Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
What was the golden age of The Golden Age Of Wireless? In 1982, Thomas Dolby’s debut album came out in U.K. for the first time, as a nine-song set: opening with the surging, stirring “Flying North,” and ending with a complex four-song suite that explored history, communication, and technology. But when Dolby’s U.S. label Harvest released The Golden Age Of Wireless later that year, it did what so many other American imprints have done with British imports, creating a new version of the record with what it considered to be the best available songs. Harvest replaced side-two opener “The Wreck Of The Fairchild” with Dolby’s 1981 British single “Urges” (and its B-side “Leipzig”), then chose alternate versions of two other tracks and shuffled the order, kicking off the album with the equally driving “Europa And The Pirate Twins.”
Then Dolby recorded a new song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Released as a single in the U.K., it became a surprise hit. Since the U.S. Golden Age Of Wireless hadn’t really taken off yet, Harvest’s parent company Capitol-EMI wrested control of the project and re-released the album in 1983, adding “Science” as the new opener and another new song, “One Of Our Submarines.” In the process, “Urges” and “Leipzig” were re-dropped, and Capitol messed with the running order and the choice of song versions yet again. Dolby’s U.K. label Venice In Peril (also affiliated with EMI) followed suit, effectively copying the American Wireless’ set list, again with some slight differences as to which edits or takes it used.
Today, anyone who wants to hear The Golden Age Of Wireless can buy a special edition CD or digital download that has pretty much everything associated with the album: The nine-song original, the singles that were tacked on later, the alternate versions that American label execs thought would be more appealing stateside (for no clear reason, honestly), and even a few era-appropriate outtakes and demos. This is great for Dolby fans, as well as for anyone who wants to hear some of the most forward-thinking and classically catchy pop music of the 1980s. But something ineffable has been lost. The Golden Age Of Wireless was a broadly popular album, showing up in the tape, vinyl, and CD collections of people who otherwise had zero interest in New Wave or electronic music. For Dolbyphiles, it was always a kick to find a friend’s copy of Wireless and give it a listen, just to see which version it was.
The record showed up in so many places because of “She Blinded Me With Science”—the best and the worst thing ever to happen to Dolby. The success of that song is why he is still tagged as a “one-hit wonder,” in the same company as After The Fire and Men Without Hats, when he was actually a crafty songwriter and a studio wizard. It’s not that “Science” is a bad song. It’s legitimately funky and kind of funny, with a hook that’s hard to shake. But it’s a novelty number, plain and simple; and that wasn’t really Dolby’s style.
In retrospect, if any belatedly tacked-on Golden Age Of Wireless song had to become a left-field smash, it might’ve been better for Dolby if it had been “One Of Our Submarines.” That one’s truer to his aesthetic, and to his thematic preoccupations, with its faintly melancholy synthesizers, complex rhythms, and imagery from old British war movies. Or if only pop fans worldwide had been suitably captivated by “Leipzig,” an homage to old world Europe that evokes early 20th-century technology even as it’s employing state-of-the-art machines.
In a way, Dolby suffered some for not being gimmicky. He had a distinctive look—half absent-minded 1950s professor, half futuristic MTV VJ—and he later became an inadvertent steampunk icon due to the way so many of his songs fused a fascination with a fading past with the polish of the new. But he always fashioned himself as a pop songwriter who just happened to use cutting-edge technology, and not as a “techno-pop” act per se.
Dolby explained to The A.V. Club back in 2005:
It’s ironic really, because people like myself started using electronics in popular music and got a lot of accusations from music fans and critics that electronics are inherently soulless, that machines weren’t capable of making soulful music. And the irony of it is that any instrument can make soulful music if it comes from the soul. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Stradivarius or a synclavier. You can make soulless music with a Stradivarius. So I found myself being on my back foot quite often, defending the use of electronics in music, saying, “Well, listen, it doesn’t have to sound that way.” And I think eventually, people came around to it. From the early ’90s onward, interest in electronica in general grew, and there was a certain appreciation for the purity of an electronic sound. Whole genres of music have made an altar out of that electronic sound. But I was never really in that bag. I think I’m fundamentally a songwriter, and I could play a lot of my songs with just piano and voice. Wouldn’t be my choice, but I could. I use electronics to enrich and enhance the textures and the atmosphere. I’m not really into the sound of electronics for its own sake. Never have been.
That’s evident in a lot of the collaborations and work-for-hire that Dolby took on in the early ’80s. At a time when synthesizers were either used to add some modernist texture to arena rock (where they sounded like “a crate of moribund wasps,” according to Dolby) or to give bubblegum pop more immediate ear-appeal, Dolby endeavored to show the range of tools he had in his electronic workshop. He played synths for Foreigner on the yearning ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” gave hip-hoppers Whodini a wiggly vibe on “Magic’s Wand,” and produced the lush, mature albums of Prefab Sprout. Rather than hanging out with Gary Numan, Dolby befriended Robyn Hitchcock and XTC’s Andy Partridge. He had eclectic tastes, and an affinity for art-pop eccentrics.
This might’ve been clearer to the larger community of critics and tastemakers had the original version of The Golden Age Of Wireless survived all of the label efforts to retrofit it. It’s not a flawless album. “The Wreck Of The Fairchild” is actually something of a dud, and was rightfully ditched at first opportunity. But the nine-song Wireless is at least a coherent statement of purpose, akin to British New Wave classics like OMD’s Dazzle Ships and XTC’s Black Sea.
First and foremost, the record bursts with sweet melodies, without ever seeming cloying or like it’s trying too hard. Dolby fills songs like “Commercial Breakup” and “Radio Silence” with cool sounds and strange effects—including a snippet of The Price Is Right in the former—but he also makes sure they work just as snappy, uptempo rock ’n’ roll, with guitars and background singers and everything. With “Radio Silence” (one of the songs that Harvest thought would play better for American audiences with a more guitar-driven mix), Dolby also uses static and disconnection as a metaphor for personal relationships, in a way that feels effortless and right, not heavy-handed.
The Golden Age Of Wireless continues in that vein with “Wind Power” and “Airwaves,” two songs that intentionally sound like they’re being transmitted from substations after the collapse of society. Dolby didn’t write science-fiction songs per se, and he didn’t describe dystopias or try to bum people out the way that some of his synth-heavy colleagues did during the height of the Cold War. But he did spin fantastical visions, with dreamy melodies and burbling electronic effects unlike anything anyone had heard before.
The best songs on the album are the two that took turns as the starter, before “Science” took over. “Europa And The Pirate Twins” is sweepingly romantic and deeply sad, applying what only seems like an uplifting synthesizer line to the story of old friends driven apart by strange circumstances. And “Flying North” is equally complex, with its grand, dramatic orchestration sounding far more optimistic than Dolby’s nervous lyrics and vocals. Both of these songs are pretty far removed from that song about the scientist who gets flummoxed by his pretty new secretary. There’s a sophistication there, steamrolled by the big hit.
Weep not for Dolby. He followed up Golden Age with another terrific album, The Flat Earth, which produced the dance floor favorite (and minor hit) “Hyperactive!” He then continued to toy with integrating electronics into more traditional rock and pop music as a producer and guest sideman. He’s said that his output slackened after The Flat Earth because he’s just not that prolific a songwriter. If he’s not inspired, what can he do?
Plus, it’s not like Dolby’s hurting for money. Even beyond “She Blinded Me With Science” royalties, Dolby has made a bundle from developing sounds and music-reproduction technologies for cell phones, video games, and the internet. His ultimate legacy will be his technological innovations as much as his records.
Still, just listen to one of Golden Age Of Wireless’ true originals, like the noir-inflected, mildly paranoid funk of “Weightless,” or the elegiac “Cloudburst At Shingle Street” (which always closes the album, in every configuration). The invention that Dolby brought to his tubes and wires is there in his bridges and choruses as well. There’s a lot of soul in those machines.