ROBIN CARMODY on a masterpiece in defiance of the 1980s.
The 1980s were the dark years of progressive ruralism in Britain; we all know that. More specific than that, though; they were the years when the progressive and the ruralist became irreconcilable from each other in the mass public imagination, as the result of the increasing definition of modernity as something rude, aggressive, thrusting and confined to a few square miles in and around the City of London, and the marketing of the countryside and English history as a product, but as a pure museum piece; the heavy promotional tactics of English Heritage, the popularity of the likes of the Sealed Knot Society, and the turning of closed Yorkshire mines into museums of Victorian mining techniques and Northern working-class life more generally promoted the idea that ruralism and the past could now only be a nostalgic product, and could not be fused with cultural modernism (which, in the 80s, became far more consciously "superior" in its urban posing than anyone could ever have imagined in the 70s) to create a positive future. Watch a clip from mid-80s Top of the Pops, and amid the overriding yuppie slickness you'll find it absolutely impossible to believe that, only 10 years earlier, Steeleye Span had been so obviously having the time of their lives in the TOTP studio performing a heavily (and awesomely) glammed-up version of a traditional song, produced by the man behind the Wombles' records.
And then XTC released Skylarking in, of all years, 1986.
It's difficult to explain in words just how removed from the general cultural current of the times it therefore was; the sense of living but still-evolving tradition, flexibility within a social consensus of aspiration and stability, and change-through-continuity conveyed by this song cycle has nothing to do with Britain in the 1980s, where everything seemed to be a vicious battle between Now (filofaxes, enormous mobile phones) and Then (reconstructions of English Civil War battles, big-budget TV series like Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, or children's TV serials like Moonfleet or The Box of Delights). The reconciliation between the two offered by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding was not what the British 80s were looking for, and naturally it didn't take them; America, where the album became one of the most played on college radio, was kinder, as it spent more than six months on the Billboard Top 200 album chart and peaked at Number 70, compared to its one week at Number 90 on the British album chart (at that time, a Top 100) - the first XTC record to peak higher in the US than the UK. Perhaps it seemed mystical and strange and exciting to an American student audience; they had thankfully avoided the discrediting of a certain cultural territory in the British 80s by a combination of the nastiness of Thatcherism and the totally differently-expressed but similarly-meant sneers of the punks and the yuppies, and anyway those battles would only make sense to the British.
In the 1930s, J.B. Priestley wrote in An English Journey about the "Three Englands"; the first England was the old, slow-to-change rural society, the second was the industrial North, and the third was the emerging suburbia, the scene of the new affluence of the era, and the greatest immersion in the emerging American popular culture. He predicted, accurately, that in time it would culturally swallow up the first two Englands - or, at least, become the dominant England in the public mind; it was already clearly the England of the future, the only one recently born and still rapidly evolving (while change in the first two Englands had largely ground to a halt), the one whose culture would ultimately become that of the entire country. In the early 1960s, a time of overwhelming political consensus across Britain but when the geographical cultural divides of the pre-war world were still surviving to an extent (though there had already been a considerable levelling-out as a result of the unprecedently massive movement of people within the UK, and the impact of American servicemen, during the Second World War), the third England was making massive advances into the countryside (advances more permanent and long-lasting than those brought about by wartime evacuees from, say, Welwyn Garden City, the first New Town, to the Cambridgeshire Fenlands, or from Wimbledon to the Meon Valley in Hampshire) as a result of the movement of people outside London and the resettlement to the New Towns, the most quintessential expressions of Britain's post-war desire to create a better society for all, shining temples of glass and brick built from no historical base where once there had been green fields, and usually still surrounded by green fields. The result of this was a considerable cultural clash; the third England met the first head on, and suddenly we found ourselves with the countryside in something of a panic (by the deeply consensual standards of 40 years ago, that is), wondering how it could cope with the growing blur between itself - the first England - and the new affluent consumerist society - the third England, rapidly threatening to overtake and absorb its predecessors. Huge parts of Hertfordshire and Essex, and further out the areas surrounding towns like Northampton, Peterborough and Swindon, became fascinating patchworks of the first England and the third, with the divide between the two sometimes possible to pin down to individual points on certain streets.
Ah, Swindon. Skylarking could never have become the album it is had Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding not been born in the first half of the 1950s and been raised in this town, itself comparatively new by English standards (it was a tiny village until its formation in the 19th Century as a result of its selection as the base for the works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway, the industrial revolution of the time, which always gave it much more of the feel of the third England than anywhere else in Wiltshire). In other words, it was not an experience that could be easily tied to either the first nor the third England; it could not be categorised. By the early 60s, the Victorian industrial aspect of the town - once the most modern thing for miles around - was itself being made to seem antique by the new housing estates being rapidly filled up by those who had moved to the town, mostly from London (Mark Lamarr is from Swindon; listening to his accent which, let's face it, screams "Thames Estuary", it seems almost inevitable that his family were among those who moved from the capital). This world of immaculate shopping arcades and mobile shops brought a rare whiff of the new world to Wiltshire (no wonder John Betjeman sneered at them in his 1962 film made in Swindon for the long-defunct ITV company TWW, preferring to concentrate on "Old Swindon" and moving later in the film to the deserted, faded north Devon town of North Lew), though paradoxically reception of the culturally modernist ITV was virtually impossible until 1965, and only the BBC - in the late 50s and early 60s resembling the snobbish old-boy network of the pre-war Conservative Party rather than the socially inclusive optimism of Harold Macmillan, which was symbolised by the original ITV companies - was available. Nevertheless in Swindon, circa 1962 / 63, it must have seemed as though the first and third Englands could be combined, could run together, could work hand in hand, could be reconciled. It was certainly not a narrow environment, nor one that could easily be defined as a part of any of the three Englands; rather it was a perfect meeting of the first England and the third, with the surrounding countryside still resolutely stuck in the first world, but the utopianism rapidly taking shape in the town itself a perfect symbol of the third. Culturally, you could have been exposed to both an antique landscape and some traditions that seemed enticingly mystical, and the new, confident suburbia where everything worked beautifully.
Skylarking was recorded in the US - the first XTC album recorded outside the UK - and its wistfulness seems to confirm the idea that your home country and its traditions seem more attractive once you've got a certain distance from them (remember, though, that the recording of the album, produced by Todd Rundgren, was an unsettled and ill-tempered affair; initially Partridge hated Rundgren's production, though he has become much more sympathetic to the album in recent years). As it was the closest XTC have ever come to a concept album (though "song cycle" would be a far more accurate description), the addition to later copies of the album of the US radio hit "Dear God", originally a B-side, was a serious mistake; it upsets and distorts the progression of the album, thrusting a high-flown attempt to ask just why humanity puts faith in God rather than doing anything to write its wrongs itself, amid a sequence of quiet, impressionistic songs of which the first two, in Andy Partridge's own words, evoke "a playfully sexual hot summer. On a hot day, a lot of life is going to be made somewhere, and it's probably going to be outdoors on grass. It's just about summer and being out in the open and discovering sex in a stumbly, teenage way." The album begins with "Summer's Cauldron", which smells of new life beginning. It's bursting with euphoria; the sun and the dripping heat almost seem to be the song's driving force. The sheer sound of the song is indescribably rich; there seem to be newly-born spirits, the offspring of centuries, pushing the rhythm along. Along with Colin Moulding's "Grass", into which it segues immaculately, this is how a full and healthy life begins and is formed; the discovery of sex and teenage love sows the seeds for yet more new lives to begin in the future.
Moulding's "The Meeting Place" isn't so much about copping off (to use the least poetic but most evocatively commonplace term for the aspects of adolescence chronicled in the first two songs) as the rituals leading up to it and building down from it, and for that matter the rituals totally unconnected with sex; it's simply a celebration of the experience of childhood in a place and time where the first and third Englands seemed to fit perfectly alongside each other. It might teeter on the brink of "jumpers-for-goalposts" territory, but this is no old fogey telling the youth of today that they'll never have it as good as he had it; it's affectionately recalled in and of itself, with no judgmental or prejudicial attitudes. "That's Really Super, Supergirl" - a barrage of Superman and comic book references from Partridge - is a fantastic pop song but seems slightly out of place here, or at least it doesn't seem to contain many of the lyrical references that render the album as a whole so appropriate for this site, being instead one of the metaphorical love songs that Partridge writes so well, but containing no particular progressive ruralist resonance. It would stand out on virtually any XTC album, though; the obsessional drive of the lyrics would be enough in itself, even without the typically addictive melody.
But later on the first side, the segue of "Ballet for a Rainy Day" and "1,000 Umbrellas" develops a magic all its own, respectively the landscape turned into a painting which nevertheless moves and lives, and the love song endlessly mythologised and codified; the weather turned from a mundane conversation subject to the starting point for entire games of discovery with the English language, metaphors overflowing with meaning and resonance. In their elevation of the mundane and everyday into the poetic and symphonic, these songs are comparable to anything else in the pop canon.
"Season Cycle" takes the mysticism further; a fascinating set of analogies between the flow of the seasons and the flow of our own lives, which has you mystified and trying desperately to work out what is being alluded to, before you realise that nothing is being enforced or hammered home. If you're not reflecting on how and why we got here, and where we go from here (not to some religion's idea of heaven; Partridge gets in another of his astute attacks on such attitudes and asserts "Bless my soul, I'm already there!", suggesting that the closest we can come to perfection is in our own place, in our own time) then you have yourself lost all signs of life.
"Earn Enough For Us" - an unusually driven, pumped-up sound for this album, and the only real echo of XTC's early powerpop era - is the most complete expression thus far recorded of the shared, collective desire of Britain during the Macmillan era (the early Boring Postcards - http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/parr.htm - essentially); the vision of self-improvement, self-betterment and quiet, confident affluence (if the idea that you can, simply, "get another job at night" strikes those who have grown up from the mid-70s onwards as impossibly naive, it was genuinely how things were back in the late 50s and early 60s, the last brief dawn of the industrial age, when you could walk out of one job at Saturday lunchtime and walk into another on Monday morning, and no understanding of this song is possible without realising how different things once were). These people were far less sophisticated than people today, and had an uncritical respect for their government and royal family that can never return (and which I would never want to return); they were sneered at by their offspring who contributed so much to the cultural shifts of the late 60s and 70s, but they deserve recognition and endorsement, and this song treats them with the affection and respect they merit.
Moulding's "Big Day" represents the key ritual of the second half of the album; marriage. It's a moment of passing on; of leaving childhood behind and moving into the adult world, always remaining aware of where you came from, but conscious that you have to move on from it. The Shadows / Searchers chord sequence and slightly gormless vocal pronounciation and guitar chime (listen to the anorakish intonation of "gooaww" and the Merseybeat guitar line that follows, and you'll see exactly what I mean) is an example of an entirely inadvertent echo of the post-war forbidden subconsciousness, not in any way distorting the quality of what surrounds it.
"Another Satellite" is a reverie, taking the "life cycle" analogy out of this earth and seeming to recommend that we should, all of us, stay in the place where we should be, and "Mermaid Smiled" (senselessly excluded from later copies of the album in favour of "Dear God") is a dream, the closest this album comes to late 60s pastiche (it is imbued with the mental visions of what have been called the "passive hippies") but conveying a sense of non-retro, non-embarrassing wonderment and joy, as though Partridge had the idea for this song at the age of nine and just held it in his mind until the mid-80s. When Ian MacDonald says that "the true subject of English psychedelia was neither love nor drugs, but nostalgia for the innocent vision of the child" (which is quite true, incidentally) I feel like strangling his 60s-obsessed self and shouting "Yes, but this is the finest example of the art!!!!". "Mermaid Smiled" is - and here's a Rockist contradiction in terms - psychedelia that would never dream of taking drugs.
"The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul", with its suggestion of a man coming to the end of his life reflecting on his frustrations, his failures, his thwarted romances, leads into Moulding's "Dying", pure English provincialism in its lyrics, but universal in its resonance; the unsettling quality of seeing someone you've been familiar with for years, as a friendly, reassuring, ageless, never-changing presence, finally edging towards death, and the unease when you begin to realise, perhaps in your early thirties, that you will ultimately suffer the same fate. But if "Dying" represents premonitions of the end, then Moulding's "Sacrificial Bonfire" brings things to a natural end so as to create a new beginning. Visualising a bonfire of a dead body as a devowal of evil spirits from the past, and simultaneously a starting point for new life to enter a better, more sympathetic world, it convinces you that the future can be created from a slowly-but-consistently-evolving template modelled on the past (as it says, "change must be earnt", and modern ritual - not a contradiction in terms, as some would think - may well be the best way to achieve this). It is intensely magical, it contains some truly astounding mental images (the line "The scapegoat blood spilled, spittled and grilled, it crackled and spat, and children grew fat on the meat" is unlikely ever to fade from my mind), it fizzes with new life emerging from death, and it defines and encapsulates the glorious, positive progressive ruralist ethos of the whole album.
Skylarking is, in short, an ideal for living. Cling to it and cherish it. From the start of life to its end, everything seems to fit into a rhythm, a pattern, a way of being, but there is no sign of anyone oppressively forcing it home. It's an atmosphere and a mood evoked absolutely perfectly; when it's playing, your own location and time are completely irrelevant. It's probably the only album that's ever made me seriously rethink the way I want to live and the way I see the world; it is a ruralism which is anything but dead, it is fizzing and brimming with life.
Sunday Telegraph and former Spectator editor Dominic Lawson likes XTC. I wonder how he can stare Skylarking in the face.
Robin Carmody, 8th February 2001
http://www.optimismsflames.com/LyricsSkylarking.htm - the lyrics.
http://chalkhills.org/articles/Skylarking.html and http://website.lineone.net/~ssleightholm/articles/albums1.htm - the reviews.
http://website.lineone.net/~ssleightholm/articles/popdan.htm - Partridge interviewed just before the release of Skylarking in October 1986. Note the folk-rock references, initially jokingly championed and then denied by Partridge; as un-1986 as it's possible to get, which tells you something about the record itself.
(incidentally, when Partridge protests that "it's not as if we're Pentangle or Fairport Convention", he's absolutely right judged in a historical context, but in the context of 1986 they may as well have been either of those bands, since the overriding direction of pop music in the mid-late 80s was so sneeringly urban, and aggressively cosmopolitan with such a superiority complex, that their music sounded far "folkier", and certainly far more exceptional, than it would have done in 1970. Had Skylarking been recorded then, it would not have sounded at all unusual in its lyrical and sonic emphasis; indeed there were considerably more traditional and ruralist albums - Basket of Light, Liege and Lief et al - achieving infinitely higher chart placings than Skylarking ever managed in 1986. But we are talking about Skylarking in the context of its time here, and in pop, context is all. Remember also that Fairport's Dave Mattacks is the drummer on 1992's Nonsuch, XTC's final album in their notoriously restrictive contract with Virgin.)
http://website.lineone.net/~ssleightholm/articles/star.htm and http://website.lineone.net/~ssleightholm/articles/celest.htm - Partridge on Skylarking again, from 1987.
http://www.xtcidearecords.co.uk - the official site, at last.
http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/xtc.html - Tom Ewing on 1999's Apple Venus Volume One.