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Thomas Dolby (born Thomas Morgan Robertson; 14 October 1958) is an English musician and producer best known for his 1982 hit "She Blinded Me with Science" and 1984 single "Hyperactive!" He has also worked extensively in production and as a session musician, as a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, and as the Music Director for the TED Conference. He is currently a Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University.
Robertson was born in London, England, contrary to information in early 1980s press releases that reported his birthplace as Cairo, Egypt. His father, Martin Robertson, was an internationally distinguished professor of classical Greek art and archaeology at the University of London, Oxford University, and Cambridge University (Trinity College). In his youth Thomas lived or worked in France, Italy and Greece. He attended Abingdon School in 1975-1976, completing his A Levels while there. Thomas Dolby spoke of his early musical experiences in a 2012 interview:
"I sang in a choir when I was 10 or 11, and learned to sightread single lines, but other than that I don't have a formal education. I picked up the guitar initially, playing folk tunes--Dylan--then I graduated to piano when I got interested in jazz, listening to people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. The first electronic instruments started to become accessible in the mid-70s and I got my hands on a kit built synthesizer and never looked back."
He married actress Kathleen Beller in 1988; they have three children together.
The Thomas Dolby stage name originated from a nickname that he picked up around the early 1970s, when he was "always messing around with keyboards and tapes". His friends nicknamed him Dolby, from the name of an audio noise-reduction process from Dolby Laboratories used for audio recording and playback. Robertson chose to adopt the stage name "Thomas Dolby" to avoid confusion with British singer Tom Robinson, who was popular when Robertson began his career. Early publicity implied that "Dolby" was a middle name, and that the artist's full name was Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson; this is legally incorrect, but he does sometimes informally go by the initials TMDR.
After the release of "She Blinded Me With Science", Dolby Laboratories expressed concern regarding the musician's stage name. Dolby's record label refused to make him change his name, and Dolby Labs did not raise the issue again until later. After a lengthy legal battle, the court decided that Dolby Labs had no right to restrict the musician from using the name. It was agreed that the musician would not release any electronic equipment using the name. (Coincidentally, inventor/founder Dr. Ray Dolby had a son named Thomas, now a novelist professionally known as Tom Dolby.)
Solo music career:
Dolby is associated with the new wave movement of the early 1980s, a form of pop music incorporating electronic instruments, but Dolby's work covers a wide range of musical styles and moods distinct from the high-energy pop sound of his few, better-known commercial successes.
The Golden Age of Wireless:
Originally released in the UK and US including the songs "Europa and the Pirate Twins", "Airwaves", and "Radio Silence", the first releases of Dolby's first solo album, The Golden Age of Wireless (Harvest, 1982) did not include the album's signature hit, "She Blinded Me With Science". After the five-song EP "Blinded by Science" introduced the catchy single, The Golden Age of Wireless was re-released with the single that, combined with its accompanying video, became Dolby's most commercially successful single, reaching No. 5 on The Billboard Hot 100. The album was released a total of five times, each with changes in song order and included songs, or even including a different version of "Radio Silence" or extended remix of "She Blinded Me With Science".
Dolby's debut album, Wireless, peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Album Chart. It juxtaposed themes of radio technology, aircraft, and naval submarines with those of relationships and nostalgia. While much of the album's instrumentation is synthesizers and samplers, the album credits a long list of guest musicians as well, with instruments ranging from harmonica and violin to guitar and percussion.
"She Blinded Me with Science" included sound samples from Dr. Magnus Pyke. A short sample was included in the "Treehouse of Horror XIV" episode of The Simpsons, where Professor Frink was winning an award at a science convention. It was also sampled at a lower speed by the group Mobb Deep in the 2006 song "Got it Twisted". "She Blinded Me With Science" was also used as the theme song for the pilot episode of broadcast television sitcom The Big Bang Theory though it was not used for later episodes (it was, however, later used in that show as Howard's cell phone ringtone in the season 2 episode "The Vegas Renormalization" and season 3 episode "The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary").
Beginning in 1983, Dolby collaborated with a number of artists in an occasional studio-bound project called Dolby's Cube. The project had no set line-up, and was essentially a forum for Dolby to release material that was more dance-oriented. Dolby's Cube released a single in 1983 ("Get Out of My Mix"), another in 1985 ("May The Cube Be With You"), and performed soundtrack work for the film "Howard The Duck" in 1986. Collaborators in Dolby's Cube at various junctures included Lene Lovich, George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, Francois Kevorkian, and Lea Thompson.
The Flat Earth:
In 1984, Dolby released his second LP, The Flat Earth (Capitol), which peaked at No. 14 on the UK Albums Chart and at No. 35 on the Billboard Album Chart in the US. Utilizing a wide range of influences ranging from nostalgic Jazz, funk-tinged Motown R&B, and World Music, along with a strong electronic element and featuring a slew of guest musicians, including longtime Dolby collaborator Matthew Seligman on bass, Kevin Armstrong on guitar, and Cliff Brigden on percussion, and guest vocals from Robyn Hitchcock, Bruce Woolley and others, The Flat Earth further established Dolby's wide range of talents as musician, songwriter, and producer. The album also included a cover of the Dan Hicks song "I Scare Myself".
"Hyperactive!", originally written for Michael Jackson, was the first and most successful single from the album, peaking at No. 17 on the UK Singles Chart, making it Dolby's highest-charting single in his home country.
Aliens Ate My Buick:
In contrast to the overall introverted nature of The Flat Earth, Dolby's described his next release, Aliens Ate My Buick (1988) in the following quote: "I think it's very bold. Some people who've known my stuff from the beginning find it a bit hard to stomach. They think it's a bit brash. It's certainly unsubtle in a lot of ways. It goes for the jugular. There was always a side to the stuff that I did that was very extroverted and wacky. The flip side of the coin was the more atmospheric, moody stuff. There was always room for both of them. But this album, with the exception of maybe one song "Budapest by Blimp", is all on the extrovert side."
Aliens Ate My Buick was strongly funk and dance influenced. The first single was "Airhead", a satirical song about a stereotypical young-and-rich Californian woman, which peaked at No. 53. The second single, "Hot Sauce", a cover of a George Clinton song, peaked at No. 80. There was one more single, "My Brain Is Like A Sieve", which peaked at No. 89 on the UK Singles Chart. The album was co-produced by Bill Bottrell, and featured Terry Jackson on bass guitar.
Astronauts And Heretics:
For Astronauts & Heretics (Virgin UK), Dolby expanded even further stylistically, starting the songwriting process at the piano, then again collaborating with a variety of guest musicians. Both Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia played guitar on "The Beauty of a Dream". Eddie Van Halen plays on "Eastern Bloc" and "Close But No Cigar". Other collaborators included Jimmy Z on sax, Budgie on drums and Leland Sklar on bass guitar. Terry Jackson also contributed bass guitar on four songs before his 1991 death in a plane accident with seven other members of Reba McEntire's support band for her "For My Broken Heart" tour.
The highest-charting song off this album was "Close But No Cigar", which reached No. 22 on the UK charts.
Two other songs on the album, "I Love You Goodbye", and "Silk Pyjamas" employed Zydeco-influences, courtesy of Crowley, Louisiana and guest musicians Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil on violin, Wayne Toups on accordion, and even banjo. Even though some recording for the album was done in remote locations, the bulk of Astronauts And Heretics was recorded at NRG Recording Studios with input from trusted Dolby co-producer Bill Bottrell, and mixed down at Smoke Tree Studios in Chatsworth, California.
The Sole Inhabitant:
Following his involvement in Beatnik Inc, Dolby returned to his musical career in 2006. He performed his first solo public show in 15 years at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco, California on 21 January 2006, surprising the crowd who were there to see local band Notorious. He then launched an American tour, the Sole Inhabitant Tour, on 12 April, comprising a string of small dates in California, a mall opening in Boulder, Colorado, and gigs across America before receptive crowds.
The United States leg of the "Sole Inhabitant Tour 2006" was captured on a "live" CD and DVD. The CD represents a recording of two gigs played by Dolby at Martyrs in Chicago, while the DVD was filmed at the Berklee Performance Center at Berklee College of Music. The DVD also includes a 30-minute interview, and a lecture by Dolby at the Berklee College of Music. Both the CD and DVD were released in November 2006, and are distributed through CD Baby and iTunes. Dolby autographed and numbered the first 1,000 copies of the CD and DVD.
A show at the 800 capacity Scala club in London was booked for 3 July 2006 as a warm-up for Dolby's Hyde Park set opening for Depeche Mode. The show sold out in a matter of days and prompted Dolby to reprioritise the UK, resulting in him moving with his family from California back to England, and a nine-date Sole Inhabitant tour of the UK in October 2007, coinciding with the release of a lavish box set of the Sole Inhabitant CD and DVD by UK independent label Invisible Hands Music.
Thomas toured throughout the months of November and December 2006 with electronic musician BT. This tour included a version of "Airwaves" that BT added his own technique to, which was the opening song on the UK leg of the Sole Inhabitant tour (sans BT).
Thomas Dolby's performance of 15 March 2007 at the SxSW festival was released as the live EP "Thomas Dolby & The Jazz Mafia Horns, Live at SxSW" (with musicians from San Francisco's Jazz Mafia collective, through iTunes and on CD Baby.)
The 2007 UK Sole Inhabitant tour included three new songs previously played on the US tour, one called "Your Karma Hit My Dogma" another called "Jealous Thing" and a cover version of The Special AKA's "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend". "Your Karma Hit My Dogma" was inspired by Kevin Federline's unauthorised use of a sample from Mobb Deep's "Got It Twisted" which in turn had used an authorised sample of "She Blinded Me with Science". The tag-line from that story became the title of the song. The wording was lifted by Thomas from a bumper sticker on a car that he saw whilst living in the San Francisco Bay area. In a move close to performance art, Dolby tried to post a 'cease and desist' legal letter on Kevin Federline's MySpace page when other attempts to contact him proved fruitless. The song is on the Live at SxSW EP.
The second new song, "Jealous Thing" was performed at least at The Graduate in Cambridge and London's Islington Academy on the UK tour in Summer 2007 and features a Bossa-Nova type rhythm.
A CD + DVD set entitled The Singular Thomas Dolby has been released by EMI on 18 May 2009. As the name suggests it is a digitally remastered compilation of previously released singles. The DVD contains all the video singles which were available on the original VHS/BETA/LASERDISC release of The Golden Age of Video, as well as the videos for the songs "Silk Pyjamas", "I Love You Goodbye", and "Close But No Cigar". These three missing videos are for the singles taken from the 1992 album Astronauts & Heretics, which received critical acclaim but garnered unimpressive sales.
The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth were reissued and remastered later that year with numerous previously unreleased bonus tracks. The former was a two disc set including a DVD of the complete "Live Wireless" video.
A Map of the Floating City:
In 2010 Dolby began work on a new studio album entitled A Map of the Floating City. The album is divided into three parts, with the first two parts initially made available to members of The Flat Earth Community Forum, Dolby's online community. Each of the three digital EPs takes its name from one of the three sections of the full-length album that later followed. The first EP, Amerikana, was released digitally on 16 June 2010. The second EP is entitled Oceanea, and was released on 29 November 2010. Due to favourable reviews and radio airplay, Oceanea was released commercially on 28 March 2011. The third section of the album, entitled Urbanoia, was not released as a download or physical CD, but the songs were premiered online as part of the Floating City game (see below).
Contributors to the album include Kevin Armstrong, Matthew Seligman (both had played together with him on The Flat Earth and as part of David Bowie's Live Aid appearance), Bruce Woolley, drummer Liam Genockey, guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster, Eddi Reader, and Imogen Heap.
In a 2010 press release he was quoted as saying:
"I marvel at the new landscape of the music business - distribution via the Internet and recording technologies I barely dreamed of when I started out," he continues. "But this album does not sound electronic at all. I have zero desire to add to the myriad of machine-based, synth-driven grooves out there. The Net has made a music career approachable for thousands of bands - but I hear too few single-minded voices among them. What I do best is write songs, tell stories."
"The new songs are organic and very personal," says Dolby. "This album is a travelogue across three imaginary continents. In Amerikana I'm reflecting with affection on the years I spent living in the USA, and my fascination with its roots music. Urbanoia is a dark place, a little unsettling ... I'm not a city person. And in Oceanea I return to my natural home on the windswept coastline.
A Map of the Floating City was recorded in the "Nutmeg of Consolation", Dolby's recording studio built within a 1930s lifeboat and powered entirely by renewable energy, which is located in the garden of Dolby's beach house on England's North Sea coast.
Map of the Floating City game:
In June 2011 Dolby announced the Map of the Floating City game, a multiplayer online game that shares a title with the full-length album release planned to follow after the game's conclusion. In Dolby's own words, "The Floating City is set against a dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently." Survivors explore a fictional Google map, forming tribes and trading relics amidst a bizarre sea-going barter society. As they struggle to unravel the enigma that is The Floating City, players can haggle over merchandise and music downloads - including brand new songs from A Map of the Floating City, Dolby's first album in 20 years, scheduled to be released following the climax of the game. The game was played from June through August 2011, and included elements of trading, mystery, competition, and co-operation. Players earned free song downloads, and the winning team or "tribe" was awarded a private performance from Dolby.
Studio and live performance collaborations:
Professional music career beginnings:
Early in his career, Dolby played keyboards with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club and is credited on their debut album. The instrumental track "WW9" in the album 'English Garden' is the first recorded example of Thomas' writing. He also wrote Lene Lovich's hit single "New Toy" and played keyboard as part of the backing band for her tour. Dolby played some synthesizer parts on the Thompson Twins album Set and co-wrote "Magic's Wand" with Whodini, and played keyboards on one track ("Love") on Robyn Hitchcock's first solo album, 1981's Black Snake Diamond Role. Around this time, he also formed a short-lived band called The Fallout Club.
By far the most significant session relationship for Thomas in the early days was when he contributed the signature synthesizer sound on the track "Urgent" on Foreigner's 1981 album 4. On the same album he played the atmospheric synthesizer intro to the mega-hit "Waiting for a Girl Like You". The fees from this work, including tour dates, bankrolled the studio time for the recording of the 1980s benchmark album The Golden Age of Wireless from which his solo career began.
Dolby also worked as session keyboard player on Def Leppard's 1983 Pyromania album. Dolby appeared on Pyromania using the alias Booker T. Boffin, as his affiliation to another record label restricted the use of his real name.
1985 Grammy Awards and Live Aid:
In 1985, Dolby appeared at the Grammy Awards, which were televised, along with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. All four musicians were successful in the mid-1980s music scene, and they were also all keyboard and synthesizer experts. That same year, Dolby performed at the Live Aid concert in London as part of David Bowie's band.
Other live appearances:
In a 1985 news clip about synthesised music Dolby was shown (along with the industrial musician, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame) with Trent's early band, The "Exotic Birds".
He also appeared onstage playing keyboards with George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic during the band's lone appearance on NBC's Saturday Night Live in 1986.
Dolby continued to perform live in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including an appearance supporting Depeche Mode at their 18 June 1988 Pasadena Rose Bowl concert which was released as the 101 concert album and movie.
In 1990 he appeared in Roger Waters' charity performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall album in Berlin. Dolby, in costume as the Teacher played a keyboard solo during "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" (sung by Cyndi Lauper) and then reprised the role for the closing "The Trial" sequence.
He appeared on-stage with the reunited Soft Boys in San Francisco on 7 April 2001 and played synthesizer on "You'll Have To Go Sideways", "Evil Guy" and Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine". "Evil Guy", from that evening's sound-check, wound up on the Soft Boys' 2002 EP Side Three. It was not the first time Dolby and members of the Soft Boys appeared on record together. Dolby had played keyboards on former Soft Boys member Robyn Hitchcock's first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role. Meanwhile, Hitchcock appeared on Dolby's The Flat Earth, performing the role of Keith on "White City". Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman recorded and toured with Dolby in the 1980s, including the Live Aid performance.
Dolby also performed a portion of "The Sole Inhabitant" show for the Bob Moog Foundation Moogfest 2007 in New York City.
In 2012, Dolby headlined the first "Steamstock" outdoor steampunk music festival in Richmond, California, alongside steampunk favourites Abney Park, Vernian Process, Lee Presson and the Nails and others. Dolby is considered one of the early pioneers of retro-futurist (i.e. steampunk and dieselpunk) music.Amanda Palmer was once quoted as saying, "Thomas Dolby is to Steampunk what Iggy Pop was to Punk!"
Other production credits:
In 1985, Dolby was credited as co-producer on Joni Mitchell's album Dog Eat Dog. He was credited as producer for Prefab Sprout's albums Steve McQueen, From Langley Park to Memphis, and Jordan: The Comeback. He also played keyboard on George Clinton's 1985 album, Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends.
Film and video games:
Scores for film and video games:
Thomas Dolby has also worked as a soundtrack composer for both films and video games, most notably "The Gate to the Mind's Eye", the third instalment of the CGI collection, the Mind's Eye. Dolby also wrote the songs for the 1986 George Lucas film Howard the Duck and chose the members of the film's fictional band, Cherry Bomb. Dolby wrote and produced three tracks for the 1992 soundtrack of the animated movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest.
He also created the score for the 1993 Sega CD interactive movie "Double Switch". Additionally, the song "Hyperactive!" is featured in the 2002 PlayStation 2 videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as part of the new wave radio station Wave 103.
In 1992 Dolby co-created and performed "The Mirror Song" with Robin Williams and Joan Cusack for Toys alongside Trevor Horn and Bruce Woolley.
In 1995, Dolby composed the score to the cult video game The Dark Eye.
In 2009, Dolby's song "One of Our Submarines" appeared in the horror film The House of the Devil, but not on the official soundtrack release.
Dolby's song "She Blinded Me with Science" is featured as a collectable cassette which can be played back as desired in the 2015 videogame Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
In 1990 Dolby played the role of the villain Stanley in the movie Rockula as well as contributing the songs "Stanely's Death Park" and "Budapest by Blimp".
The Invisible Lighthouse:
In 2012, Dolby learned of the decommissioning of the Orfordness Lighthouse near his Suffolk home, and proceeded to film a documentary, The Invisible Lighthouse, to chronicle the shutdown of the lighthouse as well as his childhood growing up in the area. Dolby took this film on the road through the US and UK in the Fall of 2013, accompanying the film with live music, narration, and sound effects by Blake Leyh. The film won the DIY Film Festival award for Best Picture
Headspace and Beatnik:
In 1993, Dolby successfully established the Headspace company. Headspace developed a new downloadable file format designed specifically for Internet usage called Rich Music Format with the RMF file extension. It had the advantage of small file size like MIDI but allowed recorded sampled sounds to be included at a higher bitrate for better overall reproduction. RMF music files could be played in a browser using the free Beatnik Player plug-in. Later versions of RMF permitted artists to place an encrypted watermark in their files that were supposed to prevent unauthorised duplication. In 1999, Headspace, Inc. was renamed Beatnik, Inc., and now specialises in software synthesizers for mobile phones, which it has licensed to mobile phone manufacturers including Nokia.
While still remaining on the company board, Dolby stepped down from his position as CEO of Beatnik Inc. to pursue other technologically innovative interests, such as founding Retro Ringtones LLC in 2002, which produces the RetroFolio ringtone asset management software suite for companies involved in the mobile phone ringtone business. At the second annual Mobile Music Awards, Miami, Florida, in 2004 RetroFolio won "Best of Show" and "Best New Technology" awards.
Dolby's musical talents have also been put to use creating hundreds of digital polyphonic ringtones now found on mobile phones everywhere (including the polyphonic version of the infamous Nokia signature theme). He is often a major speaker at technology conferences such as Comdex, Websphere, and Nokia.
Since 2001 Dolby has acted as Musical Director of The TED Conference, an annual event held first in Monterey, California, and subsequently in Long Beach, California that attracts some of the world's foremost thinkers, inventors, and speakers. In this capacity he provides live musical introductions to sessions, sometimes with an eclectic TED House Band, as well as helping secure guest musicians and entertainers for the event.
In March 2012, Dolby spoke at the DESIGN West conference in San Jose, California at the McEnery Convention Center, produced by UBM Electronics.
In March 2014, Dolby was named Homewood Professor of the Arts at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.
In July 1998, Thomas received a "Lifetime Achievement in Internet Music" award from Yahoo! Internet Life.
In 2012 he performed at Moogfest and was the recipient of The Moog Innovation Award, which celebrates "pioneering artists whose genre-defying work exemplifies the bold, innovative spirit of Bob Moog".
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