Sweet Juice: Thomas Dolby, “Leipzig” (1981)

If you weren’t listening to radio in the 1970s you may not realize how awful synthesizers were and what a desperate need there was for guitars to reconquer rock music.  Heading into the 1980s the main trend was good (in retrospect), thanks to pub-rock and punk.  But in another turn that I scarcely expected, and only caught up with several years later, a couple of geniuses were figuring out great applications of synths.  Prince, of course, was one.  The other who got my attention was Thomas Dolby, particularly on his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless (1982) before the novelty number “She Blinded Me With Science” was tacked onto it and the tracks were changed, mostly for the worse.[1]

In a rock context it’s unfair to complain that synthesizers sound fake, since mics and amps have made nearly all the sounds of rock electrical and artificial.  In fact the mission of rock to be loud is inseparable from the task of harnessing electricity and finding musical expression in electricity as such, zzt zzt.  The challenge is to get enough naturally affecting timbre, something like a voice and singing, into the electrical gale, as with the plucking and twanging of guitar strings or the thwacking of drumheads.  And synthesizers of the 1970s had a rather inanimate voice if you could say they had a voice at all.  All that note-bending tried to liven the sound up but just called attention to how dead it was.

The technology evolved.  By the time I considered playing one of the infernal things, the Roland company had discovered waveform recipes for a decently “natural” emulation of a number of acoustic instruments including piano, and the Yamaha DX7 had some artificially pure but very sweet sounds; listening to the DX7 could be like drinking hummingbird water.  Probably the most important advance was incorporating changes in each sound (that is, specifying the “envelope” of the sound) during the time it is sounding.   To be alive you must age and die.

By 1982 Thomas Dolby was ambitiously playing and programming a variety of synths, including a very expensive Fairlight CMI that could sample and reproduce live sounds.  As I listen to him again I realize that the secret of his success is not so much his sounds, many of which are ugly in themselves, but his gorgeous unusual arrangements—Golden Age of Wireless is one of the masterclasses in pop harmony, up there with Odessey & Oracle—and the elastic kicking way he sings against his programs.

Using one of his more beautiful non-natural sounds, Dolby concocted one of the ultimate synth hooks in “Leipzig,” first released as a single in 1981.  The lyrics of “Leipzig” portray a very Northern European glum middle-class scene of espionage reminiscent of John Le Carré novels.  In the narrative dimension it’s a downer.  But the most important thing in the song is this phrase, which pierces me like the angel pierced St. Teresa (at 0:27 in this clip):

“Leipzig”

Blatantly artificial, but commandingly alive.  Electricity has joined us, singing, in another way, vaguely violinish but not really.  “Leipzig” is a concerto for sweet juice in G, bursting with flavor at the end of its great hook in a high major third.

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[1] That album was finally brought back in digital form, remastered, with “Leipzig” and the awesome Guitar Version of “Radio Silence” restored, in 2009.

But here’s a delightful performance of “She Blinded Me With Science” without the distraction of an actor’s voice declaiming the title phrase:

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sweet Juice: Thomas Dolby, “Leipzig” (1981)

  1. inkwarp says:

    the golden age of wireless was so electrifying to me because it was the first record i had that incorporated synths as subservient to the wonderful melodies and arrangements, they create an acoustic geography in my mind, more expansive and rich than anything else at that time, even now i hear new things in it. ( dolby has always used some amazing musicians on his projects much in the way his idol, joni mitchell did, particularly on Hissing of Summer Lawns) i could call it ‘cinematic’ i suppose. i did recently get a hold of the new’ remix of it and , yes , it’s a bit poorer for including a lot of lesser stuff ( the gothic soundtrack and howard the duck will forever be his nadir).. but i love one of our submarines and she blinded me with science… if only because of the creativity with sound. it’s a little unfortunate that he is only known for this by a lot of folks..
    i always strongly recommend the prefab sprout albums that he produced. they are pretty much a divine confluence of talents. mcaloon says that dolby made ‘little palaces’ from his songs. i couldn’t agree more. the sound is immaculate, emotive… anyway, i think you should go and listen to “Urges” or , my particular favorite “Therapy/Growth” (i adore Leipzig to : ), tracks that illustrate how unworldly and gorgeous his stuff was before the ( new) wave of execrably titled ‘synthpop’ came a-crashing down around my addled ears.. a lot of that stuff was out of date before it hit the record deck.. but some of it stands up and golden age of wireless stands taller than most…
    imho…

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