30 Years Ago: XTC Is Saved by the Dukes of Stratosphear’s ‘Psonic Psunspot’
The Dukes of Stratosphear were more than an endlessly fun XTC offshoot band. Their guileless psychedelic asides were a critical bridge between the difficult sessions for 1986's Skylarking and XTC's sun-filled triumph on 1989's Oranges and Lemons.
"It's within the realms of possibility that XTC would not have survived beyond the '80s without the cathartic effect this fun side-project engendered," David Gregory later said. "That so many others found it amusing and entertaining simply adds to the joy we derived from its creation."
Skylarking had been XTC's highest-charting U.S. album to date, but it followed a series of pitched creative struggles with producer Todd Rundgren. Psonic Psunspot, which arrived in August 1987, served as a call back to their fizzy early days, and a timely reminder of the pleasure they used to take in making music.
They returned to work with XTC's original producer John Leckie, and selected a name which had been suggested for the group when they first formed. When an EP titled 25 O'Clock arrived (appropriately enough, on April Fool's Day 1985), the Dukes of Stratosphear were presented in press materials from Virgin Records as a new band – the most obvious sign yet that XTC was seeking rebirth.
"The plan [for 25 O'Clock] came together with remarkable speed," Gregory added. "There were no songs to speak of yet, just a few random ideas – and a studio had still to be found, as well as money to pay for it. A psychedelic EP for 1985? Surely we were joking! The whole raison d'etre of the Dukes was to be low-tech, religiously retro and anti-modern in every respect. Virgin Records, in due course, cautiously advanced us enough to rent Chapel Lane Studios, near Hereford, for a couple of weeks – and, with four songs from Andy [Partridge] and one from Colin [Moulding] virtually written, we convened in my tiny living room in Swindon for one rehearsal before setting off the next morning for the studio."
They each took on individual pseudonyms, too. Credited with singing, guitar and brain buds, Partridge was renamed Sir John Johns, while Moulding (electric bass and song stuff) became the Red Curtain. David Gregory (mellotron, piano, organ and fuzz-tone guitar) took on the monicker of Lord Cornelius Plum, while his drums-playing brother Ian joined as Ian E.I.E.I. Owen.
Then, well, the thing took off. "Virgin put the LP out and it sold pretty well especially in America as an import," Partridge told Freakbeat in 1987. In fact, it sold embarassingly well, because it sold something like 50,000 copies – twice as many as the last XTC album! And it cost nothing. Virgin said to us, ‘Well, you really must do another!’ So, I said it was a one-off thing and I had done it, but then all this mail started arriving saying how brilliant people thought the LP was. People were writing to Virgin asking who the group were. Some people had no idea it was us, and some people just thought we knew the Dukes."
Of course, careful liner-note readers found an Easter egg inside the subsequent Skylarking, which specifically thanked the Dukes of Stratosphear.
Meanwhile, Partridge's slight reluctance about the sessions that produced Psonic Psunspot opened up an opportunity for Moulding to step forward with three songs – including the album-opening psych-rock gem "Vanishing Girl." When it was over, they'd completed an album that "tips our floppy hats to the Beach Boys, the Hollies and all those others we didn't get around to on the first one," Partridge told the New York Times in 1987.
Listen to the Dukes of Stratosphear Perform 'Collideascope'
From Partridge's Byrds-influenced "You're My Drug" to Moulding's delightfully Beatles-esque "Brainiac's Daughter," Psonic Psunspot was shot through with a renewed sense of wit and passion, even if the sounds themselves were pointedly retro. As the project moved forward, Partridge's initial misgivings were overcome with a sense of inevitability.
"It’s been creeping into XTCs music over the years," he admitted to Freakbeat. "Slowly, our album tracks have been getting more and more colorful. I really do love that kind of music. It’s sort of a nostalgia thing, because I just wasn’t old enough to be a hippie. My parents wouldn’t let me grow my hair long."
Finally free of whatever pressures had built up around the XTC brand, they gave themselves over to the music in a way that wasn't always evident on either Skylarking or 1984's The Big Express. Building around a left-over song, the ideas then began to flow.
"'Little Lighthouse' was an XTC number that was put on the shelf because it was too psych-y for XTC, thus it was an obvious choice," Partridge told Freakbeat. "It’s about someone who’s exceptionally wonderful to be with, and it’s like something really fantastic is shining out of their head." Elsewhere, they also referenced the Kinks ("You're a Good Man, Albert Brown [Curse You Red Barrel]") and Pink Floyd ("Have You Seen Jackie?"), among others. "We did a lot of conscious forgery – musically and vocally," Partridge added.
Yet, it all ended up sounding like XTC anyway – and XTC at their finest, to boot. Back then, Partridge said he'd "wanted the Dukes to be an unknown band, so that XTC's past career – for good or bad – did not affect them." Instead, Psonic Psunspot reinvigorated XTC, opening the door for a Top 30 UK hit follow up under their real names. Oranges and Lemons almost cracked the Billboard Top 40 album charts, too.
It's now clear how important this project – though once thought of as a throwaway goof – really was. David Gregory subsequently admitted that "'Collideascope' and 'Pale And Precious' rank as highly for me as anything the group ever recorded."
Psonic Psunspot and the initial EP were combined as a single release titled Chips from the Chocolate Fireball later in 1987, and there were talks of a Dukes of Stratosphear sequel over the years. Among the ideas reportedly considered and discarded were a mock rock opera (apparently to be called The Great Royal Jelly Scandal), an animated feature film based on 25 O'Clock, a prequel album (with the band reimagined as the Mersey Dukes) and even a glam-rock parody.
XTC only ended up offering one more obscure reference: E.I.E.I. Owen also appears in the video for "King for a Day," the second single from Oranges and Lemons. Then, the Dukes of Stratosphear simply vanished.
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