Skylarking is the 1986 album that finally gave XTC a significant profile on American college radio, albeit not without a measure of controversy; but we’ll come to that.
In the XTC timeline, Skylarking slots neatly between 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot, the EP and album released by the band’s psychedelic alter ego, The Dukes Of Stratosphear; and with hindsight, it seems inarguable that the Dukes’ dilated-pupil worldview and vivid colour palette leached into Skylarking’s mood of existential wonder and contemplation.
“‘Skylarking’ was a term for mucking about”
“We were giving ourselves permission to be The Dukes Of Stratosphear in plain sight,” XTC’s Andy Partridge tells uDiscover Music. “Songs like ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, ‘Season Cycle’, ‘Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’ and ‘Dear God’ had existed for a while, so I knew this was going to be a gentler album. In fact, one of the titles I was rolling around in my head for it was Down And Butter Sun Field Magic. I can’t remember why we didn’t go for that, but we opted for Skylarking instead. My dad used to say to me, because he was a navy fellow, ‘Come on, get out of bed, you’ll be late for school, stop your skylarking.’ In our house, ‘skylarking’ was a term for mucking about.”
In career terms, XTC had been under some pressure to infiltrate the US – to which end their label, Virgin, assembled two lists of potential producers for the forthcoming album. “The only name I recognised was Todd Rundgren,” Partridge remembers, “though I found the second list again recently, and I now know some of them. In fact, one of them wasn’t American: it was Chris Thomas. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? I love his production.”
“Todd took the songs that he thought made a journey”
With the encouragement of XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, an ardent fan, the band opted for Rundgren – though, from the outset, this decision upended the band’s habitual working practices. “Skylarking could have been a very different album, stylistically, had Señor Rundgren not got involved,” Partridge confirms. “It was the first time we’d been sequenced before we even started recording a note. Normally we’d go into a studio, record everything we’d got, and then say, ‘OK, what are the best songs?’ And out of those, what is a breezy opener, what is a great closer, etc…
“But with Skylarking, Todd took all of the cassette demos, dumped them to tape, and then took the ones that he thought made a kind of journey. A day, or a life, from early in the morning until the darkest night, or a life that started with a child out in the fields, ending in a death and a sacrificial bonfire which hopefully heralds a new beginning the day after, or the life after. He edited them all together, and when we flew out to Todd’s studio in Woodstock, it was a case of: ‘You’re going to be playing the album in this order…’ which stunned us, because we’d never done that before. It had always been a case of picking the strongest children.”
“We had battles”
On top of the revelation that XTC were now unwittingly assembling a concept album of sorts, the band were bemused to discover no drummer on the premises. “Todd had said that we should use Prairie Prince, The Tubes’ drummer, and we said, ‘OK.’ But when we got there, Prairie was in San Francisco while we were in upstate New York. Todd said, ‘You’re going to play to a click track.’ Colin [Moulding, XTC bassist] just freaked out. He said, look, I can’t do that, I need to know what patterns the drummer is playing, and what patterns are right for the song, and I have to know where to place my bass notes.
“Colin is a consummate bass player; he’s got to play so it hits just after that bass drum strikes, and Todd was trying to convince him: ‘No, play where you think you should play, and we’ll get Prairie to play just slightly ahead of that.’ So Colin had to map out what he might be playing, and then when we got to the San Francisco leg, in a studio called The Sound Hole, the real drums – ie, Prairie Prince and Mingo Lewis, the percussionist – came along.”
“We ended up on antibiotics”
Infamously, relations between Partridge and Rundgren quickly came under strain. “We had battles, there’s no getting away from it,” Partridge reflects. “But plenty of other artists have had the same battles with him. He just likes to do things his way, and if you don’t surrender totally, it’s going to be a battle. But as an arranger, he’s really excellent. His string and brass arranging for several of the songs was immaculate. Maybe in a perfect world it should have been Chris Thomas engineering and producing and Todd arranging. But who knew?”
To compound the problems, the band were hit by a bout of sickness. “Obviously, things were going a bit awry,” Partridge summarises. “We were not used to this way of working, it was very alien to us, on top of which Colin and I were ill, because we were drinking well water and got some kind of amoeba-type infestation. Dave, who was either having bottled water or boiling all his water to drink in his tea, was completely fine. Colin and I were just sticking our heads under the taps, however, and ended up on antibiotics.
“The only time that Colin and I have ever really argued in the studio was him putting the bass on ‘Earn Enough For Us’: he was really stressed and unwell, and I was really stressed and unwell, and it was just over some scale he was playing. I thought, instead of playing a minor scale he should be playing a major scale, and happened to mention it, and it was just kind of the last straw for both of us.”
“I’m immensely proud of a lot of it”
Given this litany of grievances, the miracle is that the band ended up with an album that radiates warmth, wit, compassion and unanimity of purpose; one which is often cited, with good reason, as one of the brightest jewels in the XTC crown. The songwriting is next-level, the sequencing is inspired, the musicianship is seamless and the arrangements are both supportive and striking.
“There is a nice roll to the whole album,” Partridge observes, “and I’m immensely proud of a lot of it. ‘Season Cycle’ is as good as anything I’ve ever written, and the album contains probably my best-ever lyric, which is ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’. A bit of beatnik existentialism. And the way ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ came out, grafted on to ‘Grass’ and then back again, was a great little stroke: almost like a mini version of the Abbey Road principle.”
Colin Moulding’s compositions, meanwhile, particularly ‘Dying’, ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’ and ‘Grass’, also represent some career-best markers. “Colin’s songwriting was on a roll,” Partridge concurs. “I think he was at the height of his songwriting prowess, and I think he would admit that himself. He’d been building up to that.”
Dave Gregory, meanwhile, excels with a typically sparkling, flawless solo in ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (performed on Eric Clapton’s old Gibson SG with paintwork by The Fool, latterly owned by Rundgren), and with his jaw-dropping, filmic arrangement for the metaphor torrent of ‘1,000 Umbrellas.’
“You know the little quartet that are playing in the garden in Pepperland, in the Yellow Submarine animation? I saw it as that,” Partridge remembers. “Dave lived in Stanier Street, and I’d walk down the hill once or twice a week for a cup of tea and to see how the arrangement was coming on. I’d said, ‘The more baroque, the better,’ you know, the more unnecessary filigrees and curlicues the better, and he really rose to that. He was programming it all into a sequencer, one note at a time.”
“It led to firebombing threats”
Skylarking attained no small amount of notoriety, thanks to the contentiously barbed, perennially pertinent ‘Dear God’, which cut to the very heart of the dichotomy between consolatory faith and wilful self-delusion (“Did you make mankind after we made you?”).
“‘Dear God’ was a worrier for me,” Partridge remarks, “because it’s a massive subject, human belief; and I thought, well, three-and-a-half minutes, have I done it justice? And then the next thing was that Virgin said, ‘Look, you’re going to upset American radio stations with this, and the American label isn’t too enthused about it, so we think you should remove it…’ Or they said the whole album is too damn long, and asked if we could take something off.
“So ‘Dear God’ got left off some of the early pressings and was on the single of ‘Grass’ instead. But then American radio stations started playing it and causing a real hoo-hah, which led to firebombing threats and crap like that… So it was decided to put it back on the album, because people were saying, ‘I bought Skylarking, and that track I like’ – or that track I dislike! – ‘is not on it, and why not?’ That track I love to hate is not on it.”
‘Dear God’ is memorably topped and tailed with a vocal cameo from the then eight-year-old Jasmine Veillette, a family friend of Rundgren’s. As Partridge explains: “Todd said, ‘How do you feel about the first verse of “Dear God” being done by a child?’ Because I’d told him that the song originally came from that wretched book called Dear God, of children’s letters to God. Which I thought was a sickly, cynical exercise. I think putting religion on kids is child abuse, personally.
“But I saw this book in WH Smith, and flicked through it and thought, Ohh, that’s really repulsive. So I thought, I’m going to write a song called ‘Dear God’, which is the dying embers of my wrestling with the religion that was put into me as a kid. Jasmine sings the first verse and the closing line, and she did a great job.”
“People complained… I didn’t know what to do”
Further controversy was generated behind the scenes owing to Partridge’s original concept for Skylarking’s artwork. “I wanted it to be like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with male and female pubic hair having weeds and field flowers threaded through it. So the photo session was done and a 12” x 12” album sleeve was mocked up: they had a meeting at Virgin about it, and a couple of people complained. So they then got their sales team to go around to the big chains of the time, like Woolworths, HMV, etc, to ask if they would have any problems stocking it. And they replied: ‘Ooh no, that’s too risqué. We could only have it under the counter or in a brown paper bag.’
“So Virgin got cold feet. I didn’t know what to do, so I took a book of 50s advertising art to the toilet one day, as you do, and literally opened this page on which there was this nicely done, quasi-Greek vase drawing of two people lying in a field playing flutes to each other. And I thought, if we change that around a bit, and make the eye of one of the figures, which almost looks like a bird, into a bird… and that became a stopgap, last-minute sleeve.”
Released on 27 August 1986, Skylarking, tacitly acknowledged to be not just one of XTC’s best albums, but one of the best albums ever, modestly nosed into the UK charts for a single week. But bare chart statistics have never reflected XTC’s critical stock and the respect they command in the musical community, far less the undying love they still inspire from a fittingly ecstatic global fanbase. It’s always a special thrill to expose this album to people who haven’t heard it before and register their expressions of rapture and amazement. Try it yourself.
Skylarking can be bought here.