35 Years Ago: Thomas Dolby (Eventually) Breaks Through With “The Golden Age of Wireless’
There are two famous guitarists named Mick Jones. There are two public figures called Thomas Dolby. And there are no less than six versions of the album The Golden Age of Wireless.
Let’s start at the beginning. The son of a professor, Thomas Robertson grew up in ’60s and ’70s London fascinated, at first, by music, and later, technology. He came to love Bob Dylan, then jazz, then the American and British punk rockers. He learned guitar and piano. Around the time he was getting into Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols – by recommendation of schoolmate Shane McGowan – the teenage Robertson was discovering a passion for synthesizers and computers.
“I built my first synthesizer from a kit when I was 18,” he told the A.V. Club. “I would hook pieces of electronic equipment up to do things that they weren’t really designed for. Before there were drum machines, I used to have to program drum sounds on my synth and play them with a finger.”
Because of Robertson’s endless tinkering with electronic instruments, friends began calling him “Dolby,” after the famous noise-reduction recording process. As he earned a reputation in the London music scene as a soundman (he built a PA for the Fall), Robertson took the stage name Thomas Dolby. Dolby Laboratories later took him to court over the use of the name, but the musician won. Incidentally, founder Ray Dolby had a son that he named Thomas – a novelist that goes by Tom Dolby.
Thomas Dolby became a sort of synthesizer guru in Britain at the turn of the ’80s. As such, he soon found his presence was requested at a recording session by Mick Jones.
“I got a message from a mate in London saying ‘Mick Jones is trying to get hold of you to do a keyboard session in New York.’ And I thought ‘This is fantastic. The Clash have finally given me the call’,” Dolby later told Radio NZ. “It turned out to be not that Mick Jones at all, it was the British Mick Jones that had gone to America to form Foreigner.”
Dolby loved the Clash, but wasn’t as keen on the arena rock of Foreigner. Still, he took the invitation and contributed to the band’s album, 4. He’s the man responsible for the persistent synthesizer riff on “Urgent” and the ghostly intro to “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” Although some of the band’s members weren’t sure about Dolby’s sound, he felt vindicated when the songs became hits in 1981. He also walked away with a bit of money.
Listen to Thomas Dolby With Foreigner
“It was great for me,” he said, “because I did take home a decent pay check and it enabled me to make my own first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, without having a record company lined up.”
Indeed, Dolby quickly set to work, recording his first singles as well as his debut LP. Feeling bold, the musician set to make The Golden Age of Wireless his opus – a moody record that used modern technology (synths, electronics) to play songs about old technology (radios, airplanes). In doing so, he combined modern paranoia with the atmosphere of Britain circa World War II.
“The songs are sort of about relationships in the face of something happening on a world level. So there’s a sense of ‘after the apocalypse’ or impending war,” Dolby told Drowned in Sound. “There are lots of references, like in the last verse of ‘Airwaves’: ‘No, it was nothing / Some car backfiring.’ You get a sense of the relationship that's going on as being overwhelmed by something on a grander level. On ‘Europa,’ you know, it’s like, ‘let’s meet up again after all of this is over.’ There’s a very strong wartime atmosphere to it.”
Listen to Thomas Dolby Perform 'Airwaves'
With a cutting-edge sound and grand concept, The Golden Age of Wireless was met with positive reviews when it was first released in March 1982. The U.K. and U.S. versions were different, because American label Harvest wasn’t as keen on the instrumental track, “The Wreck of the Fairchild,” that led off Side 2. The company replaced that with two of Dolby’s non-album singles while also switching out the original version of “Radio Silence” with a more guitar-heavy rendition. Not that it mattered. In Dolby’s words, “it sold about three copies.”
Undeterred, the artist decided to take on another relatively new art form – the music video. Witnessing the popularity of MTV, Dolby thought he might be able to give greater support to his music if he created a great “silent movie” to accompany his next single. He actually came up with the entire concept for the video – storyboards and everything – before he created a note of “She Blinded Me with Science.”
“Pin-up frontmen like [Duran Duran's] Simon Le Bon and Sting … I wasn’t gonna be able to compete with them in the poster boy stakes so I decided to go the underdog route,” Dolby said. “I drew a little bit on my ancestral heritage with the Cambridge academics and came up with the character that you can see portrayed in ‘She Blinded Me with Science’.”
Watch Thomas Dolby's Video for "She Blinded Me With Science'
Released in the fall of 1982, the video helped the single, with its electronic accoutrements and samples, become a huge hit in the U.S., and a modest hit in the U.K. With a Top 5 Billboard hit and an album that was going nowhere, Harvest Records’ parent company Capitol Records decided it was already time for a re-release of The Golden Age of Wireless.
In 1983, Capitol re-issued Dolby’s debut album, replacing his older singles with “She Blinded Me with Science” (track one, side one) and its b-side “One of Our Submarines.” The new version of the record went to No. 13 on the Billboard album charts. It wasn’t long before Dolby’s British label, Venice in Peril, followed suit with a new edition of The Golden Age of Wireless, with some other changes.
Additional re-releases would follow later in the ’80s, marked by the differing lengths of “She Blinded Me with Science” and the various versions of “Radio Silence,” “Airwaves” and “Windpower.” It wasn’t until the 2009 Remastered Collector’s Edition that all the different versions coalesced. (Well, almost.) The ’09 release on CD began with the original U.K. rendition, followed by bonus tracks on the singles and b-sides that were subsequently tacked on, as well as some demos.
Although Dolby would have continued success as a recording artist in the U.K. (as well as a producer of albums by Prefab Sprout and Whodini), he would remain primarily known in America as a one-hit wonder. It’s not something that seems to bother him. “If you’re gonna be saddled with a single song that people always expect you to play,” he said, “then it’s not a bad one to have.”
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