By Eleni P. Austin
Chances are, when you think of Thomas Dolby (and you probably think of him frequently), you visualize a mad scientist. That’s not too far off the mark. Always slightly ahead of his time, when he seemingly burst on the scene, he was a bit of a musical alchemist.
Often lumped together with early ‘80s one-hit-wonders like Kajagoogoo, Total Cohelo, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Taco, Thomas Dolby (ne’ Thomas Morgan Robertson), was born in London, England in 1958. His father, Martin, was an Archeology Professor and he spent quite a bit of his childhood in France, Italy and Greece.
His only formal musical education occurred around age 10, when he learned to sight-read in choir. By the time he was attending college, he had already taught himself to play guitar and piano. During adolescence, he became enamored with electronic instruments and synthesizers. He built his own synthesizer from a kit and was off and running. His obsession with music effectively derailed his Meteorology studies.
Nicknamed “Thomas Dolby” (after noise reduction system Dolby Labs utilized for audio recording and playback), he adopted the name as his musical alias. By his late teens he was working behind the scenes as a touring engineer for a number of Post-Punk bands, most prominently the Fall and the Members. During this era He built his own PA system and started Camera Club, a short-lived band that included Bruce Woolley, Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Matthew Seligman. All later gained musical recognition in The Buggles and the Soft Boys, respectively.
He briefly joined Lene Lovich’s band, writing the song, “New Toy,” which appeared on her second album. Ridiculously clever and catchy, it became a huge hit in Great Britain. Pretty soon, Dolby was the go-to guy at studio sessions. His signature synth sounds appeared on HUGE albums from Foreigner and Def Leppard, as well as Joan Armatrading and New York Rap trio, Whodini. The latter scored their first big hit, “Magic Wand,” one of the first World-Wide Million-selling Rap singles.
By 1981, he had released his first single, “Urges” through the tiny Armageddon label. It went nowhere, but he did get signed to Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary that was the original home of the Beatles. Dolby’s full-length debut, The Golden Age Of Wireless, arrived in May 1982. It cracked the Top 40 in England, hitting #13 on the strength of the song “Windpower.” It was virtually ignored in America, garnering minimal airplay on (soon to be “World Famous”) KROQ in Los Angeles.
In January of 1983, he released what would become his trademark song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” An infectious slice of Synth-Pop, it was accompanied by a droll video that featured noted British eccentric, Magnus Pike. MTV embraced the video and suddenly his debut leap-frogged up the American charts to #13.
Thomas Dolby and MTV seemed like a match made in heaven. They supported his sophomore effort, The Flat Earth in 1984, as well as his third album, Aliens Ate My Buick in 1988. Neither record sold as well as “…Science” so he turned his attention to other endeavors, scoring films like “Fever Pitch,” “Gothic” and (yikes) “Howard The Duck.” His production skills were in great demand and he applied his nuanced style to records by Prefab Sprout, George Clinton and Joni Mitchell. He also collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Dusty Springfield and Howard Jones. He even backed David Bowie on stage during his Live Aid performance.
Following his marriage to actress Kathleen Beller, (“The Godfather II,” “The Betsy,” “Dynasty”), Dolby seemed to retreat from the spotlight. Although he released the under-appreciated Astronauts & Heretics album in 1992, he preferred to stay behind the scenes. Always technologically ahead of the curve, he founded a computer software company in the early ‘90s.
Since then he has released a couple of live efforts and recorded A Map Of The Floating City. The music was never released physically as a CD, or even a download, but could be heard on a multi-player online game. Currently he is part of the faculty At the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. It feels like he has come full circle by embracing academia, albeit in a musical context. Luckily, the BMG label has just assembled Hyperactive, an exhaustive two-CD retrospective.
The set kicks out the (electronically enhanced) jams opening with the title cut. Blasting out of the speakers like a Grasshopper on amphetamines, the accent is on the exclamation with Hyperactive! Frenetic brass collides with strummy acoustic guitar as a psychoanalyst seriously intones “tell me about your childhood.” Dolby obliges, lurching into a lengthy diatribe; “At the tender age of three, I was hooked to a machine just to keep my mouth from spouting junk/They must have took me for a fool, when they put me in a school, ‘cause the teacher knew I had the Funk.” As thunderclap percussion connects with New Orleans’ flavored trombones, thumping bass lines, chicken-scratch guitar and fluttery flutes, it revs up to the precipice of cacophony, before unleashing some serious White-Boy Funk.
“The Golden Age Of Wireless” is well-represented with six tracks, beginning with “Europa And The Pirate Twins.” Anchored by a hiccup-y beat, bouncy keys, splattery percussion, scattershot Guitar riffs and smoky harmonica, (courtesy of XTC front man, Andy Partridge), the instrumentation offers a smorgasbord of sounds, and the lyrics are pretty sweet too. Here, Dolby recounts an adolescent romance that gets interrupted by the real world. “I was 14, she was 12, father travelled-hers as well, Europa…/Down the beaches hand in Hand, ‘Twelfth Of Never’ on the sand, the war took her away we swore a vow that day, we’ll be the Pirate Twins again…Europa.” Naturally, she becomes a model/Pop star, and our hero avidly follows her career … only to be snubbed at the airport in front of the paparazzi and bodyguards. Oh, the ignominy!
Innovative instrumentation coupled with intricate arrangements immediately became Dolby’s hallmark, and just as quickly, he proved himself a deft lyricist as well. On the Union Jack Swing of “Wind Power” he instructs the listener (and maybe himself), to “Switch off the mind and let the heart decide who you’re meant to be/Flick to remote and Let the body glide, there is no enemy.” His lyrics paint vivid stories that spring to life. From the chilly “One Of Our Submarines” which cloaks a “Das Boot” saga in some serious Das Booty-shaking rhythms, to the lush “Airwaves” rails against relying on Technology over human interaction.
Naturally, “She Blinded Me With Science” is here, matching angular guitar, herky-jerky rhythms and spazzy blasts of synthesizer. Here robotic vocals spin a yarn as old as time, full of hormones, pheromones, “Spheres in commotion and elements in harmony.” Rounding out the set is the whiplash riff-age of “Radio Silence.”
Aside from the analeptic rush of “Hyperactive!” the music on “The Flat Earth” was a stylistic 180, supplanting technology with intimate acoustic instrumentation. The rapid fire “Dissidents” amps up the Cold War paranoia that felt de rigueur in the early ‘80s, and Dolby offers A faithful, yet sublime version of Dan Hicks’ cult classic, “I Scare Myself.” But the real gems here are the title track and “Screen Kiss.”
Mellow and seductive, “The Flat Earth” shares some Musical DNA with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing;” tentative electronic percussion bubbles and hisses, locking into a whirring rhythm. Squiggly guitar intertwines with stately piano as Dolby summons his inner Al Green, asserting we are ultimately in charge of our own destinies. He quietly insists “The earth can be any shape you want it, any shape at all, dark and cold or bright and warm, long or thin or small…and if love is all you’re missing/Look into your heart, is anybody home?…and in time you’ll come to understand, this flat old earth is in your gentle hands.”
“Screen Kiss” is also a revelation. Liquid electric riffs cascade over sweet acoustic arpeggios, brittle piano notes, percolating percussion and synthesized strings. If Nathanael West’s updated “Day Of The Locust” to the early ‘80s, it might go something like this. Dolby distills the decadence and dissipation that exists beneath the surface of laid-back L.A., not unlike like Joni Mitchell’s Hissing Of Summer Lawns album.
Told from the perspective of a naïve Croydon girl attempting an Acting career in Hollywood, the sunny façade quickly peels away, revealing a tawdry tableau; “The moon is bright in the haze above old Hollywood, deer look down from the hills, it’s three o’clock in the morning/Pill in hand you can hear the golden surfer boys crying out ‘mummy won’t come out of the bathroom’, and you hoped he’d say he’s sorry if he hit you, but he’s buried in the screen play of his feature.” Laced with melancholy, it’s a minor-key masterpiece.
It was four long years between The Flat Earth and Aliens Ate My Buick, released in 1988. The Pop Music landscape had tilted on its axis, veering away from the dayglo neon of New Wave and Synth Pop, embracing Hair Metal, Smooth R&B and anomalies like Rick Astley. Thomas Dolby was no longer ahead of the curve. While the music was fun and danceable, the record was roundly ignored.
“Airhead” is wickedly clever, anticipating the culture of the Celebutante 20 years ahead of schedule. “The Ability To Swing,” updates the Duke Ellington edict, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” adding a measure of finger-popping cool. “Budapest By Blimp” is a whispery torch song. “Pulp Culture” is a Funkified jab at the superficial, dumbing down of society. (Begging the question, what does he think of the world today?). Finally, “May The Cube Be With You” touts the salubrious effects of a Martian-made wonder drug called “the cube” that “turned nightmares into dreams.”
Another four elapsed before Thomas Dolby returned in 1992 with Astronauts & Heretics, eschewing the frenetic Funk of Aliens… the record, recorded in Los Angeles, London and Louisiana, embraced warm acoustic instrumentation. Enlisting high profile friends like Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Eddi Reader, Ofra Haza and Eddie Van Halen, Dolby created a beautifully nuanced record that was wildly underappreciated. This was partly due to shoddy distribution and promotion from his record label as well as the ascendance Of Hip-Hop and Grunge.
Even though it got lost in the shuffle, there is much to love about the songs from this record. “I Love You Goodbye” blends Celtic and Cajun influences (long before “Riverdance” ruined Irish music for well, Everyone). Piano driven and mid-tempo, it features sawing fiddle, wheezy accordion and wily banjo notes from New Orleans superstars Michael Doucet, Wayne Toups and Al Tharp. The lyrics offer up an apocryphal tale that involves nostalgic bowling, a stolen Datsun, a racist County Sherriff and a romantic farewell.
“Cruel” is slinky yet cutting, a duet that presents Dolby and Eddi Reader as lovers at cross-purposes. “Silk Pyjamas” features rollicking Big Easy piano and click-clack percussion. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics issue a missing persons bulletin for a friend wearing her “usual outfit; big pith helmet, Dr. Martens and silk pyjamas.” There’s a Punky appeal to the stripped-down crunch of “Close But No Cigar,” and the time signature shifts on “Beauty Of A Dream” echo Todd Rundgren, circa “Something/Anything.” “Neon Sisters” is a spiky but soft-hearted tribute to a friend who seems to have succumbed to drug addiction.
The real surprise of this set is “Eastern Bloc.” Aside from David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes,” which revisits Major Tom from “Space Oddity,” sequel songs rarely work. But Dolby really one-ups himself on this agile follow-up to “Europa And The Pirate Twins.” Built on a swaggering Burundi Beat and reverb-drenched guitar, (both pirated from Bow Wow Wow’s trenchant cover of “I Want Candy”), it adds airy synths and incorporates a verse from the original “Europa…”. The action takes place during the fall of the Berlin Wall, where Dolby thinks he spies his elusive teenage crush. Eddie Van Halen adds a metallic wah-wah-fied guitar solo on the break that kind of hits the spot.
Other interesting tracks include soundtrack cuts like “Gate Of The Mind’s Eye” and “The Devil Is An Englishman.” His debut single, “Urges,” and the flipside, “Leipzig Is Calling” are also accounted for. The collection closes the lilting samba, “My Brain Is Like A Sieve.”
35 years ago, Thomas Dolby was ahead of his time. His music ushered in the age of Synth-Pop and presaged the advent of Electronica. As he toggled between electronic and acoustic instrumentation, he managed to strike a balance between chilly technology and warm humanity .Hyperactive serves as an introduction to some and a reminder to most that he remains an innovator and a protean talent.