|Studio album by XTC|
|Released||27 October 1986|
|Studio||Utopia Sound Studios (Woodstock, NY); The Sound Hole Studios (San Francisco)|
|Singles from Skylarking|
|2010 remaster cover|
Skylarking is the ninth studio album by the English rock band XTC, released on 27 October 1986. Produced by American musician Todd Rundgren, Skylarking is a loose concept album centered around various cycles in life, such as the seasons, days, and years. The title was chosen as a double entendre, referring to a type of bird (skylark), as well as the British navy term "skylarking", which means "fooling around". Skylarking later became XTC's best-known album and is generally regarded as their finest work.
The album's music style reaches beyond the new wave/post-punk sound that XTC were associated with for years before, and similar to their previous album 25 O'Clock (1985), was influenced by elements of the 1960s psychedelic era. Most of its recording was at Rundgren's Utopia Sound Studio in Woodstock, New York. Rundgren played a large role in the album's sound design and drum programming, providing the band with string and brass arrangements, as well as an assortment of gear. However, the sessions were fraught with tension, especially between Rundgren and bandleader Andy Partridge, and numerous disagreements arose over drum patterns, song selections, and other details. Rundgren or his agents were blamed with accidentally mastering the album with a reversed sound polarity, resulting in a "thin" mix. The problem was not addressed until 2010, when Partridge independently issued a remastered version of the album with corrected polarity.
Upon release, Skylarking was met with indifference in the UK, rising in the album charts to No. 90. In the US it was a college radio hit, peaking at No. 70 and selling roughly 250,000 units. Both of its lead singles "Grass" (backed with "Dear God") and "The Meeting Place" peaked at No. 100 in the UK. Early sales of the album were hampered by the omission of "Dear God" from the album's original pressings. Following the song's growth in popularity among American DJs, it was the subject of controversy in the US, inspiring many angry phone calls to radio stations and at least one bomb threat. Later, Skylarking was listed on "100 greatest albums of the 1980s" lists by Rolling Stone in 1989 and Pitchfork in 2002.
By the mid 1980s, XTC had a personality and sound that was at a marked contrast from the ironic punk rock they were known for in the 1970s. Their albums became increasingly complex, and after frontman and songwriter Andy Partridge suffered a panic attack before a concert, the band ceased touring. Additionally, they were left without a drummer after the departure of Terry Chambers in 1982. In 1985, the band released the British-only EP 25 O'Clock as "the Dukes of Stratosphear", an homage to 1960s psychedelic music that outsold XTC's previous album The Big Express (1984). Songwriter Andy Partridge remembered: "That was a bit upsetting to think that people preferred these pretend personalities to our own personalities ... they're trying to tell us something. But I don't mind because we have turned into the Dukes slowly over the years"
Virgin Records believed that the problem was that the group sounded "too English". According to guitarist Dave Gregory, "We were called in and told: 'Look lads, your career's down the toilet unless you start to sell records in America.' So we were given this long list of American producers, and the only name on it I knew was Todd [Rundgren]'s." Partridge was not particularly familiar with Rundgren, but Gregory was an enthused fan, and urged the band to work with him. Bassist Colin Moulding added: "He said he could do it all for $150,000, so we said OK."
Songs and production
The collaboration with Rundgren proved to be difficult, especially for Partridge, and numerous disagreements arose over drum patterns, song selections, and other details. Up to that point, it was typical for Partridge to act as an "executive producer" for XTC's albums, frequently undermining the authority of the actual credited producer. According to Rundgren: "Essentially, it was kind of preordained by me what the record was going to be, which was something they never endured before. I think 60 percent of the band trusted me, but Andy never did." Gregory intimated that "Todd and Andy were like chalk and cheese as personalities, they didn't hit it off from the start. Things just went from bad to worse."
On the extent of the altercations, Rundgren says "there was the moment Andy said he wanted to cleave my head in half with an axe. But there was never anything physical. Just verbal abuse." Conversely, Partridge remembers that Rundgren would "ask how you were going to do the vocals and you would stand in front of the mic and do one run through to clear your throat and he'd say, 'That was crap. I'll come down and I'll record me singing it and you can have me in your headphones to sing along to.'." Moulding did not have "any problem with Todd", instead feeling that Andy was "so unhappy and taking it out, a little bit, on me." Even though the collaboration was "forced", Rundgren says that "it was such a combination of situations ... that created, ultimately, an album that sounds like we were having a great time doing it. And at times we were having a good time."
Recording and concept
Skylarking contrasts with previous XTC albums by featuring more mature themes and lush arrangements. Partridge surmised that this was partly a result of his "coming off—rather abruptly—of 13 years of valium addiction". He had also recently become a father and began listening to numerous Beach Boys albums, before which he had only been familiar with their singles. In January 1986, Partridge and Moulding mailed Rundgren a collection of more than 20 demo tapes they had stockpiled in advance of the album. Rundgren convinced the band that the songs they had written could form a concept album as a way to bridge what he described "Colin's 'pastoral' tunes and subject matter and Andy's 'pop anthems' and sly poetry." He also suggested a provisional title, Day Passes, and that the album "could be about a day, a year, or a lifetime. ... there were songs that represented significant milestones along the way: birth, young love, family, labor, illness, death, sprinkled with moments of wonderment. Using this framework, I came up with a sequence of songs and a justification for their placement and brought it to the band." Partridge was annoyed by the suggestion, remarking that "you hadn't spoken to the bloke for three minutes, and he'd already been hacking and throwing your work in the bin, y'know?" He rejected the proposed title, as well as Rundgren's concept for the sleeve cover art, which would have been an image of two rail passes that were valid for one day, hence "day passes".
The recording sessions took place in early 1986, largely at Rundgren's Utopia Sound Studios in Woodstock, New York. Rundgren played a large role in the album's sound design and drum programming, providing the band with string and brass arrangements, as well as an assortment of gear that included a Fairlight CMI, Yamaha DX7, E-mu Emulator, pre-MIDI LinnDrum, and a Prophet-10 bought especially for the album. The only instruments the band had brought with them to the US were "about eight guitars". Moulding remembers that "one track ran into another. No edits. Todd had a very unorthodox way of recording—15 ips. I think we got it all on one reel of tape, and done very quickly. Second takes were uncommon, but it was all charming in a way. Partridge considered this a "money-saving ruse", and that he "didn't wanna spend out on reels of tape". At times when Partridge wanted to improve upon a part of the music, Rundgren would respond saying "Andy, it won't necessarily be 'better' – it'll just be different." During the sessions, the band used Rundgren's LinnDrum, which Gregory says "sounded very stiff and lifeless". Real drums were overdubbed in San Francisco by the Tubes' Prairie Prince. Gregory says "it was only then that the album started coming to life". All of the basic tracks were recorded in the same order as they appear on the album, as were the drum overdubs that followed.
The snare from "That's Really Super, Supergirl" was sampled from Utopia's Deface the Music (1980). Because of recording logistics, Prince and Moulding were forced to play around the beat. The song's solo was played by Gregory on Eric Clapton's psychedelic Gibson SG The Fool, then owned by Rundgren. According to Uncut's Joe Stannard, "Ballet For A Rainy Day", "1000 Umbrellas" and "Season Cycle" each "distil the flawless orch-pop of Smile and Abbey Road into a handy three-song suite." The ending of side one, "Season Cycle", was prominently influenced by the Beach Boys, but was not initially planned as a pastiche of the band; "in fact, it started out very much like a folk song, very strummy. And just to kind of tie things up, I tried to do some other things going on at the same time, 'cause we're cross-melody maniacs in this band, but I thought it would be fun. Then I thought, 'Shit, this really does sound like the Beach Boys. Yeah, I'll make it sound a bit more like the Beach Boys!'." Partridge feels that the end result was "nearer to Harpers Bizarre than the Beach Boys personally."
Side two begins with "Earn Enough For Us" and "Big Day", which Stannard calls "typically breezy XTC power-pop nuggets". Moulding temporarily left the group after a dispute over the bass line of "Earn Enough for Us", which Partridge felt had been going in a direction that was too "bluesy". The two songs are followed by "the mordant, chiming rebuke" of "Another Satellite", which "signals a shift into darker, more personal areas. The jazzy aquaphilia of "Mermaid Smiled" provides momentary respite, but it's with Skylarking's final four songs that a nocturnal chill creeps in."
"Dear God" and final mix
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Original pressings of Skylarking omitted "Dear God", an introspective, agnostic song. Partridge explains that while the song was always intended to be on the album, it was left off because a Virgin Records executive was concerned about the album's length, and advised that the song may upset American audiences; "I reluctantly agreed because I thought I hadn't written a strong enough take on religion. I thought I'd kind of failed." Rundgren had a different recollection, and said that Partridge demanded that the song be pulled because "He was afraid that there would be repercussions personally for him for taking on such a thorny subject. ... What a pussy. ... I called them and said, 'This is a mistake.'"
On the request of XTC and Virgin Records, Rundgren submitted three different mixdowns of the album before quitting the project. According to Partridge, both the label and the band were dissatisfied with the final mix; "We all thought [it was] poor and thin ... There was no bass on it, no high tops, and the middle sounded muddy." Gregory similarly recalled that it was badly recorded. Decades later, it was discovered that the album's master tapes were engineered with an incorrect sound polarity. Rundgren referenced the issue: "I think it's total bullshit. But if such a thing existed, it's because they changed the running order on it and had to remaster it – and I had nothing to do with it. What a prick." Mastering engineer John Dent, who discovered the flaw in 2010, attributed it to a wiring error between the multitrack recording and stereo mixing machines, which would not have been aurally evident until after the tapes left Rundgren's studio.
Moulding said of the album: "Perhaps it lacked the polish of some of the other recordings we had made, but it was the character that was sewn into the record which was its strength. ... Positively naive at times." Gregory called the finished product "probably my favourite XTC album", expressing appreciation of how Rundgren handled the songs. In a promotional insert included with their album Nonsuch (1992), Partridge wrote "Musician and producer Todd Rundgren squeezed the XTC clay into its most complete/connected/cyclical record ever. Not an easy album to make for various ego reasons but time has humbled me into admitting that Todd conjured up some of the most magical production and arranging conceivable. A summer's day cooked into one cake."
"Dear God" was ultimately released as the B-side to the UK lead single "Grass", but due to its popularity with American DJs, the album was reissued in the US, with "Mermaid Smiled" removed and "Dear God" cross-faded into the following track, "Dying", giving the second edition of the US album a revised track sequence. Partridge commented: "When 'Dear God' ... became a hit something had to go and so I took off the shortest song."
Promotional videos were made for "Grass" and "Dear God" (both directed by Nick Brandt). The Channel 4 music program The Tube also produced videos for "The Meeting Place" and "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" filmed in Portmeirion with the band wearing costumes from The Prisoner. In 1987, the "Dear God" video received the Billboard Best Video award and was also nominated for the categories Best Director, Best Concept, and Best Innovation for the MTV Video Music Awards.
|Encyclopedia of Popular Music|||
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide|||
|The Village Voice||A−|
Skylarking spent one week on the UK album charts, reaching No. 90 in August 1986. In the U.S., the album spent 29 weeks on the Billboard 200 album charts and reached its peak position of No. 70 in June 1987. In that same month, the single "Dear God" was released in both markets, reaching No. 99 in the UK, and No. 37 in the US.
Upon release, Rolling Stone's Tim Sommer called the album "the most inspired and satisfying piece of Beatle-esque pop since ... well, since the Beatles ... More precisely, Partridge/Moulding (the album's dual songwriters and vocalists) have imagined the Revolver/Rubber Soul-era Beatles playing Pet Sounds and Village Green. ... XTC didn't just record the best songs they had lying around, they recorded the best album they had lying around." Creem's referred to it as the band's "masterpiece" and a "somewhat baroque and ethereally-textured collection ... It would be lovely to hear XTC's distinctive and intelligent pop songs permeating the radio, although it's bound to be a sporadic occurrence, since the lads' sound is probably too different to sit well with contemporary radio programming standards. Another irony, since XTC is constantly being compared to one of the most successful groups in pop history, the Beatles."
Also from Rolling Stone, Rob Tannenbaum's 1987 review called the album's craftsmanship "a remarkable achievement", but decried: "This trading of the acute modernism that marked such classics as 'This Is Pop' and 'Making Plans for Nigel' for domestic solitude dampens the band's punk-roots energy and also limits its emotional spectrum. ... Partridge complains. But then he apologizes to his ex for being "rude" to her. Being rude is the point of breakup songs, and a shot of rudeness is just what XTC could use now." Billboard reviewed: "The overall tone here is less hard-edged than in past work; the band never takes the easy way out, however, employing unique sounds and unexpected melodic twists to wonderful effect."
Retrospectively, in 1989, Skylarking was listed at number 48 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. The staff at Pitchfork Media placed the album at 15 on their November 2002 list of the "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s"; Dominique Leone felt that Rundgren's production added warmth to the band's "clever-but-distant" songs. Slant Magazine listed the album at 67 on its list of the "Best Albums of the 1980s"., Mojo's Ian Harrison wrote that regardless of the "businesslike-to-hostile rather than chummy" relationship between Rundgren and the band, "the results were sublime". PopMatters's Patrick Schabe cited it as the album where XTC "blossomed into full maturity", while Uncut's Joe Stannard called it as "the album that tied up everything great about Swindon's finest into one big beautiful package of perfect pop, saving their career in the process."
In Canada, the album was reissued without cutting any songs, but with "Dear God" added to the end of the CD version (the same song order as the 2001–02 reissue.) On 28 May 2001, Virgin Records released a remastered version of the album in the UK with "Dear God" added; this was released in the US in 2002 on the Caroline Records imprint. The b-side "Extrovert" was also recorded in these sessions and later appeared on the 1990 compilation Rag and Bone Buffet.
In 2010 Andy Partridge's APE House label released the album exclusively on vinyl, with a standard release and deluxe board book edition. The album is spread out over two discs and cut at 45 rpm to "make the high end clearer and smoother." The release also features the cover art planned for the album's original release that was "banned" by Virgin. The album has been remastered by engineer John Dent for this release. Dent discovered that the album's original mix had reversed sound polarity and was able to fix this error. This "corrected polarity edition" was released on CD on 14 April 2014.
Ape released Skylarking as a CD+Blu-ray edition on October 10, 2016. The Blu-ray Disc features new 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo mixes by Steven Wilson created from the original multitrack tapes, the original (uncorrected polarity) stereo album presented in high resolution, the original (corrected polarity) stereo album presented in high resolution and instrumental versions of all the 2016 mixes in high resolution, a complete alternate demo version of the album, numerous demos and outtakes from the album sessions as well as promo films for "Dear God" and "Grass".
All tracks written by by Andy Partridge, except where otherwise indicated..
|3.||"The Meeting Place"||Moulding||3:14|
|4.||"That's Really Super, Supergirl"||3:21|
|5.||"Ballet for a Rainy Day"||2:50|
|1.||"Earn Enough for Us"||2:54|
|4.||"Mermaid Smiled" (removed after the album was reissued with "Dear God"; restored on post-2001 reissues)||2:26|
|5.||"The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul"||3:24|
|6.||"Dear God" (not included on initial pressings)||3:34|
- Andy Partridge – vocals, guitar
- Colin Moulding – vocals, bass, and bonfire
- Dave Gregory – vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer, Chamberlin, string arrangement on "1,000 Umbrellas" and the odd tiple
- Prairie Prince – "the part of the time bomb" (i.e., drums)
- Beech Avenue Boys (i.e., XTC) – backing vocals
- Todd Rundgren – orchestral arrangements, computer programming, melodica on "Summer's Cauldron", keyboards on "Grass" and "That's Really Super Supergirl", and backing vocals
- Mingo Lewis - percussion on "Mermaid Smiled" and "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul"
- John Tenney - violin
- Emily Van Valkenburgh - violin
- Rebecca Sebring - viola
- Teressa Adams - cello
- Charlie McCarthy - alto and tenor saxophone, flute
- Bob Ferreira - tenor saxophone, piccolo, bass clarinet
- Dave Bendigkeit - trumpet
- Dean Hubbard - trombone
- Jasmine Veillette - vocals on the first verse and final line of "Dear God"
|1986||UK Official Charts||90|||
|1987||US Billboard 200||70|||
|1987||"Dear God"||UK Official Charts||99|||
|1987||"Dear God"||US Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks||37|||
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