Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

I recently picked up my copy of David Thomas’ Monster, his 5-CD collection of five albums from the 1980s between Pere Ubu’s breakup and reformation (and another disc of live material from the mid-1990s). There are things about this collection that have always fascinated me; not just those 1980s albums themselves, which I devoured avidly when they were originally released, but also the curious treatment given two of them: one, 1982’s spoken word (with musical accompaniment) Winter Comes Home, was ‘disappeared’ by Thomas – it’s not in the box and Thomas suggests in the sleevenotes that it doesn’t exist (however it’s recently become officially available again as a download at; perhaps even stranger, Variations on a Theme is not merely remixed (as Wikipedia claims) but in fact completely reworked, with new lyrics/vocals, newly recorded elements, etc (‘overdubs and revisions’ including new contributions from Jim Jones, who was on the original record) from 1989/90.

I like to write about music, and while I have no special insight even after cogitating on various elements of Thomas’ music, I figured it might be a nice project to start a conversation about these remarkable, and frankly overlooked, albums (yes, all six, including Winter Comes Home). How? I am not sure yet, obviously. I’m only starting now. However, it seems reasonable to begin with the first track of the first of these albums, and end up at the last track of the sixth – that’s 57 songs.

As I so often seem to be saying these days, please don’t feel you have to read this. I have a blog because although I write a lot for work, and I write a lot for other publication, too, I also write for my own enjoyment but frankly that enjoyment only really makes sense if there is some sense of the possibility of someone reading it at the other end. For instance, someone searching online for information on David Thomas’ solo records, which are actually pretty underrepresented on the internet (and where they’re there, there’s a lot of misinformation).

‘TheBirds Are Good Ideas’ begins the first ‘solo’ album by David Thomas, The Sound of the Sand. It’s not really a solo album; you only have to look at the songwriting credits to appreciate that. With no particular insight into David Thomas’ working practices, I am fairly certain that many of the songs that make up his 1980s solo career are the result of studio jams by the assembled musicians (from Dub Housing onwards, I gather, Pere Ubu worked this way; it’s almost impossible to believe that in 1982 Thomas had a bunch of songs he was itching to record).

OK, so as I get closer to cutting to the chase re: ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’ I just have one more thing to say about the album it’s on: it’s really badly sequenced, at least as far as user friendliness is concerned. The first three tracks are the abovementioned; followed by ‘Yiki Tiki’ and then ‘The Crickets in the Flats’, an instrumental which Thomas presumably had little or no involvement in (and for which songwriting is credited entirely to drummer Anton Fier), but which – while it would have been terribly deceptive as a first track – would also have been a great opener.

‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’ is, when it comes down to it, not the greatest song, though like a lot of songs on this particular album the exceptional talents of the men in the group mean that on occasion stuff really comes together and you almost have the makings of a real pop song. The last 20 seconds of this track, for instance, could be the germ of a fabulous hit.

Eddie Thornton’s trumpet, very trebly (to 2014 ears it sounds like a tinny synthesizer) really makes the song, if anything does; I gather Thornton was a Rough Trade artist at this time – he released a cover of ‘Theme from a Summer Place’ on 12” I read on Wikipedia though I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing or hearing about that then or since.

However I assume that the placement of this song at the start of proceedings probably has more to do with the involvement of Richard Thompson, whose recruitment for this album was something of a coup in certain minds – though once again the dichotomy of David Thomas is highlighted. Richard Thompson is amazing as a guitar player and a guitar playing innovator. Almost no-one who likes Richard Thompson would like David Thomas, surely. Maybe there were a few Richard Thompson completists who would buy David Thomas albums with Thompson on them… let’s say there were a hundred? The connection Thomas forged on his solo albums with former members of Henry Cow totally makes sense. The Richard Thompson connection is that Richard Thompson helped to work up some of these songs. Possibly it made some David Thomas fans think Thompson was cool, like he needed that.

There should be a name for the period in Thomas’ career when he had all those songs about mundane everyday stuff. Let’s call it the Mundane period. I assume there are twin aspects to the Mundane period – one, that Thomas is self-consciously using the Mundane topics of birds, shoes, walking as metaphor (hard not to assume that, he suggests it frequently in the songs themselves – and of course there’s a way to read that into the title of this song particularly). The other, less overtly stated, is that his Jehovah’s Witness devotion in this period compels him to marvel at all elements in God’s schema, however small they may be.

Certainly, it’s an upbeat track, and about as far from scary as the material on Dub Housing and New Picnic Time as you can imagine, unless you’re scared by a big American man singing in a high-pitched cartoon voice about birds. The music is cartoony too. The song which follows it, ‘Yiki Tiki’, is almost a part two of the themes herein – more soon.

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