Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On The Dukes Of Stratosphear

In which XTC adopted a goofy nom de psychedelique and unexpectedly parlayed it into some of the best music of their career. Embracing parody, pastiche, homage, and simply brilliant song- and studio craft, Partridge (aka Sir John Johns), Moulding (aka The Red Curtain), and company (can't forget Lord Cornelius Plum and E.I.E.I. Owen) achieved something that most fans of '60s rock have found themselves wishing for at one time or another, the Technicolor sounds of the psychedelic era with less embarrassing lyrics.

The Dukes took quite a different approach to this problem from many neo-psych bands, though. Instead of excising the whimsical/mystical/trippy-dippy content from the lyrics, they highlighted these aspects by parodying them. I get the impression that the freedom to write silly lyrics was somehow liberating to the whole songwriting process, opening up possibilities or suggesting ideas that might've been edited out of an XTC song at the composition stage.

The range of styles covered within the framework of the concept and the group's mastery of each of them is hugely impressive. The overall variety and the level of sonic (sorry, psonic) detail in each track makes this a case where the familiar claim that an album "rewards repeated listening" is absolutely true. [Note: The version of this music I've been listening to is the Chips From The Chocolate Fireball compilation, which includes both the 25 O'Clock EP and the Psonic Psunspot LP on a single CD, so I'm not making any distinctions here between the two original releases.]

Some highlights, in the order they come to mind:

"Brainiac's Daughter" is the kind of bouncy pop that I find irresistible, even when it lacks the smartness on display here.

"Pale and Precious" has to be one of the closest approaches to the post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys sound ever achieved, easily laying waste to anything in the High Llamas catalog while managing to simultaneously exist as parody, straight imitation, and a great song on its own terms.

"25 O'Clock" is sublimely ridiculous, with a Floydian sound effect intro (although I half expect to hear Cheap Trick's "Clock Strikes Ten" come in after the chimes) and a chorus evoking the 13th Floor Elevators (or any number of other organ-wielding, Nuggets-era garage-psych acts).

"Bike Ride to the Moon" evokes Pink Floyd again, but it's pure Barrett-era, as the title would suggest.

"What in the World..." smashes together the concept of worst-song-ever contender "In the Year 2525" with the young-fogeyism/nostalgia that Ray Davies and Paul McCartney occasionally indulged in, producing lines such as "2034, Women fight the wars / Men are too bored, they're scrubbing floors / Men are too bored" and "Do you remember when this life was in perspective / and the grownups were respected?"

"Little Lighthouse" is an absolute pop gem with an immediately striking melody and vocal arrangement, leaning more toward mid-period XTC than '60s pastiche but still fitting in nicely with the other material.

XTC's influence on They Might Be Giants, never a secret, is especially apparent while listening to the Dukes material. I would guess that this music, with its marriage of silliness and impeccable craft, was particularly important to the two Johns. The timing would also support this, with the two Dukes releases preceding the first two TMBG full-lengths by about a year in each case. Though no one would classify TMBG as '60s revivalists, the humor, fun, and oddball pop precision of the Dukes is alive in their best work.

[Update: It helps to do your homework. I just discovered that TMBG covered "25 O'Clock" on an XTC tribute album. Check out the other artists on the tribute. It's a real mid-'90s time capsule, including some candidates for the "Q. Where Are They Now? A. I Don't Care But I Hope They Stay There" file.]

Bonus Links

Zager & Evans' far less successful follow-up to 2525, "Mr. Turnkey", sung from the perspective of a convicted rapist who kills himself by nailing his wrist to the wall of his jail cell.

I couldn't find a good link for "The Candy Machine", Z&E's twisted contribution to the late-'60s candy-psych trend, but it's worth tracking down if you can find it. "1910 Cotton Candy Castle" it ain't.

Thanks for the Customer Reviews section for this Z&E twofer for alerting me to these golden nuggets of '60s pop.

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