renovation that should be completed by mid-November. At that point I will have a media room again and I plan to lock myself in there for weeks, catching up on all the music I’ve missed. 😀
Thanks again for stopping by. I really appreciate the kind words.
Rich, Drums and Wires will not be a disappointment in 5.1 surround! I have to get the others, too. By the way, I tweeted to Andy Partridge that my two daughters and I listened to Drums at full volume, singing at the top of our lungs, even to “Complicated Game”. He replied, “Have the suicidal bodies of your neighbors been found yet?” That was a keeper! Thanks, Rich, always fun to hear from you. Frank
I’ve heard the Drums & Wires and Nonsuch 5.1 mixes and they’re stunning. Very eager to hear the other two, especially O&L later this year. I wonder which title will be next in this blu-ray series. Great tweet conversation with Andy. Thanks for sharing.