Visit the commuter town of Swindon in Wiltshire and you won’t find a single monument to its most famous sons, XTC, despite the fact that they produced some of the best music of the 1980s and 90s. Skylarking alone deserves a heritage plaque of some sort, one thinks as one wanders down the rain-soaked grey shopping arcades of Swindon’s unimposing centre; and what the town lacks in recognition of musical heritage is mirrored in many record collections too – XTC aren’t always accorded the same status as other seminal acts from the same era, and are seen as something of a cult band despite landing the odd punch on the mainstream during their heyday.
Andy Partridge, the band’s frontman, gave up touring in 1982 after experiencing severe stage-fright brought on by Valium withdrawal symptoms in Paris, and Skylarking is the product of the precision-engineered studio work which ensued. The recording of the album was marred by serious tensions between Partridge and the band’s producer Todd Rundgren, but despite this, XTC managed to produce what many consider to be their finest album, a masterpiece of hazy, pastoral imagery; it’s futuristic yet quintessentially ’80s electronica and backward-looking music hall vaudeville. Several of the songs feature the burr of insect noise and chirruping birdsong, and it’s as though the listener is lying in a field under the August sunshine, a million miles away from the industrial grimness of “Making Plans For Nigel”. “Summer’s Cauldron” is a sedate first track, with Partridge asking “Please don’t pull me out / This is how I would want to go.” The imagery of “floating like a bug in brandy” in some kind of hermetically sealed, idealised summer is introduced here and is central to the album as a whole. The music segués seamlessly into “Grass,” a wistful and haunting yet celebratory song with a confident piano line, exuberantly graceful synth strings and bawdy references to “things we used to do on grass.” Although some fans disliked the way this material departed from XTC’s earlier, more punkish output, this song in particular is as perfect as anything you’ll find on vinyl (or indeed polycarbonate).
The concerns of modernism, however, are never far away, and ‘”The Meeting Place” pays lip service to reality while aspiring for something better. The funereal jangling of bells, juxtaposed with a more cheerful ostinato, underscores this escape song, which tells of lovers meeting after a factory shift, “strolling under grimy skies” and worrying that “someone might hear,” all of which is curiously reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is furthered on “Earn Enough For Us,” another song about struggling through together, the bearing of “hurtful comments from the boss” as the flip side of weekends spent with one’s paramour. “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is an amusing comic-book fantasy, with the album’s weather theme present and Partridge’s lyrical persona’s self-deprecating sense of inferiority to the fore: “I might be an ape / But I used to feel super.” This is something that recurs in XTC songs from “Mayor Of Simpleton” to “My Bird Performs,” and one hopes Partridge doesn’t actually believe this. Nature-worship and another constant feature of XTC lyrics – fruit and colourful things in general offsetting a “world wrapped in grey” – crops up in “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” with the album in general forming an acknowledgement of the “miracle play” of nature – brave, at a time when very few other bands were exploring such earthy and pastoral concepts. It gets even better with “1,000 Umbrellas,” a surrealist exploration of relationship breakup and a novel take on this popular song subject, with comi-tragic exaggeration – “One thousand umbrellas / Upturned couldn’t catch all the rain / That drained out of my head” – accentuated by swooning silent-era-style strings that ooze misfortune. It ends having extracted maximum dramatic effect using a descending string sequence to demonstrate the futility of well-meant cliché from friends: “How can you smile and forecast / Weather’s getting better / If you never let a girl rain all over you?”
We get to soar above the stratosphere in “Another Satellite,” albeit in the furtherance of a metaphor, in this case the idea that an unwanted admirer is akin to an unnecessary piece of space hardware in orbit. Is this song a comment on the space race as well? Who knows. In any case, the chorus is excellent and there’s plenty of wordplay on the notion of the lunar dark side reflecting Partridge’s mercurial personality and the idea of a stale relationship being rather like two planets in orbit but never meeting. The electronic pinging in the background adds to the motif of ignored space junk. The futility of doing anything other than following your heart recurs in “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” which has a vagely Latin American feel musically and uses another metaphor, that of exploration and seafaring: the man in question ultimately ends up as “empty skin / a bag to keep life’s souvenirs in.” Needing to live life as opposed to living through it is also central to “Dying,” with fear of sudden death after an unfulfilled life set to wistful woodwind.
“Season Cycle” returns to the familiar territory of nature, in particular the “verdant spiral” of growth and death, and it’s as though the entire album – which ends with an autumnal piece – is encapsulated here, with Partridge asking who needs to aspire to heaven when there’s so much beauty here on Earth, whether you see the changes occurring yearly or in the slow shifting of tectonic plates: “Darling did you ever think / About the building of the hills a-yonder / All this life stuff’s closely linked.” The music itself is playful stompishness and more mellow moments during the bittersweet apprehension of winter in the lyrics. The fade-out at the end reinforces the notion of nature and time as cyclical – we feel that this song could continue forever. Interestingly, XTC were to depict collective pyromania in a less positive light in Nonsuch‘s “Books Are Burning” four years later, but “Sacrificial Bonfire” is an atmospheric and nostalgic look at Guy Fawkes’ Night celebrations. The song’s replete with the sound of a crackling bonfire, but its November setting extends beyond its literal subject to bring a sense of closure to this summery album: the song harks back to a time when nature-worship was widely conducted, with the burning of the bonfire not a patriotic act but a deed of thanks for good yields as well as a symbol of change and of hope for the coming year rising out of the remains of last summer’s foliage.
Overall, this is a very special album, one which transcends the ’80s and deserves the status of all-time classic. Their record company may have wanted something like ZZ Top, but they got fourteen glorious songs that are more like a cross between The Beach Boys, the Beatles and The Kinks in full village green preservation mode with a smattering of Geoffrey Chaucer. The best way to describe the album is in Partridge’s words: “a perfect summer’s day, baked into one cake,” and that’s wonderful: even if you’ve only got “a future in British Steel” to look forward to, there’ll always be summertime.