In February of 1984 the second album by Thomas Dolby was released. His first album, 1982’s The Golden Age Of Wireless, was sensational. I thought it was a magnificent album.
Thomas Dolby was born as Thomas Morgan Robertson in 1958. Robertson got his nickname Dolby from his friends because he was always messing around with cassette tapes. Dolby refers to the noise reduction system by Dolby Laboratories which was used for the recording and playback of audio. Robertson chose his artist name Thomas Dolby to diffuse any misunderstanding with artist Tom Robinson.
In 1982 Thomas Dolby, marketed as some kind of genius wizard, debuted with the album The Golden Age Of Wireless. At the time I bought it (possibly at an enormous discount through my father’s friend who worked at EMI) and thought it was really good. She Blinded Me With Science in particular was impressive. Dolby did a lot of stuff on his own and used all kinds of electronics in a way I had rarely heard before. Record company EMI did all it could to market Dolby as a star, but the strategy didn’t really work, until, miraculously, the single She Blinded Me With Science turned into a huge hit in the United States.
The Flat Earth
The Flat Earth was released in February of 1984. Midway through recording the album, the single She Blinded Me With Science started to take off. Promotion for that single interrupted the recording sessions for his new album. Ultimately, the recordings that were done were elevated to album status: clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, The Flat Earth is sometimes referred to as a mini album.
Reactions to The Flat Earth were mixed. The album contained Hyperactive!, a song that was to prolong She Blinded Me With Science‘s success. However, it didn’t turn out as successful as Dolby and the record company had hoped. It did feel oddly out of place on the album as well, as the album had a more jazzy and organic (mature?) vibe when compared to its predecessor.
The entire A side of the album is superb. Dissidents is very electronic sounding, but differs greatly from The Golden Age Of Wireless with its Talking Heads-ish feel. Next are two beautiful mellower pieces. The second side opens with the poppy White City and is followed by Mulu The Rain Forest. A pretentious title, that doesn’t forebode anything good. At the time I thought it wasn’t that bad, but now as I listen back to it, it is rather bland. The next song is the complete opposite. At the time I didn’t care for I Scare Myself, even making me turn away from Dolby. Nowadays I enjoy the song which is a primary example of the jazzy pop that grew in popularity during those times (The Jam‘s Paul Weller would debut with his new band The Style Council in 1984).
As stated before, Hyperactive! is slightly out of place on the album. It wasn’t originally intended for use on the album, as Dolby had written it for Michael Jackson after they had met in 1982. When Jackson didn’t reply, Dolby decided to record the song himself. It is kind of a twin song to Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, the opener of Jackson’s Thriller album. In itself it is a fairly good 1980’s synth-funk song.
Listening back to the album, I do have some reservations regarding 1 or 2 songs, but the album still sounds surprisingly warm. Dolby’s steady session musicians do a really good job. The album’s production, done by Dolby, is crystal clear and has given the album its timeless character.
All songs written by Thomas Dolby, unless stated otherwise.
- Dissidents (Thomas Dolby, Kevin Armstrong, Matthew Seligman)
- The Flat Earth
- Screen Kiss
- White City
- Mulu the Rain Forest
- I Scare Myself (Dan Hicks)
- Kevin Armstrong – guitar, background vocals, trumpet
- Clif Brigden – percussion, electronic drums
- Thomas Dolby – piano, synthesizer, effects, vocals
- Matthew Seligman – bass
- Adele Bertei, Lesley Fairbairn, Robyn Hitchcock, Lu, Bruce Woolley – background vocals and texts
- Peter Thoms – trombone
- Matthew Salt – percussion
- Justin Hildreth – sampler
Preceding the album’s release, Hyperactive! was released as a single, hoping to cash in on the success of She Blinded Me With Science. I Scare Myself and Dissidents (The Search For Truth) were also released as a single. In Holland I Scare Myself was a modest hit.
After The Flat Earth
In 1988 Dolby released Aliens Ate My Buick, in 1992 followed by Astronauts & Heretics, upon which Dolby virtually vanished from the spotlights. In 2001 the live album Live: Forty was released in small numbers (only 1,000 copies were made). In 2006 he suddenly reappeared and went on a tour entitled The Sole Inhabitant, which was released as a live album under the same moniker. In 2009 his albums were re-released as remastered versions, containing extra songs and live recordings. Dolby was closely involved in those releases. In 2011 Dolby’s fifth album was released: A Map Of The Floating City, one year later followed by Live In Tokyo 2012.
In between his regular work, Dolby participated in many endeavors. Among them were accompanying David Bowie during Live Aid in 1985 and production work for Prefab Sprout and Whodini.
In 2018 Dolby received the Roland Liftetime Achievement Award. The award was implemented to ‘recognise individuals for their invaluable contributions to the music industry while using Roland gear throughout their careers’.
Despite his long and illustrious career and his proven proficiency on electronic musical instruments, Dolby is oftentimes regarded as a one-hit wonder, because of that one big hit at the beginning of his career.
Thomas Dolby’s fanclub was named The Flat Earth Society. A funny detail, especially now since the Flat Earth Society (a collection of people who are genuinely convinced the earth is in fact flat) is getting more and more attention. In 2009 Daniel Shenton restarted the Society. According to Shenton he used to believe the earth was round, until he heard Dolby’s The Flat Earth, which made him doubt his convictions. Nowadays he is a true ‘flat earther’. Apparently, Dolby is an honorary member with membership number 00001…
What do you think of Thomas Dolby’s second album? Let me know!
Thomas Dolby – Hyperactive! video image: youtube.com
Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth image: audiofilo.cl
Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth – Promo image: eil.com
Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth – Singles image: dutchcharts.nl
Thomas Dolby receives Roland Lifetime Achievement Award 2018 image: rolandus.com