Not Forgotten: XTC – Skylarking

To the casual observer, by the time Skylarking was released in the mid-80s XTC looked washed up. Having had to stop touring in 1982 due to Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright, their subsequent pair of albums, the pastoral Mummer and the industrial The Big Express hadn’t achieved the sort of commercial acceptance that anyone had hoped for (though XTC’s psych-pop alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear had chalked up encouraging sales with the 25 O’Clock mini-album). There was a significant line-up change too, as with the band having given up touring, drummer Terry Chambers, having enjoyed life on the road slightly more than his bandmates, walked away from XTC during the Mummer sessions. Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Partridge opted not to replace Chambers, instead opting for a series of session players for their future albums. Despite the fact that their previous two albums had featured some of Partridge and Moulding’s most accomplished song writing, it really did look like the writing might be on the wall for XTC.

With their label, Virgin, demanding a return to commercial success, they handed the band a list of prospective producers. One of the names on that list was man from Utopia, and Bat out of Hell producer, Todd Rundgren. However, it apparently wasn’t Rundgren’s reputation as one of the most brilliant producers of his generation that got him hired. Instead, legend has it that the only reason he was chosen, was that his name was the only one on the list that Partridge recognised. Posting Rundgren a selection of demo material, XTC were somewhat surprised when Rundgren summoned them to his recording studios in Woodtsock, saying he had already figured out the sequencing of the album for them. This ignoring of Partridge’s usual creative veto might have rung alarm bells with the band, but they nevertheless decamped to America to record the new album with Rundgren, and the resulting creative power-struggle between Rundgren and XTC during recording sessions has been the subject of much discussion between fans of the band ever since.

The resulting album, Skylarking, is unarguably among the most musically sophisticated they ever released (only 1999’s Apple Venus comes close), with songs seamlessly seguing into each other, resulting in heart-swelling moments like the transitions from “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass”, and later on between “Ballad for a Rainy Day” and “1,000 Umbrellas”. Without Rundgren’s input by way of the enforced sequencing of the songs and production nous, it’s highly unlikely that moments like this would have been achieved, and while Skylarking would still have been an album of mind-bogglingly great songs, it would have lacked one of the elements that pushes it above and beyond anything that was released by whoever the NME and Melody Maker had put on their front cover that week. That doesn’t make Skylarking a Rundgren project with XTC’s name carelessly slapped on it though, indeed if Partridge and Moulding hadn’t written material of sufficient quality and depth, the album simply wouldn’t have worked, and it needs to be remembered that the power-struggle between Partridge and Rundgren was a vital ingredient in how Skylarking ended up sounding. Moulding’s thoughts on how Rundgren treat his songs aren’t as widely discussed, but that’s probably more to do with Moulding characteristically keeping his cards close to his chest than anything else.

One of the few things that everyone involved except Partridge can agree on, is that Skylarking is among the very best XTC albums, coinciding as it did with Moulding and Partridge separately hitting particularly rich seams of creativity that they would continue to mine over the next fifteen years. Both are in fine voice, their songwriting is at an absolute peak, and despite Gregory having no input into the songwriting, his guitar-work and genius with arrangements reached new levels during this period and he remained a crucial part of the XTC sound. Skylarking also proved beyond a doubt that, away from the singles chart, British alternative rock remained in rude health, with XTC offering a unique sound a million miles away from either the C86 types, or The Smiths and their multitude of clones. It is an unashamedly psychedelic pop album, with its sweeping strings, chiming guitars and glorious choruses. Another thing in its favour is the fact that it was recorded in the mid-80s, the keyboard sounds do not date the album in the same way that they do so many albums from the era, in fact, 30 years after its first release, Skylarking still sounds amazingly fresh and oddly contemporary.

On its release in 1986, Skylarking received cautiously positive reviews, however, despite its obvious brilliance, it charted far lower here in the UK than even the Big Express. It seemed that the fraught relationship between Rundgren and XTC had been for naught, and that Skylarking would just be one of those albums that slipped away into obscurity. My guess is that somewhere in the Virgin offices, there was the quiet, yet unmistakable, sound of an axe being sharpened.

Then something remarkable happened. At some point American college radio DJs had flipped over the single of “Grass” and started playing its B-side. While “Dear God” was not on Skylarking, it nevertheless started to garner more and more airplay on American alternative rock stations, prompting the inclusion of it on later pressings of the album, on which it displaced “Mermaid Smiled”. This move was controversial among XTC fans, and one that resulted in each subsequent reissue of the album having a different tracklisting or sequencing from the last. Personally I prefer the 2001 sequence, where “Dear God” is effectively a bonus track at the end of the album, almost acting as a personal prayer at the end of a long summer’s day to a God you doubt the existence of. There are some purists that would prefer to see “Dear God” expunged altogether though, as that was Rundgren’s vision for the album, however recent reissues that have been masterminded by Andy Partridge have seen it wedged between “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” and “Dying”, something which sounds distinctly odd to me. There remains much debate among the fanbase about which sequence is ‘definitive’ and it has raged so long now, that it is unlikely to ever reach a conclusion that satisfies everyone.

Regardless of squabbles about what song should be included where, “Dear God” pretty much salvaged XTC’s career in the USA, and over time sales of Skylarking started to gather pace, though never to such an extent that it charted particularly highly. To many it is considered XTC’s most pleasing album, and even Partridge, years after burying the hatchet with Todd Rundgren, has eventually admitted that it’s probably their most complete album. That hasn’t stopped him tinkering with it though. In the last few years Partridge has re-released a ‘corrected-polarity’ version of Skylarking (which effectively means that it has been given a series of sonic tweaks – personally I have no particular preference for either version), packaged in vaguely racy artwork that Virgin wouldn’t allow him to use on Skylarking’s original release. Some have questioned whether this new mix was a case of Partridge finally getting one over on Rundgren all these years later, however given how complimentary they have been about each other in recent years, that does seem a little unlikely. Instead it has provided with an other page in the ever growing epilogue of Skylarking’s creation.

Ultimately, each version of Skylarking has something to recommend it, although to me, along with many other XTC fans, the version that omitted “Mermaid Smiled” has always sounded incomplete. If you’re an XTC fan already, then chances are you understand how vital it was to their survival as a band in the mid 80s, even if you do prefer the sound of their earlier, more angular, albums. If you’re new to the band, you may not find it the most immediate album, but trust me, the time you invest in it is repaid many times over down the years. Despite the fact that it still doesn’t get mentioned in the same hushed tones as the Queen is Dead or the Joshua Tree, it deserves to be held in far higher regard than either.

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