The Curse Of 1986?

The critical consensus: 1986 was the worst music year of the decade, perhaps of any decade. But is that true?

There was certainly a vacuum between the end of New Pop/New Romanticism and the Rock Revival of ’87, exploited by one-hit-wonder merchants, TV soap actors, Europop poseurs, musical-theatre prima donnas, jazz puritans and Stock Aitken & Waterman puppets.

Also most pop records just didn’t sound good. The drums were too loud, the synths were garish, ‘slickness’ was the order of the day. Perhaps nothing emphasised these factors as much as The Police’s disastrous comeback version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

But listen a little harder and 1986 seems like a watershed year for soul, house, go-go, art-metal, John Peel-endorsed indie and hip-hop. Synth-pop duos were back on the map, the NME C86 compilation was a lo-fi classic and there were a handful of groundbreaking jazz/rock albums too. So here’s a case for the opposition: a selection of classic singles and albums from 1986. Not a bad old year after all.

Stump: Quirk Out

David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’

Mantronix: Music Madness

PiL: Album

Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’

George Michael: ‘A Different Corner’

Eurythmics: ‘Thorn In My Side’

Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover

XTC: Skylarking

Duran Duran: ‘Skin Trade’

George Benson: ‘Shiver’

Erasure: ‘Sometimes’

Cameo: ‘Candy’

Chris Rea: On The Beach

Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

David Sylvian: Gone To Earth

OMD: ‘Forever Live And Die’

The Real Roxanne: ‘Bang Zoom’

The The: Infected

Half Man Half Biscuit: ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’

Anita Baker: Rapture

Michael McDonald: ‘Sweet Freedom’

Prince: Parade

Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring

Luther Vandross: Give Me The Reason

Pet Shop Boys: ‘Suburbia’

Chaka Khan: ‘Love Of A Lifetime’

Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack

The Pretenders: ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’

Janet Jackson: Control

Run DMC: Raising Hell

Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill

Miles Davis: Tutu

Iggy Pop: Blah Blah Blah

Courtney Pine: Journey To The Urge Within

ZZ Top: ‘Sleeping Bag’

George Clinton: ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake’

Talking Heads: ‘Wild Wild Life’

Kurtis Blow/Trouble Funk: ‘I’m Chillin”

The Source ft. Candi Staton: ‘You Got The Love’

James Brown: ‘Living In America’

Gwen Guthrie: ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’

The Housemartins: ‘Happy Hour’

Peter Gabriel: So

Mike Stern: Upside Downside

Steps Ahead: Magnetic

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

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Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.

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 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. 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 too 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 #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 let’s not forget Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork.