XTC was one of the most influential bands to be formed from the post-punk new wave of the late 70s. After some popular success in the period 1979-81 they fell from the public eye. Their music, however, continued to grow and develop.
At the time of recording, XTC were: Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar); Colin Moulding (vocals, bass guitar); and Dave Gregory (vocals, guitar, keyboards). Drums were played on the album by a variety of session drummers and ex-Tubes stick man Prairie Prince.
Andy Partridge's original concept for the cover was a 'tasteful' display of the male and female pubis interwoven with flowers. This was rejected by their record label, Virgin, after market research that showed the image would adversely affect sales of the album. The 'Dick And Fanny' sleeve, as it became known, passed into XTC folklore, and the album was eventually released with a rendering of a Hans Erni print on a turquoise background1.
'Skylarking' is considered by many to by XTC's masterpiece. The album was recorded in 1986 with Todd Rundgren as producer. During production, the band, particularly Andy Partridge, fought with Rundgren about almost every aspect of the recording. The result, however, was an album of sublime quality.
The theme of the album is 'a life in a day'. The songs on the album progress chronologically from childhood to death, in many cases running together without a break. What follows is necessarily a personal interpretation of this researcher's appreciation of the album.
The track order is that of the UK digital remaster, released in 2001. The original UK version of the album did not contain 'Dear God'. All songs are written by Andy Partridge except those with a * which were written by Colin Moulding2
From the opening sounds of crickets chirping, insects humming, and birdsong, and a gently rising melodica tone, 'Summer's Cauldron' evokes all those childhood summertimes which lasted forever, when the sun always shone and the world was there to be explored. The lazy beat and the sound of insects throughout give a soporific feel reminiscent of a hot August afternoon. The song segues seamlessly into...
Another summery song, with the same background of insects and birds, 'Grass' is a tale of teenage courtship rituals and love in the open air. The string arrangement, strummed guitar and Colin Mouldings's West Country accent give a bucolic feel to the song.
The Meeting Place *
A change of pace, although the theme is still teenage years, 'The Meeting Place' opens to a staccato rhythm; the song is about a secret rendezvous, a tryst in the woods.
That's Really Super, Supergirl
...Leading on, inevitably, to the anguish of relationships breaking up. The tone is bitter and sarcastic, as the young man vents his spleen about his ex-girlfriend, who appears to have taken off with someone else:
I won't call again
Even in a jam
Now I realise you could be on a mission
Saving some other man
Ballet For A Rainy Day
'Ballet For A Rainy Day' is a simple, melodic song about rain. Partridge has raided his book of metaphors and come up with some perfect poetry: 'pineapple wetheads' succinctly sums up the effect of rain on hair. The final string chords lead straight into...
Continuing the rain theme, but this time as a metaphor for tears. There is an abrupt shift in mood as the cellos draw out the sombre chords, reflecting the depression felt by the singer. Like 'That's Really Super, Supergirl', there is an element of bitterness as it seems that the protagonist is again the 'dumpee':
How can you smile and forecast
Weather's getting better
If you never let a girl rain all over you
Just when I thought that my skies were a June-July blue
One thousand umbrellas opened to spoil the view
At the halfway point in the album, this song is a reflection on the passing seasons. The organ intro sounds like an old-fashioned merry-go-round, emphasising the turning natural cycle. there is also an element of time moving on, and biological clocks ticking, underlying the main theme. Partridge gets out his book of dodgy pronunciations to make 'umbilical' rhyme with 'cycle'.
Earn Enough For Us
This song relates the financial struggle of early adulthood, trying to scrape a living for not one, but two, and soon to be three, members of the household. The tune is upbeat and lively, and there is a note of optimism and hopefulness throughout the song - it is not a complaint, more an acknowledgment of the hardships faced, and overcome, together.
Big Day *
Ostensibly a song about a young couple's wedding day, 'Big Day' seems doubtful about the very institution of marriage and contains a lot of cynical questions. Whilst the peal of bells heralds the wedding day throughout the song, the singer is asking whether the marriage will survive:
Many fingers have been burned by the touch of gold
Love can come and love can go
What your chance is, I don't know
Overall, while the tune and bells make the song sound very upbeat, the lyrics are doing the exact opposite.
'Another Satellite' was written as an open letter to Erica, to whom Andy Partridge is now married. At the time, however, he was married to Marianne. Partridge had met Erica on many of his trips to the US, and there was no secret about her intentions towards him. The song, in effect, was to warn her off, that he had no intention of having an affair with her, despite the obvious mutual attraction.
The song works on this highly personal level (it took a long while for Erica to forgive Partridge for such a public rejection), but also as a metaphor for the temptation of the other, especially to a married man (or woman) after several years of marriage, when they may feel drawn to greener grass on the other side of the fence.
What this song is about, and how it fits into the story, is open to many interpretations. When the US version of the album was rapidly re-pressed to include 'Dear God', this was the song that was dropped from the running order3.
This researcher's take on the song is that it combines a number of themes, including dreams, the possibilities of missed opportunities, chance encounters and the meaning of a stranger's enigmatic smile4.
The melody and style of the song suggest a wistfulness. The strummed guitar and vocal emphasis at the end of each line suggest an urgency to the rhythm, enhancing the dream-like quality of the lyrics.
The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
There's a strong jazzy feel to this one, with a 7/8 rhythm, bass played in the style of a double bass, and clarinet. It deals with middle age and self-discovery, with a hint of mid-life crisis. The singer finds the answers to the questions he's asking; but he doesn't particularly like those answers:
The man who walked across his heart
Who took no compass, guide or chart
To rope and tar his blood congealed
When he found his self revealed
Ugly and cold
No messing about with the subject of this song. The percussive element throughout is a grandfather clock, time ticking away until the end. The beat is slow, the mood sombre, and the lyrics downright depressing; the image conjured up is that of a poor, lonely old man, dying in his living room, probably from hypothermia as he's unable to afford the gas bill. The song closes with the line 'Don't want to die like you.'
Sacrificial Bonfire *
This song evokes a pagan ritual feeling combining funeral pyres, viking burials and other pre-christian rites. The animal sacrificed is a scapegoat, using the original meaning of the word, and there's a feeling of celebration, not sadness, in the lyrics. The cycle of life and death is again evoked:
Change must be earnt
Sacrificial bonfire must burn
Burn up the old
Ring in the new
The song that brought success in America, Dear God was originally excluded from the album; Andy Partridge, ever the perfectionist, was unhappy with the way it had turned out. It was hurriedly added to the US release, but didn't appear on the UK version until the remastered album was released in 2001.
The song is a rant against God - Partridge blames God for all the evils in the world, whilst simultaneously maintaining his non-belief in Him.
The opening verse and final line, sung by a ten-year-old boy, bring the album back full circle to childhood again.
What Happened Next...
'Skylarking' effectively rescued XTC's career, and, through a fortuitous chain of events, made them much more successful in the USA than previously. Despite the many problems in the recording and subsequent mixing of the album, it helped to restore XTC's confidence, and provided the band with the springboard to record Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch.