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. Read more
Here’s a clip from multimedia technology boffin and pop song tinkerer Thomas Dolby. It’s “Oceanea” as taken from his 2011 album A Map of The Floating City, his long-awaited full-length release after a long hiatus as a recording artist. Dolby’s last traditional studio album was 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics, put out just before he delved into other commercial avenues.
These avenues included software production for delivering music over the Internet (Beatnik), the founding of a company to produce it (Headspace) , multimedia projects like Gate To the Mind’s Eye, and, incredibly, his pioneering work with cellphone ringtones of all things.This is not to mention his frequent involvement in TED conferences, being as he is a proponent of technology, progressive ideas, and how one affects the other.
But, Dolby had always been interested in making records even if the gap between them had become pretty wide by the 21st Century. So, by the mid-2000s, he set to work in returning as a recording artist, and with this record. That’s a long gestation period, maybe.
But, Dolby had a number of projects attached to the creation of this album. One was the design and construction of the studio in which the album was made; a refurbished 1930s-era lifeboat, powered by solar and wind power, christened The Nutmeg. Another was a move with his wife and kids from the United States, where he’d lived for many years, and back to England. And that’s where this song,”Oceanea” comes in. Read more
Dolby is of course probably best known for his ginormous radio hit “She Blinded Me With Science”, taken from his excellent debut The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982. In many ways, Dolby was an unlikely pop star, more at home in the studio building synths from spare parts and from kits, and drawing from his love of jazz more so than for straight-ahead pop music. But, I think it’s his background which made him so fascinating as a musician, and his varied interests in all sorts of genres helped to add something to his own albums too.
Dolby intially honed his craft as a songwriter for other artists such as new wave diva Lene Lovich, and early hip hop crew Whodini. Both acts had chart action with Dolby compositions and co-compositions – “New Toy” and “Magic Wand” respectively. He was also an enthusiastic producer and session musician, working with acts as varied as Joni Mitchell (he was producer on 1985’s Dog Eat Dog) and Foreigner (with whom he served as a session keyboardist on their 4 LP in 1982), Def Leppard, Robyn Hitchcock, and others. He would go on to work with luminaries such as George Clinton, Prefab Sprout, and Roger Waters later in the decade, among many others. All the while, Dolby was keen to write material for his own albums, building them up using synthesizer and sequencer technology, as well as drawing from his wide musical interests.
His singles “… Science” and the follow-up “Hyperactive” aside, Dolby made some elaborately textured music even side by side with those pop singles, some of it being just as accessible (‘Airwaves’, which should have been a smash), and other tracks more experimental and angular (“Cloudburst At Shingle Street”, “Mulu The Rainforest”). His ability to write a hit single was proven, yet on his albums he was still interested in pushing the boundaries a bit.
I think ‘Screen Kiss’ is one which strikes a happy medium between these two poles, with the wash of electronics that sound downright organic and warm, peppered with sparse piano voicings, Pastorius-like fretless bass lines, and a repetitive, hypnotic electric guitar riff. Lyrically, he manages to be interesting too, with a sort of impressionist take on a tale about ex-pats seeking and discarding connections while living in the darkly surreal Hollywood landscapes, seeming to celebrate appearances and lack of depth. It’s my favourite track off of a solid album, which despite using synths while in the mid-80s, manages to sound pretty timeless. And apparently, this is a song about a real person with whom Dolby was smitten, and by whom he was tossed aside, himself an English ex-pat in LA. The names were of course changed, to protect the jaded.
Despite his singular voice and ability to craft sonically interesting records in a pop vein, Dolby didn’t regain the commercial traction of his first hits, with follow-up singles and albums less well received during the remaining years of the 80s and into the early 90s. But, he had plenty of other interests to hold his attention, including software development which occupied his time for a decade and a half following his success as a pop musician.
He founded the software company Headspace, and then developed applications for sound compression for studio use. He formed a company called Beatnik, which focused on the development of mobile phone sound technology including polyphonic ringtones for Nokia. He was a frequent speaker at technology conferences by the early Twenty-First Century. All the while, he continued to write scores for films and video games.
In 2006, he was back as a performer, and is currently working on new material while overseeing the remastering and repackaging of both the Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth.
For a peek into what Dolby is doing these days as a performer, check out this clip of Thomas Dolby performing the title track from the Flat Earth, giving you a close-up of his onstage set up as well as watching how he builds the track from the ground up in a live setting. This is another atmospheric track from a very good album that brings the influences of synth pop together with the unlikely bedfellows of soul and jazz.
You can read Thomas Dolby’s blog, to find out about the remastering project, new music, and any number of things seeing as he’s as big a blogger as any of us, apparently! He was always a hero of mine when Ifirst became a music fan. And now thanks to WordPress, his “heroship” is assured.
Here’s a clip from the 1985 Grammy awards with Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby playing a synthesizer medley.
This clip was meant to show off, ’80s style, modern musical technology with the keyboard/midi toys as used by innovators in their field. Wonder and Hancock were the synthesizer pioneers, while Dolby and Jones were the popsters who were meant to represent their successors, maybe. I just remember being very impressed at the time, and everyone at school talked about it the next day. These days, it stands as being pretty dated. But, a part of me still thrills at it in all of its cheesy glory.
This is about as 1985 as you can get, people. Check Dolby’s Beethoven wig. Check Howard Jones’ haircut! Still, Stevie Wonder sings, which is usually pretty thrilling (‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ notwithstanding…). And Hancock plays a snippet of his electro-hip hop hit ‘Rockit’, the one with the crazy video which was also talked about in the schoolyard. All in all, this is a taste of a more innocent age, back when everything was better when it was digital, and when technology in general was looked upon as the way to a bright, worry-free future.