Thomas Dolby Moves To The Internet
He Was Never ‘Blinded By Science’ [This piece was written in late August, 1999.]
So, whatever happened to Thomas Dolby?
You remember him. His “She Blinded Me With Science” was a major hit in 1983, and is still revived occasionally. Its video was in heavy rotation on early MTV.
Most people assume that because his hit single was on later versions of his first album, it originally came from The Golden Age of Wireless (Harvest ST-12203), released a year earlier in the United States. It was not. Nor was the original version of the album very similar to later versions on LP or CD. Not only are two songs removed in order that “She Blinded Me With Science,” and its flip side, “One of Our Submarines,” could be substituted, the playing order of the remaining songs was changed, and – more important – most of the album was remixed with an eye to the dance floor. That means that most of the more atmospheric and psychedelic production subtleties was removed.
The first U.S. version of this album is thus unique and no longer available as either an LP or a CD, making it of considerable interest in collectors. It can be easily identified by its cover, which shows Dolby standing on a well-lit stage, surrounded by instruments of ancient science, while a blurry robed and hooded figure faces him from in front of that stage. (Later versions of the album, including the CD, use an alternative cover, pictured in a reduced state on the back cover of that first LP. This purports to show the cover of the “Spring Issue” of Wireless magazine on which is shown “Fig. 1 Thomas Dolby.”)
Thomas Dolby was born Thomas Morgan Robertson. The son of a world-famous scholar of Greek and Etruscan pottery – who is now a Cambridge don – Thomas was born in Cairo, Egypt. He grew up in England, and earned the nickname “Dolby” in school due to his fascination with music and the audio technology which surrounds it. (“Dolby” come from the Dolby Laboratories, which gave us Dolby noise reduction for audio cassettes and Dolby Theatre Sound, but originally gained fame for its professional studio noise reduction system, which significantly reduces tape hiss in analog recording.)
“Dolby” became Thomas’s stage name once he achieved recording status and began performing. But his real interest was less in performing and more in the technology which he used to realize his music. He began building his own synthesizers at 18, and subsequently got heavily into computers and computer-aided music. Thomas Dolby was a technogeek.
1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless was followed in 1983 by the five-song “mini LP,” Blinded By Science, which offered extended versions of both the two sides of the single, and of three selections from Wireless. In 1984 Dolby released The Flat Earth, which was notable for including his first “cover” of another artist’s song – Dan Hicks’ “I Scare Myself.” (Hicks was another unique individual in rock. “I Scare Myself” originally appeared on his late-sixties Epic album, Original Recordings.)
Then Dolby got involved in production and other people’s projects and it was not until 1988 that he released his third album, Aliens Ate My Buick – his last for the EMI group of record labels. Four years later, in 1992, Giant Records released Astronauts & Heretics, but by then the bloom was off Dolby’s career as a hit-maker. Giant tried again in 1994 with a video soundtrack, The Gate to the Mind’s Eye, associated with Miramar’s The Gate. It made no waves.
But by then Dolby had other projects. He had gotten into computer software and had founded a company called Headspace. Earlier this year Headspace changed its name to Beatnik (“a timelessly cool name,” the Washington Post quotes Dolby saying), and on September first Dolby was at the National Association of Broadcasters annual show in Washington, D.C., plugging Beatnik.
Beatnik has software which will allow web surfers to mix their own versions of popular songs in an interactive fashion. By clicking on various web page buttons, the user can add or subtract instruments and lyrics, creating their own unique mixes of songs. This requires no musical education or experience, and indeed Dolby himself is musically illiterate and has adapted this program from his own mixing methods.
Dolby sees his brief career as a rock star as a reflection of the fact that then pop music was the best venue for success – and now it’s the Internet. He’s moved on, still the technogeek.