August 2004

All-Time Classics: Skylarking by XTC

BY 1985, SWINDON's XTC were in what O Brother, Where Are Thou's Everett Ulysses McGill might have termed "a tight spot". Their album sales had steadily declined since 1982's English Settlement, Andy Partridge's retirement from live performance had reduced the band to a studio unit, and they had utterly failed to make any kind of commercial impact in America. The patience of UK label Virgin — and US counterpart Geffen — was about to run out.

Out of this desperate situation came the suggestion from Virgin executive Jeremy Lascelles that the band hire US pop genius and devout Anglophile Todd Rundgren to produce their next album. Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory agreed, and sent Rundgren a bunch of demos, thus embarking on a journey that would take the band perilously close to meltdown.

Rundgren quickly edited his favourite tracks into a ‘day in the life / life in a day’-type concept album — a move that irked Partridge. "You hadn't spoken to the bloke for three minutes," he remarked, "and he'd already been hacking and throwing your work in the bin, y'know? ‘Oh, my babies!’"

This was just the prologue to and extended and bitter conflict between artist and produced. Once ensconced in a comfort-free shack on the grounds of Rundgren's Utopia complex in upstate New York, the producer's sarcasm and heavy-handed criticism found little favour with the XTC leader: "He'd say, ‘OK, let's hear how the song goes.’ I'd do one warm-up and he's say, ‘Well that's really shit.’ I'd say, ‘It's OK, I'm just warming up.’ He'd go, ‘Well, it's too awful, you're not doing it right at all. I'll come down, sing it how you should be singing it, then you can have that in your headphones and sing it like I sing it.’ I'd think, ‘Fucking hell! Arrogant or what? It's not even your tune!’"

Partridge also developed serious reservations about Rundgren's idiosyncratic approach to recording: "You had to play all the songs in the order they were gonna be on the album. ‘We're booking two-minutes-50 of tape, and that point I've marked with chalk you have to put your hands on the guitar and stop it ringing, because that's where we're gonna drop in the drumkit that starts the next song.’ I don't know whether Rundgren is a Scottish name, but it was all done with this. . . extreme tightness. He didn't wanna spend out on reels of tape."

The growing tension between Partridge's perfectionism and Rundgren's chop-'em-out approach culminated in the temporary loss of Moulding. "Andy and myself had a bit of a falling out about it one day," relates the bassist. "It was over the bass line to ‘Earn Enough For Us’. Todd used to get very bored if you couldn't do a thing in one or two takes, and I tried to adopt his philosophy, lay it down with a certain spirit and not worry too much about whether it was technically correct. But it didn't sit well with Partridge. We ended up having an argument about it and I told him where to get off, basically. I came back into the fold, but I was sore for a while."

Despite its painful birth, and the fact Rundgren was forced by an unhappy XTC and Virgin to submit three mixes of the album before finally abandoning the project, Skylarking was a triumph, a multi-layered and whimsical classic of magic-realist pop. Take the opening sequence of "Summer's Cauldron" and "Grass": the former fades in amid a miasma of sampled crickets, birdsong and a tremulous keyboard drone reminiscent of Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom, before Partridge's lyric conjures up a deliriously hazy summer scene: "Drowning here in summer's cauldron / Under mats of flower lava / Please don't pull me out, this is how I would want to go." The combination of Partridge's Dylan Thomas-inspired lyricism and Rundgren's beautifully textured production results in a sound so voluptuous you can practically feel it. Then, as the song reaches its emotional peak, it bursts bud-like into Moulding's ode to outdoor fornication — which neatly concludes with the previous song's opening drone.

LABEL Virgin

PRODUCED BY Todd Rundgren


MUSICIANS Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass guitar), Dave Gregory (vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer, chamberlin), Prairie Prince (drums), Mingo Lewis (percussion), The Beech Avenue Boys (backing vocals)

TRACKS; Summer's Cauldron/Grass/The Meeting Place/That's Really Super, Supergirl/Ballet for a Rainy Day/1000 Umbrellas/Season Cycle/Earn Enough for Us/Big Day/Another Satellite/Mermaid Smiled/The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul/Dying/Sacrificial Bonfire/Dear God

Moulding's "The Meeting Place" features industrial-lite percussion, introduced because the band had yet to recruit a drummer (The Tubes' Prairie Prince recorded drum tracks later in San Francisco). "We had to cut everything to clicks and mechanical noises," says Partridge. "We sampled them to make a rhythm so we'd have something to play to and it became integral to the song." "Ballet For A Rainy Day", "1000 Umbrellas" and "Season Cycle" distil the flawless orch-pop of Smile and Abbey Road into a handy three-song suite, paving the way for the string-stroking likes of Beachwood Sparks. "Earn Enough For Us" and "Big Day" are typically breezy XTC power-pop nuggets while the mordant, chiming rebuke of "Another Satellite" signals a shift into darker, more personal areas. The jazzy aquaphilia of "Mermaid Smiled" provides momentary respite, but it's with Skylarking's final four songs that a nocturnal chill creeps in.

"The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" began as "Leonard Cohen With Can Backing Him Up" but ended up (at Rundgren's suggestion) as a John Barry-esque spy theme. "Dying", Moulding's hushed essay on old age and mortality, is as bleak and black as Alex Chilton's "Holocaust": "We felt so guilty when we played you up / When you were ill, so ill. . . I'm getting older too / And I don't want to die like you." Tick-tock percussion counts down the seconds until the end.

Moulding's lushly orchestrated "Sacrificial Bonfire" concluded the UK pressing of Skylarking until Virgin restored Partridge's "Dear God" to the running order of their 2001 CD reissue. A furious tirade against organised religion dressed up as a letter to the Big Guy himself, its first verse is sung by 10-year old Jasmine Veillette before Partridge steps in and the song builds to a violently atheistic climax: "I won't believe in Heaven or Hell / No saints, no sinners, no Devil as well / And it's the same the whole world 'round / The hurt I see helps you compound / That father, son and holy ghost is just somebody's unholy hoax." Partridge considers the song an inadequate summary of an enormous and complex subject. Nevertheless, "Dear God" was a massive college radio hit in the US, contributing greatly to Skylarking's modest (but label-pacifying) stateside success.

These days XTC rate Skylarking as one of their best. "We came away with an album that we never expected to sound the way it does," reflects Gregory, proudly. "It's technically flawed, but at the same time it's coming from a unique place. There was nothing else in 1986 that sounded anything like it. It was this very soft of organic thing. And none of the songs wear out their welcome."

XTC would go on to face further crises and create further classics, but Skylarking is the album that tied up everything great about Swindon's finest into one big beautiful package of perfect pop, saving their career in the process. Thank (Dear) God.

The agony and the XTC: Partridge, Gregory and Moulding

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© IPC MEDIA 2004, All rights reserved.
[Thanks to Jamie Lowe]