Tag Archives: 80s

Toxic Synth-Pop Syndrome: Thomas Dolby’s Flying North

First off, I wanna start by saying that I’ve reached 500 views! Thank you to everyone who’s been reading so far, and everyone that chooses to do so in the future. In honour of that fact, I’ve decided to do a post on my 500th most listened-to song which, according to last.fm (http://www.last.fm/user/nicholasdaniel), is Thomas Dolby’s “Flying North”. This is fantastic news, as it gives me an opportunity to talk about Thomas Dolby.

Though classified squarely in the One-Hit Wonder category for the amazing “She Blinded Me With Science” for most, Thomas Dolby has a knack for two things – a melodic hook and technology*. Using these talents in tandem, he created the shimmering jewel of synth-pop that was 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless. The album became a smash, due to the success of the “Science” single, even though any song could have been culled (5 of the 10 tracks did in fact get single releases). The album is shot through with concerns and observations about technology and its increasing effect on our lives, and uses that very same technology to produce its music.

“Flying North” looks at the restless life of a world traveller taking endless plane trips who feels at the mercy of the airport schedules and takes up one of the few constants for those of the jetset – alcohol. But even once home, there’s no getting comfortable for he’ll just be “flying North again tonight”. The song has a restless backbeat and a busy synthesizer riff in between choruses that sounds like a call sign transmission at first before it fills out, with all sorts of small echoed noises rising and shuffling and falling and skittering in the background. The atmosphere of the song is so detailed and finely tuned, that the main riff and melody are only a tiny part of the story, each piece locking into place to create a magnificent whole.

What a first may seem like a simple song opens it doors wide, and you realize there are so many moving pieces that add to the experience that you would never have guessed were there in the first place, such as the modulated ‘landing’ noise which kicks the whole thing off, or the subtle backing vocals that sound like they’re whooshing by on the wind. That’s the great thing about Thomas Dolby – his interest in synthesizers extends beyond which patch to use – it’s every echo, drum beat, sound effect, voice modulation and sample used to create a singular vision, all molded around fantastic melodies. Never had technology felt like such a living part of the music than when in the hands of Mr. Dolby.

*In his break from the music business in the 90s, Dolby pursued the technology bug, where he created the technology that produces ringtones in cellphones!

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A “Supergroup” Belies Its Contents: Blackfield’s IV

The main new sound that I’ve had in my ears this week has been an album I’ve been looking askance at in the store for awhile, but only recently purchased: Blackfield’s Blackfield IV. The main reason I had such an interest in it was that it was being promoted in-store (insofar as it was available to listen to at one of the listening stations), yet the line-up, as advertised on the front, seemed to be made up entirely of modern prog rock musicians (including the prog world’s Jack White, Steven Wilson). The juxtaposition had me curious, so I wanted to investigate.

What had happened is that I fell into the Asia trap. Asia is a band that could probably be considered a prog supergroup – Steve Howe from Yes on guitar, John Wetton from King Crimson on bass and vocals, Carl Palmer from ELP on drums and Geoff Downes from The Buggles and Yes on keyboards. There’s a lot of musical musculature there, and the assumption based on the line-up would be crazy ten-minute solos and key and time signature changes to make your head spin. But no. They made “Heat of the Moment”. Produced like crazy, harmonized arena rock fist-pumpers instead of seven-movement suites. And what’s wrong with that?

Looking at the pedigree in a supergroup, you can only understand what’s it’s going to be like in terms of each member’s previous bands sort of pasted together and shaken up. Really, though, the group could have been formed for any number of reasons, under any number of auspices. It may be an attempt for the members to go madly off in a different direction (see David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant, which made ample use of horns for which neither musician was famous). By the 1980s, most of the prog rock bands were sick of the longwinded noodling they were famous for, and wanted to shorten things up to see if they could hang with the next generation of bands coming in. It could be that the members just interact musically in a way they hadn’t foreseen and they just decided to go with it (Elvis Costello and the Roots recently put out Wise Up, Ghost, which seemed to come out of almost nothing as Questlove approached Costello after he performed on Jimmy Fallon one night). It could just be that they wanted to play some less serious music and just have a blast in their comfort zone and gettin’ mad radio hits. There’s no way in hell that “Heat of the Moment” is not fun as hell to play (and, quite honestly, it ain’t a simple walk in the park to do so either – it’s just not at the apex of difficulty like prog was in the 70s, which was often to the detriment rather than benefit of the songs)!

With all this in mind, I feel sort of silly for looking down on Blackfield IV for not being the electrifying prog record I was hoping that it would be (at the same time, however, that was foolishly why I bought it). What it does sound like is orchestrated pop (none of which I’ve any problem with, mind you – Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. and The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP come to mind), with a lot of jangly guitar picking thrown in and some pensive vocals, though it’s the meticulous production that is mainly what makes it sound flat to me. Though it didn’t necessarily need any ‘showy’ bits, it sort of failed to capture my attention vs. my expectations. I should not have been surprised, however, as the whole prog rock ethos is based around the integration of more ‘grown-up’ genres into rock, with classical music being a big part of that (Yes, ELP), as well as keen studio tweaking.

Even so, I find that with repeated listens, such an album improves vastly, as you can kind of shake away what you thought the album might have been, and concentrate on what’s there. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself humming something that you heard without knowing it, and you’re in.

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Toxic Pop Syndrome: The Strange Case of Dr. Oates & Mr. Hall

Welcome to Toxic Pop Syndrome, so named after the Britney Spears single that just seemed far and away in another category from the rest of her songs.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, per se, of Hall & Oates. I know a few of their big singles, and that’s pretty much it. They were pure 80s pop and did what they did very well. “Private Eyes”, “Kiss On My List”, “Maneater” and so on. But for some reason, every once in awhile, every single element comes together in a perfect storm and creates that pop song that it is impossible to sing, to groove with, to get up and dance to. “You Make My Dreams” is just such a song.

It is the only one that manages to surpass that “I’m listening to an 80s pop song” feel, and just move into “I’m listening to some damn good music” as I start throwing shapes like nobody’s business, bobbing my head back and forth and howling the lyrics without even knowing what most of the lyrics are. And it all has to do with that magic organ and its interplay with the beat.

The song opens with the organ by itself, the better for you to soak in the glorious riff it’s layin’ down. It fills up the sound nicely, but hits those offbeats heavily, which gives it that lurching feel – it’s always sort of leaning forwards to the next beat and gives that urgency and immediacy. The backbeat almost stands alone as the keys and guitar crunch down the chords on that offbeat. You can hear it when the electricity disappears for a second on the “Listen to this!” part, where they come down on the normal beats and it sounds a bit more like their other hits.

Just before the initial vocals come in, all the instruments stop to let them come in solo, creating much of what Queen called ‘hot space’ (on their album, Hot Space, where they got funky), the vocals going on their own half a step longer than it normally would, because the organ comes in on the offbeat. Leaving the listener hanging for that split second creates a great tension and excitement for when the instruments come back in.

Preliminary research (thanks, Wikipedia) tells me that this song wasn’t even one of their #1 Billboard singles, which boggles my mind. It’s basically the only Hall & Oates song I would consider to be a party in a can. Yeah, I can nod along to “Private Eyes”, but it doesn’t quite hit the same high. “You Make My Dreams” is, like, “Superstition” level (which, come to think of it, has that same offbeat feel). It gives a bit more of a peek into the duo that might have been. Even so, most groups don’t even get that effervescent moment.

Bravo, Messrs. Hall & Oates, bravo.

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