By 1985, XTC was stuck in potentially deadly artistic territory: treading water. The group had never quite figured out how to reconfigure itself after the departure of hard-hitting drummer Terry Chambers three years prior.
On subsequent releases Mummer and The Big Express, the songs lacked the urgency of the group’s spiky new-wave days. For the first time in XTC’s career, the group didn’t seem to be forging ahead with its usual creative restlessness.
So it’s easy to view XTC’s parodic alter egos the Dukes of Stratosphear as an artistic reset button. Launching a media campaign that proclaimed the Dukes recordings as a long-lost psychedelic artifact, the band released the six-track 25 O’Clock EP as a sort of publicity stunt.
But the songs themselves were another matter. Songwriters Andy Partridge (here rechristened as “Sir John Johns”) and Colin Moulding (a.k.a. “The Red Curtain”) used the release as a chance to both satirize and enshrine the psychedelic excesses of late ‘60s rock music.
Bringing aboard producer John Leckie, who had previously worked with Pink Floyd and George Harrison, the band encased a batch of absurdist pop ditties in all manner of trippy studio effects. Echoes of the Hollies, the Byrds, and Magical Mystery Tour -era Beatles appear throughout 25 O’Clock and its full-length 1987 follow-up, Psonic Psunspot . But the scary thing here is how Partridge and Moulding used such a goofy premise to challenge the works of the old masters, while at the same time reinvigorating their own band’s career.
The title track to 25 O’Clock pretty much spells out everything to begin with: the rather Floydian ticking of clocks, followed by a menacing bass line that quotes the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” almost note-for-note. In comes Partridge, fully in character, solemnly intoning about smashing clocks and the like. But then the group hits the chorus, and suddenly it’s kitsch overdrive: “25 o’clock! That’s when you’re going to be mine…”
The thing is, Partridge and Moulding grew up listening to such acid-tinged hooks during the psychedelic era. So they give it their all, shouting the words as if the space time continuum is collapsing around them. Sure, their tongues might be planted firmly in cheek, but the enthusiasm on display is completely infectious.
From the Technicolor whimsy of “Bike Ride to the Moon” to the moody fuzz-rock of “Your Gold Dress,” 25 O’Clock gives a delightful overview of all of the odd subgenres that inhabited the psychedelic realm. Closer “Mole From the Ministry” pulls the neatest trick of all, bundling all of John Lennon’s art-rock tics into an unsettlingly convincing pastiche.
Admittedly, the ten tracks on Psonic Psunspot are a bit more uneven and less delightfully weird as those on 25 O’Clock . But the album also hits the highest points in the Dukes’ discography.
Start with “Vanishing Girl,” a Moulding tune that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the jangly pop songs it borrows from. Guitarist David Gregory (excuse me, “Lord Cornelius Plum”) delivers a sparkling melodic figure while Moulding and Partridge drizzle gooey harmonies on top. Bonus points for the cowbell.
Elsewhere, it becomes a pretty obvious game of “spot the song references”: The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” on “Shiny Cage,” The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” on “You’re My Drug.” The songs are still enjoyable enough, but one could sense the ideas starting to run a little thin.
Thankfully, the album ends with another brilliant tribute in “Pale and Precious.” Taking on the SMiLE -era productions of Brian Wilson, Partridge pens his own symphony to God — which in his case might very well have been Brian Wilson.
Discarding some of the track’s hokey Beach Boy imitations, it’s actually a touching little love song. “If all of her moments were put down in a book, then I could read it ‘til I went blind,” Partridge sings wistfully. The ever-cynical songwriter probably never penned anything so overtly pretty as this.
Without these Dukes records, it’s hard to imagine XTC developing the confidence to record their opus, 1986’s Skylarking. Just as the Beatles used the moniker of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to explode their limitations, taking up the Dukes mantle allowed XTC to re-imagine their capabilities. As an overall listening experience, these two releases hold up quite nicely alongside the rest of the band’s canon.
Now reissued with bonus tracks and song demos, they’re exciting passports into an alternative pop universe — one I can’t help but wish had actually existed.