Thomas Dolby (real name Thomas Morgan Robertson) is perhaps best known to the average person as the musical performer who brought us the 1983 synthesizer anthem She Blinded Me With Science. However, his musical career has influenced a variety of acts and genres in a variety of ways.
Thomas Morgan Robertson was born to English parents in Cairo, Egypt, in 1958. His childhood was full of travel and world exposure; his father was an archaeologist who focused on Greek and Etruscan pottery and thus the family travelled frequently in Europe, Asia, and Africa. As a youth, Dolby was a poor student of everything but music. He was a great fan of the jazz masters of the era, especially Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. His love of jazz convinced him to experiment with the recordings, slowing them down to half speed to teach himself to play the piano by ear. Thus began a career of musical experimentation.
Given his interest in musical experimentation and a growing interest in electronics and how they manipulated sound, it was unsurprising that friends began to call him Dolby, in honor of Thomas Dolby, who developed a noise reduction system for recording. Eventually, he adopted this as his performing name and then dropped out of school at age 16 to pursue a career as a rock musician.
As a youth in London in the mid 1970s, he couldn't help but notice the burgeoning punk music scene in the city at the time. Unfortunately, the heavy rock sound of the scene at the time didn't mesh with Dolby, and he found himself playing the piano in nightclubs to make ends meet and develop a bit of new material. Eventually, his electronic-fueled sounds found a home in an offshoot of punk known as New Wave, where bands such as the Talking Heads and XTC were beginning to form in the late 1970s in London.
In 1979, after helping a number of New Wave bands get set up electronically, Dolby caught his break. He got a regular job playing keyboards for a local band called Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club. While with the band, he rigged a PPG Wave computer to coordinate synthesizers, drums, and lighting effects for the group's stage show, which made for a start down the electronic road he would follow in the 1980s.
In 1980, a song he penned called New Toy, performed by Lene Lovich, became a substantial hit in Britain. This caught the attention of the well known act Foreigner, who hired Dolby to play keyboard on their fourth album later in the year. Ever heard the song Urgent? Dolby was on the keyboards there. In fact, the international success of the song helped to legitimize the instrument in mainstream rock and roll. After playing on a handful of albums and demonstrating his talent and sound, Dolby signed a solo recording deal with Capitol in late 1981 and immediately went to the studio with his bag of tricks to record his debut album.
His debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, was released in March 1982. The songs were mostly introspective and highly experimental. It should be noted that for the first year, the song She Blinded Me With Science was not on the album; it was added to post-1983 pressings of the disc. The album was a moderate underground success, but nothing major. On the album, Dolby used a Micromoog synthesizer and a Roland JP4 polyphonic synthesizer, the first time these components had been used together in pop music, so from a technical perspective, it was fantastic.
Dolby's huge success came in late 1982, when Dolby released a five-song EP entitled Blinded By Science, along with a single and a video from it, She Blinded Me With Science. The video featured a remake of The Nutty Professor in a silent film variation with Dolby as the star; that, along with the unusual sound, kept the video in MTV's heavy rotation for several months in 1982 and 1983 and causing the EP to sell like hotcakes, peaking at number 5 on the Billboard charts in early 1983. She Blinded Me With Science sounded much different than Dolby's other songs, much more over the top.
Unfortunately, it would be his only mainstream hit. His 1984 follow-up album, The Flat Earth, returned Dolby to the sounds of his debut - sounds that didn't sell a whole lot of copies. Again, it was technically amazing, but again, it was full of introspective synth pop, something which didn't have a mainstream audience at the time (think OK Computer; Dolby's timing was just about fifteen years off). After the album and the resulting tour (which featured an eight piece band and gadgets galore), Dolby essentially dropped off of the face of the earth for a while.
He spent the next four years recording soundtracks (most notably for Howard The Duck) and occasionally appearing onstage, playing keyboards for other acts such as Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His supposed "comeback" album in 1988 (Aliens Ate My Buick) sounded much more like She Blinded Me With Science than his other two albums, but it was again a flop. He toured a bit in the Los Angeles club scene at the end of the 1980s, then disappeared until 1992's Astronauts & Heretics, which is probably his best album. It's a well-rounded mix of rambunctious She Blinded Me With Science-style synth pop and his more introspective style, this time with much less electronica. He then did a short tour essentially without any electronic accompaniment.
In 1994, Dolby released the soundtrack and video to The Gate To The Mind's Eye, which got some mainstream attention for its interesting computer animation. This is his last album to date; since then, he has become active on the internet with his elaborate website, http://www.thomasdolby.com, as well as founding the audio electronics company Beatnik.
His legacy comes from one great synth pop hit and a lot of technical innovations. Thomas Dolby helped to change the way that musicians use electronic elements in music and helped popularize the use of the keyboard in rock and roll.