Album of the Week, July 27: The Golden Age of Wireless by Thomas Dolby

DolbyGAWThomas Morgan Robertson was born in London in 1955. He learned to sight-read by the age of 10 as he taught himself folk guitar. He soon moved on to piano as he developed an interest in jazz. By the mid-70s, he began a life-long passion for the power of electronic music after buying a home synthesizer kit. His fascination with keyboards and tapes earned him the nickname “Dolby.” As he began a music career, he adopted this as his stage name, partly to avoid confusion with British rocker Tom Robinson. Despite early press kits identifying him as Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson, the Dolby has always been a nickname and stage name.

The newly minted Thomas Dolby worked with a number of bands, playing keyboards as a member of Camera Club and Fallout Club. He worked as a session musician, notably with early Thompson Twins and Lene Lovich (for whom he wrote the single New Toy.) His big break came when he was hired to provide keyboards for the sessions and supporting tour for Foreigner’s monster album, 4; his compelling keyboards on Urgent and haunting synth washes on Waiting For A Girl Like You earned him enough money to take his time in recording his own debut album. The result of that effort is one of the most praised and best-lasting tributes to the power of synth-based pop, The Golden Age of Wireless.

Title The Golden Age of Wireless
Act Thomas Dolby
Label Harvest / EMI Release Date March 1982
Producer Thomas Dolby, Tim Friese-Greene
U.S. Chart  13 U.K. Chart  65
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Flying North
  2. Commercial Breakup
  3. Weightless
  4. Europa and the Pirate Twins [#67]
  5. Windpower
  6. The Wreck of the Fairchild
  7. Airwaves
  8. Radio Silence
  9. Cloudburst At Shingle Street
  10. One of Our Submarines
  11. She Blinded Me With Science [#5]
  12. Radio Silence (Guitar Version)
  13. Urges
  14. Leipzig

GAOWAlternateThe Golden Age of Wireless has gone through a dizzying array of releases and track listings — two in the UK and three in the US between its original 1982 release and its late 1984 CD release — with two different covers. The 14-track listing above is from the 2009 bonus edition on CD, assembled with Dolby’s supervision and assistance, and includes all the songs included on the five versions. Tracks 1 – 9 comprise the original release; notes on the sources and versions of the tracks are included in the review below.

Things kick off powerfully with Flying North, one of the finest songs in Dolby’s catalog. Based on his unusual fear of flying — he worries about planes breaking the bonds of gravity rather than crashing — it’s a haunting, emotive song. Firmly belying the myth of the cold synth track, Flying North is a passionate ode to our home planet and all its powers, blended beautifully with a compelling mixture of very human emotion. More prosaic but no less compelling, Commercial Breakup arises from a story of Franz Schubert mixing social time with his efforts to compose. It features a nice use of sampling and shows off Dolby’s studio wizardry to great effect.

Weightless turns its title concept inside-out, focusing on the hollowness that can define some people. Empty at the core, they have nothing to bind them to humanity. Dolby turns in an especially fine vocal on this one, showing off his stylistic range as he whispers, growls, bellows, and croons. Europa and the Pirate Twins is a lovely story song, based loosely on a former girlfriend. It’s a wonderful tale of innocence crashing against reality and the powers of both nostalgia and fame. Windpower is another track that blends technology, environmental themes, and the basics of humanity into a compelling ode to alternative power sources. The evocative synth work underscores a strong vocal, creating a mysterious, compelling track that is essential Dolby. Windpower is one of the songs subjected to alternate versions, with one US release featuring a sadly truncated version.

Wreck of the Fairchild is a quirky, experimental song, featured only on the original UK release of the album. Dolby frequently uses his fascination with historical events and characters as backdrops for his songs. This track is based on the crash of rugby team’s plane in the Andes and features background recitations by a retired Argentinian pilot. It’s a nice look at the way Dolby constructs a song and a fun mid-disc diversion.

Airwaves is a brilliant look at our dependency on rapid communication and the effort to remain true to ourselves in the modern world. It’s a strong track (also sadly butchered on two of the US releases) that features some amazing layered electronics and a soulful vocal. Radio Silence also featured in two versions. It was originally recorded with a strong guitar lead (track 12) but Dolby and collaborator Daniel Miller felt it was too “rock” for the album, so he created a synth-based version (track 8). An homage to pirate radio and musical diversity, it’s a wonderful song with a jerky chorus that conjures up the drifting signal. I’ve always favored the guitar version, which has more grit and energy, well suited to the themes.

Cloudburst At Shingle Street closes out the original album. It’s an ode to a beach that Dolby frequented, littered with the remains of concrete bunkers. A chilling but celebratory ode to the decay of human endeavor — and our best efforts to rise from the rubble — it shows off all of Dolby’s musical genius in a thrillingly crafted package.

The first US release dropped the Fairchild in favor of both sides of Dolby’s first single. Urges is a brilliant song, blending very earthy images and impulses with an almost detached electronic musical background. The use of harmonica demonstrates Dolby’s musical flexibility and is perfectly suited to the song. Leipzig is a charming, mysterious song that shows off the many sounds that he sampled while planning his debut. Later editions on both sides of the Atlantic were altered to include both sides of his monster hit, She Blinded Me With Science. A brilliant slice of snyth-pop, it shows off Dolby’s sense of history, music, and humor all in one delightful package. It’s also one of his finest moments debunking the myth that technology and passion are necessarily separate. It features with an extended drum-machine solo from the US 12″ mix on some editions and the leaner, more delightful single version on most pressings. Also taken from that 12″, One of Our Submarines is a tribute to the rarely necessary folly of military action, a chilling song of loss that surges with quiet power.

Mixing potent guitar and a wide array of traditional rock instruments with his stunning command of keyboards and samplers, Thomas Dolby shattered the barriers of modern pop music. While more typical synth-pop based on dance rhythms and simple instrumentation would continue to dominate the airwaves, the techniques that he pioneered inspired a wave of creativity. His clever mastery of his instruments, insightful lyrics, and wry sense of humor mixed to create a masterpiece. Justifiably lauded as “The best damned synth-pop record ever, period,” in Musician, it rises above even that praise to stand as a fine, unique piece of craftsmanship, one with a keen mind and a passionate heart.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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