Thomas Dolby


I’ve oft opined that the surest path to true aging is that bugaboo of existing in an information rich world, nostalgia. Sometimes, however, a bit dreamily thinking about the “good old days” is unavailable. It’s easily justified: what’s the point of living at all if one cannot find a moment to reflect on those impactive moments lived?

This evening I attended the wedding of distant relatives. There, I met even more distant cousins I didn’t know I had, young adults starting University in the Fall. As I tried to figure out exactly how we were related, it suddenly dawned on me: I had attended their parents‘ wedding back when I was their age.

Wow, I really am old.

Well, thinking back to my twenties and late teens necessarily brought back memories of one Thomas Dolby, one of the pioneers of “synthopop” music. Thomas Dolby (we have to use his full name, due to a lawsuit) is best known for his poppy hits “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive”. But I want people to know that his true genius was in the thick, gracious and sweeping tunes he produced mostly outside of the mainstream eye.

I like to think that I was attracted to Thomas Dolby’s nerdly demeanour. His father, after all, was a celebrated archaeologist, and y’all know how much I love ancient history. Thomas’s familial erudition seeped into his music: none of his products were ever dumbed down. But, most importantly, more than any of his peers —OMD, Depeche Mode, Human League, Soft Cell, etc– Thomas Dolby layered his electronic songs with complicated, dreamy and surreal emotion. It’s worth pointing out the fellow’s musical pedigree, with associations with Trevor Horn, Foreigner and Lene Lovich: names that mean much to me, but maybe not to many of you.

Two songs stand out: “Screen Kiss” and “Mulu the Rainforest”, the latter a kind of electronic masterpiece for its tapesty of sound. But I will present you with the following. First, here’s Thomas Dolby’s cover of Dan Hick’s “I Scare Myself”:

For the curious, here’s a live version:

The genius of the cover is that it took a quirky, humourous novelty song and made it into a timeless, haunting and somewhat creepy drone.

When I was young, I particularly liked “Europa and the Pirate Twins” for the story that it told, that of childhood lovers longing for each other years later, though kept apart by one’s celebrity. The arrangement and synthy nature have not stood the test of time, but the melody and lyrics of the song itself are still viable:

If you like that song, you may enjoy the modernized guitary version by Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche. Access it on youtube here.

But my favourite Thomas Dolby song of all time is “Flying North”. Here’s a recent live version, performed by the now bald and pudgy, 49-year old Thomas Dolby:

I find it charming that one of the youtube commenters added: “I’m 67. Where was I when this was going on? This is spellbinding. ” I agree: Thomas Dolby flew under the radar for most of his career, but produced some alluring, hypnotic and eternal music.

It’s worth noting that Thomas Dolby married a movie star, has three kids, founded a couple of companies and invented a lot of shit, including the method by which you play song ring tones on your mobile phone. So don’t feel too sorry for him. He’s doing just fine.