Ah, Thomas Dolby. No, please don’t instantly yell “SCIENCE!” Yes, he’s primarily pigeonholed as a one-hit wonder, with “She Blinded Me With Science” still getting played nearly daily on ’80s flashback radio, but that novelty unfortunately blinded (heh) many people to the superior musical and lyrical talent buried in those deep album cuts. Dolby struggled to match that fluke success with more serious work to little avail, finally taking a nearly 15-year break before returning to the concert stage last year. He’s currently tinkering on his first studio album since 1992. So, why should you like Thomas Dolby (and I’m not just telling you why because I came in second place playing Thomas Dolby in the North Ridgeville, Ohio, Spanky’s Nightclub Teen Night Lipsynch Contest in 1984, either!)? The evidence, please …
Dolby, New Wave Pioneer: Debut LP The Golden Age of Wireless is one of the top ten greatest albums of the ’80s, hands down, with nary a stinker in the bunch, no matter what version of the album you choose (it was released and re-released and re-re-released several times with several different track listings). Yes, it has that song on it, but songs like “Radio Silence” (download) (here in its original “rock” version) and science-fiction ballad “Airwaves” (download) reveal much more than mere novelty. Every song is jam-packed with hooks, lyrical wit, and narrative innovation.
Even seemingly tossed-off B-sides like “Puppet Theatre” (download) feature melodies and grooves lesser musicians would kill for. Wireless set a high bar for Dolby, one that he would struggle to match for the rest of his career. Luckily, he didn’t do too shabbily.
Dolby, Master of Funk: Casual fans of that wacky “science guy” were probably struck dumb when presented with the second single from The Flat Earth, “Dissidents” (download), a straight-ahead funk number complete with popping bass, slashing funk guitar, and lyrics about … Russian dissident authors and journalists. Not exactly the subject matter to pack a party’s dance floor, but that’s part of Dolby’s charm.
Dolby also featured funky bass in quite a bit of his catalog, hitting an apex in his collaboration with P-Funk’s George Clinton in a combo dubbed Dolby’s Cube, dipping into the novelty well again with May the Cube Be With You. While not quite a success, it didn’t deter Dolby from being one of the first new wave artists to liberally integrate funk and early hip-hop into his work (see also “Get Out of My Mix,” a track worn out by breakdancers back in my high school days).
Dolby the Collaborator: Speaking of hip-hop, Dolby produced tracks for Whodini, then crossed genres back over to Lene Lovich, Prefab Sprout and their legendary Steve McQueen LP, then over to AOR-ville, playing keyboards for Foreigner and Def Leppard, then back to arty synth-pop with Ryuichi Sakamoto. His single with Sakamoto, “Field Work (Long London Mix)” (download), is an overlooked classic, never seeing a U.S. release:
His Crowning Moment: Tucked away at the end of a fluffier third album, Aliens Ate My Buick (that title alone is warning enough that it’s not Dolby’s strongest work), is “Budapest by Blimp” (download), an evocative, sprawling epic that begins with a simple funk bass riff and builds from there, adding a squealing guitar solo, operatic vocals, and sinister synths, eventually ending with a choir-punctuated release not unlike a street riot or uprising. It’s a swirling pinnacle that makes you forget it shares album space with songs like “Airhead” and “Hot Sauce.”
There’s plenty more to discover — I haven’t even mentioned his final studio album, Astronauts & Heretics, a pleasing return to form. I suggest starting with the deliciously sequenced compilation Retrospectacle, then working your way from Wireless up. If you only know Thomas Dolby from that song, you’re in a for a treat.
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