Wednesday, March 12, 2014

XTC - Serious Skylarking

Now an exclusively studio-bound outfit, XTC returned to the fray in mid ‘83 with the release of the album ‘Mummer’ (UK#51), supported by the singles, the acoustically charged ‘Great Fire’, the soulfully smooth ‘Wonderland’, and the gently lilting ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’ (UK#50).  Though building on some of the foundations laid down by ‘English Settlement’, the album seemed to take  a step back in terms of having a coherent style, though in general it was critically well received in its intentions.

The late ’84 album, ‘The Big Express’ (UK#38/OZ#96), recovered some ground in terms of direction, and featured the delightful sea-shanty styled single ‘All You Pretty Girls’ (OZ#76), which I was very happy to eventually get hold of via the ‘Fossil Fuel’ compilation.  The follow up singles, the low key ‘This World Over’, and the raucous ‘Wake Up’ failed to awaken record buyers, though the band may have missed a trick in not releasing the enchanting portion of nostalgia-pop in the form of the sprightly ‘The Everyday Story Of Smalltown’.  Soon after the release of ‘The Big Express’, session drummer Pete Phippes took an express bus out of XTC, and was replaced by Ian Gregory (keyboardist Dave Gregory’s brother).

It was around this time that XTC sowed the seeds of a plan to break free of the confines of the band’s identity, and pursue greater artistic freedom, in a kind of insurgency against trying to satisfy the record labels with commercial success.  The band once more hooked up with producer John Leckie to release an EP titled ‘25 O’clock’ in mid ‘85 under the alter-ego come pseudonym Dukes Of Stratosphear, in the process tapping into some fresh artistic inspiration with a more overtly psychedelic offering, harking back to some of their earlier influences, and indeed parodying them.

The Dukes’ venture paid dividends with a rejuvenated XTC re-entering the studio during the first half of ‘86 in partnership with acclaimed producer Todd Rundgren.  There were some well documented clashes between Rundgren and Andy Partridge, but the end result was the critically acclaimed return to form on ‘Skylarking’ (UK#90/US#70).  The lead out single was the seductive ‘Grass’, penned by Colin Moulding.  The B-side was a Partridge penned song called ‘Dear God’ (which I ended up purchasing on a CD-EP.  Though ‘Grass’ didn’t grow on the charts, a college-radio DJ liked what they heard on the B-side and soon the lyrically biting agnostic anthem ‘Dear God’ became a hit on the American college-radio scene.  Overall the album borrowed from the best of earlier albums like ‘English Settlement’ and married it to the lushness of mid 60s psychedelic rock, evoking the echoes of later vintage Beatles and Beach Boys, and marrying polished lyrical arrangements with meticulous instrumentation.

It was during this period that XTC found itself embroiled in all manner of litigation, against a former manager, and with an unwieldy record label relationship - at that time Virgin handled them in the U.K., whilst in the U.S. Geffen released their work under a licensee agreement.  It all fed in to the general perception that XTC were not enamoured with the music industry.  Unperturbed by legal wrangling, or perhaps to spite it, the band once more adopted their Dukes Of Stratosphear guise to release the album, ‘Psonic Psunspot’ in August of ‘87 - in 1989, the EP ‘25 O’clock’ and album ‘Psonic Psunspot’ featured on a combined album release titled ‘Chips From The Chocolate Fireball’.  By the end of ‘87, Ian Gregory had left the fold, to be replaced by drummer Pat Mastelotto (formerly of Mr. Mister - see separate post).

With said litigation proceedings placed to one side, XTC returned to the studio in late ‘88 to begin work on their next album.  They were partnered this time with producer Paul Fox, and once more their was producer/artist friction as Partridge wrestled for creative control of the project.  The result of their endeavours was the creatively well received ‘Oranges And Lemons’ album (UK#28/US#44), released in February of ‘89.  The lead out single was the delightful dedication of love, ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’, which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time.  ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’ became XTC’s first foray into the U.S. Hot 100 (US#72/UK#44), and was backed up by the brilliant blue skies feel of ‘King For A Day’.  Overall the album is brimming with psychedelic sonic brushstrokes, echoing the Kinks’ Ray Davies at his finest on tracks such as ‘The Loving’, and even offering up the Jethro Tull like ‘One Of The Millions’. The album received constant airplay on U.S. college-radio, and ‘Oranges And Lemons’ was voted as 1989’s college-radio album of the year.

After two years had elapsed, XTC returned to the studio environment with a plethora of newly penned songs to record.  They emerged with 32 new tracks in all, which were apparently dismissed in their entirety by the band’s British label.  Unruffled, XTC remained firmly behind the songs they had recorded, and eventually negotiated the release of fifteen of them in the form of the 1992 album ‘Nonesuch’ (UK#28/ OZ#72/US#97).  Produced by Gus Dudgeon, the album featured the lead out single ‘The Disappointed’ a richly crafted song telling of the collective identity of the lovelorn among us.  I purchased the song on a CD-EP, and the track fared well in both Britain (#33), and Australia (#31). It was backed by an engaging medieval style promotional video.  The quirkily titled ‘The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead’ was also released as a single (UK#71).  ‘Nonsuch’ was a marrying of some of the band’s late 80s psychedelic trimmings, with a verdant pop sheen.

Perhaps weary of in studio conflict over creative control, and record label pressure, XTC mainstays Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding pulled the plug on the band once the dust had settled on ‘Nonsuch’.  Partridge, who always seemed to have a diverse and sizeable collection of songs on hand, released two albums of new material within two years - ‘Through The Hill’ in partnership with Harold Budd, and ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ with Martin Newell.  Over the ensuing years Partridge kept his hand in the studio, working with the likes of Mission U.K., and Lilac Time.

After six years had elapsed, Patridge and Moulding reappeared from seemingly nowhere with a brand new XTC album, ‘Apple Venus Volume 1’ (UK#42), featuring 11 new tracks, and in the process delighting long patient fans with an album that captured the essence of XTC at their very best.  The companion piece, ‘Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2)’, followed in 2000.

Though wider commercial success eluded XTC over the course of their journey, the band remained true to its influences and sonic vision, in the process gathering a legion of dedicated fans along the way.)))

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