Thomas Dolby: Faster Than Sound
By Andy Jones | February 19, 2021
Here’s some news for you: Thomas Dolby never really was that crazy boffin you thought he was back in the 80s, but since then he’s been that and a whole lot more. Andy Jones catches a supersonic flight to meet up with the digital guru and record producer…
You will almost definitely know Thomas Dolby as the guy behind She Blinded Me With Science and its video featuring celebrity scientist Magnus Pyke shouting “science!” You will probably know, then, that the same Dolby was behind the other catchy hit, Hyperactive!. You might also know he did the darker, synth-laden track Windpower or even the sublime Screen Kiss. What you probably don’t know – unless you’ve read his romp of an autobiography called The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology – is that, deep breath, Thomas is married to an actress that used to be on Dynasty [Kathleen Beller], he had several rather bizarre and frantic encounters with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, he produced some of Prefab Sprout’s finest works [albums Steve McQueen, From Langley Park To Memphis, and Jordan: The Comeback] and he played keys with Belinda Carlisle on her celebrated Heaven On Earth album. He became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, pretty much invented the polyphonic ringtone, made a fortune, designed a video game, and has a recording studio on a carbon-neutral boat. Oh and that bloke playing keyboards for Bowie at Live Aid in 1985? Yes, that was Thomas, too…
So in many ways Dolby – not his real name and the company of the same name tried to sue him, naturally – has been like a musical version of Dr Who, present at some of musical history’s greatest events. Some kind of time lord, then?Yes, but with a synth. Now we’re talking…
There’s no doubting that Dolby has crammed more into his nigh-on six decades than most of us wouldn’t dream of and, yes, someone should make a film of it (or at least a video game…). Yet we’re here to talk pop and, of course, in this world there are different levels of ‘success’. Yet perhaps the most successful artists are not those with the biggest of hits; instead they are arguably those with the most loyal of followings. That’s not to say Dolby lacked hits – with three successful solo albums back in the 80s, spawning successful worldwide singles he certainly had enough – but the key fact was that he captured a smart and dedicated audience, one big enough to fly the flag for him after he retired from music in the 90s to pursue the Silicon Valley dream. Indeed it was this audience that coaxed him back into the limelight almost 20 years later for 2011’s comeback album A Map Of The Floating City.
“During the years I wasn’t making music the online community kind of developed itself,” says Thomas. “When I wasn’t making music I was a bit like one of those dead guys, like Nick Drake, whose fans sort of found each other after he was gone. During this time, the 90s and early-Noughties, it was a time when the internet developed and allowed fans to connect and share their enjoyment of an artist. Given that my audience, compared to the average, are quite, dare I say, literate, thoughtful and articulate, when they found each other there was a lot of time spent interpreting my lyrics, annotating the chord sequences, even writing fiction involving the characters. So a small but dedicated fanbase found each other in those days.”
Thomas knew that he couldn’t just put out an album – the musical landscape had shifted so much in the two decades he’d been away – but he used some of the tech skills he’d picked up from programming synths for mobile phones in Silicon Valley to come up with an online, alternate reality video game that allowed people to explore the songs and characters from A Map Of The Floating City and then unlock further music. It was a genius bit of PR and marketing, even if it did backfire when Thomas dropped a clanger and accidentally gave away the game’s solution just as his fans, now part of ‘tribes’ in the game, were reaching its conclusion.
“The irony was that a lot of those players didn’t realise how involved I was with the game,” he smiles sheepishly, “so they assumed I’d hired a games company to make a game based on my music and lyrics, and that they were running it day-to-day. But when we screwed up – which was completely my fault – they were incredulous. There were even some comments that: ‘I don’t know what Thomas would feel about this; he must feel very betrayed’. I have admitted it though, and talked about it a fair amount ever since and I still have hecklers when I do a performance shouting out the name of their tribe and saying ‘we was robbed!’”
Despite the end game, the experience did allow more of Dolby’s music to reach that alternate world – and then our very real one by way of CD and download – and songs like Oceanea reminded us of what we’d been missing over that 20-year period. They confirmed that Dolby can certainly work his musical magic, yet it’s not been just on his own songs that he has always waved that wand. He has coaxed some of the most incredible pop tunes of the last three decades out of others, the most notable being Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout.
“I first encountered Prefab Sprout when I was a guest reviewer on Radio 1’s Roundtable,” Dolby recalls, Roundtable being that station’s weekly singles reviews show where three high-profile guests were invited in to critique the releases. “I was really hating most of that week’s singles and being pretty negative, but when the Sprout song Don’t Sing came on, I not only liked it, I loved it. There’s been maybe a dozen times when I’ve heard something on the radio where I’ve been desperate to find out what it was because I felt my life would be impoverished if I didn’t know more, and that was one of them.”
The “context” that Thomas describes is that the song arrived from an unheard-of band in the midst of tracks by Alvin Stardust (So Near To Christmas) and the Toy Dolls (Nellie The Elephant). Prefab’s, shall we say, rather more thoughtful offering stood out, at least to Thomas…
“So I said quite nice things about it and the band were listening as it was one of the first times they’d been played on the radio. They heard me and were aware of my stuff so got in contact and asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on an album. I took a train up to County Durham and went to the house where Paddy and Martin McAloon [bassist] lived and Paddy took me to his bedroom which was not that much bigger than the single mattress that was in it. In fact, the single mattress was built on stacks of manuscript paper with his songs. He pulled out a stack of these manuscripts and he’d have the lyrics written on them with the chords – E, A, G whatever. He would strum and sing his lyrics and play until he felt it was the right time to change a chord but it was really all about the lyrics.”
“An important observation of the way I worked with Paddy was that he made absolutely brilliant demos at home and they completely encompassed the essence of the song,” Thomas continues. “If I’d had my way he would just release those and just put out one or two albums a year and they would be fabulous. But for Paddy, in order for it to be a real record, it would have to be done in a studio and come out on a recognised label and be available in the shops with a poster in the window and a chart position. It’s almost like he and Martin decided as teenagers that, that was the band they were going to have, and if it was any less than that then it wasn’t a real record which I think is a shame. Given that it was my job to take his demos and make them into that kind of record, the better his demos were the harder it was for me to convert them into something worthwhile. In fact, there were several occasions where I said ‘you don’t need me!’”
The world is a better place for their collaborations, though, as that trio of albums represents a band at a creative peak even though Thomas makes it sound like a relationship that he was drawn to like a moth to a flame. “Whenever Paddy sent me a tape I’d be busy with something else,” he explains. “Then I’d get to a certain song on the tape which was an absolute gem and I’d just fall in love it and have no choice but to say ‘yes’. Very often those were the songs that were the hardest to improve so on Jordan: The Comeback, the tracks Wild Horses and Jesse James Bolero, once I’d heard them I had to drop what I was doing and then had the challenge of taking these pristine demos that I’d fallen in love with and now thinking: ‘can I do anything to improve them?’ So there’s a lot of self-doubt involved with that.”
Thomas would go on to successfully produce other bands including Ofra Haza and (not so successfully) Joni Mitchell, but that impending musical retirement beckoned…
“There wasn’t really a reason for ending it,” he says, “but by the end of the 80s I was sick of the music business and much more excited about Silicon Valley so it wasn’t a deliberate decision. Would I get back into music production now? Yes, although I don’t know what the business model is these days.”
He’s proved he can fashion a hit or two, so we’re guessing there must be some kind of Dolby formula for it all… “I don’t think you can have one,” he replies. “You have to be selfish and subjective about taste if you want to try to second guess what the public will like. Some people are very good at that. I’ve never been able to make decisions on that basis and all I can do is please myself. When I’ve really done that I just hope that there is an audience out there that will respond to it. It’s like if I sit down and I am writing a song like Screen Kiss. I found a certain modulation with the verse and when I played that on the piano it hit me very emotionally. Months and years later, by some miracle, I play that chord change in a concert and I look out and I know that the audience is feeling it the same way that I did when I wrote it. It’s communicating and that to me is such a gratifying feeling.”
Getting back to those encounters with pop royalty, does Thomas have a standout?
“Stevie Wonder would be up there,” he replies. “Some of [the Sprouts’ 1988 album] From Langley Park To Memphis was recorded in his studio as I’d met him [during a quartet recording with Howard Jones and Herbie Hancock that Dolby had appeared on at The Grammys]. Stevie played some harmonica on the record. One of the amazing things about him is that to me all of the precious parts of his catalogue were recorded over a period of just four years. He’s had this 50-year career but if I made a mix tape of my favourite 10 or 12 songs they’d come from a fairly narrow period from Talking Book through to Fullfillingness’ First Finale. There are dozens of albums outside of that period which I think are a bit ‘ho hum’ but bang in the middle of that period of four years he had an experience where he had a car accident and was in a coma. When he woke up he thought he’d lost ‘the music’ and got into a panic. To have that kind of tragedy happen in the middle of his most prolific period was just extraordinary, but he just got over it and, of course, it turned out he hadn’t lost it.
“By the time I met him he wasn’t putting out great records and that frustrated me as I couldn’t hear what I loved about that classic era. But in the room with him he could do it. He’d just wander around and maybe play a Polymoog and he’d just start playing something and singing and it was everything I loved about his golden era but wasn’t getting on his records. It was just amazing; they were moments in time that were just gone – he’d play the last chord and he’d wander off.
“My working experience with Joni Mitchell was disappointing and I hold myself to blame for that. We didn’t really click and maybe my expectations were wrong. I thought I’d be the new [successful Mitchell collaborator] Jaco Pastorius in terms of being a catalyst for Joni that would flavour a chapter of her musical life. I loved her music so much and thought I had a lot to contribute to it.”
So, after all the highs and everything that Thomas has experienced, what has given him the most pleasure?
“In many ways the most remarkable things are on a global scale like Live Aid, The Grammys, Michael Jackson or whatever, but I can’t say I was happier back then than now. There is one part of me that wants to be a show off or be an exhibitionist but it’s a fairly narrow part. I’m mainly a very introspective person so although I lived a fantastic, adventurous life in the 80s I was in a state of discomfort with it and a bit of a fish out of water being in the public eye. So I invented this mad scientist, boffin persona to deal with it, and as long as I was acting out the role it insulated me from it. When I came back to music after being in the Silicon Valley corporate setting I was determined to do it on my own terms and it’s been more rewarding even though it’s not on a global scale. That is the trade-off but I’m a lot happier with the way things are today.”