22/3/16 – Originally Posted – 22/11/13 – XTC – Skylarking – 1986

Album Of The Day

XTC Skylarking Cover Art

When Skylarking was released in 1986, I must have been in America because I remember having it on pre-recorded cassette. These little convenient plastic boxes of sound were extremely popular there – more popular than anywhere else I’d been. It was something to do with the car culture, everyone had a car, everyone had a cassette player in the car, except of course for those that had 8 tracks. I only ever saw one 8 track player in an English car during the whole time that I was growing up and that car belonged to my Dad! Weird! It seems archaic now but in the early eighties buying cassettes was perfectly acceptable. A lot of albums were released on high quality cassettes, not like the ones you see on trendy t-shirts, but audiophile quality. They often had a see-through casing, and if I remember correctly the Skylarking cover folded out into a concertina of lyrics, credits and artwork. I was always very attracted to that turquoise. There is an alternate cover that you probably don’t know about – the rude cover! You can see it on Wikipedia by going to the link at the bottom of the page. The album title is allegedly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To A Skylark.”

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174413

The dictionary has a topical example and explanation of the word Lark:

(chiefly Brit.used to suggest that an activity is foolish or a waste of time: he’s serious about this music lark). Its origin is probably Scandinavia – Leka is the Swedish verb To Play.

Lastly on the title, the last line of  “To A Skylark” is:

“The world should listen then, as I am listening now.”

The World Won’t Listen, is a Smith’s compilation album that may also have been inspired by the same poem.

Skylarking the album is a melodic Beatlesque romp with a loose concept of a summer’s day somewhere in some imaginary meadow – I think. At least that’s where it starts out and on the surface the concept seems rather playful and hedonistic but as you dig deeper into the record, you find that reality is portrayed as something rather grim.

Original drummer Terry Chambers had played on the first five XTC albums and only guested on three tracks on Mummer, the sixth album before emigrating to Australia. Consequently the band hired a session drummer for each album since. On Skylarking they hired ex Tubes drummer Prairie Prince – or rather the producer did. The album was produced by the musical genius Todd Rundgren who in the seventies had indelicately declared that those iconic sixties productions were not magic or a forgotten art, and to prove it made side one of his seventh solo album, Faithful 1976, a list of re-recorded sacred cows in a daring challenge to these so called masterpieces. Not because he didn’t like them but because he knew how they did it and he could do it too. So note perfect versions of The Beach Boy’s Good Vibrations as well as The Beatles’ Rain and Strawberry Fields Forever and Jimi Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9 amongst others, was Rundgren showing off not only his studio prowess but his skills as a musician and a singer. So when you hear the stories about Rundgren and Andy Partridge, (singer and guitarist and the band’s leading light), having had a fraught relationship during the recording of this album, you can imagine it was probably true. Rundgren had not only made a fisful of fantastic solo albums in the seventies but had also produced landmark albums such as New York Dolls debut, Wave by The Patti Smith Group and Meat Loaf’s multi-zillion selling Bat Out Of Hell. He could play anything, sing anything, produce anything and was a fantastic songwriter to boot. Despite the clash of egos Andy Partridge has admitted that he did do a fantastic job of the arrangements and the making of the album as a whole.

The album was recorded in Woodstock in upstate New York, but keeps its Englishness intact, the first track Summer’s Cauldron has crickets, birds, frogs and buzzing insects (that’s insects, not bugs), as a backdrop to an oscillating keyboard and melodica played by Rundgren. This might just be an imaginary American field rather than an English meadow but as soon as Andy Partridge starts to sing, we are immediately back in Wiltshire. There is a perfect segue into the second song Grass and lyrically the two songs work so well together, bearing in mind that Andy Partridge wrote the first one and Colin Moulding the second. The unambiguous drug reference is washed away in the innocent  joy of adolesence. It’s almost a Carry On movie.

“Laying on the grass my heart it flares like fire
The way you slap my face just fills me with desire
You play hard to get
‘Cause you’re teacher’s pet
But when the boats have gone
We’ll take a tumble excuse for a fumble”

Ending with the insects again, Summer’s Cauldron (and ok Andy Partridge did say bug in the verse) and Grass set the scene for a lovely life to come. I can’t imagine what Rundgren must have made of this model of Englishness, Moulding sounds like a farmer when he sings this song, you can almost see the piece of straw hanging out of his mouth as he delights in the happy days. The fun continues with The Meeting Place, another Moulding composition. It sounds like a steam train at the beginning and the programming gives it a mechanical feel but not in a modern way, it’s more like a Victorian mechanical contraption. The song too has something of The Railway Children about it, if you remember the film. A nostalgic atmosphere pervades Moulding’s lyrics.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl is where the joy starts to seep out, not in the music but in the words. You can do anything, you can save the world but you can’t save us.

“How you’re changing all the world’s weather
But you couldn’t put us back together”

and later:

“How you stopped the universe from dying
But you’re never going to stop me crying”

Andy Partridge’s lyrics have either a poignant tragedy or a colourful imagery and sometimes both. If you compare this dark side to the opener, Summer’s Cauldron:

“Breathing in the boiling butter, fruit of sweating golden Inca
Please don’t heed my shout, I’m relaxing the undertow”

and later:

“Insect bomber Buddhist droning, copper chord of August’s organ
Please don’t heed my shout, I’m relaxing the undertow”

You’ll have noticed a certain turn for the worst, and it’s all downhill from here. On a happier note, musically the songs are uplifting with interesting parts, melodic and infectious – great hooks.

And on an even happier note, here is a picture of Eric Clapton’s psychedelic guitar that he played in Cream and Rundgren owned. Dave Gregory apparently used it to play that strange and interesting solo on That’s Really Super, Supergirl. Dave Gregory’s guitar parts are always a highlight behind these wonderful songs.

Clapton's Psychedelic Gison SG

So it’s not as if the lyrical downturn from euphoria to gloom is a bad thing – it’s just that the music doesn’t prepare you for this and when you know things are getting tough down there in reality land, it makes the album far more interesting and not just an old pop record from the mid-eighties.

The summer is really turning to rain in the next song, Ballet For A Rainy Day with its cascading melody and treated piano, it’s almost like a McCartney song in its melody and when it does end it’s a Beatles’ strings segue arranged by Rundgren into 1000 Umbrellas with its impossible melody. It defines Partridge as a fascinating songwriter and Rundgren as a talented arranger – is there anything he can’t do? Lyrically it’s raining in Andy’s heart again:

“So with a mop and a bucket
I’ll just say forget her
And carry on sweeping up
Where I’ve been weeping
The Jesters will creep in
To strike down the newly crowned monarch
Of Misery, oh oh, Misery”

What happened to the bees buzzing in the meadow and the hope? It’s all gone sour as the rain comes pouring down.

The upbeat pop of Season Cycle completes side 0ne with this English obsession with the weather, but Partridge asks – is God responsible for this, and why go to heaven when heaven is on Earth? God often appears in Partridge’s songs but as soon as you question him, he’s gone. “Who’s pushing the pedals on the Season cycle?”

This record should have been a match made in heaven because it’s a perfect collaboration – how sad that it had to be so traumatic and that this melodic masterpiece can’t be remembered affectionately by Partridge.

The Kink’s working class lyrical ghost appears from the dusty record sleeve behind the stereogram in Earn Enough For Us. Partridge paints an unpretty picture of normal life.

“I’ve been praying all the weeks through
At home, at work and on the bus
I’ve been praying, I can keep you
And to earn enough for us

I can take humiliation
And hurtful comments from the boss
I’m just praying by the weekend
I can earn enough for us”

This is powerful stuff, especially the line about the boss. Morrissey’s lyrical accolades are at least equalled here.

At this point, the record really is in a downward spiral. In Moulding’s The Big Day, there’s little hope for the future of love after marriage.

“It’s your big day, your big day
So you want to tie the knot
Tie it tight, don’t let it rot, the memory of this day
Are you deafened by the bells
Could be heaven, could be hell
In a cell for two”

It’s a pretty damn sad album this but you have to read the lyrics properly to know it. All that joy of summer on the beginning of side one seems to be slipping away as reality sets in.

Another Satellite  seems to be about a man who is single and trying to avoid another relationship with someone that is interested in him. It’s sadness and despair in cascading melodies – poisoned honey. Perhaps Partridge’s character could be from Mouldings failed Big Day?

Mermaid Smiled starts with acoustic guitar and xylophone (echoing the lyric) and seems to long for the magical world of childhood. Perhaps the idea is that the album sees the characters ageing through the songs? Am I making this is up? Seeing things that aren’t there? Did Paul McCartney die in the sixties? This song only appeared on the first pressing of the US album as it was replaced by Dear God, the B side of Grass on the second run as Dear God attracted attention from US DJ’s. On the CD releases both tracks feature.

The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul has a sixties TV show theme complete with Mission Impossible flutes and finale and an ugly lyric about the rotten insides of a selfish ego maniac and his festering soul. Partridge finds a really nasty character to sing about in this song. Just when you think it can’t get any worse Colin Moulding’s Dying seems to be about the death of his Gran and how he doesn’t want to go that way. He sets the scene so you can see her multi-coloured tea cosy and the drip on the end of her nose – I can see her sitting there ice cold, wrinkled skin, in her front room watching Coronation Street. Moulding ends his songwriting contribution to the album with Sacrificial Burning, of a person I think, or a witch maybe? Or is it a metaphor? I can’t see into this one? Colin?

On this version of the record, the last song is Dear God, Partridge’s lyrical masterpiece about the cruel mythical being that allows human suffering. This paean to Atheism is interesting in as much as Partridge addresses God and tells him he doesn’t exist. The opening is sung by eight year old Jasmine Veillette – in the video for some reason, it’s a boy?

It seems there was some controversy about this song in America? Well if doubting the concept of God is controversial? Then it’s controversial. If wondering about how an omnipotent creator could be responsible for the suffering that humans must endure is controversial? Then it’s controversial? But as an opinion about our existence then it’s not controversial at all. Controversy is often more prevalent in every day dealings in of some of God’s own disciples – a priest who takes advantage of children for example – that’s controversial. Doubting the existence of God does less harm than aggressively defending the possibility and killing for that idea – that’s controversial.

It’s the final nail in the coffin of this disappointing life as God lets you down. In the meantime whilst contemplating such agonising notions, the album does quite the opposite and makes you feel glad to be alive to experience its splendour.

Dear God

“Dear God, hope you got the letter, and…
I pray you can make it better down here.
I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer
But all the people that you made in your image,
See them starving on their feet ‘
‘Cause they don’t get enough to eat from God,
I can’t believe in you
Dear God, sorry to disturb you, but…
I feel that I should be heard loud and clear.
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
And all the people that you made in your image,
See them fighting in the street ’cause they can’t make opinions meet about God,
I can’t believe in you
Did you make disease, and the diamond blue?
Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!
Dear God, don’t know if you noticed, but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book,
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look,
And all the people that you made in your image
Still believing that junk is true.
Well I know it ain’t, and so do you, dear God,
I can’t believe in I don’t believe in
I won’t believe in heaven and hell. No saints, no sinners, no
devil as well. No pearly gates, no thorny crown. You’re always
letting us humans down. The wars you bring, the babes you
drown. Those lost at sea and never found, and it’s the same the
whole world ’round. The hurt I see helps to compound that
Father, Son and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax,
and if you’re up there you’d perceive that my heart’s here upon
my sleeve. If there’s one thing I don’t believe in
It’s you….”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylarking 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XTC

 

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14 Responses to “22/3/16 – Originally Posted – 22/11/13 – XTC – Skylarking – 1986”

  1. sansyou November 24, 2013 at 3:44 am #

    I can only add minor details all of which echo and affirm the splendor of this record. There is so much discover on every listen. The kind of record you would take to demo new stereo systems or speakers. And thank you Marty for noting the attractiveness of the aqua teal cover. Very agreeable indeed.

    • Grant November 24, 2013 at 6:20 am #

      XTC were critical of the mastering with the original release of Skylarking. According to David Gregory in an interview they got the “polarities wrong” (his words) and the result was a thinner sound than they would have liked. He went on to say that this problem was fixed in the remastered release and now sounds “gorgeous”. Anyway, this is one of my all time favourite albums by one of my all time favourite bands.

      The David Gregory interview

      • sansyou November 24, 2013 at 8:06 am #

        I trust DG…one more reason to buy the remastered cd. I had the original vinyl – still do. And the singles…and always thought it lacked a bit of low end…one of those cases where vinyl wasn’t necessarily better right out of the gate. Maybe this shows that its just a format…and a fallible one at that.

  2. jaw November 24, 2013 at 4:32 am #

    Nice one! Every time I play this record I hope it’s as good as what I have read about it. I enjoy the record, but it fails to blow me away. I just feel that the Dukes of Stratosphear material from this same time is far superior. My favorites on “Skylarking” are the opening and closing tunes. “Dear God” is an amazing track with a great melody, lyrics, and that Beatles bass. After reading your post, I will once again play through this record with open ears and hope there remains some discovery. For now I will put on “Psonic Psunspot”.

  3. SAW November 24, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    There are songs I want to hear, and then there are albums I want to listen to. Skylarking is an album I get the craving to list to (similar to Chinese food.)

  4. SAW November 24, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    p.s. 8 Track vs. Vinyl vs Cassette vs CD vs download. Don’t even get me started. I easily bought 20 copies of Heyday in most of these formats. This is how it went down —> IF I liked you, I gave you a copy of Heyday for x-mas. This went on for years. I spread the cheer. It was my go-to gift back then… that has kept on giving.

  5. cardinalmyrtle November 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    One of my favourite groups, but I have to agree with jaw that the Dukes stuff is the best. A slight correction re the fool SG. Todd sold it & its now believed to be in some Japanese collector’s bank vault. Todd has a pretty good copy & whipped it out at the Sydney gig as part of the Ringo All stars show. Here’s the wiki reference – Rundgren reportedly paid $500 for the guitar[6] and had various repairs done to it. He had the guitar finished anew and retouched in places, and a portion of the neck and headstock was replaced. Rundgren sold the guitar in 2000 at auction[7] for around $150,000[5][8] to pay off a tax debt, donating 10% to Clapton’s Crossroads Centre.[1] The Fool was resold to a private collector a few years later for around $500,000.

    • Marty Willson-Piper November 29, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

      Ah interesting yes, I wondered what the story was, have changed it to ‘owned’. The Fool, yes and $500,000 Jackie Lomax must been turning in his grave, I guess Clapton doesn’t need to worry about it. Thanks for the facts check, much appreciated

  6. Ege Bamyasi November 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    I remember when this came out and the interviews with Partridge about how Rundgren was so difficult to work with and how the band kept rejecting the mixes until Rundgren sais ‘this is the last one!’ I also remember telling people at the time that the day will come when Patridge will admit Rundgren did a great job on this album, and it did eventually happen many years later.

  7. fandorin November 28, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    What a wonderfully written in depth analysis of one of my very favourite albums. I guess i know each n every bar of it, but still, your view at the lyrics brought again some new aspects… The fall into darkness vs the absolutely stunning summery music? I love partridge s layful art to take some words n proverbs n old metaphors, twist them inside out and then letting them explode in a verse of genius. I can only imagine how his brain is wired, but it might not be too far from joyce s or carroll s….

    The god song…this is so spot on. And how dark they can be…. Travels in NIHILON….six minutes of hopelessness and then that creepy fake rain noise that sounds like god pissing all over his creation…

    And how i love apple venus 1, too…. I guess easter theatre is one of the greatest bits of pop music ever written the density of the lyrics makes you dizzy and the music is pure salvation. Green man….as if they might be giants would play led zep s kashmir with a score by vaughan williams .

    It s all so incredible rich, overflowing with fantastic ideas, weird ideas and at worst good ideas. But however, in times when not only a song, an album, a whole carreer, but the top forty can be build around the idea of the I – V – vii – IV chord progression plus someone screaming in autotune….

    Thank you, great essay!

  8. captain mission December 2, 2013 at 1:39 am #

    brilliantly written – i love skylarking, such a rich record, you are so correct, you start of all smiles and skipping through some pasture in wiltshire and end up up feeling sad and alone in london.

  9. Kiko Jones December 7, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    As much as I’ve enjoyed this wonderful album over the years, I’ve always taken exception to “Dear God”. Not b/c it questions the existence of a deity but b/c it’s been lauded despite its intellectually weak approach.

    “If there is a God, why is there–take your pick–evil, famine, suffering, et al in the world?”, is an unassailable question coming from a child, which is why Partridge claims he was inspired by the ‘Dear God’ line of children’s books to write the song. But the cynic in me believes Partridge is being disingenuous, since it would come off as quite dense for a grown man to ask why there are tragedies in a world with an existing deity. This would imply that the adult asking the question is under the impression that people of faith believe in a world with a supreme being as puppet master, to say nothing of the existence of free will and of a world run by mankind not by a deity. Which is a truth EVERYONE can agree on. No?

    In other words, Partridge is being heralded for eloquently asking a dumb ass question, in the guise of an enlightened thrashing.

  10. Marty Willson-Piper December 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    If you see it through the eyes of a child as seen in the video…It’s a fair question for a child to ask and if it is unassailable then that is something for the religious folk to consider when answering the question. The world has lots of bad things so it’s fair to expect some answers to suffering from a deity from a kid’s point of view at least? Ok I know from religious point of view, it doesn’t work like that, but atheists can’t be shaken from their beliefs and neither can people of faith, so I don’t think each others opinions as to how it works really matters to each side does it? There is no right or wrong, just opinion and intellectually weak, well atheists would have a field day with you on that one because THEIR premise is that the whole system of belief in God is intellectually weak – that’s their point!
    For me I didn’t grow up with religion on any level, it wasn’t in my life, consequently I don’t think much about it, it’s not in my bones…or any part of my existence. It’s something that other people do. And Andy Partridge don’t feel it man!!! So if you care what he thinks and then you think he is being disingenuous then there is no argument because you must take the opinion as true to argue the point or there’s no point for Partridge to write it or for you to bother disagreeing with it.
    I think the dilemma lies is in your answer, atheists don’t think about God in the context of puppet masters or free will or any of the stories, creation, Jesus. Nothing you say makes a difference because it’s just stories….and vice versa, religious people have an unquestioanable faith . And yes Mankind runs the world much to his chagrin.
    It’s a shame you can’t have a chat with Andy himself and discuss this, see what you think about it after that. Otherwise it’s all speculation anyway…as is the existence of God to atheists.

  11. keef2333 March 22, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    Just today I read an interview with Todd Rundgren who produced Skylarking. His recollection was that Andy wanted Dear God off the original pressing due to its theme. Rundgren new better. Dear God was released as a B-side then added to later versions after gaining radio airplay.

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