The Best of Thomas Dolby: Retrospectacle
US release date: 4 April 1995
by Ben Varkentine
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What George Martin did for the Beatles, what Tony Visconti did for David Bowie and what Brian Eno did for Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby did for Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout. He gave their songs a framework that helped bring writer McAloon’s vision into focus. A growing maturity in McAloon as a composer coincided with the group’s working with Dolby, who was there to help him reach that maturity. Even if they never work together again, theirs remains one of the all-time great artist/producer relationships. I’d like to talk about that relationship by looking at their output separately and together, using Dolby’s Retrospectcle, still the most wide-ranging compilation of his work extant, and the Sprout’s new greatest hits, The Collection as a guide.
Dolby came up as a session musician. He wrote “New Toy” for Lene Lovich and played keyboards and/or synthesizer on records ranging from the other version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” to a handful of early Thompson Twins records to Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You”. When he began making his own music, after a couple of experimental keyboard singles with Andy Partridge of XTC, he hit with “She Blinded Me With Science” and his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless. To those who really listened to his material, “Science” and the later top-40 (in the UK, at least) “Hyperactive” were atypical, loud attention-getters that cloaked Dolby’s more substantial worth in instantly dated, trendy fashion consciousness. What won Dolby his cult of fans was not just his atmospheric use of synths and production, his ability to swing with computers — though they were a substantial part of his appeal — but his gift for melody and Lennonesque wordplay. In short, he wrote good songs, which has always been what separates the adults from the kiddies in pop. On his second disc, The Flat Earth, Dolby showed that his touch for wrapping songs in special effects that did not obscure but in fact enhanced their beauty was not a fluke.
Prefab Sprout, meanwhile, had come out of Newcastle, England as a vehicle for singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon. McAloon was a Brian Wilson in the making. From the beginning, his songs showed an awareness of himself as prodigy. With one song about Bobby Fischer (“Cue Fanfare”) and another called “Couldn’t Bear to Be Special”, it’s not hard to see that the burdens which come with gifts were on his mind. However interesting, that first album, represented by a handful of tracks on The Collection suffers somewhat from a lack of memorable melodies and has not aged well, apart from the bittersweet “Cruel”.
Dolby first heard Prefab Sprout in a radio studio in 1983. He’d had his top-five hit with “Science” by then and was doing a guest singles review gig on London’s Radio One. What Dolby recollects as a “dreadful” week for singles was made livelier for the songwriter by the presence of “Don’t Sing” off the bands first album (following a self-titled EP), Swoon. After hearing him praise it, the band invited Dolby to produce their next record, which would be called Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the US). Besides Dolby’s production gifts mentioned above, Two Wheels Good/Steve McQueen also benefited from his presence as an unofficial fifth member on keyboards, most notably on “Bonny” and “Desire As”. Both of these have arrangements that start off sounding as if they could have come from any of Dolby’s albums before McAloon’s voice (in both the vocal and songwriting sense of the word) emerges. McAloon’s mellifluous vocals are, of course, a crucial part of the Prefab Sprout sound. But another is the “close formation” backing of Wendy Smith, who lends an important otherworldly quality to his songs. Her oohs and aahs set the scene for “When Love Breaks Down” before McAloon starts telling his sorry tale. “Faron Young” shows the beginnings of another of McAloon’s lyrical concerns, that of the artificial versus the organic in everything, including and especially pop culture and music. Showing that influence cuts both ways, Dolby’s next album, Aliens Ate My Buick would offer his pronouncements on the same subject in the song “Pulp Culture”.
Perhaps because he was busy with his own work, Dolby produced only four of the 10 songs on the Sprout’s next album, From Langley Park to Memphis. This is a problematic album for me to write about. This was where I came in, the album that made me a fan. On the one hand, I still think it contains some of McAloon’s best songs, revisiting his recurring themes of the glorious and hollow nature of pop, and what is simply one of the greatest songs ever written by anyone, anywhere: “I Remember That”. “Nightingales”, too, is one of McAloon’s best lyrics: “Tell me do, something true, true of you and me / That we’re too busy living through, too busy to see.” It also finds room for the most atypical song in the Sprout catalog, “The Golden Calf” and has more winning songs than are included on The Collection. But on the other hand, some of the non-Dolby production gimmicks have badly dated, and four producers almost guarantees a lack of cohesion.
Dolby returned to full producer status for Jordan: The Comeback. An album that largely still sounds so fresh I was surprised to realize in preparing for this piece that it had been over 10 years since it was released. One of the marks of a great record is that you always remember where you were when you first heard it, and I was driving up the 101 to San Francisco with my then-girlfriend when I first heard this albums first single and opening track, “Looking For Atlantis”. McAloon had now reached the height of his powers. Hummable melodies, good song structure and a lightly tapping rhythm run through most of the songs here, and Dolby’s production is almost always their equal (one or two of the drum patterns are too busy). Jordan is the best summation of McAloon’s pop and religious concerns yet. In “Jesse James Bolero”, the mythic figure of the Old West wants to die with Bach, not barber shop, in his head, and McAloon is well aware of the irony of writing a pop song about how ultimately meaningless pop songs are. “All the World Loves Lovers” starts out sounding like the cliche it’s title would suggest, but as you get deeper into it, you realize it’s a more levelheaded, evenhanded look at romance. “Doo-Wop in Harlem” is as sweet a goodbye as anyone ever recorded. The Collection contains a nice sampling from this album, but I dearly wish they’d found room for the crystalline “Wild Horses”.
Dolby released his fourth collection of songs, Astronauts and Heretics, in 1992. Though this showed his rare touch at keyboard sounds was still present, and was arguably the most experimental album he’d made to date-with guitar by Eddie Van Halen on one track and a Cajun fiddle on another-it was also the first inessential Dolby album, one that you could be assured you’d got all the best of on a “best of”. Interestingly for our purposes here, however, it does contain Dolby’s own song called “Cruel”, which you may recall, was the title of one of Prefab Sprout’s best early songs. It features a familiar-sounding close formation backing vocal arrangement.
After Jordan was met by critical and fan acclaim but dropped without a sound commercially, McAloon fell into a long silence. Prefab Sprout released a placeholder single disc “greatest hits” collection, A Life of Surprises in 1992. In some respects it cherry-picks their first four albums better than The Collection, omitting all but “Cruel” from Swoon and including “Wild Horses” from Jordan. It also contains a memorable letter from McAloon with the phrase “They’re only records, they mean everything and nothing.” It would be several years before the next new Prefab Sprout album, Andromeda Heights, in 1997. This was unavailable in the US except as a pricey import, so the five songs included on The Collection can now heard for the first time by non-hardcore (or just low-income) fans.
Among McAloon’s gifts is the ability to keep writing about things that remain of concern to him while rarely seeming as though he is rewriting the same song. The newer songs find him, unsurprisingly, returning to his now trademark themes of self-examination on the elegiac “Electric Guitars” and working the classically structured pop song beat on “A Prisoner of the Past”. On the songs from this album, which he produced, he also shows that he learned a thing or two from Dolby in the light, bell-sound driven arrangement for “Swans”, and the title song is as great a melody as he ever wrote.
Which brings us to the present day. Shortly after Astronauts and Heretics, Dolby more-or-less abandoned his recording career and entered the Internet audio industry, where he has thrived after founding Beatnik. Dolby’s last album, done as the soundtrack to a computer-animated film, is even less necessary than Astronauts. Prefab Sprout plans to release a new album in June 2001. Intriguingly, the producer of the new album is Tony Visconti, known for his work with David Bowie and other glam, “progressive” rock artists. The idea of McAloon collaborating with another influential producer is frankly exciting.
The truth is, though perhaps the labels and/or the artists wouldn’t want me to say this, the best way to get the best-of Dolby and especially Prefab Sprout is to have a friend who has all or most of their albums make you a personalized mix tape. Their records are so individual, at their best so packed with good material that any collection is going to leave out potential favorites. That said, if you don’t know any fans, Retrospectacle is a good way to get to know Dolby. As The Collection is to Prefab Sprout (if you don’t feel like springing for the double set, Life of Surprises is also a fine introduction). But by all means, if you haven’t, introduce yourselves to them right now.