1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.
IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album exploring the cycles of life. Lush orchestration, witty but deep lyrics and full of catchy melodies, this album could be compared to some by a more famous British band, but it stands on its own merits. Some songs run together, some stand on their own – and perhaps their most famous song, “Dear God,” is featured as well.
Consider the term “Beatle-esque.” (Or perhaps it’s “Beatlesque,” which is admittedly easier to type, but just doesn’t look right.) It is a word that is thrown around a lot in pop culture, probably the most common Pop-and-Rock-Music Related “-esque” word there has ever been. A quick check of the googles returns 25,400 results for “Beatle-esque,” as compared to a surprisingly small 4,470 for “Rolling Stones-esque1,” a stout 10,500 for “Bob Dylan-esque” and a surprisingly strong showing of 7 for “Men Without Hats-esque.”
It’s a term that to this day continues to be thrown at artists that you’d expect, like Cheap Trick, artists you wouldn’t, like Stone Temple Pilots and Kiss, and even artists who severely cheapen the term. But like many terms popularized in the media, it is usually a lazy piece of shorthand that without context for the reader could indicate any number of things. The band were innovators in many ways – musically, of course, but also in terms of style and culture and – some would argue – everything! So what does it mean to be “Beatle-esque?”
I’ve listened to my readers, and both of them2 have said, “enough with the Beatles stuff.” But the issue of what the term means is supremely important to Album #67. Without delving a bit into the concept, I’d simply be writing some stuff about a record, instead of
boring you regaling you with insights and stories from my boring fascinating life. Certainly my interest in the term is largely what brought me to Album #67, so I want to take a little time to consider its meaning.
When you consider that The Beatles released their first single in the UK, “Love Me Do,” in October, 1962, and their final album, Let It Be, in May of 19703 it is shocking to realize how many different styles the band packed into such a tiny window. For comparison’s sake, let’s say theirs’ was an 8-year recording career4. As I type this, it is now 2016. In February of 2009, the Grammy awards were held celebrating the recording industry’s achievements for 2008. The Best New Artist award was handed to Adele. In the past 8 years, she’s released three albums, and each has been wildly successful by sticking to a winning formula of heartfelt ballads and a few upbeat pop songs sung by an extremely talented vocalist. In the same span, The Beatles released 13 albums5 and twenty-four singles that weren’t on any album. The hit songs were as diverse as “Please, Please Me,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Come Together.” I’m not trying to make a case for or against either artist. Both have their merits, and the music and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, so any comparisons will be challenging. However, it is easy to see that – given the breadth of diversity in their respective musical careers – the term “Adele-esque” is going to be a more precise descriptor than “Beatle-esque” will ever be. So let’s look at some of the meanings of “Beatle-esque.”
When The Beatles burst onto the scene, they sort of combined the sweet harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the greasy stomp of Eddie Cochran with the wild abandon of Little Richard. They were a group of four that wrote their own songs and played instruments while they sang, which was rather unique6 in an era of mainly vocal-only groups and solo artists with backing bands.
By 1965, the charts were packed with Beatle-esque bands such as Freddie and the Dreamers (seen here doing a dance that was definitely NOT Beatle-esque!) and Herman’s Hermits. And mop-top inspired characters were popping up on shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters7. Beatle-esque bands like these have continued through rock history. The line of bands with jangly guitars, a rock beat and harmony vocals stretches from The Byrds through R.E.M. to Franz Ferdinand and college rock bands of today, like The Twerps.
The other very Beatle-esque characteristic of the Beatles from the early-to-mid-60s era was their image as cute-boys-who-sing-and-act-charmingly-goofy-and-a-bit-naughty-yet-non-threatening-to-preteen-girls. While The Beatles made terrific music, they also starred in movies that inflated this image, bantered with reporters in a disarmingly snide manner, and offered witty quips whenever the opportunity8 arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands9 – from The Bay City Rollers to New Kids On The Block to One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer (and even Boys Who Cry!) – has continued. I guess the band has to take some responsibility for all of them. However, they obviously found the phenomenon troubling. You see, by 1965, they were clearly a worldwide phenomenon, and the entertainment industry was capitalizing on the whole enchilada, music and image. The next year The Monkees debuted on American TV, both singing and acting Beatle-esque. But by 1966, the only thing not Beatle-esque was The Beatles.
The Beatles famously stopped playing live after their August, 1966, performance at Candlestick Park10 and continued moving away from the catchy guitar pop they’d mastered, toward a more experimental and studio-affected sound they’d already played around with on songs like “Rain” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” and (most weirdly, so far) “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To.” Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever11,” and “I Am The Walrus” got more strange, songs like “Penny Lane” and “The Fool On The Hill” got less rock ‘n roll, and the sound culminated in the formerly-un-Beatle-esque but now definitely a new-definition-Beatle-esque album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. I’m not saying The Beatles were the originators of psychedelic, orchestral music in rock, but works by new artists like (The) Pink Floyd and established artists like The Rolling Stones were nothing like the Mop Tops of 1964, yet were now being called “Beatle-esque.” This line of Beatle-esquetry traveled through The Electric Light Orchestra12, served as the ontogenesis for prog rock, was heard in some late 80s pop songs, and has continued through 90s bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Tame Impala today.
Finally, after Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles became an anything goes, kitchen-sink, music-first-image-later band, unbound by styles or labels and as such helped engender the use of the term “artist” to describe pop/rock musicians. This Beatle-esque characteristic of dedication to artistry has continued to touch musicians from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to Beck to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar.
So “Big Fuckin’ Deal,” right? The point is, if you go looking for something “Beatle-esque,” there are very few artists who won’t – in some way – fit the bill. I know from several experiences that you may find something great! But usually not13. I’ve written before about the fact that my reaction to the horrible music of the late 80s was to seek out new music from classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s that, unfortunately, turned out to be every bit as horrible as the rest of the 80s music I was hearing on MTV and the radio. As a huge Beatles fan, part of this frantic search (which unfathomably ignored the actually awesome music being produced at the time!!) for good music caused me to search for bands described as – you guessed it14 – “Beatle-esque.”
As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, I’d been familiar with the band XTC for many years. They were one of many new artists that were suddenly part of my consciousness, and it seemed like their catchy number “Senses Working Overtime” was played routinely15. But by 1986 they’d escaped my consciousness. That year I was in the gym playing pick-up basketball at PCPS, in Philadelphia, when WMMR played what I thought was a rather disturbing song called “Dear God,” with children’s voices bashing religion, and when I heard the announcer say it was XTC, I thought, “Wow, that old MTV band is really desperate for airplay, being controversial just to get it.” But I did find the song intriguing and catchy, and I grew to like it. Three years later I kept hearing XTC referred to as Beatle-esque, so I went out and bought their LP Oranges and Lemons on vinyl the week it was released. That album made me a fan of the band. After a drunk guy in a Skylarking t-shirt told me at a party that Skylarking was even better than Oranges and Lemons, I went out and got it on vinyl as well.
Skylarking has many hallmarks of a “concept album:” many songs related to a main theme (cycles of life), that are connected to each other (many run together with no break between them), and containing first-person lyrics sung from a definite point of view. The record was produced by longtime artist and producer Todd Rundgren, who suggested the idea of a concept album, but who famously did not get along with the band, causing a rift that exists to this day! I find the album is best-appreciated if one can listen to it from start to finish. However, as with all great albums, the tracks are strong enough that they stand out by themselves, or in any order.
The album opens with nature’s sounds of summer, various chirps, croaks and whistles that eventually set the rhythm for the first two tracks, “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass.”
“Summer’s Cauldron” sounds to me like a hot summer day, when the humidity is so dense that you just want to lie in the shade, close your eyes and wish for a breeze. Colin Moulding’s bass is gooey and thick behind the bugs and birds and Todd Rundgren’s melodica, and Andy Partridge sings mostly nonsense lyrics that still perfectly describe the feeling of a summer’s day. After the first verse and chorus, Partridge’s voice is doubled an octave higher, and backing vocals and counter melody from Moulding and Dave Gregory are added, increasing the song’s summer lushness. It builds to the 3:22 point, where the second song, “Grass” begins.
XTC songs are usually written and sung by guitarist Andy Partridge, and the ones that aren’t are written and sung by bassist Colin Moulding. “Grass” is one of Colin’s songs, and it’s an ode to, let’s say, the youthful physical expression of fondness and attraction set in the great outdoors16. It’s a natural segue from the first track, and features orchestration (including pizzicato violins behind the verses that sound great) that helps continue the summer feel. It ends with the outdoor orchestra of bugs and birds that began the song, completing one of many cycles on the record.
This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a winter rendezvous, with coats on the ground, where someone might hear. The song has a nice circular guitar riff, and in the second verse Partridge sings a counter-melody that I love. It’s a great number, and gives the listener a feeling – together with “Grass” – that a love songs may abound on this album. Band leader and renowned prickly cynic Andy Partridge dashes those ideas immediately with the caustic next song, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”
Nobody writes biting, revenge lyrics quite like Partridge. He’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics18. It’s a catchy song with cool vocals and more great bass guitar from Moulding. Third XTC member, Dave Gregory, plays a marvelous, bouncy guitar solo starting at 2:06. This song does call to mind for me a breakup I had many years ago with a Supergirl. When I first heard the song soon after I thought, “Yes! This is perfect!” So many years later now, and I don’t remember why it connected. But I still like the song – cruel though the lyrics may be.
The rich, orchestral linked-together songs continue with two rainy spring-themed songs: the lovely “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” and the rather whiny “1000 Umbrellas.”
What I love about both these songs is are the lyrics. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” presents lovely imagery of the colors on a rainy day. And the music behind it sounds like a warm, drizzly late-spring morning. At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement19 transitions the tune to “1000 Umbrellas,” a song that I don’t love despite it’s super-clever rhyme scheme and wordplay from Partridge.
The song that was a terrific closing number to Side One when I had the album on vinyl, and that is now just a cool song in the middle of all the tracks, is the celebration of Mother Nature “Season Cycle,” a fun, catchy number with lyrics that manage to rhyme “cycle” with “umbilical” in a way that you’ll love if you’re an Andy Partridge fan, and despise if not.
I love the background vocals on this song, and of course the lyrics. They ask who could be responsible for something so glorious as the world we inhabit. He lands briefly on the idea of a supreme being, but rejects it quickly20 and finally decides it’s so beautiful that Earth and heaven are one and the same. One of the reasons I took to Partridge’s lyrics when I first heard them is that at the time I was questioning the religious beliefs I’d grown up with, and this song mirrored thoughts I’d come to on my own – that the world around us is so wonderful, why would we ever seek to imagine something better, or more beautiful? The idea of a “better place” sounded silly to me, as it (apparently) sounded to Partridge, as well.
The cycle of life among humans is explored on what was once Side Two. Whereas Side One mostly described the world around us, Side Two describes us within the world. “Earn Enough For Us” and “Big Day” both take a rather dim view of the human experience of marriage, while “Another Satellite” takes a similar view of relationships. “Earn Enough For Us” is what passes for a guitar track on this album, a driving pop rock number with a somewhat McCartney-esque bass line and lyrics describing a common worry for men in the late twentieth century and today, despite rising gender equality in America. “Big Day” is a Colin song that points out that the glory of the wedding can fade pretty quickly. “Another Satellite” is a cool-sounding song on which Partridge uses his venomous lyrics and astrophysical wordplay to target a would-be suitor – and makes the listener think that maybe Supergirl did the right thing in dumping his ass.
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a nifty jazz piece with lyrics that either argue for more introspection, or advise against it – depending on your outlook. Colin’s “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a deceptively light, tribal take on the deep topic of humans’ historical urge to punish others to elevate themselves. Colin’s other song, “Dying,” is what my friend Johnny might refer to as one of “Colin’s Clunkers.” See, it seems like every XTC album has a song or two by Colin that, well, just don’t live up to the typical XTC standard. Thus Johnny, a big XTC fan, coined the term “Colin’s Clunkers.”
The most famous song on the album, the one I heard on the basketball court back in the day, is Andy’s slam on religion and belief, “Dear God.”
It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because of the lyrics – which though biting and focused on Christianity, are an honest questioning of the nature of faith – but also because I like the acoustic guitar riff. This song was incredibly controversial for a song that wasn’t really a hit. It was even controversial among the band and producer Rundgren – though not because of the content. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to the listener to have a child sing a verse, but that’s my only quibble with it. When I first heard it, I thought it was a blatant attempt at publicity by the band. But after I became a fan, I realized it was just an artist expressing his view – one not too dissimilar to that “Smart Beatle,” John Lennon. And as an atheist myself, I find it nice to hear some non-religious viewpoints out there in the media once in a while. Whatever your viewpoint, it’s a song most listeners won’t forget.
So, is the band, and this album “Beatle-esque?” Well, they’re definitely not a boy band, but they do make some catchy guitar pop songs, and they sure threw in a lot of orchestral pieces on the songs, and I think they’ve got an artistic drive to what they do … But really – what does it matter? Being a Beatle fan brought me to XTC and Skylarking, but it isn’t what kept me listening. I kept listening because I love the music.
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”