Even as Thomas Dolby got set to release A Map of the Floating City, his first album of new music in almost 20 years, his sound somehow remained both associated with the MTV era, and almost completely unbound by it.
“If you’re right,” Dolby tells us, “it’s because everything is built from the song’s foundation. It tended to be the song itself that really drove those choices.”
Today, Dolby offers unique insights into five of those songs. He takes us inside sessions with Foreigner, where keyboard work on an early-1980s ballad helped fund Dolby’s debut album – home to his breakout moment, “She Blinded Me With Science.”
Find out how a meeting with Michael Jackson inspired the song “Hyperactive,” and how his longtime working relationship with Mutt Lange led to an improbable sideman date with Def Leppard.
Oh, and yeah, we talk about the weird dude yelling “Science!” …
“OCEANEA” (A MAP OF THE FLOATING CITY, 2011): An intriguing return for Dolby, after nearly two decades away from the music business. This was released as the title track on the second of three EPs – along with “Simone” and “To The Lifeboats” – which will eventually be combined into the forthcoming long player called A Map of the Floating City. Dolby, who is joined here by vocalist Eddi Reader, boasts a sound here that is homey and surprisingly organic, especially in a period when the textures and techniques of the 1980s are coming back into vogue. There’s even some nifty acoustic guitar work by Kevin Armstrong.
Thomas Dolby: I can’t really keep track of those things. I hadn’t really noticed that the 1980s were back, actually. (Laughs.) I seem to flip flop between people saying your sound is synonymous with the 1980s, and people saying it sounds like contemporary music. Emotionally, it’s a much more mature album. I think, looking back at the early days, I had tended to flex a musical muscle, rather than working from the inside out. As you get older, you start thinking that life is too short.
“WAITING FOR A GIRL LIKE YOU,” with Foreigner (4, 1981): The song’s memorable synthesizer theme was added by Dolby, who ended up dropping in on a series of sometimes surprising dates over the next few years. After this No. 2 Billboard hit, Dolby also appeared on Def Leppard’s smash 1983 Pyromania project – performing under the pseudonym Booker T. Boffin – then with David Bowie at Live Aid and later on Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 album Heaven on Earth, among many other projects. The Foreigner 4 sessions, which also included the No. 4 hit “Urgent,” helped underwrite Dolby’s debut, 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless.
Dolby: It basically paid for my album. I worked on Foreigner 4 for a month, and the band paid me a daily rate. I came back with pocketful of cash, and used it to bankroll that whole project. Mutt Lange was also the producer on the Def Leppard project. He brought me in to add some music. It was totally different – brief, really. Just gilding the lily, adding a bit of texture. I wasn’t featured the way I had been on “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” It’s stimulating to work in new genres like that, though. It forces me to dig deep, and find a different way to do things. I’m not a person who likes to be pigeonholed. At the same time, it was nerve-wracking – and inspiring – to work in such different styles.
“HYPERACTIVE” (THE FLAT EARTH, 1984): Dolby’s biggest hit in his native Britain, this song rose to No. 17 on the UK Singles Chart, and No. 16 in Canada, but only reached No. 62 in the U.S. Now part of Grand Theft Auto video game lore, Dolby wrote the song with Michael Jackson in mind.
Dolby: I met Michael when I was doing the video for “She Blinded Me With Science,” and we got to be friendly. He invited me to visit in California, and it was a fascinating experience. He was about to start work on a Jacksons album, and asked me if I had some ideas. On the way back home, I created the groove for “Hyperactive.” I sent it over to him with a rough vocal, and then didn’t hear anything for a while. When I finally did, all he said was: “I like the drums.” So, I recorded it myself. That a younger audience finds its way into your music through the game is encouraging. Obviously, there is a core audience that have grown up with my music, for whom I’m very grateful. But at the same time, it would be nice to have some fans still alive in 30 years. (Laughs.)
“WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN,” with Prefab Sprout (STEVE McQUEEN, 1984): A smart, synth-washed No. 25 hit in the UK for Prefab Sprout, this Dolby-produced single never charted in America, though it has been covered by artists as diverse as the Zombies and Lisa Stansfield. Like much of Steve McQueen, which was renamed Two Wheels Good in the U.S., this song’s shimmery, impossibly lush context masks a series of impeccably crafted lyrics by the underrated songwriter Paddy McAloon, who remains a key confidant for Dolby.
Dolby: He’s just one of those people who doesn’t like to go around, a problem that the band shared with XTC. In order to crack in the U.S., you have to be willing to tour. That was just something you had to do. “Nothing New Under The Sun” (from Dolby’s new sequence of songs) sounds a lot like the Spouts, in some ways. We’ve influenced each other a lot, not only when we were working together, but ongoing. I talk to him maybe twice a year. We hold each other in very high esteem. When I’m working, I might think: “What would Paddy do here?”
“SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE” (THE GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS, 1982): This song had the opposite trajectory of Dolby’s subsequent tune “Hyperactive,” hitting in the U.S. (where it reached No. 5), but just barely getting into the Top 50 in Britain. In the music video, Dolby commits himself to a Home for Deranged Scientists, where British scientist Magnus Pyke (as the home doctor) tries to diagnose his ailment — all the while being seduced by Miss Sakamoto, a secretary. The track is perhaps most famous for sampling blurted interjections from Pyke. To this day, Dolby says people approach him and yell: “Science!”
Dolby: They do. Even more amusing, really, was that they used to do it to Magnus Pyke, who found it very upsetting. He always thought of himself as a serious scientist. When he went to record the song with us, he was a BBC celebrity – but it was on a science program (a question-and-answer show called Don’t Ask Me). He’d written books (notably, The Science Myth). After that, when he’d travel to places like New York, people would go up and yell that. It disturbed him quite a bit. (Laughs uproariously.)