Sunday, August 20, 2006
Pale and Precious: XTC's The Dukes of Stratosphear
With two pop tunesmiths fronting a punkish attack, XTC were one of the best, most prominent bands of the late 70s New Wave. Yet in philosophy and practice, they could be relatively old-fashioned. For example, leader Andy Partridge took great care in making sure each album had a distinct theme, so that Mummer and Skylarking felt pastoral, whilst The Big Express evoked Industrial Era machinery, soot and low-wage labour.
But after years of dipping their musical toes into flower-power homage, in 1987 they dove right in, knickers and all. And they did this by, like their heroes the Beatles, adopting an alternative persona, which freed them from the reigns of popular expectation. (Not that they were all that popular.) XTC released 2 EPs (remember those?) under the nom de tune of The Dukes of Stratosphear: 25 O’Clock and Posnic Psunspot. They were collected into a single CD called Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. And it just might be the best XTC album of them all.
Some have said that every song on Chips is a specific homage to a late-60s band. True or not, it makes for an interesting music dork parlor game. For example, the Colin Moulding’s “Vanishing Girl” sounds exactly like the Hollies. And “Bike Ride to the Moon” is a direct descendant of “Bike” by Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Clearly “Pale and Precious” is a tribute to the Beach Boys I-feel-a-mental-breakdown-coming-on masterpiece Pet Sounds. “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown” feels like one of Paul McCartney’s melodic tearoom singalongs. And “Mole from the Ministry” proves that the mole is indeed related to the Walrus. (Goo Goo Goo Joob!)
Musical in-jokes and laughing gnomes aside, the important thing here is that the above tracks and many others are among the best the band ever wrote. And they are passionately played and immaculately produced. This is the work of great songwriters/musicians/satirists who know their stuff forwards. And even if you play it backwards.