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.

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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…

Paranoia And Passport Controls: Simple Minds’ Empires And Dance

Simple mindsArista Records, released 12th September 1980

8/10

Before their mid-‘80s commercial peak, Simple Minds were an art-rock band par excellence.

They fitted perfectly into the post-punk landscape and on Empires And Dance, their third album, they certainly wore their influences boldly on their sleeve – Kraftwerk, Can, Roxy, Joy Division, Eno, Magazine, Velvet Underground, ‘Lodger’-era Bowie – but combined them exceptionally well.

Musically very strong, with Derek Forbes’ memorable basslines very much to the fore, this uncompromising album combines motorik beats with doomy vocals, Eno-style ambience, jagged post-punk guitar and deliciously sludgy synths.

Jim Kerr’s travelogue lyrics compliment the music perfectly, snapshots of bleak European passport controls, attempted assassinations and wintery landscapes. Producer John Leckie brings his usual spirit of experimentation and lays on the brittle, creeping sense of paranoia.

Simple_Minds

While the one-chord grooves tire a bit on ‘Today I Died Again’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Capital City’, the Euro-funk of ‘I Travel’ and ‘This Fear of Gods’ chills the blood. ‘Twist/Run/Repulsion’ is almost an early example of sampling with its random speech, out-of-phase horn blasts and queasy, looped drums. Kerr channels Bowie’s ‘African Night Flight’ with his high-speed rap (though on the demo he took a different approach).

‘Thirty Frames a Second’ and ‘Constantinople Line’ almost approach the work of Throbbing Gristle and Gary Numan with their garish synth tones and forbidding atmospheres. ‘Kant Kino’, named after a Berlin art-house cinema, pits a slight but very catchy Charlie Burchill guitar melody against amplifier hiss, tape echo and synth drone; Eno would surely approve and the track was possibly an influence on U2’s ‘4th Of July’.

The closer ‘Room’ could almost have come from the first Velvet Underground album (though they could have done with playing to a click track; the song almost doubles in speed by the end…).

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Empires And Dance peaked at 41 in the UK album charts. According to writer Mike Wrenn, it might have gone higher had Arista Records pressed more than just 7,500 copies at a time. The band couldn’t get off that label fast enough (like Iggy Pop).

But Peter Gabriel became a major fan and took them on tour with him throughout October and November 1980, allegedly paying most of their expenses.

Empires And Dance is very interesting album and a great companion piece to Peter Gabriel III and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.