Dukes of Stratosphear – 25 O’Clock + Psionic Sunspot [reissues]

January 01, 1970

 (Ape House)





The early 1980s were tough times
for XTC. Andy Partridge had a public breakdown on stage in Paris in 1982, paralyzed by the stage fright
that would turn the band from a normal touring outfit into the studio-only
ensemble of later years. After 1983’s Mummer,
the band’s long-time drummer, Terry Chambers, quit to move to Australia. Although work began on
XTC’s landmark album Skylarking in
1985, sessions with Todd Rundgren turned combative in 1985, with Partridge
resenting the loss of control.


All in all, you can’t blame them
– particularly Partridge – for looking for an escape route. With the  Dukes of Stratosphear, the whole band went
down the psychedelic rabbit hole, donning paisley shirts and bell-bottom
corduroys, and churning raga rock drones and wiggy music hall whimsies.   Partridge, along with XTC founder Colin
Moulding, guitarist Dave Gregory and his brother Ian Gregory at drums, recorded
two period-perfect collections of 1960s psychedelia under the Dukes pseudonym,
the EP 25 O’Clock in 1985 and the
full-length Psionic Sunspot in 1987. Liner
notes to 1986’s Skylarking thanked
the Dukes for their loan of guitars, and XTC albums from that point on
(particularly Oranges and Lemons) reflected a bit of the offshoot’s day-glo aura.


Of the two, 25 O’Clock is darker, rawer and more guitar-centric. From the
Syd-reminiscent ticking and bells at the opening of the title track, through
the careening Eastern guitar drones of wonderful “My Love Explodes” through the
tilted, tipsy, effects-filtered quirkiness of “Mole in the Ministry”, the EP is
a gleeful lark, a headlong rush into everything that’s wonderful about late
1960s Beatles, Kinks, Pretty Things and Pink Floyd. Psionic Sunspot, two years later, has a more premeditated air, its
songs more closely worked and delicate, its production cleaner and more
complicated.  “Vanishing Girl” opens in a
jangle of guitar and tambourine, soars on tight, swooning vocal flourishes,
while “Have You Seen Jackie” upends both gender and genre expectations with its
Doppler souring harmonies and uneasy pop jauntiness. Bad tripping
“Collideascope” looks at the world from a backwards telescope, fish drowning in
seas and girl’s splitting into true and false halves. “Pale and Precious” pays
homage to Pet Sounds with its swooping, sweeping bursts of vocal counterparts.  A young girl’s voice provides snippets of
Narnia-style magical narrative between tracks, and there are lots of field
recordings – people laughing, birds singing, fog horns, etc. – embedded in the


Each reissue includes six demo
versions of the original songs, as well as a video, “The Mole From the
Ministry” from 25 O’Clock and “You’re
a Good Man Albert Brown” from Psionic
. Psionic Sunspot adds in
“Open a Can of Human Beans,” a song written in 2003 by a briefly reunited
Dukes, as well as previously unreleased “Tin Toy Clockwork Train.” This
additional material will interest hard core fans, but may, for casual
listeners, only dull the magic with repetition.


Yet magic it is, a 1960s time
capsule from the Thatcher years, as blessed a release for listeners as it must
have been to industry-besieged XTC. It’s a fling, a diversion, a wild stab at
artistic liberty, this Dukes of Stratosphear project, as perversely enjoyable
as a day skipping school.


Standout Tracks: “25 O’Clock” “Vanishing Girl” “You’re My Drug” JENNIFER KELLY


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