This CD-only anthology captures the original bouts of musical forgery that XTC undertook as The Dukes of Stratosphear. Both the EP “25 O’Clock” and the album “Psonic Psunspot” are included here in their entirety. And the anthology warrants all the laurels it is usually the recipient of.
The band (with Dave Gregory’s younger brother Ian on drums) showcases its coruscating pedigree, and the merits of its music become easier to apprehend in such a context. These recordings as their psychedelic alter egos were to lead to a phenomenal creative run and even a hit single at a time in which XTC had the rockiest relationship with the buying public. The song “The Mole From The Ministry” (a transparent nod to “I Am The Walrus”) outsold the singles from “The Big Express” so effortlessly that it was embarrassing.
It was also the most palpitating reminder for the Swindon rockers that having good fun on the studio fully translates into a finished piece of vinyl. Both “Mummer” and “The Big Express” suffered from a stiffness that was to vanish for “Skylarking” and “Oranges & Lemons”. “The Big Express” in particular had been labored at for a long time, leaving everybody but Andy jaded.
“25 O’Clock”, conversely, was assembled in little more than two weeks with Andy and John Leckie at the helm. Out of the six songs, only “The Mole From The Ministry” was new (Andy wrote it at the piano one morning). The remaining songs had been around for a long time, and the strongest the plagiarism the most effective the EP turned out to be. “Bike Ride To Te Moon” recalled the days of Pink Floyd under Barrett’ aegis so close to the mark that it was staggering. The title track was also intoxicatingly fun, a true testament to an age in which daftness was a virtue and a torch to bear. The same can be said about “Your Gold Dress”, with an unmatchable druggy guitar. And Colin’ songs on both Dukes’ albums were the truest revelation of all. He had never kept such an even keel of excellence to my ears. For the first and only time he and Andy were absolutely equalized.
Instrumentally, the band used only vintage gear and production techniques that remained true to ‘60s psychedelia. Tape loops and effects were frequent all through the EP, and having had to operate within a shoestring budget also meant that the only way to smooth any mistake was by blurring it. Mostly everything was recorded in one take.
Ultimately, “25 O’Clock” was to be such an effective work because the whole thing was born out of a willingness to have some fun. Andy didn’t even expect it to be released – John Leckie remarked that Partridge was reluctant (even worried) to have it played to Simon Draper, the one founder of Virgin the band answered to. But having him listen to the disc at his office was a jubilant experience for everybody. It was at the (permanent) insistence of Draper and every other managerial figure from that point onwards that a second set of recordings were to materialize. That was to be the “Psonic Psunspot” album, and I invite you to read more about it in the second part of this review.
Continue to the second part of this review: the song on “Psonic Psunspot” scrutinized along with the aftermath of the Dukes.