Nearly 24 years ago to the day I’m writing this, XTC played a wonderful little April Fools’ joke on everyone that remains an interesting story in its own right, as well as one of the highlights of their storied career. It’s no secret that XTC frontman Andy Partridge suffered terrible stage fright, mostly as the result of an addiction to Valium. Since that revelation, XTC ceased to become a touring band. With extra time on their hands, thanks to the absence of touring as well as Partridge and producer John Leckie being dismissed from a job, and with a long love for psychedelic music, XTC ducked into their own personal batcaves and emerged as the Dukes of Stratosphear.
Donning the pseudonyms of Sir John Johns, the Red Curtain, Lord Cornelius Plum and E.I.E.I. Owen, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, David Gregory, and his newly recruited brother, Ian, the Dukes set about recording a few tracks that the group thought too `far out’ for their XTC releases. The tracks were loving pastiches of the psychedelic pop hits of their past and, given his history as an engineer at Abbey Road Studios, producer John Leckie seemed the right man for the job. Virgin Records begrudgingly gave the band and Leckie £5000 for a recording session. The group rehearsed for one day, then in the following two weeks, recorded the initial EP, 25 O’clock.
Although Partridge may have originally conceived of the original Dukes EP as a bit of a laugh, a throwaway vanity project that would go virtually unnoticed, the resulting effects were unexpected. Rather than an Austin Powers-like `fish out of water,’ 25 O’clock was treated as a revered artifact. Before the secret leaked that the band was actually XTC, most listeners were led to believe that the record was actually a long lost gem from the ’60s. Of course, it’s hard to mistake Partridge’s voice, so that deception didn’t last very long. Even more amazing, the vinyl only EP, three words that usually spell out sales disasters, actually outsold album sales for XTC’s two previous albums, Mummer and The Big Express. (XTC would bounce back with the popularity of Skylarking and the single, “Dear God.”)
The reason that the Dukes succeeded is no mystery. Bands that co-opt a particular era’s genre of music is fairly commonplace, but when one is found that does it so expertly and lovingly, it transcends parody. The title track magically recaptures the acid-trip aura of man of the songs by the `random adjective / random noun’ bands of the ’60s, such as the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Electric Prunes. It could doubly act as an introduction to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party as well as lead off the album. Leckie’s days as an engineer at Abbey Road come in handy with “What in the World??…” and “The Mole From the Ministry,” two tracks that expertly mimic the Beatles later works. In fact, I would swear that I had heard the latter on the Sgt. Pepper’s album.
The deluxe reissue treatment of 25 O’clock more than doubles the original EP length, adding six demos, three extra tracks and a video for “The Mole from the Ministry,” (which illustrates that the Dukes could also magnificently mimic the Beatles’ videos from the Magical Mystery Tour era). The demos here, while not as polished, are just as good as the originals in most cases, and sometimes taking on completely different vibes, such as the electro-funk of the “What in the World??…” demo, in which the vocals sound peculiarly like Peter Gabriel. A couple of gems appear in the forms of the ultra-psychedelic and theatrical “Black Jewelled Serpent of Sound” and the 2003 `reunion’ recording, the most XTC-like “Open a Can of Human Beans.”
Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs
The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
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