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XTC’s Best Album: Skylarking

XTC Skylarking

Background

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’.

XTC Mummer

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.

The Dukes of Stratosphear Chips from the Chocolate Fireball

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.

Key Tracks

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.

28 thoughts on “XTC’s Best Album: Skylarking Leave a comment

  1. Fantastic write-up. As you know, I’m not one for “best” and “worst” but it’s hard to argue that this is probably their definitive album, the one you would give to a newbie to start them on the XTC journey. Personally I would rank Black Sea and Oranges & Lemons on the same level, with O&L being a personal favorite since that was the first XTC album I owned. Have you gotten any of the blu-ray editions of their albums? I believe there are five of them so far and they’re basically a box set on a single disc, with incredible surround sound mixes, demos, instrumentals, videos, etc. The surround sound mix of Nonsuch is stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I started with the Fossil Fuel compilation, and then maybe the Dukes’ album. I have everything except the first two on CD – I checked those out on Spotify recently – but a lot of them are first generation CD copies that I bought second hand. They’re famous for having the bonus tracks in the middle, which is oddball.

      I’m sure some fans would choose other albums as favourites but the amount of consensus for Skylarking is stunning in such a large catalogue. Last week I looked at Nick Drake, and it’s basically a three way tie between his albums for fans.

      Like

  2. Great write up man. I didn’t know about XTC until around 2010 or so. I have heard Making Plans For Nigel and other than that a few songs. This sounds really good. I’ve always liked Todd Rundgren as a producer.

    I didn’t know about Andy’s stage fright.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Concise and competent as always, Graham. Nice work.
    As you know, I did ‘Mummer’ last week, and referenced my favourite XTC albums: this and ‘Apple Venus’. For me they are a tie – the two I’d include in my 1001 Albums.
    I find the sonic consistency of ‘Skylarking’ is almost outshone (for me) by the musical and lyrical variety of ‘Apple Venus’. My advice to anyone interested in the band is, get both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are my two favourites too (and the two in 1001 albums), although Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, the CD that collates the two Dukes of Stratosphear releases is also up there.

      I think Apple Venus suffers a little from Moulding’s two songs being weaker – apparently he had stopped writing at that point and they just used leftovers from previous projects. But Partridge’s stuff is stunning.

      They had a lot of other very good records too – Black Sea, English Settlement, Big Express (which might be a minority opinion), and Nonsuch are other favourites.

      Like

  4. I haven’t delved I yet, but I’d added this, Mummer, and Black Sea to my list following the chat over at Bruce’s place. I also added Nonsuch… and have added Oranges & Lemons now. I think I’ll hit this one up first.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Of the XTC albums I’ve heard, I agree this is their best. I remember the Partridge-Rundgren feud being well-reported in the rock press (but it seemed less a feud than Partridge’s potshots at Rundgren). But those tensions can often translate into great music. For sales reasons I can understand why the record company slapped “Dear God” on later on, but I don’t think it fits. “Mermaid Smiled” is a nice song, and more representative of the album’s mood, don’t you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think we had our XTC conversation when i first came to your site, I like your first sentence after the heading Why Skylarking Is XTC’s Best Album – “deep catalogue …. worthwhile”. That’s how I feel about their music.

    Liked by 1 person

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