[sic] Magazine

Thomas Dolby – The Golden Age Of Wireless

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Thomas Morgan (Dolby) Robertson struck transatlantic gold with his breakthrough hit single ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. Yet even at the height of his success (he was a virtual household name at one point), most people’s knowledge extended only to ‘Blinded…’ plus follow up smash ‘Hyperactive’. The Dolby nickname, the boffin image and those zany singles captured MTV viewer imaginations at the time yet concealed a far bigger picture. Behind those round spectacles, beneath the spiky hair dwelt a serious artist, original songwriter and arranger of some repute.

Dolby?
Noise reduction?
Let’s rewind.

In 1980/81 Thomas Dolby had been employed as a session musician by the band Foreigner. This led to a significant event. One day, as the band returned from a lengthy lunch our Thomas announced that he had been playing around in the studio and did the band like this?…, proceeding to play them what would become the glistening intro to ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’. The rest is history. That song was a massive hit, but as a hired hand, Dolby could not have any songwriting credit. He was however, re-engaged by the band for the rest of the season and put the money he made toward funding The Golden Age Of Wireless.

My earliest memories of The Golden Age Of Wireless are of a cult, word of mouth release known only to hard core aficionados of the synthpop genre. Wireless was niche, even back then. Plus there seemed to be endless different versions. Some iterations included ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ Others did not. Actually, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the original album ‘proper’ did not include ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ but the versions which did were most sought after, not so much for ‘Science’ but rather the Dolby classic ‘One Of Our Submarines’. These days a Collector’s Edition bundles everything from that period so you can’t really go wrong.

In retrospect The Golden Age Of Wireless sounds innocent and playful. As suggested by the title, artwork and many of the track names, Dolby’s debut LP was itself looking back to a bygone age, an era before our time that we’re linked to only though our grandparents. Airships, turbines, World War…. The Golden Age of Wireless is a sepia-drenched nostalgia trip with a hint of steampunk, a retro future by a retro futurist. Thus we find ourselves now looking back at a historical artefact, itself looking back to some romanticised, post-war Europe.

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Thomas Dolby’s work is bathed in nostalgia, whether it be travel, technology or childhood. He called his greatest hits compilation album Retrospective yet to me The Golden Age Of Wireless already sounded like a hits collection. ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’, ‘Windpower’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’….I lived and breathed these songs. ‘Airwaves’ was almost sold to a more established artist (Elton John, I believe.) This has significance as we will come onto shortly. You see, dear reader, I am less and less convinced Thomas Dolby ever belonged with the synthpop brigade. Much as I adore OMD, Depeche Mode and others a lot of those acts were Joy Division wannabes who turned to synthesisers because they couldn’t play the guitar. Dolby was, and still is, a songwriter, a piano man more in the vein of Elton John or Billy Joel so the idea that he was ever contemporary to the likes of Howard Jones or Landscape is frankly insulting. Get past that mad professer image. Listen to ‘Europa’ or ‘Commercial Breakup’ and you can easily draw parallels with the early work of Prince. This is fresh, playful pseudo funk with influences pouring in from all directions.

Titles are also revealing. ‘Weightless’, ‘Airwaves’, ‘Flying North’…. always the sensation of being suspended, carried by the elements. Dolby’s production has similar properties. There’s always lightness and sheen to his work. Behind the controls Dolby could make even the filthiest scuzz rock band sound like a warm summer breeze. Success would be cemented on follow-up album The Flat Earth, an elegant and beautiful record equally worthy of inclusion here. Some might argue that Dolby’s finest hour was his production work for Prefab Sprouts staggering Steve McQueen album. I, for one, wouldn’t argue. That album is quite unlike anything else, due, in no small measure, to its note perfect production.

A unique producer then and terrific songwriter, Thomas Dolby deserves recognition at the highest table of British music making. He’ll get it someday. I have little doubt of that. Until then, he can settle for a place in the [sic] Magazine Hall of Fame. We don’t hand ‘em out lightly. Yet Thomas Dolby earns his with ease. We’ll even see him again when we get around to ordaining Steve McQueen. It’s bound to happen someday. Tonight it’s The Golden Age Of Wireless. Tonight ….we’re gonna party like its 1899.

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