In late 1966, just after they quit touring to devote themselves full time to making music, the Beatles began work on a new album. That album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, would not only go down in history as one of the most important albums in rock, but it also marks the most famous instance of a band adopting a pseudonym or alter ego under which to create music. In the Beatles’ case, taking on the Sgt. Pepper moniker provided the band with a concept for their album and allowed them new freedom to experiment, but countless other artists, like Green Day posing as the Foxboro Hot Tubs or Paul McCartney disguising himself as the Fireman, have donned similar masks for a variety of reasons.
By the early-to-mid 1980s, British new wave band XTC had reached a lull in their career. Like the Beatles, they had made the transition from touring to strictly recording, but in XTC’s case it was due to singer and resident genius Andy Partridge’s intense-and-growing stage fright. And even though they were coming off a string of consistently brilliant albums, the music, too, was beginning to change and the band was searching for a new direction. It was in this environment that the Dukes of Stratosphear were born.
Coming seemingly out of nowhere, in the thick of 1985, the Dukes of Stratosphear’s 25 O’Clock EP was quite the anachronism. At a time when synthesizers, Duran Duran and hair metal ruled the day, this mini album was a kaleidoscopic burst of swirling psychedelic goodness. Over the course of six songs covering a mere 30 minutes, the Dukes worked just about every imaginable device of late 60s pop – sound effects, cryptic mumbling, backwards tape loops, sitars, fuzzed-out guitars – into a stew of day-glo, mod and trippy-hippie sunshine. It begins with the ominous sound of a ticking clock as the first song, “25 O’Clock,” slowly builds in distorted-guitar intensity, and then positively thrashes as the singer declares, “At 25 O’Clock/that’s when you’re going to be MINE.” One listen and you’ll realize it’s an impeccable homage to possibly one of the greatest songs of the original psychedelic era, the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” and the EP only gets better from there. Other highlights, on an album full of peaks, include “Bike Ride to the Moon” (think an even zanier Syd Barrett teaming up with the band Tomorrow when they were recording “My White Bicycle”), “What in the World??” (a song that absolutely begs comparison to Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525”) and “The Mole from the Ministry” (easily a lost B-side to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”). Throughout the entire effort, the music is hook-filled, rollicking, unapologetically British and radiates with such glee, it’s pretty much impossible to not succumb to its spell.
Of course, when this first came out, XTC denied any involvement. It was only over time that they not only relented, finally admitting they were indeed the Dukes, but even went on to record Psonic Psunspots, a full album of even more rainbow-flavored ’60s originals.
The Dukes of Stratosphear were, are, and probably always will be the crème de la crème of ’60s psychedelic bands who never actually existed in that decade. It’s virtually impossible to separate their music from the music of the decade they formed to pay tribute to, except in the sense that the songs they created are such perfect pastiches of sounds so familiar, so over-the-top and flawless in execution, maybe they only could have been composed long after the passing of the bands whose altars the Dukes so obviously worshipped at. Yes, the Dukes were that good. Nobody since, and I mean nobody, has nailed the Carnaby Street-meets-Flower Power spirit quite like them, while still creating fresh, original music. Call it a tribute, call it a parody, but when Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and Dave Gregory slipped on the personas of Sir John Johns, the Red Curtain and Lord Cornelius Plum, their paisley shirts, striped trousers and Beatle boots fit so perfectly, it may as well have been the Summer of Love all over again.
While it probably felt like simply a fun side project to indulge themselves in at the time, hindsight shows that the spirit of the Dukes carried on with XTC throughout the remainder of their career. Just after releasing 25 O’Clock, XTC went on to create Skylarking, a serious album of ’60s-influenced pastoral pop that some fans consider the pinnacle of their career. And even the albums after that were tinged with psychedelia. One glance at the Yellow Submarine-inspired art on the cover of Oranges and Lemons, or a listen to its swirling opener, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Garden of Earthly Delights,” would leave little doubt of that. The Dukes, it seems, came along at just the right time to help XTC transition from its quirky new wave past to a more mature neo-psychedelic future.
If eccentric British pop with all the trappings of the psychedelic era is your cup of tea, I’m happy to announce that all of the Dukes’ releases were later compiled onto one album entitled Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. And even better, that particular album, along with several other releases by XTC proper, is available here … at your library.