White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

thomas dolbyParlophone Odeon Records, released 18th February 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

9/10

As a burgeoning ten-year-old pop fan, I was a bit young to be aware of Thomas Morgan Robertson’s famous ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ single and video. But when I went back and properly investigated that period of his career, it seemed Dolby’s ‘techno boffin’ image had blinded people (sorry) to his more subtle, slow-burning and – frankly – better songs such as ‘Airwaves’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’ and ‘Weightless’, buried in his fine 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb Wright stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me (yep, we were killing music…) and I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought The Flat Earth several times on various formats.

thomas dolby

Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image on The Flat Earth and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection. He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting. My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album. Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ which features some great (and much imitated) fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ is crying out for a decent cover version (or any cover version…). Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself‘ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording. And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Flat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’). But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a more-than-respectable number 14 in the album chart. But, for some, he will always be too clever for his own good, a gimmick-peddler rather than an artist of substance. I beg to differ. He was all the rage in the States though; The Flat Earth peaked at number 35 and he made a gloriously-naff appearance with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the 1985 Grammy Awards:

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout‘s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell‘s underrated Dog Eat Dog. He relocated to LA, married ex-Dynasty actress Kathleen Beller and moved into the former house of Blade Runner DoP Jordan Cronenweth ‘in the hills above old Hollywood’.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth. Watch this space…

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6 thoughts on “White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

  1. “The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album.” Holy crap, really? I have been infatuated with this album since it was released and did not know that. Thanks much! Wonderful write up on one of the most under recognized albums of the 1980’s. I hope this turns more people on to it.

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    • Cheers Ian, I appreciate that. Yup, Dolby himself was talking about how the song ‘The Flat Earth’ came about when I saw him playing live at the ICA in London about five years ago. He described Trevor Horn as looking like Joe 90 with his big specs and grin! He would apparently light a big spliff and get the guys to jam, though Dolby’s contributions didn’t make it to ‘Duck Rock’. Having said that, I’m not sure if he’s on that album at all… I haven’t looked at the credits. Anyway, glad you like ‘The Flat Earth’ as much as me, Dolby is a really underappreciated songwriter, at least in the UK. I enjoyed a lot of his recent comeback album too.

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  2. As legend has it, Dolby ordered Seligman to play fretless bass on ‘The Flat Earth’ since he adored ‘Tin Drum’ so much. As it was Seligman’s first encounter with said bass, he played it like a normal fretted bass, i.e. without vibrato. Good blog, btw.

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    • Thanks for getting in touch and for the interesting insight. That’s such a great bass performance on ‘Screen Kiss’. I haven’t really researched him but Seligman seems very much one of those underrated bassists of the ’80s who doesn’t seem to have done much since. I only know him from Dolby and from Bowie’s band at Live Aid but has he done other good work?

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