XTC’s Skylarking very well may be one of the greatest albums of all time. Criminally underrated in both contemporary and current times, the 1986 epic song cycle has found its fair share of critical adulation and reinvigorated interest over the years, but it still very rarely gets cited as a major influence or appears on the ‘All Time Best’ lists. That’s a shame because there are few listening experiences as sublime as Skylarking.
Buzzing to life with the indelible ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, Skylarking ebbs and flows in and out of its tracks with a meandering spirit that nonetheless feels direct, purposeful, and passionate, like a romantic rendezvous on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As songs like ‘Grass’, ‘Ballet for a Rainy Day’ and ‘Earn Enough for Us’ overflow with sound effects and harmonies, you really do get the sense that you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and into another world. The album owes as much to its pastoral imagery as it does to its buoyant rhythms and delightfully folky instrumentation to create a thoroughly expansive and intricately detailed alternate universe, one where even bad weather, ominous thoughts, and heavy doubts create a joyous technicolour world that is just waiting to get lost in.
Creating that world, as it turned out, was a laborious and notoriously difficult process, owing largely to the conflicts between XTC leader Andy Partridge and producer/musician extraordinaire Todd Rundgren. The pairing was fraught from the get-go: Partridge had established himself as a producer for artists like Peter Blegvad and requested that the members of XTC produce their next recordings themselves. Their record company, Virgin, refused, citing the band’s low album sales and decided to stop touring in 1984 as signs that the band needed outside direction. To Virgin, the band were “too English”, a curious descriptor considering that much of XTC’s reputation was built on personifying the anxieties, banalities, and eccentricities of Britannia. The record company provided a list of producers, all American, from which the group could choose, and the only name they recognised was Todd Rundgren.
Rundgren, it seemed, would be an ideal compromise between the band and its label. Rundgren was a fan of XTC, had seen them live before they became a studio exclusive band, and saw them as a thoroughly creative outfit that didn’t require what he called “songcraft agitation”. Guitarist David Gregory was a fan of Rundgren’s music and managed to convert bassist/songwriter Colin Moulding. Partridge was a fan of Rundgren’s production work on the New York Dolls debut album. To Virgin, Rundgren was a financially affordable sound mind who could wrangle Partridge’s more experimental tendencies. It seemed like a win-win for everyone involved.
That would, however, be far from the truth. Rundgren spearheaded the album’s concept and visualised the final product just from the band’s demos, rankling Partridge, who felt that the producer was heavy-handedly trying to create the band’s material for them. According to Moulding, Rundgren chose the songs that were to be featured and favoured a number of Moulding’s compositions, further aggravating primary songwriter Partridge. Moulding would end up with five of his songs on the album, two of which would be chosen as the album’s first two singles.
The conflicts between Rundgren and Partridge were extensive, covering everything from compositional elements to album sequencing to sleeve design, and the manifestations of these disputes would range from the hilariously juvenile, like when the band would play The Munsters theme upon Rundgren’s arrival to the studio, to the verbally vitriolic. Rundgren would flesh out string arrangements and suggest instrumental changes that, when Partridge disagreed, led to shouting matches and sarcastic sparring. Partridge characterised Rundgren as patronising, belittling, and impatient, while Rundgren viewed Partridge as indulgent, indecisive, and perfectionist. To Gregory, the two were “chalk and cheese”: two parties so insoluble that they would negatively effect everything, and everyone, around them (neither Gregory nor Moulding reportedly had any conflicts with Rundgren and were allegedly growing tired of Partridge’s controlling tendencies).
The tepid public reception of Skylarking did nothing to diminish any of the ill feelings felt by either party. In the UK, the album only spent a single week on the album charts, peaking at number 90. Neither one of its singles, ‘Grass’ nor ‘The Meeting Place’, could get past number 100 on the singles chart. In the US, the album didn’t take off until ‘Dear God’, a track excised from the album and featured as the B-side of the ‘Grass’ single, began to see increased play on college radio. A new rushed version of the album featuring ‘Dear God’ was released, but both the original and the new version sounded flat and thin, a problem Partridge attributed to Rundgren’s studio equipment and final mix. Eventually, it was discovered that a polarity issue was to blame, something that wouldn’t have been evident to either Rundgren or Partridge until after the album’s completion.
Despite the issues, Skylarking would be a formidable release, matching or surpassing just about any contemporary album in terms of ambition, composition, and endless replay ability. Though they went to war during its recording, surely the final result would find its two dissenting leaders admitting that it was all worth the stress and strain, right?
Eventually, Partridge had to admit that the squabbling with Rundgren hadn’t diminished, or perhaps even had a strong part in creating, a fantastic record. “[Skylarking was] Not an easy album to make for various ego reasons but time has humbled me into admitting that Todd conjured up some of the most magical production and arranging conceivable. A summer’s day cooked into one cake. Still, the ultimately warm reception of Skylarking doesn’t appear to have put a cap on the beef, with Rundgren calling Partridge a “brat”, a “prick”, and a “pussy” on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2016. Love can come and love can go, as Partridge might say, but there doesn’t appear to be any love lost between the two.
Even with the feud creating great copy and delicious gossip, the antagonism ultimately takes a back seat to the glory of getting lost in Skylarking. The overwhelming feeling on the album is not one of distress, friction, or discord, but instead of immense creativity and exponential possibilities. It’s a record that is filled to the brim with happiness, positivity, and optimism. Partridge and Rundgren might have been diametrically opposed in personality, work style, and vision, but Skylarking ultimately found two geniuses combining their powers for a truly transcendent musical experience, oftentimes despite one another.