Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog and a chance meeting with Thomas Dolby

by Richard Newell
February 9, 2023

In August 1985, I had a chance meeting in Greece with electronic music pioneer Thomas Dolby. This was just after he'd co-produced Joni Mitchell's album Dog Eat Dog. The album hadn't yet been released and I got a preview of it while we both waited for a flight out of Athens airport.

I've recently reacquainted with the album - much played by me back in the 1980s, but largely ignored since. I think there are two reasons for our estrangement.

Like many records produced in that decade, its use of electronic drums and all manner of digital keyboards gives it a shiny but rather impersonal feel.

Also, because of Joni's preoccupations of the time, the album carries with it an unwelcome air of despondency. Which is a shame, because behind all that is some great music and writing.

Dog Eat Dog marked a change of direction for Joni Mitchell in that, for the first time, she worked with a producer. Previously her engineer Henry Lewy served as producer in all but name; there to make it as easy as possible for Joni to get her musical ideas across. It was a partnership that yielded her entire catalogue of classics in the 1970s.

By the mid-1980s, with electronic instruments dominating the sonic landscape, Joni and husband/bassist Larry Klein were keen to explore new sounds. Klein in particular was keen to understand the possibilities of the Fairlight CMI digital synthesiser, which by the mid-1980s had become fairly commonplace on albums from ABC to Yes.

British musician Thomas Dolby, considered one of the key exponents of electronic music at the time, was brought in to work as a co-producer. Apart from his own solo work, his most recent success was as producer of Prefab Sprout's debut album, Steve McQueen, of which Dolby was particularly proud, he told me when we met.

Our encounter began at the Greek shipping port of Piraeus. We were both waiting around for the bus to Athens airport. We got talking and since I knew that he had recently played as part of David Bowie's band at Live Aid, we chatted about that.

Bowie had promised Bob Geldof he would play at Live Aid, but he hadn't toured for a while and didn't have a band. Dolby was asked to gather a bunch of musicians who could rehearse at short notice. He drafted in guitarist Kevin Armstrong and drummer Neil Conti, Matthew Seligman on bass, Pedro Ortiz on percussion, Clare Hurst on saxophone, with Tessa Niles and Helena Springs on backing vocals.

As Dolby said, the fact that Bowie was willing to take a chance with a young band with very little rehearsal was a ballsy move on his part. And he rose to the occasion brilliantly, leading the line and catching the mood of that amazing day perfectly.

We arrived at the airport and were sitting on the floor leaning against a wall. Lengthy delays for flights out of Greece were par for the course in those days and the airport was packed. Dolby told me he had just produced an album with Joni Mitchell - and would I like to hear it? So I slipped the tape into my Walkman and gave him a tape of mine - Miles's Kind Of Blue and Sketches of Spain.

Joni's record was instantly recognisable as Dolby's sound and far removed from her previous albums. The first track Good Friends was straightforward enough, probably designed as a single, with backing vocals from Michael McDonald. It was on the second track, Fiction, where things got real.

Joni had never shied away from straight talking in her music, especially about relationships, but by this time she had become downright angry at the world. Suddenly she was railing against rampant consumerism - Fiction of the "buy me", "Watch me", "Listen to me".

There followed some sharp-tongued critiques of neo-liberal idealogues, TV evangelists and the shallowness and dumbing-down of society at large, while children starved to death in parts of Africa.

As such, lyrically the album remains one of her most compelling, addressing cultural and political topics that are just as resonant today. No better example of this is the track 'The Three Great Stimulants'. It's another shiny and synth-draped Dolby production, but with a message that's as up to date as you could get.

No tanks have ever rumbled through these streets
And the drone of planes at night has never frightened me
I keep the hours and the company that I please
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones
Artifice, brutality and innocence

The track Tax Free is particularly bleak in outlook. An American preacher shouting "There's evil in this land! Cast down these dope fiends and their noisy bands! Damn their souls!"

Dolby told me they had a genuine recording of a fire and brimstone preacher from the southern states, but they couldn't get his permission to use it on the record. So they hired the actor Rod Steiger to act it out for the album.

In those times when the African famine had inspired Live Aid, it was entirely appropriate that Joni would record a song like Ethiopia, where the repetitive piano motif and the Fairlight sound effects combine to startling effect. That must have been an intense session to be involved in.

Indeed, that was the feeling Dolby took from the whole experience of producing Joni. He revealed to me that the sessions for Dog Eat Dog were tense and that Joni spent long periods in isolation working on her music - his meticulous working methods at odds with her less structured way of composing. It wasn't that Joni was resisting the new technology. She based Dog Eat Dog's awful filler track Smokin' (Empty, Try Another) around the sound of the cigarette machine in the parking lot of A&M studios. One reviewer at the time said, "Why would anyone want to listen to a cigarette machine churn away for 15 seconds?"

As she had in the 1970s with her increasingly jazzy records, Joni took a lot of flak for daring to change. The same reviewer concluded that "Dog Eat Dog may not be the biggest bow-wow that Mitchell has taken for a walk in her 14-album discography, but it's certainly in the prize-winning category."

Rolling Stone magazine called it "an unpleasant listen - the music simulates the soullessness of our 'culture in decline' without revealing anything new about it. While Joni's venom is an encouraging sign, its clumsy expression is unnerving."

Did the technology smother the music? Arguably yes, the rhythms on Dog Eat Dog are programmed and metronomic (surely a waste of Vinnie Colaiuta's talents); there's no acoustic-ness, very little of Joni's trademark guitar. The uptempo track Fiction, though it's highly listenable, suffers from the stiffness of the rhythm programming and the tendency to saturate the mix with superfluous details, like the roboticised voices of Dolby, Klein and others on various tracks.

Dolby said his guidance was often disregarded and Joni herself is on record as saying the sessions were one long fight to get her way, with not just Dolby but Klein as well. The final insult was that Thomas Dolby, hired for his expertise and credited as a co-producer on the original album, was demoted to "sound file assistance" on the version of Dog Eat Dog released as part of 2003's The Complete Geffen Recordings.

That was more than a little ungracious of Joni and tells of perhaps a quite serious falling out. Whatever happened, it was clearly not a great match-up on a personal level, and Dolby made no secret of it when we met.

More recently, in an interview with the Washington Independent, he said it was still a huge honour to be asked to work with her. "It ended up not being that great an experience. I was probably a bit of a brat at the time, as well, and things didn't work out too well. The album was quite electronic and I think that her fans didn't receive the album well and they wanted someone to pin the blame on, and that was me. I'm still glad to have done it. To be touched by that much grace and genius was very fortunate."

For her part, Joni moved on and her next albums were less experimental, with her anger more contained. "I was out of sync with the '80s," she said. "Thank God! To be in sync with those times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip."

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