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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Under the Influence – Part VI

1986 was a huge year for musical discovery for me. A slew of great releases from the Smiths to Husker Du and so many in between broadened my musical horizons in the best of ways. But the one that really stuck out and still remains a favourite record to this day was XTC’s Skylarking. The Todd Rundgren produced song cycle still a record that really must be listened to in its entirety to be enjoyed thoroughly and properly. Described as a "life-in-a-day" semi-concept album the record displayed songwriting and arranging heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Kinks.

The sessions that produced Skylarking though were apparently fraught with tension, due to creative differences between Rundgren and Andy Partridge. In the book XTC: Song Stories by Neville Farmer, Partridge says:

"(Rundgren) was so bloody sarcastic, which is rare with Americans. He's got it down to an extremely cruel art. He'd ask how you were going to do the vocals and you would stand in front of the mic and do one run through to clear your throat and he'd say, 'That was crap. I'll come down and I'll record me singing it and you can have me in your headphones to sing along to.' I just thought it was so insulting."

Production notes aside, news today though from Andy Partridge’s website- Ape House that all this time we’ve been listening to it “all wrong.”

XTC Skylarking Better Than You've Ever Heard It

In the course of world renowned mastering engineer John Dents work on preparing the new double vinyl set of XTC's Skylarking for release, an interesting and wonderful thing has been discovered. John has informed us that that somewhere in the chain from Todd Rundgrens Utopia sound studio and Londons Master room studio, way back in 1986, a fault has occurred that means all of the versions of Skylarking you've ever heard, on CD or vinyl, have shall we put this?... wrong.

How can this be I hear you think, sounds fine to me?

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 Todd’s 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.

We are all VERY excited by this prospect and will give you more info shortly. Stay tuned.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Granted I am not a sound engineer, and I don't have a particularly good ear, but is this a matter of a dead horse being beaten?

Perhaps I am jaded by all these reissues lately, that I wonder if this is a creative way of doing same. But if the sound polarity reversal really does make a notable difference to the recording, it raises a lot more questions, of another nature.

Sean Wraight said...

Remarkably, I've kind of made peace with the whole 'remastering' idea because ultimately it will be the fan's choice to seek them out to replace original versions. With anemic record sales only getting worse I think it may be more of a reaction to that sad business reality than anything else.

I will probably seek this one out though only because this recording is so dear to me. It does make one wonder how such an "oversight" could have transpired though. If anything it sure adds an element of lore to the whole project.