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Psychoactive sci-fi surrealism: The book covers that inspired XTC’s Andy Partridge

I’d love to live in a world where the great commercial artists of the past—the visionary men and women who could easily have been heralded “fine” artists if they weren’t jobbers—were household names, while blandly inoffensive pop singers had to hold yard sales to make rent. But it ain’t so and surely never will be. Today’s case in point is that great painter of otherworldly pulp sci-fi covers, Richard M. Powers.

Trained in Chicago, Powers became a force in the publishing industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, working for houses like Ballantine and Doubleday, and bringing an incredible stylistic versatility to his work—his work in the horror genre could be a whole separate post, and you’d not likely know just by looking that they were by the same artist who executed the works you see here. His early covers were of a type with much mid-century pulp fiction art, but as the ‘50s progressed, he began a move towards a signature style derived from surrealism. Less the sort of an-ordinary-object-is-doing-something-weird surrealism associated with Magritte or Dalí, more the timeless, placeless, deathless dreamscapes of Gorky, Matta or Tanguy, set as much in outer space as inner. By the mid to late 1960s, that style harmonized rather nicely with the psychedelic art that was spreading from music culture to, well, everything.

The best bio I’ve found for Powers is by film writer C. Jerry Kutner, on an Earthlink site that looks like it could almost date back to Powers’ 1996 death:

Powers became the virtual art director of Ballantine’s science fiction line, creating not only the cover illustrations (front, back, and occasionally wraparound), but the entire design of the books including positioning of the title and other text, selecting and coloring the typefaces, and sometimes even handpainting the lettering. Ballantine gave Powers the freedom to experiment endlessly. The more he got away with, the further he went. Reach For Tomorrow is a striking early experiment. The subject matter is a city on an alien planet. Or is it? The shapes of the city, alternately rounded and spiky, resemble blobs of clay or melted wax more than they do any realistic architectural construction. The city rests in the middle of a silent desert, closer in look and feel to the paintings of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy than the other SF artwork of its era. Furthermore, the format of this painting is horizontal. To view it correctly, one has to hold the book sideways!

By the late ‘50s, the world of the SF paperback had been conquered by “the Powers style.” In addition to painting more than a hundred covers for Ballantine, Powers was the artist of choice for Berkley, Dell, and numerous other SF publishers. Powers’ success encouraged other SF artists like Ed Emshwiller, Jack Gaughan, and Paul Lehr to experiment with surrealism and abstraction. Powers’ art, in turn, assimilated the styles of most of the major surrealists of this century, not only Dali and Tanguy, but Calder and De Chirico, Miro and Kandinsky, Klee and Ernst. Sometimes the homage is obvious, as on the cover of Star Wormwood, a non-fiction work in which a watercolor of a man sitting in an electric chair resembles Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Pope.”

Arthur C. Clarke, Reach for Tomorrow
J.G. Ballard, The Voices of Time
And another one, because why not.
Lester Del Rey, Robots and Changelings
Robert Wells, The Spacejacks
William Tenn (pseudonym for Philip Klass), Of All Possible Worlds
More brilliant covers, plus music after the jump…

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment
Post-punk parody: UK children’s show lampoons XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel,’ 1979
06:15 am



British viewers of a certain age will know this show very well, it was called Crackerjack, and it was a children’s show that ran for a whopping 30 years, from 1955 to 1984. The hosts in this era were Peter Glaze and Bernie Clifton. (Some credit Glaze with inventing the phrase “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”)

As you can see, this video depicts a bunch of sophomoric comedians making fun of XTC’s 1979 single “Making Plans for Nigel.” I was trying to think of what the comparison of this would be in the United States, and the closest thing I could come up with was Hee Haw—but Hee Haw didn’t do song parodies, did they? It does have a certain flavor of The Carol Burnett Show spoofing Gone With the Wind. Since Crackerjack was a children’s show, I suppose you could say it was a bit like Captain Kangaroo or Soupy Sales? Again, neither of those were exactly known for parodying well-regarded post-punk acts, right?

Sadly, according to the end credits, this episode seems to have featured Sparks, but there’s no trace of their performance on the Internet that I could find.

Listen to the original by XTC after the jump….

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Dear God: XTC’s classic ‘Skylarking’ album—fixed?
05:14 pm



When XTC’s Skylarking was released in 1986, “Dear God” arguably the groups’ most iconic number was not a part of the album’s running order. The song was recorded during the Skylarking sessions produced by Todd Rundgren—who XTC’s Andy Partridge famously did not get along with—and was relegated to the B-side of the UK single, “Grass.” However, US college radio DJs flipped the record over in favor of the bitter anti-theist “Dear God” and the song became hugely popular. Geffen Records promptly deleted “Mermaid Smiled” from Skylarking and replaced it with “Dear God.”

It’s been reported on music-related blogs from here to kingdom come for the last few months that while remastering engineer John Dent was working on a vinyl re-issue of Skylarking in 2010, he found and corrected a previously-undetected problem with the original master. As explained in the press release:

Somewhere, possibly in the transfer from the multi-channel tape to the stereo master, a polarity had been reversed. This is not the same thing as a reversed left/right channel which puts a stereo picture out of phase & makes the sound unlistenable, but a much more difficult to pin down event that can be triggered by something as simple as a badly wired plug in the overall system which, nonetheless, removes some of the punch & presence from a finished recording.

The audiophile reviews of the “new” Skylarking: Corrected Polarity Edition sound like the purchasers are thinking that it’s pretty good and punchier sounding. Maybe it does, I haven’t heard it yet, but there was something that stood out as somewhat odd to me: the press release promises an eventual 5.1 surround mix done by Steven Wilson (he did the surround version of XTC’s Nonsuch last year)–but with the curious caveat: “when & if the multi-track tapes can be found.”

How did they locate and pinpoint—let alone fix—the polarity issue if all they had were stereo masters made—we can presume—from the multitrack masters? Wouldn’t the polarity problem have been kind of baked in? Anyone care to comment on this?

“Dear God” from the Skylarking: Corrected Polarity Edition CD

The lyrics to “Dear God” were sung by a little girl, Jasmine Veillette, the daughter of a friend of Todd Rundgren’s, but in the video a boy lip-syncs her vocals.
More XTC after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
XTC’s Andy Partridge wants to do the nasty with the ‘Statue of Liberty’
11:23 am



XTC, Statue of Liberty
It’s well-known that Andy Partridge of XTC exhibits one of the severest instances of stage fright in popular music; therefore it follows that only a small percentage of their fans have ever seen the seminal postpunk act perform live. Perhaps it was this fact that made my recent discovery of a video for their song “Statue of Liberty” all the more striking. The song is off XTC’s first full-length album White Music (I always thought that that album title was more suited to Talking Heads, but XTC beat them to it.)

In the video Partridge sings of his crush on the great green symbol of untrammeled freedom: “You must have been all of a thousand feet tall / Nearly naked, unashamed like Herod’s daughter.” Later, he owns up to his envy of all the boats that get to sidle up to the Lady: “A little jealous of the ships with whom you flirt / A billion lovers with their cameras / Snap to look and in my fantasy / I sail beneath your skirt.” This first single off of White Music was banned by the BBC for its purportedly lewd references to the famous statue.

The video was released on XTC’s Look Look video compilation. Partridge somewhat ridiculously warbles into a microphone perched atop Lady Liberty’s torch. As the song comes to a close, Colin Moulding decides to scrape his bass guitar all over Barry Andrews’ keyboard setup; Andrews then joyously goose-steps the keyboard around the room while the video fades out.

Eight years later, on Skylarking, Partridge would flip this fantasy around somewhat in “That’s Really Super, Supergirl,” contemplating his frustrated weakness in comparison to a dream girl who’s always “on a mission saving some other man.” 

It’s such a peppy number, the video can’t fail to be amusing; that they would eventually cease live performances altogether makes it that much more intriguing.

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
XTC live in Germany, 1982
02:38 pm



Gifted with great chops and a fine ear for melody, XTC was and remains one of my favorite bands to come out of England in the mid-70s. Too poppy for punk and too quirky and smart for the mainstream, XTC stood apart from most everything going on around them. At a time when hard angles and rough energy dominated the London and NYC scenes, the lads from Swindon seemed to be on a Beatles and Kinks high. Kind of like the Buzzcocks with visions of grandeur. The tunes catchier than hell and the lyrics dipped in candy- colored psychedelia.

1. “Respectable Street”
2. “Towers of London”
3. “Runaways”
4. “Jason and the Argonauts”
5. “Burning With Optimism’s Flames”
6. “Snowman”
7. “Ball And Chain”
8. “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)”
9. “No Thugs In Our House”
10. “Senses Working Overtime”
11. “Making Plans For Nigel”
12. “Living Through Another Cuba”
13. “Generals and Majors”
14. “Real By Reel”
15. “Life Begins At The Hop”

XTC performs for ‘Rockpalast’ on German TV in 1982. The performance lacks the delicacies of XTC on record, but it is very fine none-the-less.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
The Best of ‘So It Goes’: Clash, Sex Pistols, Iggy, The Fall, Joy Division and more

This Channel 4 UK program from the mid-80s compiles some incredible performances culled from Tony Wilson’s late 70s Granada TV series, So It Goes. Includes the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop (with horsetail sticking out of his ass and saying “fucking” on 70s TV), The Fall, The Jam, Elvis Costello, Blondie, Penetration, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Tom Robinson, Magazine, John Cooper Clarke, XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sham 69 and ending with the classic clip of Joy Division performing “Shadow Play.” Many of the groups represented here were making their TV debuts on So It Goes, a regional tea-time program.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
XTC’s Skylarking as you’ve never heard it
08:48 am



I’m amazed to find this morning that one of the finest LPs ever recorded, XTC’s Skylarking has never been heard properly. Evidently during the process of re-mastering it was discovered that every version that went out to the public was out of phase ! I can tell you from personal experience that this can really take the life out of a recording. I can’t wait to hear the corrected version ! From Andy Partridge himself:

The band themselves always had a nagging doubt that the album sounded a little too thin and bass light, not like they remembered it sounding from the recording process. Well, what John has identified is that the previous vinyl and CD’s {including the flashy US Fidelity version unfortunately} have been manufactured with their sound polarity reversed. In laymans terms this mix up means that sound waves that should be pushing out from your speakers are actually pulling them back and projecting from the rear. Something as simple as a wrongly wired XLR plug in Todds studio or the Master room would have resulted in this sound mishap. Making the record sound distant and thinner. He has identified that the original tapes appear in very good condition and with this problem now rectified APE will be able to present to you shortly a splendid double deep vinyl cut of this classic XTC album as it was intended to sound, but never has done due to human error.

In the meantime, enjoy the best song The Beatles never wrote from Skylarking :

And here are the…

Posted by Brad Laner | Leave a comment