Oct 162015

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

XTC is a difficult band to wrap your head around. Known initially, if at all, for quirky, jerky syncopated new wave songs, they slowly began to change into a band known for lush, intelligent pop songs heavily influenced by the Beatles’ psychedelic period. And, like the Beatles, XTC stopped performing live at what was, to that point, the height of their popularity. Having seen them in action just about a year before they quit touring in 1982, I can attest to the fact that they were an excellent live band. XTC has a devoted and creative fanbase, with exhaustive fan sites and a remarkable number of fan-generated tribute releases, which we will delve into in great detail below.

The end of touring allowed XTC to focus on creating intricate, multi-layered studio masterpieces that would have been difficult to recreate on stage. But the lack of touring and the increasing complexity of the albums led to the risk that XTC would wither away into irrelevance at a time when alternatives to major labels and radio airplay were still relatively scarce. Told by their label that they needed to sell records in the USA, the band was presented with a list of acceptable producers. Todd Rundgren was selected because he was the only one who they recognized, he was reasonably priced, and, maybe, he seemed like a good fit sonically.

The result of this collaboration was Skylarking. Rundgren reportedly sifted through the band’s demos and created from them a loose song cycle about a day, or maybe a year, or maybe even an entire life. The band, without a regular drummer, enlisted Prairie Prince, who had worked with Rundgren when he produced the Tubes’ Remote Control, and who had backed him on solo albums. His drum tracks were done separately from a studio in California; the rest of the album was recorded mostly at Rundgren’s studio in Woodstock, New York. Egos clashed during the production of Skylarking, especially between Rundgren and guitarist/singer/songwriter Andy Partridge; the infighting caused bassist/songwriter/singer Colin Moulding to threaten to, and actually, quit temporarily. Once the album was completed, though, it was clear that something special had been created through the sheer talent of the songwriters, musicians, and producer, and probably as a result of the creative tension. Partridge later admitted, “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.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic album without evidence of classic stupidity by the record label which, having heard the final version, declared that it lacked any singles, and suggested that the band needed to try to write something more like ZZ Top. They didn’t, and the album helped to break XTC into wider popularity, both in the UK and US. Skylarking was ranked 48 by Rolling Stone in its “Best Albums of the 1980s,” and Pitchfork rated it as the 15th best album of that decade. The two follow-ups, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch, were increasingly popular and critically acclaimed, but a dispute with the label led to a 6-year essentially silent period which derailed any momentum the band had generated. Although XTC released music again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was not met with much commercial interest, and in 2008, it appears, XTC stopped being a going concern.

Much of the success of Skylarking came as a result of the popularity of a song initially omitted from the album, “Dear God,” an angry anti-theistic tune that was initially relegated to the B-side to the first single release, “Grass.” As a result, the album was reissued in the US with “Dear God” added, and “Mermaid Smiled” removed. A later release restored the original running order, sticking “Dear God” at the end as a bonus track. More recently, Partridge re-released Skylarking on vinyl, with both tracks included. And since it is fair to assume that he should know what is correct, for our journey through a set of covers of the songs of Skylarking, we will follow the track listing on that version.

Wankwinkel – Summer’s Cauldron (XTC cover)

The hot summer day begins, appropriately, with the sound of insects and other nature sounds before Rundgren’s melodica acts almost as a reveille opening “Summer’s Cauldron.” Despite the fact that it was one of the last songs recorded, it works well as an introduction to the song cycle, starting gently but ultimately turning into a quiet rocker. The cover is by Wankwinkel, the alter-ego of Lorenzo Amistad, an electronic musician from Nice, who has covered a few songs from Skylarking, and, it appears, plays all of the parts. His version is faithful to the original, with a little more rock and a lot more electronics.

Jacky Lurton – Grass (XTC cover)

[audio: http://chalkhills.org/sound/Jacky_Lurton_-_Grass.mp3]
The segue directly from “Summer’s Cauldron” into “Grass” was actually performed live in the studio, and was not the result of studio magic. In the Music Writer’s Code, it is mandatory to refer to Skylarking, and other XTC albums of the era, as “pastoral,” and this seems like the right place to drop in that adjective and retain my good standing in the guild. “Grass” is a beautiful, languorous song about, well, the things that can be done on grass, and by that, I mean sex. Or, as Moulding wrote, “Over and over we flatten the clover.” The cover by Jacky Lurton is relatively straightforward, and may not even be the best cover of the song around, but it is the only one sung in charmingly French-accented English. It appears that M. Lurton is, in fact, French, making it back-to-back covers from that country. Lurton, who may also be an artist, submitted this cover to an exhaustive XTC fansite, Chalkhills, which has been very helpful in putting together this piece (in part due to its listing of all known XTC covers). Lurton played all of the parts on it, thus giving us back-to-back covers created by a single musician, but unlike its predecessor, to these ears it sounds like he used at least some analog instruments.

Tom Slack – The Meeting Place (XTC cover)

But not all is pastoral in the Skylarking world. “The Meeting Place” is backed by a track of industrial sounds, designed to refer to the factories that used to exist in Partridge and Moulding’s home town of Swindon, England. The song is about sneaking away from work for, again, sex, this time referred to by Moulding as “lying in the bracken wood/Coat on the ground, coat on the ground.” This cover, again fairly similar to the original, appeared on Chalkhills’ Children ’96: the Chalkhills subscribers’ XTC tribute tape, and when that went out of print, on King for a Day (An MP3 Tribute to the Music of XTC). There appear to be two musicians named Tom Slack—one, an indie/electronica/jazz musician who has played with Michael Jackson, Mick Fleetwood, Jody Watley, Howard Hewitt, and Shalamar, and the other, also known as Tom Getter Slack, who appears to be a somewhat more struggling musician. And there’s another XTC cover on the King For A Day collection attributed to Thomas Getter Slack, so we’ll assume that they are one and the same.

Monks0108 – That’s Really Super, Supergirl (XTC cover)

Enough with the “faithful” covers, you are probably thinking by now. Show me something that gives me an incentive to pass on the original and hear something different. And here you will be obliged. It is unclear exactly how this song, which seems to be a somewhat sarcastic message to Supergirl from a former boyfriend, fits into the narrative, but it is such a nice pop song that they must have just wanted to include it on the album. The percussion on the original is sampled from Utopia’s Face The Music album, taken directly from the master tapes in Rundgren’s studio. Not much can be gleaned from the Internet about Monks0108, except that he appears to be Japanese, loves XTC (and King Crimson), and creates his odd, instrumental covers on a toy melodion and maybe some stringed instruments. It’s all a bit of a mystery, but the cover is fun.

The International Silver String Submarine Band – Ballet For a Rainy Day (XTC cover)

Steve Stearns, a musician and composer from Seattle recording as The International Silver String Submarine Band, gives us yet another one-man-band accurate cover of the next track, “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” which refers to the bright, fruit-flavored colors of the raincoats the singer views from his window on a rainy day. Stearns captures the feeling of the original, and even tosses in some rain sounds for authenticity. In case you were wondering, Stearns nicked the name for his project from a band founded by Stymie and Butch in The Little Rascals, and should also not be confused with these guys.

The Format – 1000 Umbrellas (XTC cover)

You’d think that in a concept-type album, having a song called “1000 Umbrellas” after a song about a rainy day would mean that the songs were related. And you’d be wrong. In fact, the song is about a miserable breakup, and the umbrellas are metaphorically insufficient to catch all of the tears cried by the singer. The original is a violin-driven, baroque-pop song. The cover by The Format, our first by a band that actually had significant record sales, strips it down to voice and guitar. It appeared on an album of B-sides and rarities cleverly entitled B-Sides and Rarities, initially given away by the band with purchases of $30 or more from their webstore. After the breakup of The Format, singer Nate Ruess formed fun., and became famous.

Tous Les Oiseaux d’Europe – Season Cycle (XTC cover)

Right in the middle of the (original) 14 tracks comes “Season Cycle,” a jaunty tune that encapsulates the essential message of Skylarking, the cyclical nature of the seasons and life itself. Influenced by the Beach Boys, after Partridge heard their Smiley Smile album in guitarist Dave Gregory’s car, the song features background vocals that would not have sounded out of place on that album. Carrying through that theme, our cover comes from a Dutch choral group, which for some reason has a French name, Tous Les Oiseaux d’Europe (All European Birds), and sings in English. A skylark is one of those European birds, and the album’s title was inspired by Shelley’s poem, To A Skylark.

Martin Fuchs – Earn Enough For Us (XTC cover)

Maybe the catchiest song on an album filled with catchy songs, it is also a poignant statement of love from a man professing that he will do anything, and suffer any humiliation, in order to provide for his wife and coming child. Often considered a companion piece to the similarly-themed “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages,” from the Mummer album, it was released as a single in Canada and Australia. Martin Fuchs, a DJ and music writer from Hanover, Germany submitted a German language cover (“Verdien Genug Für Uns”) to The XTC Fans’ Tribute: Skylacking which, other than the language, plays it pretty straight, although he maybe ramps up the “Beatleness” of the guitar, which makes sense since Fuchs appears to have a serious interest in Beatles covers.

The Vagabond Saints Society – Big Day (XTC cover)

Following the sweet sentiments of Partridge’s “Earn Enough for Us,” comes Moulding’s cynical “Big Day,” which takes place on a wedding day. Featuring wedding bells, the singer points out that marriage “Could be heaven, could be hell/In a cell for two.” Later in the song, as the lyrics analogize matrimony to being a “new recruit,” the song takes on a bit of a martial beat. There is something about Skylarking that makes it a popular album for musicians to perform it all in one show. The Vagabond Saints Society, a group of musicians located in the Winston-Salem, NC area, regularly perform shows devoted to a particular artist or album, sometimes recruiting friends (such as Chris Stamey, formerly of the dBs) to join in. They’ve done Skylarking twice, and here’s a live version from their April 2015 show, featuring local singer/songwriter Lee Terry on vocals.

Aceofwands – Another Satellite (XTC cover)

[audio: http://chalkhills.org/misc/aceofwands/aceofwands_-_Another_Satellite.mp3]
During the time that XTC was working on Skylarking, Andy Partridge’s marriage was coming apart, due to his attraction to Erica Wexler, niece of legendary record producer Jerry Wexler and daughter of screenwriter Norman Wexler, who wrote Saturday Night Fever, Serpico, and the somewhat less appreciated Mandingo (and who was probably the inspiration for Andy Kaufman’s nasty alter ego, Tony Clifton). Partridge’s guilt over the situation, and the irresistible pull of Wexler on him, can be heard in the lyrics to this quiet and relatively stripped-down song. The cover is, again, pretty faithful to the original, with maybe a bit more aggressive guitar. It is by Aceofwands, an anonymous musician (possibly named after the tarot card or Steve Hackett song, or both) who posted covers of dozens of XTC and Andy Partridge songs to the Guitar101 forum, including a few others from Skylarking.

My Friend Rachel – The Mermaid Smiled (XTC cover)

The song that was originally sacrificed to make room for “Dear God,” simply because it’s the shortest, is an aquatic-themed song highlighted by an interesting guitar chord progression and percussion by Mingo Lewis, formerly of Santana, Return to Forever, and a number of studio gigs, including with Rundgren. My Friend Rachel, an apparently defunct duo from Oxford, England, consisting of Katherine Hieronymus and Martin Newton (and no one named Rachel) do an ethereal and electronic take on the song that is pleasant and pretty.

Rubén Blades – The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul (XTC cover)

A jazzy departure from the rest of the album, “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” sounds like a cross between a Bond movie theme, “Mack the Knife,” and Nat King Cole. The lyrics, among Partridge’s all-time favorites, are an existential look deep into his confused psyche, as his personal relationships were in flux and the band’s commercial prospects were looking bleak. In 1995, the tribute album A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC was released, containing covers of various XTC songs (and one by Dukes of Strasosphear, a side project) by 11 artists, including some that could be considered fairly major (as well as Terry & the Lovemen, which was actually XTC appearing incognito on their own tribute). This surprising cover, by Rubén Blades, is an exuberant Latin version that might actually make you want to dance.

Sarah McLachlan – Dear God (XTC cover)

“Dear God” is probably the most popular and most covered song from Skylarking. There are tons of them, many of them quite good. But we again go back to A Testimonial Dinner for this cover, by Sarah McLachlan because its writer, Partridge has stated, it is “better than the original, much more spooky. A great marriage between her voice and haunted arrangement. We should have done it like this.” I’m not so sure. The original, starting with acoustic guitar and a child (8-year-old Jasmine Veillette, daughter of a local friend of Rundgren) singing before more instruments and the adult singer take over, building to a climax and ending with the child returning for the coda, is an audio-representation of what the song is all about — a questioning about the big issues in life, and why the concept of God exists in face of the facts. While McLachlan’s version is powerful, there is something about the original’s relative simplicity (and the innocence of Veillette’s framing vocal) that I prefer. According to Partridge, the song was not omitted from the original album because of its controversial pro-atheist message, but because he believed he failed in conveying the complexity and weightiness of the issues. Despite its ultimate popularity, the song did result in hate mail (only in the US) and the occasional banning from stores.

Daniel Prendiville – Dying (XTC cover)

Following “Dear God,” we get Moulding’s downbeat reflection on death and fear of impending death, in the suitably subdued “Dying.” From the Skylacking fan tribute comes Irish “[p]urveyor of fine pop, electronic, ambient, dub and experimental music” Daniel Prendiville’s cover; the only known extant recorded cover of the song, it’s similar to the original and equally downbeat.

Randy Christopher – Sacrificial Bonfire (XTC cover)

What started in a Cauldron ends in a “Sacrificial Bonfire.” On the surface, a song about what sounds like a primitive sacrifice is likely a metaphor for man’s attempt to influence life’s random events. It is a fitting, somewhat elegiac closing song to the cycle of the day/year/life. Randy Christopher, whose name is simply too common for any definitive identification, contributed this excellent, peppier, poppier version to the Chalkhills’ Children ’96 collection, and it can still be found on the King For A Day compilation.

Cavort in the fields and grab the version of Skylarking with “Dear God” at the end on Amazon.  Or get the “polarity corrected” version with the track listing above (and the rejected pubic hair cover) here.

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  5 Responses to “Full Albums: XTC’s ‘Skylarking’”

Comments (5)
  1. thankyou!

  2. Interesting!

  3. Very well written and insightful. It’s refreshing to to find someone as passionate about XTC as I am. But it’s surprising that you omitted the obvious double entendre of “Grass” as both ground cover and drug. Double entendres and allegory are a hallmark of Partridge’s and Moulding’s writing (“Little Pink Thing” from “Oranges and Lemons” is one of the most brilliant and irreverent examples) and lines like “it would shock you too the things we used to do on grass” make the song’s double meaning pretty evident.

  4. I appreciate this post!! I echo wes’s kudos from above!

  5. This is really great to find your post. I appreciate this, thank you for reminding the sweet days.

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