Dukes of Stratosphear

The Dukes of Stratosphear
Chips From the Chocolate Fireball - An Anthology
(Geffen 24169)

Though not credited as such, Chips From the Chocolate Fireball is by far the best XTC album you can get, a pseudonymic excursion into psychedelic rock that simultaneously pays homage to and mocks XTC's British acid-pop infulences. The best thing about the disc is that, given the genre constraints, Andy Partridge actually manages to focus his songwriting, so you get no ickiness like "Omnibus" or some of those long, winding go-nowhere tunes that pepper the XTC catalog. Similarly, Colin Moulding delivers some of his best songs, including "What in the World" and my nomination for all-time best XTC song, "Vanishing Girl." That's about as fresh as pop gets, tightly written, great chords, hummable harmonies and one of the most tuneful arrangements ever---even the drum part seems melodic. The CD compiles two releases, 25 O'Clock and Psonic Psunspot, representing one of the weirder corners of XTC's career, but in my opinion the most rewarding. I'd much rather listen to this disc than Skylarking, for example, or for that matter, any album in the Pink Floyd collection.

Originally the Dukes material was released with no apparent connection to XTC, unless you could decode the production credit "John Leckie and the Dukes." Certainly, songs credited to "Sir John Johns" and "The Red Curtain" only add to the marvelous mystery of it all, helping to make this one of rock music's best in-jokes. I would be curious to see if anyone ever bought the records and just took it at face value that this was "neglected" 60's psych-pop. The CD is even packaged like a Rhino compilation, replete with supposed period photographs and all manner of "tripped out" imagery. The cool thing is, unlike Spinal Tap or The Rutles (probably the closest kin to the Dukes), this isn't comedy as such, full of humor though it is. The music is terrifically inspired, obviously the sort of knockoff writing that Andy and Colin themselves probably discredited as being "too easy" but which the likes of me find eminently enjoyable. Certainly a lot of it is so funny it must have been hard to keep a straight face while recording it ("Have You Seen Jackie," "You're a Good Man, Albert Brown"), but a lot of it is pretty damn beautiful too ("Pale and Precious," which was Brian Wilson-esque about ten years before it was cool).

Great pop abounds amid the Alice in Wonderland sketches and reverby freak outs – "Braniac's Daughter" is another one I would put in my top 5 XTC songs, sort of a "Penny Lane" for people with a brain. "Collideascope" is about as good a fake-Lennon song as I've heard, frighteningly accurate without being overly joke-conscious. The sonic weirdness throughout the disc prevents it from being too simple or obvious, but the immaculateness of the whole endeavor is amazing – no detail has been half-assed.

"25 O'Clock" opens the disc, a menacing yet hilarious song that reduced psych-garage rock to tears of laughter. They Might Be Giants covered this one on the XTC tribute album that came out a few years back, though somehow they missed the essential humor of the song – blame Flansburgh, as usual. The sugar quotient is elevated to diabetic levels by "Bike Ride to the Moon" ("Now I shant be pedalling any higher/'Cause the sharp Sputnik has given me a cosmic flat tire") and "My Love Explodes," which nails the psych-rock obsession with "Eastern" sounding guitar lines and gongs. Most of the songs don't sound overly "XTC" as such, the sense of pure fun being the primary characteristic. And weirdly, the songs by and large sound less plastic than the typical XTC pop offerings, even though they are intentionally parodic in nature. Listening to the disc makes me wish that they would do more stuff like this – apparently Andy Partridge was at work at a bubblegum album several years back, which got canned when the band was having label difficulties. My bet would be that it would have been another great alter-ego success, but there's no sense crying over popped b-gum.

This was one of my favorite albums in high school, and unlike, say, The Best of the Doobie Brothers, which also would rank in that list, I can listen to the Dukes of Stratosphear album with virtually the same satisfaction today. And now that more than a decade has passed since its release, we can see this music as neglected after all. It's everyone's loss that music critics never take "side projects" seriously, because they're often the most interesting albums. When an artist stops acting like an artist and starts having fun, that's infectious. And I make no bones about the fact that my favorite Bob Dylan moments are on the Traveling Wilburys albums.

Review by Piney Scott