The Dukes of Straosphear
25 O'Clock and Psionic Psunspot
A little over 20 years ago, the British band XTC was coming
to terms with the fact that they were the most talented band in the world,
perhaps the only band around viably inheriting the Beatles' mantle as grand elevators
of pop music. Yet, the Beatles were first and foremost stars; even as they
withdrew and became less lovable and cuddly, they maintained their buffed
shine. XTC bypassed the star part and
went straight to recluse. Their lack of touring has been attributed to Andy
Partridge's rumored chronic stage fright, or whispers that the band members
actually can't stand each other. Because they are artists first and consciously not stars, no one
really cares why. Smart listeners caught
on to them along the way and hung on for the ride, providing enough coin in the
coffers to keep the studio running, and in 1985 they were working furiously on Skylarking, not only their best album,
but one of the best rock records ever made.
Why three-fourths of the group adopted the moniker the Dukes of
Stratosphear and crafted 25 O'Clock, an
EP of proto-retro genius is anyone's guess. Maybe they knew they were making
their Sgt. Peppers and after that you can't really go back and be the rock band you wanted to be as an eager kid. Maybe
they wanted to have one last shot at fun. They were a rock band of staggering
talent after all. 25 O'Clock, released without a mention of XTC on its sleeve, is six
songs of parody so spot-on it is actually better than the bubblegum psychedelic
it parodies. The title cut arrives like a sinister version of the Ventures plowing
their dune buggy through a clock shop, bending time and space to 25 O'Clock! We'll be together to the end of
time! "Bike Ride to the Moon" is more like the hyper-pop XTC tossed out on The Big Express peppered with swoons and
sound effects, where as 'My Love Explodes" is pure power-pop strafing run from
the Royal Teenage Air Patrol. "What in the World??" is a clever send up of "Tomorrow Never Knows" with scratched turntables popping up with the sitars and squiggly
Pier One Eastern touches, "Your Gold Dress" is odd, plodding yet intoxicating
fuzz menace, and "The Mole Form the Ministry" sounds like what XTC might
throw together right after watching Yellow Submarine over the lunch break.
25 O'Clock is a
nice lark, but one that had a lasting effect on the few of us that heard it,
and evidently the band as well. Skylarking
raised expectations this band never would meet again. The
subsequent XTC albums are things of rarefied craftsmanship, but the songs are
nearly sealed in plastic, untouchable and for this fan, hard to embrace. Maybe the band saw this coming and strapped
on their Dukes of Stratosphear wigs for one more run with 1987's full album Psionic Psunspot.
If 25 O'Clock was
an skit, Psionic Psunspot is method
acting, for this album emerges fully formed. The songs are among the finest in the
XTC catalog. "Vanishing Girl", "You're My Drug", and "Shiny Cage" pick
delicately from the Kinks and the Byrds to craft some of the best songs to
never actually have come from the 60's. "You're a Good man, Albert brown" is a
spot on parody on Paul McCartney's Vaudeville pop; "Pale and Precious" nails the
Brian Wilson thing down to the jingle bells.
Pythonesque interludes separate the songs. The whole thing shimmers
with lysergic joy.
Where this diverges from homage-based entertainment like The
Foxboro Hottubs or the Smithereens' recent revisionist projects is Andy
Partridge's razor-sharp cleverness. "Have
You Seen Jackie?" is a hilarious and celebratory tale of a young cross-dressing
boy; you almost feel the neighborhood emerging from their houses like a dance
number from Hairspray at the chorus. "Collideascope" at first seems like the
usual topsy-turvy psyche number but in the chorus, the angles croon wakey wakey little sleeper, if you go much
longer then dreams turn to nightmares, and the song takes a swirly sinister
bent, opening a vortex under foot and you find yourself hanging on to the magic
carpet to keep from being sucked in.
These kind of architectural touches are rife throughout XTC's
ensuing catalog, but just as stage fright possibly kept the band from playing
live, a reluctance to mingle in the messier sides of life permeates the increasingly
Apollonian output of the band. Which is too bad, really, because XTC is in the pantheon
of great bands, and in the form of The Dukes of Stratosphear, we can relive a
time when they came closest to walking among us.
The two albums are lovingly reissued on Partridge's Ape House imprint, lovingly exploded with demo tracks and outtakes. One drop and it's like it's 1985 pretending it's 1965 all over again!