Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Original Techno Boffin - Thomas Dolby

The first time I heard Thomas Dolby was in 1981 when he released the single Europa and the Pirate Twins. I promptly took my pocket money and bought the 45. The combination of electronics and real instruments (that's XTC's Andy Partridge on the bitchin' harmonica) and that huge, catchy melody (and drum machine clappy noises) made it a big song for me, and I was amazed that it didn't chart higher. The rest of the album The Golden Age Of Wireless was an equally good batch of tunes, a mix of new wave rockers and arty synth pop. The record was largely ignored, and so was he until She Blinded Me With Science came out, and the proverbial "one hit wonder" was born. Even though I love the goofiness of that tune, there are so many other, much better songs to consider.

Second album The Flat Earth remains, for me, his peak achievement. Opening with the ultra funky Dissidents it fades into a blissful other worldy vibe with The Flat Earth - a big bass riff, some beautiful Soweto style guitar and the weird rubber band like noises through out the song enthralled me in 1984 and still sends shivers down my spine today. The musicians on the LP are top knotch - former Soft Boy Matthew Seligman on bass (also Robyn Hitchcock, who does a spoken bit), Kevin Armstrong on guitars, original NY No Wave scenester Adele Bertei contributes stellar vocals, and usual cohorts Bruce Wooley and Lesley Fairbarn all contribute. At this point things drifted towards the US, and TD moved to LA to do film music (Howard The Duck, anyone?) and continue to make records.

The last Thomas Dolby record I bought was 1988's Aliens Ate My Buick. By now he was working with LA session musicians, and his songs began to began to lose that distinctly British feel he always had. It's a OK album with a couple of great tunes. There's funk on a cover of George Clinton's Hot Sauce, dance pop on Airhead, Zappa-esque jive on The Key To Her Ferrari, and cod reggae on My Brain Is Like A Sieve. My favorite tune on it is the hardest one to peg - Budapest By Blimp. It rides a very US r'n'b groove - a very funky bass line, chikka guitars, all very slick, and mixed in with it is a gorgeous Hungarian aria. Yes, it's the classical funk hybrid. Sounds like it should really suck, but it doesn't. The aria's melody is beguiling and recurs often. The tune builds up to a giant funk rock break with a searing strangled guitar solo before it all drifts back into the original funk groove. Somehow all of these disparate styles that shouldn't work together do, and it's always amazed me. I gave up on Dolby at this point - he continued to write and record, and I heard a few things here and there, but nothing that grabbed my attention like the first 2 records - albums in dire need of the remastered reissue treatment!

A little bonus, Dolby related tune - Ryuichi Sakamoto's Fieldwork from 1985 features Dolby on vocals. This is the 12" London Long Mix, and it's an odd electro tune - it starts with a very Art Of Noise style synth line and develops into uptempo synth pop (with a nod to New Order's Blue Monday beats). The key is the killer weird break in the middle - all of a sudden it's tight, quirky art funk for a couple of minutes before it returns to the synth pop. A strange little record.


Anonymous said...

From Sonic - Good critique Michael. Two obervations - he supported Bowie on Live Aid, also the production standards on all his work is very high - Aliens Ate My Buick sounds superb even on vinyl.

deus|diabolus said...

...and he also co-authored the web browser music plug-in Beatnik, which apparently now is very popular in cellphones. Czech it out:

Michael said...

I knew about Beatnik - I stumbled across that a couple of years ago.

As far as the production, you're right - the standards were always high, and Aliens does sound good - I ripped Budapest By Blimp from the vinyl. My thing is that the earlier recordings had that oddball, uniquely British thing going for them, and Aliens sounds very much like an LA session player set, although it's of oddball - just LA oddball instead!

Michael said...

That should say...

Aliens sounds very much like an LA session player set, although it's still oddball - just LA oddball instead!

Anonymous said...

Sonic again! - The Magnus Pike ditty (Science)had Mutt Lange on BG (Mr Twain)- just noticed. You've had me listening to his (Dolby's) stuff all afternoon. Aliens was so good sounding on vinyl, I bought two copies. The CD of it does need remastering as you say. Check out Retrospectacle as a great compilation - even includes Close but No Cigar off Astronauts and Heretics.

Also of note Dolby was a fairly good session guy - Joni Mitchell amongst others and she didn't perform with tossers.