How XTC Found Pop Perfection with ‘Skylarking’
Released on Oct. 27, 1986, XTC's Skylarking is considered by many to be the band's finest record, a song cycle frequently compared to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The lofty comparison is no hyperbole: Lush instrumentation, fanciful arrangements and a dense tapestry of sound effects—magical toy shop-like clicks and whirrs on "The Meeting Place," or serene nature sounds such as crickets, chirping birds and buzzing bees—combine to create a self-contained universe overflowing with rainbow-hued, psych-kissed pop. Spiraling melodies and chord resolutions create emotional tension and catharsis, while also contributing to the whimsical vibe.
Sequencing-wise, the album's songs flow seamlessly into one another. "Ballet for a Rainy Day" boasts cascading piano and a melody before giving way to strings—which continue to dart and leap throughout "1000 Umbrellas," a song about a relationship breakup where the protagonist is "handed the keys / To a town they call Misery." "Grass" also boasts ornate plucked strings, while Beach Boys-esque falsetto harmonies add sighing delicacy to "Season Cycle" and to the kaleidoscopic, hook-filled "That's Really Super, Supergirl." "Big Day," meanwhile, boasts lovely, jangly guitars.
Elsewhere, the desperate nostalgia of "Mermaid Smiled" has hints of prog complexity in its rhythms and changes. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, because Prairie Prince—who had worked with everyone from Journey to David Byrne and Brian Eno—handles drums on Skylarking.) "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" has a jazz-inspired feel, with blaring horns, pattering percussion and Andy Partridge's whispering vocals, while the eerie, sparse standout "Another Satellite" made use of modern sampling and synth technology.
Listen to "Earn Enough for Us"
As "Supergirl" implies, however, Skylarking also has some of XTC's most overtly commercial pop moments. The highlight is the compact power-pop gem "Earn Enough for Us," a song about a man trying to do right by his future wife and child that matches financial anxiety with unabashed optimism. Not far behind is the acoustic guitar-driven "Dear God," a midtempo, string-swept song which ruminates on the existence of God and religion, with a decidedly agnostic view.
Skylarking received increased attention in the U.S. due to "Dear God." It's more precise to say the song struck a nerve: The New York Times reported at the time that radio stations in major cities received "angry phone calls" for airing the song, while a bomb threat was even called into Panama City, Fla., station. ''Most programmers were afraid to put it on,'' John Brodey, then the vice president of Top 40 promotion for Geffen Records, told the paper.
Partridge's New York Times response to this hubbub was bemusement. "People shouldn't be annoyed by this tiny little soap bubble of an idea, this 90th-hand idea that maybe there isn't an aging English actor wrapped in a sheet on a ball of cotton wool saying, 'I'm going to make you win the lottery this morning,'" he said. "For Chrysler's sake, I'm just saying maybe there isn't a God—and these Christian, tolerant people want to chain-saw me.''
Listen to "That's Really Super, Supergirl"
One of Skylarking's biggest quirks is that "Dear God" wasn't actually on the album and had to be tacked on to later pressings. ("Mermaid Smiled" was deleted from the tracklist when "Dear God" was added, although subsequent reissues have restored the album's original running order.) Instead, it was a b-side to the single "Grass," and took off after "radio stations started to flip it over," Partridge recalled in the liner notes to Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977–92. "The lyrics really got up some people's noses, and it became a big radio hit. Whoever first flipped it probably saved us."
In an even stranger move, "Dear God" was also even taken off Skylarking before its release. "It always did go into 'Dying,'" Partridge recalled in a chapter on the song in Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC. "The clock in 'Dying' is supposed to take over the rhythm from 'Dear God.'" Why the song was removed is complicated. For starters, Partridge shared that the band's contact at Virgin Records, Jeremy Lascelles, told him, "The American market isn’t going to like this song, and you’re going to get a lot of hate mail. What would you say if I suggested taking it off the album?"
Partridge clarifies, however, it wasn't fear of listener backlash that made him take these words to heart. Instead, in his eyes, Lascelles' suggestion "underscored or threw a spotlight on the fact that I thought I’d failed in my attempt to crystallise the subject matter in three minutes and a bit," Partridge says.
"I honestly thought that I’d failed. It’s such a vast subject—human belief, the need for humans to believe the stuff they do, and the many strata involved, the many layers of religion and belief and whatnot," he added. "So I thought I’d failed to address this massive subject for all mankind—and also a big subject for me, because I think it’d been bugging me for many years."
Listen to "Another Satellite"
Skylarking was also notable for being produced by Todd Rundgren. "We were called in and told, 'Look lads, your career's down the toilet unless you start to sell records in America,'" keyboardist Dave Gregory said in the liner notes of Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977–92. "So we were given this long list of American producers, and the only name on it I knew was Todd's.” Added bassist Colin Moulding: "He said he could do it all for $150,000, so we said OK."
In a 1987 Keyboard interview, Gregory shared that Rundgren helped with Skylarking's sound design, drum machine programming, string and brass arrangements and, of course, certain aspects of the keyboards. "Todd bought a Prophet-10 especially for this album," Gregory recalled. "We went into this shop on 48th Street, and Todd saw this thing going cheap, and said, ‘All right, we'll have that.’ So there we were, wheeling it through the streets of New York in a flight case. It was quite funny to watch."
Watch the Video for "Grass"
Rundgren also came up with the keyboards on "That's Really Super, Supergirl," since the band "didn't know what to do with [the song]," Gregory says. "It was just a ‘B’ side, and he could obviously see possibilities in it. One afternoon, we just left him to it." Still, Gregory also says he "can't say that we got on together all that well. It was a working relationship." The relationship between Rundgren and Partridge especially was and became ambivalent, and has disintegrated over time. (As recently as early 2016, the pair were still publicly disagreeing over aspects of the Skylarking era and "Dear God" saga, and trading insults.)
Still, Partridge also once recalled that 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.”
And Skylarking has stayed relevant due to a spate of high-quality reissues. In 2014, Partridge's label, Ape House, issued a "corrected polarity" CD version of the album with "Dear God" tacked on at the very end, while in early October of this year, Ape House released a deluxe, CD+ Blu-Ray reissue of Skylarking with 5.1 surround and stereo mixes of the original multi-track tapes from Steven Wilson. (The Porcupine Tree founder had previously given the same treatment to 1989's Oranges and Lemons and 1992's Nonsuch.) These Skylarking reissues reveal intriguing new dimensions that make the album even more of a wonder now than it was in 1986.
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