So XTC decked themselves out in Austin Powers duds, assumed names like Sir John Johns and The Red Curtain, and called the band “The Dukes Of Stratosphear.” 1985 saw the release of 25 O’Clock, an import-only item in America. (And another of those damnable 27-minute albums, too.) It was the stronger of their two releases, and was such an exact recreation of the sounds of yesteryear that if it weren’t for the cleanliness of the recording (even as it flaunted some of the cheesiest of vintage production tricks) one might have almost believed it to be a reissue. But the fact it was on Virgin, copyrighted 1985, and with a playful, undeniable tongue-in-cheek vibe running throughout belied any such fantasies.
They covered a lot of ground in those six tunes; there was a lot of ground to cover. They had obviously studied those old records well, yet their own material was anything but an academic exercise. It was the sound of musicians having fun, pulling out all the stops, paying homage to favorite influences who had languished in undeserved obscurity for far too long a time. The title tune alone carried whiffs of the Electric Prunes, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Syd’s Pink Floyd, Fever Tree, and half a dozen others. “Bike Ride To The Moon” suggested July, perhaps, the Small Faces, the Kinks at their jauntiest, the usual Brit music-hall influences. “My Love Explodes” nodded toward Beck/Page’s Yardbirds, “What In The World??” referenced George’s Yellow Submarine tunes. The kicker was “Mole From The Ministry,” which paid tribute not so much to Lennon ’67 as to the finale of the first Klaatu album--a copy of a copy! Perhaps an improvement, even.
All of this made for a wonderful game of spot-the-influences, but tended to get in the way of people’s appreciation of the music. And it was damned good music--lots of bands were trying to do this stuff, thinking there was nothing to it, and most of them were falling flat on their faces. It’s a fact not generally taught in music-appreciation class, but the truth of the matter is that psychedelia is an incredibly difficult thing to do well. Poseurs think they can do just any old shit and get away with it. “Yeah, everything sounds good when you’re stoned.” If that was true, there’d be no reason to listen to music any other way, would there?
George Carlin once said that “you can nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, and some schmuck will buy it from you!” It’s one approach to take, and it can be a valid one. Neophytes usually go this route, without any regard to picking which two things, where to nail them together, and when is the precise moment to brandish a one with a feathery tong. XTC, errrr, the Dukes, never needed to be told; they had been born knowing.
The second album, Psonic Psunspot, came out in 1987. By this point it was an open secret who the Dukes were. No matter how much mellotron and echoplex they piled on the tracks, the voices and the melodies gave them away. It’s odd, even fictitious bands tend to suffer from sophomore jinx: PP wasn’t nearly as wild of an album. Most of the songs were nearly as good, but the production didn’t dig quite so deep a canyon in the mind. The fact that they could “do” the Hollies, the Byrds and Brian Wilson was nice, and it made for some moments as lovely as those on the debut. Nonetheless, having been “unmasked,” having made their point, and knowing that everybody was now in on the joke, the Dukes as such ran out of reasons to exist. The two albums were combined into one CD (Chips From The Chocolate Fireball); XTC went back to being themselves, but better; everybody lived happily ever after.
I remember playing this for a friend whose tastes ranged from the surprisingly adventurous to the appallingly lame. (“Not unlike his own!” you’re saying. I can hear you. I’m the mole from the ministry.) Unfortunately for him, he had no particular appreciation for psychedelia at all. Ah, well, it’s through no fault of mine that he had been culturally deprived. It’s not on my conscience. I felt I might be able to help him with his problem. It seemed as if he’d be OK if only I could make an end-run around his mental blinders. It might even be doable, given the fact that he was rather fond of XTC. So I played him the Dukes of Stratosphear.
He found it to be an uncomfortable, incomprehensible exercise in “annoying music.” (Poor sap--this from a guy who digs Neil Young, not to mention the Butthole Surfers!) What of the fact that Oranges and Lemons and Skylarking mined similar territory, only without that same psychotic spark as before? If it registered at all, it promptly bounced off of the same mental blind spot that caused him to hit the reject button once exposed to the Dukes.
I’m afraid things were never the same between him and XTC after that...somehow I’d disillusioned him. Corrupted his faith. Subverted his allegiance. It was shitty of me, hell I know. (Serves him right. He thought “Sister Ray” was “annoying” too.)
As for me, I love the Dukes to this day. Given the choice I’d still rather listen to Rain Parade, who at their most maximalist at least still sounded like themselves rather than like Klaatu. Still, the Dukes were good fun, and there wasn’t nearly enough of that in the 80s. I love them precisely for the pastiche they were, and for the fact they were hip enough to be just that--a genuinely affectionate tribute to various strands of 60s psychedelia that managed to be damn tuneful and interesting in its own right.
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