I hastily scribbled this entry in anticipation of my first Thomas Dolby concert event—I am going with my family to see him perform in Natick MA on Aug 4. Fortunately the stars were aligned and his concert coincides with my two-week summer holiday trip back to the USA!
Most people who grew up in the 1980s would recognize the name Thomas Dolby and would associate him with one of his most popular hit songs, “Blinded by Science.” This song went viral especially after the birth of MTV, since the story of a scientist blinded by love (“good heavens Ms. Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”) lent itself well to the mode of visual storytelling. He even hired a real “mad scientist” to play the role! I personally recall that song getting a lot of airplay on the more progressive radio programs in the Boston area such as Oedipus’s “Nocturnal Emissions”—a cutting-edge rock show on WBCN I listened to religiously, out of which I developed my taste for the new wave pop that was then streaming out the UK. (Prior to that time around 1983, I’d been much more of a classic rock fan-- see my blog post on the Beatles and on my favorite bands of junior high days.)
I wouldn’t say I was particularly entranced by Thomas Dolby’s hit song "Blinded by Science" at first. At that time, it was just another novelty synth pop tune out of many that were being played, though admittedly it was cooler than most. At the time Dolby began to gather strength on the US airwaves, I was more into other new wave bands like the Thompson Twins (I believe I had one of their record albums), and just beginning on my high school musical odyssey leading me to bands like Ultravox, the Stranglers, Peter Gabriel, XTC, and odder ones like Snakefinger and the Residents (see my two blog posts on my top 20 bands/albums of my high school years).
Then, in 10th grade, my neighborhood pal Stephen Beam, with whom I was trading record albums, came over with a copy of the first Thomas Dolby album The Golden Age of Wireless. After a couple of listens, I was completely sucked into the world of Thomas Dolby. It was the combination of his storytelling abilities as a songwriter and his poetic imagery and the ambient world he created with his synth wizardry and his knack for unusual chord progressions that did it. That album became the soundtrack to a winter loaded with a lot of schoolwork, which was intensifying as we began to prep seriously for college, as well as a very intense swim season with the boys’ swim team at my high school, Acton Boxboro Regional (ABRHS). It also soundtracked my indulgence in fantasy sci-fi, my preferred genre in those days. I was a huge fan of Piers Anthony and Michael Moorcock at the time, and somehow Dolby’s music fit in well with that creative literary world that predated the cyberpunk fiction of the 1990s.
There was just something about Dolby’s music that resonated with me in a deep way at that moment in my life. He took his listeners on a musical journey into a world of his own creation, an alternative historical world that reimagined the 20th century. He threw in a lot of intriguing and mysterious imagery—Caroline with “her eyes so red, and her lips so blue” in “Radio Silence” for example. His songs were about tech gone awry and the difficulty of real human contact in an increasingly technologized world. It was prescient stuff that predated the internet and social media revolutions of the decades to come.
I was entranced. As I was studying piano at the time, I bought his sheet music and worked on songs like “Airwaves”. The following year I went out and bought a Roland Juno synth and played around with the making of weird ambient sounds (unfortunately I never formed a band or my destiny may have been quite different : ). All joking aside, in my awkward, nerdy teenage years, I identified with his characters and with his persona—the mad tinkerer that appears on the cover of his first album. I was a budding scientist, deep into math and chemistry (see my blog post on my transformation from science nerd to Asian studies nerd!) and his music seemed to speak to me at the time.
I think that for those reasons, Dolby and his music were destined to find a cult following but never really conquer the mainstream—thank heavens for that! He seemed to peak in notoriety around that period (early 1980s), and then, unlike many artists who find a hit formula and stick with it, he just continued to do his own thing, crafting album after album full of all sorts of wonderful gifts and surprises.
The next album to come out was The Flat Earth, which continued to develop his storytelling skills, taking the listener deeper into the worlds of his own creation. This time it was futuristic metropolises (“White City”) and primeval rain forests (“Mulu”) backed by ambient music from his synths, but also other more conventional instruments. “Hyperactive” was the runaway hit song from that album and I recall it being played ad nauseum on pop radio. (The only time I listened to pop radio was when I was working out at the Nautilus Club on Great Road in Acton with the Bennett brothers, and I had to suffer through the hits of the day, from Lionel Richie to Paul and Stevie’s duet.) Anyhow, that second album became the soundtrack to my 10th grade spring (this was 1985 now) hurling javelins and running the 800-meter event on my high school track team while continuing to hit the books. Honestly I was not a very good track athlete—turns out I was a better swimmer than a runner—and had no business throwing a javelin around. But there it is—the memories that I continue to associate with that album.
Anybody reading my blogs on music will by now see a pattern. While it may seem needlessly self-indulgent, I like to write about my own personal associations with the music I grew up with, because I don’t see them as separate. The way we experience music is through experiences—we embed the songs into the soundtrack of our lives, and so they are inseparable from our personal experiences. And when one is in adolescence and one’s own body and the world around one are growing and changing so rapidly, the connection runs deep, which helps explain why the music we listen to as adolescents becomes such a huge part of who we are.
Dolby was on a huge creative streak in this period of my own adolescence, which helps explain why I still feel such a deep connection to his music. After The Flat Earth, he came out with another album called Aliens Ate My Buick, which was a piss-take and dissection of pop culture among other things. This album was funkier, funnier, more rhythmic and danceable than his previous moody sorties into alternate worlds. It was more grounded in the realities of every-day life. It did take off—in a blimp this time—to exotic Budapest to explore the bloody, predatory, theft-ridden history of European colonialism in “Budapest by Blimp”. The hit of the album was “May the Cube be With You” with funkmaster George Clinton. Another funky tune was "Hot Stuff." And then there was the more introspective "My Brain is Like a Sieve" with its obvious likeness to the reggae pop band UB-40. These songs put the album into a lineage with other punk and new wave artists who were incorporating funk and reggae into their oeuvres.
While I recall listening to this album after it came out in the mid-1980s, my deepest association with it is in my freshman year in college, especially when I took the album (or to be precise, cassette tape) with me to Taiwan on my first study abroad adventure in 1988. I recall walking the streets of Taipei at night with the album on full blast on my Walkman, while going to Caves Books where I picked up some Philip K. Dick novels to read. At that time I was just discovering some of the best of modern world literature—reading novels by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondatje and Thomas Pynchon, and Dolby’s music is imbricated into those literary memories as well.
Speaking of Philip K. Dick, if you’ve been following my blogs, you will recall I posted one on the new Blade Runner film not long ago, and Blade Runner was a huge part of my artistic landscape in those days as well. Anybody who has spent time in Taipei will instantly recognize connections between that city and the world of Blade Runner (even though the more immediate homage is to Tokyo). And so Dolby’s music became interconnected with that filmic world and with my formative experiences studying Chinese language and culture in Taiwan, which became the grounding for my lifetime’s involvement with Asia.
After that Thomas Dolby went on the back burner for a long time, until he re-emerged with his 1990s album Astronauts & Heretics. That album came out when I was just starting graduate school at Columbia University and I associate it with living in cramped little apartments in the Upper West Side of New York City. This was a more expansive—and more American—album, reflecting his years of living in the USA, with guest appearances by all sorts of fab musicians from that era, from Bruce Hornsby to Eddie Van Halen. I can’t say it resonates as deeply with me as his previous albums do, but it’s still an enjoyable collection of tunes.
Then in the mid-1990s, with the novel power of the internet, I was able to connect personally if only for a moment with Thomas Dolby. At the time (1994) I was taking a course on creative writing as part of my graduate program, and was writing some poetry. So I composed a poem based on his first album “Golden Age...” and sent it to him (he had a website at the time), not thinking much about it until I received a reply a few days later. In the reply he told me the poem had “made his week” and that it was nice to know that somebody out there got his music. Needless to say I was enormously pleased that he had taken some time to write back. I still keep a printout of that poem and his reply in a frame.
After that, many years went by before Dolby came out with his last album, A Map of the Floating City in 2012. Once again, the album reflects his unique eclecticism, with its mixture of ambience, danceable funky tunes, and lyrical odysseys. Then throw in a country-influenced tune with guitar work by Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits was one of my favorite bands back in the 1980s). I reckon the aforementioned song “17 Hills” is the best on the album, showcasing Dolby’s storytelling abilities and Knopfler’s masterful guitar work. Like his previous album, a lot of the content was about road tripping and discovering or rediscovering America (which seems to be an obsession of his since the 1990s), and digging deep into American folk history—with songs like the irresistible “Toad Lickers” and “Road to Reno.” There was also the concept of alternative worlds, and the dread of global warming thrown in for good measure—with oceanic themes pervading the album.
In high school, I actually wrote and delivered a presentation in my French class on Thomas Dolby, based on articles I could find in magazines. (Talk about nerdy—delivering a talk on Dolby in French!) I remember calling him a “sonic architect” and an “archeologist of sound” and playing a song from his album Flat Earth—I think it was “Screen Kiss,” far and above the best song on that album and one of his best period. I still find that song haunting to this day, and one of my primal soundtracks on visits to California.
It wasn’t until his memoir The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology came out in 2016 that I was finally able to put together the pieces of the puzzle that is Thomas Dolby. I devoured that book, which revealed the reasons behind the mysterious disappearances and reappearances of the artist as he struggled to build a career in the world of technology. Finally, his tidal ebbs and flows were explained. The book also illuminates the motivations, creative process and inspirations behind his various albums and songs. Dolby’s memoir is a great testament to an artist who struggled to maintain his integrity and his artistic vision over a lifetime.
All artists are engaged in this primordial battle to some degree or other, as are professionals of all stripes. When I was a student at Dartmouth College (‘91), our president James Freedman recommended reading Arrowsmith, the Sinclair Lewis novel that exemplifies this archetypal story, which I did. I reckon that Dolby’s memoir is up there with Lewis’s novel in its recounting of the often painful and Quixotic quest of an artist or artisan to maintain one’s identity in the face of relentless commercialization and financial pressure, not to mention the pressure of one’s own ego. Dolby’s artistic output over the decades stands as its own testimony to his stolid adherence to core mission. Like his lifeboat, he has a strong rudder that keeps him going even in the face of stormy weather and high waves that would divert him from the golden path.
So here’s my poem which I wrote and sent to Thomas Dolby in 1994, and his reply. Thanks Tom for everything you’ve given us!
Blinded by Science (An Ode to Dear Old Tom)
You blasted your way onto the airwaves,
heralded by synthesized descents,
singing about a girl from Japan
who blinded a man with Science,
striking, to the beat of drum machines.
You sang of submarines, like other gents,
who sailed the cosmos in a yellow one,
but yours was washed up, a beached whale,
radar jammed, crew trapped inside.
There was a girl with whom you shared
childhood on the beach: The Pirate Twins.
In later years, you saw her in films,
and on the cover of a magazine.
Her picture still stands on your windowsill,
but she no longer remembers you.
A nervous woman glances in her rear-view mirror
while the radio plays doowops of days gone by.
Who craves to paint her eyes so red,
her lips so blue, and why?
A man flies North into the night,
over citadels and grids of light,
with stopovers spent alone
in airport lounges filled with smoke,
or staring down into his Coke
in the lonely glare of a launderette.
Where is he going, when will he arrive?
A driver on the turnpike hunts for gas,
while petrol vapors fill the dawn,
but not one drop to fill him up.
A woman in a dark blue room
watches T.V., eats carrot cake,
washing it down with a blueberry shake,
yet she remains empty inside.
Fill me! you cried, but with what?
In the Age of Science, is the answer,
Old Tom, as you Brits like to say,
I loved your poem! Nice way to start the week. It's so good to know SOMEONE,
SOMEWHERE gets it when I sing!