Pop Goes the World: Thomas Dolby, “Eastern Bloc”

Written by Music, Pop Goes the World

Our Lord Jefito surely has a dozen stories on Giant Records and the litany of mistakes they made as a company – he seems to have at least one story for every label, further proof that he has forgotten more about music than most of us will ever know – but give Giant credit for allowing Thomas Dolby to make a mature, organic pop album at a time when mature, organic albums from ’80s synth wizards were commercial arsenic. (I’m still surprised that “Lift Me Up,” Howard Jones’ sole Top 40 entry from his 1992 album In the Running, made it all the way to #32.) You could even say that Dolby’s album Astronauts & Heretics (1992) beat artists like Santana to the punch in terms of stunt-casting, as the album features guest appearances by Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Reader, Budgie, Ofra Haza and even Jerry Garcia. Unfortunately, at the time, that and a buck were enough to get Dolby a cup of coffee. The album received mild support on AAA radio for “Close but No Cigar” – for which Dolby shot a video with then-unknown director Michel Gondry – but in the end the record tanked, and Dolby has not recorded another vocal album since.

A damn shame, that. I quite like Astronauts & Heretics, and still get a thrill when the local modern rock station dusts off leadoff track “I Love You Goodbye” to play on Valentine’s Day. What appealed to me about the album was that I felt like Dolby and I were growing up together, leaving our old lives behind and trying to adapt to new and uncertain times. For him, it was a hostile musical climate; for me, it was simply life after college. Dolby was obviously dealing with much more grown-up problems than I was, but we had one thing in common in that our situations were messy. While I couldn’t relate to songs like “Neon Sisters,” where Dolby laments the loss of a friend to AIDS via a dirty syringe, I could relate to the emotional instability of songs like “Cruel” and “I Love You Goodbye” (readers of my Mope Like Me column just nodded knowingly) as well as the hope in “Beauty of a Dream.” Most importantly, while Dolby and I were eager to move on to the next phase in our lives, neither of us had forgotten where we had come from, so when Dolby decided to give an old song a makeover, I was only happy to play along.

“Eastern Bloc,” to use a cliched Hollywood term, is a re-imagining of “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” from Dolby’s fabulous 1982 album The Golden Age of Wireless. The title might say “sequel,” but the lyrics don’t really continue the story, considering that the first verse of “Europa” makes up the third verse of “Eastern Bloc.” Musically, it is as far removed from the original “Europa” as it could be, yet seamlessly works pieces of the original track into the song at the same time (in the same key, no less). The drums start out doing a “Hand Jive” beat by way of Bow Wow Wow’s cover of “I Want Candy,” with no hint of what’s to come. Then the pre-chorus hits, and you hear the first whisper of “Europa,” but Dolby’s still holding back. He wants to establish this song before referencing the other one. Cue Eddie Van Halen’s squealing guitar and the double-time snare. “So I was fourteen, she was twelve…” Holy shit! There’s the old keyboard riff! There’s the sound effect! There’s the drum riff and the hand claps! I lived for this stuff back then. It was quite the novelty in the pre-mash-up era.

“Eastern Bloc” was a nice way of saying thanks to the people that had supported him through thick and thin, though to be honest, I wasn’t one of them. I bought The Flat Earth (1984), but was too young to appreciate its more sophisticated approach (though I love “Hyperactive”), and conversely, I thought the singles from Aliens Ate My Buick (1988) weren’t sophisticated enough, though hearing him perform “Budapest by Blimp” during his 2006 tour led me to download Buick and give it another shot. Indeed, the closest I came to supporting Thomas Dolby in the mid to late ’80s was when I bought the albums he produced for Prefab Sprout. In fact, Dolby himself recently told me – in an interview that never went to tape because I forgot to turn on the adapter between the recorder and my phone, balls – there is a parallel between his albums and Prefab’s albums during that time, and he has a point. Steve McQueen (1985) and Flat Earth are serious and sober, From Langley Park to Memphis (1988) and Aliens Ate My Buick are lighter and more playful, and Jordan: The Comeback (1990) and Astronauts are their grown-up records. I spun the bejeezus out of Jordan, so it makes sense that I have a similar love for Astronauts. I just wish that Dolby would consider making another album like it, and with any luck, he’ll break the Prefab pattern. I was never all that high on Andromeda Heights.

Thomas Dolby – Eastern Bloc