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.

Advertisements

XTC’s English Settlement: 35 Years Old Today

r-1455277-1313625163-jpegVirgin Records, released 12th February 1982

Produced by Hugh Padgham and XTC

Recorded at The Manor, Oxfordshire, October/November 1981

Working titles: Rogue Soup, Motorcyle Landscape, World Colour Banner, Explosion Of Flowers, Knights On Fire

Album Chart position: #5 (UK), #48 (US)

Singles released: ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (UK #10)
‘Ball And Chain’ (UK #58)
‘No Thugs In Our House’ (did not chart)

Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘We spent the summer of 1981 rehearsing at Terry “Fatty” Alderton’s Tudor Rehearsal Studio and it was very sweaty. All the Swindon heavy rock bands would rehearse there, drink cider and piss in the corner. Terry (Chambers) had forgotten how to drum. He had spent the early summer working on a building site and when he set up his drum kit it was more like scaffolding. He was just useless (but apparently improved pretty quickly… Ed.). I forced him to buy a new snare drum and timbale. I bought a Yamaha acoustic. It opened up possibilities for new sounds where the live arrangements mattered less. I’d become unhinged a couple of times on tour and wanted a break. The album cover (by Ken Ansell)? I think it was just that we were fascinated with the Uffington Horse. The Americans thought it was a duck…’

Dave Gregory (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals): ‘I’d always dreamed about owning a 12-string Rickenbacker but it had seemed like a frivolous folly until now. I fell totally in love with the sound. English Settlement was a watershed record for us. We’d made a couple of guitar records and then the acoustic side came out. It was definitely a progression. There weren’t too many songs, just not enough time…’

Colin Moulding: (vocals, bass, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘I bought a fretless bass. I thought it would fit in with the acoustic stuff we were doing but it was impossible on tour. You have to have a flair for playing something without frets and I haven’t. As soon as the lights went out…the rest is history…’

For much more info on English Settlement, check out Neville Farmer’s book ‘XTC Song Stories’.

XTC’s Skylarking: 30 Years Old Today

xtcVirgin Records, released 27th October 1986

10/10

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Recorded at Utopia Studios, Woodstock, upstate New York

UK album chart position: #90 (!)
US album chart position: #70 (!)

terry-thomas

Terry-Thomas in ‘School For Scoundrels’

Side One:

1. ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

Andy Partridge (composer): ‘Something about the words reminded me of Dylan Thomas. Not that I’m saying I’m a Dylan Thomas. More of a Terry-Thomas, really…’

2. ‘Grass’

Colin Moulding (composer): ‘A lot of people think the song’s about marijuana – it isn’t. Todd said: “Don’t sing so deep. You sound like a bit of a molester.” So I just did the Bowie thing and added an octave above it…’

3. ‘The Meeting Place’

Moulding: ‘Because the riff was a bit like “Postman Pat”, we were just figures on a Toytown landscape viewed from above. It was me meeting her (future wife Carol) at the gates for a sandwich in The Beehive pub, embroidered with the suggestion of a lunchtime quickie…’

4. ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’

Partridge: ‘I’d go into his (guitarist Dave Gregory) little room, smelling of aftershave and guitar wax and dead mice, and he’d be rehearsing this solo over and over again. I can still see him playing it. I remember when we were recording the song that Todd was trying to master it on keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, “He’s got the chords wrong!” He thought the chords were major, and they’re not. I was hearing it a lot more clangorous…’

5. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ (Partridge)

6. ‘1000 Umbrellas’

Partridge: ‘There was very little time to do the strings. They had one run-through and then recorded it. Their balls were on the line but they turned in a pretty fine performance…’

7. ‘Season Cycle’

Partridge: ‘I felt that I had maybe laid the ghost of Ray Davies ‘fore me and written a song that could stand up against “Shangri-La” or even, dare I suggest, “Autumn Almanac”.’

Side Two:

8. ‘Earn Enough For Us’ (Partridge)

9. ‘Big Day’

Moulding: ‘I’d been messing around with the chords of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love” and, with a little moving around, it became this sort of fanfare to a big event, a ticker-tape parade for a big day.’

10. ‘Another Satellite’

Partridge: ‘I regret writing it because things turned out so marvellously with the person (Erica Wexler) it’s all about. The story had a happy ending because Erica and I finally got to express the emotional bond that was always there.’

11. ‘Mermaid Smiled’ (Partridge)

12. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’

Partridge: ‘It just says you’re born, you live and you die. Why look for the meaning of life when all there is is death and decay? Todd said, “Let’s do a John Barry thing” and, literally overnight, came up with his arrangement with brass and flutes. It’s bang on. Cod spy music.’

13. ‘Dying’ (Moulding)

It frightens me when you come to mind
The day you dropped in the shopping line
And my heart beats faster when I think of all the signs, all the signs
When they carried you out your mouth was open wide
The cat went astray and the dog did pine for days and days
And I felt so guilty when we played you up
When you were ill, so ill
What sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard
And your multicoulored tea cozy

What sticks in my mind is the dew drop hanging off your nose
Shrivelled up and blue
And I’m getting older, too
But I don’t want to die like you
Don’t want to die like you, don’t want to die like you

14. ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’

Moulding: ‘There was a touch of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a bit of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” in it, I suppose. But I wasn’t moralising. It was just that this was an evil piece of music and good would triumph over it. (The strings) were a bit too Vivaldi for me, but it had to go somewhere, I suppose…’

Further reading: ‘XTC Song Stories‘ by Neville Farmer

Complicated Game‘ by Todd Bernhardt/Andy Partridge

Three Angry 1980s Songs About Managers

Grey_Double-Buttoned_Suit_JacketManagers, eh? In 1997, David Bowie said, ‘They’re a species I really have nothing to do with’, an unsurprising position considering his disastrous earlier experiences with Tony Defries. By the late ’70s, he’d sworn off them forever.

But, in the rock and pop world, it’s almost a rite of passage to be ripped off by a manager. As the old music biz saying goes: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.

There were certainly a number of dodgy characters hanging around in the 1980s, generally wearing cheap suits and deafening aftershave. Japan/Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell knows where all the bodies are buried: he told all in ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay’, his jaw-dropping account of record business skulduggery. And Giles Smith’s hilarious ’80s memoir ‘Lost In Music‘ outlined his doomed-to-fail attempts at pop stardom whilst being hamstrung every step of the way by chronically-inept ‘career adviser’ Pete The Bastard.

Basically, for every Bruce Findlay (Simple Minds), Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits) or Paul McGuinness (U2) – the nominal ‘fifth member of the band’ – there’s probably a Colonel Tom Parker or Defries in the wings.

Here are three prime 1980s acts who turned on their ex-managers in the best way they knew how.

3. XTC: ‘I Bought Myself A Liarbird’ (1984)

For many years, songwriter Andy Partridge was unable to discuss this song due to ‘legal issues’ with the band’s former manager Ian Reid (the sticking points seemed to be a huge unpaid VAT bill and also work/life balance, or lack of it…). Partridge delivers a pretty caustic portrait of the ‘starmaker machinery behind the popular song’, as Joni Mitchell called it. XTC settled out of court with Reid in 1989.

I bought myself a liarbird
He came with free drinks
Just to blur the lies falling out like rain
On an average English summer’s afternoon

I bought myself a new notebook
Sharpened my guitar and went to look
If this biz was just as bongo as the liarbird made out

All he would say is ‘I can make you famous’
All we would say: ‘Just like a household name’
Is all he would say

Methinks world is for you
Made of what you believe
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your bible
Or on the back of this record sleeve

I bought myself a liarbird
Things got more and more absurd
It changed to a cuckoo
And expanded, filling up with all I gave

I bought myself a big mistake
He grew too greedy, bough will break
And then we will find that liarbirds
Are really flightless on their own

Methinks world is for you
There’s no handing it back
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your prayer book
Or on the side of a cornflake pack

I gave away a liarbird
A couple less drinks
And now I’ve heard the truth shining out like sun
On an average English winter’s afternoon

2. John Martyn: ‘John Wayne’ (1986)

This Eastern-tinged, dramatic doom-ballad was initially written as a diatribe against Martyn’s early-’80s manager Sandy Roberton. The main problem seemed to be ‘cashflow’, judging from the lyric below… After a rewrite and the adding of a soupçon of humour (as well as some of John’s ‘strangled duck’ vocals, as he called them), it also became a cheeky portrait of the type of ball-busting, all-American bullyboy represented by Duke Wayne and Martyn’s old favourite Ronald Reagan. He even managed to include a classic Pinteresque euphemism: ‘I’ll measure you – fit you up!’

You know you’ve got it coming
I’ll tell it to you straight
I’m coming for you very soon
I’ll never hesitate
I’ll measure you
And fit you up

I am John Wayne
I do believe I’m John Wayne
I am John Wayne
Drink your milk!

Don’t you dare look behind you
You know I will be there
You’ll feel my breath on your neck
Turn, face me if you dare

I am John Wayne
I believe I’m John Wayne
Get on your horse!

You felt the money flowing
You watched the beast arrive
Watch the money going away
Time to skin the lamb alive

1. Prince: ‘Bob George’ (1987)

Black Album curio ‘Bob George’ was recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound as a present for Sheila E, and premièred at her Vertigo club birthday bash on 11th December 1986. Engineer Susan Rogers explained the genesis of this bizarre, self-mocking, X-rated piece: ‘Prince felt (Billboard music critic) Nelson George had become very critical of him all of a sudden, at a stage in his career where he needed all the help he could get. (Manager) Bob Cavallo also ticked him off.’ Roots of this discord may have lain in Prince’s wish to release the triple-album Crystal Ball as the follow-up to Parade, a wish that fell on deaf ears during negotiations with Prince’s record company Warner Bros. Maybe Prince felt that Cavallo hadn’t pushed hard enough on his behalf, terminally affecting their working relationship – Cavallo was given the push just after the release of the Batman album 18 months later. (Is ‘Bob George’ also a homage to/pastiche of Miles Davis? Ed.)

Book Review: Inside The Songs Of XTC

complicated gameBooks about songwriting are a small but fast-growing and fascinating subgenre of music journalism. Alongside such classic tomes as Paul Zollo’s ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘, Omnibus Press’s ‘Complete Guides’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles‘, we’ve also recently had Daniel Rachel’s excellent ‘Isle Of Noises‘. And now here comes another cracker.

XTC fans, however, may be slightly surprised about the publication of ‘Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC‘, a gripping new book of interviews with mainman Andy Partridge, seeing as they may possibly feel that it would hard to better Neville Farmer’s ‘XTC Song Stories’.

But, while obviously covering similar ground, ‘Complicated Game’ zooms in with forensic detail on a select group of Partridge songs, particularly ones that may well have been overlooked throughout his stellar career (‘Travels In Nihilon’, ‘No Language In Our Lungs’, ‘Beating Of Hearts’, ’25 O’Clock’ etc). He once said that XTC’s music explores the unexplored nooks and crannies of the guitar neck; this book does the same for their discography.

Essentially, ‘Complicated Game’ is a transcription of over 30 interviews by American rock journalist/musician Todd Bernhardt. Though some of Partridge’s legendary West-Country repartee and clever wordplay occasionally get a bit lost in translation, these conversations are candid, detailed and never less than engaging. Discussions about a rhyming couplet can suddenly give way to painful memories of Partridge’s divorce, or asides about Swindon or 9/11. The ‘Dear God’ controversy gets a whole chapter. The thorny subject of record company wrangling is never far from the surface, and Andy’s troubled relationships with producers is also a constant theme, with Steve Nye, Todd Rundgren and Gus Dudgeon taking centre stage (the former being described as ‘possibly the grumpiest guy we’ve ever worked with’!)

There’s just enough musical theory discussed too, and – not surprisingly, given that Bernhardt once interviewed Partridge at length for Modern Drummer magazine – a lot of emphasis on the role of the rhythm section, with much talk about Colin Moulding’s superb bass playing and many hilarious anecdotes about original XTC drummer Terry Chambers and later sticksmen Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince and Dave Mattacks.

But, most importantly, Partridge is able to give detailed and fascinating answers about where he gets his songwriting inspiration, looking in detail at how unusual – and often completely accidental – chords can set off images and themes, and also how much he associates music with colours. There’s also a lot of advice for songwriters about how to develop initial ideas.

Andy_Partridge

Of course, the real measure of a great music book is how quickly one is drawn back to the records, and ‘Complicated Game’ works a treat in that regard – I rushed first to the CD and then to the guitar to try and nail down ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl‘ and ‘Church Of Women’. The orchestral arrangements and song structures of the truly singular ‘River Of Orchids’ and ‘I Can’t Own Her’ are also discussed in great detail.

There are a few minor quibbles: some of the interviews have a slightly ‘flogging a dead horse’ feel to them, and also there’s a strange reluctance to talk about Partridge’s contemporaries – Sting, Weller, McAloon, Gartside et al go unmentioned, and Elvis Costello is only referred to once in terms of his huge bank balance…

But hey, enough of my nitpicking. ‘Complicated Game’ is another fine book about songwriting, a good holiday read for ’80s music fans and a great companion piece to ‘XTC Song Stories’. I devoured it almost in one sitting and will be reaching for it regularly. Give it a whirl here. There’s also a cracking recent radio interview with Andy Partridge and Bernhardt here.

Gig Review: Scritti Politti @ The Roundhouse, 5th February 2016

all photos: John Williams Photography

all photos: John Williams Photography

Stage fright is the elephant in the room for some musicians. For every Jimi Hendrix or Madonna there’s an Andy Partridge or Green Gartside, gifted songwriters for whom live performance never felt like their true calling. And during the opening moments of this hugely enjoyable – even revelatory – Scritti gig, it all threatened to go a bit Pete Tong before a triumphant turnaround.

Despite his extraordinary, instantly recognisable vocals, Gartside has always been somewhat of a reluctant frontman. He started out almost as the default vocalist in a kind of post-punk collective before an extreme onstage panic attack meant that he didn’t play live at all between 1980 and 2006. But during that enforced exile, he built up one of the most sophisticated, revered and interesting songbooks in British pop. As with Partridge, the break from live performing brought out the best in him and produced classic albums Songs To Remember, Cupid & Psyche ’85 and Provision. This relatively rare Scritti gig at the legendary Chalk Farm venue was a celebration of a fascinating career, and Gartside was also committed to explaining (almost) all the whys and wherefores of his craft in often hilariously candid fashion.

Scritti Politti 2

You could forgive a remarkably youthful-looking Green his nerves – The Roundhouse was jam-packed, bathed in subtle lighting and beautifully decked out as an all-seater venue in the round. Just entering the auditorium almost led this writer to give out an audible expletive. But in a way he should have felt right at home – Scritti’s original late-’70s HQ was just around the corner on Carol Street, and Green also revealed that the Young Communist League and men’s group (‘where we would berate ourselves for being men’!) had also been very near the venue.

But back to the stage fright. Before even a note had been played, Green had major guitar strap issues, finding himself unable to get the damn instrument on as the crowd applauded sympathetically. ‘Oh, shit… This is why I didn’t play live for 20 years’, he sighed, looking genuinely troubled. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ finally got things underway, the delicious 1981 single described by Gartside as being his attempt to fuse Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs. He revealed that he had even approached those two to collaborate on the song; when he didn’t hear back from the German techno innovators, he subsequently bumped into their co-founder Florian at a Tito Puente gig (of all things), only to be told by the titular German: ‘I hate reggae’!

Gartside indulged in some spirited rapping and did a passable Meshell Ndegeocello impression during ‘Die Alone’ while ‘The Word Girl‘ sounded simply fantastic, causing outbreaks of groovy dancing from the very diverse crowd. Green revealed that the original vocal may have been influenced by looking out of the studio window and seeing a sheep up to its neck in snow during the song’s recording in 1984.

Scritti Politti 3

A spine-tingling ‘Boom Boom Bap‘ was described as an ode to ‘beer and hip-hop’, while the delicious ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder‘ pushed its claim as the greatest ever Green composition, apparently written on one of Joni Mitchell’s guitars given to him by legendary manager Peter Asher. Green also described how the song was ‘started in an LA hotel and finished in a flat above a dentist in Newport, Gwent’.

The raw, spiky ‘Skank Bloc Bologna‘ and ‘28/8/78‘ (with spoken-word additions from Radio 4’s Harriet Cass) sounded like they could have been recorded yesterday, while the live premiere of ‘Asylums In Jerusalem‘ was perfect. A delicious ‘Oh Patti‘ also got its live premiere, and ‘Jacques Derrida‘ reiterated how similar Scritti and Prefab Sprout‘s soundworlds were in the early ’80s, though Green ended it with a passionate rendition of Jeru The Damaja’s ‘Come Clean‘. The closing duo of ‘Wood Beez‘ and ‘Absolute’ prompted a further outbreak of dancing in the aisles, perfect slices of digital funk with fine keyboards from Rhodri Marsden.

Minor quibbles: onstage sound issues gave Gartside some serious pitching problems, though typically he was completely aware of this, describing his performance as ‘artfully inept’. But there was never any doubt about how seriously he took his craft: announcing that the band was about to play a medley of unfinished new songs, a man in the front row let out a giggle, prompting Green to pointedly remark: ‘This is very f***ing serious, sir.’ At times, the band sounded brittle (though they would remain anonymous, there being no onstage introduction from Green), even though roughly 30 percent of the output seemed to be coming from backing tapes. But it really didn’t matter – you couldn’t take your eyes off the stage.

There’s simply no one else like Green Gartside in British music: a 60-year-old fusing hip-hop, reggae, bubblegum pop, low-fi post-punk and superior synth-funk, and pulling it all together with great aplomb. This superbly shambolic gig very much whets the appetite for an upcoming album on Rough Trade.