In the late spring of 1982, as I completed 8th grade, I met one of those kids who is always at the height of cool. But, it was a calm, somewhat cynical, real cool, not the show-off cool of the wealthy socialite kids. It was the Bohemian cool of the Beatnik not contrived cool of the Hippie or the Yuppie.
Only a few of us belonged to his circle.
Except for moments of ecstatic outbursts about an idea here or there, he radiated coolness. He read the Great Books and knew lots of poetry, he worked out in his room (he had the whole upstairs of a late 19th century house to himself) and studied Japanese martial arts, he knew everything about men such as Bill Buckley and Jack Kerouac, he owned the best stereo system of anyone our age, and he possessed an amazing record collection. He was the youngest of a large family, and his parents were much older, pretty much leaving Ritchie to raise himself.
It was Ritchie who introduced so many of us–in a medium-sized town in the wheat belt of the Great Plains–to English New Wave. Growing up a progger–addicted from an early age to Yes, Genesis, and Kansas–New Wave was a bit eye opening for me. It seemed to hold much of the complexity of prog, but it did so with computers and keyboards, often one or two musicians, where prog might have included eight or nine. Ritchie introduced me to ABC, Kate Bush, The Smiths, Oingo Boingo, Tears For Fears, and, most importantly for me, Thomas Dolby.
Not only was I a prog guy, but I was also very much a sci-fi and computer guy. All of this appealed to me.
From the first moment–sometime, probably, in April or May of 1982–I heard Dolby’s “Golden Age of Wireless,” I was mesmerized. It was for me a perfect album. Everything was put together so beautifully, and I very quickly memorized the lyrics. Frankly, they were almost as good as any of the lyrics of, say, “The Point of No Return,” and they made far more sense to me than did the lyrics of “Fragile.”
While I think every song is good and remains so, holding up well even after thirty-one years, I think tracks such as “Flying North,” “One of Our Submarines,” and “Cloudburst at Shingle Street” have very much stood the test of time.
I remember even in the early 1980s when someone asked me to describe why I liked Dolby so much, especially after most Americans knew him from his rather quirky song and MTV video of the novelty song, “She Blinded Me With Science,” I replied that Dolby was the Ray Bradbury of the music world.
In some way I could never quite identify autobiographically, I’m sure that “One of Our Submarines” worked its way into my understanding of the world.
Bye bye Empire . . . tired illusions drown in the night.
As I listen to the three tracks mentioned above, I think this description remains true. Each of Dolby’s songs is really the slice of a mystery. Just a piece, a part, waiting to be made whole.
Another good friend from Kansas, Darin, gave me the promotional poster as well as the label pin for “The Golden Age of Wireless.” The poster remained on my wall throughout high school, and I wore that label pin on my denim jacket throughout the same years and even into college and (during my sophomore year) across Europe and North Africa. Darin’s dad own the largest stereo shop and record store in my little Kansas town, and he always had access to some of the best paraphernalia possible. He was also a really nice, smart, and generous guy.
Looking back from 2013, I’m a bit amazed at the lineup Dolby was able to pull together for a first album. In particular, the names Andy Partridge and Tim Friese-Greene jump out at me. I’m not sure if bassists such as Matthew Seligman were well known in 1982, but he certainly would become well known over the next several years. In particular, Seligman’s work on Dolby’s follow-up album, “The Flat Earth” would guarantee his name in bassist hagiography.
Dolby, of course, had some direct prog connections, especially after having worked with Roger Waters and, even before that, with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. In his 50s now, Dolby could do much good if he chose to rework some of these older songs, giving them space to breathe.
His most recent album, “A Map of the Floating City,” is excellent, but it is pretty much straightforward pop-rock, with a bit of Americana and David Lynch-type dark lyrics. As I’ve listened to it numerous times, I keep thinking–oh, this is brilliant, let it go “to eleven”!
What if he asked the members of Big Big Train to rework “One of Our Submarines,” Gazpacho to record “Cloudburst at Shingle Street,” the Fierce and the Dead to redo “Flying North,” Arjen Lucassen to re-record “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” Neal Morse to record “Airwaves,” and Sanguine Hum to remake “Radio Silence.” Bring in Rob Aubrey and Tim Friese-Greene to engineer.
Phew. Now, that would create a worthy legacy. Mr. Dolby, please, please, please, let us get what we want (to borrow some words from a colleague of yours).
6 thoughts on “Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age”
I think you have a future as a tribute album producer, Brad!
‘Science!’ whilst fun for the first 3 listens and got TDMR on the musical map, tires quickly for me (a USA fan). The other tracks on GAOW, for me, are the real subtle beauties.
Also, “to rework some of these older songs, giving them space to breathe.” I think he did this nicely on his 2006 tour/release of “Sole Inhabitant” The live versions are truly great. He describes each song, and in some cases, builds the individual tracks and assembles the song in real-time. Check out the SI release if you are a fan of ‘GAOW’, ‘Buick’ and ‘The Flat Earth’.
Good article – the key song for me on Wireless is Wreck of the Fairchild; excised for the hits but shows the playful, inventive side of Thomas. Agreed on the Floating City comments too, the EP’s that preceded the whole album were the best bits.
You must be my evil twin brother – Yes, Kansas, (no Rush? Evil!), etc. I’d give Floating City time to grow on you. I felt a bit let down by Astronauts & Heretics at first (but have since changed my tune); so much so that I wrote a song about it then called “Thomas”:
“(Chorus) Thomas, where did you go to?
How we gonna handle it without you today?
Politics and suicide were always on your side,
But I’d let them all slide by,
For an hour or two with the pirate we knew”
RJ, Rush is so high in my stratosphere of loves that I didn’t include them. I hope to become at least a pleasant cousin. Yours, Brad