In 2017, Dolby is a professor of arts at John Hopkins University. He’s followed a number of different career endeavors over the years – it seems like he sort of follows his muse – and seems to have been quite successful at all of them. He still performs annually and it also seems like his concerts are well attended. I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day and we were discussing how amazing it is that savvy musicians can parlay a few hits into an entire career. In Dolby’s case, it wasn’t just “Blinded Me With Science” that made his career (talent, hard work, luck and good career choices accomplished that) but the strength of that song drew a great deal of focus onto his solo work and created a lifelong fan base. That rocks.
20. Radio Silence
From 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless, Promotional Single in Several Countries
Upon its initial UK release, The Golden Age of Wireless did not include stand-alone single “She Blinded Me With Science”/”One of our Submarines” Indeed, the first US release (in the grand tradition of believing that UK records could not be released with the same sequence of songs in the US because we’re especially stupid over here I suppose) didn’t include those songs either. Wikipedia details all five (FIVE? Five!) releases. Indeed, the first US pressing of “Radio Silence” did not include the synth-pop single linked above but a rocked out version. Absurd! I mean, its good, but… Absurd! Here is something I love – the music video makes this look like a stalker song but actually… this song is sung about a pirate radio station called Radio Caroline. Anyhow, by the time I bought The Golden Age of Wireless on cassette, I believe they’d restored the original synth-pop version of this song. If they didn’t, this superior version of the song has long since pushed the rock version out of my head.
19. Quantum Mechanic
From 1994 Film The Gate to the Mind’s Eye, First Single (?)
Dolby took a few years off from recording albums from 1992 through 2011. Just a few. He didn’t stop creating music entirely by any stretch of the imagination. One of his projects was creating music from one of the films in the Mind’s Eye series. These were a series of computer animation videos. Honestly, beyond the Wikipedia link above, I know very little about them. Creating music for computer animation, however, sounds like a natural fit for Dolby’s work and, sure enough, the video linked there is very compelling for 1994. The singer on this track is Dr. Fiorella Terenzi a noted astrophysicist, author and musician. Because of course Dolby has recorded a song with a noted astrophysicist. The song itself a nice little funky piece filtered through just enough electronic instrumentation to make it “future-ish.” I think I made up that word. And Dr. Terenzi sounds great.
18. I Love You, Goodbye
From 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics, Second Single
Astronauts & Heretics was Dolby’s final album for 19 years and had it been his final album, it would have been a fine capstone to his career. Two of the songs (coming up) featured guitar work by Eddie Van Halen (because of course Thomas Dolby got to work with Eddie Van Halen). “I Love You Goodbye” is performed in a style that Dolby describes as “cajun techno.” I’d like to draw attention to both the synth-string beginning (which would not be out of place on a Kate Bush album) and the confident piano work throughout the song. Its easy to forget buried underneath the electronic work that Dolby is a first rate musician. I think this song does a great job of showing off his musical prowess.
From 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless, Third Single
Before the quirky “She Blinded Me With Science” was added to the sequence, The Golden Age of Wireless received critical praise for being a serious electronic album. “Windpower” is one of the songs at the heart of the original album. Its a moody, atmospheric piece that apparently employed a now-famous “bass patch.” There’s a comprehensive fan site that goes into more detail about Dolby’s work than Wikipedia called Andy J’s Guide to Thomas Dolby that mentions this song got Dolby onto Top of the Pops for the first and only time. Sure enough…
16. Spice Train
From 2011’s A Map of the Floating City, Second Single
If you’re a Dolby fan and you’ve not downloaded A Map of the Floating City, allow me to encourage you to treat yourself. While I confess that musically the album isn’t quite as groundbreaking as his earlier work, he creates a fascinating world (an alternate history future 1940’s – so like the future of a 19th century Steampunk Earth, perhaps). I find the psuedo-Middle Eastern music meets synthpop of “Spice Train” to be rather appealing though poking around online, I’ve noted I may be lonely in this feeling.
15. The Devil is an Englishman by Screamin’ Lord Byron featuring Thomas Dolby and Timothy Spall
From the soundtrack to the 1987 film Gothic, First Single
You know Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films. In 1987, he played Dr. John Polidori in the film Gothic – a film about Lord Byron, The Shelleys and the creation (among other things) of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein and of Polidoti’s The Vampyre. Gabriel Byrne was featured as Lord Byron and in the film, he does a certain amount of screaming. “The Devil is an Englishman,” then, is a song that takes samples of Gabriel Byrne screaming stuff and adds a vocal by Timothy Spall all supported by music by Thomas Dolby. I was entirely unaware that this song existed before I started ranking these singles and, I am very pleased to report, the song is delightful. Spall is the real star here – he speak/sings a lyrics with a wonderfully committed mania. Give it a spin.
14. My Brain is like a Sieve
From Aliens Ate My Buick, Third Single
I was a little surprised to discover which songs were actually released as singles from Aliens Ate My Buick which – as it often does – led me to question the relative sanity of the record company. Seriously, check out “The Keys to Her Ferrari” (featuring guest vocal by Robin Leach) and “Pulp Culture.” Nope. Don’t get how “Hot Sauce” and this one get released instead. Not that this is a bad song – far from it. “My Brain Is Like A Sieve” is a sort of ode to enabling behavior. The protagonist recognizes that his love interest treats him badly but he just chooses to forget it – its easier that way. Dolby composed several excellent ballads and if this one doesn’t quite live up to “Airwaves,” “Screen Kiss” or “I Scare Myself,” well, I mean, that’s a pretty high bar to cross.
13. Field Work
From Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 1986 Album Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia, First Single
This is a fantastic Ryuichi Sakamoto track that features a Dolby vocal and a lyric that would not have been out of place on The Flat Earth. Sakamoto was best known in the US in the 80’s for the track “Risky” with Iggy Pop. I know I played that track a ton on WRBC in 1987. I didn’t much follow Sakamoto’s career after that (or look into what his career was like before that) but I’ve since learned that he’s a remarkable musician known for both his solo work and his work with The Yellow Magic Orchestra. Anyhow, he and Dolby teamed up for this track and its definitely one that you should check out if you like either artist’s oeuvre.
1981 Double A-Side with “Urges”
“Leipzig” is the stronger of Dolby’s debut double A-side release. According to Andy J’s Guide to Thomas Dolby, this song gently satirizes a time where pop stars liked to go and pose for pictures around Berlin. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this. I just find it to be a very pleasant, effective pop song with some inventive orchestration.
11. Silk Pyjamas
From 1994’s Astronauts and Heretics, Third Single
I have recently been hiking and listening to Thomas Dolby in preparation for writing this list. Every now and then, a song comes on that just makes me dance along the trail. I rarely run into people on these trails so I can do this with a minimum of social awkwardness but the risk of being caught sashaying along Makiki Loop Trail by a group of elderly tourists always exists. When a song like “Silk Pyjamas” comes on and you seem to be by yourself, how can you resist the urge to dance? The third single from Astronauts and Heretics wasn’t exactly a big pop hit anywhere (Dolby’s US label sort of dropped the ball and, besides, 1992 was a rough year for anything other than grunge to find its way onto the radio) but my feet and heart insist its a classic Dolby tune.
Coming Next: Science! Sci-sci-science!