The Trouble With Skylarking

XTC’s pop masterpiece turned 35 last week, but has Andy Partridge’s online behavior compromised our ability to appreciate it like we once did?

The many shades of XTC’s Skylarking (Images: Discogs)

The latest controversy surrounding Ken Stringfellow and the recently addressed allegations of abuse by several women begat a larger question regarding how one appreciates the music of an artist following such disturbing revelations about their private nature.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

“The Posies’ Frosting On The Beater is a top 10 ‘desert island’ album for me and I probably listen to it more than 90 percent of the music I own or am exposed to,” said Rock & Roll Globe contributor Jason Perri. “It also got me through a very, VERY dark time in my late teens and in some way is partially responsible for my still being here to write this. I’m grappling with how to enjoy that album (fuck, IF I can enjoy that album) while also holding space for and honoring the bravery of the women who came forward, the women who documented it, and those who are still too afraid but have been hurt. Playing it right now feels a bit like a betrayal.”

These feelings, however, extend beyond allegations of abuse. Or, rather, a whole different form of abuse, perhaps? One of the biggest drags of these polarized, politicized times is finding out one of your favorite artists is an insurrection hawk, or is on some stupid QAnon shit or–in the case of Exene Cervenka–a Sandy Hook truther. 

One of the more heartbreaking instances our faves turning heel transpired in 2019 after XTC’s Andy Partridge was caught making some fairly anti-semitic remarks in an online argument over the Middle East. If that wasn’t enough, he continued to dig his own hole by questioning the number of people who were killed during the Holocaust in another comment

So XTC’s fifth album, Skylarking, just turned 35. Produced by Todd Rundgren, Partridge–along with his partners Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory–cut through the hot neon synths of ’86 to create this pop masterpiece of Beatle-esque proportions. Listening to it again right now, it’s easy to hear the Rundgren all over these songs, especially the likes of “Season Cycle” and the jazzy “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” which sounds like it could have been an outtake off Todd’s own unsung 1981 classic Healing. “1000 Umbrellas” is a master class in chamber pop as Partridge duels with Gregory’s dour Pepperland string arrangement. “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is quintessential XTC guitar pop that foreshadows the directions the trio would take on 1989’s Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s Nonsuch.

Of course, “Dear God”–though the final cut off Skylarking–remains the LP’s centerpiece. In fact, Partridge’s recent brush-up with antisemitic sentiments no doubt echo the controversy surrounding the hit single among the Catholics and the Evangelicals for its strong atheistic allegory. In some cases, the song even inspired violent events here in the States, including a bomb threat called into a Panama City radio station in Florida for playing it on the air and a hostage situation in a Binghamton, NY high school involving a student holding a faculty member at knifepoint if the campus didn’t play “Dear God” repeatedly over the PA system. 

 

VIDEO: XTC “Dear God”

“I really felt sorry for the people who got so upset at someone expressing an opinion that might be contrary to their beliefs,” Partridge responded via an interview on MySpace years ago. “Or at who might have another take on their beliefs. How could that make them so violent, potentially?”

In a society as sensitive as Nosferatu in the Mojave Desert sun, it’s tough enough being a public atheist in this era of wired wokeness, amirite Bill Maher? But there are just some places you simply don’t go, and questioning the math in the Holocaust is a bridge too far. 

Now could I picture the Andy of ’86 talking the same stupid shit in the press back in the Skylarking days? No. But nor could I picture a then-embryonic Internet become a place where some random person could cajole Patridge into stumbling over his own dark thoughts, either.

The Ken Stringfellow situation is something for music fans like myself and Mr. Perri must reckon with, as neither of us could have ever predicted back when we had Frosting On The Beater in heavy rotation 25 years ago. It’s such a necessary reckoning going down in an industry historically infested with sexual predators. But it’s heartbreaking when you find out someone you consider a hero to be a heel in disguise.

With Andy Partridge and XTC, while the things he’s said online in recent years are revolting to me, it’s very hard to just put an album like Skylarking into cold storage. Not only does it unfairly discredit the importance of Gregory and Moulding for their key input into this pop masterpiece, it’s another case of how much the art stands on its own outside of the artist who created it.

The fact the Stringfellow story broke within days of Skylarking’s 35th anniversary is an ironic reminder of how much these people who create these records we hold close to our hearts are not always the folks we want them to be in real life. They are shitty to women, or they have stupid opinions. Many times you are dealing with cats who’ve got morbitities going at once.

Yes, Andy is a totally awful person for saying some of the stuff he’s spouted off in recent years. But I’m still gonna listen to Skylarking.

 

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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

3 thoughts on “The Trouble With Skylarking

  • November 2, 2021 at 7:36 pm
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    Didn’t know about this, so I’ve dug a little deeper. Ugh. Disgusting.

    Not a huge Partridge/XTC fan. But Skylarking is pretty great, and I like the Dukes of Stratosphear too. Not to mention, I love, love, loved the couple of songs Partridge wrote for The Monkees’ terrific 2016 album Good Times! (“You Bring the Summer” made the album proper, “Love’s What I Want” was a bonus track, but also a gem).

    It’s hard to know where to draw a line. I still like a lot of Van Morrison’s music (Especially his ealry stuff) but I haven’t listened to him since he came out as an anti-vax loon. Same for Eric Clapton (Not to mention my learning about his racist tirades in the ‘70s).

    David Bowie and Jimmy Page (And probably many more) took advantage of underage fans. Others (Such as Clarence Clemons and Dickey Betts) beat up women.

    Is it possible to still enjoy art when you learn the artist is a vile creep? Maybe. But it’s really hard. At the very least, I stop supporting them any farther. They are humans, as flawed as any of us. That means they can be real a**holes too.

    Reply
  • November 9, 2021 at 9:23 am
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    Great story, Ron. I come to RnRG to celebrate my favorite artists and discover so many others I’ve tragically overlooked despite 4 decades as an avid music fan.

    It’s an added bonus to read thoughtful takes like this, and read others’ interesting comments: “Now could I picture the Andy of ’86 talking the same stupid shit in the press back in the Skylarking days? No. But nor could I picture a then-embryonic Internet become a place where some random person could cajole Patridge into stumbling over his own dark thoughts, either.”

    I was a freshman at UCLA in 1986, a massive XTC fan and went into Warehouse Records daily that fall to buy Skylarking right when it came out (talk about pre-WWW, we had to rely on the handwritten board where record store employees would display the anticipated arrival dates of new releases!)

    I was disappointed upon first listen but soon grew to love this record. Still do (and even more after reading your insightful thoughts on the songs) and always will. I learned a lesson a few years later when I read something about Johnny Ramone supposedly being a right-wing nut (tame by today’s standards, of course) and sold all my Ramones records. Couldn’t stay away, though, and later bought ‘em back.

    Let’s celebrate diversity of thought and discussion while answering the truly dangerous comments with more speech that others new to the topic will benefit from.

    And when can I start paying for RnRG already?

    Reply
    • November 9, 2021 at 10:35 pm
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      Thank you sir!

      Reply

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