Archive for May, 2009

mystery track

Sunday, May 24th, 2009


The mystery song I played on my Wired podcast was in fact by David Bowie. ‘Letter To Hermione’ was on his 1969 album Space Oddity. A few people got it right but no postcard has arrived at the Nutmeg of Consolation (I’m relieved to say) so no jaffa cakes for you!

Backstage at Live Aid a few minutes before we went onstage, Bowie jokingly asked what we should play if we got an encore? The band had only learned four songs and anyway with the tight timing encores were out of the question. I quipped that he should whip out an acoustic and play ‘Letter To Hermione.’ “Hmm, that might be a bit of a floor-clearer”, he replied.

The tune is notable because in my opinion it’s the only song Bowie ever recorded in which he allows himself to be truly vulnerable. These lyrics are intimate and conversational, whereas his lyrical trademark involves layers of idiom, street-speak and rock’n'roll/drug imagery.

He reputedly wrote it for Hermione Farthingale, pictured above. But to me, and probably to thousands of his teenage fans at the time, this song was about MY first girlfriend that dumped me. (Ricky Gervais loves this song and included it in his Desert Island Disks, I wonder if he had the same experience?)

Her name was Becky. We met on a sailing trip on the Norfolk Broads aged about 14. She had long raven-dark hair and a voluptuous figure, and I was completely besotted with her. She lived in a posh part of North London. I remember making the trip to Belsize Park tube station dozens of times because they took your ticket at the top of the elevator so I used to skip out of paying by sneaking up the emergency stairs to the street. This was a long sooty spiral staircase–we’re talking something like 484 steps, it being one of the deepest tube stations in London. One time I got all the way to the top step only to find myself face to face with the grinning ticket collector. Terrified, I started to trot pointlessly back down those 484 steps with his booming laughter echoing after me.

Frankly, Becky was out of my class. I showed up at her house one time and her big sister answered the door. As I stood there in the pouring rain she told me that Becky didn’t want to see me and had gotten back together with her previous boyfriend who I knew was 17 and good-looking.

“They say your life is going very well
They say you sparkle like a different girl
But something tells me that you hide
When all the world is warm and tired
You cry a little in the dark
Well so do I….

He makes you laugh
He brings you out in style
He treats you well
And makes you up real fine
And when he’s strong
He’s strong for you
And when you kiss
It’s something new
But did you ever call my name
Just by mistake?”

[Ha! Just found this pic of the emergency stairs at Belsize Park. Apparently it was used as a bomb shelter in WW2.]


Top 10 reasons today is a fabulous day:

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Thomas Dolby
Pic: Richard Skidmore

1. Sun is out, steady gentle breeze.
2. The Nutmeg is generating LOTS of power, feel I could run the whole village off it.
3. Sitting in my wheelhouse editing 10 takes of Natalie MacMaster‘s delightful fiddle playing.
4. Engraver called to tell me some tiny brass plaques I ordered for my wooden sailboat are ready to pick up. ‘Jib’/'spi’/'cunn’/'kick’ etc. Will row out and do some drilling before this evening’s Loch Long race.
5. A sand artist I contacted in Isreal may be interested in working with me.
6. Booked an Eddi Reader vocal session in Glasgow next month.
7. Limbs aching satisfyingly after windsurfing and tennis yesterday.
8. Pot of Earl Grey just brewed.
9. My Wired Playlist Podcast is up on iTunes, featuring 2 1/2 brand new songs!
10. Reading enthusiastic feedback to 9, to my new singles album Singular, and to the track listing on the upcoming GAOW and TFE re-releases.

'The Singular Thomas Dolby' released today

Monday, May 18th, 2009




Thomas Dolby
The Singular Thomas Dolby
EMI Marketing UK – May 18th

This 2-disc CD and DVD (PAL) collection features all Thomas Dolby’s singles and videos. It is released in the UK on May 18th 2009 and is available worldwide as an import.

Thomas Dolby became one of the most recognizable figures of the synth-pop movement of early-’80s new wave. Dolby successfully harnessed the power of synthesizers and samplers, to make catchy pop and light electro-funk. Following the (1984) single “Hyperactive,” he put his own career on hold to some extent, as he began producing more frequently, including albums by Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, working with funk maestro George Clinton, as well as exploring new synthesizer and computer technology but continuing to record into the ’90s.

There could be little to suggest this transatlantic future in debut single “Urges”, which along with flipside “Leipzig” was co-produced by that most peculiarly English of gents, XTC mainstay Andy Partridge. With the latter song still part of Thomas’s live shows today, even at this stage (1981), his song-writing prowess was well advanced.

Having broken away from touring with Lene Lovich, for whom he had written hit single “New Toy”, and with some money behind him from playing synthesiser for Foreigner and Def Leppard, Dolby set about turning some of his crackly demos into full recordings which became “The Golden Age of Wireless”. From here, of course, we meet “Europa and The Pirate Twins”, a semi-autobiographical romp about a French love affair; as well as “Airwaves” (presented here in its edited single form) and “Radio Silence” (which features Lovich); songs which fit the Dolby Modus Operandi perfectly. By this point, he had carved a niche for himself as a quintessentially British mad professor type – preoccupied with diodes and oscilloscopes – but also continuing (particularly in his videos) the themes of cold-war oppression and paranoia. Dolby’s own Uncle had been the subject of “One of Our Submarines”.

“Windpower” gave Thomas his first UK Top 40 hit, and consequent Top of the Pops appearance, with a song that pre-empts our need and preoccupation with Tipping Points and alternative energy sources, and lyrics that resonate even more today than they did then. Incidentally, the video included here is a rare treat for fans – a seldom seen cut from his 1983 concert, “Live Wireless”. But it was a song that didn’t even appear on original pressings of the album that both summed up Dolby’s personification in this era, and captured the hearts of the notoriously fickle American market. “She Blinded Me With Science” captured a Zeitgeist with its warm yet spooky synthesisers and intervention from eccentric pop-scientist Magnus Pyke. The single went Top 5 on the Billboard charts. Following on from this success was going to be no mean feat, and when “The Flat Earth” was released in 1984, its sophisticated sound was a battle cry to any doubters, combining Dolby’s signature keyboards into a more organic, layered sound. “Hyperactive!” –the result of a bizarre evening spent at Michael Jackson’s house — bore the most fruit, repeating the success of “….Science” in Britain, scoring Thomas his first UK Top 20 hit.

Whilst the epic “Dissidents” felt most at home as a 12”, the edit included here captures the spirit of the track – revisiting Dolby’s love of cold war espionage, and at the other end of the spectrum, the haunting Dan Hicks’ ballad “I Scare Myself” is turned into a piano-led affair with a sexy, sultry video. The latter is a solo embodiment of the shimmering, breathy sound that would form the heart of the Prefab Sprout sound he was integral to creating – production values which he has said he ranks amongst his personal career highs.

A year later, Thomas can be seen at the Grammys performing alongside Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Howard Jones – showing him not only to be at the height of his powers, but integrating perfectly into the Americas. However, at the same time, a very different collaboration was released. “Fieldwork”, was recorded with Yellow Magic Orchestra founder Ryuchi Sakamoto and accompanied by a high-concept short film, included on the (PAL) DVD in its single, and long-form versions.

In between working on several successful movie soundtracks, providing keyboards for Malcolm McClaren and Joan Armatrading, playing synth for Bowie at Live Aid, and producing albums for luminaries such as Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, Dolby finally moved to America, where amongst his first endeavours was “Dolby’s Cube”, a project alongside funk legend George Clinton. This sci-fi saga of an alien peddling designer drugs is a pop masterpiece – complete with suitably silly visual version.

It was to be 2 years before another TD-LP – 1988’s “Aliens Ate My Buick”. It represented a huge departure. With his new backing band, the Bay Area based “Lost Toy People”, and a brand new sound, influenced in no small part by his work with Clinton, lead single “Airhead” was a funk-fuelled tribute to…. well, it kind of explains itself. “Hot Sauce” and “My Brain Is Like A Sieve” bring in elements of Salsa and Reggae respectively, the latter presented here in its radically different single mix.

Four years passed. Dolby was now heavily involved with the high tech industry, and was already becoming a renowned executive. His company Beatnik Inc. invented the first polyphonic synthesiser that could run natively on a mobile phone, and would go on to play a huge part in the advent of the multi-billion dollar ringtone industry. But he hadn’t turned his back on his music. And, despite his increased involvement in computer music during his day job, “Astronauts & Heretics” was his most organic to date. Lead single “Close But No Cigar” included guitars from Eddie Van Halen, featured soccer in the video, and became a Top 30 hit in his home country after being championed by an up-and-coming DJ named Chris Evans; perhaps the ultimate testament to his twin identities as an Englishman in America. “I Love You Goodbye” and “Silk Pyjamas” revealed heavy Cajun influences. Both videos, hitherto hard to find, and untouched even by the hand of You Tube, are included on this compilation, a treat for fans who haven’t seen them for years, if at all.

As Thomas’s involvement with internet music increased, the conventional music scene was left behind, save for a bit of soundtrack work from time to time. Though he has said on more than one occasion, the musical drought was not intended, it was a full 15 years before any suggestions of a new artist album began to surface. In the meantime, the music industry had changed beyond recognition, with ever more ways to access music in a variety of contexts and formats, a change that he had himself been in no small part responsible for, during his self-imposed exile. But that’s another story. Thomas is now back in Britain, with a wife and family who were mere twinkles in the Dolby eye at the time of “Urges”, and is hard at work in his own studio with many of his original collaborators. He’s back behind his synthesiser, and is playing live again, with a new album on the way. This return to his roots marks the end of a symbolic chapter of a remarkable music journey. What better time then, to sit back and listen as it unfolds before our ears, and for the first time in many years, our eyes – a living history of one of the great, but often unsung heroes of British (and American) music.

+44 020 7254 1112/

1-Urges (3.41)
2-Leipzig (3.52)
3-Europa And The Pirate Twins (3.19)
4-Airwaves (3.45)
5-Radio Silence (3.50)
6-Windpower (3.53)
7-She Blinded Me With Science (3.40)
8-One Of Our Submarines Is Missing (5.12)
9-Hyperactive (4.12)
10-Dissidents (edit) (3.52)
11-I Scare Myself (edit) (4.59)
12-Fieldwork (London Mix) (4.04) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
13-May The Cube Be With You (3.50)
14-Airhead (3.43)
15-Hot Sauce (3.18)
16-My Brain Is Like A Sieve (3.58) (Bill Bottrell single remix)
17-Close But No Cigar (4.08)
18-Silk Pyjamas (3.04)
19-I Love You Goodbye (4.34)

1- Europa & the Pirate Twins
3-Radio Silence
4-Windpower (Live)
5-She Blinded Me With Science (3.43)
6-One of Our Submarines Is Missing (Live)
9-I Scare Myself
10-Fieldwork (with Ryuichi Sakamoto) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
11-May The Cube Be With You
13-Hot Sauce
14-Close But No Cigar
15-Silk Pyjamas
16-I Love You Goodbye
Bonus tracks
17-Hyperactive (12” version)
18-Fieldwork (12” version) with Ryuichi Sakamoto
19-Hot Sauce (saucy version)


Saturday, May 16th, 2009

People asked a bunch of questions after my last blog, so I’ll attempt to answer as best I can.

1. Live events. Now I am truly in recording mode I ought to keep my nose to the grindstone (is that the expression?!) I’m enjoying it and I don’t want to disrupt the flow. The Sole Inhabitant and Jazz Mafia tours were really my celebration of the old material, and your interest in them is what led directly to EMI re-releasing the back catalog. If you missed those shows, I feel bad for you–but tens of thousands of people didn’t! Much as I would like to do more live shows to mark these re-releases, it’s really not on the cards. And plus, half my gear is dismantled and signal paths re-assigned. And frankly I’m feeling a bit middle aged and unfit! You don’t want another Tony Hadley on your hands now do you?

2. Promotion. I will be doing a small amount, but to a lesser extent the same reservations apply as in 1. I have not hired any independent publicists or marketing folks to work on this, that’s EMI’s responsibility (surely they can pay for it out of their 90% cut of the sales!) But, if you want your local radio station/music rag/web site etc to cover me, write to them and ask.

3. The Nutmeg of Consolation shot in the previous blog: I’m on the roof of my wheelhouse facing out to sea, looking though a pair of antique binoculars I got on eBay for about £15. (The seller said they came from the SS Mauritania. I guess that little statement bumped the price up from about £10? And saying they were from the Titanic, no-one would have believed him.) Below me is a pair of solar panels, 170W. Behind me my turbine, 450W. The coat is by John Galliano! Pic was by Richard Skidmore. Here’s another….


Lots of news

Friday, May 15th, 2009


Hello chaps, and chapesses. I’ve been too busy to blog for the last couple of weeks, but lots to report.

The main preoccupation has been getting ready to release ‘Singular’ next week, and ‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’ and ‘The Flat Earth’ re-releases about 5-6 weeks later. All packages are now complete and I can heave a sigh of relief. Even though the music is back catalog, there’s a heck of a lot of work involved. Firstly there’s the audio remastering, which I oversee though it’s done at Abbey Road by Peter Mew. I think they sound really good. Okay, vinyl has its fans, but it was always a pain to master to. Modern analog to digital converters are a vast improvement on the ones used to make the original CDs in the mid-90s. There’s the worry about the current tendency to use predictive limiting on CDs, which boosts the apparent volume at the expense of dynamics and subtlety. I wasn’t interested in that, just in maximising the clarity, and levelling out volume and EQ of the ‘bonus tracks’ (more on those later.)

Next, the bonus tracks. Don’t want to spill the beans yet, so I’ll publish a GAOW and TFE full track listing presently (or in fact Amazon might pip me to it once they get the official pre-release blurb from EMI.) I’ve included all peripheral songs from each era that didn’t make it onto the albums for whatever reason; a couple of songs I wrote for movies; a handful of original low-quality backroom demos, which are pretty comical; and two live songs. I’ve never been prolific by most standards, yet I found I had enough choices that I had to leave some stuff off—so I’m going to make the extras available as free downloads from my web site. In general I avoided 12″ mixes, because often those were just re-edits of the album versions, and not worth taking up space with.

Then there’s the sleeves. Job one is to get all the credits straight, combining original credits with new ones, and sorting out who played what on the bonus tracks. And those musicians had to be approached for their consent (nice to touch base with a few people I haven’t talked to for years like Justin Hildreth and Lyndon Connah.) In some cases the master recordings belonged neither to me nor to EMI, in which case the copyright owners had to be tracked down—not easy given the continual cannibalism of the music industry. Next, I wrote some notes and reminiscences about each and every track on the two albums. I had to verify facts, then edit them enough so that they fit within the layout of the 8-page booklet in each CD. I worked with art director Scott Minshall to go through old photo libraries, pick out stuff I liked, then find the photographers and get their approval; Scott did some layouts and we iterated a lot on fonts etc. The GAOW release includes a DVD of ‘Live Wirless’, an entire concert from that era; so of course there were the menus and interactive aspect of that to work on.

To enable listeners to download additional material from the site, Webmistress Carli (aka Lunesse) came up with a scheme that lets all registered Forum members get free access. There will be lyrics and additional song downloads there. I think there’s going to be quite a lot to discuss so it made sense to put the content within the Forum where new fans can interact with long-term Flat Earth Society stalwarts. Naturally, I’m hoping these re-releases attract a new generation of people that were too young or not yet born when they first came out. Then when I put out my *brand new* album (hopefully within the next year) I’ll have a solid base of listeners.

In all, I’ve done probably more admin and editing work on these re-releases than I did when the albums first came out. In those days there was a much bigger team of pros to take care of things, and I was off doing promotion and touring. I don’t mind it though, I try to give it a personal touch and make the products as good as I can. ‘Singular’ was always intended to be a low-budget way to give some new fans access to my old singles, and as such will not appeal to some long-term fans, but GAOW and TFE are beautiful collectors’ editions that include rare material, and I think they will be terrific value for money.

I’ve also been doing some interviews for the releases, such as a piece for The Word, and I shot a new press photo session here at the Nutmeg of Consolation with Richard Skidmore, who took the pic above. I’m also Guest DJ on a podcast by a very well-known publication, which should be out on Tuesday, the day Singular hits the stores.

So now I can exhale and get back to my recording. A lot’s been going on on that front too, which I will tell you about in my next blog.