Strange Things Are Happening

“When I was a kid I wanted to be in a group, and that group are The Dukes.”
Andy Partridge, Swindon.
December 1987.
With the mega-wig-lifting 25 O'Clock and Psonic Psunspot behind them, what now for the Dukes?
A concept LP? Triple albums? Live shows at Pompeii?
HARVEY S. WILLIAMS jumps the train to Swindon . . .

It could be any terraced house in any row in any town, Great Britain, but this particular abode happens to be Andy Partridge's home in Swindon, Wilts. Mr. Partridge summons me to the attic, resplendent in his "Buster Gonad And His Unfeasibly Large Testicles" T-Shirt. Here he sits, along with moptop sidekick Dave Gregory surrounded by many curious items. Along with the usual middling-successful-rock-star trappings (keyboards, home recording equipment, the sampling machine Andy hasn't quite got the hang of yet) there are a fair few toys and games. Stacks of 'em. Everywhere. Battalions of Infantry vie for attention with characters from Forbidden Planet, castles and automobiles sit next to a strange Dalinian game that Andy invented which involves a superior race of ants. By the look of things Andy Partridge isn't your average muso. But then your average muso wouldn't even dream of a caper as elaborate as The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Andy began to talk about a crazed psychedelic experiment during the sessions for XTC's Go 2 album. In 1982 "a tentative drunken knockabout" at such a project resulted in two spur of the moment compositions which shall go down in the annals of history as "Orange Dust" and "Shaving Brush Boogie". It wasn't until 1984 that the full blown phazing monster really took shape with the emergence of 25 O'Clock, six tracks of witty Freak Beat that perfectly capture the essence of 1967 without meandering into the realms of seriousness. The melodies sparkle, the musicians twiddle; you're left with a feeling that you've heard all the songs before . . . but you can't quite place them. Which is the secret of The Dukes' success. Without wit or great songs The Dukes Of Stratosphear would dive into the depths of jokey self-indulgence and never come up for air; luckily they have both.

The Dukes of Stratosphear Songbook

A step-by-step guide to the psonic sounds of The Dukes Of Stratosphear by Andy Partridge and Dave Gregson.

Andy: "Brainiacs Daughter was a conscious attempt to write as if McCartney had tried to come up with a track around the time of Sgt. Pepper or Yellow Submarine - 1967/68 - so all the ingredients were picked to sound like McCartney. Banana fingers piano, descending chord changes, falsetto vocals, nonsensical lyrics . . . it's got the lot! We tried to make a McCartney psychedelic soup. People thought it was the Bonzos by the time we'd finished it."
Dave: "Or Thunderclap Newman!"

Andy: "Have You Seen Jackie was written for 25 O'Clock; it was called 'Have You Seen Sydney', a direct reference to our Syd. It's got smatterings of everything - the character and story are part Keith West/Teenage Opera/Mark Wirtz . . . the kids, the 'is he a boy is he a girl', the 'if you see him leave him alone' bits . . ."

Andy: "Pale And Precious is pretty obvious (A fine Beach Boys pastiche); that was the most difficult one to do. It's the best melody - the surf bit was a bit stupid - but the chords are churchy and Bach and all the stuff that Brian Wilson was into at the time."

Andy: "Vanishing Girl was steered towards The Hollies a lot. They had two lead singers at the same time, so both Colin and I sang the same so that the voices got smashed into this amorphous Hollies mess."

Andy: "Shiny Cage was brought up by Colin for The Big Express originally, but we said no because it was too stupidly Beatley - it was everything from Revolver all smashed into one song. Epiphone guitar stabs, tabla playing, backward guitar, a dissonant but melodic George Harrison guitar solo . . . George Martin would probably have thought it up and played it on the piano and Harrison would have had to learn it. It was again an attempt to forge an era and an area but smash it and condense it all into one track."

Andy: "Little Lighthouse was a track that we started to record for Skylarking. Todd (Rungren, producer) got bored with it, so I thought The Dukes could do it. The Dukes made it sound like a lot of bands that imitated the Stones."

Andy: "You're My Drug is meant to be a mixture of Monterey by The Animals and So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star. Monterey is a favorite joke - I dunno what Californians thought of Eric Burdon. He was a Newcastle dwarf, a gnarled Geordie mystic! It was an XTC song, but it was too much like the Byrds; the chord change is so West Coast. So we thought let The Dukes do it like The Byrds!"

Andy: "You're A Good Man Albert Brown is pub psychedelia; an attempt to be anyone who ever did a pub single . . . it's the sound of the pub on the corner of Carnaby Street."
Dave: "The Wah-Wah and Sceptre!"
Andy: "There'd be a Chelsea Pensioner sitting outside - Steve Marriot's grandad! Jimi Hendrix would be popping in between sets at The Marquee for half pints . . . it's like Oscar's Over The Wall We Go, Whistling Jack Smith's I Was Kaiser Bills Batman, The Universal, a couple of Bonzos things."

Andy: "Colin wrote The Affiliated for our next album but wanted to do it quick before we got bored with it, so changed the character of it to be slightly more Ray Davies. The middle section was an attempt to be like Unit 4+2's Concrete And Clay; percussion, acoustic guitars, a slightly latin feel."

Andy: "Collideascope is Lennon - except that the chords were picked because they sound like The Move's Blackberry Way - it's The Move stealing from The Beatles. I had the lyrics for it in 1978 but didn't use them because I thought they were too psychedelic. The sound effects are from the film Nearest And Dearest with Jimmy Jewell and Hilda Baker . . . and there's a scream from the BBC sound effects library."

Andy: "Your Gold Dress was the first things written for 25 O'Clock. I came up with the stupidest riff in the history of riffs and thought it was spot on."
Dave: "We borrowed Nicky Hopkins sound from She's A Rainbow."
Andy: "He made Satanic Majesties - The Stones would have fallen apart at that time without Nicky Hopkins. He is We Love You. One of my favorite ever albums.

Andy: "What In The World is bits of Manfred Mann, bits of Only A Northern Song and It's All Too Much; there's also half a dozen ECM records spun in by hand."

Andy: "My Love Explodes is The Yardbirds' Over Under Sideways Down mixed with The Pretty Things, or anyone who had an armful of marracas and a basin haircut."

The story goes that in 1984 Andy and producer John Leckie were summoned to work on an LP by Canadian singer Mary Margret O'Hara. "She's a nutter!" recalls Andy, "she's so weird she ought to be in a mental home, not on a stage!" the pair of them got thrown off the project after three days without even recording a note.

Andy: "I was sacked because my vibes weren't right and Leckie was sacked because seeing as she was a strict catholic she couldn't condone anyone belonging to a religion that promotes free love being in the control room at the same time as her..."

Dave: "Andy's vibes weren't right because he insisted that the band tune up!"

Andy: "I insisted they rehearse! I'd heard them knocking these songs through one night and I was shocked! It was like The Shaggs!"

Dave: "And this is a man whose favorite album is Trout Mask Replica! And it shocked him!"

So they were dutifully sacked and found themselves with a months free time. Andy had written three tracks for the psyche project so 25 O'Clock was underway. Richard Branson's mob at Virgin, home of many dodgy early 70's concepts, weren't too keen to fund it however . . .

Dave: "They were really cynical about it and said to us ‘If you can bring it in for less than five grand, go and do it.’"

Andy: "We ended up giving them a grand change! We did it in a converted church in a little village near Hereford. The top part of the church was a storehouse for a religious label . . . the guy that ran the studio lets it out to pagans like us . . ."

The finished project took just two weeks to complete, thanks to a lot of hard work by John Leckie.

Andy: "He's got very good psychedelic credentials, which is why he was picked. He mixed Floyd's ‘Vegetable Man’ on his own - they all went home one evening and said ‘You mix this!’ And he was only a seventeen year old tea boy working at Abbey Road at the time . . ."

Plans were even afoot for a Dukes Of Stratosphear film, which apparently may still be made for Channel 4.

Andy: "It was a secret project Godley and Creme's Media Lab were going to do - they were making a lot of money out of videos, and decided that they were going to make a video which included a load of clues to where treasure of some kind was hidden in England, like Masquerade or the Cadbury's Great Gold Egg Mystery. Steve Blood, who worked for them, was a big fan of the band - we'd just brought out 25 O'Clock and he thought it would be great if we did a thing involving all the music from 25 O'Clock and a story. Not with us in it, but with a younger set of lads who looked seventeen or eighteen. They were going to make it period piece 1967, with clues to where a 25 hour clock (which was going to be made out of silver and gold) was hidden in the video. Media Lab sacked Steve before it came to light, but he had a very elaborate storyboard drawn up. They even made us sign a letter promising not to tell anyone where it was hidden, but it never came to light."

The story line involves Uncle Alfred, who appears in Bike Ride To The Moon, inventing a 25 hour clock as a promotional device for The Dukes. Little known to Alfred, The Moles From The Ministry Of Time, who live underground in an enormous palace shaped like a grandfather clock, are keen to get their mits on his invention. They burrow up to surface level in machines that look like Big Ben (Are you sure about this? - Ed) and steal the 25 hour clock, since it would cause all kinds of havoc. The Dukes attempt to reclaim the clock, leaving clues to its whereabouts along the way. "It's really tacky - it would have made a great Catch Us If You Can type movie" ponders Andy. Still, 25 O'Clock faired better than Virgin had reckoned for - it sold 30 000 copies in Britain, which is twice as many as the last XTC album had! Initially the plan was to keep The Dukes' identity secret, but by now the XTC/Dukes connection was coming to light. It had been going on for quite a while before 25 O'Clock - Andy recalls that "in 1975 when we were changing our name from The Helium Kids, the two names that were in the air were either The Dukes Of Stratosphear or XTC. I thought that The Dukes Of Stratosphear was too 1967. There's a bit of strange parallel history going on . . ." Even to the extent that when XTC were recording Skylarking they made a deliberate attempt not to sound like The Dukes!

The second album was a harder task. "We'd created this Frankenstein! Initially I didn't want to do another album because it was a one-off thing, but despite feeble protestations I was here writing stuff like Collideascope." The second LP sees The Dukes gradually progressing, to about Spring 1968. The production is cleaner, the influences less immediate, but it is an altogether more rewarding album. By this time Virgin were fairly happy with The Dukes progress; the album sold 60 000 copies in America and 30 000 in Britain. Having been with the label for ten years, surely the band(s) must have a good relationship with the by now?

Dave: "We're just part of the furniture. As Andy has said, we are to Virgin as the ravens are to the Tower of London. If we go, the whole empire will collapse!"

Andy: "They quite like us as pets..."

Dave: "We're the Virgin mascot!"

Andy: "The Virgin goat! We've got a lot of fans there, which is why we're still on the label, but also because now we've had quite a chunk of success in America. We sold a quarter of a million copies of Skylarking, plus the back catalogue is going. We've had some terrible labels in The States - we're on Geffen at the moment - I'm not sure I trust them either!"

So what next for The Dukes? Progressive Rock? Heavy Metal? Will The Dukes even exist for another LP?

Andy: "If we do anything more they'll either become The Stratosphear Gang and do a glitter album, or they'll be The Dukes, before they got stratosphied . . . they should sound like The Merseybeats of The Easybeats, before they started getting a bit bendy. The Equals, Dave Clark Five . . . I'd love to write a song for The Troggs!" We at Strange Things sincerely hope The Dukes choose the latter path. In the meantime we have two fine albums to listen to - roll on the next XTC LP!

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[Thanks to Simon Sleightholm, Steve Schiavo, and Stewart Russell]