Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me.
I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought the albums several times on various formats.
On Earth, Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image 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’ featuring excellent, much imitated fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.
Techno-rocker ‘White City’ should be covered by someone. 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 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 respectable #14 in the UK album chart, #35 in the US.
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.
But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth…
8 thoughts on “White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth”
“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.
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.
I love The Flat Earth! Many, many plays on my Walkman in early 90’s. Thanks for this article.
Hi Suzanna, yeah, it’s superb Walkman music! ‘A journey through time and space’ etc… x
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.
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?
Oh, man, Matt, where do I start? First of all, Matthew is a human rights lawyer now though he still does music on the side. And he’s a lovely human being as we’ve chatted online numerous times. He’s worked with people you like: The Dolphin Brothers, Thompson Twins, The Soft Boys, Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, and many more. Here’s a link to his discography: http://www.lazerlove5.com/disco.html
Thanks for that. ‘Screen Kiss’ has got to be one of the great ‘pop’ bass performances of the 1980s.