Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dolby double

My first experience with the electronic world of Thomas Dolby was not his signature song, "She Blinded Me With Science". Before hearing that seminal slice of 80s synth magic, I was introduced to his second single, "Europa And The Pirate Twins", a handclap happy, military march, story song inspired by a romantic liaison with a female friend from his youth.

The song, which received significant airplay on WLIR, a local, New York radio station that specialized in alternative music, also started garnering light rotation on MTV at a time when it was still a fledgeling, music video channel. The programming wizards deemed "EATPT" interesting enough to slip into their broadcast day from time to time. Blinked and you missed it.

It was nearly impossible to find the single in the import shops but I managed to find out it was released in the UK on a small label called Venice In Peril.

It would be nearly a full year later that he would unleash "She Blinded Me With Science", his sixth single, on an unsuspecting public. Since then, Thomas Dolby has circumnavigated the globe as a songwriter, producer, performer and technology guru. Not until now has his introductory work been reviewed and reinspected.

Last week, Thomas Dolby was the recipient of the latest slate of remastered reissues hot on the heels of his superior and long overdue hits collection, "The Singular Thomas Dolby", which neatly replaces his previous one, the fabulously titled, "The Best Of Thomas Dolby - Retrospectacle". The main reason to own "The Singular Thomas Dolby" is that it is a complete audio and video overview of Mr. Dolby's single releases, whereas "Retrospectacle" leaves out essential tracks like "Radio Silence" in favor of sprawling, album cuts like the magnificent and cinematic "Budapest By Blimp".

When I worked for EMI in the 90s, there were several albums which the senior corporate types wouldn't let me reissue. Two of them were the first two longplayers from Thomas Dolby. Fifteen years later, they have finally gotten around to issuing expanded, remastered editions of "The Golden Age Of Wireless" and "The Flat Earth".

"The Golden Age Of Wireless", Thomas Dolby's debut album, is notable in that it was released five times with various, different track sequences. All releases appeared on vinyl and cassette, but only the third and fifth resequencings appeared on CD, with each changing the order of the songs, replacing the album mixes with extended or single mixes and even adding and removing entire songs. In the case of "Radio Silence," a completely different recording, known as the "guitar version" which predates the synth production of the song, was included on the early US incarnations.

The first US version, issued by Capitol's Harvest imprint, excised the instrumental "The Wreck Of The Fairchild" and added the two sides of Dolby's first single, "Leipzig" and "Urges", both produced by XTC main man, Andy Partridge. Additionally, Capitol swapped the original synth version of "Radio Silence" for the more rock-oriented recording. Capitol also opted for the single edit of "Airwaves" and abandoned the original UK comic book cover in favor of a shot of Dolby on a stage during the production of Bertholt Brecht's "Galileo".

It wasn't until Thomas released his fifth single, "Windpower", that he was able to achieve a placing in the top 40 of the UK singles chart.

Then Dolby released the single, "She Blinded Me with Science", backed by "One Of Our Submarines" in late 1982, complete with a music video for the a-side which received tremendous exposure on MTV. At that point, Capitol removed "Urges" and "Leipzig" from the album and added the extended version of "She Blinded Me With Science" and "One Of Our Submarines". Have you been keeping track, so far? They also changed the album's cover art back to its original comic book design. Capitol also swapped the full-length version of "Windpower" for the single version which featured an edited intro and outro. The rest is history as "SBMWS" reached #5 on the US singles chart.

In 1983, the UK followed suit and reissued the album with a similar tracklisting to the second US version. They opted for the short single version of "She Blinded Me With Science" but retained the full-length versions of "Airwaves" and "Windpower", as well as the original synthesizer-driven version of "Radio Silence," just as all three had appeared on the first UK edition. This is the tracklisting that is widely available on CD to this day on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, after all of these maneuvers, "She Blinded Me With Science" failed to improve on the chart success of previous single, "Windpower", and fell far short of matching its American achievements. Internationally, a follow-up single was not issued after the US success of "SBMWS". Instead, Thomas retreated to his studio to work on his sophomore album which he had already begun before his presence was required for the promotional activities on the back of his American success.

"She Blinded Me With Science" neatly coincided with Thomas Dolby's intelligent, bespectacled image and established his "brand", as it would later be referred to in the 21st century. Such an indelible image combined with the slight, novelty nature of the song may have been partly responsible for preventing Mr. Dolby from reaching out beyond his solitary, American hit.

Twenty-seven years later, "The Golden Age Of Wireless", has been reissued which features the original sequence followed by peripheral recordings that were not included on the first version of the album. The bonus tracks include "One Of Our Submarines"; "She Blinded Me With Science"; the radically different, guitar version of "Radio Silence"; plus "Urges" and "Leipzig" which featured on his debut, double a-sided single.

Five, further, bonus tracks - all previously unreleased recordings - round out this reissue. They include "Urban Tribal" and a raft of demos like "Therapy/Growth", the John Foxx sounding "Pedestrian Walkway", "Sale Of The Century" which was scrapped and re-recorded as album track "The Wreck Of The Fairchild", and an early recording of "Airwaves" which features a middle section which was removed from the recording that eventually appeared on the album.

Plus, you get the full "Live Wireless" experience, a bonus DVD featuring a longform, concert performance from 1983 that was shot at Riverside Studios. Way back when, I had the original VHS tape. Remember those, kids? I haven't watched my copy in years. I suppose its all static by now. Glad to have it lovingly restored and issued in a digital format.

The only problem I have with this reissue is the sleeve art which has been ruined by placing an oversized, region code notice slapped across the lower, left-hand corner. I'm sure it's a mistake and many fans have chimed in about this ugly blemish on an otherwise stellar reissue.

In 1984, Thomas Dolby launched the campaign for his second album, "The Flat Earth", with "Hyperactive!", a song he wrote for Michael Jackson. The song became Dolby's biggest hit in the UK, peaking at #17.

The single's quirky video and the song's metal machine funk almost seemed to guarantee that it would recreate the success of "She Blinded Me With Science" in the US. Unfortunately, the single stalled at a disappointing #62 despite tremendous amounts of airplay on MTV, a world tour and heavy promotional backing from Capitol.

Second single, "I Scare Myself", a cover of a Dan Hicks song produced with jazz leanings and a smouldering, nightclub vibe, didn't even dent the US chart.

Listening to the newly released, remastered reissue of "The Flat Earth", it's easy to see that "Hyperactive!" was the most obvious choice for the first single. The rest of the album is more filmic than "The Golden Age Of Wireless", features intricate, ambient soundscapes and less, overt pop songs which marks "Hyperactive!" as the odd man out at the closing of the original album.

"Dissidents", the funky, cold war themed opener (and third single from the album) showed Dolby could take on a variety of intelligent subjects with ease. Definitely a solid marriage of substance and style. A combination which often went unrecognized in the synth laden landscape of the 80s.

"The Flat Earth" delighted fans and it perplexed those who expected another hit in the shape of "She Blinded Me With Science". It's almost as if his mad scientist schtick, imposed on him rather than developed by him, made sense. Dolby took a left when people expected him to hang a right. Of course he delivered the unexpected.

The album is a more sensitive affair than its predecessor. More rainforests and atmosphere than diodes and vacuum tubes. There are hints of Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan lurking behind the computer wizardry. And you can certainly hear the elements that found their way into his production prowess on the trilogy of Prefab Sprout albums that followed shortly thereafter.

For bonus tracks on this edition of "The Flat Earth", Thomas included "Get Out Of My Mix", a track based around samples of his own works and credited to Dolby's Cube. Also featured is "Puppet Theatre", a song dropped from the original release of the album and bears a resemblance to "Magic's Wand" which Dolby wrote and produced for Whodini. In the liner notes, he mentions how dissatisfied he was with the finished recording and figured he already had the album's obligatory single with "Hyperactive!". Therefore, "Puppet Theatre" got the axe.

Also included are the extended version of "Dissidents" and "Field Work", his collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Additionally, you get a couple of key songs from soundtracks like "The Devil Is An Englishman" which appeared in "Gothic" and "Don't Turn Away", a song featured in the now cult film, "Howard The Duck". Dolby co-wrote "Don't Turn Away" with Allee Willis who has had a hand in writing many hits including "September" by Earth, Wind And Fire and "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" by Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield.

The bonus tracks are rounded out by two live cuts from his 1984 world tour -"I Scare Myself" and "Marseille", a song he originally wrote with and produced for Adele Bertei.

All in all, a superior reissue campaign for two landmark, electronic, synth albums from a time when experimentation in sound and instrumentation seemed to rule the airwaves and video channels. Here's hoping Dolby's third and fourth albums, "Aliens Ate My Buick" (the cover art of which adorns my living room) and "Astronauts And Heretics", respectively, receive the same brushed up treatment.


  1. Regarding the giant region code notice: it's not an error but a legal requirement for any DVDs sold in Germany. Since EMI now only does one edition for the EU (and sometimes the world), it's on all copies.

  2. @ brunorepublic - Understood. But it's huge and ugly. They could have put it on the jewel case as a sticker or placed it in the artwork on the back tray card.

  3. I just realized there is a song that has not ever on any of my ipods: Screen Kiss, a longtime favorite.

  4. excellent writeup vinny. as a longtime dolby fan i already was aware of most of it but you presented it well. i hope this helps turn some new people on to the genius that is wireless/flat earth.

  5. Actually they couldn't have used a sticker -- as of January or so, German law requires the video rating to be part of the printed artwork on the front cover so it can't be removed. If you check out the DVD/blu-ray section at amazon.de you'll see it's on virtually everything, just as big and just as ugly.

  6. @ jsd - Many thanks for the kind words. I'd love for people to (re)discover these nearly forgotten gems. TD did a wonderful job brushing them up for the fans.

  7. @ Lazlo - Thanks for the heads up. Don't you wish they did a better job with the video rating design? It's truly awful.

  8. Hi. Came across your blog a couple of weeks ago, and am enjoying what i've read so far. can't remember how i got here, but think the ABC borrowed title drew me in.
    second the sentiment of the great dolby write-up. i hadn't realised the albums had been re-released. i was lucky enough to get a demo version of wireless back in 1981, and it was interesting to see you mention Sale of the Century as i've been hoping that might eventually resurface. The only other difference on the demo was a track called Ghost Train, which has sadly disappeared without trace. i'll be popping by regularly - keep up the good work! cheers, dave.