Monday, June 28, 2010

272. The Dukes of Stratosphear: Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

In my introduction to this review-every-XTC album project, I wrote about how The Dukes of Stratosphear were responsible for my XTC fandom, even before I ever heard a note of their music. It was the idea that piqued my interest and set me on the path to obsession.

That's worth a lot, but looking at the Dukes now, I find I enjoy them for what they are, a minor sidetrack in XTC's musical career. They revel in the pure joy of music-making, but only rarely rise above homage.

The Dukes appeared in two phases, first in 1985, post-Big Express, on the 25 O'Clock EP, then again in 1987, after Skylarking, on the full length Psonic Psunspot. The two albums were subsequently packaged together as the compilation you see on the right, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. Here I'll be sharing my thoughts on all things Dukes, along with some interesting historical tidbits dug mostly out of Neville Farmer's 1998 book XTC: Song Stories.

The Dukes of Stratosphear basically came from three places: 1) Andy Partridge's fondness for sixties psychedelic garage rock, 2) guitarist Dave Gregory's hobby of recreating old records, and 3) a failed project with singer Mary Margaret O'Hara wherein Andy would write songs and John Leckie would produce. As the story goes, once the project went south, Andy convinced Virgin Records to give him 5000 pounds, took Leckie (who had helmed the band's first two albums White Music and Go 2), and the Dukes were born.

Though the effort to conceal their identities was never more than half-hearted, the band did take on pseudonyms. Andy became Sir John Johns (a nod to the DC super-hero Martian Manhunter, whose Martain name was J'onn J'onzz), Colin was The Red Curtain, Dave was billed as Lord Cornelius Plum, and his brother Ian, who played drums, took the clever name E.I.E.I. Owen. Producer Leckie did his work as Swami Anand Nagara.

All of the Dukes songs are originals, but most have spiritual guidance from a notable sixties band or song. I'll (mostly) spare the song-by-song breakdown and let you suss them out on your own, but trust when I tell you that the styles of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Electric Prunes, The Hollies, and The Beach Boys are all well-represented. The band used vintage equipment, and Leckie's production work was genius. In fact, it boosted his reputation quite a bit, and led too him producing some of the most beloved British records of all time (Elastica's first album, The Stone Roses' debut, Radiohead's The Bends).

25 O'Clock features 6 songs, the best of which are the doomy, nonsensical title track, the lusty My Love Explodes, and the bouncy The Mole from the Ministry. Your Gold Dress and Bike Ride to the Moon are enjoyable but a step down in quality. All 5 of those were Andy compositions. Colin's offering, What In the World??..., is the worst thing on the EP. It's about "shocking" future events (marijuana is used to make tea, women fight wars while men stay home) and is a clear sore thumb. To be fair, it wasn't written strictly as a '60s pastiche; it was a leftover given a production makeover and shoehorned in.

From a songwriting standpoint 25 O'Clock is definitely the lesser of the two Dukes releases. It's sort of like a warm-up for the real show. Grade: C+  Fave Song: My Love Explodes

Psonic Psunspot, a sequel released after the successful XTC release Skylarking (review forthcoming), is where the Dukes really put it together, though Colin's contributions are still the weak spot, with one very notable exception. Opener Vanishing Girl is a burst of suspended chord fresh air. The lounge act chorus of The Affiliated and the carnivalesque Shiny Cage are lackluster.

Andy's work, however, is strong throughout, from the gender-confused Have You Seen Jackie? to the joyous You're My Drug to the druggy Collideascope. But the two real standouts are Brainiac's Daughter (a piano-driven piece about the irresistible offspring of a Superman villain; the character doesn't exist in the comics, but should) and Pale and Precious, a spot-on Beach Boys tribute that manages not to be derivative (a feat much much harder than it sounds, and Andy did again - and better - with Chalkhills and Children on Oranges and Lemons).

Add in the enchanting book-on-tape children's story bits between songs and you have a great product overall. Grade: B+  Fave Songs: Brainiac's Daughter / Vanishing Girl

The Dukes of Stratosphear were always an exercise in escapism and controlled lunacy, and ultimately their legacy is one of style over substance. Unlike the vast majority of Andy and Colin's other songs, they're not really about anything, and ultimately they can't be taken too seriously. However, they sound fantastic. They'll always hold a special, if not particularly large, place in this XTC fan's heart.

1 comment:

Uncle E said...

I agree that while the Dukes album is a fun listen (and, let's be honest, better than some of the bands they ape and certainly better than most of the stuff that came out at around the same time) it kinda pales next to the best of XTC's output.