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When XTC went psychedelic as The Dukes of Stratosphear

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Some of the finest of all psychedelic rock originated not in the hippie-trippy 1960s, and not in San Francisco or London, but in the 1980s era of big hair and bright neon, in the town of Swindon, England, when the band XTC, with producer John Leckie, metamorphosed into The Dukes of Stratosphear for two outrageously fun albums.

The entire output by XTC as The Dukes of Stratosphear has just been released as “Psurroundabout Ride” - the latest installment of XTC’s ongoing series of reissues, remixed and produced by Steven Wilson.

The two-disc set includes a CD with a 2019 stereo mix and a Blu-ray disc containing Wilson’s wild new surround-sound mix in 5.1 audio, as well as the bonus equivalent of a boxed set’s worth of alternate listening options.

XTC first gained prominence in the decidedly non-psychedelic late 1970s and early 1980s, during the punk and new wave eras, with melodic hits that included “Making Plans for Nigel,” “This is Pop,” “Generals and Majors” and “Senses Working Overtime.”

Known initially for crafting quirky but catchy tunes with start and stop time signatures and angular guitar riffs, XTC evolved into a true art-rock band with a series of classic albums that includes “Skylarking,” “English Settlement,” “Mummer,” “Oranges and Lemons,” and “Apple Venus Vol. 1.”

Principal XTC songwriter Andy Partridge and guitarist Dave Gregory were weaned on classic pop and rock from their youth, and the progressive rock bands of the 1970s, but each possessed a soft spot for the acid-washed, effects-laden psychedelic rock from 1967 to 1969, as delivered by The Beatles on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Pink Floyd on “See Emily Play,” and Tomorrow on “My White Bicycle.”

As Partridge explained to author Todd Bernhardt for the 2016 book “Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC”:

“It affected me so profoundly that when I was in a position to be in a group making records, I thought I should say thank you to the people who made those records. And the best way to say thank you to them was by sounding just like them.”

Finding themselves with a £5,000 advance check from a skeptical Virgin Records (about $17,440 in 2019) and a sonically gifted and fun-loving producer in John Leckie (Simple Minds, Radiohead), XTC adopted pseudonyms (Partridge was Sir John Johns, bassist and songwriter Colin Moulding became The Red Curtain, guitarist Gregory was Lord Cornelius Plum, his drumming brother Ian became E.I.E.I. Owen) and convened in a studio full of period gear to record the EP “25 O’Clock,” released in 1985.

The record was publicized as a lost collection of late-60s recordings by a long-forgotten psychedelic group - a ruse that remained more or less intact for two years. To the shock of both band and label, the set outsold XTC’s previous album twofold.

The songs themselves fly from the speakers, especially in the all-enveloping 5.1 mix. The title track recalls both Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett) and the Electric Prunes (“I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”). “What in the World?” brings to mind The Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much,” or “It’s Only a Northern Song,” while “Mole from the Ministry” is pure “I Am the Walrus.” Part of the fun of listening to The Dukes is deciphering the conflux of influences.

Pleased with the success of the first Dukes record, delivered on-time and under budget (the band returned £1,000 from their advance), Virgin requested a follow-up Dukes release for 1987.

“Psonic Psunspot” is heavier on pop but there’s still plenty of lysergic grooviness to absorb, and more spot the influences fun to be had in its 10 tracks.

“Vanishing Girl” recalls The Hollies circa ‘67, while “Have You Seen Jackie?” draws inspiration from early Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones “2,000 Light Years from Home.”

“You’re a Good Man Albert Brown,” is a music-hall sing along in the vein of The Kinks, while the lineage for “You’re My Drug” can be traced back to The Animals and The Byrds.

“Brainiac’s Daughter” is as melodic as The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” with a similar rhythm, while “Pale and Precious” is possibly the most perfect homage to Brian Wilson’s genius ever committed to tape. Various sections of the song echo the essence of The Beach Boys’ “SMiLE” and tracks like “Good Vibrations.” It’s interesting to note that most everything from the Dukes evokes a vibe of British psychedelia while this one is purely American.

It would have been easy for The Dukes and John Leckie to merely emulate the sound of vintage psychedelia, but some bands exhaust an entire career without coming up a gem to compare with “Bike Ride to the Moon” or “My Love Explodes.” The Dukes of Stratosphear is only one chapter of XTC’s kaleidoscopic history but it’s full of endlessly rewarding songs, and not a dud among them.

Fans of the classic Dukes of Stratosphear recordings can take heart that those original 1984 and 1987 mixes are included on the Blu-ray disc for “Psurroundabout Ride,” along with the 2019 5.1 mix in both DTS and uncompressed LPCM, the 2019 stereo mix in high resolution, an instrumental mix containing just the music and effects, and 12 home demo recordings.

Heralded for his previous XTC mixes, and the surround mixes he created for the catalogs of YES and Jethro Tull, Steven Wilson (dubbed “The Porcupine Tree” here in honor of his prog rock band by that name) is even more adventurous behind the mixing board here, sending various instruments and effects (sped up and slowed down voices, backward piano, guitars and keyboards) around the room to reveal previously hidden elements from the original recordings.

Both Dukes of Stratosphear albums were recorded in a matter of days for a relative pittance compared with most contemporary recording budgets. The music contained on “Psurroundabout Ride” is a testament to the value of budgets and deadlines, but more importantly, it’s a perfect example of a great band having the time of their lives at a creative peak.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 06:50

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