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!
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com