Monday, July 15, 2013
Records I Enjoy More Than Pet Sounds & Sgt. Pepper Volume 2: XTC "Skylarking"
The story of "Skylarking" is a notorious one.
On the verge of being dropped by their label, XTC were in need of something big. That something was producer Todd Rundgren. History was made, not only with the success of the music, but with the now legendary rift between Andy Partridge and Rundgren.
I mentioned in Volume 1 that the main reason "Pet Sounds" doesn't work for me the way it works for so many is the inclusion of just a few too many clunky songs, breaking the flow of an otherwise spectacularly beautiful record. With "Skylarking," it's all about the sequencing. Oddly enough, the flow of the record is both my favorite thing about it and the one thing that bothers me.
As the story goes, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding delivered somewhere between two and three dozen demos to Todd Rundgren, which he took, sequenced and pretty much proclaimed, "We're done. Here's your record." Not exactly what XTC had in mind when reaching out to the producer. Yet Side One, with it's running themes of summer and love is about as perfect as any Side One in the history of music.
The opening 1-2 punch of "Summer's Cauldron" and "Grass" sets the table for what will be a masterwork of 60's pop and psychedelia with some of Partridge's most inspired lyrics and melodies. Colin Moulding's contributions are nothing to shake a stick at either. But all of this works thanks to what is arguably Todd Rundgren's finest moment as a producer.
Then... there is Side Two. While it certainly has its moments, the pop sunshine has now given in to some darker material and what we get is a collection of tunes that experiments with swinging 60's jazz, classical and folk. The cohesion of Side One is a bit lost on Side Two. Geffen Records must have felt the same way and second pressings of "Skylarking" scrapped "Mermaid Smiled" in favor of "Dear God," a demo initially left on the cutting room floor and a song that cracked Billboard's Top 40. More history.
I rarely play Side Two of "Skylarking." Side One is so fulfilling at 24 minutes, I just don't need Side Two. But I've learned something over the years. While listening to my iPod on shuffle, songs from Side Two would play randomly and each time I was just as stirred. The pulsing pop perfection of "Earn Enough For Us" is XTC doing XTC, but it is songs like "Another Satellite," "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" and "Dying" that really take the listener to a wonderful new place.
As I said somewhere in the first post, I'm not here to bury "Pet Sounds" or "Sgt. Pepper." I like a good conversation, but I'm no dummy. I'd also like to address this comment-
"It's possible you're having '60's Pop Fatigue. You are old, after all, and you've listened to both of those albums countless times. It's only natural that you would become more critical of them."
A friend once said, "I played Exile On Main Street so many times in 1973 and 1974, by 1975 I never wanted to hear it again." I am not that person. I've listened to The Beatles and the Stones and the Beach Boys and all of the music I love consistently since day one and I just never tire of it. I played "Sgt. Pepper" the day after I wrote last week's post about World Party and loved every second, still finding something new to cherish, whether it was a harmony in "Getting Better" or a bass line in "Fixing A Hole." My goal wasn't to "criticize" those two legendary records. It was to discuss some records that just might deserve the same status. Records that just might play better.
As for "Skylarking" and it's sequencing, I shudder to think of messing with Side One, and while it would be easy to just reconstruct the sequencing to include some of Side Two on Side One using iTunes, I'd rather think of what might have been if it was done before its release in 1987.
(YouTube has blocked most of "Skylarking" in this country. Sorry.)