MAGNET Classics: XTC’s “Skylarking”

XTC

The making of XTC’s Skylarking
By A.D. Amorosi

To pick apart the XTC catalog is folly.

Created by sons of Swindon, England; girded by the singing and smart (assed) songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding, XTC never remained complacent during its time together, though one could argue that the band was pop’s most reluctant ensemble, despite what Partridge called the “gentle competition” of its two songwriters.

“Colin would come up with some songs, usually first, then I would feel the need to beat them,” says Partridge. “He might in turn come up with a few more, and again me in response to those.” They never wrote together. Camaraderie was found in other areas of the band, “and not the writing,” claims Partridge. “That was insular.”

XTC moved from the herky-jerky new wave of its start (1978’s White Music) into something subdued, yet richly melodic in Swinging ’60s fashion (1979’s Drum And Wires, 1980’s Black Sea), before winding up with the intellectually and sonically complex English Settlement of 1981. Rather than capitalize on its clever intricacy (as well as the success of hit single “Senses Working Overtime”), Partridge wound up on the wrong end of stage fright in 1982, and vowed never to tour again. This didn’t stop Partridge, Moulding and third member Dave Gregory from becoming a neo-psychedelic side band, the Dukes Of Stratosphear, with two records to its name. Or, as XTC, recording complicated, studio-rat efforts such as 1983’s Mummer or 1992’s Nonsuch before winding up as more epically plush (1999’s Apple Venus, Vol. 1 and its second volume, subtitled Wasp Star) than the band started.

“‘23,’ said Churchill—that’s the age to be,’ and he may have had a point,” says Moulding in regard to the collective band age when XTC was at its most “affable, humorous, open to suggestion, and every bit at ease with the prospect of working together.”

“Like most young bands, we were a gang that lived in each other’s pockets on the road and in the studio,” says Partridge, recalling the psychology of XTC. “The most fun we ever had in the studio was recording the Dukes records. There was no pressure—it was just one big fancy dress ball for the head. Anything went, any sound, any idea, as long as it felt like it could have been historically correct for 1967. There was zero pressure. We never knew if it would sell, and the Dukes had nothing to live up to. We could never do that with XTC, as there was too much money involved and we were expected to be mentally honest and ‘real.’ Too much financial pressure.”

By the time that the band stopped making albums in 2000, XTC had amassed 12 of pop’s most cunningly lyrical, contagiously hummable albums (not counting the Dukes efforts) shaded by the elegant green pastoralism of the English countryside and the flashing red glare of the Beatles and the Kinks’ Carnaby Street.

Each of XTC’s albums is, without exaggeration, glorious.

Then there’s 1986’s Skylarking.

Speaking from the Ape House offices maintained by Partridge for XTC’s archival activities, the bassist, like Partridge, has little reason to peek backward. “I don’t think I could afford the ring that Andy would want placed on his finger,” says Moulding. “That life has gone for me. I would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Everything changes; one has to accept it and move on. You cannot go back.”

Yet, they did go back in order to discuss the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. (“And to see that our story in pop history gets the justice it deserves,” says Moulding. “That, and cold hard cash.”)

More lyrically mature, lush and gently psychedelic than anything before in their catalog, Skylarking borrowed the hilly, holy feel of Mummer, as well as the ringing Beatles-ish vibe from 1984’s The Big Express, but with a softly sweeping gracefulness and a finessed orchestral swirl. Combine that with adult lyrical themes touching upon the daring uncertainty of marriage (“Big Day”) and romance (“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”) along with the skepticism behind maturation (“Earn Enough For Us”) and eternal rest (“Dying”), and there is a sense that this album could not have happened at any other point in XTC’s history, save for Mummer.

Partridge riffs quickly on the things going on in his life that made Skylarking’s topicality bracing: “Growing up. Realizing responsibilities. Opening up to where I lived—to Wiltshire, the nature there. Questioning things deeper. God, existence—the chewier questions. Probably as a result of me, at that time, coming off—rather abruptly—of 13 years of valium addiction. I was thinking clearer and wanted to know stuff. Life’s big questions. Funny you should mention Mummer, though, as that, for me, was the first of the clear-thinking albums.”

Skylarking, then, is a provocatively personal, bucolic, Arcardian, even ecclesiastical masterpiece once you consider that the album’s primary American hit, “Dear God,” was a begrudging add-on, according to Rundgren. “Andy didn’t want that song on the album, and neither did the A&R guy at Geffen,” says the producer with a sneer so pronounced, his sarcasm drips through the phone. “They didn’t know.”

They didn’t know.

English Settlement was, in Moulding’s mind, the last album where XTC “could still bat and ball ideas around without having to defer to the … demo; where one had a chance to say at rehearsals … ‘Ere arre kid, it goes like this,’ and one strummed the song,” says the bassist. “From here on, tapes were delivered in the mail.”

The porta-studio was king. Things were tense, but they were tight. “The friendship was always a separate thing to the music writing, which was done in private,” says Partridge.

Signed by Geffen USA by the time of Mummer (with ties to its original Virgin deal in the U.K.), XTC had not come up with any real solid hits in the United States, and certainly wasn’t doing any tours to satisfy a big label’s promotional thrust in the middle of the MTV ’80s.

“We were like some exotic wildebeest that no one knew what to do with,” says Moulding.

“They were puzzled,” says Partridge. “Why didn’t we tour? Why did we dress poorly? Why did we make ‘odd’ music, and why didn’t we take the cocaine they offered us when we went on promo trips?”

Then again, notes Partridge, Geffen was no worse or pushy than Virgin. “They were just ‘more corporate’ when it came to their phrases and sayings … I always felt that we had somehow lumbered them with our oddness. We were no Guns N’ Roses.”

After several XTC albums and a Dukes Of Stratosphear 12-inch EP, 25 O’Clock, in 1985, Moulding says that the band—as mates and as a creative entity—felt like “the Three Musketeers, with a lot more to give, but sensing that one would have to go further afield to find ears to receive it.”

Moulding doesn’t sound completely convinced of the Dukes Of Stratosphear’s power—he more or less went along for the ride— but eventually came around to its charms and believed that its lingering psychedelic vibe affected what would come next. “I’ve no doubt that the psychedelic element was being more ingratiated into the pie than before,” he says. (The Dukes would eventually release a full LP, Psonic Psunspot, in 1987.)

“Personally, I thought that the Dukes opened our psychic third eye—you know, gave us permission to be ourselves, to relax a bit and be more colorful,” says Partridge. “I do think that Skylarking came out as more of a Dukes album than the XTC of Black Seas or Drums And Wires.”

Partridge agrees with Moulding, that XTC—buoyed by the fun of making the Dukes’ 25 O’Clock—was still “a little lost” in 1985. “We weren’t touring, to the frustration of Virgin and Geffen in the U.S., and our albums weren’t doing too well,” says Partridge. “I think we still got on OK, though. We were never one of those ‘fight it out’ sort of bands, so any grumbles were stuffed in.”

The labels were grumbling, however. They provoked XTC into finding outside help; to get a producer to push the band into a cohesive sound and possible hits. Moulding remarks that the band was successful “over a good period in England” within the smash single market, but that “gradually, slowly, they began to dry up, and it became apparent that a stimulus of some sort was needed.”

George Martin was always a consideration, but for reasons of schedule or availability, it never happened. “We were all Beatles nuts, you see,” says Moulding. “I didn’t feel any evidence of the cold chill from Virgin at the time, but then the shark tickles until he bites, doesn’t he?”

After the idea of an American producer came up, Gregory volunteered Todd Rundgren.

“I think the label gave the band an ultimatum: Get a producer you will listen to, make a record that has some success, or else you’re not making albums for the labels anymore,” says Rundgren. “That’s when they called me.”

As far as Partridge was concerned, in terms of its composition, Skylarking was just another XTC album, although, he claims, things were getting more flowery in terms of his sound after the Dukes. “Virgin had other ideas, and wanted big success in the U.S., so we were being told we had to work with an American producer who could find something ‘transatlantic’ in us,” says Partridge. “Basically, I was being told to shut up and do as I was told, and stop being quirky and English. So, I went into this album feeling compromised. Virgin and Geffen wanted big sales, but any big sales from us would be an accident, I think.”

Without ever recording in America before, XTC—with a handful of songs penned before they got to the studio—got to Woodstock, N.Y., sorted out the arrangements and booked tape space. “Remember that one track ran into another,” says Moulding. “No edits. Todd had a very unorthodox way of recording—15 ips. I think we got it all on one reel of tape, and done very quickly. Second takes were uncommon, but it was all charming in a way.”

Moulding calls the Rundgren of 1986 an aloof character who could be flippant in conversation, someone who quite evidently wanted to be boss right from the start. “The record company had given him the task of ‘bringing this ship in,’ and he was going to do it hell-or-high water,” says Moulding. “I think Andy had a job accepting this, and had a fairly miserable time because of it. It was only much later that he accepted what a good job Todd had done, but perhaps begrudgingly so. Andy likes to have things his own way most of the time, and I guess he had met his nemesis on this one.”

Moulding got on with Rundgren just fine (“After all, our career was on the slide, and a new point of view was what was needed”), and focused on his strengths in regard to arrangements and the choice of material, which became subsequently woven into a sound concept; “albeit somewhat compromised at the end,” says Moulding.

Despite the labels’ yearning for a hit, neither Partridge nor Moulding wrote differently. Ironically, with Rundgren as producer, XTC had an Anglophile on board who steered the character of the album by his song choice, “mostly the gentler stuff, and probably—in hindsight—the better songs,” says Partridge.

“Perhaps it lacked the polish of some of the other recordings we had made,” says Moulding, “but it was the character that was sewn into the record which was its strength.”

Mention to Partridge that his and Moulding’s songs for Skylarking are sympathetic to each other, despite being written separately, and the former calls it pure coincidence. Between being a new dad and becoming exposed to Beach Boys albums (“I had no idea they even had an album career—my history with them was purely singles”), that was his focus. What blurred that focus in the studio—for Partridge—was Rundgren’s dictatorship and the XTC man’s reaction to it.

“Andy didn’t like being led,” says Moulding. “Todd chose the songs. I know for a fact that, had he not, my contribution in number would have been decidedly less. I was just grateful that the band had an independent arbiter. Now I know how George Harrison felt. The whole running order thing was Todd’s concept. It was he who devised the plan that the tracks should run and be likened to the passage of a day. We all thought this was a good idea, ’til the personality clashes came.”

Partridge says, “Being told to ‘shut up and be produced’ had an effect on me.”

It was Rundgren who brought in drummer Prairie Prince in San Francisco, after the band played along to click tracks in Woodstock. “We were all thrown by the instruction of having to play to no drums,” says Partridge. “This was odd for us. It was purely a money-saving ruse by Todd … so we had to cut the tracks to clicks and taps—the drums were added a month later. Would never do that again.”

Prince wasn’t the problem, though, as he eventually recorded with XTC again during 1999 and 2000’s Apple sessions. “Todd was Doctor Frankenstein at times, Heathcliff at others, maybe sometimes Henry Kissinger,” says Moulding. “An island he was, yes—but if one brings another mind in on the job, one has to accept these things.”

When the sessions were finished, XTC went home to England with—according to Rundgren and Moulding—Partridge grousing and bad-mouthing the process. “I was disappointed with the bad feeling floating around during the making of the record, yes, and this kind of hung over in the weeks after arriving back home,” says Moulding. “Andy had painted it so black—because of where he was with it in his mind—that surely it could only be doomed. It was a slow burn, then … a dawning … that it wasn’t so bad after all.”

Then there’s “Dear God,” a song that, though written by Partridge, was one that made him particularly uncomfortable. Partridge made no comment about that track during the interview. Moulding, too, says that any commentary about the song, is just an opinion. Rundgren, though, believed that the song was one of the author’s best.

“I knew the label had certain expectations, but once I agreed to take it on, I had no input at all from the label—until it was finished,” says Rundgren. “Then there was input, which was to agree with Andy, to take ‘Dear God’ off the record. Andy didn’t want the song on because he thought it was provocative. He didn’t want to own up to it, in a way, Plus, he had another crappy song that he wanted. The A&R guy at the label agreed with Andy because he personally didn’t like records that had children singing on them. So, between the two of them, they took ‘Dear God.’”

Rundgren derived a certain pleasure when, after a DJ started playing “Dear God,” the track became a hit and the label had to return it to Skylarking’s next pressing.

“That was the only time that I ever called a label and told them not to do something,” says Rundgren, “to not take ‘Dear God,’ off the album. American radio, though, they loved it, and proved that they both were wrong.”

Skylarking hit number 90 on the U.K. album chart and number 70 on the U.S. album charts, so it did well, but not break-the-bank well. Skylarking didn’t really change the way that XTC went farther from that point, except for, Partridge notes, the advantage of having a great arranger. “To be able to sit with Todd and talk about how the song should feel, what sound picture it should paint, was something we’d never been able to do before,” says Partridge.

“The record was made in such an unorthodox way,” says Moulding. “Positively naive at times, but perhaps because of this, the record is the loveable oddity it is today.”

Through Ape House, XTC re-releases its catalog, most of which has been fiddled with (to Moulding’s displeasure) by Partridge and Steven Wilson, Skylarking included, with what they call Corrected Polarity.

“If he weren’t able to change things in some way, then reissuing the catalogue would hold no interest for Andy,” says the bassist.

To that, Partridge says, “It costs us a big override, but at least our music is out there, well-packaged and sounding good. I couldn’t let those gems disappear.”

Other than that, he believes that the past is the past, and that one could never really go back. “What’s the phrase—‘been there, done that’?” he says considering his band’s 24-year haul and whether he’d ever bother to recreate that in the present. “XTC was, and any band is, the tension, the push/pull of everyone at any given time. It can be very effective, but not always pleasant. I do still think of Dave, Colin and Terry (Chambers, the British band’s drummer until Partridge’s live concert retirement) as my distant brothers, though. We went through a lot—a war, if you like.”

As for an Andy Partridge solo album, he says the most curious thing—that there are hundreds of proto-songs that he’s got stored away, but can’t decide what to do with them yet: “It’s a mental problem—I can’t stop writing, but what the hell do I want to do with them? An Andy Partridge ‘solo’ album scares me after the glory of XTC. We were one tough act to follow.”

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