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Monday, 26 June
Are You Receiving Me?

I'm always fucking grousing about something, aren't I? Let's see if I can write something nice without it being corny or anything. ("Corny"? Hi, I'm Holden Caulfield.)

In 1987 or '88 or so, a high school friend of mine landed some sort of scutty work-study gig at KORT, the lone radio station in my hometown. (He would later go on to do DJ work there on weekends, which was swell for me, as I would hang out with him for hours at the studio, where I diligently screwed BIG MUSIC by taping hundreds of their terrible albums.) Periodically, as some sort of lame perk, KORT would offer their employees a number of the albums--yes, vinyl--that they'd receive from the studios, but that KORT clearly had no intention of ever playing.

One day I was at my friend's house, just hanging out, and he brought out one of these albums and offered it to me. "Do you want this?" he said. "It sucks." A ringing endorsement! He handed it to me--I had never heard of the band, much less this strange, meadow-green-jacketed album. It was called Skylarking by some people--or robots, or sentient foxgloves, for all I knew--called XTC.

You have to understand here--I was growing up in Grangeville, Idaho. My only real sources of music were my parents' collection of '60s and '70s rock--and don't get me wrong, thank God for those albums--and, well, KORT, for whom a real act of radio bravery was to air the likes of Ratt, which I knew the station would never play on Sunday, thanks to my friend. As far as KORT was concerned, most of rock music could call it quits with the arrival of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and for the grandmas who querulously mewled for a little classical every now and then, they could always point to the fact that every now and then they played "Chariots of Fire." Probably on Sunday.

So there were--and still are--some fairly massive gaps in my musical education.

I took the thing home without any real expectations. I mean, here was a hopeless album rejected from my radio station as well as my dismissive friend. But I had nothing else to do, so I listened to it at home in my room.

Mother Mary of God, what was this? I don't mean to say that it sounded like transmissions from the Planet of Screaming Dogs or anything outlandish, but . . . what was this? And how could my friend declare flatly that it sucked? If there was anything that Skylarking didn't do was suck. It had--okay, pretty broadly obvious--drug references, comic book characters, and a serious amount of fun with words ("um-bi-lie-cal"?). It also had some fairly strange sonic entries, such as the bizarrely pompous and strangely Autumnal "Sacrificial Bonfire" and the track I instantly fell in love with, the delay-soaked "Another Satellite." It even had a big fuck-you to God that some of you might be familiar with.

I listened to the hell out of that record. I wore that record out. And I got mad. Why the fuck would anyone--let alone a radio station--not play this record? It upset me a lot. And I wasn't even about to go to bat for some of the songs--not being much of a fan of the genre, I can live without the jazz-inflected "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," and to be honest, I can't at this moment even remember what "Dying" is like. But the rest! How could anyone not want to listen to the relentlessly hooky "That's Really Super, Supergirl"? Look, I'm not trying to hand you a big "THIS CHANGED MY LIFE" thing . . . unless maybe I am. In some small, very personal way . . . fuck it, sure, I guess it did.

After a while, I tentatively started reaching out. I noticed the name "Todd Rundgren" as the producer, and dimly recalled the name from . . . somewhere. Rolling Stone, I'm guessing. So I bought Something/Anything, and while it didn't strike me as forcefully as Skylarking, I was intrigued. This guy is clearly a fucking madman, I thought. (Later I read about the legendarily tumultuous studio sessions that led to Skylarking and my suspicions were confirmed.) I bought a puzzling little double-cassette from XTC called Waxworks/Beeswax, which I was astonished to learn was a collection of their previous singles and B-sides. Astonished because look at all these fucking songs! These guys had been around forever! Who the fuck knew? I practically leaped around my room in joy and befuddlement as the songs unspooled in my stereo, from those spiky, yelping older songs like "This Is Pop" and "Life Begins at the Hop" to some of the later songs that hinted at things to come, like "Making Plans for Nigel." What in the fuck was wrong with the world? Why wouldn't anyone play these songs?

It's still pretty embarrassing that it took me a number of years to figure out that nobody in the rural Pacific Northwest was interested in this stuff in the slightest. My big beef was that KORT was failing to provide the content that the consumer demanded. My big failure in this line of reasoning was, in classic teenage fashion, my inability to recognize that a consumer base of one is always going to lose. (Not that I was likely the only person who was tired of hearing "On the Dark Side." I just didn't have the guts to tell anyone else that the song ate dick, and I had something better to listen to.)

Skylarking, I know this now, led to me branching out, however tentatively at first, but then with increasing boldness--and, typically, with some seriously horrible and misguided results. I hate to lay this at the feet of XTC, but they are in fact directly responsible for how I came to seek out and embrace such a dog's breakfast of bands: to get an idea of how out of my depth I was, let me list some resultant bands that I sought out in my new, fevered quest for things I'd not heard of: Love and Rockets (two albums of YAY! and then Oh, Boy); Frank Zappa (I managed to choose possibly his least-loved entry Jazz From Hell); Big Audio Dynamite (they didn't always suck!); Sigue Sigue Sputnik (which you at least have to admit is a screamingly awesome cultural document--this is the 1980s distilled into its purest form).

This of course also led to other horrible missteps. Whither Clan of Xymox? Whence 808 State? What the fuck, Flesh for Lulu? Should I lay this all at the feet of poor Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding?

I fear I must. But I do so with thanks.

What's with all this? Well, see, my 37th birthday was this last Saturday, and to my delight, the wife purchased for me, among other things, this XTC box set called Coat of Many Cupboards, one of those dealies which collects old album singles, home demos, band demos and versions of songs played while encased in cobalt and all that. I was looking over the thing fondly, and I recalled that fateful moment when my friend handed over Skylarking, and I remember the unalloyed joy of playing that album, over and over in my room, and trying my level best as a dipshit high school brain case trying utterly without success to get my few friends to understand why it was great, and damn it if I found myself shockingly close to tears with the memory. The memory of the frustration, of feeling I'd connected with something, and as far as anyone else was concerned, I was making mysterious semaphores from an ugly boat nobody wanted to get near.

So there you go. An old, old story: the adolescent disconnect. It might as well be a story about a car, or about my first at-bat in baseball, or about sexual confusion. But that's the best thing about rock music--or, fuck that--any music. It's about all of it. None of Skylarking is about any of that, really--the best thing about Skylarking is that it's about me, as far as I'm concerned. Skylarking tells me my own story, and if I may be selfish like all of us must be sometimes, I can never hear it enough.

I tried to think of an elegant way to get this last bit in, but damn it all if I can't. You know what the hell of it is? English Settlement really is better than Skylarking. But there is also truth to the old saying: You never forget the first time you fall in love.


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Comments

Maybe English Settlement is better, but don't fool yourself, despite a few duds, Skylarking is a great album.

It didn't contain the same revalations for me since at the same time you were in Idaho, I was in Seattle, where we were lucky enough to have THREE radio stations that played "my kind" of music. But when I bought Skylarking, I spent a couple of days listening to it over and over. It was my first XTC album!

Nice post.

Comment number: 007698   Posted by: jamy on June 27, 2006 10:32 AM from IP: 170.97.67.116

Actually, the best XTC work is that which they recorded under the name Dukes of Stratosphere, but why quibble? Skylarking is perfect pop, which is, of course, why the pop market had no use for it.

Having grown up in Montana, it's something of a wonder I heard any good music at all; as such, some relatively "popular" albums managed to have the same ground-breaking impact for me that Skylarking had for you (R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant comes to mind, or anything by Talking Heads or U2). I discovered XTC at about that same time, but I didn't develop a real love for them 'til later. In the interim, I followed the trajectory of alternative, industrial and synth pop back through punk, No Wave and all that chewy goodness.

See, now you've got me all nostalgic.

Comment number: 007699   Posted by: thelyamhound on June 27, 2006 02:37 PM from IP: 216.163.67.5

Yay.

Comment number: 007700   Posted by: redfox on June 27, 2006 03:33 PM from IP: 68.73.164.242

I was lucky enough to have a cool sister from whom I pilfered Drums & Mires and Black Sea at a very impressionable age.

This is a great post, Skooter. Much better than all that cursing you do so frequently.

Comment number: 007706   Posted by: kaf on June 28, 2006 03:01 PM from IP: 64.124.80.162

Through absolutely no fault of yours rather than mentioning the album at the end, you have given me a "Senses Working Overtime" earworm. ~Fuck you.~

Comment number: 007708   Posted by: norm on June 29, 2006 02:08 PM from IP: 69.2.236.122

Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. Oddly enough, although by 1987 I was well steeped in Talking Heads and REM and The Cure and blahblahblah, this is roughly the way I felt first listening to Skylarking... a dawning sense that this was something thoroughly new (to me), and possibly timeless.

And happy birthday!

Comment number: 007709   Posted by: Elsa on June 29, 2006 03:11 PM from IP: 165.121.128.183

I played Oranges & Lemons so much I ruined the cassette .... King for a Day is the greatest song ever

Comment number: 007765   Posted by: Chunky on July 12, 2006 01:21 PM from IP: 65.213.147.254

I can't hear anything from "Skylarking" without being transported directly back to the summer of '87. I listened to almost nothing else, frequently very loudly in headphones while tripping on beer. I love that album, maybe even more than "English Settlement" (which was the soundtrack of my summer of '83). Doesn't it piss you off when you find out you haven't been listening to good stuff for so long?

Comment number: 007789   Posted by: sgazzetti on July 19, 2006 05:43 AM from IP: 193.77.154.206

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