Albums from the Lost and Found: The Dream Academy

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Strangely enough, for all their many solo and extracurricular projects over the years and all the success they have achieved together as a band, the members of the iconic British rock band Pink Floyd have had relatively little success as solo artists, at least in terms of radio play. While they’ve fared moderately well in terms of album and concert ticket sales, neither Roger Waters nor David Gilmour have come anywhere close to reaching the Top 40 in America as solo artists. Gilmour’s sole singles chart success outside of Pink Floyd on this side of the Atlantic, in fact, has come only from guest appearances on other records (most notably, his dramatic guitar solo on Paul McCartney’s 1984 Top Ten hit “No More Lonely Nights”) and, interestingly enough, as the co-producer behind the 1985 self-titled debut album from the British pop trio The Dream Academy.

At first glance, the trio was an unlikely bet to reach the charts in America; one of its three members, Kate St. John, primarily played oboe, cor anglais, and accordion – not exactly instruments typically found on pop records – and their debut single was a tribute to the then-little-known Nick Drake, an early ‘70s folk-oriented singer-songwriter who died at the early age of 26 and notoriously sold very few albums during his lifetime, remaining a cult figure for decades until his song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial and finally brought his music to a mainstream audience. But the outfit was also blessed with two gifted songwriters in guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes, who also possessed a great singing voice that made him an obvious choice for frontman, and keyboardist Gilbert Gabriel, and with Gilmour’s help, the group would craft a truly first-rate debut album that would yield two American radio hits and also land the trio an appearance as musical guests on Saturday Night Live.

The album’s lead-off single and Top Ten hit, the wistful and vaguely-psychedelic “Life in a Northern Town,” remains a knockout to this day with its poetic lyrics, heavily echoed vocals, sweeping strings, Nick Drake-like folk-tinged verses (wonderfully accented in places by St. John’s cor anglais), and bombastic choruses driven by pounding tympanis and a tribal-like chant later sampled in the Dario G dance club hit “Sunchyme.”  (The song would also nearly hit the Top 40 a second time in 2007 in the form of a cover by the country acts Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen.)

As masterful as that single was, its parent album tends to get far less notice, and most people probably don’t realize they’re likely to recognize more than just one song from this album.  While it strangely wasn’t publicly released as a single, the incessantly catchy – and much more obviously commercial – “The Edge of Forever,” which packs nearly as much dramatic punch as “Life in a Northern Town” but without the bombast, was notably featured in one of the more famous scenes – the one that made any number of American teenaged boys fall in love with Mia Sara – from the ‘80s film classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  [If the title of the song doesn’t ring a bell, it should be noted that it doesn’t actually appear in the lyrics, and the song’s chorus is most easily identified by the line “When we kiss goodnight, there’s a million hearts beating in my room.”]

Though the group tends to get mislabeled quite frequently as being a one-hit wonder, this disc actually spawned a second – but sadly since-forgotten – American Top 40 hit in the equally intriguing “The Love Parade,” produced by Alan Tarney (best known for producing a-ha, Cliff Richard, and Leo Sayer).  Like “Life in a Northern Town,” “The Love Parade” sounds like little else on the radio at the time. The atmospheric single is propelled throughout by a bossa-nova beat, and St. John plays an accordion throughout the second verse. The song’s minor-key chorus is ghostly and haunting, but it’s strangely fitting, and it’s also unexpectedly quite catchy as well.

Elsewhere on the disc, the trio dabbles with dreamy ballads (“In Places on the Run”), soul-pop (“Johnny New Light” and the fun “Bound to Be,” the latter of which boasts some especially funky bass work from Pino Pallodino, as well as backing vocals from future Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler), sweeping orchestral pop epics (“The Party,” which features both Gilmour and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on guitar and sounds like what you might get if Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were to team up with the Moody Blues), and sparse, jazzy acoustic pop (the gorgeous album-closer “One Dream,” which finds Laird-Clowes backed only by Chucho Merchan on double bass and David Defries on trumpet).

Sadly, Gilmour was not involved in the trio’s sophomore outing, 1987’s poor-selling Remembrance Days (which was largely co-helmed by Hugh Padgham, with Lindsey Buckingham also co-producing two cuts). Gilmour would return as co-producer for the outfit’s third and final disc, 1991’s A Strange Kind of Weather, which failed to revive their commercial fortunes but was a stronger outing artistically than its predecessor and wrapped up the band’s story nicely. Kate St. John would go on in the ensuing decades to tour with everyone from Van Morrison (also playing on four of his studio albums of the ‘90s) and Marianne Faithfull to the Waterboys and Tom Waits, also doing session work for the likes of Bryan Ferry, Blur, Nick Lowe, and Morrissey. Laird-Clowes (who also had the honor of co-writing a song with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boy’s self-titled 1987 solo album) would continue to work with Gilmour into the ‘90s, penning lyrics for the Pink Floyd album The Division Bell, before going on to work primarily as a film composer, scoring movies such as Fierce People and Richard Curtis’ About Time.