Its funny – I love science but I was never especially good at it. None-the-less, I’ve always sort of wished I could be a science geek hanging out with the science people and doing science stuff. My word choices there aptly demonstrate why I’m utterly unqualified for that, alas.
Dolby, on the other hand, has deftly balanced a passion for music with a passion for technology. That he has done this and created some great music (to praise him using one of his songs, he certainly has the ability to swing) is a large part of why he’s one of my all-time favorite musicians.
Onward to the top ten!
10. Close but No Cigar
From 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics, First Single
My friend Nathan was working in the shop at Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawaii at Manoa when Astronauts and Heretics came out. I am pretty sure he was the first (and maybe only) one in our social circle to pick it up. We had a radio show together on KTUH at the time and I’m pretty sure “Close But No Cigar” was one of the song we played from time to time. Dolby suspects that the rise of grunge was part of why this album was ignored and, I must confess, I was really into LOUD-soft-LOUD at the time so I didn’t pay as much attention to that album or this song as I wish I had. Its a mini-master’s class on how to construct a pop song. Smart lyrics, strong hooks and that secret element that every song benefits from, Mr. Eddie Van Halen on guitar. Dolby apparently helped Mr. Van Halen with some studio equipment in exchange for his participation. That’s the kind of deal you don’t pass up.
From 1988’s Aliens Ate My Buick, First Single
Oh, “Airhead!” Ya know, ok. Where to start. Its pretty clear that Dolby realized the lyrics to this song were pretty misogynistic – after singing about the titular woman in his life, he makes a point to sort to shyly remind us at the end that “it was men made her that way.” On the one hand, good for him to introduce that twist at the end of the song. On the other hand, the lyrics up to that point have been a king of greatest hits of dumb blonde jokes. As the saying goes, ironic sexism is still sexism. Different times. In 1988, that little coda was enough to make me forgive the first four minutes of the song. The thing is, the tune is still so darn catchy. Honestly, if the lyrics had aged better, I’d have ranked it higher. I still enjoy listening to the music, but I’m a little embarrassed about it. I don’t think it was Dolby’s intention to be misogynistic (indeed, I think the last lines suggest he was trying to make a point about how gender is socially constructed) but once you release a song into the wild, you have no control how people react to it.
8. Eastern Bloc
From 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics, Promotional Single
Eddie Van Halen is also featured on this rocking sequel to “Europa and the Pirate Twins.” It quotes heavily from that earlier song, but it also is entirely its own animal. To whit, you don’t need to know the former to enjoy the latter. Both songs use a childhood friendship as a metaphor for the relationship between the UK and Europe. I’m dying to know if Dolby has written a post-Brexit part 3. This song both swings and rocks – its my favorite song from Astronauts and Heretics and worth your time especially if you love “Europa and the Pirate Twins.”
From 1984’s The Flat Earth, First Single
I think all of us who dug The Golden Age of Wireless were hoping Thomas Dolby would be able to repeat the commercial success of “She Blinded Me With Science” with his new album and single. Alas, it was not to be. While The Flat Earth is a fantastic album (perhaps his best album) and “Hyperactive” is an endlessly creative, catchy song, I think it might have seemed a little too much to MTV viewers like he was trying to literally repeat the success of “She Blinded Me With Science.” Besides, that huge hit was not a typical Dolby song – it was a bit of a fluke, in fact. Dolby was about beautiful soundscapes and using extended metaphors about technology to explore human relationships. Anyhow, “Hyperactive” came out and it was a fun and upbeat song that got heavy airplay on MTV but didn’t pique the interest of radio listeners. The hit songs of 1984 were less quirky new wave and more Billy Ocean and Wham! Here’s an interesting bit of trivia – Dolby wrote this song for Michael Jackson who apparently loved “She Blinded Me With Science.”
6. She Blinded Me With Science
1982 Stand-Alone Single (later added to The Golden Age of Wireless)
The original video seems to be missing from the Internet. This is tragic.
Ah, artists are often defined by their hits no matter how atypical those hits might be! Dolby knocked one out of the park in the USA with “She Blinded Me With Science” to his joy and sorrow. The song defined him on this side of the Atlantic and, while he had some other big hits in the UK, here in the USA it relegated him to the ranks of a one-hit wonder. The single is a bit of a tease since the full-length version of the song (as included on the third, I think, repressing of The Golden Age of Wireless) is much more compelling, particularly the lengthy electronic drum ending. In high school, I liked to write alternate lyrics to big hits (because I wanted to be Weird Al Yankovich and because I must have known in my heart that I’d be in Oil in the Alley improvising lyrics) and I turned this song into “She Grinded My Appliance,” a double-entendre laden song about a lass who liked to pulverize TVs and blenders. This broke one of the cardinal rules of parody songs – never parody a novelty song – but it also managed to be a big hit among the kids in my biology class (who were the typical audience for my vast catalog of parody songs). High School could be a bit of a drag and I’m grateful to this day to Thomas Dolby for making my sophomore year a bit more bearable – I wonder if I’d have embraced him as completely as I did if not for this song? Anyhow, thank you, Mr. Dolby.
5. I Scare Myself
From 1984’s The Flat Earth, Second Single
Every single single from The Flat Earth is in my top ten. This is one of Dolby’s best ballads and, as with all of these tracks, if you’ve not heard it you really should plug in your headphones and treat yourself. This is a cover of jazz/country music pioneer Dan Hicks’ great song which you can listen to here (and if you’re familiar with the Dolby version, treat yourself and listen to the original). Dolby embraces Hicks’ style, adds some great backing vocals and sits back into the tune as into a big comfortable BarcaLounger. Dolby has a rich, relaxed singing voice and almost always inhabits the right emotional terrain for his songs. Here, he emotes the anxious hopefulness of new (and perhaps unrequited) love to excellent effect.
4. Europa and the Pirate Twins
From 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless, First Single
If I recall correctly, I-95 (Fairfield County’s rock station) played this song so that they could play “She Blinded Me With Science” on two-for-Tuesday. Well, this and “One of Our Submarines.” As I mentioned above while discussing “Eastern Bloc,” “Europa and the Pirate Twins” is a metaphor for the relationship between the UK and Europe. While the later song is set in the cold war, this one is set right after World War 2. Make of the metaphor what you will. The thing that always attracted me to this song is the compelling composition. Dolby was using keyboards in a way that was thrilling to 14 year old me. The hand claps! The unnatural, futuristic synth sounds! The distant “Europa” backing vocals! I still find the song extremely compelling – there’s always something new to discover.
3. One of Our Submarines
1982 Stand-Alone Single (later added to The Golden Age of Wireless)
In the improv world, we have this game called “Hot Spot.” To oversimplify, in this game, we stand in a circle and take turns stepping into the middle and singing a bit of a song related to the previous song. For over 25 years, I have used “One of Our Submarines” as an example of a decent song to sing in response to The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Again, thank you Mr. Dolby.
If I enjoyed “She Blinded Me With Science,” I adored “One of Our Submarine.” Its a gorgeous, cold song with an autobiographical angle (his uncle was killed in World War 2 in a submarine) that layers a level of personal sadness to the proceedings. It sounds like Dolby is singing to us from another time – like he’s gotten on an old time radio and is trying to alert us future people about the fate of this submarine. The metallic chirps, the bass chords and the minor key melody support the sense that this song is from some old science fiction film. Perhaps more than any of his other tunes, this song established his steam-punk credentials (well, this song and his aviator goggles look). Its really a classic.
As recently as 2012, he and his band sound amazing playing this tune.
From 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless, Second Single
Many of the singles from the initial pressing of The Golden Age of Wireless were radio-themed. I mean, that was the point of the title, wasn’t it? The record verged on being a concept album and if that was somewhat sidetracked by the eventual addition of “She Blinded Me With Science” and “One of Our Submarines” to the track listing, the vestiges of that initial artistic intent remained. Case in point is the stunningly beautiful, heart-ache inducing “Airwaves.” The quote from Dolby at Andy J’s Guide to Thomas Dolby suggests that this song is about two lovers after some planet-wide disaster living in a time where the airwaves are flooded with so much noise that its hard to pick out useful information. Sort of like the internet in 2017 amirite? Anyhow, there’s a sense of sadness that melancholy that permeates the song – like the two lovers both have their own signals but those signals are going to get lost once they separate and they might not find each other again. If they do, he asks her to “be in my broadcast/when this is over.” I don’t know, man, I find that profoundly touching and even geekily romantic.
From 1984’s The Flat Earth, Third Single
“Dissidents” is not only my favorite song by Thomas Dolby, it is one of my all time favorite songs of all time. I was hooked from the moment I heard those first bass notes (played on a real bass – The Flat Earth eschewed the wholly synthetic world of The Golden Age of Wireless) followed by the rhythmic typewriter element. The lyrics suggest a writer who is working to undermine the Russian government (well, I think this because there’s a set of spoken background lyrics in Russian, translated here at Andy J’s Guide to Thomas Dolby). I am pretty sure I first played this because we had the 12″ of it at WRBC at Bates. I played this on every one of my radio shows for months (alas, a couple years after it would have done Dolby any good). I mean, the song is just great. Its currently one of the top 25 most played songs in my iTunes library and has been on the list for ten years. I just love it. I want to be the writer in this song and, really, I want to be Dolby when I grow up.
Thank you for reading my Thomas Dolby countdown! Coming soon, Duran Duran and their 64 singles.