A quick scan of the many records Phil Thornalley has worked on, and you’ll quickly spot some of the biggest names in popular music, including Bryan Adams, Thompson Twins, The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Duran Duran, and even Paul McCartney. Phil co-wrote and produced Natalie Imbruglia’s 1997 worldwide smash “Torn,” and has written hits with Pixie Lott (“Mama Do”) and BBMak (“Back Here”). A kind of rock’n’roll Zelig, his name is probably on countless records in your collection, although you probably didn’t even know it was him. That bass line on The Cure’s “Love Cats”? That’s Phil. The haunting and ethereal production on Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down”? That’s Phil too.
Now, on his latest offering, Now That I Have Your Attention, Phil Thornalley steps out of The Swamp (his North London studio) to unveil 11 catchy and brand-new original songs (plus three bonus tracks on the CD!) that find him exploring the production stylings pioneered by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Brummie boffin, Jeff Lynne.
Thornalley celebrates the fine musicality and pure joy of Lynne’s widescreen symphonic string sections, the bare-faced brutality of his straight-ahead rhythm bed tracks, and plenty of multi-tracked and stacked harmony vocals. On tracks like “Stand By Love,” and “High On Your Supply,” Thornalley makes more than a passing nod towards Lynne’s carefully layered sonic tableau, from the multiple acoustic guitars to the highly specific electric guitar lines.
Clearly, it’s a sound that Thornalley can’t get out of his head.
“Maybe we should have called it the Traveling Phil-burys,” Thornalley jokes, “but I enjoyed the earlier ELO records, and the way they married a crummy beat combo with the grandeur of a full orchestra – it was over-the-top but infectiously musical, creating a foundation of the oxymoronic ‘controlled’ rock and roll drums and a super simple bass guitar.”
Why, you may well ask, would a lauded and Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer (and the focus of a recent in-depth career retrospective story in the American trade magazine, Tape Op) decide to record an album with both feet planted haphazardly in the squelch of the seventies sounds of ELO and glam rock?
Because it’s fun.
“When I listen to pop radio these days,” says Phil Thornalley, “no one seems to be having any fun. In my teenage years, every other record you heard was ridiculous. I think that sense of fun is missing from today’s often turgid, doleful would-be soul singers moaning about their millionaire ennui.”
It’s worth noting that this is a true solo album, and while Thornalley had some vital assistance from Jimmy Hogarth (on “Hell Bent On Compromise” and “High On Your Supply”), the string arrangements of Sally Herbert, Thornalley was solely responsible for the lion’s share of what he calls the “strumming, banging, plucking, crashing, bashing, and warbling,” on the record, writing all the songs, producing, and engineering the whole thing.
“I’ve been gifted a certain talent for rudimentary playing of the pop instruments such as bass, drums, guitar and piano. I understand musical arrangements from making records for other people through the decades, so I can hear what I want and gravitate towards achieving it. I’ve even tried some cello and some Dylan-like harmonica on ‘High On Your Supply.’” And while I like to think I have an ear for scoring an approximate string arrangement, I gladly handed over my ideas to Sally who plays viola and violin, and Ian Burdge who plays cello. Sal finesses the score, adds slurs and unexpected effects, and then they track that up at their home studio.”
Thornalley played a bar room “tack” piano over a doubled string quartet, arranged by Herbert, and little else to achieve a McCartney-esque melancholy on what is arguably the album’s most poignant song, “Bluer Than A Bluebird” over which a simple lyric wallows in the sadness of a misguided, one-sided love affair. “The strings,” laughs Thornalley, “especially the cellos, really pile on the agony.”
The more delicate flowers amongst you might be taken aback by the overt drug-analogies in songs like “Heaven In A Hash Pipe,” and “High On Your Supply,” but again, Thornalley says it’s all in good, tongue-in-cheek fun.
“The actual message of ‘Heaven…’ is that I don’t think you’ll find true happiness in losing your mind,” says Thornalley, “while ‘High On Your Supply’ is about dealing in love addiction.”
Thornalley considers the glam rock shuffle of “Solid Gold Sunshine,” with its unsubtle blend of a seventies groove and teenage feel-good melody, to be something of an outlier on the album.
“I tried to marry some elements from my old record collection,” says Thornalley. “The big bludgeon-like Moog synthesizer of ‘Jet’ by Wings, or the fuzzbox slide guitar frenzy of Joe Walsh. There’s a certain type of guitar riff that was ubiquitous in ‘70s pop but is now relatively unheard, yet it somehow fits on my album. While the galloping rock of “One Night In America” evokes thoughts of Neil Diamond singing ‘Xanadu.’”
As a gifted and chart proven producer in his own right, Thornalley calls upon decades of experience in the pop trenches, daubing sonic textures like paint on an aural canvas.
“I particularly enjoy finding different rooms in my house to record in,” says Thornalley. “I rarely use reverb, but I do like to place a microphone at the far end of a corridor to find the right tonal perspective for the drums or particularly the background vocals. I like the natural feel of call and response on a chorus and the natural colours available in my studio – just by pointing the mic at the ceiling not at the singer – can create pockets of unique, blended tone. I was trained in the studio by the man with the golden ears, Mickie Most, an uber-pop producer with a telepathic sense of what the record buying public wanted, and always with an ear for the melodic, funky or just plain catchy.”
Phil Thornalley deserves your attention.