Andy Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, and drummer Terry Chambers started playing in a band together in 1972, opening for Thin Lizzy in 1973 and plying glam-rock as the Helium Kidz. The group eventually added manic keyboardist Barry Andrews and renamed themselves XTC. They gained a record deal after recording a John Peel session, as part of the wave of new bands who emerged with the advent of punk.
After two manic albums, Barry Andrews left and was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory. The group toned down their quirkiness, and became a British guitar band in the vein of The Kinks and The Small Faces. The Moulding penned hit ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ was a breakthrough, and the band’s career grew in the early 1980s with successful recordings like Black Sea and ‘Senses Working Overtime’.
The band’s momentum stalled when Partridge became afflicted with stage fright, walking out halfway through a Paris concert. XTC stopped playing live and became a studio-based entity, with Chambers leaving the group. Their sixth album, 1983’s Mummer, found the group dropping straight into obscurity – in a 1999 Mojo retrospective, Partridge was quoted as saying ‘Your average English person probably thinks we split up in 1982.”
The group struggled for attention, and an EP anonymously recorded as alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear outsold their contemporary albums. Virgin, XTC’s record label, threatened to drop the band if their next album was unsuccessful, and forced them to choose an American producer from a list. The band chose Todd Rundgren who’d produced New York Dolls, one of Partridge’s favourite albums.
Why Skylarking is XTC’s Best Album
XTC have a strong and deep catalogue; almost every album they recorded from 1979’s Drums and Wires (their first with Dave Gregory) is worthwhile. From XTC’s early albums as a four-piece, Black Sea and English Settlement are also highly acclaimed, while favourites from their later studio years include 1999’s Apple Venus and their recordings as The Dukes of Stratosphear. Despite this long, celebrated catalogue, there’s a very strong consensus that Skylarking is XTC’s best record – it’s almost invariably the XTC album to feature in greatest of all time lists.
While the strong-willed Partridge and Rundgren often butted heads, the results were spectacular. Rundgren curated a song cycle from the demos that Partridge and Moulding wrote for the album, a sequence of songs that reflected the passing of time. Rundgren purposefully chose songs that were gentle and pastoral. The 1960s psychedelia that the group explored as the Dukes of Stratosphear is deftly integrated into their sound.
Skylarking was eventually a success, largely due to a song not originally on the album. Partridge’s b-side ‘Dear God’ became popular on college radio, and propelled the album to moderate success. The album was later reworked to include ‘Dear God’ at the expense of ‘Mermaid Smiled’. CD reissues restore the original running order, including ‘Dear God’ as a bonus track.
Todd Rundgren’s skills as an arranger added another dimension to Skylarking. He was able to provide lush arrangements that added diversity to the album without taking away from the band’s core strength – of making brilliant, but unpopular, pop music. Each track, or in some cases each suites of tracks, has its own identity; the low key and acoustic ‘Dying’, the complex string arrangement of ‘1000 Umbrellas’, and the pastoral psychedelia of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ are just three examples.
XTC hadn’t had an in-house drummer since Terry Chambers left the band, and used a different studio musician for each project. The drummer on Skylarking is Prairie Prince, whom Rundgren worked with in The Tubes, and he’s able to deal expertly with the diverse musical genres that the band tackle.
It’s tough to pick favourite tracks on Skylarking as it’s very even – reluctant omissions include the opening psychedelia of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, the guitar pop of ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ with Dave Gregory’s astounding solo, and ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’, with Rundgren’s arrangement emulating a 1960s spy film.
The Meeting Place
With Rundgren picking the songs, Colin Moulding, the junior partner in the band, is more heavily featured than usual, contributing 5 of the 14 tracks. My favourite of Moulding’s songs is ‘The Meeting Place’. It works in tandem with ‘Grass’ near the beginning of Skylarking, describing adolescent trysts in the meadows.
Ballet For A Rainy Day
Partridge is a sophisticated composer, and the three consecutive songs at the end of the first side of Skylarking showcase his skills in a mini-suite that’s reminiscent of Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ was inspired by Partridge’s childhood, recalling his mother’s worries of the rain spoiling her new hairdo.
Earn Enough For Us
Side two of Skylarking starts with this power pop song, inspired by Partridge’s experience of working in a paint shop with a verbally abusive boss. Moulding quit the group temporarily over a dispute about his bass line.
Do the Experts Agree?
Skylarking wasn’t a chart success – it reached #90 in the UK and #70 in the USA.
Tim Sommer wrote in Rolling Stone that Skylarking was “the most inspired and satisfying piece of Beatle-esque pop since … well, since the Beatles.” In 1989, Rolling Stone included Skylarking at #48 on their list of 100 Greatest 1980s albums.
On the website Rate Your Music, Skylarking is ranked as XTC’s best studio album, with a score of 3.88/5.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Skylarking is ranked as the #520 best album of all time, easily XTC’s highest rated album
Skylarking is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, along with 1999’s Apple Venus.