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.

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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.

Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s Bearpark

prefabThere’s a quality to demo recordings (rough, early versions designed to demonstrate a composition for a potential multi-track studio recording) that really appeals, especially those with ‘delusions of grandeur’ that try to sound much more expensive than they are.

In the 1980s, a demo would typically be very quickly recorded onto a four-track tape machine and then tarted up with a bit of cheap reverb. But these artefacts can very often take on a quality all their own. ‘Chasing the demo’ syndrome is common among musicians and producers, where they try in vain to replicate the freshness of the original as compared with an endlessly-tinkered-with studio version which quickly loses its zing.

‘Bearpark’ first appeared on the B side of Prefab’s ‘Nightingales‘ 12” single as part of a three-song EP called The Demo Tapes (the other two tracks were ‘Life Of Surprises’ and ‘King Of Rock’n’Roll’). It never made it onto any album but has nevertheless become one of my favourite ever Paddy McAloon compositions. It was also apparently the first time he had ever used a four-track cassette machine, recorded with a Dr Rhythm drum box, cheap synth and electric guitar.

I love the way the chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on my bass, you could use any number of root notes under each chord. They all kind of work. It’s hard to imagine how ‘Bearpark’ could be improved by a big-budget production, hence possibly why it hasn’t appeared on an official album, though Paddy says he ‘felt like Phil Spector’ when he’d finished it. Its charming musical naivety and sparseness perfectly suit the lyrical theme: home, for better or worse.

The middle eight always makes me smile:

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

In fact, sod it: I’ve just looked up the lyrics. They’re great and deserve to be reproduced in full.

Home, sweet home
Sweet home, hard as nails

Bearpark, you were mine
I know, I know, I’ve been away but you’re
Not the type for valentines
Bearpark, I get homesick

Langley you are fine
I know, I know, I’m a gypsy
But Bearpark, Bearpark’s on my mind
There’s nowhere else like you

I’m gonna walk this weary body that’s been nowhere far too long
I’m gonna drag it back where it belongs

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram,
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

Bearpark, what a place
I know that this will sound soft but I
Sometimes think you’ve got a face
Both eyes black and blue

A stranger comes to town
I know, I know, the chances are that
Some bright spark will run him down
No honey on your tongue

I’m gonna take this broken spirit
Gonna heal it for all time
When I see your dear name
Upon a sign

Bearpark, you are mine
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram…

Maybe it is time the song got a ‘proper’ recording. As Paddy says in the liner notes on the back of the 12” single, ‘You might think you can do better – be my guest. I like cover versions.’ But he also advises: ‘Don’t spend too long on the demo’…

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Three)

Prefab Sprout: ‘Enchanted’

One of Paddy McAloon’s most unapologetically ‘up’ songs, it positively jumps out of the speakers.

De La Soul: ‘Me, Myself And I’

De La’s mash-up of hip-hop, psychedelia, funk and comedy was de rigeur in the summer of 1989. From the classic 3 Feet High And Rising album.

Scritti Politti: ‘Small Talk’

I could have chosen almost anything from Cupid & Psyche ’85, but went with this little miracle of melody and syncopation. Paging Universal Music Group: the whole album could do with a remaster…

XTC: ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

It was a toss-up between this and ‘Season’s Cycle’, but I could have chosen almost anything from the classic summer album Skylarking.

Jaki Graham: ‘Round And Round’

This very George Michael-esque (did he write it, uncredited?) mid-tempo groover takes me straight back to summer 1984.

Level 42: ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’

The soundtrack to summer 1987.

The Bible: ‘Honey Be Good’

Another fairly recent discovery, though my friend Raph Swery was a big fan back in the late-80s.

China Crisis: ‘Saint Saviour Square’

This cracker kicked off the Liverpudlians’ fine 1989 album Diary Of A Hollow Horse.

Check out the whole summer playlist on Spotify.

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

I love you/You pay my rent‘.

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

An ’80s manifesto?

 

‘If you ever feel the time/To drop me a loving line/Maybe you should just think twice/I don’t wait around on your advice’.

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

How’s that for a statement to kick off a recording career?

 

I believe in love/I’ll believe in anything/That’s gonna get me what I want/And get me off my knees’.

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

Less famous than Lloyd’s rhyming of ‘Mailer’ and ‘tailor’, but gains a lot from his passionate singing of the lines.

 

I want you/It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

Anyone who’s ever been in love (or lust) knows exactly what Mr MacManus means.

 

Hey Mikey/Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

A few years before ‘Money For Nothing’, our protagonist is a bit ‘disillusioned’ with the state of modern music…

 

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/Your lovers would look like movie stars’.

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

Nails the rabid ’80s advertising industry pretty succinctly.

 

‘Lost my shape/Trying to act casual/Can’t stop/I might end up in the hospital’.

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

One of many brilliant David Byrne first-liners.

 

‘Once there was an angel/An angel and some friends/Who flew around from song to song/Making up the ends’.

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

What a beautiful way of describing the songwriting process.

 

Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ’.

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

One of many from Mr Morrissey, but I just love the fact that he could smuggle this into the charts.

 

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/And the sun’s riding high/I must bid you farewell/Every man has to die/But it’s written in the starlight/And every line in your palm/We are fools to make war/On our brothers in arms’.

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

Well, it’s a lot better than Culture Club’s ‘War Song’, isn’t it?

 

Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said/Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

The ultimate ’80s baby boomer lyric.

 

‘Hello Johnson/Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/There’s no reason to get so excited/I’d been playing football with the youngsters/Johnson says don’t dramatise/And you can’t even spell salacious’.

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

If JD Salinger had been born in County Durham…

 

‘I repeat myself when under stress/I repeat myself when under stress/I repeat…’

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

Adrian Belew almost outdoes Byrne in the ‘neurosis’ department.

 

‘Come back Mum and Dad/You’re growing apart/You know that I’m growing up sad/I need some attention/I shoot into the light’.

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

The flashback of a political assassin, daring the listener to sympathise, followed by his final, catastrophic action.

 

‘People say that I’m no good/Painting pictures and carving wood/Be a rich man if I could/But the only job I do well is here on the farm/And it’s breaking my back’.

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

What to say to the parents when they tell you to get a ‘real’ job…

 

So long, child/It’s awful dark’.

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

Dickensian dread from the Dame.

 

I could have been someone/Well, so could anyone’.

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

The ultimate put-down. Kirsty is much missed.