If you’re American and the name “Thomas Dolby” rings a bell for you, it’s probably due to 1982’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” a single that has been referred to as one of the best “one-hit wonders” of all time. Interspersed with snippets of dialogue that suggest a story about a scatterbrained scholar falling in love, the song almost seems like it was penned for a movie—and that’s because it kind of was.
Although most of the time, music videos are produced to promote a single, “She Blinded Me With Science” was written because Dolby wanted an excuse to make a cool short film about a mad scientist. With guest vocals from British scientist and TV personality Magnus Pyke, lyrics that name-checked biology and geometry, and the occasional shout of “Science!”, the song was clearly quirky—but not too quirky for success. The American public appreciated its funky atmosphere and self-aware humor, and it ended up reaching #5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and cementing itself into pop culture for years to come.
Since “She Blinded Me With Science” has become his legacy, some might be surprised to learn that Dolby wasn’t just a gimmick. In the early ’80s, he released a stellar album called The Golden Age Of Wireless—a record that did relatively well in his native U.K., but failed to gain momentum in the U.S. until a revised edition with “She Blinded Me With Science” (which was originally from a separate EP) hit shelves. The Golden Age Of Wireless isn’t a novelty record; if you haven’t heard it yet, don’t expect to hear Dolby singing about a different school subject on each track. Rather, it’s an innovative, often thought-provoking new wave exploration of topics like technology and history—one that still holds up 35 years later.
The Golden Age Of Wireless is notable for the way it instantly brings the listener into a world that feels like a sci-fi comic book at some points and like a dystopian drama at others. Much of its futuristic vibe comes from its liberal, creative use of synthesizers—a choice that was quite daring at the time of the album’s release. Always complementing the lyrical content of Dolby’s songs rather than serving as a flashy substitute for deeper meaning, Dolby’s synths shine bright on buoyant tracks and pensive tracks alike. One song that uses the instrument in a particularly fun way is “Radio Silence,” which is just as oddly cinematic as “She Blinded Me With Science,” but more profound. As Dolby entertains us with an assortment of sprightly technological noises, we’re presented with the tale of Caroline, a woman who is sitting in her car and listening to the radio while wondering whether or not her date has stood her up. Is her search for comfort in technology successful or futile? The song’s final lyrics—”Tune in tonight/Try to think of nothing”—leave it up to the listener, but no matter how he or she interprets it, it’s evident that the contrast between the song’s peppy, electronic atmosphere and its bittersweet lyrics makes the story more interesting.
Another track that demonstrates Dolby’s aptness for combing cutting-edge musical technology with songwriting skills is “Commercial Breakup.” Powered by an infectious bass line and featuring a wild carnival ride of a synth solo, it manages to include every ingredient in the recipe for a great song without seeming even vaguely formulaic. When Dolby repeats the song’s name during the chorus, his voice flying up and down with all the urgency of a frantic robot, you can’t help but be wrapped up in the song’s delightful chaos. “Flying North” can also be listed among the best upbeat songs on the album. Although it’s mellower than the aforementioned tracks, and its lyrics about airplane rides are ambiguous, there’s no denying that the intro, which features digitized twinkling noises and and an outburst of singing voices that sound like some kind of welcoming committee in the sky, is one of the album’s most triumphant-feeling moments.
The Golden Age Of Wireless also has several heavier songs that move the listener to stop bobbing his or her head and ponder for a moment. Perhaps the best of these is “Airwaves,” a ballad that sounds like a gracefully dramatic Bowie song or a mid-act moment of reflection in a musical. Here, simulated trumpet sounds and shining sound effects create the perfect sonic backdrop for images of a society steeped in technology—”electric fences,” “abandoned wires,” and the like. At 5 minutes and 15 seconds, the song gives you enough time to build a city in your mind and watch it fall apart. “One of Our Submarines” is powerful, as well. From the moment Dolby’s voice breaks through the ambient noise of the intro, quietly explaining, “One of our submarines/has gone missing tonight,” it prepares the listener for an intense story. The song is made all the more poignant by the fact that it was based on a real event—the death of Dolby’s uncle. Clearly, although Dolby has a clever sense of humor, he’s not afraid to tackle serious subjects, too—and that’s one of the reasons that The Golden Age Of Wireless is worth revisiting.
Overall, the greatest merit of The Golden Age Of Wireless is the element of surprise. There’s absolutely no way anyone could accuse Dolby of relying on cliches here. (Come on, just take a look at the track list—do you really think there’s another song out there called “Cloudburst At Shingle Street”?) It’s impossible to predict what will come next at any point in the album; warbling female voices, harmonica sounds, emphatic shouts (see 1:53 of “Europa And The Pirate Twins”), and, of course, spontaneous synth effects all emerge out of nowhere. In fact, it takes a few listens to fully comprehend what’s happening in each song. That’s part of the record’s beauty, though. If life is complex, Dolby seems to be saying through his art, why shouldn’t music be?
The Golden Age Of Wireless is far more than a snapshot of a mad scientist’s infatuation—it’s an adventure through space and time. Due to the album’s willingness to break away from traditional song structures and tell captivating stories in an experimental manner, one might even call it “poetry in motion.” After listening to it the whole way through, you won’t feel blinded, but enlightened.