After The Who, XTC is my favorite band. And their 1986 release Skylarking is my favorite album by them.
Long about the summer of 1985, I discovered XTC in two ways. First was the concert film Urgh! A Music War (1982). Urgh! features lots of the more interesting and entertaining musical acts of the alternative scene from the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Police, Dead Kennedys, The Cramps, Gang Of Four, Oingo Boingo, Wall Of Voodoo, X, Magazine, The Go-Go’s and Klaus Nomi are just a few of the acts involved. And XTC’s performance of their song Respectable Street was one of the stand-outs for me.
Not long after seeing Urgh I purchased a compilation album featuring artists on the Virgin label. It was called Cash Cows and XTC’s Respectable Street was included. I instantly liked that song. Probably because I was vaguely familiar with it having seen Urgh. However, at the time, I had forgotten that earlier exposure to the song.
No matter. I thought XTC was excellent and on the strength of that song I bought the album on which it appeared – Black Sea (1980). Black Sea is a terrific record, produced while the band would still perform live. By the time I bought it, however, XTC had become a studio-only band.
I was bummed that I wouldn’t ever see them in concert, but I was excited to learn more about their music and to know that they were still making records. And in September, 1986 they released the first single for their upcoming album, Skylarking. The song Grass was the A side with Dear God and Extrovert as non-album cuts for the B side. Dear God would soon take on a life of its own, more on that later.
Skylarking was produced by Todd Rundgren and the stories of the difficulties between Rundgren and band leader Andy Partridge are the stuff of legend. This was Andy’s band and Todd was acting too much like the boss. He could also be bitingly cruel to Andy. But, despite the acrimony, or because of it, Skylarking turned out to be a brilliant concept album exploring the stages of life, growth, decay, and death.
And I bought it as soon as it was released. Man! Am I old!
Summer’s Cauldron – Drowning has never sounded so appealing. Andy Partridge’s imagery evoked by his lyrics is wonderful. This song sounds like a long, hot summer day.
Grass – First of four songs on the album written by Colin Moulding, Grass could have a double meaning. The song, which is linked to the previous track (song linking was one of Rundgren’s ideas), is about the sexual connections two young lovers made on grass. But does Moulding mean the grass they are laying on or the grass they just smoked? The video suggests the non-drug interpretation.
The Meeting Place – Written by Moulding, this song could be about the same couple in Grass trying to continue their affair while dealing with work. I really like the ticking, clomping, steaming sounds that permeate the song. It suggests the industrial presence of machinery.
That’s Really Super, Supergirl – Ever the fan of comic books, Partridge uses the up feeling music to offset the downbeat lyrics of a man who has been dumped. Nice jangly guitars!
Ballet For A Rainy Day – A song about sitting inside on a rainy day, looking out the window and marveling at the beauty of the rain soaked scenes of the street below. Wonderful.
1,000 Umbrellas – This one flows from the previous track, but this time the rain imagery is used to describe the heart-aching pain of loneliness. A nice use of strings and acoustic guitar.
Season Cycle – Andy always had a way of working with metaphor. Here he ponders the turn of the seasons by comparing it to someone riding a bicycle. The beauty of each season is explored, however this song feels more Spring than the other seasons.
Earn Enough For Us – This song opens with what might be the best guitar riff (provided by guitarist Dave Gregory) XTC has ever recorded. It should have been a hit. It follows the desperate determination of a blue collar worker trying to make ends meet with a baby on the way. Work may be tough and humiliating, but it will be suffered to make a better life. This is my favorite track.
Big Day – “Marriage! Marriage is what brings us together today.” Moulding warns that, sure, everything is all wonderful today, but will this last? There’s a slightly unconventional take to the music that suggests both the importance of the day, while hinting at future challenges.
Another Satellite – A song about feeling the pull of another, when already in a committed relationship. It’s my understanding Andy wrote this song in response to being in just such a situation.
Mermaid Smiled – Booted from later pressings of the album when Dear God proved to be a surprise hit, Mermaid Smiled is pure whimsy. It’s a longing for the lost days of youth. It has a beautiful, soaring melody and it should have been treated with more respect.
The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul – Andy’s attempt at writing a James Bond theme. And, damn it, Hollywood! There should have been a 007 flick with this as the title song! This song is the most unusual of the whole album. It sticks out and some might think it doesn’t fit. Hey, it works for me.
Dying – Moulding’s sweet, sad song about death. Similar to the ticking heard in The Meeting Place, there’s a kind of clock sound in the background of this song. In The Meeting Place it was about being on the clock at work, here it’s reminding us we only have so much time to live.
Sacrificial Bonfire – Another soaring melody, this one by Moulding. This closer tells of endings, but that the cycle continues. Life goes on.
Dear God – As I mentioned earlier, this song didn’t make the cut on the original pressing. It was regulated to the B side of the first single. However, an American DJ liked it and decided to play it and it took off from there. Andy wasn’t entirely happy with the lyrics of this atheistic anthem, but its power was picked up on and it became XTC’s biggest hit in America.
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