There aren’t a lot of albums that are connected to national tragedies, but XTC’s unique LP Skylarking is one of them. The story goes that when Virgin records contacted an always cantankerous producer by the name of Todd Rundgren he had just witnessed a space shuttle burst into flames and kill everyone on board. It may have put many people off their breakfast let alone taking on a project with a quirky post-pop band from rural England. However, for Rundgren, it was like a sign from on high.
The appointment of Rundgren as the band’s de facto chief (at least for the recording of the album) would set up a crucial battle as he faced off against the iconic songsmith Andy Partridge. Rundgren was formed in the creative zenith of the 1960s, employing enjoyment, freedom and a spirit of acid-fried joy that could make Frank Zappa. Partridge, on the other hand, was the leader of a band who were notoriously straight-laced and entirely convinced of their skills. While the two men undoubtedly shared some interests they would also butt heads more times than a flock of sheep on heat.
While Partridge may have been confident in the band’s output leading up to the 1986 album, everything pointed towards a downward trend and talks of Virgin’s patience running out were starting to become unavoidable. LPs Mummer and The Big Express had found little favour outside of Partridge’s own penchant for production and the band’s decision to stop touring following the singer’s off-stage issues meant things were going awry. But, with Rundgren in charge, at least in name, XTC finally had a chance to once again regain their spot at the top.
Rather than an outward explosion as the two forces met, what transpired was one of XTC’s most beloved albums. Built around Rundgren’s concept of a day playing out in time on the record, starting with ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ and ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’ lighting the dark paths at the end of the album, the LP would become a smash for all involved. However, for all the success on the grooves of the turntable, there was a charge of aggression in the studio.
Though Rundgren’s sympathised with partridge’s desire to fiddle in the studio for months and months, he refused to dilute his own process. War raged between the two mean and Partridge told his bandmates: “I’m thinking of knocking the album on the head,” one evening, clearly unable to see a way forward. “It’s like having two Hitlers in the same bunker.” But, somehow they pulled it off.
With the songwriting supplement of Colin Moulding, the LP began to take shape around Rundgren’s concept. Perhaps the finest moment on the album comes from ‘Dear God’, arguably Partridge’s finest song. “If you can create Heaven for yourself without creating Hell for somebody else, fine,” he told the fanzine Limelight of the song. “Try and create Heaven for somebody else as well, but don’t create Hell for anyone, ’cos that’s less than animal.”
The real joy of XTC’s Skylarking is not necessarily the sweet and graceful pop tunes at hand, nor is it only the conceptual structure of the record or the multiple themes and theologies explored within it. It is that they managed to pull it all off while seemingly being at each other’s throats. Like a proper rock and roll record should be.