The making of XTC’s Skylarking
By A.D. Amorosi
To pick apart the XTC catalog is folly.
Created by sons of Swindon, England; girded by the singing and smart (assed) songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding, XTC never remained complacent during its time together, though one could argue that the band was pop’s most reluctant ensemble, despite what Partridge called the “gentle competition” of its two songwriters.
“Colin would come up with some songs, usually first, then I would feel the need to beat them,” says Partridge. “He might in turn come up with a few more, and again me in response to those.” They never wrote together. Camaraderie was found in other areas of the band, “and not the writing,” claims Partridge. “That was insular.”
XTC moved from the herky-jerky new wave of its start (1978’s White Music) into something subdued, yet richly melodic in Swinging ’60s fashion (1979’s Drum And Wires, 1980’s Black Sea), before winding up with the intellectually and sonically complex English Settlement of 1981. Rather than capitalize on its clever intricacy (as well as the success of hit single “Senses Working Overtime”), Partridge wound up on the wrong end of stage fright in 1982, and vowed never to tour again. This didn’t stop Partridge, Moulding and third member Dave Gregory from becoming a neo-psychedelic side band, the Dukes Of Stratosphear, with two records to its name. Or, as XTC, recording complicated, studio-rat efforts such as 1983’s Mummer or 1992’s Nonsuch before winding up as more epically plush (1999’s Apple Venus, Vol. 1 and its second volume, subtitled Wasp Star) than the band started.
“‘23,’ said Churchill—that’s the age to be,’ and he may have had a point,” says Moulding in regard to the collective band age when XTC was at its most “affable, humorous, open to suggestion, and every bit at ease with the prospect of working together.”
“Like most young bands, we were a gang that lived in each other’s pockets on the road and in the studio,” says Partridge, recalling the psychology of XTC. “The most fun we ever had in the studio was recording the Dukes records. There was no pressure—it was just one big fancy dress ball for the head. Anything went, any sound, any idea, as long as it felt like it could have been historically correct for 1967. There was zero pressure. We never knew if it would sell, and the Dukes had nothing to live up to. We could never do that with XTC, as there was too much money involved and we were expected to be mentally honest and ‘real.’ Too much financial pressure.”
By the time that the band stopped making albums in 2000, XTC had amassed 12 of pop’s most cunningly lyrical, contagiously hummable albums (not counting the Dukes efforts) shaded by the elegant green pastoralism of the English countryside and the flashing red glare of the Beatles and the Kinks’ Carnaby Street.
Each of XTC’s albums is, without exaggeration, glorious.
Then there’s 1986’s Skylarking.
Speaking from the Ape House offices maintained by Partridge for XTC’s archival activities, the bassist, like Partridge, has little reason to peek backward. “I don’t think I could afford the ring that Andy would want placed on his finger,” says Moulding. “That life has gone for me. I would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Everything changes; one has to accept it and move on. You cannot go back.”
Yet, they did go back in order to discuss the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. (“And to see that our story in pop history gets the justice it deserves,” says Moulding. “That, and cold hard cash.”)
More lyrically mature, lush and gently psychedelic than anything before in their catalog, Skylarking borrowed the hilly, holy feel of Mummer, as well as the ringing Beatles-ish vibe from 1984’s The Big Express, but with a softly sweeping gracefulness and a finessed orchestral swirl. Combine that with adult lyrical themes touching upon the daring uncertainty of marriage (“Big Day”) and romance (“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”) along with the skepticism behind maturation (“Earn Enough For Us”) and eternal rest (“Dying”), and there is a sense that this album could not have happened at any other point in XTC’s history, save for Mummer.
Partridge riffs quickly on the things going on in his life that made Skylarking’s topicality bracing: “Growing up. Realizing responsibilities. Opening up to where I lived—to Wiltshire, the nature there. Questioning things deeper. God, existence—the chewier questions. Probably as a result of me, at that time, coming off—rather abruptly—of 13 years of valium addiction. I was thinking clearer and wanted to know stuff. Life’s big questions. Funny you should mention Mummer, though, as that, for me, was the first of the clear-thinking albums.”
Skylarking, then, is a provocatively personal, bucolic, Arcardian, even ecclesiastical masterpiece once you consider that the album’s primary American hit, “Dear God,” was a begrudging add-on, according to Rundgren. “Andy didn’t want that song on the album, and neither did the A&R guy at Geffen,” says the producer with a sneer so pronounced, his sarcasm drips through the phone. “They didn’t know.”
They didn’t know.