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.”
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”
“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”
“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.
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.
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,
And all the people that you made in your image,
I can’t believe in you
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