Listen to this track by science-blinded synth-pop innovator and early synthesizer tinkerer Thomas Dolby. It’s “One Of Our Submarines”, a single off of Dolby’s 1983 edition of his debut record The Golden Age Of Wireless. That album had been issued in an earlier form the previous year, with this tune not initally appearing. It also appeared on the 1983 EP Blinded By Science.
Before embarking on his solo career and crafting this first album that would also eventually include his most recognized song “She Blinded Me With Science”, Dolby was a session musician and songwriter for other artists. Even this song was originally written for the Thompson Twins, for whom Dolby also served as a session musician. Also by penning songs for new wave diva Lene Lovich (“New Toy”) and electro whiz kids Whoodini (“Magic Wand”), Dolby had his hand in the mechanics of what made for a sleekly designed pop song. Figuring out how things work came naturally to Dolby in any case, having always been something of a gearhead, particularly around electronics and musical equipment. It’s no wonder that “… Science” was a hit, since it combined all of his strengths with pop hooks and innovative technology into a whole.
But, this song has a decidedly murkier feel than that hit, true to its subject matter. There’s also a personal connection to this song where its writer was concerned as well.
Dolby’s uncle had been a crew member on a British submarine that was lost at sea during the second world war. Dolby’s lost relative was represented as a picture on the wall of his family home growing up. It reinforced to a young Dolby the futility of war, and of the fragile and precious nature of existence. His uncle’s fate also seemed to stand for the ephemeral nature of national dominance, with the submarine sinking serving as an apt metaphor for a British empire in steep descent, especially after the second world war. Bye-bye, empire, empire, bye-bye. In 1950s Britain, it was a new era of rationing in the kitchen and rubble in the streets instead. The second half of the twentieth century became American, thanks to economic booms and atomic bombs.
These shifts in eras, the technologies that enable them, and how all that affects our psychology are important thematic threads running through the whole of The Golden Age of Wireless. This song is perhaps one of the strongest statements to be found on the album when viewed through those lenses. That’s at least partially because its imagery of grey seas, sinking vessels, helpless occupants, and the general feel of the song was so applicable to the cultural landscape at the time. It’s important to recognize how relevant the idea of terrifying technology, sabre-rattling nationalism, and the tragedy of dying before our time actually was by 1983. As big a single as “…Science” was, this was the song of Dolby’s that turned my head. It was a fearful time.
This song asks important questions that were relevant then, and remain to be relevant now; what is the price of nationalism, and is it worth paying? Do our ideas of national identity and dominance really make the world a better place? It also remains to be something of a protest song about war, and the tragic loss of potential war represents, as generations of people are undone by it, never to know family members lost in the tragedies that unfold as a result of war. In this age where cities are (futilely) bombed by advanced technology-abetted military machines and average citizens are turned into desperate refugees and political footballs, the loss of human potential in the name of political power touched on by this song reminds us that for all of our dominance, technological superiority, and our unwavering belief in strident ideals for which our nations stand, all empires sink eventually. The only thing that really matters in the end are our human connections.
Thomas Dolby is an active musician, songwriter, and multi-media artist today. Most recently, he’s taken on a new role as educator, currently a professor on the faculty at Johns Hopkins university in Baltimore.
You can otherwise find out what he’s up to at thomasdolby.com.