Thomas Dolby – The Golden Age of Wireless

Thomas Dolby

This beautiful, quirky and timeless debut album has a unique blend of the old and new. It’s defined by Thomas Dolby’s eccentric leanings, his artistic urge to draw from the past and his unfailing fascination – which he still holds to this day – for electronics. At the time of the release of this album, this meant synthesisers. Like Berlin-era Bowie, it is full of exotic sounds and plaintive lyrics tinged with nostalgia, set to a desolate Cold War sensibility.

One look at this album’s cover tells you all you need to know. The image of a mad professor, surrounded by technology, hair unkempt, eyes full of possibilities – that was Dolby in 1982. Thomas Morgan Robertson, as he was known to his mother, received his ‘Dolby’ moniker from school friends who thought he dabbled with his tape deck too much. ‘Morgan’ was EM Forster’s middle name, the famous author and family friend from way back.

In an era famed for its one-fingered synthesists and dodgy haircuts, he was exceptional. A virtuoso who played as well as he programmed, he sported a floppy haircut of which his scientist father would have been proud. Dolby funded his debut long player by playing session keyboards for Foreigner. Luckily, producer Mutt Lange (of Shania Twaine fame) took his time, and the $500-per-day fees that racked up bought him lots of quality time at high end studios like Tapestry and Playground.

His equipment list was minimal compared to some of his contemporaries; alongside his two analogue synths (a Micromoog and a Roland Jupiter 4) was a computer called Henry (a PPG 340/380) that had previously triggered Tangerine Dream’s lighting show! Dolby pressed Henry into service to power Simmons electronic drums, and also got it generating immense, thundering bass sounds and glassy bell-like keyboard stabs. A rhythm section borrowed from Lene Lovich’s band, and renowned guitarist Kevin Armstrong completed the line up. The whole album was recorded without any sequencing for the keyboard parts, although the band would play along to pulses from the synths and drums over patterns from Henry the computer. 

The album kicks off with Flying North, showcasing Dolby’s piano, backed by the full band and Henry the computer on drums. Analogue synthesiser lines don’t come thicker than the drifting Jupiter 4 solo on the outro. The lyrics conjure up dramatic scenes of derring do, of travelling and traversing continents – popular themes with that time’s ‘new pop’ purveyors. Commercial Breakup hints at Dolby’s funked-up future as Justin Hildrith knocks out what guitarist Armstrong memorably called, “the sort of beat that drummers don’t like to play”. Whilst heavy processing tries to choke the life out of Kevin’s choppy guitar, double-barrelled bassist Mark Heyward-Chaplin plays his part so straight that it’s almost punky. 

An early Dolby composition, Europa and the Pirate Twins has an element of the autobiographical. Born in Cairo, the young Tom followed his archaeologist dad around the globe, and these travels may have lent an outsider’s perspective to his songwriting. Listen out for the best harmonica solo since Andy Partridge on XTC’s Peter Pumpkinhead – one of Dolby’s heroes who had produced the tracks Leipzig and Urges, which feature on the American version of this album.

Windpower runs a brilliant bass line courtesy of Henry the PPG computer, which swings as low as anything registered before or since. Add the best chorus Kraftwerk never wrote, and you’ve got the track that gave Dolby his only Top of the Pops appearance. The BBC’s John Marsh reads the shipping forecast in a fade out that the Radiophonic Workshop would most likely approve of! The Wreck of the Fairchild is an instrumental was inspired by an Argentinean air disaster, that is described in Piers Paul Read’s Alive, and in the film of the same name where the passengers must turn cannibal to survive. Perhaps the best thing is its ending, which sports a single oscillator pitch-drifting beautifully into the beginning of the next track.

Airwaves is the pick of an already superlative album, featuring synth parts that sound sequenced but aren’t, delicate cocktail piano and electronic percussion sounds had never been heard before in 1982 – a metallic snare thwacks in just as Dolby sings the line, “Electric fences line our new freeways”. Dolby recalled the creation of tho epic, expansive, melodic ballad, “I wrote it late one night in my studio in a huge and grim Victorian industrial building, with snow falling on the railway tracks outside, and me surrounded by short-circuited machines hacked together by a man called Igor. It conjures up a strange, futuristic world whose ecology is rotting while the sheer overload of broadcasted data is nearing saturation point. I’m standing ‘knee-deep in water under a pylon’ trying to take it all in, while ‘the copper cables all rust in the acid rain’. There’s clearly some awful catastrophe approaching, but as the narrator, I’m distant, aloof, hiding out with a lover until morning.”

On later pressings of this LP, Cloudburst at Shingle Street was dropped in favour of She Blinded Me With Science, a ballistic hit Stateside. Indeed, Dolby will forever be associated with one of science’s great, beloved eccentrics. Dr. Magnus Pyke had a late and short but intense media career contributing to science-related TV programmes. People were enraptured by him because of his vast knowledge and dramatic physical presence. So you can imagine the raised eyebrows when people heard that Dolby had asked Pyke to appear in the video for his new single – with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s wife Akiko Yano singing backing vocals for good measure!

Despite the excellence of She Blinded Me With Science, it was Pyke’s appearance on the video that kickstarted Dolby’s career. “Even at the time of writing Science it angered me – that I’d let it go that far and Science was almost taking it to its extreme,” he remembers. “Saying, ‘Right, if it’s so important to have a public face, let’s go completely over the top, to the extent of getting Magnus Pyke into it. Let’s throw caution to the wind’.”

The other track to be axed was The Wreck of the Fairchild, which was switched for the brilliant One of Our Submarines. Although this Venice in Peril vinyl pressing is the one for vinyl collectors, these two replacement tracks are undoubtedly the stronger.

With the proceeds from She Blinded Me with Science, Thomas Dolby spent $140,000 on one of the world’s first digital samplers – the Fairlight CMI – and in doing so moved out of the beautiful, romantic, analogue landscape of Golden Age. Although his funkier follow up album The Flat Earth reached a wider audience, somehow it was less interesting and colder than this golden debut. 

The best CD version was produced by Mobile Fidelity in 1983, but finding a copy will prove difficult as it’s not generally available. The standard CD re-release in the shops is a decent master, however. It is when you get to the vinyl version that problems occur because there were five versions of the album produced for both UK (two versions) and US (three versions) markets – and they’re all different.

The tracks: Flying North, Weightless, Europa and the Pirate Twins, Commercial Breakup and Cloudburst At Shingle Street are common to the lot. Wreck of the Fairchild is only available on the UK first release, Leipzig and Urges are only available on the US first release, whilst Airwaves, Radio Silence, and Windpower are available in varying editions of different lengths or as 7” versions. Meanwhile the single She Blinded Me With Science along with its B-side, the sublime, haunting and romantic One Of Our Submarines can only be found on the second edition of the album in both the UK and USA. Dolby fans will need to search the Internet or your local record shop or fair to collect the full set – but it’s worth it for one of the very best early electronic albums ever made.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: