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The Dukes of Stratosphear - 25 O'Clock & Psonic Psunspot (Apehouse)

8 April 2009

To be completely honest, while I’m a huge XTC fan, in the past I’ve never been wuite as taken with their DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR alter-ego as many others have. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the material. I’ve long thought, for instance, that “Vanishing Girl” (the opening track on Psonic Psunspot, their lone full-length Lp) and the title track of their debut 25 O’Clock EP should be counted among their very best material. And while I liked this material, I was always dissatisfied with the sound quality on my CD copy of Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, the 1987 release that combined both the EP and Lp. Furthermore, while I love much of the ‘60s psychedelia and Nuggets-style bands they imitate on these releases, I always separated them from their “real” releases and dismissed them (perhaps unfairly) as a side project despite the obvious quality of the material. In fact, other than 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, this is the ‘80s XTC material that I’ve listened to the least over the years.

Nevertheless, I was psyched to get copies of the recent reissues of this material on Apehouse, ANDY PATRIDGE’s own label. This time, instead of being combined on one CD, 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot are split into two separate discs, each with lots of bonus tracks. Supposedly, they also have new packaging with liner notes, a digipack and new artwork, but I can’t review those aspects of those reissues since my copies are just discs in thin cardboard sleeves.

25 O’Clock, originally released in 1985 as a six-song EP, is now expanded to more than twice its original length, with fifteen tracks in total. The title track is a great take on SYD BARRETT-era PINK FLOYD (a touchstone they’d return to later), “Bike Ride to the Moon” nicely picks up where TOMORROW’s “My White Bicycle” left off and “My Love Explodes” can’t help but remind one of THE TROGGS at their most lascivious (i.e. “I Can’t Control Myself”) and the sample at the end (from a caller annoyed at THE FUGS’ “Fuck You and Your Atom Bomb”) is a nice touch as well.

The second half of the EP isn’t quite as strong, but the closing track “The Mole from the Ministry” is a nice pastiche of THE BEATLES circa Magical Mystery Tour and “I Am the Walrus”.

So what of the bonus material? There are demos of four of the EP tracks as well as “Nicely Nicely Jane” and “Susan Revolving”. They feel like snippets and unfinished ideas more than fully realized songs, but one can’t help wonder how they would’ve come out had they been completed. It’s the “Extra Recordings” section that really makes this reissue worthwhile, though. In particular, “Open a Can of Human Beans” (from a 2003 charity recording) is a terrific track that’s strong enough to have made the EP or it would’ve been had it been recorded around the same time. There’s also a video for “The Mole from the Ministry”.

After 1986’s landmark release Skylarking, XTC reconvened again as The Dukes of Stratosphear and recorded 1987’s Psonic Psunspot. To my ears, it’s a stronger record than 25 O’Clock, not least because some of these songs feel closer to the other material XTC was releasing during this time period and also because some of these songs are less obvious pastiches of their ‘60s heroes. Nevertheless, the clear highlight is “Vanishing Girl”, COLIN MOULDING’s stunning HOLLIES pastiche. As far as pastiches go, this is about as good as it gets and it’s also one of the best songs XTC ever wrote. I defy you to listen to this a few times and not have it stuck in your head for hours, if not days, afterward! “Have You Seen Jackie?” is another take on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, its subject matter recalling “Arnold Layne” though with an empathy for its titular character not unlike say, THE REPLACEMENTS’ “Androgynous”. Elsewhere, “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)” simultaneously reminds me of THE KINKS at their most musichall-influenced (i.e. “Mr. Pleasant”) or The Beatles’ “Obla-Di, Obla-Da”) and “Pale and Precious” (the album’s closing track) is an unabashed tribute to “Good Vibrations”/ Smile-era BEACH BOYS complete with theremin and all.

The bonus tracks on this one feature six demos of songs that ended up on the album. The most notable of these is ‘No One at Home”, an early version of “Vanishing Girl” that if anything shows off XTC’s great arranging skills in the finished song compared to its earliest incarnation. The other demos are similarly nice curiosities, but only super hardcore fans will play them more than a couple of times. There’s also a video for “You’re a Good Man, Albert Brown”.

I should also point out that the sound is a bit brighter than on the Chips from the Chocolate Fireball CD, though thankfully not obnoxiously loud, helping retain the originals’ deliberately lo-fi, ‘60s-era sound.