In the history of rock oddities, the spectacle of an established group taking on a pseudonym to record material in tribute to the music that initially inspired 'em has become an established ploy. The Mothers of Invention did it for doo-wop back in 1968 with Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, while in 1984, British art-poppers XTC donned the moniker Dukes of the Stratosphear to do something similar to psychedelia.
The results of this masquerade produced two enjoyable pastiches, the EP 25 O'clock and full-length long-player Psonic Psunspot. Together, both discs were originally released together in the U.S. on CD by Geffen as Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (An Anthology), though expanded and remastered versions of both titles are now being reissued separately on XTC mastermind Andy Partridge's Ape House label.
Are they worth getting if you already own a copy of Fireball? Depends on how avid a fan you are of this quirky band of studio obsessives. Of the two releases, Dukes debut 25 O'clock is the one with the most extras, which makes sense since the original platter was around the length of the original Magical Mystery Tour EP. Six demos (two of songs not included on the original release), plus three additional recordings are added to the original's six tracks. (A video of “The Mole from the Ministry” was originally supposed to be part of the package but couldn’t be included.) One of these extra tracks, "Open A Can of Human Beans," was done as a one-shot Dukes reunion for an MS Society charity compilation album: the one time these faux sixties survivors recorded together in the 21st century.
The six core tracks remain top-notch psychedelic pspoofs: five were penned by Partridge under the pseudonym Sir John John, while the sixth came from the less prolific bassist Colin Moulding (a.k.a. The Red Curtain), playing Harrison to Partridge's Lennon/McCartney with a Zager & Evans-ish prophecy of dire futures entitled "What in the World??…" In the doomy title opener, Partridge melds Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" to Pink Floyd, while "Bike Ride to the Moon" hints at a greater Britbeat obscurity, Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle."
The obligatory hallucinogenic love song, "Your Gold Dress," hints at the Stones' "She's A Rainbow" right down to Dave Gregory's Nicky Hopkins-influenced piano fingerings. Final EP track, "Mole," pulls out the woozy stringwork and backwards tape sounds so intrinsic to the original Mystery Tour — all in service to an obscure psychic pspy (okay, I'll stop) story.
As for the less familiar material, the high points are "Can" and "Tin Toy Clockwork Train." The former takes Partridge's trademark skepticism re: humanity (see "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" and "Scarecrow People") and wraps it up with a bracingly moddish Who-styled rave-up. The latter is a Not-So-Big-Express lark with toy train whistles and a lotta laughing embellishing a typically bouncy XTC-styled beat.
If some of this gets admittedly cartoonish, the songs still stand strongly by themselves: as demo versions of "25 O'clock," "Bike Ride," "My Love Explodes," and "World?…" all demonstrate. "My Love Explodes" adds to the catalog of great ejaculation songs (neat Easterny guitar riffs on this 'un), though the insertion of a nerdy Woody Allen-ish rant about the song's "filthy" subject matter at the end grows old on replays. With their follow-up album, Psunspot, the boys would tamp down the studio goofing, but unfortunately add more spoken interstices.
XTC's love for psychedelic nuggetry would ultimately lead to one of their strongest albums, the Todd Rundgren-produced song cycle Skylarking, though few at the time of 25 O'clock's release would have likely predicted the gorgeous village greenery still ahead — or the evanescent pale and precious sounds that the "Dukes" themselves would create for their Psonic elpee two years later.