Though he never had many hits, Thomas Dolby became one of the most recognizable figures of the synth pop movement of early-'80s new wave. This was largely due to his skillful marketing. Dolby promoted himself as a kind of mad scientist, an egghead who had successfully harnessed the power of synthesizers and samplers and used them to make catchy pop and light electro-funk. Before he launched a solo career, Dolby had worked as a studio musician, technician, and songwriter; his most notable work as a songwriter was "New Toy," which he wrote for Lene Lovich, and Whodini's "Magic's Wand." In 1981 he launched a solo career, which resulted in a number of minor hits and two big hits: "She Blinded Me with Science" (1982) and "Hyperactive" (1984). Following "Hyperactive," his career faded away, as he began producing more frequently, as well as exploring new synthesizer and computer technology. Dolby continued to record into the '90s, but by that time, he was strictly a cult act.
Dolby's interest in music arose through his interest in computers, electronics, and synthesizers. The son of a British archaeologist, Thomas Dolby (b. Thomas Morgan Robertson, October 14, 1958) originally attended college to study meteorology, but he was soon sidetracked by electronics, specifically musical equipment. He began building his own synthesizers when he was 18 years old. Around the same time, he began to learn how to play guitar and piano, as well as how to program computers. Eventually, his schoolmates gave him the nickname of "Dolby," which was the name for a noise-reduction technology for audiotapes; he would eventually take the nickname as a stage name.
In his late teens, Dolby was hired as a touring sound engineer for a variety of post-punk bands, including the Fall, the Passions, and the Members; on these dates, he would use a PA system he had built himself. In 1979 he formed the arty post-punk band Camera Club with Bruce Woolley, Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes, and Matthew Seligman. Within a year, he had left the group and joined Lene Lovich's backing band. Dolby gave Lovich his song "New Toy," which became a British hit in 1981. That same year he released his first solo single, "Urges," on the English independent label Armageddon. By the fall he had signed with Parlophone and released "Europa and the Pirate Twins," which nearly cracked the U.K. Top 40.
Dolby started playing synthesizer on sessions for other artists in 1982. That year he appeared on Foreigner's 4, Def Leppard's Pyromania, and Joan Armatrading's Walk Under Ladders. Also in 1982, he wrote and produced "Magic's Wand" for Whodini; the song became one of the first million-selling rap singles. Even with all of these achievements, 1982 was most noteworthy for the release of Dolby's first solo album, The Golden Age of Wireless, in the summer of 1982; the record reached number 13 in England, but was virtually forgotten in America. "Windpower," the first single from the record, became his first Top 40 U.K. hit in the late summer.
In January of 1983 Dolby released an EP, Blinded by Science, which included a catchy number called "She Blinded Me with Science" that featured a cameo vocal appearance by the notorious British eccentric Magnus Pike, who also appeared in the song's promotional video. Blinded by Science was a minor hit in England, but the EP and the single became major American hits in 1983, thanks to MTV's heavy airplay of the "She Blinded Me with Science" video. Eventually, the song reached number five on the U.S. charts and it was included on a re-sequenced and reissued version of The Golden Age of Wireless, which peaked at number 13 in America.
The Flat Earth, Dolby's second album, appeared in early 1984 and was supported by the single "Hyperactive." The single became his biggest U.K. hit, peaking at number 17. Though The Flat Earth reached number 35 on the U.S. charts, Dolby's momentum was already beginning to slow: none of the singles released from the album cracked the American Top 40. Nevertheless, Dolby was in demand as a collaborator and he worked with Herbie Hancock, Howard Jones, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and Dusty Springfield. In 1985 he produced Clinton's Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends, Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the U.S.), and Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog, as well as supporting David Bowie at Live Aid. Also in 1985, he began composing film scores, starting with Fever Pitch. In 1986 he composed the scores for Gothic and Howard the Duck, to which he credited himself as Dolby's Cube. That credit led to a lawsuit from the Dolby Labs, who eventually prohibited the musician from using the name "Dolby" in conjunction with any other name than "Thomas."
Aliens Ate My Buick, Dolby's long-delayed third album, appeared in 1988 to poor reviews and weak sales, even though the single "Airhead" became a minor British hit. That same year, Dolby married actress Kathleen Beller. For the rest of the late '80s and early '90s, he continued to score films, producing and building his own computer equipment. His fourth album, Astronauts & Heretics, was released in 1992 on his new label, Giant. Despite the presence of guest stars like Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ofra Haza, the album was a flop. The following year Dolby founded the computer software company Headspace, which released The Virtual String Quartet as its first program. For the rest of the '90s, Headspace occupied most of Dolby's time and energy. In 1994 he released The Gate to the Mind's Eye, a soundtrack to the videotape Mind's Eye. Also that year, Capitol released the greatest-hits collection Retrospectacle.
In 2003 he released the live album Forty, originally issued as a limited-edition, home-packaged, signed and numbered release (of which only 1,000 were pressed), although it was later pressed as a readily available CD. A tour of America would be documented on The Sole Inhabitant Live Concert, released in 2006. In 2009 The Singular Thomas Dolby collection would be released in conjunction with expanded reissues of The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth. A new studio album, A Map of the Floating City, followed in 2011, with guest appearances from Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, and others.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine