Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age Of Wireless: 35 Years Old Today

EMI Records, originally released 25th March 1982

9/10

London-born Thomas Morgan Robertson had already made a bit of a name for himself as a synth wiz for hire – working with Bruce Woolley/The Camera Club, Joan Armatrading, Thompson Twins, Lene Lovich and Foreigner – before embarking on his debut solo album in late summer 1981. But, as he once said, he knew ‘too many chords’ to get any regular employment in the punk and new-wave bands of the era, so was pretty much forced to go it alone.

The Golden Age Of Wireless was mainly recorded at Tapestry (a subterranean studio built and owned by John Kongos situated at the end of my mum’s road in South-West London), essentially a one-man-band operation with occasional contributions from various muso mates (Daniel Miller, Tim Friese-Greene, Andy Partridge, Simon House, Kevin Armstrong, Mutt Lange).

Lyrically, the album seemed to be a Janus-like vision of England – looking back to its WW2 past and forward to the kinds of urban dystopias explored by novelist JG Ballard. ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’ emphasises this collision of past and future with Andy Partridge’s blues harmonica and the song’s rockabilly feel rubbing up against a barrage of synths and sequencers. The haunting ‘One Of Our Submarines’ repeats the trick with ‘futuristic’ vocal samples alongside ARP string synths more redolent of the mid 1970s.

The album is also for me inextricably linked to the coastal area of South-East England near the White Cliffs Of Dover where I spent family holidays during my late teens, an area of course also reverberating with military history. I’d comb the beaches and walk the cliffs with Wireless playing loud on my Walkman.

But first to ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. The title is taken from a war-time phrase, an expression of female appreciation, as in: ‘Cor, she fair blinded me with science, guvnor!’ For a ‘novelty’ single, it has aged pretty well, mainly due to the incredible amount of detail placed across the stereo image: TV scientist Magnus Pyke’s still-pretty-funny interjections, Simon House’s beguiling, Middle-Eastern violin licks, Matthew Seligman’s pithy synth bass and Dolby’s intriguing sonic ‘events’. The song was a huge American hit, making #5 in May 1983, but could it have been any more British? Never mind the title – one wonders how many Americans even came close to understanding a lyric such as ‘She blinded me with science and failed me in biology’.

But ‘Blinded’ was somewhat of an anomaly. Much of Wireless is downbeat, enigmatic and haunting. Dolby proves himself a brilliant producer and arranger, a master of painting pictures with sound: the shortwave radio which kicks off ‘Radio Silence’; the shipping forecast closing ‘One Of Our Submarines’, the ‘doom’ vocals which introduce ‘Weightless’ and close ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’. He’s also obviously a tremendous keys player, with endless excellent arrangement ideas and even a few chops (you wouldn’t catch anyone from OMD attempting anything like the extended Moog solo in the very Prefab-esque ‘Commercial Breakup’).

In the middle of recording his second album (and second masterpiece) The Flat Earth, ‘Blinded’ took off in the States, becoming a signature tune of the Second British Invasion. Dolby had to drop everything and get over there pronto. Michael Jackson wanted to meet him. But he would never again trouble the singles charts in the States, and the ‘mad scientist’ image would only very occasionally be dusted off from here on in. Not necessarily a bad thing.

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Gig Review: John Carpenter @ The Troxy, 1st November 2016

carpenter-halloween

Carpenter (centre) and band overseen by Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis from ‘Halloween’

In a way, it’s surprising that John Carpenter has taken so long to perform his own music in concert. The director of ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Thing’ is well-known for his incredibly effective, synth-laden soundtracks, and he’s also been known to let his hair down in after-hours rock band The Coupe De Villes with movie biz friends Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace.

But it’s actually a perfect time for him to be fronting his own band. Watching Adam Curtis’s impressive ‘HyperNormalisation’ documentary last week, I was struck how many current bands are clearly influenced by Carpenter’s music (which has also frequently turned up in Curtis’s docs). The dark, pulsing synthscapes of worriedaboutsatan and Pye Corner Audio particularly owe him a large debt.

Though apparently not in tip-top health (it’s hard to resist quoting that great line from ‘Assault’: ‘He don’t stand up as good as he used to…’), Carpenter was clearly having a ball on this short UK tour, bopping around behind his keyboard and booming out pre-rehearsed lines like ‘Good evening, London, I’m John Carpenter!’ and ‘Horror movies will live forever!’.

The beautiful Art-Deco Troxy venue was specially decked out like the ‘Escape From New York’ set, while a large screen behind the stage projected key scenes from his many classic movies.

carpenter-they-live

Carpenter mixed up tracks from his soundtrack work with some from recent non-soundtrack albums Lost Themes 1 and 2. The theme from ‘The Fog’, embellished with some baroque church organ, sent a chill down the spine while ‘They Live’ and ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ were graced with some great, sleazy noir lead guitar from Daniel Davies.

‘Halloween’ and ‘Escape From New York’ were greeted like hit singles by the near-sold-out crowd. Newer track ‘Vortex’ showed how distinctive a musician Carpenter really is, the opening piano chords instantly recognisable as his soundworld. Other tracks had hints of Metallica, The Knack and even The Police at their rockiest.

A couple of bum notes: the venue sound was not great and the band were a bit brittle at times – you occasionally wanted a bit of double-bass-pedal mayhem from drummer Scott Seiver. There was also a bit too much DX7 and not enough booming Moog in the synth department. And where was the video for ‘Night’?

But all in all this was a great way to pay one’s respects to a master of mood and texture and a damn good musician to boot. Go ahead, John. We await the Coupe De Ville’s debut London gig with anticipation.

The Human League’s Dare: 35 Years Old Today

human-leagueVirgin Records, released 16th October 1981

Produced by Martin Rushent/The Human League

Recorded at Genetic Sound Studios, Reading, Berkshire, UK

UK album chart position: #1
US album chart position: #3

Singles released: ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (UK #12)
‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ (UK #3)
‘Open Your Heart’ (UK #6)
‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK #1, US #1)

Phil Oakey (vocals/co-composer): ‘Martin really knew what pop was. He could take your mad sounds and make them pop. I still reckon “The Sound Of The Crowd” is one of the maddest songs that’s ever got in the Top 20. “Love Action” hasn’t got a proper chorus. I remember smashing the phone after I was told “Don’t You Want Me” was number 1 in America. It’s so much to live up to. Everyone and their grandma knows about you so no one wants to wear your badges any more…’

Martin Rushent: ‘To a large extent, I was their band. I was certainly their drummer because I programmed all the rhythms and made all the decisions about the grooves. I learned a lot from working with the arranger Johnny Harris. He was bandleader for all the show singers like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. I learned about voicing instruments and how the most important element of music is silence. If you listen to Dare, there’s lots of space in the songs and lots of little parts and you can sing them all…’

Propaganda’s A Secret Wish: 30 Years Old Today

propagandaZTT Records, released 2nd July 1985

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1994?

8/10

A Secret Wish represents the peak of ’80s pop music. The glamorous though mysterious project was a flawed masterpiece but also the beginning of the end for big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over ‘concept’ albums. You might even say that ’80s pop was all downhill from here.

I was 12 when A Secret Wish came out, and, though I liked ‘Duel’ at the time, it took me another ten years or so to finally get hold of the album. If anything, it has only gained in mystique in the years since, quite possibly because it’s such a singular project. It doesn’t really sound much like much else around in mid-’85 (though Pet Shop Boys and a-Ha were definitely listening), nor is it particularly similar to other ZTT releases or Propaganda’s subsequent albums.

A large part of the mystique is provided by Stephen Lipson’s pristine, widescreen production (Trevor Horn only produced ‘Dr Mabuse’), as well as his formidable mixing and guitar work (check out the extended mix of ‘Duel’). Claudia Brucken’s lead vocals are original and Suzanne Freytag’s spoken-word interludes carry unmistakable echoes of Nico (emphasised by their seriously weird ‘Femme Fatale‘ cover from the album sessions).

Yes guitarist Steve Howe contributes a nifty solo to ‘The Murder Of Love’ and David Sylvian has a hand in writing the gripping ‘p:Machinery’. But man of the match is ZTT house keyboardist Peter-John Vettese, purveyor of doomy soundscapes and intriguing chord voicings. Josef K’s post-punk classic ‘Sorry For Laughing’ is reinvented as a Wagnerian synth-pop anthem and there aren’t many more epic album openers in pop than the majestic ‘Dream Within A Dream’.

Paul Morley, ZTT marketing/content man and former husband of Claudia Brucken, has talked about Trevor Horn and David Sylvian’s involvement in A Secret Wish:

Propaganda

‘When Trevor pulled out of producing them, I actually asked David Sylvian. While he was thinking about it, he came up with the ghostly top line of ‘P:Machinery’ – the music, if you like – and a gorgeous watery slowed down version of ‘Duel’, but he decided against producing them, and it stayed within the Sarm (London recording studio owned by ZTT label owners Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair) pop factory. Actually, another sign of the split between sensibilities at the label: I asked David Sylvian to produce Propaganda and Jill approached Stock Aitken and Waterman!’

A Secret Wish wasn’t a huge hit and surely didn’t make back its sizeable recording costs, reaching just 16 in the UK album chart, but the singles ‘Duel’ and ‘p:Machinery’ both made the top 30. The band picked up the first-class rhythm section of ex-Simple Minds pair Derek Forbes on bass and Brian McGee on drums (as well as Bowie/Dolby guitarist Kevin Armstrong) and toured the album extensively. I very clearly remember this performance on the BBC music show ‘Whistle Test’ in late 1985. Happy days:

Japan: Oil On Canvas 32 Years On

japanVirgin Records, released 18th June 1983

9/10

Produced by John Porter and Japan

UK Album Chart Position: #5

First of all: the cover. As a teenager, I was instantly intrigued by Frank Auerbach’s mesmerising artwork, and the music very definitely lived up to the packaging.

Recorded live during Japan’s final tour, though with a good few overdubs (according to the recent Japan biography ‘A Foreign Place’, the only ‘live’ elements on the album are Steve Jansen’s drums – everything else was replayed in the studio) and three new studio tracks added too, Oil On Canvas was released six months after their break-up and proved a perfect farewell from one of the key bands of the early ’80s.

The fact that it ended up as Japan’s highest-selling album (selling over 100,000 in the UK) must have really irked manager Simon Napier-Bell – after year of toil, the band were calling it a day just as they were getting some commercial success (read ‘A Foreign Place’ for a full explanation of the split). Tin Drum was great but who knows what they might have come up with as a follow-up given the giant strides they had made as musicians, songwriters and arrangers since ’81. Sure enough, within a few months of their split, Duran Duran were taking their sound and image to the bank.

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

There is so much to enjoy on Oil On Canvas. The Tin Drum tracks have added heft and a bit more air. David Sylvian‘s vocals are warmer and more expressive than on the studio albums (though he has since virtually disowned this early singing style), and his Satie-esque title track prefigures the triumphs of his solo career.

‘Ghosts’ is extended with a superb Stockhausen-meets-serialism intro/interlude thrown in while ‘Canton’ becomes a mighty parade of musical colours, with clanging synths, whip-lashing china cymbals and the late great Mick Karn‘s increasingly insane bass embellishments.

There has never been a rhythm section quite like Karn and Steve Jansen (drums) and probably never will be again. They revel in open spaces and ‘non-rock’ textures, typified by the deceptively simple and downright spooky ‘Sons Of Pioneers‘. Karn sounded like no one else on fretless bass (and looked like no one else too – see below), exploring Middle Eastern concepts and weird intervals to produce a sound both complex and hilarious.

Jansen came up with several of the most ingenious backbeats in pop history while always making them danceable. Together, they produced classic grooves like ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’, and Richard Barbieri’s creative keys playing always emphasises texture and mood over technique. His closing instrumental ‘Temple Of Dawn’ bids a fantastic album farewell first with a chill and then with a brief shot at redemption.

Sylvian escaped to a successful, innovative solo career, Karn also went solo and hooked up with collaborators including Midge Ure, Peter Murphy and, most memorably, Kate Bush. Barbieri and Jansen teamed up regularly in various projects and recorded together as The Dolphin Brothers in 1987 but didn’t enjoy much commercial success. Against all odds, they all got together again at the end of the ’80s for the intriguing Rain Tree Crow project.

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…