Tag Archives: XTC

Rock N’ Read: Complicated Game Inside The Songs of XTC

‘I think it was the middle of 2000 when I was introduced to XTC via the band’s final swan song APPLE VENUS VOLUME 2 (WASP STAR). I remember being totally blown away by the band and eagerly devoured that album as well as the 1999 release APPLE VENUS VOLUME 1. I’ve always been a fan of lush, literate pop songs and that happens to be XTC’s specialty. I dove head first into XTC’s back catalogue and was surprised to learn that the band start out as a punk/New Wave outfit before slowly morphing into a Beatle-esque pop band. One of the reason the band never took off is because the band famously stopped touring due to lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Partridge retreated from the spotlight after 2000 and the band only popped up on my radar occasionally when they released a smattering of demos and alternate takes of their previous output. The band remained a bit of a mystery to me, outside of their music for years, and other than one grizzled-looking CD Warehouse employee I never met anyone that seemed to be aware of them. I recently learned that Partridge has stepped back into the spotlight a bit via Twitter and writing for a few other artists (namely The Monkees whose new album I have previously reviewed).

XTC-Andy-Partridge-cover.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

Writer Todd Bernhardt has spent the past decade interviewing Partridge on many of XTC’s greatest songs. Apparently, these interviews were posted on a now-defunct fan website. His book Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC collects and expands upon these interviews. This sort of book, a back and forth conversation between a writer/reporter and an artist, is probably my favorite type of long-form music writing. I love hearing an artist talk at length about their work. I eagerly dove into the book, ready to finally get insight into some of my all-time favorite pop songs. And to that end, Complicated Game succeeds in spades. My only issue with the book is that it dives very deep into the mechanics of these songs. If you’re a musician and a can follow Bernhardt and Partridge’s conversation about chord changes and keyboard filters, then this book will be a treasure trove of information. If, however, you aren’t a musician and are a bit of a dunce like me you’re going to be a bit lost in a good chunk of the book. There are great behind the scenes tales and for the most part, Partridge answers all of Bernhardt’s questions with honesty and aplomb (no dodging here).

The best chapters focused on the band’s most famous song and one of their more obscure songs. I found the chapter on “Dear God” to be highly illuminating. “Dear God” has fascinated me for many reasons and I was very interested in learning about the song’s development and the how and why it was initially left off of the band’s album SKYLARKING (and how it got added back once the song took off and became XTC’s biggest hit). The reasons behind its omission aren’t quite what I was expecting and its addition to the tightly structured concept album SKYLARKING is less problematic than I’d always considered. The chapter on one of XTC’s side project The Dukes of Stratosphere songs was also very intriguing. I’d always wanted to know how the psychedelic alter-ego band came about and how this project’s songs were crafted. Those two chapters made Complicated Game worth every penny for me. The insight provided into the band’s other songs were interesting as well, though there were a few songs not covered that I’d have liked to have read about. The book also spends quite a bit of time discussing Swindon, the English town where Partridge lives and wrote about extensively in many of XTC’s songs. I’d always pictured a Kinks-esque VILLAGE GREEN type hamlet but Complicated Game paints a more realistic version. I was a bit disappointed that the band’s bassist, Colin Moulding, didn’t get as many props from Partridge as I’d have thought. Sure, Andy was generous on more than a few occasions when discussing Moulding’s bass parts…but he didn’t gush the way I’d have thought. I know the two had a bit of a falling out, but this still struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m a bit too sensitive when it comes to Moulding, whom I have always felt was an overlooked genius.

I’d recommend this book to only the hardest of hardcore XTC/Andy Partridge fans. I think that if you’re a huge fan hungering for more information on the band and their creative process, you should check this book out right away. If you’re a casual fan or someone unwilling to sift through some serious technical music-talk, then you should proceed with caution. Andy Partridge is a humble genius and much of the discussion found in Complicated Game will go over your head (it went over mine). There are a few songs/chapters where Andy’s recollections are a bit on the sparse side, but even when the songwriter can’t recall every single detail he’s able to provide a lot of insightful analysis of the song. Lastly, I very much doubt that Mr. Partridge will happen upon this review, but if he does (or if Mr. Bernhardt sees this) I’d very much like to convey to him how happy I would be if he were put out brand-new music. Demos and fuzzy warbles are fun, but nothing beats fully-finished tunes. The song he penned for the latest Monkees album was a slice of brilliance the world needs more of these days.

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“Grass” by XTC

“It would shock you, too/the things we used to do on grass…”

Though Andy Partridge is the lead-mad genius of British New Wave rocker XTC, my all-time favorite song by the band was written and sung by Colin Moulding.  The lighthearted, easygoing bassist was very much the McCartney in XTC.  His songs are guided more by the heart than the more cerebral, neurotic songs written by Partridge.  Of the two, Moulding is very much the one who comes across as an average bloke, the sort of guy you could have a beer with down at the pub.  That’s not to say Moulding was incapable to complex, witty, psychedelic numbers like Partridge.

xtc-grass-virgin

Moulding’s song “Grass” off the band’s 1986 album SKYLARKING is my favorite XTC song for a couple of reasons. For one, its surreal, psychedelic sweep is beyond splendid. The song opens with a sweeping string arrangement and chirping bird sounds (the album does anyway, the single version doesn’t have the sound effects). Lyrically, the song is both about having sex in a field and having sex while under the influence of marijuana.  The song is loaded with delightful double-entrees that are cute and not skeevy like I’m making it sound.  While it’s by no means high poetry, I’ve always enjoyed the cheeky, very British, wordplay of “Grass.”

“Grass” was written and recorded in the late 1980’s, at a time when it was pretty uncool to like The Beatles. Sure, there were bands like Tears For Fears mining The Beatles pop territory, but it was done in a most un-Beatle way. “Grass” was a desperate stab at a much-needed American hit single.  The song got XTC a hit in the States, but not in the way the band predicted: DJ’s ignored “Grass” and made the song’s b-side “Dear God” a surprise hit instead.  Produced by super-producer Todd Rundgren, the song never got it’s due in my opinion.  I think “Dear God” is a very good song, but by no means as representative of XTC and what the band stood for as “Grass.”

A great way to start Spring, enjoy “Grass”:

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BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME

Big Star is one of those bands that prove that life isn’t fair.  We like to tell ourselves, especially here in the United States, that the cream always rises to the top.  The deck may not always be stacked in our favor, but with a little hard work and talent you’ll always succeed. Wrong.  Sometimes the best and brightest, the most talented people on the planet are ignored.  When this happens we search for a reason, a why that fits with our grand vision of an inherently fair universe.  English rockers XTC are a good example.  They didn’t get famous because their lead singer developed crippling stage anxiety, right?  Well that didn’t stop Brian Wilson, who stuck to the studio and still managed to find success. The truth is not everyone with big talent winds up a big star.

I happened upon Big Star the way most people do: by reading album reviews.  Once I got into indie bands, I started reading reviews in which critics compared bands to The Beatles and Big Star, always it seemed it was those two bands.  The first band I knew pretty well and so I was able to make the connection the critical shorthand was conveying.  But what the heck was Big Star?  Bands that I thought sounded a bit like Cheap Trick were often said to be “Big Star-ish.”  At a certain point, I got tired of being out of the loop and I ordered a copy of #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY.  That this disc was actually a bastardization of two albums was something I only learned later.  By fusing the band’s first two albums together, Big Star’s current corporate owners created the single greatest dollar-per-song ratio of any album I’ve ever purchased.  For video game fans, #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY is the musical equivalent of Valve’s Orange Box.  The damn thing is basically a Greatest Hits record.

Except, there were no hits.   I didn’t understand what happened, or why, until I sat down and watched Drew DeNicola’s documentary NOTHING CAN HURT ME.  The answers aren’t as simple as the band didn’t sell albums because “X” happened.  The band formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970’s and got hooked up with the floundering STAX records.  Known more for soul/R&B music, STAX and its demise are a large part of the reason Big Star remained unknown for so very long.  But just blaming a label is an oversimplification.  The truth, which NOTHING CAN HURT ME explores, is more complex.

big_star_nothing_can_hurt_me

Lead singer Alex Chilton and singer/guitarist Chris Bell formed a fragile, Lennon-McCartney relationship that produced the confidently-titled #1 RECORD. The album failed to connect with rock fans despite a frustratingly large amount of critical acclaim.  Dejected, Bell left the band and sort of lost his mind.  This is where Big Star started to fall apart.  A second album RADIO CITY, was produced, and was met with even greater critical acclaim and even less commercial success. Part of the album’s failure certainly had to do with the aforementioned STAX going belly-up after years of mis-management.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME follows Chilton and Bell as they spend the rest of their post RADIO CITY-lives in a stunned dazed wondering how had something so good gone unrecognized?  Bell winds up working at a fast food restaurant where fans eventually find him and track him down.  Chilton, who stayed in the public eye by remaining in music, became the target of ire because he chose to step away from the power-pop of Big Star and record avante-garde punk.

The film does a good job of charting the band’s rise.  In fact, it does such a good job that when the band’s albums fail to make an impact I found myself a little surprised, even though I knew the band’s history.  I also appreciated the interviews with Bell’s sister near the end, who is both bitter about how the music industry had so deeply hurt her brother and amazed that fans now make pilgrimages to his old home.  There were very few startling revelations in the film, with one notable exception.  As someone that got on the Big Star bandwagon very late (but then again, aren’t we all?) I was shocked to learn that Big Star was really Bell’s band and not Chilton’s.  Listening to Bell’s posthumously released solo album, I AM THE COSMOS (which I hadn’t even known existed), it becomes apparent where the bulk of the Big Star magic originated.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME while worth watching, isn’t perfect.  The documentary doesn’t feature any interviews with either Bell or Chilton because, sadly, they’re both dead.  Bell died tragically at age 27 and Chilton a few years before the 2012 documentary was shot.  Their absence from the film is glaring and the unfortunate result of the band’s delayed fame.  Another glaring omission, in my opinion, is a proper explanation of  Big Star’s legend and how the band’s cult following grew over the years.  This should be the heart of the documentary but instead is glossed over.  I’d have liked for NOTHING CAN HURT ME to show me how this obscure Memphis band appreciated over time until I had no choice but to seek out their albums just so I’d know what everyone was talking about.   Alas, the documentary choses to focus on the sad trajectory of Chris Bell’s life rather than explore how Big Star got so much underground notoriety.

Overall, I enjoyed NOTHING CAN HURT ME, but I still feel like there’s a better Big Star documentary out there somewhere.  Or at least, one that’s a more definitive look at the band’s life and resurrection.  Of course, without Bell and Chilton, that’s probably not true.  I’d recommend the film, but only after you’ve listened to #1 RECORD and RADIO CITY a few times.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME is available now on Netflix’s US instant-streaming service.

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“Melt The Guns” by XTC

Once again tragedy, a preventable tragedy in my opinion, has struck the United States.  Every time this happens I wonder how much longer we’ll allow the madness that is our gun laws to continue.

Anyway, this is a music blog, so I’m just gonna let XTC do all my talking for me, they had the right idea way back in 1982:

 

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Classic Albums Revisited: The Greatest Living Englishman

I’m sure 99.999% have never heard of Martin Newell and The Cleaners From Venus.  They’re not household names.  Newell formed The Cleaners in 1980 and put out a couple of really fantastic, old-school 1960’s-esque British pop albums.  They were all released on cassette and put out via a West German label.  Here in the States, the Cleaners two RCA albums have been re-released on CD a few times, but with little fanfare.  I strongly urge you to seek out GOING TO ENGLAND, it’s a fantastic album.   England, that dreariest of islands, has an incredible ability to churn out super-talented songwriters.  Mr. Martin Newell is such a songwriter.  Though the Cleaners albums were all shoddily recorded,  I’m always amazed at how his songs pop and rise above the limitations of their production.

Ah! Just look at that healthy, British complexion.

It wasn’t very cool to like The Beatles in the 1980s, especially in England.  Punk and New Wave were all about going forward, not looking back.   I suspect that this is part of the reason Newell & The Cleaners From Venus were never able to hit it big.  Steeped heavily in 60’s pop, Newell worships at the alter of Lennon which is  evident the first time you hear his songs.  And just like Lennon, Newell is big on melody, wit, and cynicism.

By 1993 Newell had given up on The Cleaners of Venus and decided to start a solo career.  His solo debut, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN, got a major boost when XTC frontman Andy Partridge agreed to produce the record (and play drums).  Like Newell, Partridge was a Beatle-fan at a time when being Beatle-fan wasn’t in vogue, the two were musical blood-brothers. And while XTC was by no means the world’s most popular band, they’d had enough success worldwide that Partridge’s involvement in THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN helped boost interest in the album get heard over here in the U.S.

THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is a fantastic record, dripping with catchy hooks.  The music is very Beatle-esque with a Kinks-like lyrical slant.  This is a very, very British record.  The album opener, the sublime “Goodbye Dreaming Fields,” recalls Ray Davies waxing nostalgic for the village green—although for Newell it’s a dancehall that he mourns.  The snappy “She Rings The Changes” feels like a long lost single from 1969, as one listens to THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN the sense of musical déjà vu can become overwhelming.  These songs are so good and seem so catchy you’ll swear you’ve heard them before.

And  though it’s a very upbeat, fun album, I really appreciate the way Newell snarkily attacks aspects of the socio-economic inequality in England.  This is particularly evident on “We’ll Build A House” which addresses poverty and the inability for many young people to have something so basic as a home.  In a similar vein, “A Street Called Prospect” paints an incredibly detailed sound-picture of life on a very shabby English street called Prospect.  The first time I heard this song I laughed because there’s a street called Prospect in the town where I’m from…and it’s a piece of shit too.  “The Jangling Man,” like “We’ll Build A House” describes the gulf between the wealthy older class and the “poor starving children.” It’s a terribly bitter, angry song, and yet Newell’s pop sensibilities manage to keep the track from sounding bitter or angry.

“Before The Hurricane” tackles British country life, specifically the head-in-the-sand attitude of those living in rural British communities.  Bombs and hurricanes can come, but nothing really changes anything for them.   “Home Counties Boy” offers a glimpse into Newell’s country upbringing and disdain for working in the city.  Both songs remind me of the Kink’s in both their quaintness and  in the interesting duality of both their yearning and disdain for rural life.

I’ve always loved British fatalism and Newell has it in spades.  My favorite track on the record, “Tribute To The Greatest Living Englishman” is about falling from the good graces of the public—and how much we like to see a public figure fall.  I like Newell’s song because the song’s narrator (it can’t be about him, he never rose high enough to fall) attitude towards the loss of his champagne wishes is a shrug and “it would have been mad not to try.”  I can certainly see how this sort of music would not be for everyone, but it’s like catnip for a pop-fan like me.  THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is the best Martin Newell record (solo or otherwise) and thankfully, it’s the easiest to come by these days.  I heartily recommend this album if you like cheeky, catchy pop.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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