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Introduction: An Imagined History
In 1967, a burgeoning label, Instantaneous Records, fearing they were going to be left behind in the rapidly changing, swinging and increasingly psychedelic 60s, found a fine young band which they wanted to record using their latest technological innovation, Pserumic Psurround Psound. The idea was to create a classical-rock fusion album (rumor has it that they were to record a version of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Tale of the Tsar Tsultan) to be issued via their new Pserum Records subsidiary. The nearly broke band were excited at the opportunity yet remained a bit brazen, randily spending the budget to create instead two rich pioneering psychedelic masterpieces, 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot.
The label, was gobsmacked and flabbergasted but in the scrambling time they took to rethink the offering, arch competitor, Deram Records, issued Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues which became an international smash hit and set the stage for psychedelic music for decades to come. Dejected, disgusted and outraged, The Dukes brilliant surround sound album was buried in a hidden bunker in the Chalkhills outside Swindon, England (reportedly in near the scrotum of the Uffington Horse, but that remains to be confirmed).
Until now, that is, after a major archeological dig led by noted Dukes biographer Andy Partridge, of Swindon pop sensations XTC and super fan producer Steven Wilson, the two have unearthed the long lost Psurroundabout Ride tapes, issued this week by Ape House Records on a new 5.1 surround sound Blu-ray Disc.
Ok, so by now I suspect that some of you are either on the floor laughing or utterly baffled by my bit of storytelling fun here in this whimsical imagined introduction.
There was no Pserum Records in 1967 challenging The Moody Blues, but in 1985 and 1987 there was a British band called The Dukes of Stratosphear (an alias for hitmakers XTC) who put out two amazing recordings which contain some of the best psychedelic pop rock music not made in 1967 (got that?).
And while there was in fact no lost surround sound mix buried in a chalkhill bunker there IS indeed a brand new 5.1 surround mix issued here and now in 2019, helmed by XTC’s Andy Partridge and super fan producer Steven Wilson! It is all part of a trip-fantastic package called Psurroundabout Ride, out now from Ape House Records (click here or on any of the titles to get to an Amazon link for it).
And Now, On With The Show: The Review
Psurroundabout Ride is a brain ticket to ride…
On this CD + Blu-ray Disc deluxe edition of Psurroundabout Ride you get stellar 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution versions of all of The Dukes of Stratosphear’s music… Plus (!)… you’ll get a brand new Stereo mix by Steven Wilson as well as the 1980s originals. There is a full playlist of Instrumental versions of these songs and there are even a cache of original demos (many of which were previously released on the Fuzzy Warbles multi-disc series of demo tape releases). There are a few “new” Dukes songs — presented here in 5.1 psurround psound for the first time — which originally appeared on the reissued CD versions of The Dukes’ albums in the The Complete and Utter Dukes boxed set from several years back.
But really, if you get this set the primary thing you want to hear is the 5.1 surround sound mix and that will be the focus of this review.
The first thing that knocked me out about this mix is somehow remix producer The Porcupine Tree (aka Steven Wilson) kept true to the vision of the band and original album producer Swammi Annand Nagara (aka John Leckie of Magazine, Stone Roses, Radiohead and early XTC fame). Much in the way that these recordings were based on live takes of the band playing together in a modest studio using vintage gear circa 1967-68 — with all edits done in tape form, old school style with a razor blade, the way all pre-digital recordings used to be made — the 5.1 surround sound remix sounds like what I would imagine a surround sound mix might sound like in 1967 if they had the technology. (and thus you learn the inspiration for my opening storytelling here in case you were wondering…)
While much of the band’s playing remains in the front channels (drums, bass, lead vocals) other instruments and the multitude of random sound effects loops pepper the surround field like so much fab pixie dust being sprinkled into your teenaged Summer-of-Love expanding headbanded mind while listening to Psurroundabout Ride.
As the tick-tock clock sound flows through you (front right to rear left) during album opener “25 O’Clock,” you immediately know this is going to be a special experience. I love hearing the transition from “My Love Explodes” into “What In The World?” — with the now classic spoken word commentary “What possessed you to write such a disgusting, degeneratized song as that? And I’m complimenting you by considering it a song…” — coming out of the surround sound mix.
An aside: I always assumed that rant was some record company nit wit’s commentary left on one of the band member’s answering machines back in the day. Many fans apparently thought it was Woody Allen! But it turns out to be a randomly recorded telephone caller to a live radio show performance by The Fugs’ Tuli Kupferberg taped in NY! Producer John Leckie Swammi Annand Nagara had happened to capture it during an overnight taping session of random NY radio sounds which he was gathering for the production of these recordings. So it was a moment of pure brilliant happenstance! His liner notes for this set are quite brilliant and insightful, by the way!
My immediate favorite part of Psurroundabout Ride is inevitably on “The Mole From The Ministry” which not only reaches its thrilling climax as an immersive listen, but it also provides a template that I hope Giles Martin considers when eventually remixing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album into proper discrete and immersive surround sound. If The Dukes of Stratosphear can sound this good in surround sound then so can the fab four’s “I Am The Walrus” (the inspiration for Mole, for those reading who are not familiar with this song).
Honestly, it brought me to tears a bit at one point in the introduction as the mole’s voice sings “Flowers walk from place to place, Dark spot moves around your face” — just as the voice has made its way around the back of your surround field he is then singing from behind your head. It is a super nifty trippy detail. In this instance, I decided I preferred the DTS HD Master Audio version of Psurroundabout Ride over the LPCM version because of the way it handled The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding)’s vocals on the second verse of this song — they seemed to get a bit lost in the LPCM version for some reason.
“Have You Seen Jackie” is also a great showcase for the psurround mix with trippy organs, vocals and other madness washing over you like you’ve ingested a magic tab while adrift in the ocean. I love how at the end of “Shiny Cage” the Indian percussion instruments percolate from behind. “Brainiac’s Daughter” pshines in psurround psound with voices, sound effects and other madness literally bubbling around the listener.
The sparkling ping pong cymbals at the start of “Little Lighthouse” is a brilliant stage setter for the rhythmic tremolo guitar swells from behind and other backwards and feedback trips the listener is about to take.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that “Pale and Precious” — arguably the first and best Beach Boys tribute which set the bar high for bands like The High Llamas and Wondermints to aspire — sounds tremendous in psurround psound, bringing you inside the church of Wilson like never before. If ever there was proof needed, Steven Wilson should be the likely producer of a SMiLE surround sound remix if Brian Wilson ever allows that to happen — the mind boggles to think of what a Wilson-Wilson 5.1 collaboration might deliver…
But I digress…
Of the other material on this set, rest assured that the 2019 Stereo remix is solid, opening up the mix a little bit and revealing new clarity without changing the original intent of the albums. The instrumental versions (alas, only in Stereo) are surprisingly three dimensional in flavor, revealing many rich details underlying the original song. Its really super having the original mixes and demos all together on this same disc in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity. So even if you have prior CD versions, you haven’t heard them sound quite like this — the “Colliedoscope” and “25 O’Clock” demos sound amazing!
Anyhow, I could go on forever on this but I think you get the idea that I like this release. If you are a fan of XTC and The Dukes of Stratosphear — or simply a fan of late 1960s psychedelic music and surround sound music — you should pick this one up.
Psurroundabout Ride is a terrific trip!
Sounds fab. Expecting my copy to arrive today. Here’s my interview with Sir John Johns (aka Andy Partridge) talking about Psurroundabout Ride, the story of the Dukes of Stratosphear and his love of psychedelia. https://xtcbumperbookoffunforboysandgirls.blogspot.com/2019/10/andy-partridge-on-psurroundabout-ride.html
I have been playing this disc constantly since it arrived, and it’s hard to burn it out with 4 different mixes of the EP and album to choose from. And the demos largely hold up, no real disappointments there.
If Wilson had mixed the 5.1 versions of Sgt Pepper, The White album and Abbey Road there would be a lot less grumbling in the audiophile community if you ask me.
Ok, talked me into checking this one out.
The Dukes are and indeed were brilliant, as someone who would happily list ‘Sgt Pepper’ as his favourite album of all time ever, in the history of ever! I can listen to The Dukes on a regular basis too….. Pure 1967 gold, that was actually recorded in 1984?? Incredible…..