[Jefito’s Note: Right around the end of 2005, I got an e-mail from reader Elaine, who volunteered to guest-blog a Thomas Dolby Guide. My initial reaction was probably similar to yours. I cocked my head, squinted a little, and — in a true Michael-Bluth-talking-about-Ann-Veal-type moment1 — said to myself:
But if you think about it, Dolby is kind of a perfect Idiot’s Guide artist. Excepting the fact that his album output has been rather limited (and essentially dried up a decade ago), he’s perfect because he’s been largely ignored or forgotten. Not because his work’s no good, but because he just sort of fell through the cracks at some point. Yes, this is partly his fault — leading off with a novelty single is never a good idea — but hey, everybody makes mistakes.
So: Sit back, relax, and let Elaine tell you all about a man who, once upon a time, had his vision taken away by science. Meet you here next week for Tom Waits. –j]
Today’s subject is, no doubt, one of the most underrated musicians ever to come out of the U.K.: Thomas Dolby. Born Thomas Morgan Robertson, he’s nowadays sometimes referred to as TMDR. (As the story goes, “Dolby” was taken as a stage name, having earned the nickname from his mates. ‘Why is that geek always fiddling with scientific equipment and keyboards? He’s making weird sounds and calling it music! It says DOLBY on it! Science!!’) He helped to influence an entire genre of music in the process (though to presume that his early music was what we think of as “typical” early-80’s synthesizer would be a big mistake).
Unbenownst to many, this man’s work is so extended, it’s a toss-up whether it’s best presented in timeline format, best-to-worst, or collaborative influence flow charts and diagrams. Every project has something special and good. But, as with most things, I suppose it’s helpful to start at the beginning.
Some early-years background: Thomas played music in small London clubs and on the streets & subways of Paris, building his own synthesizers, and becoming a sound technician as well as in-demand musician. By 1979, he was playing keyboards for Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club (original writers of the song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” later played as MTV’s very first video, recorded by The Buggles). Repeating, this was in the year 1979 — to remind you how far ahead of the new-wave explosion we’re talking. He left Bruce and co., joining artist Lene Lovich’s tour for a brief period, and writing her hit single “New Toy.” His keyboard and synth playing was in great demand with other acts as well, leading to studio session work with Foreigner (Foreigner 4 — recognize the opening synth line from “Waiting For a Girl Like You”? or the keyboard pushing and churning throughout “Urgent”?), Joan Armatrading (”Walk Under Ladders”), Belinda Carlisle, and Def Leppard, among others.
The Golden Age of Wireless (1982)
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Here we have his solo debut. This album is actually very different from its biggest hit. (Which is well-known to all of a certain age, now, isn’t it!) “She Blinded Me With Science,” as fun and smart and interesting as it is, only scratches the surface of Thomas’s musical composition and songwriting skills. There were several releases of this album, with various cuts being added and dropped, different arrangements of songs, and different track lists for U.K. and American versions.
For the uninitiated listener, I recommend the songs “Airwaves” and “One of Our Submarines” as a jumping-off point. Truth be told, for the first year, “Science” was not on the album; it was added to post-1983 pressings of the disc. Take a listen to this rare version of the former, whose lyrical bridge has been restored from the single version released in 1982, and the latter, which Dolby later described as having been written about his uncle lost in WWII, but which has evolved into a “metaphor for the futility of the British Empire.” Gotta love that in a pop song.
The Flat Earth (1984)
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Next up, the thoughtful and serene (though, undeniably cryptic in places) sophomore effort from early 1984. The record (that’s what they used to call them, back in the day) is mature in its subject matter and also in its execution. “Dissidents” gives the listener a glimpse into triumph over oppression, and the bleak world of freedom in an imagined, yet all-too-real eastern European police state. At least, that’s what it does for me.
Also lovely is ‘Screen Kiss’ — which Thomas counts as one of his personal favorites. He has said, “it’s the song I was the most emotionally involved in. It felt very odd because at that time I was passionately in love, which is something I generally seperate from my work … It’s also a very fragile song. We didn’t even play it live in Britain because it’s very difficult to pull off. Everything has to be very delicate. The fretless bass and percussion make it very touch and go.” See if you agree.
Also lovely and lilting: the title track, “The Flat Earth.” Whether intentional or not, this track led to a fan base which calls itself The Flat Earth Society, in keeping with the (factual, though he was not born in Cairo, contrary to record-company bios) archaeologist’s-son persona, which was kept as a theme throughout most of the decade.
Aliens Ate My Buick (1988)
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The third studio album has been a love-or-hate-it excursion, in my experience. Everyone for whom I’ve played it over the years has reacted strongly — that much I can attest. The pro-side: it’s quirky and unexpected. It uses sounds like paints, creating a rich and full picture. It’s very cheeky. It’s sexually suggestive and hard-driving. The con? It’s not the favorite album for a lot of fans, because there’s no specific one sound or message. Begging to differ, I have always felt that the album strove to capture a “Hollywood is weird and tacky” vibe. This might have come about after his first three movie soundtrack projects were not commercial successes (1985’s Fever Pitch, 1986’s Howard the Duck, and 1987’s Gothic). At the time he expressed his frustration with the process: “you ultimately have so little control of the end product in film. … You can write great music for a lousy movie that nobody sees, and you’ve defeated your purpose entirely.”
Nevertheless, it has always seemed to me that a curiosity begun on The Flat Earth, with “Screen Kiss,” ended up satirized in “The Key to Her Ferrari,” and, to a lesser extent, in “Airhead.” If L.A. threw him lemons, he made lemonade. Instead of becoming jaded, our Thomas instead wrote about it. While trying to build a better live show performance, he put together a band in California called The Lost Toy People, who played on this album as well as on the 1988-1989 tour. (Dolby’s innovative, multimedia stage shows were sellout extravaganzas for a time.) Throwing caution to the wind, he added a George Clinton (of Parliament/Funkadelic) cover tune (”Hot Sauce”), complete with Spaghetti-Western guitars. He alluded to more Eastern-bloc sadness in “Budapest by Blimp.” And where else do you get trombone solos in pop songs (”My Brain is Like a Sieve”)? I love this album.
It should be noted regarding the album cover: the actress hired to play the geek’s love interest was Kathleen Beller, as seen above. She was best known for portraying Kirby Colby on the the 80’s prime-time soap “Dynasty.” They hit it off, as it were, and were married in 1988. They are still married, how about that. Nice guys do get the girl, sometimes. Another note: “Airhead” was co-written by Dolby and his longtime friend, native New Zealander Grant Morris. Morris spent time as a well-known radio and club DJ, and writer in New Orleans, a fact that might or might not play a part in the story of the next album.
Astronauts & Heretics (1992)
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It is my opinion that this is the best, most creative, most personal musical project. What I mean to say is, this should have been a hit. For whatever reason, (what was going on in 1992? Toad the Wet Sprocket?) it failed to jump into the mainstream; however, it did make a splash on college campuses. At the time, terms like “modern rock” and “alternative” meant something new and worthwhile — something outside the mainstream. That, this was.
If you were standing in my living room and I was playing this collection for you, I’d have to mention all the guest artists. The disc opens with “I Love You Goodbye,” full of layered sound effects like lightning and bayou creatures of the night. The song is about the loss of a friend, and it seems a ghostly reference to Terry Jackson (to whom the album is dedicated, and who passed away in 1991, yet who played on this track and others).
Featured here (and on “Silk Pyjamas”) are Cajun two-step/Zydeco artists Jimmy Breaux and Michael Doucet from Beausoleil. Of all the excellent cuts on this very solid record, “Close But No Cigar” is the hit that never was. It’s just perfect pop, there’s no two ways about it. “Cruel” features fabulous Welsh songstress Eddi Reader. “Eastern Bloc” (sequel to the first album’s “Europa and the Pirate Twins”) and “Close But No Cigar” boast work from none other than guitar maestro Eddie Van Halen. “That’s Why People Fall In Love” showcases guest vocalist Ofra Haza. The album-ending “Beauty of a Dream” (possibly Dolby’s finest song, period) gives us a little Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, of Grateful Dead fame.
Whew! How did he get all these people to work with him? The Van Halens were neighbors, and it’s a good bet Mr. Morris played a hand in the Louisiana influence. Other than that, we can but only guess.
The Gate to the Mind’s Eye (1994)
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In this soundtrack release, the computer graphic sequences are put together from a variety of sources and artists, but the music is all Dolby. It’s not a movie per se, meaning that there is no plot or storyline. It’s more like a collection of videos, where the videos are 100% computer animation. It’s also a bit tough to put forth a critical review in 2006, being that the graphics were state-of-the-art in 1994. Watching it now, the music stands up — and the music enhances most of the graphics sequences considerably, IMO — but, after having seen Pixar movies and whatnot, the CGI obviously doesn’t hold a candle to what graphics artists are able to put together today.
Sticking with the audio disc itself, I offer this review found at AWRC.com, which gives detailed information about each track. Highlights include the guest vocals of Milanese Astrophysicist Dr. Fiorella Tirenza on “N.E.O.” and the dance track “Quantum Mechanic,” the quirky swing tune “Nuvogue,” and the lovely ballad “Valley of the Mind’s Eye.” The latter is a musical interpretation of a love letter between Napoleon and Josephine, with lyrics in both English and French. It’s gorgeous in every way. I like to think that this project was Thomas’s way of ensuring that his soundtrack work would endure and even triumph over the visual material, once and for all.
Forty, Live Anniversary Album (2001)
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As TMDR approached his fortieth birthday, his wife asked what he most wanted. According to the liner notes of this limited-release live disc, “These songs were recorded live over two nights at the end of the Twentieth Century. I thought my fortieth birthday was a pretty damn good reason to dust the cobwebs off my patchbay, fire up the old Fairlight and throw a party for my friends in a shed by the ocean in Half Moon Bay, Ca. My partner in crime was Brian Salter, keyboardist and EWI player supreme, who helped me throw the set together with only a few days’ notice. We played the same songs again later at a Millennium ball in Whistler, B.C. where we were joined onstage by Caroline Lavelle and Leslie Adams. At both gigs we ran a tape off the mixing board. A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to listening to the tapes, and guess what, they didn’t sound half bad. So Matt Levine helped me mix them in his garage, and I burned 1,000 CDs to send out as Christmas presents to, well, everyone I could think of. I hope you enjoy the music!”
Here for your listening enjoyment is the retooled “One of our Submarines.” It rocks!
In the 1990’s, Dolby founded the multimedia company, Headspace, creating soundtracks for CD-ROM games and theme park attractions, which morphed into a company called Beatnik (concentrating on web sonification and other Internet-based composition and enhanced audio). Though Thomas Dolby will probably be best remembered as a new-wave innovator who showed that synth could have soul, he is currently embarking on a new round of live shows. Hopefully, this means he’s also recording new material!
He will be appearing this week in southern California, in support of three English Beat shows scheduled for the House of Blues venues. First time in fifteen years. I’m there. Click for more information
It’s been my pleasure to introduce you to Thomas Dolby. Thanks to jefitoblog for allowing it. A greatest-compilation CD was released in 1995, and if you’re interested in taking a sampling, it’s a great place to start. The two rarities/early release singles “Urges” and “Leipzig” (from 1981) were including in the track listing, marking the first time they’d ever been available on CD. As the CD Universe review says, “Leipzig,” in particular, is “a meditative, wistful reverie that’s considerably warmer and more human than is usually found with this style of music.” If Thomas had a brand trademark, I think that would be it. Enjoy!
1It’s an Arrested Development joke. If you weren’t watching, you are part of the problem. Buy the DVDs.