When Thomas Dolby Met George Clinton: 35 Years On

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

*Or ask me in a few months when I’ve finished my book on Level 42, out early next year…

Thomas Dolby: 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 collaborated rather spiffingly on the former’s Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends). 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 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 (#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.