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 collaborated rather spiffingly on the former’s Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends). 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.
A very brave 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.
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 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 too 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 very moderate success (#30 in the UK and #70 in the US) was probably not a 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’).
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 let’s not forget Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork.
4 thoughts on “Thomas Dolby: Aliens Ate My Buick”
Although I don’t have this (do have (and like) Flat Earth), I’ve always admired the cover. Reckon I’d grab it if it fell under my browsing fingers.
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Don’t let it get away! It’s a goodie. Full of ideas and fun, and great musicianship/production.
I was lucky enough to talk to Thomas after he released this album. His description of how he felt such freedom with the Dolby lawsuit and other tribulations behind him which he expressed in the music made me appreciate it more. I was very chagrined when he sulkily mentioned that I didn’t like the LP that much (I was a friend of his dad’s) but he was kind enough to badger someone to give me a poster for it which he personally autographed. Your favorites are also mine but I do enjoy Pulp Culture (and Marmite too, for that matter!). It’s pretty cool that Mike Kapitan lives nearby and I’ve been able to see him perform recently.
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Nice one, Mary. It definitely feels like he’s loosening up and having some fun on this one.