Audio Autopsy, 1986: XTC "Season Cycle" from Skylarking LP, Produced by Todd Rundgren
One song from XTC's 1986 Skylarking LP has fingers that reach not only deep into the music of the 1960s, but back again to a trend-setting band that touched the '90s! Follow the thread!
Skylarking (shown above), was the ninth studio album by innovative and melodic English rockers, XTC, and was released in late October 1986 on Geffen Records (U.S., Virgin in UK).
Produced by Todd Rundgren, it’s a loose concept album about a nonspecific cycle, such as a day, a year, the seasons, or a life, at least according to Rolling Stone, who, in 1989, named it one of the Top 100 albums of the 1980s.
I was on them and their previous album, 25 O’Clock, by The Dukes of Stratosphear (and yes, they spelled it just that cutely), mainly because of this pseudonymous 1985 attempt to re-create the writing and even the recording techniques of 1967 and ‘68! There were to be no more than two takes for each track, and vintage equipment only!
In fact, it was such a creative love letter in vinyl to “The Summer of Love,” it was actually publicized as a long-lost collection of recordings by a late 1960s group you weren’t supposed to notice wasn’t real (think Spinal Tap with Rickenbackers instead of Gibson Explorers—released, it should be noted, on April Fools Day 1985)!
Regardless, one still wonders how and why Virgin Records would put up with (or would want to put up with) such promotional shenanigans and headaches for a “brand new band”! One might also wonder why their follow-up to this XTC/Dukes side-hustle, Skylarking, would suddenly not be on Virgin, but on Geffen Records instead (at least in the U.S.)!
But, The Dukes of Stratosphear album was simply the next album of new tracks recorded by Andy Partridge (masquerading as Sir John Johns, all pictured above in suitable, and pretentious-as-it-had-to-be Dukes guise), Colin Moulding (Red Curtain), and Dave Gregory (Lord Cornelius Plum) of XTC with Gregory’s brother, farmer Ian, going by E.I.E.I. Owen.
Nevertheless, as fickle as the Lords of the Charts are, upon its release in the UK (where the band routinely outpaced its sales in the U.S.), 25 O’Clock sold twice as many copies as XTC’s then-latest album, 1984’s The Big Express, even before the Dukes’ true identity was made public!
“That was a bit upsetting to think that people preferred these pretend personalities to our own personalities; they’re trying to tell us something,” Partridge told Chris Hunt in 1989.
So, of course, a Dukes “Vol. 2” was released (if not necessarily ordered) by the label in 1987, Psonic Psunspot.
The Andy Partridge Family of Sound Inspiration
However, much of this curious nom-de-tune skullduggery from one album to the next (at least) helps explain the background and inspiration behind “Season Cycle,” which closes out Side One of 1986’s Skylarking.
“Season Cycle” was reportedly inspired by Smiley Smile-era (1967) Beach Boys:
“Season Cycle” was prominently influenced by the Beach Boys, “but was not initially planned as a pastiche of the band,” Partridge explained to Farmer. “In fact, it started out very much like a folk song, very strummy. And just to kind of tie things up, I tried to do some other things going on at the same time, ‘cause we’re cross-melody maniacs in this band, but I thought it would be fun.”
“Then I thought, ‘[Crap], this really does sound like the Beach Boys. Yeah, I’ll make it sound a bit more like the Beach Boys!’” he told Randy Bookasta and David Howard in their 1990 Season Cyclers.
He felt that the end result was actually “nearer to [late ‘60s sunshine poppers], Harpers Bizarre than the Beach Boys.” Sort of a softer, gentler Association (of “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish” fame), Harpers Bizarre is notable for their harmonious cover of Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which got to #13 for the group on the U.S. pop charts in 1967:
Harpers Bizarre also gave to legit rock the singer/guitarist/producer, Ted Templeman, who went on to help discover (at Hollywood’s Starwood Club) and produce Van Halen’s debut (as A&R exec for Warner Bros.) in 1978.
Templeman, of course, became a fixture at Warners’ 3300 Warner Blvd/Burbank offices, producing hits for such popular Warner acts as The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart, Michael McDonald, Nicolette Larson, and many others.
Partridge had stated several times that he was consciously inspired by the Beach Boys album, Smiley Smile (1967), to write a song that appeared to be made up of many disparate musical sections [which, to Beach Boys fans, smacks of the description of Brian Wilson’s classic multi-studio composite recording with L.A. session masters, The Wrecking Crew, “Good Vibrations”]:
Gregory, for one, took issue with the dissonance in the second bridge of “Season Cycle,” but Rundgren sided with Partridge on the view that it made the harmonic development more interesting, according to Todd Bernhardt in 2007. Rundgren, however, taunted Partridge for the lyric “about the baby and its umbilical” [particularly his awkward pronunciation to wrench it into rhyming with “season cycle”].
Experience the song from infancy to maturity: First, the demo work tape:
The thematic, harmonic, and musical threads that took us from The Summer of Love, the Beach Boys’ masterpieces, and the lush, full harmonies of Harpers Bizarre to Partridge’s “Season Cycle” sonic achievement seem at once to also portend the multi-tiered structure, sophisticated harmonies, and the musical maturity Jellyfish was able to muster in just two albums, one in 1990 and another in 1993.
This track especially, from their Spilt Milk album, their second (co-produced by Bee Gees producer, Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig, who produced Taxiride’s 1999 debut Imaginate album, about which more can be read here):
Formed in the Bay Area suburb of Pleasanton in 1989, Andy Sturmer (drums, vocals), Roger Manning (keyboards, vocals), and for this second album, Tim Smith (bass) and Eric Dover (guitar), the band viewed Spilt Milk as their “masterpiece,” and “the fulfillment of their original grandiose vision for the band, emphasizing bombasity, vocal harmonies, orchestration, and studio experimentation,” according to their Wikipedia page.
The same words could be used to describe 1986 XTC circa Skylarking. Even Manning once exclaimed about Spilt Milk, “The grandeur that was in our hearts from day one was finally realized with that album.”
In a 1991 L.A. Times article about the Beatles’ influence on new power pop bands, Sturmer commented: “I was much more influenced by ELO and Cheap Trick. After a while, I heard a Beatles album and thought, ‘Wow, what’s up here with these guys?’ I kinda went about it backwards!”
According to the liner notes in a 2002 Jellyfish CD box set reissue, the band’s former guitarist (pictured above), Jason Falkner’s inspirations overlapped with his bandmates, and included The Fall, Magazine, The Monochrome Set, Yes, and UK.
In fact, he was originally contacted by Manning specifically because he listed XTC as an influence in his newspaper ad!
From October 2019, YouTube content creator, Rick Beato, on his “What Makes This Song Great” episode, he and Jellyfish bassist, Tim Smith, deconstruct and dissect the XTC/Andy Partridge track, “Mayor of Simpleton,” from the band’s 1989 album Oranges & Lemons:
Mitchell Stirling’s thorough “The Run Out Grooves” 2022 dive into Skylarking, here:
A Little Deeper: From 2016, Producer Todd Rundgren Talks About the Making of Skylarking:
Deeper, Still: Todd on Producing Skylarking, Interviewed by Sex Pistols Guitarist, Steve Jones on his “Jonesy’s Jukebox” on KLOS/L.A. Feb. 2023:
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