XTC: Skylarking Uncovered

It’s only natural that a young(ish) man’s fancy should turn to Skylarking at this time of year. And though I must have listened to it tens of times (and recently wrote a detailed piece about it here), Steven Wilson’s instrumental mix uncovers many of the album’s sonic secrets. You might even say that it’s like listening to a whole new thang.

Though lead songwriter/vocalist Andy Partridge had a somewhat ‘strained’ relationship with producer Todd Rundgren during the recording (in recent book ‘Complicated Game’ Partridge occasionally – tongue firmly in cheek, of course – refers to him as ‘Herr Rundgren’ and states that he would only allow one or two takes per overdub), this version demonstrates once and for all that Todd played a blinder on Skylarking, as arranger, sound designer, occasional keys player and backing vocalist. And the others (Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding, Prairie Prince, sundry guest players) weren’t too shabby either.

Things to listen out for: the charmingly ramshackle 12-string guitars and Mellotron underpinning ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, the dramatic cello gracenotes that punctuate ‘Grass’, Partridge’s Stax-flavoured guitar and Todd’s synths on ‘That’s Really Super Supergirl’, Gregory’s superb piano on ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ and ‘Season Cycle’ and intricate guitar on ‘Earn Enough For Us’, the mad mariachi trumpets that kick off ‘Big Day’, Prairie’s subtle drums on ‘Mermaid Smiled’, and…well, you get the idea.

It seems unlikely that this will appeal to any but the most hardcore XTC fans, but who knows? The top-notch songcraft and synaesthetic textures may even draw in some new punters.

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Book Review: Inside The Songs Of XTC

complicated gameBooks about songwriting are a small but fast-growing and fascinating subgenre of music journalism. Alongside such classic tomes as Paul Zollo’s ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘, Omnibus Press’s ‘Complete Guides’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles‘, we’ve also recently had Daniel Rachel’s excellent ‘Isle Of Noises‘. And now here comes another cracker.

XTC fans, however, may be slightly surprised about the publication of ‘Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC‘, a gripping new book of interviews with mainman Andy Partridge, seeing as they may possibly feel that it would hard to better Neville Farmer’s ‘XTC Song Stories’.

But, while obviously covering similar ground, ‘Complicated Game’ zooms in with forensic detail on a select group of Partridge songs, particularly ones that may well have been overlooked throughout his stellar career (‘Travels In Nihilon’, ‘No Language In Our Lungs’, ‘Beating Of Hearts’, ’25 O’Clock’ etc). He once said that XTC’s music explores the unexplored nooks and crannies of the guitar neck; this book does the same for their discography.

Essentially, ‘Complicated Game’ is a transcription of over 30 interviews by American rock journalist/musician Todd Bernhardt. Though some of Partridge’s legendary West-Country repartee and clever wordplay occasionally get a bit lost in translation, these conversations are candid, detailed and never less than engaging. Discussions about a rhyming couplet can suddenly give way to painful memories of Partridge’s divorce, or asides about Swindon or 9/11. The ‘Dear God’ controversy gets a whole chapter. The thorny subject of record company wrangling is never far from the surface, and Andy’s troubled relationships with producers is also a constant theme, with Steve Nye, Todd Rundgren and Gus Dudgeon taking centre stage (the former being described as ‘possibly the grumpiest guy we’ve ever worked with’!)

There’s just enough musical theory discussed too, and – not surprisingly, given that Bernhardt once interviewed Partridge at length for Modern Drummer magazine – a lot of emphasis on the role of the rhythm section, with much talk about Colin Moulding’s superb bass playing and many hilarious anecdotes about original XTC drummer Terry Chambers and later sticksmen Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince and Dave Mattacks.

But, most importantly, Partridge is able to give detailed and fascinating answers about where he gets his songwriting inspiration, looking in detail at how unusual – and often completely accidental – chords can set off images and themes, and also how much he associates music with colours. There’s also a lot of advice for songwriters about how to develop initial ideas.

Andy_Partridge

Of course, the real measure of a great music book is how quickly one is drawn back to the records, and ‘Complicated Game’ works a treat in that regard – I rushed first to the CD and then to the guitar to try and nail down ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl‘ and ‘Church Of Women’. The orchestral arrangements and song structures of the truly singular ‘River Of Orchids’ and ‘I Can’t Own Her’ are also discussed in great detail.

There are a few minor quibbles: some of the interviews have a slightly ‘flogging a dead horse’ feel to them, and also there’s a strange reluctance to talk about Partridge’s contemporaries – Sting, Weller, McAloon, Gartside et al go unmentioned, and Elvis Costello is only referred to once in terms of his huge bank balance…

But hey, enough of my nitpicking. ‘Complicated Game’ is another fine book about songwriting, a good holiday read for ’80s music fans and a great companion piece to ‘XTC Song Stories’. I devoured it almost in one sitting and will be reaching for it regularly. Give it a whirl here. There’s also a cracking recent radio interview with Andy Partridge and Bernhardt here.