It could be easy to call the Dukes of Stratosphear an indulgent side-project that privileges derivation over innovation, but it’s not.
It was a lark, all paisley and frills. In the words of Andy Partridge, “The Dukes were the band we all wanted to be in when we were at school: purple, giggling, fuzztone, liquid and arriving.” After a hasty retreat from live shows and touring in 1982, the boys of XTC hunkered down, trading in rock ‘n’ roll stardom for a life of hermetic songsmithing. The pastoral reverie and gritty coal-town anthems that resulted, were exhilarating and finely crafted, but poor sales continued to strain label relations.
It’s baffling, then, that Partridge and producer John Leckie were able to successfully pitch to Virgin an EP of ‘60s psych-inspired tunes under the pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear—but thank God they did. While sales had been steady in the US, that EP, 25 O’Clock sold twice as many copies as its predecessor The Big Express, and the second and final release as the Dukes, Psonic Psunspots, outsold flagship record Skylarking as well. In 1987 Virgin compiled the two albums under the title Chips from the Chocolate Fireball and released it as a CD, capitalizing on the exploding format. Those good numbers were merely a happy accident for labors of love that feature Moulding and Partridge’s most exuberant writing.
A handful of these songs were a twinkle in Partridge’s eye as early as 1978 but the band was too tied up in New Wave posturing to flesh them out. Besides, the nostalgia cycle wouldn’t come to favor such indulgences until the fortuitous moment of the mid ‘80s that occasioned the Duke’s formation.
But to call these songs parody or mere homage would be reductive. Rather, they sound like a massive party where all of the band’s psychedelic heroes were invited—not just John, Paul, George and Ringo but Syd Barrett and Small Faces, the Hollies and Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and the Electric Prunes. “25 O’Clock,” with its pulsing bass line, effects-laden guitar solo, and Partidge’s sneering vocals, sounds like a buried garage-rock classic and the childish wonder of “Bike Ride to the Moon” coupled with its plinking hook is simply sublime. “What in the World??,” Colin Moulding’s sole contribution to the EP, is a swirl of Beatlesesque backmasking while “Your Gold Dress” picks up its droning tack before breaking into an hilarious, inexplicable music-hall chorus.
If the production on 25 O’Clock is a bit rough around the edges—some songs isolate tracks in left, center and right channels for an abrasive if authentic effect—Psonic Psunspot has a more meticulous sheen. From the very first notes of that doleful guitar line on “Vanishing Girl,” the record blooms in warmth and brilliance. No matter how silly things get, from the bumbling beer-hall foolishness of “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown” to Partridge’s smarmy Paul McCartney impression on “Brainiac’s Daughter,” you can hear in myriad divine details how much the band doted on these songs. Even the surreal interstitial skits narrated by the young Lily Fraser get their fair share of attention and make the record feel like the soundtrack to a long-forgotten Alice in Wonderland-esque tale—a precedent later followed by the ragamuffin Elephant 6 gang with its Dadaist symphony-cum-storybook Major Organ and the Adding Machine.
It’s easy to call the Dukes of Stratosphear an indulgent side-project that privileges derivation over innovation. But the stylistic abundance found on these two releases filtered directly into XTC’s main recordings. In an interview from 1989, Partridge expressed concern that fans “preferred these pretend personalities to our own personalities…[maybe] they’re trying to tell us something. But I don’t mind because we have turned into the Dukes slowly over the years…there won’t be any more Dukes records, we’ll just be the Dukes, we’ll come to an agreement.” Indeed, its next album, Oranges and Lemons, would distill these psychedelic inclinations and would go on to be one of its most successful albums to date. Of course, whether or not listeners found this material to be overly precious mattered little to the band; as Partridge said in that same interview: “The ones that like us – they’re what friends are. I’m more worried about keeping the friends.”