Happy 30th Anniversary to XTC’s Skylarking, originally released October 27, 1986.
XTC was one of those bands that always appeared to be a little out of step with their contemporaries. With the emergence of Punk and New Wave in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they never really found their place. They were the awkward teenaged boy at a party who stood off in the corner with the other misfits. Aside from “Senses Working Overtime” (from their fifth studio LP English Settlement) getting decent late night airplay on MTV, XTC’s music was played mostly on college radio and stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and WLIR in New York. They were famous enough to have a cult following and nothing more.
The tipping point for the band came about in 1986. There had been several changes over the years but the mainstays were lead singer/guitarist Andy Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory. Partridge and Moulding would also share songwriting and lead singing duties. Due to Partridge’s crippling stage fright, the band was no longer touring and had not been on the road since 1982’s English Settlement tour.
This, combined with declining album sales, forced their label Virgin Records to take action before recording their next album, which would be Skylarking. "We were called in and told: ‘Look lads, your career’s down the toilet unless you start to sell records in America,’” Gregory once confided. “So we were given this long list of American producers, and the only name on it I knew was Todd (Rundgren)’s.” Seeing no better alternative, the band agreed to have Rundgren produce Skylarking.
In time, Partridge would give a demo of the fifteen songs that would appear on the album to their new producer. They went to Rundgren’s studio in Woodstock, NY to record the album. As the leader of the group, Partridge was not used to handing over control to the producer. Not to mention that being a studio-only band gave XTC the feeling that the studio was their domain. This would lead to many complications throughout the recording of the album because a producer of Todd Rundgren’s stature walks embarked upon the project fully confident that he was in charge.
In effect, Rundgren was brought in to save the band from themselves. During an interview for Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Rundgren told the host, “Essentially, it was kind of preordained by me what the record was going to be, which was something they never endured before. I think 60 percent of the band trusted me, but Andy never did.”
Rundgren was pressed with the difficult task of telling the band that with the proper sequencing of the tracks, the material Partridge and Moulding wrote could form a concept album. One of the best things about Skylarking is that the sequencing is perfection. The opening track “Summer’s Cauldron” segues nicely into “Grass” and gives the album a great start that eases you through the remaining tracks. You can immediately hear the difference in XTC’s sound. Gone were the jerky disjointed rhythms of their eight previous albums, replaced with Rundgren’s sublime ‘60s pop sensibilities and well placed strings throughout the album.
By not indulging the band’s usual in-studio excesses, Rundgren removed the dense feeling associated with XTC’s songs and gave them room to breathe. Songs like “Ballet for a Rainy Day,” “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” and “Season’s Cycle” still hold up as some of the finest songs in Partridge’s repertoire. But the crowned jewel in this bunch is “Dear God,” which can be best described as an anthem for agnostics everywhere. The song was and still is a source of animosity between Rundgren and Partridge. Before, during and after the mastering of the album, Partridge got cold feet about including it on the album. Once the mastering of the album was completed, Rundgren was done with XTC. Or so he thought.
After the recording of Skylarking, Partridge took every opportunity to trash the record in the press. Rundgren stated, “He hated me at that point, and he was willing to sabotage his own career through his vitriol over me.” Partridge became adamant about taking “Dear God” off of the album. He was fearful that such a song would hurt his career and affect his personal life. Partridge’s pleading and begging with Virgin Records paid off. “Dear God” was pulled from Skylarking and replaced by “Mermaid Smiled.” Rundgren got wind of this and immediately called the label and told them that they were making a terrible mistake.
Nonetheless, the first pressing of Skylarking arrived in record stores without “Dear God.” The song was hidden away as a B-side to “Grass.” What no one expected was that DJs in the US began to play “Dear God” instead of “Grass,” and the song quickly became a hit. Rundgren was right all along.
I was working at the Tower Records in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center at the time and people who were XTC fans were livid that the hit single wasn’t included on Skylarking. Virgin’s decision to exclude “Dear God” definitely hurt early album sales. Rundgren had to go back and remaster the album, add “Dear God” back in and remove “Mermaid Smiled.” He also restored the running order he had originally intended for the album. Having listened to both versions, Rundgren’s running order makes the most sense.
Despite the animosity and tension between Partridge and Rundgren, Skylarking remains one of the critically acclaimed gems from the 80’s that has arguably fallen just south of the radar. In 2004, Uncut’s Joe Stannard called it “the album that tied up everything great about Swindon’s finest (XTC) into one big beautiful package of perfect pop, saving their career in the process.” Skylarking is far more than just “Dear God,” and the sum of its parts make for a fine album that can easily be called the highlight of XTC’s career.