I know only three tracks well from Skylarking which were all, at some point, singles and appeared on the Fossil Fuel compilation I had, half of which now belongs to Dave and the other half will as well, next time I see him as it wasn’t in the case but I found it the other day.
To be fair I need to give this album way more listening time than I have been able to, actually, I’ve been writing these posts for about a month as I listen to everything, repeatedly.
The album was released on 27 October 1986 and was produced by American musician Todd Rundgren. It is loosely a concept album centred around various cycles in life, such as the seasons, days, and years. The title is a bit of a double entendre, referring to a type of bird (skylark), as well as the Royal Navy term “skylarking”, which means “fooling around”.
Most of the album was recorded at Rundgren’s Utopia Sound Studio in Woodstock, New York where the sessions were fraught with tension, particularly between Rundgren and Andy Partridge, and numerous disagreements arose over drum patterns, song selections, and other minutia. Rundgren was blamed with accidentally mastering the album with a reversed sound polarity, resulting in a thin mix. The problem was was addressed when, in 2010, Partridge independently issued a remastered version of the album with corrected polarity.
The album was pretty much ignored on release, reaching only 90 in the UK album charts but it did a bit better in the US having been popular on college radio, pushing it up to 70. For some reason the track Dear God was omitted from the original release and appeared only on later pressings, but its existence as the B-Side of the first single Grass, resulted in hate mail and death threats in the US, which is a shame as it is an amazing track.
There were 4 singles taken from the album, although one was only released in Canada (Earn enough for us).
All three of the singles were on Fossil Fuel so I’m pretty familiar with them, and rather liked a version of Dear God by Tricky that I also have. It is a lovely pastoral album that has elements of the side project released before it, called The Dukes of Stratosphear, XTC released a sort of psychedelic album under this pseudonym that was half joke half serious and it drips into the songs on Skylarking.
The Tube, which was an exceptional UK music show on British TV, produced two videos at Port Meirion, where The Prisoner was filmed, These are included in the little collection below.
Q & A From Uncut magazine, which is pretty interesting:
How did you link up with Todd Rundgren for Skylarking?
Virgin were desperate for something to happen in the States so they gave me a list of American producers and asked me to pick someone on that list. And I hadn’t heard of any of them – it was all like Randy Dinkleferber III: the sort of names that Groucho Marx would have made up. They sent me another list and Todd Rundgren was at the bottom of it. I mentioned it to Dave Gregory and he was an ultra-fan so he said: ‘We should do this, it’ll be great.’ Ironically, he made us sound more English than we ever sounded.
You really didn’t get on well?
No we didn’t. It was very difficult for me because Virgin basically told me to shut up and be produced, “because you’ll only ruin it and make it weird”. Todd wanted to process us through as quickly as possible, and we’d be fighting about the quality of takes. I hate sarcasm and he’s extremely sarcastic. He produced the New York Dolls – I think they were the only people who have ever worked with him twice. His ego matches the size of the man. It was like one Brian Clough stood on the shoulder s of another – with a wig. It obviously got everyone down cause we were fighting and we never usually did, and then we got barred from mixing so it took quite a few years to realise he did a fantastic job. His people skills are like Hermann Goering’s.
Was the morning until night concept his idea?
Me and Colin sent him the demos and he called me one night just to introduce himself and he said: “I’ve got the running order.” I was a bit surprised because you don’t usually have that until you’ve recorded everything. He had this idea that it was all happening morning to night, like a summer’s day, or like the order of someone’s life. At one point during the recording, he leaned over the mixing desk and said: “I’ve drawn your cover for you,” and I thought “God, this man’s arrogance has no end”. He’d drawn two railway tickets, and he said these are two railway tickets and the album should be called Day Passes.
You have reverted to the rejected ‘cock and fanny’ cover.
I thought the record had a kind of pagan outdoorsiness, and I wanted a Lady Chatterley’s Lover thing of like meadow flowers woven through male and female pubic hair. Virgin had a mock-up sleeve made and all the big chains and they all said they wouldn’t stock it. As a last minute panic I did a parody of a poster by a fellow called Hans Erni – it was something to do with the Swiss tourist board. The original title was Down and Butter Sun Field Magic ‘cause that was all the things I thought it sounded like. Plateful of Paradise was another title it had for a while. Skylarking was a phrase my father used all the time – he was a navy man and it literally meant messing around in the rigging.
You and Colin Moulding are on a par for who has the best songs on Skylarking.
This is the most songs that Colin ever had on an album, and the reason is that it’s probably his best batch of songs. He doesn’t write that many. The two singles [“Grass” and “The Meeting Place”] were his but Virgin were still in the ìeverything that Colin does is magic cause of the hitsî mindset. I was the weird one with the glasses who just made weird music. I thought Colin had a great sense of melody – a little more refined than mine – but his lyrics weren’t as good.
“Dear God” has been incorporated into the record; is that still a song you are uncomfortable with?
It’s a great subject and I really wanted to write a song about it, and I thought to myself I might have failed; you could do a boxed set of it and not scratch the surface. Our A&R man at Virgin, Jeremy Lascelles asked for it to be taken off the album ìbecause it’ll upset the Americansî. It was a B-side then an American DJ started playing it and the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. It pleased and upset equal amounts of people. I got hate mail for it – a lot of hate mail and a couple of nice books trying to save my soul.
The albums XTC made before and after you quit touring are completely different. Why was that?
We never intended to be like that – we just kind of became like that. When we started it was all very noisy and futuristic, but that soon wears off and you start to sing with your voice, and you stop worrying about whether things have been done before. It doesn’t matter. Human beings have been done before in every possible way – I don’t feel like I was copying anyone, I was just being me, finally. There’s huge dollops of psychedelia in my make-up cause of the things I listened to when I was growing up.
How do you feel about it the new mix of Skylarking?
It’s like 40% or more better. I got it to a masterer called John Dent – his ears are fantastic – and he said the polarity is wrong on this record. It’s a very common problem. He said at some point in the mix – probably from the multitrack down to the stereo – there’s been some mis-wiring in the studio, and we were like ‘whoah – that would explain it’, because when the album first came over to us in the 80s we all said ‘oh no this is horrible – mix it again’. So Todd Rundgren did it again and then refused to do it a third time. We thought it sounds thin with no bass and it’s distant. Now it sounds like it did in Todd’s studio. At the time I said it was like one bunker with two Hitlers – we were like rams butting our heads together. It was unpleasant but the bastard did a great job. Except he should have done his soldering properly.
A1. Summer’s Cauldron 3:19
A2. Grass 3:05
A3. The Meeting Place 3:14
A4. That’s Really Super, Supergirl 3:21
A5. Ballet for a Rainy Day 2:50
A6. 1000 Umbrellas 3:44
A7. Season Cycle 3:21
B1. Earn Enough for Us 2:54
B2. Big Day 3:32
B3. Another Satellite 4:15
B4. Mermaid Smiled (removed after the album was reissued with “Dear God”; restored on post-2001 reissues) 2:26
B5. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul 3:24
B6. Dear God” (not included on initial pressings) 3:34
B7. Dying 2:31
B8. Sacrificial Bonfire 3:49