They say you should never meet your heroes – if the summer of 1985 is anything to go by, Thomas Dolby probably knows a thing or two about that.
First there was THAT Grammy Awards performance alongside Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.
Then he contributed production, arranging and keyboard work to Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog, and, of course, there was his appearance at Live Aid as part of David Bowie’s band.
But arguably Dolby’s most intriguing collaboration of summer 1985 was with P-funk pioneer George Clinton, who was onto his third solo album of the decade.
Just after Live Aid, Clinton invited Dolby out to the Bee Gees’ Criteria Studios in Miami to work on two tracks for Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends.
Clinton was finding much lyrical inspiration in Reagan’s America, and his latest album was firmly focused on the Nuclear Threat. During a hilarious fishing trip with Dolby off Miami (apparently during which Clinton sat in a swivelling captain’s chair, rolled joints and played rough mixes on a boombox), they came up with a character for Dolby – the Space Limousine Driver! Of course…
Clinton then invited Dolby to perform at a James Brown tribute night for the annual Black Urban Music Conference in Washington DC. Apparently his guest spot during ‘Sex Machine’ (described by Dolby as being ‘like Alec Guinness having a seizure’) made Mr Brown laugh and also gave Dolby some cred with the hardcore P-funk crowd (though sadly it doesn’t seem to be on YouTube…).
Clinton was also apparently thrilled with Dolby’s contributions, and asked if there was any way he could return the favour. Dolby quickly cooked up a new song, recruited the Brecker Brothers and Lene Lovich and retained the formidable bass/drums team of Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers from ‘Thrashin’.
They christened the new band Dolby’s Cube and recorded a great one-off single at Battery Studios in London. Sadly, despite a cool video, it didn’t chart.
Dolby’s experiences with George loosened him up, and made him reassess a solo career that he felt thus far had been hamstrung by dodgy business practices and too much emphasis on ‘image’.
His effervescent 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick was more explicitly influenced by Clinton, who also contributed the song ‘Hot Sauce’ (Francois Kevorkian’s superb remix of ‘May The Cube Be With You’ was also included). The summer of ’85 was certainly a memorable one for all concerned.
Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby
To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was musical sacrilege; but others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.
The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, club culture, sampling, dub techniques, electronic music moving into the mainstream and an ‘anything goes’ post-punk ethos.
Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.
So let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals.
21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)
Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?
20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)
A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.
This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.
18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)
Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.
17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)
Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see here but remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s lush rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.
16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)
Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.
15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)
I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller masters and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.
14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)
Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.
13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)
Mixing engineer John Potoker cut his teeth working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. His nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…
12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)
Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.
11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)
Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.
10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)
If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever committed to vinyl.
9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)
Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano/vocal ad-libs and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this version…
8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)
Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.
7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)
Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player, and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.
6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)
‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:40.
5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)
You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and various sections are repeated and amplified to superb effect.
4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)
Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and delaying the reveal of Sting’s bass for as long as possible.
3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)
Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…
2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)
A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening the funky drum breakdowns.
1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)
Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style. Only ZTT can do this. (It seems sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).