On the surface, it made no sense at all. Their first two studio-only albums bombed. Critical reaction to Mummer and The Big Express was mixed at best; the latter album was almost entirely ignored by critics and music buyers in the United States. The recording sessions approached the chaotic and weren’t all that fun for anyone involved. XTC seemed headed straight down the road to oblivion.
So when Andy Partridge informed Virgin that the next project would attempt to revive a form of music that had been dead for over a decade and would be recorded under a different band name, management responded by limiting the budget to a mere £5,000. Given that Virgin had spent £33,000 on the video for the single “All You Pretty Girls” from The Big Express (which also bombed), it seemed that the suits were getting pretty wary about indulging in Andy’s fantasies.
Andy’s idea involved recreating and recording the psychedelic music of the 60s. Both Andy and Dave Gregory were devotees of the form; as far back as 1978 they had mused about the possibility of making a psychedelic album, even before Dave joined XTC. Andy explained to Todd Bernhardt that while they were hard at work on The Big Express, the urge to realize his dream overpowered him: “. . . during spare minutes I’d sneak off upstairs in Crescent Studios, in Bath, with my cassette machine and whisper these ideas for psychedelic songs into it. I was beginning not to be able to contain the desire to do this. You can see it leaking out earlier—you can see it leaking out on Mummer—‘Let’s get a Mellotron! Let’s put some backwards so-and-so on here.'”
Due to the limited budget and a two-week timeline, they had to hope that some good karma was headed their way. Andy managed to get top-tier producer John Leckie excited about the project and Leckie found a suitably cheap studio with 60s-era equipment while the boys scoured the music stores for period instruments. Caught up in the excitement of transforming themselves into a forgotten ’60s psychedelic band called the Dukes of Stratosphear, they dressed in Paisley and gave themselves fresh pseudonyms. Alas, they didn’t have enough time to create a full album, so the project was whittled down to a six-song mini-album.
Everything I’ve written so far sounds like the perfect recipe for a career-killing embarrassment, but lo and behold, 25 O’Clock sold twice as many copies as The Big Express and did pretty well in the USA. The keys to its stunning success were the ingredients missing in Mummer and The Big Express—a clear artistic vision, an accomplished producer and exceptionally positive vibes. From the documentary This Is Pop:
Dave: I had more fun in those two weeks than I’d ever had in the studio with anybody. We just put ourselves in the mindset of bands from the mid-60s and just find as much vintage gear as we can so we can it sounding as authentic as possible.
Andy: There’s a long tradition of whatever media you’re in, writers do it all the time but musicians do it as well where you want to not be you, to go to like a costume ball as some other character a masked ball—wouldn’t that be great fun? So in our case, let’s make an album by a different band. So in two weeks, we wrote, recorded and mixed the Dukes of Stratosphere’s first record. It was so much fun, I’ll tell ya. So much fun not being yourself.
And I had a lot of fun listening to the results!
Ironically, the recording approach of “tarting things up” and overloading the mixes with superfluous sounds that made Mummer and The Big Express unsatisfactory listening experiences turned out to be just what the doctor ordered on 25 O’Clock. Psychedelic music is one of the few musical forms that embraces excess—you expect to hear all kinds of weird and unusual sounds coming out of the speakers. The key difference between the great psychedelic songs and the mucky messes released in the 60s was the presence of a skilled producer, and John Leckie cut his teeth at Abbey Road, where much of the best psychedelic music of the era was engineered and produced.
25 O’Clock and its follow-up Psonic Sunspot are truly labors of love. The Dukes worked hard to reproduce the sounds and styles of their favorite psychedelic bands and have been open and honest about which bands inspired each song. You will hear clear echoes of the Electric Prunes, Pink Floyd (especially Syd Barrett), the Move, Small Faces, Tomorrow, the Smoke, the Pretty Things, the Stones of Satanic Majesties, and of course, the Beatles. I found myself giggling with delight every time I recognized a classic psychedelic trope: “Oh, there’s the cheesy organ!” “And there’s the anti-resolution chord!” “Yay, backward loops!” “Oh, my, that is so walrusy!” I am thoroughly convinced that at least three of the tracks would have been Top 10 hits back in the day and the other three would have made for excellent B-sides.
That said, the Dukes had several advantages over their forebears. They were accomplished musicians in contrast to the sometimes questionable skills of fly-by-night psychedelic bands. The Psychedelic Era operated under the mantra “anything goes” and many of the experiments should have been left in the can. The Dukes had no need to experiment because the practices and values of psychedelic music were well-established. By embracing those core elements, the project became a testament honoring those who came before:
In the later ’70s, I found myself longing to be doing the music that I loved as a kid of 13 or 14. I’d be listening to the radio then, and there’d be stuff like “See Emily Play,” or “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “My White Bicycle” — you know, all these great psychedelic singles, and I thought, “This is wonderful! When I grow up, I’ll be in a group, and we’ll make music like this!” Of course, as a kid, I had no grasp that this was just the whim of fashion, and that this music was going to last only a year or so, and then it would be gone!
But it affected me so profoundly that when I was in a position to be in a group and making records, I thought I should say thank you to the people who made those records, and to say thank you to them by sounding just like them.
The Dukes of Stratosphear:
- Sir John Johns (Andy Partridge)
- The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding)
- Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregory)
- E.I.E.I. Owen (Ian “Eewee” Gregory)
- Producer: Swami Anand Nagara (John Leckie)
Except where noted, quotes below are from the individual song pages on chalkhills.org.
“25 O’Clock” (Partridge): Andy to Todd Bernhardt: “It’s a quasi-Eastern, pretentious doom-laden teenage control song . . . I think ’25 O’Clock’ is the American-sounding one from that disc. It’s people like The Electric Prunes — you know, “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” I loved the atmosphere on that track. I loved that quasi-Eastern, minor-scale thing.”
The overall sound may be Electric Prunes but the song is loaded with psychedelic era references. The ticking clocks that open the song instantly call up memories of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.” Andy’s vocal in the chorus is reminiscent of the stylings of crazy man Arthur Brown and the cheesy Farfisa-like organ is a classic relic of the period, featured in songs by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Blue Cheer and Country Joe and the Fish.
Following the intro of clocks and bells, the first noticeable sound from the band is Colin’s bass, a haunting minor scale riff up the fretboard that soon settles into a two-note high-speed bass riff repeated over and over, sounding like a heart ready to explode. After a short thrust from the organ Andy enters with the lead vocal, adopting a tone and timbre that has an eerie resemblance to Boris Karloff—an appropriate impersonation indeed, for the narrator is one creepy mother fucker:
The urge to take you grows more strong
For time had made me wait too long
Each watch I smash apart
Just adding to my power
Each watch I smash apart
Just bringing near the hour
And just like Clark Kent in the phone booth, Andy changes his persona in a jiffy for his Arthur Brown impersonation while the band shifts to full power mode and Dave Gregory climbs the keyboard of that cheesy organ:
. . . of 25 o’clock, that’s when you’re going to be mine
25 o’clock, we’ll be together ’til the end of time
At 25 o’clock
In the next verse, Andy-as-Karloff explains how smashing watches serves to feed his hungry libido—he’s a warlock!
The ticking seconds hear them call
My spell of hours will make you fall
Each timer that I break
Will halt the flowing sands
Each timer that I break
Will put you in my hands
If this were a real horror flick, we’d cut to the scene where the innocent-looking girl who is chatting away with her girlfriends suddenly goes into a trance and sleepwalks to her impending doom in the castle on the hill in Transylvania.
The obligatory but marvelous organ solo comes after the chorus and Dave takes us back to the 60s with a boffo performance, then follows that delightful bit of psychedelia with a searing guitar solo that flows directly into the closing choruses where Andy-as-Karloff reigns triumphant. The song closes at maximum power with the band locked into the classic BA-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-BOM-BOM-BOM flourish. Andy-as-Karloff screams TIME! and the song collapses into those curious random noises that ended many a psychedelic tune. Magnifique!
“Bike Ride to the Moon” (Partridge): Now we flip to the whimsical, melodic side of psychedelia with a song partially inspired by Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” but with clear echoes of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the Move. British offerings in this style did not fare particularly well in the USA; the Move scored nine Top 20 singles in the UK but never charted in the States and both “See Emily Play” and the first Soft Machine album failed to crack the Billboard Top 100. According to AllMusic, “In general, British psychedelia was either more whimsical or artily experimental than its American counterpart, plus it tended to work within the pop song structure.” While there’s some truth in that hypothesis, it doesn’t explain why Americans embraced the highly whimsical “Winchester Cathedral” and “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” at the peak of psychedelia.
I lived in the States for thirty-two years and I don’t think I will ever understand Americans.
The song begins in a flurry of twinkly notes followed by a rising vocalization that resembles the sounds people make when the roller coaster takes flight. Andy immediately enters the scene with a verse that may seem silly to the grumps in the listening audience but beautifully reflects the core psychedelic value of unlimited imagination:
Push me off to start the fun
On a bike ride to the moon
Lots of room for everyone
On a bike ride to the moon
And we’ll bring back cheese for my Auntie Jane
And some magic moon dust that’ll stop the rain
On my poor Uncle Alfred’s head, even though he stays in bed (silly Alfred)
The chord pattern veers from the expected G-C-D sequence, replacing the D with an Eb at the end of each verse couplet, paired with a rising rough guitar arpeggio to dramatize the sense of flying on the edge of control. After an intermission of twinkles and swoops we rise even higher with a key change to A major where Colin adds vocal harmony at the tippy-top of his range. The ride continues to move along swimmingly but the narrator is dogged by a nagging worry:
Racing forward can’t look back
On a bike ride to the moon
What did I omit to pack
On a bike ride to the moon?
With the stars all glinting in the shiny Chrome
Then I suddenly remembered what I left at home . . .
At this point the band gradually slows the tempo like a rocket running out of fuel as the narrator finds himself in the bicyclic equivalent of Apollo 13:
Now I shan’t be peddling any higher
‘Cos a sharp Sputnik has given me a cosmic flat tyre
And there you have it, folks—the first space junk song in history. What a hoot!
“My Love Explodes” (Partridge): Andy: “‘My Love Explodes’ is The Yardbirds’ ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ mixed with The Pretty Things, or anyone who had an armful of maracas and a basin haircut.” You’ll have no problem identifying the Yardbirds connection in the dominant guitar riff, the nasal Keith Relf-like vocal and the layered guitars in the instrumental passage; you’ll find the Pretty Things in the driving beat and sharp execution that characterize the verses and bridge. The song starts in E major but the band follows the B major resolution chord with a pattern of declining half-steps (B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E7) while the shape of the melodic pattern remains constant throughout. The expected key change occurs in the bridge, with the Bb-Ab pattern accompanied by a brighter, blue-note-free, Pretty Things melody. What’s remarkable is that it all sounds effortless, largely because this music was in their blood.
The track closes with a comment from a guy sporting a distinctly New York accent: “That is the most obscene abomination, that is dirt, that is filth, that is trash. What possessed you to write such a disgusting, degeneratised song as that? And I’m complimenting you by considering it a song!” I couldn’t find a source for the quote, but it certainly belongs on an album containing music that was hysterically condemned by the straights.
“What in the World” (Moulding): Andy: “Colin was the least interested in the Dukes. That’s not quite right — not ‘least interested,’ but it wasn’t his experience . . . Colin was more of a Heavy Metal kid. He was more into Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep and people like that. So he didn’t really have much of a grasp on Psychedelia. But by the time we got hold of the song he brought up for 25 O’Clock, and we’d added all these sound effects and tape loops and stuff over it, it blended in perfectly. It’s like the great lost relative of ‘Only a Northern Song,’ you know?”
The music screams Yellow Submarine but the storyline is a more compact vision of the future than appears in the non-psychedelic dystopian hit “In the Year 2525,” a song that continues to exert a strange fascination for listeners to this day. Zager and Evans made it all the way to 9595 (when they predicted planetary destruction by humankind about 7000 years too late); Colin chose a less ambitious target of 2035 and limited his predictions to free acid, cannabis tea, rude children and broads fighting the wars (likely with fingernails) while men scrubbed the floors (served them right). Not a particularly insightful song, but the vibes are good and the Beatlesque sounds are rather comforting in a peculiar way.
“Your Gold Dress” (Partridge): “Andy: ‘Your Gold Dress’ was the first thing written for 25 O’Clock. I came up with the stupidest riff in the history of riffs and thought it was spot on.” Dave: “We borrowed Nicky Hopkins’ sound from ‘She’s a Rainbow’.”
I LOVE that riff! It’s the only lead guitar part I can play! G-G-G-G-A-G-F-G! Easy peasy!
I also love Ian Gregory’s thumping drums. Dave’s brother has been relatively quiet up to this point but his drum riff is one of the song’s highlights . . . along with that stupid riff.
The music alternates between mystical in the verses to bright and tinkly in the bridge. The verse music is somewhat anti-melodic and pretty much follows the chord pattern of the riff until a shift to E major adds a spot of darkness, intensified by a declining chord pattern of three half-steps (A-Ab-A). The bridge (the “She’s a Rainbow” segment) involves a fairly complementary key change to Ab major and a more uplifting melody. As the song describes the wonder of a woman in a gold dress, I interpret the verse music as descriptive of awe-inspiring sexual stimulation and the bridge as a tribute to classic asexual beauty.
The bridge also makes up for the omission of the ultimate psychedelic term: vibrations!
Vibrations coming my way
When you’re floating on by
In your gold dress
Vibrations coming to play
When you’re filling the sky
With your gold . . . dress
I’m seriously considering buying myself a form-fitting gold lame dress . . . a little Christmas gift from me to me. I love inspiring awe.
In the fade I hear the must-have sound of a sitar, but as the liner notes list no such instrument, I’m assuming that Dave and Leckie figured out a way to mimic the instrument on guitar.
“The Mole from the Ministry”: The Dukes saved the best for last with a song that could have easily fit into Magical Mystery Tour, replacing the decidedly un-psychedelic “Your Mother Should Know.” The template is “I Am the Walrus” with a touch of “Strawberry Fields Forever” in the fake ending and return. The song is loaded with Mellotron passages, detuned pianos, speaker-filtered drums, backward loops, bits of spoken word (though not Shakespearean) and spots of dreamy harmonies. The template extended to the staging of the video, which borrows heavily from the “I Am the Walrus” segment in the film. While there are significant departures from the template (a stronger melody, a more complex chord pattern and spoken word verses where the mole sounds like his voice is filtered through a fish tank), “The Mole from the Ministry” is a marvelous tribute to the Beatles in their peak creative period.
In contrast to John Lennon’s delightfully surreal wordplay, the Dukes provide something more cohesive in the form of a character sketch. The key to interpretation lies in the English passion for gardening, an obsession popularized in films like Mrs. Miniver and in TV series like Rosemary and Thyme where two master gardeners solve crimes when they’re not mulching the flower beds. Think of gardening as an inalienable right in Britain equal to the god-given right to own a gun in the United States.
Initially the mole presents himself as your typical pain-in-the-ass garden mole, ripping up lawns and displacing your precious dahlias. Later in the song, he is revealed as the classic bureaucrat on a mission to control everything and everyone and remove all the joys that life has to offer (like gardening):
I’m the mole from the Ministry
And you’ll all bow down to me
I’m the mole in your potting shed
I’m the bad thoughts inside your head
And you won’t catch me
In the following verse, we learn through the method of call-and-response that the mole in question isn’t only concerned with interfering with the fundamental right to tend to the garden but a sneaky bastard buried deep inside the bureaucracy who skews statistics to make his case for greater control of the populace:
I’m the mole from the Ministry (Working underground)
And you’ll all bow down to me (Moving facts and figures all around)
I’m the mole in your potting shed (Undermine your world)
It’s no wonder that Virgin demanded that XTC use an American producer for their next album because they felt the band was “too British,” but geez, it isn’t that difficult to take a little time to understand the ways and means of different cultures, and understanding “The Mole in the Ministry” doesn’t require much effort. “Let the Brits be Brits!” sayeth I.
As noted in previous XTC reviews, the videos that appear on YouTube were posted by users, making them “unofficial” and subject to deletion if posted on other sites. I’m going to say “fuck it” and post the video here, but I’ll also include the link in case the YouTube police come after me: https://youtu.be/X-fL68DbcQ0?si=sFiVFeXrNIg6X7sn
25 O’Clock was hardly a one-off experience. At Virgin’s insistence (ha!), the Dukes would return one album later with Psonic Sunspot. More importantly, Andy referred to the follow-up album (Skylarking) as “the next Dukes record” in This Is Pop. Just before he makes that proclamation, Andy described how the crazy idea of turning themselves into a fictitious long-gone psychedelic band changed their perspective: “I think we all felt more comfortable with ourselves and we felt more comfortable in being this bridge from the ’60s to the ’80s . . . at that point it was like we’re not going to deny any of our influences anymore, we’re just going to let them all free.”
Having produced more than a few memorable melodies, you can expect them to capitalize on that strength in the albums to come. A clear artistic vision is now within their grasp.