Thomas Dolby Essay, Research Paper
In the early 1980s, Thomas Dolby’s
driving techno-pop rhythms helped define the musical zeitgeist of an era.
Achieving global fame with his 1983 hit "She Blinded Me with Science,"
Dolby personified the eccentric fringe energy of rock music’s New Wave.
An adept and innovative video producer, Dolby’s efforts for MTV helped
established the look and format of the burgeoning medium. Likewise, his
multimedia stage shows created the template for a generation of new performers.
By 1984 it seemed that Thomas Dolby was poised to shape the dominant sound
of the decade. Yet just as suddenly as he stormed onto the charts, Dolby
withdrew. By stepping out of the pop limelight he could, as he put it,
"stretch out musically."
Far from vanishing into obscurity,
Dolby worked as a producer for artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, George
Clinton, and Little Richard. He composed movie soundtracks and lent his
talents as a keyboard player to efforts by rock legends like David Bowie
and Roger Waters.
After a decade of innovative musical
and video production, sound system design, and inspired electronic tinkering,
it was inevitable that Dolby would meld his talents in a unique creative
endeavor. In 1992 he founded Headspace, a multi-media company that produces
interactive music scores for video games, feature film soundtracks, and
audio systems for theme parks.
Jazz at Half Speed: Beginnings
Born to English parents in Cairo, Egypt in 1958, Thomas Dolby Robertson
grew up in transit. His father, an archaeologist specializing in Greek
and Etruscan pottery, kept Dolby and his five older siblings trotting
the globe. Dolby recalls "a dreamlike childhood skipping from one
place to another."
Though his mother was a teacher – or perhaps because of it – Dolby despaired
of study. His happiest hours were spent listening to jazz recordings by
Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. He taught himself piano
by slowing the tape player to half speed, and picking out the melodies
by ear. Such primitive manipulation of sound sparked Dolby’s passion for
electronics. His interest deepened through his teens. At fifteen his London
classmates shortened his surname to Dolby, an honorarium to Thomas Dolby,
inventor of the famous noise reduction system for recording. Thomas’s
fate was sealed. At 16 he dropped out of school to pursue a career as
a rock musician.
Paris Streets and London Punks
Dolby worked part-time in a fruit and vegetable shop by day, and prowled
London’s thriving punk scene at night. The clubs shook with the thrashing
guitars and guttural vocals of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
There seemed to be little room for the more expansive, cerebral sounds
that circuited Dolby’s imagination. The composer recalls that it wasn’t
until he heard New Wave groups like the Talking Heads and XTC that he
realized the possibilities for his kind of music.
During this period, Dolby frequently trekked across the Channel, playing
guitar on the streets of Paris and piano in London cocktail bars.
"I felt it was an important part of an artist’s life to struggle
for a time in Paris," Dolby has said.
Composing songs and trying them out before fickle street audiences gave
him a sense of what worked and what didn’t. Meanwhile, Dolby honed his
electronic skills by building synthesizers and sound systems of his own
design. His first paying music job – sound technician for a touring Jamaican
r-&-b band – was an education in spontaneity and on-the-spot innovation.
His knowledge was soon in demand by British New Wave bands, notably the
Members and The Fall. He traveled extensively with the groups, creating
custom sound systems and experimenting with computer technology.
In 1979 he began playing keyboards with Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club.
Around this time Dolby rigged a PPG Wave computer to coordinate synthesizers
and drum pads with lighting effects for Tangerine Dream’s stage shows.
Setups were so complex that there were huge lags between songs. Dolby
recalls that "the audience could nip out for curry in between numbers."
However cumbersome, these shows were his first tentative steps toward
the high-tech spectacles that defined his own stage shows in the 80s.
The Golden Age
Dolby’s first big break came in 1980 when his song "New Toy"
scored singer Lene Lovich a hit single. Impressed with his electronic
acumen, the band Foreigner asked him to play keyboards on their Foreigner
4 record (1980). His synthesizer work on "Urgent" (a global
hit for Foreigner) helped legitimize the instrument’s place in mainstream
rock n’ roll. The following year he played on Joan Armatrading’s Walk
Under Ladders (1981).
In 1982 Dolby’s career went into overdrive. His debut album, The Golden
Age of Wireless was released. Most of the songs were made with a Micromoog
synthesizer and a then state-of-the-art Roland JP4 polyphonic synthesizer.
The Roland’s ability to play up to four notes simultaneously allowed greater
spontaneity than earlier synthesizers. Dolby could experiment with more
complex and versatile arrangements. This is evident in densely textured
songs like "Airwaves" and "Submarines."
It wasn’t the introspective inventions of Wireless that earned Dolby
a place in the global spotlight. The LP was barely pressed when he began
work on the song and video that was to fix his place in the emerging amalgam
of sounds the media dubbed "New Wave."
For Dolby, "She Blinded Me with Science" was little more than
a novel diversion. With its funk beat and warbling synthesizers, it might
have been a send-up of low budget science fiction movies. The accompanying
video, produced and directed by Dolby, emphasized this motif, with Dolby
starring as the Nutty Professor. Despite the fact that "Science"
was not representative of his work, the image and sound captivated the
public. By 1983 Dolby’s five song EP, Blinded by Science, reached number
five on the Billboard chart. His energetic stage shows from this period
were multimedia extravaganzas, featuring videos, tapes, slides, and arrays
The Flat Earth, released in 1984, returned to the sort of thoughtful,
compelling songs Dolby had penned for his debut album. A Fairlight CMI
synth, capable of 8 notes, gave Dolby an elite technology enjoyed by few
musicians. Although he uses it liberally on the album, electronics were
tempered by acoustic instruments. This blend of synthetic and natural
sounds inspires romantic, often exotic ballads. Gone were the comic-book
eccentricities of the Nutty Professor, replaced by a deeply personal vision.
On the Flat Earth tour, Dolby had an eight-piece band plus an array of
samplers that recreated sounds from his albums. Computer synchronized
video screens and theater props made these performances eye-popping spectacles.
At last, Dolby successfully combined the vibrancy of a stage show with
the synthetic pulsing of computers.
"Ultimately it wasn’t very gratifying," Dolby has written.
"Even though it was a great bunch of people and we were basking in
the reflected glory of massive MTV coverage and radio success."
Dolby felt hemmed in by the technical demands of stage shows and the
pressures of fame. Having created his pop personae, he was determined
to dismantle it. Sales-conscious record executives pressured him to produce
catchy sequels to "Science." But Dolby wanted no part of it.
His role as the King of Synth Pop became invasive and constraining. As
the New Wave crested, Dolby felt a need to come ashore or drown.
An Englishman in L.A.: 1984-1988
Dolby began an intensive period as a producer and soundtrack composer.
Live appearances were rare, though he occasionally played keyboards for
touring acts, including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, and
David Bowie. Unrestrained by image and expectations, Dolby expanded musically,
exploring a range of musical mediums. For Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog,
he created an aura of subdued synthesizers. Working largely in an acoustic
mode, he produced Prefab Sprout’s Two Wheels Good.
His soundtrack for Ken Russel’s Gothic (1987) – a film about the lost
weekend of literati Byron, Shelly and Keats – resonates with psychotropic
depravity. And although George Lucus’s Howard the Duck (1986) was a critical
and box-office flop, Dolby’s score for the film is recognized among his
After dividing his time between London and Los Angeles for a few years,
Dolby settled in L.A. in 1987. The change of scene spurred new creative
energy. Hoping to piece a band together, he placed an ad for musicians
in the ReCycler. Within two weeks he received over 500 replies. He auditioned
90 musicians, and eventually narrowed the pick to five. They would become
the Lost Toy People. For the first time in nearly four years Dolby entered
a studio to record an album of original music.
Aliens Ate My Buick (1988) returns to some of the playful funk of Blinded
by Science. Yet the album’s pared down sound is a reaction not only to
early Dolby, but the genre of digitized, synthetic rock he helped spawn.
Dolby and the Lost Toy People played rambunctious, freeform gigs at small
Los Angeles clubs. The band’s loosely structured sets allowed plenty of
room for improvisation and invention. "Playing live is best when
you break away from the rigidity of albums and let the band find its own
way to play the song," Dolby writes.
The arrangements on Astronauts & Heretics (1992) echo the wide open
freeway funk of Aliens. The album’s tour reflected Dolby’s need to strip
the music to its bare bones. It also revealed his growing confidence as
a musician. Shorn of synthesizers and apparatus Dolby played piano and
sang, backed by a small band, in intimate club venues.
"Gone were the video projections, funk grooves and dance routines,"
Dolby writes. "It brought me back to the heart of what I can do."
Dolby’s scaled down tours may have also been a way of fading from the
circuit. Referring to touring as a "delicious vice" too costly
to maintain, Dolby returned to the quiet studio work he loves best.
In 1994 he released the soundtrack and video for The Gate to the Mind’s
Eye, a collection of computer generated animations. Dolby’s scores reflect
his ability to articulate visual nuance with subtle musical tracings.
Invisible when he wants to be, like on the aquatic murmurs of the animation
"Neo," he can also wield brash primary rhythms, aurally shaping
the animator’s vision, as evident in "Quantum Mechanic."
The Gate to the Mind’s Eye was an early effort of Dolby’s new multimedia
company, Headspace, founded in 1992. Dolby’s audio-production crew is
creating soundtracks for a host of projects, including CD-ROM games, film
scores, and audio systems for theme parks.
Among the most intriguing of Headspace’s myriad endeavors is the Audio
Virtual Reality engine (AVRe). Designed to enhance the interactive experience
of playing a video game, AVRe creates a soundtrack tailored to an individual
player’s style. It has been used for the development of various CD-ROM
games including Cyberia, The Dark Eye, and The Conversation, based on
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller-film. "Every character and element
can have its own theme and instrument," Dolby has said. "Which
in turn can change or interlock with other themes and instruments."
Using this "Peter and the Wolf approach," as Dolby calls it,
no two players would experience the same musical score. In fact, individual
players hear new music each time they play. A similar system called Rich
Music Format (RMF) is being used to enhance Web sites on the Internet.
In a brief return to the stage, Dolby presided over Headspace’s 1993
performance of his Virtual String Quartet at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
The 3-D virtual reality spectacle garnered the Smithsonian Institute’s
Computer World Smithsonian Award. Although the appearance piqued the hopes
of fans anxious for Dolby to resume touring, the composer is unlikely
to do so in the foreseeable future.
In July of 1996, Dolby launched Hypractv8, an America Online (AOL, keyword:
HYPR) channel that allows users to access games, graphics, music, and
also download sophisticated software tools. The site includes a "Virtual
Library" where numerous articles and publications about the multimedia
industry are available.
"I believe the power of the computer can be harnessed to enable
individuals to express themselves as they never have before," Dolby
writes in the introduction to Hypractv8’s AOL site. He hopes that by sharing
ideas and technology a new creative community will emerge from the web.
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