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.

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.

Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen: 30 Years Old Today

prefabCBS/Kitchenware Records, released 25th June 1985

9/10

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby had taken part in a ‘Round Table’ singles review programme on Radio One in early 1984, waxing lyrical about Prefab’s ‘Don’t Sing‘. The Sprouts happened to be listening in and asked their manager Keith Armstrong to ring Dolby the next day. Dolby takes up the story:

thomas dolby

Thomas Dolby in 1985

‘Keith said, “It so happens we’re actually looking for a producer right now. Are you interested?” I said, “Absolutely.” So they said, “Well, we don’t have many songs on tape to play you, but we’d like to invite you up to Paddy’s (McAloon, Prefab singer/songwriter) house.” I took the train up, spent the day there. He lived on the top of a hill in an old Catholic rectory where his mum had looked after the church. There were crucifixes on the walls. His dad, who’d had a stroke, was ill in bed upstairs. Paddy took me to his room and pulled out this stack of songs. He’d squint at them and strum his way through them. He would write notes for chords and melodies over the top of the lyrics but primarily it was about the poems.’

The songs for Steve McQueen were worked up in rehearsals with Dolby at Nomis Studios in West London in the autumn of 1984, before the recording sessions proper started at Marcus Studios.

The Sprouts apparently found the Big Smoke in turns beguiling and baffling. Taken out for dinner by CBS execs, they were introduced to the dubious pleasures of haute cuisine. According to Dolby, upon being delivered a tiny plate of food, bassist Martin McAloon was once heard to utter, ‘That was for me neck – now what’s for me stomach?’!

Dolby brought out the best in singer Wendy Smith, often using her unique soprano almost as a musical instrument, especially on ‘Moving The River’ and ‘Blueberry Pies’.

Dolby realised that part of his role as producer was to ‘smooth out’ some of the rough edges of Paddy’s remarkable songs:

Prefab Sprout

‘What happened when the band started to arrange those was that there were lots of extra beats here and there, strange chord changes or rhythm changes, or odd lengths of phrases. The musicians tried to sort of accommodate those, but in fact what needed to happen was a few of the rough edges needed to be trimmed off. But at the same time, I didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I mean, what made them so unique is that they defied logic. So the task, really, at hand, for me, was how to elevate them to a more accessible level, commercially, without homogenizing the essence of the music.That was the first meeting with Paddy. He’s a very interesting guy, very well read but humble.’

The album was mixed at Farmyard Studios in Buckinghamshire. That was where Paddy really heard what Dolby had cooked up:

‘It’s taken me decades to try to absorb what it was that Thomas did. I mean, he had a great ear for individual sounds, he wasn’t swayed so much by the things of the day. He had a Fairlight and a PPG Wave and he would use them sparingly, and he had no time for the Yamaha DX7 and the things that everyone else rushed out and bought. He was into synthesis really. He didn’t make a big thing of it… it was just what he did, in addition to having a good sense of structure.’

Dolby talks about Paddy’s vocal style on the album:

‘He can be coaxed into letting rip every now and then. So one of my favourite things about the album is that you get these occasional primal screams. The way he sings “Antiques!”, the opening line. And then later on in “Goodbye Lucille” which is this very sort of lush, soft song, in the chorus he just lets rip at the end with this scream. And I always liked that he did that on that album. In later years he tended to be this sort of breathy crooner, and you hear less of that raw side.’

prefab

Drummer Neil Conti on recording Steve McQueen:

‘When we went in to record the album, there was a very relaxed vibe which I think you can hear in the music. After a rather tense start, when Thomas Dolby, who was used to drum machines, basically tried to get me to play like a machine, things loosened up and we had some hilarious late night jams after coming back from the pub. The track “Horsin’ Around” was recorded after one such rather inebriated sojourn to the boozer and you can hear Martin laughing while I’m counting it off. That track is all over the place, but it was just what the song needed. We couldn’t get it at all before we went to the pub to horse around a bit. I think the relaxed vibe really is one of the keys to why that album sounds good. No clicks, three takes max of each song, very loose and natural.’

Steve McQueen reached 21 on the UK album chart, perhaps a slight disappointment, but the critics generally loved it. It made number 4 in NME’s Albums of 1985 poll and was well-received in Europe and the US. Rumours even appeared in the press (some good CBS PR) that Prefab might play at Live Aid. That was never going to happen but half the band did back David Bowie (producer Thomas Dolby, drummer Conti and occasional guitarist Kevin Armstrong).

An extensive UK and European tour followed the album release after which the band quickly recorded Protest Songs in late 1985, though it wouldn’t released for another four years. There was so much more to come from arguably the British band of the decade.

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…