Tuesday, 29 October 2013

UNDERRATED ALBUMS # 19


Everything is refracted through the unique prism of XTC and, in this circus of intertextuality, some tracks sound more like them than they sound like anything else.’

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (1987)

by The Dukes Of Stratosphear

In 1985 and again in ‘87, a quartet of musicians masquerading under the names of Sir John Johns, The Red Curtain, Lord Cornelius Plum and E. I. E. I. Owen, undertook two trips back through history. No-one knows quite how they facilitated these expeditions, whether it was as stowaways on a fully-fledged starship like the USS Enterprise or in a less conspicuous time-travel vehicle such as the Tardis. Perhaps more humbly, they blundered through a portal in a wardrobe. Some say that, like a certain little girl called Alice a full one hundred years before them, they boldly followed a white rabbit down a certain rabbit-hole.

What is known for sure, however, is that when they emerged on both occasions they found themselves where they had always wanted to be: in second half of the 1960s in the land of Psychedelia.
                              
When The Dukes reappeared from these long, strange trips, rich with the lore and liberty and love they had learned of that bygone time, they returned to their recording studio with a sonic guru known as Swami Anand Nagara and created two musical journals of their adventures. Although these dazzling records were not hits, people were fascinated as to how they had made them. Simple as ABC really, said The Dukes - when you know how. Come now, asked the people, are you sure you don’t mean LSD? Ah, well, replied The Dukes, their eyes all a-twinkle, more like XTC, actually…

                                             * * * * *

It has long been an open secret that The Dukes Of Stratosphear were really XTC as they were at the time: Andy Partridge (‘Johns’) – guitar, chief songwriter & vocalist; Colin Moulding (‘Curtain’) – bass, second songwriter & vocalist; Dave Gregory (‘Plum’) – keyboards & guitar; Ian Gregory (‘Owen’) – drums; brother of Dave and one of a number of session drummers used following the departure of Terry Chambers in the early 1980s.




XTC will appear in their own right later on in this series of Underrated Albums – as will a couple of other famously pseudonymous bands, The Rutles and The Traveling Wilburys – but here I shall only consider XTC’s holiday tripping alter-egos, The Dukes.

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball is made up of the mini-album, 25 O’Clock (1985) and the full album, Psonic Sunspot (1987). It comprises sixteen tracks*1 co-produced by the band with John Leckie (‘Swami’), who soon after would be at the desk for  eponymous debut album, The Stone Roses (1989), an epochal record regarded as an Acid-Psych classic. The Roses gained not only plaudits but platinum discs; The Dukes had not charted at all, but their influence – and indeed, their influences – reverberated beneath the surface of the psych-revival of the 1980s*2.

When considering CFTCF, it is of key importance to understand that it is not simply the work of a band paying homage to exponents of ‘60s Psychedelia. Not all of the songs celebrate a particular act – and when they do it is sometimes amidst additional traces of others from the era (for example, early Bee Gees, Cream, The Idle Race, Moby Grape, Tomorrow, Traffic and The Zombies). Everything, in any case, is refracted through the unique prism of XTC and, in this circus of intertextuality, some tracks sound more like them than they resemble anything else.

‘25 O’Clock’, however, is a fairly straightforward genuflection in the direction of American Garage Band par excellence, The Electric Prunes, although it starts with heavily amped ticks, chimes, alarms and riff a’la Pink Floyd before rampaging away in a souped-up take on ‘I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night’. A psychotic rant about tiring of waiting for a woman to come around set to a blizzard of backwards guitars and treated keyboards, it has a terrific tune and is a cracking opener.

‘Bike Ride To The Moon’ also inescapably recalls early Pink Floyd with Partridge effectively mimicking Syd Barratt on a characteristic piece of whimsy about being caught in space without a repair kit to fix ‘a cosmic flat tyre’, amidst another hell-for-leather orgy of interplanetary studio effects. Clearly inspired by Jeff Beck period Yardbirds, the breakneck pace is maintained by ‘My Love Explodes’, in which a Bowiesque Starman of Love is at hand to take on the loveless ‘straight plastic bowler men’ and ‘blow ‘em out of town’.

In the first of several spoken-word links between tracks, a horrified bowler man damns the song as ‘an abomination’ before ‘What In The World’ imagines a future featuring ‘blue’ housewives, role-reversal, hash-tea and free acid as if to further ramp up the outrage. The high watermarks of The Beatles’ studio experimentation are indelibly referenced here and Moulding, who authors this song, especially evokes McCartney’s inventive bass-playing from that 1966-68 era. A strong bass can be a deceptively key element in much Psychedelia - and it is Moulding’s plunging riffs, foregrounded in the mix, which distinctively anchor this album.
 

Another killer riff, this time on guitars, arrives with ‘Your Gold Dress’, along with much panning, phasing, whooshing and a dash of sitar – all of which may bring to mind The Pretty Things crossed with The Yardbirds and Pink Floyd. The hazy vocal describes the ‘whirling’ frock in a way which recalls Klimt’s painting The Kiss whilst at the same time referring to ‘a thousand melting Dali guitars’.

‘The Mole From The Ministry’  comes drenched in piano and mellotron and is not only a brilliant pastiche of ‘I Am The Walrus’, but also takes in a 1968 ‘phantom’ single by a mysterious band called The Moles – rumoured to be an incognito Beatles, but actually Parlophone label-mates, Simon Dupree & The Big Sound. With Pythonesque Gumby vocals on the verses threatening to turn your ‘perfect garden into mountain range’ and Partridge cutting through on the chorus like the ghost of Lennon warning, ‘I’m the bad thoughts inside your head / And you shouldn’t think me’, it’s wonderfully authentic and one of the album’s highlights.
 

It is these first six tracks that constituted the original mini-LP, 25 O’Clock. The ensuing ten cuts from Psonic Sunspot are neither, in the main, as specifically referenced or quite as dynamic. By any other yardstick, however, they form another excellent batch of songs.

Classic popsters, The Hollies may not be the one of the first bands that spring to mind when considering ‘60s Psychedelia, but they had their moments and Moulding’s ‘Vanishing Girl’ with its sparkling guitars and harmonies nails them unerringly, although it’s more ‘Look Through Any Window’ than ‘King Midas In Reverse’. When it ends, we hear the voice of an Alice-like little girl, describing the Wonderland-like collection of oddities that stream out when she opens a suitcase. This, and subsequent surreal interjections, are reminiscent of those on Pop-Psych classics such as Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ and Simon Dupree & The Big Sound’s ‘Kites’*4.

This leads us into ‘Have You Seen Jackie?’, a four-square romp pleading for tolerance for ‘an odd little fish’ suffering from gender-confusion. Lyrically, we’re in the territory of ‘I’m A Boy’ and ‘Lola’, although musically the song doesn’t really resemble either The Who or The Kinks. Emerging out of vague foghorn sounds, ‘Little Lighthouse’ cleverly constructs a metaphor for the lighthouse as a love- goddess:-

                                  ‘She’s a little lighthouse
                                  When she opens her huge eyes
                                  And streams of diamonds shoot out
                                  ‘Til we’re wading waist deep
                                   In her brilliant love’.

Decorated with flourishes of trumpet, it is driven along by Moulding’s bouncy bass  (for good measure, he throws in Bill Wyman’s closing fret-run from The Rolling Stones’ ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ at the end).

Preceded by another fragment of Alice In Wonderland nonsense, a discordant piano stutters into the rollickingly inconsequential tale of a Great War veteran who married the woman who nursed his wounds. The sort of track that might have found its way on to a Kinks album, ‘You’re A Good Man, Albert Brown’ ends with a Small Faces knees-up and a bout of Goonsian laughter. It’s not bad, but is only half as good as ‘Collideascope’, which sounds like a John Lennon rewrite of The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’.  Bad dreams crash up against each other here – listen up for the sound of a  woman being sawn in half and watch out for a ‘nail in your eye’ – whilst the ‘Wakey, Wakey. Wakey!’ chorus may recall the stentorian announcement at the start of each Billy Cotton Band Show *5, which ran on BBCTV from 1956-65.

‘You’re My Drug’ melds The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star’ right down to the latter’s clicking guiro riff*6. Quite what the pronoun denotes in ‘You’re My Drug’ is anybody’s guess – mine is that it refers to music- and perhaps especially Psychedelia - which, of course, can induce mental and physical sensations similar to and, in many cases, better than chemical or herbal drugs.

Talking of artificial stimulants, Moulding’s ‘Shiny Cage’ with its ‘Double-deckers of smokers’ recalls McCartney’s middle-eight section in ‘A Day Of The Life’ whilst the torpor of humdrum diversions suggested in the rest of the song is delivered via a tune redolent of Lennon’s Beatles’ songs, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ crossed with ‘I’m So Tired’. After another cameo from the Wonderland girl describing ‘a giant cranefly’ who ‘turned into a splendid cream bun’, the McCartneyesque ‘Brainiac’s Daughter’ goes on its jolly, nonsensical way, complete with Swanee Whistle.

‘The Affiliated’, a vaguely Kinksy number, begins with a heavily strummed guitar and a pub piano, its plodding tempo accompanying a tale about a bachelor who virtually lives in his local Working Men’s Club - until a Latino rhythm heralds the appearance of a woman who spirits him away into marriage and serial fatherhood. It’s a typical ‘slice of life’ piece by Moulding and probably belongs on an XTC album more than here.

Last up is ‘Pale And Precious’, providing a strong finale in the form of a wonderful homage to Smile-era Beach Boys (although I think there may also be an affectionate nod in the direction of The Flowerpot Men’*7). Lyrically, it’s another hymn – like the earlier ‘Little Lighthouse’ – to a radiantly inspirational goddess. It features keyboards, percussion and theremin remarkably true to source as well as suitably stratospheric harmonies and one of Partridge’s strongest vocals.

Partridge had several ideas for further excursions into the land of Homage including projects involving Merseybeat, Bubblegum and Glam Rock, but these were apparently more or less strangled at birth by Virgin, the record company XTC would eventually leave to go independent*8.

Partridge & co. were also unhappy with Virgin’s cover art for CFTCF, a garish, cheap-looking mess which served the album badly. The original sleeves for The Dukes’ records were much more simpatico with the music inside them – as can be seen above. Ironically, the next XTC album, Oranges & Lemons, with its Yellow Submarine style cover painting (see below), would have better suited The Dukes…   


N. B.

*1 – The Dukes’ two sets have been reissued separately and feature some bonus tracks. Occasional tracks have trickled out subsequently, but to date no comprehensive anthology has appeared. Until it does, you might like to visit www.songlyrics.com, where you can listen to this album along with an additional five tracks.

*2 – Although The Dukes’ influences were mainly British, they can be seen to be roughly in line with the so-called Paisley Underground movement in the US during the 1980s which included The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, Green On Red, The Long Ryders and Rain Parade. Released the same year as The Stone Roses, XTC’s Oranges & Lemons managed just three weeks on the UK chart compared to almost two years for The Roses.


*3 – ‘We Are The Moles (Pts.1 & 2)’ appeared on the a and b sides of the stunt single which enjoyed a reasonable amount of airplay, but failed to burrow into the chart.

*4 – It’s ironic, given the abiding popularity of ‘Hole In My Shoe’ and ‘Kites’, that neither band liked the songs, both of which provided them with their highest UK chart positions (# 2 and # 9 respectively). At least Dupree & Co (including the three Shulman brothers, who went on to form Gentle Giant) had the excuse of having ‘Kites’ foisted upon them by their management from outside the band. Dave Mason, who wrote ‘Shoe’, left Traffic shortly after.   

*5 - The Billy Cotton Band Show actually began with the rotund bandleader bawling ‘Wakey, Wakeyaaah!’ and – so, I’m reliably informed by Wikipedia – latterly featured jokes written by future Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

*6 – I’m guessing that it might be a guiro on ‘You’re My Drug’ – it might be some form of fish or frog stick (the multifarious family of percussion instruments does have such aquatic-sounding sub-species…)

*7 – The Flowerpot Men’s ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ was a cash-in UK # 4 hit during 1967’s ‘Summer Of Love’. Written and recorded by Birmingham songwriters and session singers John Carter and Ken Lewis (two thirds of harmony group, The Ivy League), the song and its unsuccessful follow-ups was toured by a band which included two future members of Deep Purple (Jon Lord and Nick Simper) and the then ubiquitous pop vocalist, Tony Burrows (White Plains, Edison Lighthouse, Brotherhood Of Man, The First Class and The Pipkins).

*8 – XTC made two more albums for Virgin: Oranges & Lemons (1989) and Nonesuch (1992), followed by Apple Venus Vol. 1(1999) and Wasp Star (AV Vol.2 - 2000). Since then the band has been effectively defunct.

(C. IGR 2013) 

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