Many happy returns to a modern master, still Sproutin’ after all these years.
Many happy returns to a modern master, still Sproutin’ after all these years.
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.
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.
There’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.
The chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on bass, virtually any root notes work under each chord. 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.
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
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’…
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.
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.
It 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.
PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’
‘I love you/You pay my rent‘
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’
‘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’
THOMAS DOLBY: ‘Hot Sauce’ (lyrics by George Clinton)
Brother in the codpiece/I’ve seen him on the TV
I think he likes his ladies all sweet and sugary
I’m partial to a pudding/But that’s for second course
The main meal and the hors d’oeuvres must be smothered in hot sauce’
LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’
‘I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’
ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’
‘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’.
RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’
JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’
‘If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’
TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’
‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
I might end up in the hospital’
DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’
‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’
THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’
‘Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’
DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’
‘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’
DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’
‘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…’
PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’
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’
KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’
‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’
‘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’
XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’
‘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’
DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’
‘So long, child/
It’s awful dark’
THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’
‘I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’
My favourite music show still is and probably always will be ‘The Tube’, which ran on Friday nights between 1982 and 1987 and was presented mainly by Jools Holland and Paula Yates. Though Jools has found his niche presenting the very successful ‘Later…’ series for BBC1, I preferred the more youthful, risky, ‘uncut’ Holland (who was given a hefty slap on the wrist when he famously trailed the show one week by saying people who watched it were ‘groovy f***ers’!) and he had a great chemistry with the intelligent, funny and sexy Paula.
From week to week, you could never guess what you were going to see. There were live bands, star interviews, specially-filmed videos, on-location featurettes and weird bits of alternative comedy usually involving Rik Mayall in various degrees of drunkenness.
Some of it was great, some of it was OK and some of it was crap, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it. It helped launch some careers (Twisted Sister, Fine Young Cannibals, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Terence Trent D’Arby) and relaunch others, and you could see every type of music on the show – Metal, Goth, Funk, Fusion, Indie, Pop, Soul – all in the spirit of discovery without any pandering reverence or bourgeois pretension. And though the show featured many huge names, it also embraced up-and-comers: if your band was any good, had some fans and a decent plugger, you were on. And there was a bar on the set too.
Here are a few clips from ‘The Tube’ that have stuck in the memory:
5. The Bangles – ‘Manic Monday’
Check out the creepy guy at the front staring straight at Susanna Hoffs throughout, almost blocking the camera. Full marks to the girls for giving the (Prince-penned) song their all despite a dumbstruck Newcastle crowd. Tight harmonies.
4. Billy Mackenzie interview, 1985
One of those great, weird, un-PR’d interviews that popped up now and again. A post-‘Party Fears Two’ Billy is clearly taking the piss throughout, in the nicest possible way, and it also shows how The Tube wasn’t scared of going out into the ‘provinces’ (Dundee in this case).
3. Cocteau Twins – ‘Pink Orange And Red’
Great haircuts, great voice, great guitar sound and underwater bass. The golden age of goth/pop.
2. Blancmange – ‘Living On The Ceiling’
Good hair again, and someone or something is making singer Neil Arthur struggle to keep a straight face throughout.
1. Prefab Sprout – ‘Cruel’
This little Bacharach-influenced bossa nova was my first glimpse of the marvellous Prefab.
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