Funk, Junk & Pulp Culture: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick

aliens-ate-my-buick-52dea191dc659EMI/Manhattan Records, released April 1988

9/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This was Dolby’s ‘Marmite‘ album – the one that really tested his fanbase. A relocation to the States after marrying soap actress Kathleen Beller (Dolby’s companion on the front cover) led to a new home in the Hollywood Hills (apparently a very large, rather creepy movie-star mansion), the recruitment of a great new band The Lost Toy People via an advert in a local paper and a wholesale embracing of American black music.

In many ways, Aliens is Dolby’s reaction to the work of George Clinton and Prince. Of course, he’d duetted with the former on his Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends album. But it’s also a rather uptight Brit’s view of American culture complete with tacky local detail: smog alerts, Bel Air bimbos, pink leather upholstery, weird license plates.

dolby

A very brave (or foolhardly) bit of sequencing puts ‘The Key To Her Ferrari’ right at the front of the album. A fake-jazz/B-Movie swinger with a vaguely ‘50s rock’n’roll feel featuring lots of Zappaesque spoken word stuff from Dolby and some brilliant close-harmony female vocals, it’s all pretty stupid but the band plays fantastically and everyone sounds like they’re having a great time. However, you do wonder how many listeners made it past such an uncompromising track.

The lead-off single ‘Airhead”s delirious mash-up of funk and pop is pretty irresistible despite its fairly un-PC lyrics. Mr Clinton contributes the funny and funky ‘Hot Sauce’ which packs in an incredible amount of good stuff into its five minutes including a Spaghetti Western prelude, a reference to Cameo’s ‘Candy’, a touch of salsa and even a killer James Brown-style piano break.

Ditto ‘May The Cube Be With You‘, featuring Clinton and Lene Lovich on backing vocals, the Brecker Brothers on horns and a brilliant groove from P-Funk bass/drums team Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers.

But, as with most Dolby albums, the treasures are mostly found in the more introspective, less gimmicky moments. ‘My Brain Is Like A Sieve‘ easily transcends its title and faux-reggae arrangement to become a superb and quite downbeat pop song in the Prefab style. ‘The Ability To Swing’ is a cracking piece of funk/jazz, with some excellent lyrics, possibly Dolby’s most (or only?) covered song.

‘Budapest By Blimp’ is very much the centrepiece of Aliens and its stand-out track, an epic ballad harking back to the Flat Earth sound with a great, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Larry Treadwell (one of many on the album) and some superb, driving bass from the late Terry Jackson.

The only slight misfire is ‘Pulp Culture’, initially interesting but quickly grating with coarse lyrics and a melody line extremely similar to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’. It’s worth noting, though, that according to Dolby, the entire song (including his vocals) is made up of Fairlight samples.

The album’s moderate success (it reached number 30 in the UK albums chart and 70 in the US) was probably not a massive surprise – it was totally out of sync with anything in British or US pop. Aliens probably rather reflected Dolby’s interest in music video and movie soundtracks (he’d just finished scoring ‘Gothic’ and ‘Howard The Duck’).

The ‘Marmite’ element doesn’t bother me, though – I’d put Aliens up there with The Flat Earth as his best album, a perfect companion piece to other classics of summer 1988 such as Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Scritti Politti’s Provision and Prince’s Lovesexy. It’s strong beer but I love its pungent textures.

And we haven’t even got to Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork yet.

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Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s Bearpark

prefabThere’s a quality to demo recordings (rough, early versions designed to demonstrate a composition for a potential multi-track studio recording) that really appeals, especially those with ‘delusions of grandeur’ that try to sound much more expensive than they are.

In the 1980s, a demo would typically be very quickly recorded onto a four-track tape machine and then tarted up with a bit of cheap reverb. But these artefacts can very often take on a quality all their own. ‘Chasing the demo’ syndrome is common among musicians and producers, where they try in vain to replicate the freshness of the original as compared with an endlessly-tinkered-with studio version which quickly loses its zing.

‘Bearpark’ first appeared on the B side of Prefab’s ‘Nightingales‘ 12” single as part of a three-song EP called The Demo Tapes (the other two tracks were ‘Life Of Surprises’ and ‘King Of Rock’n’Roll’). It never made it onto any album but has nevertheless become one of my favourite ever Paddy McAloon compositions. It was also apparently the first time he had ever used a four-track cassette machine, recorded with a Dr Rhythm drum box, cheap synth and electric guitar.

I love the way the chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on my bass, you could use any number of root notes under each chord. They all kind of work. It’s hard to imagine how ‘Bearpark’ could be improved by a big-budget production, hence possibly why it hasn’t appeared on an official album, though Paddy says he ‘felt like Phil Spector’ when he’d finished it. Its charming musical naivety and sparseness perfectly suit the lyrical theme: home, for better or worse.

The middle eight always makes me smile:

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

In fact, sod it: I’ve just looked up the lyrics. They’re great and deserve to be reproduced in full.

Home, sweet home
Sweet home, hard as nails

Bearpark, you were mine
I know, I know, I’ve been away but you’re
Not the type for valentines
Bearpark, I get homesick

Langley you are fine
I know, I know, I’m a gypsy
But Bearpark, Bearpark’s on my mind
There’s nowhere else like you

I’m gonna walk this weary body that’s been nowhere far too long
I’m gonna drag it back where it belongs

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram,
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

Bearpark, what a place
I know that this will sound soft but I
Sometimes think you’ve got a face
Both eyes black and blue

A stranger comes to town
I know, I know, the chances are that
Some bright spark will run him down
No honey on your tongue

I’m gonna take this broken spirit
Gonna heal it for all time
When I see your dear name
Upon a sign

Bearpark, you are mine
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram…

Maybe it is time the song got a ‘proper’ recording. As Paddy says in the liner notes on the back of the 12” single, ‘You might think you can do better – be my guest. I like cover versions.’ But he also advises: ‘Don’t spend too long on the demo’…

Madness: Five Reasons To Be Cheerful

madnessThese days, brands (and possibly bands) spend thousands – if not millions – of pounds on copywriters who half-inch bargain-basement slogans from popular psychology and self-help books. You know the kind of thing: ‘Find Your Happy’, ‘Believe In Better’ (I’m compiling a list of the worst ad slogans of all time, by the way, if you have any to hand, but I digress…), and all that other absolute twaddle.

Anyway, I’ve needed a cheer-up recently and know a much better way to ‘find my happy’: watching a few Madness videos. It’s easy to forget how great a lot of their stuff is if you’re an English pop fan. They’re so much part of the furniture. According to the stats, no other band spent more time on the UK singles chart during the 1980s.

One of the keys to their longevity seems to be that they are essentially a songwriters’ collective; at one point or another, all the members have had a hand in penning a hit (they famously shared the publishing royalties seven ways – 50% for the writer/writers, and the remainder divided up equally among everyone else).

There’s definitely method in their madness: intelligent, often socially-conscious lyrics that are actually about something, subtly-effective major/minor chord changes, hooks galore, spooky textures (no doubt very influenced by The Specials/Jerry Dammers), a superb rhythm section and the ever-reliable Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley producing/engineering team (the former apparently had lots of good songwriting and arranging input too). And in terms of music videos, surely their body of work is the most consistent of the decade, alongside Talking Heads and maybe a few others.

So here, in chronological order, are my favourite Madness vids – and some pretty damn good songs to boot.

5. Baggy Trousers (1980)

The Ian Dury-influenced classic, written by singer Suggs and guitarist Chris Foreman. I can remember first seeing this video on ‘Top Of The Pops’ like it was yesterday.

4. Shut Up (1981)

Written by Suggs and Chris Foreman from the point of view of a very deluded house burglar, this is a worthy entry into that select group of hits whose titles don’t feature in the lyrics. Blur were definitely listening – compare it with their ‘Sunday Sunday‘.

3. Driving In My Car (1982)

Written by pianist Mike Barson, the video features the lads driving down Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, and there’s even a brief cameo from Fun Boy Three.

2. Our House (1982)

Written by Chris Foreman and saxophonist Cathal Smyth AKA Chas Smash, apparently the one-line chorus was added at the last minute at producer Clive Langer’s insistence.

1. House Of Fun (1982)

Written by Lee Thompson and Mike Barson, this time the chorus was apparently demanded by Stiff Records boss Dave Robinson.

Peter Gabriel’s So: 30 Years Old Today

gabrielVirgin Records, released 19th May 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1986

‘At the time of coming back, he had tremendous determination. He said, “I do want to make it! I do want to succeed!” Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, So was about him saying, “F**k that! I’m going to allow myself to succeed.”’

Jill Gabriel, quoted in ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Spencer Bright

So was the Peter Gabriel album that put him – albeit very briefly – into the Big League, alongside the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, Hall and Oates and Springsteen. He stopped being simply the slightly esoteric, hugely-respected, highly-intelligent man about the arts, and opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; it’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.

photo by Steven Toole

photo by Steven Toole

In interviews, Gabriel has described the ’83/’84’ period as a dark time in his life. He mixed and released an excellent live album and looked for solace in film soundtrack work, producing two fairly inconsequential tracks: ‘Walk Through The Fire‘ from ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Out Out‘ – produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring Adrian Belew on lead guitar – from ‘Gremlins’. Far more substantial was his soundtrack for Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’, but, most importantly, it was the project that introduced him to So co-producer Daniel Lanois. Gabriel later credited Lanois and his then wife Jill for steering him back towards more positive thoughts, and much more ‘up’ music and lyrics.

Gabriel came up with 20 new songs by early 1985. Lanois helped him whittle them down to 12, and then six months of pre-production began, focusing on song structures and arrangements. So was mainly recorded at Gabriel’s home studio, Ashcombe House near Bath. Working at home was intended to save money on big studio fees and also speed up the creative process, but lyric-writing was still a big problem and a lack of words necessitated two missed release deadlines for So: 31st July 1985 and 14th December 1985. Virgin were patient. Lanois once even nailed him into a back room to force him to come up with some lyrics – Gabriel was not amused, at least not for a few hours. ‘It is the most upset I’ve seen him at the studio,’ guitarist David Rhodes remarked. Lanois had made his point.

Musically, Gabriel very much leaned on tried-and-tested collaborators such as Rhodes and Tony Levin – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bass on So. He’s so much part of the music. Check out his ‘drumstick bass’ (later marketed as Funk Fingers!) on ‘Big Time’. No one else would have thought of that. Joni Mitchell’s then husband Larry Klein also plays some lovely fretless on ‘Mercy Street’. French-African newcomer Manu Katche amazed everyone with his drumming, particularly on ‘That Voice Again‘ and ‘In Your Eyes’. He had a new twist on Stewart Copeland’s style and also somehow found the time to fit occasional tom-tom flurries into his grooves too.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Red Rain‘ opens with some resplendent Copeland hi-hat work, and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at – the influences were now flowing both ways. ‘Don’t Give Up‘ was inspired by a BBC TV documentary about the effect of unemployment on British family life, and also the photography of Dorothea Lange, portraying dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression.

Mercy Street‘, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s ‘Under Stars‘ which Lanois co-produced. Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum deepness. The song’s Brazilian/African groove predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so.

We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)‘, concerning social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, was originally recorded for Melt in 1980. While musically very rich and dark (I always think of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it is possibly a little half-baked – it’s hard to see what ‘One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream’ has to do with the experiment.

Big Time‘ is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity – ‘This drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature’, he later said. Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark. Another much rockier version – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – was also recorded but scrapped just before the mastering stage.

‘Sledgehammer’ was the last song written and recorded for So. Ironically, it dislodged Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’ to become a US number one single in July 1986. A catalogue of sexual innuendos, it’s one of the weirder hits of the 1980s. Its odd cheerfulness may come from the fact that it’s mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre. The opening sampled bamboo flute was copied by hundreds of keyboard players across the UK (or at least a few in my school). The groundbreaking video for the song, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ clip), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time.

Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the album’s sequencing: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations. He always wanted ‘In Your Eyes’ to close So, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl (though it’s hard to ‘hear’ it anywhere else but at the beginning of side two…). He finally got it where he wanted it on the definitive remastered version.

Gabriel’s only concession to the record company was to name the album something apart from ‘Peter Gabriel’. So seemed suitably off-the-cuff – ‘It had a nice shape but very little meaning’, he later said. He also decided that a simple cover shot would better suit the directness of the music and lyrics than some of the more disturbing covers of albums past. So‘s design and packaging still look fantastic today.

The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by summer 1987 had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Gabriel promoted the album extensively before embarking on Amnesty’s Human Rights Now! with Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen in 1988. He had a lot more than music on his mind – he waited a full six years before releasing the official follow-up to So.

More power to PG – a national treasure.

How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #3: Level 42’s Staring At The Sun

level Polydor Records, released September 1988

Bought: Our Price, Leadenhall Street? 1988

4/10

‘Breaking America’ was the goal of many a 1980s Brit pop band. For some, like Culture Club, Tears For Fears or Scritti Politti, it was somewhat of a doddle, the result of a breakout hit single, great video, great image or combination of all three. But for others, it was a pretty nebulous, elusive concept.

Level 42 had made a great start (albeit five years into their career) when their 1985 single ‘Something About You’ breezed into the US top 20 and they found themselves touring with Madonna and Tina Turner as well as playing umpteen one-nighters. But their hard work seemed to be producing diminishing returns in terms of US chart action, even while they continued to take Europe by storm.

The departure of drummer Phil Gould from the band at the beginning of 1988 was not exactly a surprise to Mark King, Mike Lindup and manager Paul Crockford; Gary Husband, his eventual replacement, had been waiting in the wings at the first sign of discord during late 1986, but wasn’t officially announced as a new member until early 1988. The departure of Phil’s guitarist brother Boon was more unexpected.

But this clearing of ‘old wood’ was the chance to really make a concerted effort to court the US market and deliver a Stateside album hit. ‘87’s Running In The Family had been a massive success and proved they could mix it with Europe’s best. Staring At The Sun was the opportunity for Level 42 to do a Sting, Chris Rea or Bryan Adams. But it didn’t quite go to plan…

The album was recorded during spring 1988 in the beautiful Provencal environs of Miraval in France. ‘Fifth member’ Wally Badarou co-produced with King alongside Julian Mendelsohn, the engineer on World Machine. In the absence of Boon Gould (though he did write lyrics to almost all the tracks), Mark King played most of the guitars with occasional contributions from sessionmen Dominic Miller (briefly a member of Level 42 in 1980) and Alan Murphy, who was subsequently offered the official guitar spot in the band.

But, even as a Level-mad 15-year-old, I picked up something iffy about Staring At The Sun from the word go. Mark King’s bass playing was ultra-tasteful – almost to the point of anonymity – and almost always doubled with synth bass. Boon Gould’s catchy guitar hooks were much missed. And it was always going to take a while to get used to Husband’s drumming. A brilliant, rock-solid player though he is, compared to Gould his grooves feel rather leaden. You always feel he would be happier breaking out the monumental jazz/rock fills and only really comes into his own on the excellent, very John McLaughlinesque instrumental ‘Gresham Blues’.

And then there’s the songwriting. ‘Heaven In My Hands’ was a decent single and album starter – memorable, bombastic and musically rich with a cracking Murphy guitar part, but it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to ‘rock’ and subsequently underperformed in the UK (number 12) and US (didn’t chart). Steve Barron directed a fine video which looks very striking even now (though weirdly isn’t on YouTube). ‘I Don’t Know Why’ is possibly the nadir of the band’s career, a puny piece of pop/reggae from the bottom of The Police’s demo cassette box. ‘Over There’ is a departure for the band (being in 6/8) but is based on the flimsiest of King strummed-bass chord progressions.

‘Take A Look’ is a fine single though, a deceptively jaunty piece, full of clever melodic modulations (I love the key change after the first half of the second chorus) and enigmatic major/minor chord changes, hinting at great depths lyrically with its tale of a happy-go-lucky, naïve protagonist derailed by a doomed love affair (given a weird twist for the song’s video).

Lindup’s ‘Silence’ is passable, though again far too musically pat. The title track and ‘Two Hearts Collide’ barely register. ‘Man’ is by far the best track on Staring At The Sun, featuring a good melody, some brilliant ‘talking’ bass from King, a few witty musical homages to his heroes The Mahavishnu Orchestra and even a soupcon of prog-rock attitude.

The album was a hit in the UK, reaching number 2, but didn’t make the top 100 in the States. A botched Polydor marketing campaign may have contributed to that. The cover art is beautiful though (anyone know the designer’s name?). A friend of my brother’s had a theory that Staring At The Sun was a concept album about a Buddhist ‘journey of the soul’ – maybe the cover lends some credence to that.

Mark King himself was possibly underwhelmed by Staring At The Sun – a Sun article quoted him as saying that it was a ‘waste of vinyl’ (though he later claimed a ‘misquote’…). He was also less than chuffed with some audience reactions to the new material when the band toured the album – this writer heard him tell the Wembley Arena crowd to ‘f**k off home’ after a few encores of old hits!

But the whole Staring At The Sun debacle did produce a classic documentary, ‘Fait Accompli’, a fascinating snapshot of the late ‘80s record biz (check it out below, it’s brilliant). One can only feel pity for the pretty clueless Polydor bean counters and marketing men (they do all seem to be men). As Love And Money’s James Grant told movingtheriver.com recently, in the late ‘80s, when PR and marketing were taking hold in the music business, people would have nervous breakdowns over bad business decisions. It seems a few were taken over Staring At The Sun.

Maybe Mark King and Mike Lindup should have taken stock and had a break at the beginning of 1988. It was certainly a challenging, life-changing split when the brothers Gould jumped ship. But it’s hard to stop a commercial juggernaut once it starts rolling. Level 42 eventually got back on track for Staring At The Sun’s follow-up, 1991’s Guaranteed, though sadly at the expense of guitarist Alan Murphy – who tragically died in 1989 – and also their Polydor recording contract. It was time for another new start.

My Mahavishnu Moment

South-West London, 1986: after a short apprenticeship playing pots and pans, I had been given a very cheap kit by my parents and was taking my first steps towards the world of ‘serious’ drumming (yeah, right… Ed). I was also fast becoming a major jazz/rock fan, buying the new Weather Report, Mike Stern, Billy Cobham, Lyle Mays, John Scofield and Steps Ahead cassettes from HMV on Oxford Street or my local Our Price in Richmond.

mahavishnu

One evening, my dad had my uncle round for one of their regular music-listening sessions. I gatecrashed. They cranked up the Plastic Ono Band, Santana, Monk and Miles while I sat in on a knackered Spanish guitar.

And then this other tune came on. A massively-distorted, strangely exotic riff crawled out of the speakers. All the conversation abruptly stopped. My adolescent, ‘muso’ brain kicked in – was it Hendrix? Miles? Zappa? The riff moved through various modes, ascending into a wailing, chromatic guitar and violin crescendo, and then dropped dramatically to the main theme again. And then that drum groove…

Already being a huge major Billy Cobham fan, I had heard bits of Mahavishnu, mainly the mid-80s incarnation featuring ex-Miles sax player Bill Evans and bassist Jonas Hellborg. I was also aware of John McLaughlin’s playing due to his guest spot on Stanley Clarke’s incredible Journey To Love album (though didn’t know it was him on ‘Song To John’ until years later).

But this was different; striking, unhinged, dangerous, downright perverse. ‘The Dance Of Maya’ blew my mind and its otherness hits me just as hard today as it did 30 years ago. Cobham’s 6/8-flavoured groove sounds just as hip and surprising as ever. And what about the title? What the hell is a dance of Maya? I’m going to look into it…

Anyway, I was in: I came across a Mahavishnu Best-Of on cassette at my local Our Price, and a whole new world of music opened up. It was time to go back and explore the roots.

For another Mahavishnu moment, check out 1537, and let me know yours.