The Dukes Of Stratosphear were a side project of XTC that was started as a joke, and which ended up bringing a fair share of recognition to them. Basically, Andy and producer John Leckie had been hired to helm a record by Christian artist Mary Margaret O’ Hara. For circumstances too hilarious and too long to reproduce here, the pair were sacked hours before their work was to begin. Having had their agendas disrupted, they decided to employ the time on their hands to do some psychedelic recordings under a different moniker. The name “The Dukes Of Stratosphear” had been around for a long time, actually, as it was one of the names which were weighed up before the “I’m in ecs-ta-sy ba-bee!” incident that settled everything down for good.
The drummer for the project was Ian Gregory, Dave’s younger sibling. They all had alternative egos for the sessions – Andy was “Sir John Johns”, Colin was “The Red Curtain”, Dave was “Lord Cornelius Plum” and Ian picked the moniker “E.I.E.I Owen”. For years, the band denied that they were the Dukes, and if you have a look at the credits of “Skylarking” you will see an acknowledgement to “The Dukes of Stratosphear for letting us use their guitars”.
The Dukes first released an EP on April’s fool day, 1985, complete with the old Virgin logo and a bubble that explained these old recordings were found at the back of a dilapidated warehouse (!). The EP (named “25 O’ Clock”) was to have a surprise hit in the song “The Mole From The Ministry”, and its actual sales were to be better than that of XTC’s concurrent LP, “The Big Express”. It had a total of 5 songs, and everything was mostly recorded in one take.
Two years later, and at the insistence of their record company, XTC agreed to do a second Dukes record. Andy had resisted because he felt that a joke was just that, but it must have been clear even to him that sometimes you have to give the people what they want.
The second set of recordings (“Psonic Psunspot”, 1987) benefited from a bigger budget, and this time around 10 songs were put to tape. However, everybody noted that the line between the Dukes and XTC had become almost invisible in places, and the one XTC album that followed it (“Oranges & Lemons“) did carry a definitive torch for the Dukes.
In my mind, a parallel can be drawn with another group: The Traveling Wilburys. In both cases, we are talking about alternate recordings that rejuvenated artists. The Wilburys records gave Dylan (if not a new life) at least a new sense of direction, and they brought Orbison to a younger public. Within a couple of years he was to have a resurgence thanks to the movie “Pretty Woman”. He was no longer around to enjoy it, sadly, but I think that the seeds of that new round of success were sown by the Wilburys.
In the case of XTC, the band was debilitated by a lenghty litigation and a steep descent into obscurity. After the Dukes hit the scene, Andy readily admitted that they had learned how to have fun again.
And in both cases, we are dealing with bands that were to release two records, of which the second was to stick closer to the original sound of the members, as if after the first invigorating round they were starting to use their new-found energies into crafting something true to their original MO.
The Dukes are a fantastic band. They pay a homage to key 60s artists like The Beatles, The Kinks and Pink Floyd in ways that can’t even be pinned down. “We take our musical forgery serious!” said Andy. They fooled and surprised absolutely everybody the first time around. As an XTC fan, I can’t help but think over and over how much of their lack of commercial success could be attributed to the fact that they are XTC, the-band-that-doesn’t-tour, etc, etc. I think these alter ego recordings show us the harsh truth. Ultimately, it is not our loss. People who truly adore music come across XTC sooner or later, and never leave. If the mainstream can not embrace a band like them, there is nothing that could be done. We will keep listening to their records as XTC and The Dukes, and enjoying the bonds that are created when real talent and skill meet the utmost devotion and lovingkindness.