Tag Archives: Concept Album

48th Favorite: Animals, by Pink Floyd


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Animals. Pink Floyd.
1977, Harvest/Columbia. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1984. Purchased, ca. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album that takes the listener on quite a journey through society, this record has so much incredible David Gilmour guitar that I almost lose my mind!! Roger Waters’s voice is as effective as ever, and the whole band sounds great – even through the druggy interludes. I could do with fewer of these slow spots, but the songs and the playing more than make up for it. It’s an album designed for a listen in one sitting.
I’ve seen fewer than one episode of that wildly popular old 90s TV show Friends. This is weird because, as a 49 year old, I am firmly and completely a part of that limiting descriptor called “Generation X,” and Friends is supposed to be one of our generation’s “touchstones[ref]And one that has (apparently) held up well, to boot.[/ref].” And I’m not ashamed to say[ref]Not being ashamed of things we should be ashamed of is probably a hallmark of Gen-X. I am guilty of it.[/ref] that I’m a big fan of almost all of our touchstones.

I devoured 70s Saturday morning cartoons, can recite entire Bugs Bunny Show scripts, and know most of the words to most of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was first released, and I watched the Quincy, M.E., punk rock episode when it first aired. I played Pac Man in the arcade for a quarter a game. I wished I could afford an Alligator shirt, but still never stooped to wearing the Sears “Braggin’ Dragon” brand instead. I watched Late Night with David Letterman when it was still “A Melman Production,” and watched MTV when it only showed music videos. I raved over Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, bought Nevermind the month it came out and had tickets to Lollapalooza #1[ref]Which was cancelled in Hershey, PA, because Skid Row had sworn on the outdoor stage there earlier that summer, angering the locals.[/ref]. I read (most of) Infinite Jest, saw Pulp Fiction in the theater several times, chuckled about the Y2K bug panic, and I felt old about MP3s and iPods and most everything else after 2002.

But I only ever saw part of one single Friends episode, the one where Nana dies twice, which was cutely titled – in that annoying Friends way – “The One Where Nana Dies Twice.” I remember there was a funny bit about someone’s grandma having a bunch of packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Despite the show’s apparent touchstone-dom, I never connected with it. I was never part of a big, close-knit group of friends, so I think the premise never resonated with me[ref]Then again, I’ve never been to outer space, but I sure loved Star Trek: The Next Generation.[/ref]. I’ve always been more inclined to have one or two close friends, who may or may not know one another. Maybe this is part of the reason that I was more drawn to The X-Files during the Friends era. (And why I was one of the fans who DID NOT want Scully and Mulder to get romantic.)

When I think of “friends,” I don’t think of Friends: it’s not a large group, it’s a small group – maybe one other person. On TV and movies, they’re commonly called “buddies,” and there are examples galore out there. Scully and Mulder are of the “opposites attract” variety – she is skeptical, detached, reserved; he is high-strung and borders on gullibility. The most famous example is a pair whose friendship was created specifically to mine the deep vein of humor found in such an attraction: Oscar and Felix, from The Odd Couple – a success as a stage play, a movie, and multiple TV shows. From the manly/nerdy Martin and Lewis to man-hungry/good girl Laverne & Shirley to sunny/cranky Ernie and Bert, and in countless cop movies, Opposites has been a tried and true basis for fictional friendships.

Some fictional friendships are based on shared childhoods – people who connected in school and remained close. The Geeks, in Freaks and Geeks, fit the bill for me as a threesome – the maximum number allowed to meet my “buddy” standard. This means the Freaks don’t work for me because they’re a larger group. Raj, Dwayne and Rerun, from What’s Happening! are definite examples. Grown examples of childhood friends include Jerry and George, from Seinfeld, and Patsy and Eddy, from Absolutely Fabulous. Sadly, neither pair makes a good case for the mental health of individuals who remain close friends with childhood pals.

Some fictional friends are thrown together by circumstance, for better (as is the case with Red and Andy in The Shawshank Redemption) or for worse (as with Barton and Charlie in Barton Fink.) Some are friends for no apparent reason, like The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, or Ren and Stimpy. Still others just seem meant for each other, like Rhoda and Mary, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, John Winger and Russell Ziskey, Spongebob and Patrick.

Whatever the source of the friendship, these one-to-one (or at times three-person) relationships have been more typical in my life than the large-group Friends model. This has changed somewhat as I’ve gotten older and my wife[ref]My best friend![/ref] and I have made friends with our kids’ friends’ parents, and we’ve developed friendships with groups of couples. But despite these changes, the single “buddy” remains my Platonic Ideal[ref]I think I’m using this correctly. I know very little about philosophy, and I’m hoping many of my readers will know even less than me.[/ref] of the term “friend.” And the buddy I’ve remained closest to the longest is Dr. Dave.

We’re not exactly opposites, although we are quite different. We didn’t meet as kids, although having met as freshmen in college, we pretty much did. We were kinda thrown together by circumstance, being two of about nine folks majoring in Toxicology when we got to college – not as stressful as Shawshank Prison, but probably weirder. More than anything, we just sort of connected over The Beatles, music, Mel Brooks movies, Bugs Bunny, the Phillies, Columbo, and so many other little things.

As you, dear reader, will likely understand if you’ve had a close friend for thirty-some years, it’s difficult to adequately cover all the big ways in which Dr. Dave has been important to me. Instead, I’ll just list a few concrete examples of the little things he’s done, such as: 1) getting me to try asparagus for the first time; 2) teaching me how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on the bass; 3) telling me I should give Pink Floyd’s Animals another shot after my initial rejection of it. Another friend in high school, Rick, had duped his copy of the album onto cassette for me as part of a pre-digital-music data-dump of multiple Pink Floyd albums. I’d listened to it once, then never really went back to it. My initial assessment was that it was too depressing, and as a seventeen year-old, rural Pennsyltukian in 1984, I had Van Halen albums to consume and couldn’t be bothered with depressing stuff. (Which today sounds a bit depressing, in and of itself[ref]Although (spoiler alert) I do still love me some Van Halen.[/ref].)

At some point in college I’d transferred to a school a couple hours’ drive from Philadelphia, where Dr. Dave lived. He’d sometimes visit, and I have a vivid memory of him walking up the stairs to my crappy college apartment, having just arrived from a two-hour drive, and announcing, “Dude, what a ride!! I listened to Animals, the whole time!” I expressed doubt about his choice, but he made an excellent case for the album’s merits, countered my suspect assessment of it, and I soon found myself listening to my cassette version, instead of just rewinding it each time I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, on Side A.

Like most (all?) Pink Floyd albums from the 70s to early 80s, Animals is a Concept Album, with its (few) songs unified on the themes of class politics, Capitalism and societal decay. So, sure, my initial assessment of “depressing” may have some basis in fact. But the album’s soaring guitars, earnest vocals, and the fact that the sheep defeat the dogs, make it far from a negative experience.

And as depressing as some of the themes may be, the record actually opens (and closes) with a sweet, folky song, “Pigs on the Wing 1,” about the value of love (or friendship!) among the indignities in life.

These indignities are symbolized by Flying Pigs, and, one can infer, the waste products discharged therefrom. As one might expect from a Concept Album titled Animals, and confronting class politics, this begins the continuing metaphor of the album of human types as animals.

First up are humans as those shaggy, friendly best friends of humanity, “Dogs[ref]Since this is a metaphor, it has nothing to do with any old Disney film.[/ref].”

Writing about 17-plus minute long songs can be challenging. In the past, I’ve gone deep into the weeds to write about such songs, using hundreds of words to comment on parts played and sung by all the members of the band. For “Dogs,” two words may be sufficient: David Gilmour.

He opens the song, which he wrote with bassist Roger Waters, strumming difficult chords on acoustic guitar and singing a cynical take on how to succeed in the modern world. The lyrics are quite bitter in that fist-raising, indignant, beautiful way that young idealists have – and that old fogies like me tend to dismiss as “immature” and “out of touch with the real world,” mainly because we realize we had a chance to make a difference and that chance passed us by. Lines like “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to / So that when they turn their backs on you / You’ll get the chance to put the knife in” leave little doubt about young Gilmour’s perspective.

These lines also lead in, about 1:48, to the first of his many brilliant guitar solos in this song. I love listening to the song, a slight difference from merely loving the song, to hear where Gilmour takes me – his solos seem to carry the listener along. They’re filled with great sounds and subtle intricacies, movement and emotion. Often times on this album I think of the band as merely platform onto which the lyrics and Gilmour’s guitar have been placed for careful consideration. The next solo is truly epic: beginning at 3:40, the song takes a turn to a commanding, pomp-filled tone, and Gilmour plays a double-tracked solo, with added touches layered underneath (listen closely from 4:30 to 4:45), that swirls into the type of section heard in many Pink Floyd songs, and of which, frankly, I could do with less.

I’ve barely ever used any marijuana in my life, so I may be way off base, but I associate these moody, open spaces in Floyd songs, oftentimes containing non musical, natural sounds (in this case dogs barking), with stoned teenagers exploring their minds while keyboardist Rick Wright holds a note for several minutes, and Gilmour gently strums the same two chords repeatedly. Of course, as boring as they can be, these long interludes do provide the framework for such wonderful beauties as Gilmour’s next solo, at about 5:32. I love this entire solo, especially the sort of “laughing” notes, around 6:20. Roger Waters’s bass during this solo is actually pretty cool (Gilmour himself has mocked Waters’s bass-playing ability), with nice, bouncy chords.

The song could easily end at about eight minutes, just after the really cool chicken-scratch guitar Gilmour plays during the vocals at 7:30, but this being Floyd, there are about 9 minutes left. And they’re a terrific nine minutes. And of course, this being Floyd, before we get to the terrific part, bongs gurgle everywhere as we sit through three-and-a-half minutes of Gilmour’s voice echoing while Wright holds a few notes, drummer Nick Mason taps a cymbal and those damned dogs bark some more[ref]I should point out, however, that this interlude, during Wright’s swirly synth noodling, is the point at which, when he was in third grade, my son exclaimed “I love this song!!” when I played it for him as background music while he did a bit of homework. So there’s that.[/ref]. At 11:40, Waters takes over the vocals, and the song becomes his – sort of a jaunty melody. Although Gilmour is probably the better pure singer, I sort of like Waters’s voice better. It has more of an edge, a sneer.

But holy shit, if Gilmour’s guitar doesn’t take over and steal back the glory!! The solo beginning at about 13:27 is his fourth of the song, and each one has been different and spectacular. This one is a trip up and down the neck, until it falls into a sort of Galaga insect-esque descent at 13:55. The finale (because such an impressive song requires a finale!) starts about 14:10, with more soloing and finally Waters putting the finishing touches on the song, singing a list of characteristics of the everyman in the song – the dog? The victim of the dog? both? – and Mason shows off his drumming chops.

Besides the fact that Dr. Dave introduced me to it, another reason Animals reminds me of friendship is that it’s so much a Gilmour/Waters-sounding record (despite the fact that only “Dogs” is credited to both of them, and the rest are Waters songs). I like to imagine the two friends playing and laughing together, like Dr. Dave and I would if we were Gilmour and Waters. However, this is pure fantasy. The two seem to really have a shared distaste, if not outright hostility, for one another. They’ve shared a stage once since 1981 (okay, fact-check: three times), and seem unlikely to do it again. But while they were together, they sure recorded some great stuff! For example, “Pigs (Three Different Ones).”

In this song, we meet three humans of the “Pig” variety, those at the top of the Social Ladder, according to Mr. Waters. This song is carried by Waters’s vocal performance; sneering, growling, falsetto, talking … Waters uses several techniques effectively throughout. The fretless bass on this song is tremendous, starting right at about 0:10, and I thought I’d be complimenting Waters for it; however, it was Mr. Gilmour who took over bass duties for this song, and he nailed it. This is a good song for paying attention to the stuff going on in the background. For example, the guitar is really cool-sounding and echo-y during the verses, and Nick Mason breaks out the cowbell just before 2:00. There’s nice piano work (actual piano, not synthesizer) around there, as well, and nifty little guitar doodles, too.

The lyrics are quite harsh, once again full of righteous indignation at the powerful class. And as someone who grew up far, far from power and wealth, it feels good to hear Waters spew these lines, I must say. And one little tidbit that many Americans may not realize: the “Whitehouse” in the third verse IS NOT the U.S. presidency! It’s in fact a woman named Mary Whitehouse who was a moralistic crusader against sex and violence in 1970s Britain.

As you may expect, I’ll again fawn over Gilmour’s guitar playing in this song. Even during the repetitive, extended “bong section” of this song, from about 4:00 to 8:00, he does some little string bends on his chords that lift up the playing. Then comes a “talk box” solo, at 5:10, that brilliantly mimics a wah-wah trumpet. The mid-to-late 70s were huge for the Talk Box. Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Rufus … it was everywhere, and it’s interesting to see an “artsy” band like Pink Floyd use it. The song does sag a bit during this part (although be sure to listen to that bass during it!!), and this 11 minute song likely could have been five minutes. But they finish with a flourish, ramping up the energy on a final solo and an almost-disco bass line!

The last of the animal types we’ll meet are those from the big herd, the massive group of folks who aren’t the dangerous dogs or the gluttonous pigs. The you and the me, even if we’d rather not admit it: “Sheep.”

This song, both lyrically and sonically, is actually quite uplifting. Sonically, it has a driving urgency and a satisfying guitar ending that sounds like release. Lyrically, although the sheep at first seem meek and hopeless, they do set upon the dogs and defeat them in the end. The Rick Wright electric piano at the beginning sounds a little too Al Jarreau for my liking, but it ends soon enough, with a growing bass that signals more of Waters’s sneering voice. And sure, at this point in my post I should just say “Gilmour, Gilmour, Gilmour.” But I mean, come on. The stuff he does from 2:26 to about 2:50 is just insanely good. And he does stuff like that throughout the whole song (3:30 – 3:50, for example)!

It builds to a near frenzy by about 4 minutes, but then … spark one up. We’ve got another 3 minutes of mellow to enjoy the drugs’ effects. After swirling synths and burbling bass, there’s a distorted 23rd Psalm to occupy your mind. The song builds to a very effective guitar fanfare at about 8:07 to signal the death of the dogs and the sheep’s success. On an album with three very long songs, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but the guitar in Sheep may place it atop that list.

To end the album, we again revisit those dreaded flying pigs, in “Pigs on the Wing 2.”

Same song[ref]Interestingly (to me), to take advantage of peculiarities of 8-Track Tape players of the 70s, the two songs were joined into one by way of a guitar solo by the band’s touring guitarist/bassist, Snowy White. This allowed the final song on the album to blend into the first as the tape started from the beginning. This version only appeared on 8-Track Tapes.[/ref], slightly different words, a recapitulation of the original point: it’s good to have someone else to help you avoid the pigs’ shit (and the dogs’ teeth, for that matter). That’s the point of friends in a nutshell right there, isn’t it?

So thanks, Dr. Dave. And Julia, of course. And Dan and Josh and Rick. And Josh S. and Adam and Ximena. And Mitch and Kim and Ed and Tiger and … holy cow! Weird, I’ve always felt like it’s been one buddy, one friend, for me. But when you start to actually name them and count them up, it turns out I’ve been lucky to have more buddies than I can really even comfortably list! Thanks to all of you, named and un-named!! Because of you, I’ve never worried very much about those flying pigs.

Track Listing
“Pigs On The Wing 1”
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“Pigs On The Wing 2”


67th Favorite: Skylarking, by XTC


Skylarking. XTC.
1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.

skylarking album

67nutIN 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.) beatlesque 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-esque[ref]A search of ‘Rolling Stone-esque, without the pluralizing ‘s,’ returned only 1,950, but I went with the plural version to avoid confusion with comparisons made to the magazine.[/ref],” 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 becheaptrick 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?”

beatlesI’ve listened to my readers, and both of them[ref]Hi, mom and dad![/ref] 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.

adeleWhen 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 1970[ref]Which, in fact, was about 8 months after John Lennon told the others he was leaving the band.[/ref] 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 career[ref]Even though it was really closer to 7 years.[/ref]. 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 albums[ref]Various record companies released different versions of these albums in different markets, pushing the total number of records released in those 8 years to a staggering 24.[/ref] 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 beatles1combined 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 unique[ref]One of the reasons people criticize Beatle-fandom such as mine is because they find the band is always being credited with “being first” when they were really one of many. I recognize this – I’m sure they weren’t the first to do all the Beatle-esque things they did. However, for many reasons, they became the most-remembered and my favorite. I welcome anyone annoyed by the Beatles Were First tone of this post to go write their own about Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.[/ref] 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 mosquitoesFreddie 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 Munsters[ref]Causing Grandpa Munster to blow cigar smoke out his ears! In a positive way.[/ref]. 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 boybandsfrom 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 opportunity[ref]Especially if the opportunity was somewhat inappropriate![/ref] arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands[ref]Who used to play/hold instruments, but eventually just gave up that charade, but are now doing it again (i.e. 5SOS).[/ref] – 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 Park[ref]A show that Paul, a guy I used to work with, had attended. He even brought in the ticket stub to prove it![/ref] and continued peppersmoving 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 Forever[ref]My favorite song since about fourth grade.[/ref],” 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 Beatlessatanic 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 Orchestra[ref]Who John Lennon called “Sons of The Beatles.”[/ref], 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.

letitbeFinally, 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 not[ref]Please click this hyperlink. I’m begging you.[/ref]. 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 it[ref]Assuming you’re still awake.[/ref] – “Beatle-esque.”

As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, wmmrI’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 routinely[ref]Maybe not as much as “Jessie’s Girl” or “I Ran,” but still pretty often.[/ref]. 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 O and Lwhat 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 xtc_1related 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 mouldingjust 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 outdoors[ref]Although, the term “teacher’s pet” is a little strange, as it implies an inappropriate nature to the hijinks, and the phrase “you are helpless now” is also a bit weird … maybe I shouldn’t look too closely at lyrical content from records I love now that I’m a parent of a daughter … But then again, I think all young couples have played this faux-struggle-as-foreplay game with complete consent.[/ref]. 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.

Another Colin song, “The Meeting Place,” follows, and it’s sort of the enantiomer[ref]This is a ‘mirror image’ in chemistry. I have to use this knowledge somewhere.[/ref] of “Grass.”

This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a meetingplace 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. xtc membersHe’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics[ref]Actually, come to think of it, he’s kind of John Lennon-esque![/ref]. 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. xtc_4At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement[ref]Almost lifted directly from the end of “Glass Onion“![/ref] 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 quickly[ref]A rejection he’ll make even more strongly in a few songs.[/ref] 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. xtc_3Whereas 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.xtc_1Big 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 thoughdear god 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.

Track Listing
“Summer’s Cauldron”
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“1000 Umbrellas”
“Season Cycle”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“Big Day”
“Another Satellite”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”
“Dear God”
“Sacrificial Bonfire”