Before and After Science

Thomas Dolby would prefer you didn't think of him as a one-hit wonder

Sometime back in 1980, keyboardist Thomas Morgan Robertson — nicknamed "Dolby" due to his extensive audio expertise — was enjoying a good gig as a session synth player. After a night with Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club, a proto new-wave outfit, Dolby stole away for a few hours in his hotel room.

Alone, he composed a precious keyboard melody against a Dr. Rhythm drum machine and recorded it on a TEAC Porta-Studio — the equipment of the day. The song fit in perfectly on the 1981 cassette-only compilation From Brussels With Love, bouncing against an Eno interview, Joy Division members in mourning, and obscure tracks from John Foxx and Section 25. It was a concise, literate, and delicate composition that showed Dolby as a first-rate songwriter completely comfortable with the technology of tomorrow.

"The advent of synth-driven music coincided with the peak of the very male, manicured rock sound," Dolby reminds. "It was rather threatening, the same way punk rock had been threatening to disco. There were people saying, 'You can't make soul music with electronics. '"

From the tender age of 3, he was hooked to a machine.
Mark Owens
From the tender age of 3, he was hooked to a machine.

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To the contrary, with tunes like "Airwaves," Dolby demonstrated a tasteful way that primitive synthesizers ("My first axe was a Micro-Moog," he says) could work with an ensemble of "real" instruments.

By the time a full-blown version of "Airwaves" made it onto Dolby's debut album, 1982's The Golden Age of Wireless, he was practically a household name because of the annoying and ubiquitous "She Blinded Me With Science" and its accompanying video, which, for better or worse, remains his albatross.

Dolby followed Wireless with an even better, jazzier record that showed off his chops and his sensitive side. 1984's The Flat Earth produced a ripple thanks to "Hyperactive," another loud, overproduced single, after which began an extended period of outsiderness.

"At the time of The Flat Earth, my ambition was to make enough of an impact with the melodic stuff that I could wipe the slate clean and supersede people's perception of me from the MTV days," Dolby says from his place in the San Francisco Bay Area. "But that's a tall order, really."

That difficulty was made evident by the diminishing returns of 1988's Aliens Ate My Buick and 1993's Astronauts and Heretics. But retreating back to the sidelines as a session man was as familiar to Dolby as dorky aviator glasses. He'd gotten his start backing up the likes of Lene Lovich, the Thompson Twins, and Joan Armatrading.

It was lucrative work at times: He made bank playing on Def Leppard's Pyromania and adding memorable keyboard riffs to songs like Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You."

After a few aborted soundtracks (Howard the Duck, anyone? No?), Dolby fled the music scene entirely, winding up in the back room tinkering with machinery and microchips.

More than 60 percent of all the cell phones on the planet use some form of Beatnik, his pioneering software that allows for polyphonic ringtones. Since abandoning England (where he still owns a home) for California nearly 20 years ago, it's been no secret Dolby is a whiz at both high technology and high finance.

His reemergence last year with some live shows and a live album (The Sole Inhabitant) isn't based on new material. It's clearly meant to appease old fans. "After all these years," he says, "the ones that have stuck around are a very pure core audience, very well-informed and respectful."

His fans — and his catalog — would probably be better-served if he'd just played his first two records in their entirety. Inhabitant includes the goofy techno-funk of "Airhead" instead of the gentle "Airwaves." But in addition to the "hits," he does offer nice retouchings of his seminal synth ballads from The Golden Age of Wireless.

Opening with "Leipzig Is Calling," a rare track available only on the import version of that first album, Inhabitant consists of Dolby backing himself with samples, loops, and his own gadgetry.

On eBay, he bought some vintage electronic devices, like a '50s-era signal generator used by the Air Force. "I picked them up because I liked the knobs and levers and meters on them," he explains. The old machines are then gutted and replaced with MIDI innards, and on stage, Dolby exploits his mad-scientist image for all it's worth, even wearing a pair of antique earphones.

Not surprisingly, he's totally at home in the updated, downloadable world of modern music distribution. The benefits of the new technologies and business models haven't even come into full fruition yet, he believes.

"There's some kid who's still in high school who's going to blow our minds and create something brand new, the likes of which we haven't seen before."

In the meantime, the Internet keeps his name in circulation. "In the old regime, somebody at my point is past their shelf life," he notes. "At a certain point, you're just out of print. You can't really expect to attract a younger audience."

That's changed now — Dolby says he sees kids in the crowds "who couldn't have possibly been there the first time around" — but the web's abundant riches aren't without drawbacks.

Recently, Dolby got wind that a Kevin Federline song had swiped a bit of Mobb Deep's "Got It Twisted," which samples the main hook from "She Blinded Me With Science."

Says Dolby: "I approved Mobb Deep, but then K-Fed sampled it, and I never approved that." So, using those newfangled tools again, Dolby tried leaving K-Fed a comment on his MySpace page, telling Britney's ex to knock it off.

"But I think there's some kind of filter where words more than one syllable get deleted," he found. "Which doesn't leave very much for a cease-and-desist letter."

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