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01 octobre 2006

We love... Thomas Dolby

Some people have all the luck. You'll probably remember Thomas Dolby for two songs from the '80s that brought a smile to your lips: She Blinded Me With Science, and Hyperactive!

Along with a career as musician and producer of the likes of David Bowie, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Def Leppard, the Thompson Twins and Stevie Wonder, he also married a Hollywood actress, Kathleen Beller, who is best remembered as Kirby Colby in Dynasty.

Not content with that, Dolby went on to found electronics company Beatnik, Inc. It, in turn, created the polyphonic ringtone, currently in use in more than 100 million mobile telephones across the world.

Dolby was born Thomas Morgan Robertson in 1958 in London, the son of professor of Greek history, and he spent his childhood living in Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy and France.

He was nicknamed Dolby by friends after he began building his own synthesisers when he was 18 years old. However, when he released a song under the moniker Dolby's Cube, he incurred the wrath of Dolby Laboratories, which sued him for using its name. The case was settled when he agreed never to use the word other than with Thomas.

Riding on the crest of new electronic music that sprang up in the wake of the New Romantic movement, Dolby earned an eccentric boffin reputation for his music, not least for his first hit, She Blinded Me With Science, which featured the enormously popular TV scientist Magnus Pyke, shouting the song's title over a quirky synth melody.

The song was included on his debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982. Perversely, it sold far better in the US than at home (although that was second time round, after She Blinded Me With Science became a top five hit there), probably to Americans drawn by the Englishness of Dolby's music.

Those that didn't buy it missed out on a series of classic songs, like Airwaves, Windpower, Europa and the Pirate Twins, One of Our Submarines, and Cloudburst on Main Street.
He followed it up with The Flat Earth in 1984. In typical Dolby style, he wrong-footed everyone's expectations by releasing what was his biggest UK hit to date, Hyperactive! A frenetic, funny pop song that could well be frowned upon today with it's not-quite-respectful view of mental illness, it remains hugely popular, even if it wasn't the huge hit that everyone thinks it was.

Dolby became tied up in producing other people's work for most of the rest of the '80s, writing film scores (including, bizarrely, Howard the Duck). He was also the keyboard player on Def Leppard's 1983 Pyromania album, credited as Booker T Boffin, and performed the same job at Live Aid in 1985 in David Bowie's band.

His third album, Aliens Ate My Buick, came out in 1988, but was poorly received, despite containing the hits Airhead, Hot Sauce and May the Cube Be With You.

Along with a final album, Astronauts and Heretics, in 1992, Dolby became increasingly involved in scoring music for cinema, and also founded a music software company called Headspace. He moved from that to founding Beatnik, Inc. After relinquishing his position as CEO, he founded Retro Ringtones in 2002, and has continued to create hundreds of digital polyphonic ring tones, including the polyphonic version of the Nokia signature theme.

After a 25-year break from solo performing, Dolby returned to the road with a surprise gig in San Francisco at the start of this year. He is currently touring the US.

Essential Thomas Dolby

While hard to find in many record shops today, much of Thomas Dolby's work can be downloaded over the internet.

Here's a few of our favourites.

From The Golden Age of Wireless:

Airwaves: Beautiful atmospheric tune featuring guitars and strings, and proving that Dolby's music is as much European as English;
She Blinded Me With Science: Reportedly hated by Dolby, but one of the funniest and most original pop songs ever written;

One of Our Submarines: Excellent and well-timed use of samples give this a wonderful Cold War era feel;
Cloudburst on Main Street: Like a memory of a happy, sun-filled, childhood holiday, somewhere in Britain;

From The Flat Earth:

Dissidents: Another Iron Curtain evocation;

Screen Kiss: Beautiful love song with disturbing lyrics about Tinseltown;

I Scare Myself: Surprising soft jazz disguises a dark heart, and the trademark humour's not far away, either;

Hyperactive!: You all love it - a headlong rush through an outsider's battle with an authority that fails to understand him

Sep 25 2006

Duncan Higgitt, Western Mail

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