Thomas Dolby was an indelible part of the electronic music landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in the ’80s. The Zelig of synthpop, he was seemingly there or thereabouts at all points of that crucial decade. He enjoyed huge solo success with the singles “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive!”, composed and performed on hits for everyone from AOR giants Foreigner to none-more-quirky new wave girl Lene Lovich, produced three superlative albums for Prefab Sprout, and even co-wrote the much-sampled early rap classic “Magic’s Wand” by Whodini.
With his “mad professor” image of specs and lab-coat, the Oxford-educated boy (he went to Abingdon, the school later attended by Radiohead) was a sort of Brit version of Kraftwerk’s men-machines, a techno wiz whose music and productions proved influential on the development of homegrown electro-pop.
And, like so many of the Class of ’81-2, he was encouraged to make his mark by punk, although in truth he was less moved by the three-chord garage-band thrash of the Clash et al. than he was by the DIY proto-electronica of the Normal, David Bowie and Brian Eno’s collaborations in Berlin, and the experiments of certain Germans.
“Punk hit big in ’77-8, but there was also a counter-culture of krautrock, Kraftwerk and Bowie-Eno’s albums [Low and Heroes],” he recalls. “That had a big effect on me.”
Seeing Gary Numan perform “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” on Top of the Pops in 1979 was empowering to say the least. “There was the sense that anyone could do it,” he says. “That with a few synths and a drum machine you could make a record on your own in your back room. I was one of those people.”
In 1981, Thomas was a songwriter-for-hire and session keyboard player — notably, adding those famous synth textures to Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You” — when he realized he could apply all of his new skills to create his own music.
“It became apparent that you could do complete records at home,” he says. “It was very exciting.” It also dawned that, without a band to fund, it was more economically viable to operate as a one-man unit. “You could sell a few thousand records and make a bit of a profit without racking up huge debts to a record company.”
The Abingdon boy then impacted on the Brooklyn hip-hop scene when he co-wrote Magic’s Wand for pioneering hip-hop trio Whodini; it became the first platinum-selling rap 12-inch. “It was like a game of Monopoly,” he says of this period, when he was seizing every opportunity he could. “Every square you landed on, you bought into. It was exciting to be put into all these different situations.”
Perhaps most exciting of all was to find himself at No. 5 in the States in 1982 with “She Blinded Me With Science,” which, with its video featuring celebrity zany scientist Dr. Magnus Pike, propelled Thomas to international stardom and fixed him in the public imagination as an exponent of eccentric electro-pop.
“I’m naturally a fairly introverted person with a thin but virulent exhibitionist streak that comes out every so often,” he laughs. “Actually, in that video [for “Science”] I assumed the persona of the underdog because I was a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I wasn’t a pin-up like Sting, Adam Ant or Simon Le Bon, I couldn’t compete on that level. So I created this contrarian image and it caught on in a big way. I headed to the States and made hay while the sun shone.”
By the time of the elastic electro-funk of 1984’s “Hyperactive!,” Thomas was mixing in pretty stellar circles: that single was originally intended for Michael Jackson. In fact, he had some memorable encounters with the late King of Pop.
“He was making the video for Billie Jean next door to me when I was editing “She Blinded Me With Science” and we became quite good friends for a while,” he explains. “I spent one particularly extraordinary evening at his mansion in Encino surrounded by 12 small boys in pajamas peering through the banisters at me as Michael blasted out “She Blinded Me With Science” at 120 decibels! Meanwhile, he was sat on a medieval throne, perched up high as he directed the children with their Tonka toys like some king of the castle. It was all very innocent, I might add.”
“Anyway, Michael asked me to write some stuff for what would become the Jacksons’ Victory album , so I sent him some demos, including the one for “Hyperactive!” I asked if he liked the song, and he paused and said, ‘I like the drums.’ Then he asked if I could get him some ragwort from the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales for his llamas.”
In the ’80s, Thomas released three solo albums — The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), The Flat Earth (1984) and Aliens Ate My Buick (1988) — and throughout he dodged attempts to pigeonhole him by record companies and public alike.
“I was resistant to categorization because there was more to me than ‘. . . Science’ and ‘Hyperactive!’” he contends, perhaps thinking of tracks as varied as the jazzy “I Scare Myself” and ambient/reggae hybrid “My Brain Is Like a Sieve.” “There was far more intimate and atmospheric stuff on my albums, and I didn’t want to fall into a rut. So I tried to parlay my success into an acceptance of the quieter and more personal side of my music.”
His involvement in Live Aid — as a member of David Bowie’s band — and in Roger Waters’ performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in Berlin in 1990 were, respectively, “a dream come true” and “an astonishing event to be involved in.” And then, following the Astronauts & Heretics album, a U.S. Top 40 entry in 1992, Thomas made a 180-degree turn, career-wise, as he headed off to Silicon Valley. There, the technology ace pursued a separate career as a consultant with one foot in the music industry and the other in software development. Eventually, he formed his own company, Beatnik, which didn’t just ride the dotcom boom, it flourished, coming up with the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer for the world’s biggest mobile phone manufacturer, Nokia.
“Two-thirds of the world’s phones have Beatnik software embedded in them,” he says, justly proud.
He is also proud of A Map of the Floating City, his first solo album in almost two decades. A “travelog across three imaginary continents”, A Map . . . comprises Amerikana, Oceanea and Urbanoia, available as three separate EPs as well as an album consisting of those same constituent parts. Designed to express Thomas’ physical journey these past 30 years from England to America and finally back to his childhood home of East Anglia, he says of the tripartite album: “In Amerikana I'm reflecting with affection on the years I spent living in the USA, and my fascination with its roots music. Urbanoia is a dark place, a little unsettling . . . I'm not a city person. And in Oceanea I return to my natural home on the windswept coastline.” The album includes contributions from Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Regina Spektor, Eddi Reader and Imogen Heap and reflects Thomas’ eclectic approach to music-making.
“The songs really matter to me,” he admits. “I’ve written the lyrics from a first-person perspective. And I hope I’ve used my breadth of musical and production experience as a way of expressing those things. It’s a varied album, and atmospherically each of the three sections has its own distinct flavor.”