Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shake it like you just don't care

I spent a lovely afternoon walking home from the office listening to The Dukes of Stratosphear's 1987 CD Chips From The Chocolate Fireball.  This album combines the band's two releases, the EP 25 O'Clock and the album Psonic Psunspot, both pastiches of psychedelic rock in the style of, say, the Zombies or Jefferson Airplane, and both actually the work of the British new wave rock band XTC.

I don't know what XTC fans generally think of these records, but for my money, they're the best thing XTC has ever done.  They are funny, inventive, catchy, and utterly lack self-importance, which, when XTC isn't so hot, is often the way they are not so hot.  They employ all the familiar tricks and tropes of the era, including phased and modulated vocals, thick harmonies, combo organs, fake Indian chord progressions, acid-trip lyrics, hard panning of instruments, tape hiss, backwards guitar solos, and copious amounts of echo.  Indeed, they court cliché, they toe the line so hard.

So why do they sound so inalienably like everything that is great about XTC?  In part it's because this kind of music inspired the band in the first place.  But mostly, I think, it's that this music was freeing for them--under a false name, and under the sway of artificial constraints, they didn't have to worry about making an XTC record.  They just had to worry about having a good time.

When I think about which of my novels and stories and other things I like the best, and I try to remember what it was like to write them (as I often do when I don't like what I'm writing), I generally come to the conclusion that, at the time, I didn't care how it came out, and I assumed it would never be published.  Mailman is a good example--it's my favorite of my books, and the whole time I was writing it I kept thinking, "Nobody is ever going to publish this thing.  So why not write whatever the hell I want?"

Of course I was lying to myself, even then.  Secretly, I very badly wanted those things to be published.  But I somehow managed to lie to myself about lying to myself long enough to accomplish something.

It's not that I dislike the work that is the product of intense cogitation and self-conscious effort.  Indeed, I've often said, here and elsewhere, that I don't believe in--or, more to the point, don't trust--inspiration.  And the freewheeling stuff is always subject to multiple revisions, executed in a soberer mood, much later.

But I do think we're often our best selves when we forget ourselves.  Perhaps this is why genre fiction so often appeals to literary writers--or metafiction, for that matter, or pastiche, or parody.  We're such sniveling, self-pitying bastards; it's nice to step away from the mirror and be somebody else for a change.


James (Mr. 5redpandas) said...


"They are funny, inventive, catchy, and utterly lack self-importance, which, when XTC isn't so hot, is often the way they are not so hot."

You're exactly right, and XTC became the Dukes for a specific reason. They were in a prolonged dispute with their label for various reasons.

Making a 60s psychedelic pop record, under a different name, was their way of enjoying themselves again without the pressures they were facing as XTC. The fact that -25 O'Clock- outsold XTC's previous "proper" album, -The Big Express-, was a pleasant surprise (and helped their standing with Virgin Records).

JTL said...

Love, love, love this record!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that EP actually sold well!

Dylan Hicks said...

I’ve always liked those records; they may be the high-water mark of rock pastiche. Some of Frank Zappa’s doo-wop efforts are similarly and surprisingly effective, in that they employ the genre’s conventions with a too-late-to-the-party fan’s amused passion, and in the end make their knockoffs more than larkish. Perhaps it’s interesting that in both cases the pastiche is drawn from styles that were exceptionally playful (as well as often transcendent) to begin with. (“Their Satanic Majesties Request” is probably better mock-pyschedelia than the Dukes, but, however insincere, it’s also the real thing.) I guess it’s difficult in this context to distinguish a pastiche from some other heavily indebted music. We think of pastiche as either being a blend of borrowed styles or an exercise in a specific style from which the creator has some chronological, cultural, emotional, or other distance. But this would apply, in part, to a great country-rock record like the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” or to “Licensed to Ill,” and on and on. Maybe it’s only pastiche when the inspiring style or styles are somewhat limited and more than less dead.

I’m sure it’s true that those Dukes records (which on the whole I by no means prefer to bona fide XTC’s often moving, joy-brimming, and, yes, sometimes embarrassing records) are successful in part because the band wasn’t self-consciously trying to make a serious work of original art, though since the band’s style changed considerably over the first decade, it may be that even they didn’t quite know what an XTC record was. A lot of their more in earnest music sound in part like exercises, as you suggest. They’re an odd case, in that on one hand they’re an art-rock group that often concedes to make the sort of brilliant pop records Paul McCartney hasn’t consistently made since about the time XTC emerged (Paul isn’t dead; he’s Andy Partridge), and on the other hand they’re a brilliant pop group that often insists on making art rock. If you haven’t listened to them for a while, I’d recommend the late-’90s album “Apple Venus,” some of the most beautiful music of their career, typically painstaking but also, it seems, relaxed in a late-career, declining audience way.

Sorry to trail on.

Anonymous said...

Superb comments, Dylan, thanks a lot. I do like "Apple Venus" very much, especially the song about the shed. And I should add that I don't dislike XTC's proper records in the least--especially Black Sea and English Settlement.

Dylan Hicks said...

"Black Sea" is definitely in my top three. As it happens, I'd love to trick myself into reaching that unselfconscious, unconcerned, independent place you recall from writing "Mailman." My current problem is something like that state's opposite: that, while waiting for word on book-length manuscript, I have decreasing confidence in the publishing prospects of any ambitious project, and am thus scarcely motivated to start such a project. But next week, I can just tell, things will kick in.