5/5 (Ape House APEBOX002)
[blurb originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]
As alter egos go, there aren’t too many as psychedically pspot-on as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR. The nom de plectrum of Swindon, England’s XTC, it was used as the name of a pfictitious rock group circa mid/late ’60s that was actually a mid/late ’80s “tribute” to the music that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory grew up on. Thirty years ago this month the Dukes released the second of their two records, Psonic Psunspot; as the successor to 1985’s 25 O’Clock it was the logical conclusion of an exercise that started out as a lark and ended as a favorite pair of platters by both band and fans alike.
By 1985 XTC, a nominally successful new wave/alternative rock group started in the late ’70s, were starting to run out of psteam. The band’s last two albums (Mummer and The Big Express) had failed to capitalize on the momentum gained by hit singles “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime,” and their label (Virgin Records) was noticeably worried. To keep their creative juices flowing, the record company agreed to give the band a tiny budget to record what became the 6-song 25 O’Clock EP and for them a fun break from the pressure of trying to write and record a proper XTC LP. Partridge, Moulding & Gregory enjoyed themselves immensely. Free to do basically whatever they wanted (within the reported £6,000 budget), the musicians fuzzed-up their guitars, played tapes backward and did anything else they felt psuited the concept. What they created in 25 O’Clock was not only a half dozen great tunes, but a virtual Trivial Pursuit of Psychedelic Rock. Here there’s a mellotron like the one on “Penny Lane,” there there’s a guitar lick recalling The Pink Floyd. Though the Dukes didn’t do actual cover versions of the psych and pop songs they got their inspiration from, they clearly channeled their heroes in a wholly believable manner.
25 O’Clock did so well for the band and Virgin Records that XTC had a new mandate (and pressure) to make a successful record under their own name. Their 1986 album Skylarking was just that, with the song “Dear God” becoming a ubiquitous track on alternative and college radio in the USA. By 1987 XTC was given the go-ahead to do another Dukes of Stratosphear record, with a larger budget than the first release. Psonic Psunspot, a 10-track album, expanded the Dukes’ influences so much that it actually comes off as more of a hybrid Dukes/XTC album—too current-sounding to be believable as a ’60s release, but too psychedelically inclined to be credited to XTC. Still, some of the songs, such as the Beach Boys-influenced “Pale and Precious” and single “Vanishing Girl,” are XTC in all but name.
This time, XTC’s US label, Geffen Records, took notice and released the album on both vinyl and CD (under the title Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, including the 25 O’Clock tracks). Once more XTC took a backseat, not hopping into the driver’s seat again until Spring 1989’s Oranges & Lemons. Thirty years after their final release, the Dukes of Stratosphear continue to thrill with their recorded righteousness—often outshining releases by XTC proper. If “Little Lighthouse,” “What in the World??” and “My Love Explodes” don’t smother you in their organic guitar goodness, you may well be a lost cause.
In 2009, frontman Andy Partridge’s record label, Ape House, reissued the albums separately on both vinyl and CD (and in a super deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes). The 180-gram vinyl versions sound even better than the original UK records do (I still have mine), and the CDs added bonus demos and unreleased tracks to fill in the rest of the picture. These days the band members look back at the Dukes fondly, if maybe a little jealously—after all, if it weren’t for them, XTC may have never had another chance to dazzle us with the likes of Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s Nonsuch. Declaring, on their debut record, that “it’s time to visit the planet smile… it’s time the love bomb was dropped… it’s time to drown yourself in soundgasm,” the Dukes of Stratosphear were both of their time and of all time.
4/5 (Ape House APELP023 [25 O’Clock] and APELP024 [Psonic Psunspot])
Here’s another great album anniversary for me to go on about: English Settlement, the 1982 2LP set from XTC, turned 35 this week, and it’s yet another release with a distinguished place in my collection.
By the time the celebrated UK “new wave” band released this, their fifth album, XTC had had a few appearances on Top of the Pops under their belts, for songs like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Statue of Liberty,” and would do so a few more times over the next decade or so. Their principal songwriter, Andy Partridge, turned in some of his best songs for Settlement, as did bass player Colin Moulding. And yet, this album’s release – or at least the tour supporting it – was a huge missed opportunity that took the band years to recover from. That’s because Partridge finally succumbed to the stage fright that had been his nemesis since the band started, just as the band had begun a US tour that quite possibly would have “broke” them here. Their single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was topping college radio charts everywhere and its video was getting saturation play on MTV (which had only debuted in August ’81). The tour was cancelled after only a handful of shows (I’m still bummed because I had planned to attend their Seattle stop); who knows how the exposure would have helped them in America? It took XTC another four years to achieve similar visibility here (with the song “Dear God” from their 1986 album Skylarking). Regardless, today, English Settlement stands as a highwater mark for XTC.
The double album, as released in the UK, was a 15-song, 2LP affair that contained some of XTC’s best-known and best loved songs, such as “Senses,” “No Thugs in Our House” and “Knuckle Down” from Partridge, and “Ball and Chain,” “Runaways” and my new favorite “Fly on the Wall” from Moulding. As a double LP English Settlement is a staggeringly rich album, moving slightly away from the power-poppy, two guitars/bass/drums sound they’d established on Drums and Wires and Black Sea (1979 and 1980) to an earthy yet ballsy new place. This time, Partridge and guitarist Dave Gregory brought their electric 12-string and acoustic guitars, while Moulding frequently used a fretless bass to add to his sonic palette. Luckily, there was no let-up in Terry Chambers’ drumming and the album still had the all important anchor necessary to keep the songs within the band’s established wheelhouse. Sadly, when issued here in the US by Epic, the album was whittled down to a single LP and that really changed its feel. Yes, the “hit” singles were still there – “Senses,” “Ball and Chain” and “Thugs” were all released as 45s in England – but the flow was interrupted. You wouldn’t have known this if you were a casual XTC fan, but after I had devoured Black Sea the year before, I read up on these guys! I knew, according to Trouser Press or NY Rocker or maybe it was Creem, that the UK version was a double album, and that’s the one I wanted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be until the late ’80s when, after Skylarking had become a sensation, the band’s US label, Geffen (now distributing Virgin releases here) reissued the album in its original 2LP configuration. None of this matters now, because these days you have your choice of either full-length 2LP or single CD when buying it new.
Last year, Andy Partridge’s Ape House Records reissued English Settlement in a super deluxe 2LP box set (along with a similar treatment to Skylarking), and it’s epic. (Pun intended.) Not only do you get a real quiet, 180 gram 2LP pressing of the album, you get a full-color, 12″x12″ booklet and inserts detailing the making of the record, foibles with their label, and remembrances about the instrumentation and the way the band came to the songs’ arrangements. The mastering (by John Dent at Loud) is pretty nice and detailed, but I must say: it isn’t as immediate (or as loud, actually) as the original Virgin (UK) issue. Finally scoring a super clean copy of that last year, I was amazed at how much better it sounds than the 2016 Ape House vinyl or the most recent Virgin (UK)/Caroline (US) CD master from the early 2000s, let alone the Geffen vinyl. Though my newly treasured 1982 copy smells a bit musty, it kicks ass on the more recent issues. You know what my advice is? Knuckle down and find an original Virgin UK copy.
4/5 (Virgin V2223, 1982; Ape House APELPD105, 2016)
I reviewed a book about Andy Partridge’s songs, Complicated Game; see it here.
Released early this year, I was finally able to get a copy of Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC and naturally devoured it immediately. Being a huge fan of XTC and its two songwriters, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, this book has been on my radar since before it was announced. I’ve been an XTC devotee since I first discovered their 1980 album Black Sea, and haven’t deviated from that devotion since. XTC is a band that has really matured over the decades and their songwriting is at the forefront of that growth. I fully expected this book to illuminate Partridge’s songwriting and it completely lived up to its subtitle.
Born of a blog Todd Bernhardt helmed in the mid 2000s, the book is made up of interviews between Bernhardt and Partridge and separated into chapters devoted to a single song [not just songs that were singles, btw–ed.]. The chapters/interviews are arranged chronologically by when the song was first released on record, starting with “This Is Pop” and winding through “Roads Girdle the Globe,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Dear God,” “Mayor of Simpleton,” and on to “River of Orchids” and “Stupidly Happy.” In each dissection the interview covers everything from the initial spark of an idea for a song, to how it was arranged and recorded. If you’re an XTC fan you will really enjoy this book. Bernhardt is clearly a big fan of XTC, but he’s also a friend of Partridge’s and is able to stay focused (most of the time) on the substance of the song and not get sidetracked on little bits of trainspotter info. Both interviewer and interviewee are born humorists so the interviews veer between serious and humorous in a good balance.
If there’s anything that could be improved, it would be the release of a second volume. Partridge has written so many great songs that this one volume (nearly 400 pages) misses many of his best songs. The only other nitpick I have–and this is primarily because of the book’s subtitle–is that it does not include Partridge’s partner in XTC songwriting, Colin Moulding. He may not have written as many of the band’s songs, but Moulding has written some of the band’s best. Witness “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Ball and Chain,” and “King for a Day.” That being said, there’s a way to remedy that. They could come out with a second volume that includes more of Partridge’s songs and some of Moulding’s. Done and done.
4.5/5 (Jawbone Books)