“Science!”: It’s 2017, and we’re still marching to Thomas Dolby’s enduring ’80s synth-pop hit

By on April 24, 2017

Future post-apocalyptic dieselpunk sound wizard Thomas Dolby is featured in this special episode of Video Flash Tracks, featuring his quirky 80s synth-pop hit “She Blinded Me with Science,” ostensibly about a mad scientist falling in love with his lab assistant although the song seems to have taken on a new meaning of late. The episode originally aired on November 12, 1988, and we now have it streaming for our subscribers over on Night Flight Plus.

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This this past Saturday — April 22, 2017, the 47th Anniversary of the first Earth Day — hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens gathered together in what was billed as “The March for Science.”

The protestors — some dressed up in white lab coats — were carrying all kinds of great signs, marching in support of science, access to education and public funding of research, among several other causes and concerns.

They gathered in more than six hundred cities and towns on six continents — and even a handful of scientists gathered in Antarctica — but here in the United States, most marched in response to what organizers and attendees see as increasing attacks on science and dread over possible looming budget cuts by the Trump administration to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health, not to mention the Trump administration’s skepticism about the cause of climate change and other science-related concerns.

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In Washington, D.C., a huge crowd stood in the rain and listened to scientists, professors, environmental leaders and celebrity science heroes like Bill Nye (The Science Guy) give speeches.

They also listened to musicians perform songs too, including Thomas Dolby — who appeared onstage in a long duster, and a cap with aviator goggles, looking like some kind of dieselpunk-ish Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventor-type chap — performing his early 80s hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.”

Dolby modified the synth-pop hit’s lyrics slightly for the day’s events, changing the last verse’s “she blinded me with science” to I believe in science!

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Seeing Dolby performing his biggest hit seems like it was a nice break in the action for the participants on hand, many of whom danced in the rain while Dolby performed.

Then, everyone marched off, from the Washington Monument down Constitution Avenue, to the foot of the Capitol building.

For those concerned protestors, there’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot of voices still need to be raised, of course, but at least we know there might always be at least one familiar 80s hit serving as a soundtrack to accompany these type of festivities, and a reminder that some songs from that decade continue to stay current in one way or another despite being released more than thirty-five years ago.

Science!

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Thomas Dolby was born Thomas Morgan Robertson on October 14, 1958, in London, England.

His parents were both archeologists and professors: his mother was an algebra teacher, and his father was was an internationally distinguished professor of classical Greek art and archeology at the University of London and Oxford University.

Some sources, online and otherwise, have claimed that Dolby was born in Cairo, Egypt, but that turns out not have been true; the error appeared in early press releases that Dolby may have had a hand in writing (and our Pat Prescott repeated the “alternative fact” in our Video Flash Tracks episode as well).

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The Robertsons traveled extensively as family, staying for long periods of time in France, Italy and Greece, and little Thomas, no matter where they were living, was always given piano lessons at whatever boarding school he happened to be attending.

By the time he was a teenager, Dolby had not only begun to show an aptitude for music, but he’d also become fascinated with electronics, tinkering with everything from ham radios and crystal radio sets to homemade computers.

He liked messed around with just about anything that could be built from a kit, especially those that were used to create or capture sounds.

Dolby especially liked experimenting with tape machines, which may be one reason why friends nicknamed him “Dolby,” dubbing him with the surname of sound designer Ray Dolby, who created the noise-reduction technology for audiotapes, patented by Dolby Laboratories.

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Thomas Robertson later began using the name as a stage name, perhaps to avoid confusion with British singer Tom Robinson, who was popular at the same time.

The Dolby Laboratories eventually tried to get him to change it after he had his first hits, but a court case was decided that the company had no right to restrict Dolby from using it as a stage name, just as long as he never released any electronic equipment bearing the name Dolby.

By the time he was studying at a university, he realized was bored by academic pursuits, and more interested in pursuing a career in music than he was in getting any kind of college degree.

Dolby dropped out and began working as a sound engineer and providing the PA system (which he built himself) for a handful of new wave and punk acts, including the Fall, the Passions, the Members, and the UK Subs.

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Dolby was also very interested in the use of synthesizers, particularly synth-driven sounds accompanied by a heavy electro Euro-techno drumbeats, like those he’d heard in tracks by Kraftwerk (“They were the first to truly let machines be machines, and celebrate their inanimacy,” Dolby would say later).

A concert by the band Throbbing Gristle, in a basement club in 1977, had a profound effect on him, because he was always drawn to bands who were doing something different, and unexplored.

Remember, this was a time when most rock bands, punk or otherwise, were still focusing on the guitar (early 70s-era progressive rock acts had certainly introduced synths to their musical oeuvre but synths still weren’t an instrument that a lot of new artists were using, not yet).

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Dolby’s main inspiration during the 1970s, it should come as no surprise, was Brian Eno, and much like Eno, his curious interests led to learning the art of record producing, and that led to him building a very high-tech recording studio in his own home.

Dolby’s talents on synth led to him to joining Bruce Woolley’s artsy post-punk band, the Camera Club, which also featured Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Matthew Seligman.

He eventually left that outfit to join Lene Lovich’s band, acting as her producer and writing her 1981 UK hit “New Toy.”

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We first became aware of Dolby as a musical artist on his own after the inclusion of his gloriously beautiful “Airwaves” track appeared on a compilation called From Brussels with Love.

The cassette-only rarity featured an interview with Brian Eno along with a mix of musical performances, including those by John Foxx (of Ultravox), Bill Nelson (of Be Bop Deluxe) and various artists associated with Eno’s Obscure Records: Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, as well as many others.

Those of us who purchased that compilation tape were very interested to see what Dolby was going to do next, and that turned out to be a 7-inch single (“Urges“/”Leipzig“) for the Armageddon Records imprint, a label who were putting on singles by 1/2 Japanese, the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock and other interesting artists.

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These early recordings — while showing that Dolby likely never planned to be a mainstream pop artist in the first place — promised that Dolby would be an artist to watch.

Beginning in 1981, and for the next several years, Dolby would release recordings on his own label, Venice in Peril, which distributed by EMI.

It was just a matter of time before Dolby’s desire to make music on his own overshadowed working behind the scenes on other artists (although he would continue to produce a lot of interesting artists and band during the first several years of his solo career, including Whodini’s “Magic Wand,” a track written and produced by Dolby which became one of the first million-selling rap singles — read more about that here).

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In the fall of ’81, Dolby had signed with Parlophone Records in the UK, which had happened shortly after MTV went on the air on August 1, 1981.

His first single, “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” barely missed the Top Forty, topping out at #62 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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It was around this same time Dolby began to see that music videos could be like “short silent films with a soundtrack,” which is how he later described it in his own autobiography, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir.

Dolby began to cultivate the persona of a somewhat deranged “mad scientist,” someone who had been able to harness the power of synthesizers and samplers and what-not and turn them into instruments for creating genius pop songs.

The dieselpunk costumes, the round spectacles and aviator googles all seemed like something an inventor or scientist in a novel by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells might have worn, looking more like a turn of the century throwback to a time when the futuristic 21st Century — let alone the 1980s — still seemed out of reach.

Dolby has more recently described his own music, by the way, as “post-apocalyptic dieselpunk.”

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In Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Dolby tells the authors that he realized he was never going to be Simon Le Bon or Adam Ant, and he needed a persona, and it wasn’t a stretch for his to portray a young scientist.

Dolby — who fancied himself a filmmaker at the time — also persuaded his record label into letting him direct a video to show off this wacky mad scientist character, and conceived and storyboarded the ideas for the video even before he’d written a single note of the novelty-ish pop song.

That song was, of course, “She Blinded Me with Science,” one of the tracks that would appear on his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, released in the summer of ’82. Watch the full video here.

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That same year, Dolby told Creem magazine writer Michael Goldberg that he thought “She Blinded Me with Science” was “the most meaningless song I’ve ever written.”

“It’s about a sort of fuddy-duddy old scientist who gets obsessed with his lab assistant. When I made that song, it was with the thought in my head that people were finding my music too demanding, and that maybe I should let loose and make a record that was basically nonsense like everything else on the charts. And it’s just a sad reflection on the state of things that it was successful.”

Most of you of a certain age who are reading this will likely recall that the video — which Dolby directed himself — was set in the English countryside, and Dolby plays his “mad scientist” character who pays a visit to a fictional Home for Deranged Scientists (we certainly hope it’s fictional!).

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Dolby meets quite a lot of interested characters in the video, including a crazy-eyed elderly man who appears to be playing croquet with a pool cue.

You’ll also recall that the video featured a sexy Japanese lab assistant, Miss Sakamoto: the line “Good heavens Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful” is a reference to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s wife Akiko Yano, who was in the studio at the time (she had previously sung backing on “Radio Silence”).

(Dolby told Tannenbaum and Marks that he was “boldy ahead of the times in fetishizing Asian women”).

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Dolby’s own father — at the time he was a professor of classical archeology at Oxford University — also puts in an appearance, as an archeologist on jet-propelled rollerskates.

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After undergoing shock treatment, Dolby is also counseled by a very serious-looking elderly man in a white lab coat who cries out “Science!”

That serious man was played by the late Magnus Pyke, an eccentric TV personality and actual scientist who, in the 1970s, used to host a show called “Don’t Ask Me.”

Pyke — who ran a school that Dolby’s sister attended — was likely unknown to most American viewers, but nevertheless his outburst has stood the test of time and become of the more memorable music video moments of the 1980s.

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Pyke would later curse out Dolby a few year later because, as he told him a few years later, people would walk up behind him in the streets of America and shout “Science!,” and Dolby told Tannebaum and Marks that Pyke “was a man of accomplishment, and he was annoyed by that.”

“Blinded Me with Science” reached its peak position of #5 on the charts in America on May 14, 1983, while only charting at #31 in the UK.

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The Golden Age of Wireless also featured appearances by some of the more interesting people making music in the early 80s, including Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, Andy Partridge of XTC and even mega-producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, on backing vocals.

Amid his own recordings and productions at this same time (including gorgeous albums by Prefab Sprout), Dolby also found time to play synthesizer with a handful of mainstream acts, appearing on major albums by Foreigner (4) and Deff Leppard (Pyromania) — both were being produced by Mutt Lange, if you’re wondering about the connection — as well as Joan Armatrading’s Walk Under Ladders.

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In February of 1984, Dolby would release an album of moody, atmospheric tunes, The Flat Earth, which seemed to many like a clear attempt by Dolby to get away from the successful and somewhat quirky pop of his debut album.

Dolby rushed the album out after only completing seven songs to his satisfaction, due to having to run off to the U.S. to do a tour for his breakthrough hit “She Blinded Me With Science.”

One of the jarring moments on the album comes in the “mood whiplash,” where Dolby’s haunting cover of Dan Hicks’ smooth and jazzy “I Scare Myself” is followed abruptly by the loud, frenetic “Hyperactive” — a track released as a single, and featured here in our Video Flash Tracks profile — which was one of the few tracks to feature the hard dance beats and synth-pop sounds of his first album.

(The line “This ain’t no rap attack” is a shout-out to Whodini’s “Magic’s Wand”).

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The Flat Earth Society, by the way, was the name adopted by Thomas Dolby’s fan club, and various website forums, and in 2009, the name was used for an organization who believe, somewhat unbelievably at this point, that the earth really is flat.

The UK-based Flat Earth Society’s president Daniel Shenton even credits Thomas Dolby’s 1984 album with giving him the idea to start the organization, and in 2010, Shenton told the Guardian UK that he “ended up believing its ideas were true.”

Even though Dolby himself does not hold the same belief — he believes in “Science!” — he accepted Shenton’s offer of becoming their first honorary member (he’s member #00001), although we’re pretty sure that he was just being nice about the offer and truly believes in “Science!”

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Not true

It was acutely clear to most listeners (certainly most rock critics) that Dolby really aspired to do soundtrack work, and within a few years that’s exactly what he’d be focusing on.

Some of the projects he worked on, in hindsight, weren’t exactly great career moves, depending on your opinion of George Lucas’s Howard the Duck (1986) and Ken Russell’s campy Gothic (1986).

By the end of the 1980s, Dolby had moved to Los Angeles, got married (to Kathleen Beller, an actress who was a regular on TV’s “Dynasty”) and he collaborated with a wide variety of recording artists, including Ryuichi Sakamoto and George Clinton, who Dolby met backstage at a taping of “Saturday Night Live” — Dolby’s 1988 collaboration “Hot Sauce” is also featured in our Video Flash Tracks profile.

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Dolby also began consulting with Silicon Valley tech companies, offering up ideas and working with a programmer to develop a program called Max.

He realized that he could create his own software, and slowly moved away from the music business, who weren’t that excited about paying to put out any more of his albums (Dolby says: “I got my wrists slapped for not trotting out a bunch of synth-pop hits.”)

Dolby eventually shifted focus away from recording and producing again, and founded a startup company, Headspace, that innovated the internet’s use of sound, bringing polyphonic ringtones to cellphones.

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In 1999, Headspace, Inc. was renamed Beatnik, Inc., and now specializes in a polyphonic ringtone software synthesizer which Nokia embeds in its mobile phones (it’s licensed to other mobile phone manufacturers too).

He also created a social network-based videogame called “The Floating City,” a reference to his solar-and-wind powered studio built aboard a 1930s lifeboat, the Nutmeg of Consolation, which he bought on eBay for $2200, and it resides in East Anglia, on the Eastern coast of England.

He’s also released a full-length album of “Dieselpunk dystopia,” A Map of the Floating City, and “The Gate To The Mind’s Eye”, the third installment of the CGI collection, The Mind’s Eye.

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In 1992, Dolby was back with a new album of recordings, Astronauts & Heretics, on a new label (Virgin), but it seemed that he hadn’t quite gotten the idea of working on films and videos out of his system, although he was quite certain that short music videos were already played out.

According to Night Flight contributor Chris Morris, who reported on the Billboard Music Video Conference and Awards, held back in late November of 1992, Dolby said that the short form music video format “has been used up,” and he would have liked “the opportunity to something in a longer form, like ten or fifteen minutes.” (“Artists Put Vid Biz Under Lens,” Billboard magazine, November 28, 1992).

In 2001, Dolby began serving as the Music Director for the annual TED Conference event in Long Beach, California, bringing in musical acts to peform each year and collaborating with them too, people like Mark Knopfler and Regina Spektor.

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Thomas Dolby, photo by Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

Dolby eventually stepped down from his position as CEO of Beatnik Inc. to pursue other technologically innovative interests, such as founding Retro Ringtones LLC in 2002.

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In 2012, Dolby toured with a portable video recording/streaming media studio, the “Time Capsule,” an aluminum- and brass-plated travel trailer with a roof-mounted brass ray gun, a satellite dish, and barred copper portholes.

Parked outside whatever venue Dolby was playing, fans can go inside and leave a 30-second message to their descendants, future historians, or even alien archaeologists, long after we’re gone.

The sepia-toned videos they created — which have a kind of turn of the 20th century look — were automatically uploaded and save to this website.

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Since 2013, Thomas Dolby has been a Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University, a teaching job that combines music and technology, film studies and independent filmmaking — which he was given after the staff felt — who told him they were fans of his self-directed music video for “She Blinded Me With Science” — decided he was a good choice to lead their new music and technology initiative.

Dolby will help create a new center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.

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This Video Flash Tracks episode also features extra coverage on White Lion and Level 42. Watch it all now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.