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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Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age Of Wireless: 35 Years Old Today

EMI Records, originally released 25th March 1982

9/10

London-born Thomas Morgan Robertson had already made a bit of a name for himself as a synth wiz for hire – working with Bruce Woolley/The Camera Club, Joan Armatrading, Thompson Twins, Lene Lovich and Foreigner – before embarking on his debut solo album in late summer 1981. But, as he once said, he knew ‘too many chords’ to get any regular employment in the punk and new-wave bands of the era, so was pretty much forced to go it alone.

The Golden Age Of Wireless was mainly recorded at Tapestry (a subterranean studio built and owned by John Kongos situated at the end of my mum’s road in South-West London), essentially a one-man-band operation with occasional contributions from various muso mates (Daniel Miller, Tim Friese-Greene, Andy Partridge, Simon House, Kevin Armstrong, Mutt Lange).

Lyrically, the album seemed to be a Janus-like vision of England – looking back to its WW2 past and forward to the kinds of urban dystopias explored by novelist JG Ballard. ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’ emphasises this collision of past and future with Andy Partridge’s blues harmonica and the song’s rockabilly feel rubbing up against a barrage of synths and sequencers. The haunting ‘One Of Our Submarines’ repeats the trick with ‘futuristic’ vocal samples alongside ARP string synths more redolent of the mid 1970s.

The album is also for me inextricably linked to the coastal area of South-East England near the White Cliffs Of Dover where I spent family holidays during my late teens, an area of course also reverberating with military history. I’d comb the beaches and walk the cliffs with Wireless playing loud on my Walkman.

But first to ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. The title is taken from a war-time phrase, an expression of female appreciation, as in: ‘Cor, she fair blinded me with science, guvnor!’ For a ‘novelty’ single, it has aged pretty well, mainly due to the incredible amount of detail placed across the stereo image: TV scientist Magnus Pyke’s still-pretty-funny interjections, Simon House’s beguiling, Middle-Eastern violin licks, Matthew Seligman’s pithy synth bass and Dolby’s intriguing sonic ‘events’. The song was a huge American hit, making #5 in May 1983, but could it have been any more British? Never mind the title – one wonders how many Americans even came close to understanding a lyric such as ‘She blinded me with science and failed me in biology’.

But ‘Blinded’ was somewhat of an anomaly. Much of Wireless is downbeat, enigmatic and haunting. Dolby proves himself a brilliant producer and arranger, a master of painting pictures with sound: the shortwave radio which kicks off ‘Radio Silence’; the shipping forecast closing ‘One Of Our Submarines’, the ‘doom’ vocals which introduce ‘Weightless’ and close ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’. He’s also obviously a tremendous keys player, with endless excellent arrangement ideas and even a few chops (you wouldn’t catch anyone from OMD attempting anything like the extended Moog solo in the very Prefab-esque ‘Commercial Breakup’).

In the middle of recording his second album (and second masterpiece) The Flat Earth, ‘Blinded’ took off in the States, becoming a signature tune of the Second British Invasion. Dolby had to drop everything and get over there pronto. Michael Jackson wanted to meet him. But he would never again trouble the singles charts in the States, and the ‘mad scientist’ image would only very occasionally be dusted off from here on in. Not necessarily a bad thing.

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.

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.

Check out Part One here. Part Three and a full Spotify playlist coming soon.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

joni

Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.

Sondheim Meets Springsteen: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis

prefabKitchenware/CBS Records, released 14th March 1988

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1988

9/10

Prefab go Pop. There are big-name guest spots (Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend), gospel choirs, an orchestra and Deacon Blue’s producer. The lengthy recording period and increased budget certainly paid off; synths and strings glisten, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sound like they’re singing in the room with you and one can hear every nuance of Neil Conti’s tasty drumming.

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby could only find the time to oversee four out of the ten tracks; of these, only ‘Knock On Wood’ sounds like trademark TD. Apparently, once McAloon learned that Dolby would be unavailable for much of the recording, he flirted with the idea of using a different producer for each song. The notion was quickly abandoned but it reinforced the idea that this would be Paddy’s most collaborative project so far.

At the time of its release, Paddy publicly declared that he hated the sound of records being made in the late ’80s and in response seems to have looked for songwriting inspiration from pre-rock’n’roll forms – Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and Broadway musicals. He had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano.

Consequently, McAloon’s melodies are incredibly daring and original, but there’s arguably a fair degree of musical ‘schmaltz’ in the arrangements too, particularly on ‘Hey Manhattan’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, but it’s Stephen Sondheim schmaltz rather than Disney schmaltz. The wonderful ‘Nightingales’ sounds like the score from some kind of futuristic Broadway musical (and the 12″ single is worth tracking down for exquisite B-side ‘Bearpark’).

prefab stevieCBS obviously had high hopes for the album and their faith was paid off in the shape of a hit single, ‘King of Rock & Roll’, and one near-hit, ‘Cars And Girls’, though one wonders how McAloon views those now – I’ll wager with a degree of sheepishness. But I remember being extremely excited to see the video for ‘Cars And Girls’ popping up on ‘The Chart Show’.

Listening back after all this time, it’s From Langley‘s minor, more understated tracks that really stand the test of time. ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘Enchanted’ could have come from Steve McQueen. The former features a simple, unusually direct lyric from Paddy over a surreal, subtle pot-pourri of percussion and synth effects from Dolby. One wonders what McAloon’s demo sounded like. It’s slight and simple but no worse for that.

Nancy’ is gorgeous, a ‘Brief Encounter’esque tale of unrequited romance in the workplace, possibly inspired by McAloon’s relationship with his fellow Sprout (it doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine the word ‘Wendy’ in place of ‘Nancy’). ‘I Remember That’ sees McAloon in full-on crooner mode, emoting over MOR strings and weirdly-stilted gospel backing vocals. Paddy pokes fun at Springsteen’s obsessions on ‘Cars And Girls’, but then hilariously attempts a four-on-the-floor, Springsteenish rocker ‘The Golden Calf’ which doesn’t quite come off.

It’s hard to overstate the weirdness of the closing ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, a collision of slick Steely Dan drums, wonky Farfisa organ, distinctly-unfunky vocals from the Andrae Crouch singers and some amusing cocktail guitar from McAloon. It unnerves in a way I’m sure was intended, coming over like a Ken Loach tale told in Broadway-musical style. For better or worse, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the Prefab output.

So, an important, big-selling album for Prefab (reaching number 5 in the UK album charts) and another hugely impressive chunk of songwriting from McAloon. He was in a bullish mood, talking to the media about chart placings and competing with Michael Jackson and Prince, and his purple patch led to an even more cogent and powerful piece of work in the extraordinary Jordan The Comeback, of which more later.