Thomas Dolby Banner

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 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.

“Punk hit big in ‘77-8, but there was also a counter-culture of krautrock, Kraftwerk and Bowie-Eno’s albums [Low and ‘Heroes’],” Thomas 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 realised he could apply all of his new skills to create his own music.

Perhaps most exciting of all was to find himself at number 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.

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 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 categorisation 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 US top 40 entry in 1992, Thomas made a 180-degree turn, career-wise, as he headed off to Silicon Valley. There, the technology whiz 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 synthesiser 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 for almost two decades. A “travelogue across three imaginary continents”, A Map... comprising Amerikana, Oceanea and Urbanoia. 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, Eddie 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 flavour.”

The album opens with the acerbic tunefulness of Nothing New Under The Sun, about writers’ block, followed by the world music funk of Spice Train, originally mooted as a team-up with Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Evil Twin Brother concerns Michael Jackson and features a Jacko impersonator on vocals who Thomas found online. Jealous Thing Called Love is a bittersweet love song with a ‘60s Swinging London feel, the sort “that Mark Ronson does so well”. Road To Reno is a cinematic adventure that follows two star-crossed lovers across America. Toadlickers is bluegrass meets techno while 17 Hills is a “quintessential American story” of a good boy turned bad. Love Is A Loaded Pistol came to Thomas in a dream in which he was visited by the ghost of Billie Holiday, hence the allusions to the late, legendary diva’s song titles in the lyric. Oceanea is a gorgeous Prefab Sprout-ish spectral ballad that he describes as “a homecoming anthem”. Like Screen Kiss and I Love You Goodbye, it is, he says, one of his songs that has “struck the most powerful chord” with his fans. It addresses his return to Britain and his mother’s birthplace, only it’s tinged with sadness since the area, though beautiful, is, ecologically speaking, doomed.

“I left San Francisco with my family and moved to a village in East Anglia where the sea levels are rising and it’s only a matter of time,” he explains. “We live very close to the water, and I have a lifeboat in the garden so hopefully when the floods come I’ll rise up like Noah and sail off into the sunset!”

The album closes with a pair of powerful songs. Simone is about a character “who used to be Simon”. It is, explains Thomas, inspired by “my 20-year-old son Harper, a biological female who, following surgery and hormone treatment, changed genders last year and now lives full-time as a male.

“We have,” he adds, aware of the sensitivity of the subject, “no social stigma attached to this, and in fact we would like to help other families or individuals in the same situation.”

Finally, there is To The Lifeboats, an acoustic ballad with a “raging punk-grunge” middle-eight that expresses some of Thomas’ frustration and fury at the inevitable ecological apocalypse that awaits.

“I'm happy," he says, "to settle into Chapter 2 of my career and make a bunch of albums that are challenging, adventurous and eye-opening.” As maps go, this one's fairly easy to read.

Paul Lester August 2011

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