Sunday, July 25, 2010

February 8, 2010: Track by Track: ‘Psonic Psunspot’ by The Dukes of Stratosphear

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

The mid-1980s: a barren wasteland of antiseptic record production distinguished by harsh, gated drum sounds, tinny horns, and synthesizers. Aside from the most lo-fi college bands, no one came out unscathed. Elvis Costello and the Attractions put out Goodbye Cruel World (1984), a record that kicks off with a Darryl Hall duet complete with farty sax solo. The Damned also got saxy on Phantasmagoria (1985), their over-polished, synth-swathed bid for big chart success. Even the filthy Replacements broke out some flatly recorded horns on the otherwise fierce Pleased to Meet Me (1987). The real tragedy of such records is that they often contained a good deal of excellent songs that could have really shined in a different setting. But labels remained convinced that their acts had to delve into DDD flawlessness in order to compete with the soulless likes of Phil Collins and Duran Duran. Consequently, ‘60s holdovers like The Stones, The Kinks, Pete Townshend, and Robert Plant were among the worst offenders, probably because they had to struggle the hardest to remain relevant.

Some of the cagier groups skirted contemporary production trends by releasing one-off, “novelty” records credited to some long-lost, fabricated ‘60s band. They put together collections of organic, Retro-Rock that stood in warm contrast to the icy sounds of the day. In 1984, The Damned masqueraded as Naz Nomad and The Nightmares to release Give Daddy The Knife, Cindy, a phony soundtrack to a phony Roger Corman-esque psychedelic horror movie containing gritty covers of American psych and garage classic such as The Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me”, Paul Revere and The Raiders’ “Kicks”, and The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)”. It wasn’t anything incredibly essential; just a fresh palette-cleansing before they mounted Phantasmagoria.

XTC never succumbed to the trappings of ‘80s production as severely as many of their contemporaries, but an album like Skylarking (1986) still displayed a slightly off-putting sheen—though one that could not significantly spoil its uniformly excellent songs. But the ‘60s-psych-enthusiasts yearned for that era’s “compact magic” (in guitarist/singer/chief composer Andy Partridge’s words) enough to feel the need to retreat into their own pseudonymous project. Thus, Partridge transformed into “Sir John Johns”, bassist/singer Colin Moulding was now “The Red Curtain”, keyboardist Dave Gregory became “Lord Cornelius Plum”, and drummer Ian Gregory, “E.I.E.I. Owen”, and XTC was reborn as The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Upon the re-release of the entire Dukes output in May 2009, Andy Partridge told The Chicago Tribune “these days you’d just lean on a button, and there it is; it’s all sampled and pre-screwed-up for you. But then you really would have to play an electric saw at the bottom of a well and then have that spun in backwards and stuff like that.” He could have said the very same thing in 1985 when The Dukes of Stratosphear were conceived and digital effects made anything possible, and quite easily achieved, in the studio, but lacked the naturalness, the opportunity for magical accidents, that the whimsical, experimental techniques of the past allowed.

Unlike The Damned/Naz Nomad, XTC/The Dukes of Stratosphear composed original music, making their ruse a bit more convincing and a lot more artistically significant. In fact, the records XTC released as The Dukes of Stratosphear rate as some of the best music they produced and probably the most successful and accurate homage to ‘60s psychedelia ever recorded. Today Partridge considers Psonic Psunspot to be an official XTC L.P., serving as the missing link between Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons (1989), and credits the entire Dukes project with refreshing XTC’s creatively by giving them the “excuse to dress up crazy and not be (ourselves).”

The Dukes’ first release, the 1985 E.P. 25 O’Clock, puts a very fine point on their intentions, with each song serving as a specific take-off on a specific classic of the original psychedelic era. “25 O’Clock” is a ringer for “I Had To Much To Dream”, “Bike Ride to the Moon” is a poppier rewrite of Pink Floyd’s “Bike”, and “The Mole from the Ministry” not only sounds like The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, but its fabulous music video reinterprets the “Walrus” sequence from Magical Mystery Tour. Such specificity makes 25 O’Clock sound a bit too much like a Rutles-style novelty (albeit a superb novelty). The Dukes of Stratosphear relaxed a bit on their one and only L.P. With Psonic Psunspot, they crafted a neo-psychedelic classic that still pays all-due tribute to Floyd, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and other behemoths of the mid ‘60s, while still sounding quite like XTC (by this point, they’d fessed up about The Dukes’ true identity). By parading out all the essential tropes of psychedelia—satires of the military and straight society, drug songs, music hall, backward tape loops, Mellotrons, ostentatious surrealism, half-baked conceptual devices—XTC essentially create the ultimate album of 1967 twenty years after the fact.

Psonic Psunspot by The Dukes of Stratosphear
Originally released August 1987 on Virgin Records
Produced by The Dukes of Stratosphear

All songs by Andy Partridge unless otherwise stated.

*blue-highlighted song titles are links to audio clips

Track 1: Vanishing Girl (Colin Moulding)

Normally, comparing a band’s work to another’s is an all-too easy Rock criticism cop-out. However, a self-conscious homage like Psonic Spunspot cannot be considered without acknowledging its various influences. Critics often cite the exhilarating “Vanishing Girl” as The Dukes’ homage to the sweet, jangly pop of The Hollies. Drawing inspiration from one of the less psychedelic acts referenced on the album, “Vanishing Girl” is its most straight-forward track, and hearing The Dukes this naked would have ensured their
jig was up even if they hadn’t already admitted they were actually XTC. Bassist Colin Moulding’s voice is unmistakable in this setting, whereas Partridge would push his into less distinguishable areas elsewhere on the record whether by physical or electronic means. The tinge of anguish in Moulding’s delivery suits the longing lyric about a free-spirit nicely. Without the overt psychedelic accoutrements or knowingly surreal lyricism of the rest of the album, “Vanishing Girl” is as simple a pop song as The Dukes or XTC ever produced. Had it been released as a single twenty years earlier it probably would have been a monster hit, but in 1987, it only managed an appearance on a promotional single. “Vanishing Girl” certainly would have sounded completely alien over radio-airwaves that even found The Monkees (one of Partridge’s favorite groups) scoring a big comeback with the totally ‘80s, totally sterile “That Was Then, This Is Now”.

With their sole tip of the hat to circa-‘65 jangle-pop out of the way, The Dukes quickly move on to the psychedelics that are the chief agenda of Psonic Psunspot. To conjure the spirit of ’67, they incorporate brief snatches of spoken nonsense to link the tracks on Side-A. That these interludes intend to recall Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with their silly double-speak, talking animals, and young heroine, aligns the record with similar Carroll-fixated works of the original psychedelic era (most obviously Lennon tunes like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus”, but also Donovan’s “Jabberwocky”, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, and The Monkees’ “Through the Looking Glass”) and the young girl who plays Alice is a dead-ringer for the one who intrudes on Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe.” That the links basically peter out after a single side of vinyl recalls similar one-sided concepts like The Who Sell Out and Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nutgone Flake, which also featured nonsensical spoken links.

Track 2: Have You Seen Jackie?

“Have You Seen Jackie?” feels like a throwback to 25 O’Clock as it is the one track on Psonic Psunspot to reference a specific psychedelic classic. With its bouncy tale of gender confusion, militaristic rhythm, and arches of organ color, “Have You Seen Jackie?” is a neat tribute to Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” (although the sped-up vocals bring to mind Floyd’s “See Emily Play”). The big difference is that Syd Barrett offered exasperated consolation to Arnold Layne, who ends up behind bars for his cross-dressing shenanigans, while ending with the admonishment “Don’t do it again.” Partridge is much more defiant regarding his character, leading group shouts of “Hey! Leave Jackie alone!” on the chorus. No less an outsider than Barrett was, Partridge had his share of psychological troubles (in 1982 he suffered a famous nervous breakdown on French television that led to his retirement from touring), but they were not nearly as severe as Barrett’s (a possible schizophrenic), and his healthier constitution is evident here. Meanwhile the “Alice” character from the between-song links makes a rare in-song appearance to explain that “Jackie couldn't decide if he was a girl or if she was a boy.” A distorted voice at the end of the track answers: “She was a boy.”

Track 3: Little Lighthouse

“Little Lighthouse” is less dependent on retro-gimmickry than much of the rest of Psonic Psunspot, making it the track that most sounds like XTC as we know and love them. It would have sounded perfectly correct had it been included on English Settlement. The combination of heavily tremeloed rhythm guitar and fuzzed-out lead are the only major musical concessions to the mid-‘60s concept, although Moudling’s dive-bomb bass runs in the fade are a clear homage to Bill Wyman’s work in “19th Nervous Breakdown”. Lyrically, “Little Lighthouse” is as vibrantly surreal as any classic piece of psychedelia (“She's a little lighthouse when she opens up her huge eyes and streams of diamonds shoot out 'til we're wading waist deep in her brilliant love”), but it sounds less adventurous than its surroundings. Still, a fine track performed with passion. The use of trumpet, vaguely reminiscent of Love’s “Alone Again, Or”, on the bridge is a nice touch.

Track 4: You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as seen by Andy Partridge. The oompah beats that pervade on Pepper are the driving force of “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)”, and the parenthetical addendum to the title is a touch of Lennon word-tomfoolery circa In His Own Write. The lyrics provide a dose of caustic hippie military-satire along the lines of Floyd’s “Corporal Clegg”, The Kinks’ “Tin Soldier Man”, Tomorrow’s “Colonel Brown”, Procol Harum’s “Good Captain Clack”, and West Coast Consortium’s “Colour Sergeant Lilywhite”. This is not untrodden ground for XTC, whose Black Sea (1980) included the similarly themed tracks “Generals and Majors” and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)”. Still “Albert Brown’s” brass fanfares (is that a Mellotron I hear, Mr. Partridge?), prominent piano, and merry sound effects are pure Pepper. Ian Gregory bashes his semi-open hi-hat on the bridge like Ringo on “Getting Better” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. Splendid!

Track 5: Collideascope

Shades of The Move’s “Blackberry Way” creep through on the chord progression of “Collideascope”. Partridge pushes his vocal through his nose, sounding like Dick Taylor’s lead on The Pretty’s Things’ “Baron Saturday”. Then all cheeky guises are dropped for the very-XTC-esque chorus. The inventive arrangement adds snatches of dialogue and sawing wood, evocative intrusions from either a Mellotron or a synthesizer substitute, and bits of tinkling piano. The lethargic rhythm and lack of dynamics does not make “Collideascope” one of the stand-out tracks on Psonic Psunspot, but it’s as tuneful as any other fantasy the guys invoke. The perception-challenging lyric is one of the album’s most picturesque, blending violent imagery (“Who put that nail in your eye?”) and dreamy phantasms with the flair of Luis Buñuel.

Track 6: You’re My Drug

Andy Partridge blunders slightly by actually using the word “Drug” while trying to approximate a period when groups tended to be a bit cleverer while detailing their chemical experiments in song. The refrain of “You’re My Drug” is explicit whereas the most audacious celebrations of mind-altering substances of the original psychedelic era opted for thin metaphor and hippie jargon that fluttered over the heads of most straights (“I’d love to turn you on…”, “My friend Jack eats sugar lumps…”, “Feed your head…”). Partridge may sidestep such criticisms by using “drug” as a metaphor for a woman. Or he may actually just be singing a love song to a tab of acid. In any event, “You’re My Drug” is a swirling piece of psychedelia, decidedly more kaleidoscopic than the song it follows. Latin percussion, a propulsive bass line, dreamy harmonies, and multiple lead guitar lines (both distorted and clean) that weave in and out of the track with trippy caprice make for a marvelously ear-tickling psych-homage that sounds far less parodic than its lyric.

Track 7: Shiny Cage (Colin Moulding)

Moulding’s “Shiny Cage” is a grim rewrite of The Beatles’ “Goodmorning, Goodmorning” in much the same way The Move re-imagined the suburban reveries of “Penny Lane” in their bleak and rainy “Blackberry Way”. Whereas the protagonist of “Goodmorning, Goodmorning” follows a listless tromp through his old neighborhood with a festive night on the town, the lead character of “Shiny Cage” concludes that his late-night club-hopping is just as unfulfilling as the drab morning commute that preceded it. Musically, the song owes its greatest debt to an earlier Beatles track, “I’m Only Sleeping”, even ending with a snatch of backward guitar loops. Neither the tuneful treat that “Vanishing Girl” was nor the cleverly structured tale that “The Affiliated” will be a couple of tracks later, “Shiny Cage” is Moulding’s weakest offering on Psonic Psunspot, although the intermittent shifts into harsh waltz-time is an inspired device that rescues the song from the monotony its lyric describes.

Track 8: Brainiac’s Daughter

Partridge’s vivid, bouncy “Brainiac’s Daughter” blasts a heady dose of life back into Psonic Psunspot. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is Partridge’s most delightful number on the album, only reviled by Moulding’s “Vanishing Girl” for infectiousness. Moulding is at his most McCartney-esque as he nimbly zoops up the neck of his bass. The main inspiration seems to be The Kinks, though. The rhythm bears an uncanny resemblance to their “Moneygoround”, while that “Yes, sir; yes, sir; Three bags full, sir” refrain will be familiar to Kultists from the second track on Arthur: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Partridge’s lyric relates a fantastical date with the title girl, but the smitten euphoria of the band’s performance is at odds with some of his stifling imagery (“Brainiac’s Daughter made me a suit of bricks and mortar…”). Yet, Partridge proclaims “I’m crazy for girls like that!” so to each his own, I suppose.

Track 9: The Affiliated (Colin Moulding)

The social commentary song was a mid-‘60s staple as pervasive as the sitar or the Mellotron. Counterculture Rock bands delighted in pointing out the hypocrisy and monotony of “straight” society via the pill-popping housewife in The Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”, the frustrated office worker in Tomorrow’s “Shy Boy”, and the blandly garbed businessman in Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. Ray Davies practically made a career of such screeds with the likes of “Sunny Afternoon”, “A Well Respected Man”, “Mr. Pleasant”, and “Shangri-La”, possibly because his own bourgeois nature gave him the necessary insight into such characters. Since XTC already dabbled in this kind of material with “Respectable Street”, “The Affiliated” feels less radically retro than most of its album-mates. It is the record’s most complete story-song, both musically and lyrically. The dreary opening section detailing a pub-dweller’s hollow affinity for his tankard, darts trophy, and beer is matched by a foot-dragging waltz worthy of Mr. Davies. “Then came her!” The fellow’s possible salvation in the form of a pretty lass arrives in conjunction with a sudden shift to a saucy bossa nova. The inevitable disappointment and drudgery of straight marriage—the “eight screaming kids” and “mortgage ‘round his neck” (a slight rewrite of a line in “Shangri-La”)—brings the resumption of the despondent waltz, and the lure of his old pub seat concludes the song on an elliptical note. Colin Moulding packs a lot into 2:31 of “The Affiliated”, the shortest track on Psonic Psunspot, and what it likes in memorable melody it makes up for with pithy storytelling.

Track 10: Pale and Precious

“Pale and Precious” is The Dukes’ most blatant pose, yet it’s also the most gorgeous track on the record because the touchstone here is the group responsible for the most gorgeous music of the ‘60s. The pulsing organ, clip-clopping percussion, massed harmonies, chiming guitars, staccato bassline, and theramin coda all contribute to a perfect summation of The Beach Boys circa ’66 (with some nods to ’65 in the “Help Me Rhonda” “bow bow bow” backing vocals and the “Little Girl I Once Knew” descending organ triplets on the bridge). The achingly longing and unabashedly romantic lyric could have been swiped right out of Tony Asher’s notebook. Although the influences are more palpable on “Pale and Precious” than any other Dukes of the Stratosphear number, it still has clear precedents in the XTC oeuvre as the boys mimicked The Beach Boys nearly as faithfully a year earlier on “Season Cycle” from Skylarking. With their next album, Oranges and Lemons, XTC would make their greatest concessions to the bright sterility of ‘80s record production yet, making “Pale and Precious” a most fitting conclusion to a most preciously pale album.
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