Listen to this track by former post-punk popsters and neo-psychedelic bucolicist champs XTC. It’s the lushly arranged tale of mythic innocence, “Mermaid Smiled” as taken from their landmark 1986 album Skylarking a record which came about due to the efforts of at least two musical visionaries. The first being singer/guitarist and songwriter Andy Partridge, and the other being pop music wunderkind Todd Rundgren who served as producer. And when these two guys got together – boy! – did the sparks fly, in more ways than one!
The reason that the record is considered a gem in the band’s catalog is the musical and thematic unity it represented for the group at the time, having abandoned touring by 1982, and having embraced their love of 60s psychedelia and orchestral flourishes as a studio band. And you can certainly hear traces of that in this song, with lyrics concerning mythical creatures and ‘caves of memory’ which may not have flown so straight as lyrical content when the group put out their first few records by 1977-78, when they were more in line with a punk and post punk musical ethos.
In edition, what is evoked here is a Romantic spirit in the capital ‘R’ sense of the word, with the title ‘Skylarking’ referring to Percy Shelley’s “To a Skylark” poem, and the images of an ideal summer firmly at the centre of the record. This is not only true for this song, but is also bolstered by the presence of some of the best work the band had ever done in “Summer’s Cauldron”, “Sacrificial Bonfire”, “Grass”, and “The Meeting Place”.
But, what “Mermaid Smiled” brings is pure impressionistic joy, lushly arranged with jazzy flourishes (listen to those drums), shimmering vibraphone, choruses of muted trumpets, and warm accoustic guitar drenched in echo that one imagines being played outside on a blindingly sunny day. This song appeals because it’s all about how, at times, the feeling of what it meant to be a child comes back to us. And perhaps that feeling leaves us with the idea that the world needn’t be so inhospitable a place when we remember what that feeling brings us. What could be more comforting than that?
Yet, the conditions under which this album was recorded were less than ideal. Producer Todd Rundgren and Andy Partridge butted heads on a great many issues, from song choice, and even down to how vocal tracks were (or were not) laid down. So, as mentioned, the sparks flew. But, what a result! In the middle of the 80s, a decade not known for warm, organic records, this one is an idyllic musical island that invites the listener to spend the summer. This is why, despite Partridge’s initial dissatisfaction with the finished product and his experience in recording it with the contrary presence of Rundgren presiding (perhaps there is a connection between the two?), bassist/vocalist and songwriter Colin Moulding loved it, citing it at the time as “my favourite so far” of XTC’s records.
The album was released in more than one version, the first being the UK edition which included “Grass” and “The Meeting Place” as singles. When the band’s song “Dear God” got radio play in the States, it was added to the U.S Version of Skylarking, even if the tone and subject matter of “Dear God” doesn’t exactly dovetail with the ecstatic summery vibe of many of the other songs on the record, including “Mermaid Smiled”.
Unfortunately, “Mermaid Smiled” had to go upon release in the States to make room for “Dear God”. In the interests of musical unity, this makes no sense, even if it made more sense when it came to sales figures. But, this would be one of many examples of turbulence between Virgin Records and the band. And the tensions between these two parties made Rundgren and Partridge’s rocky working relationship look like a tea party, and would eventually cause a seven-year band hiatus by 1992. Partridge, Moulding, and guitarist/arranger Dave Gregory went ‘on strike’ until 1999’s Apple Venus, Vol. 1 album, and yet another milestone in the latter years of the group’s artistic journey together.
More recently, Andy Partridge announced plans to re-release Skylarking. According to Partridge himself, the initial reason for this was that of a flaw in the recording between Rundgren’s Utopia studios recording and the London mastering.
For more information about the XTC back catalog and related artists, check out Andy Partridge’s Ape Records.
4 thoughts on “XTC Perform ‘Mermaid Smiled’”
Skylarking is, by far, my *favourite* XTC album, and that’s saying a lot. “Dear God” notwithstanding, this is one of those albums that IS an album, rather than a mere collection of songs. So much so that it’s been on the back burner in my head for years to write a novel the chapters of which would reflect the track listing; the songs are that atmospheric, that evocative, and I can imagine a whole narrative built around them. Especially “Grass”, which makes me nostalgic for a time that perhaps never was, but that I wish had been so.
It is a towering achievement, pretty much the culmination of where they’d been headed since English Settlement. The great part is that the ensuing albums held up to the same standard. It is a rare thing when a band can switch gears stylistically, and still retain their identity. They seem to make this effortless, and yes, in what seems to be a unified statement. They weren’t the first to do this. But, it is still notable across the pop music spectrum.
Thanks (as always) for comments and re-tweets!
It’s a rare thing, too, when all the tracks on an album are equally strong. Musically, and lyrically as well.
It’s unbelievable, considering how tough the birth was. I get the feeling that neither Rundgren or Partridge are terribly flexible on what they look for when making records.