Thomas Dolby

TrackAlbum / Single
LeipzigArmageddon Records AS 007
One Of Our SubmarinesThe Golden Age Of Wireless
Europa And The Pirate TwinsThe Golden Age Of Wireless
AirwavesThe Golden Age Of Wireless
The Flat EarthThe Flat Earth
Screen KissThe Flat Earth
Mulu The Rain ForestThe Flat Earth
Airhead Aliens Ate My Buick
I Love You GoodbyeAstronauts & Heretics
17 HillsA Map Of The Floating City

Thomas Dolby photo 1

Photo by Leslie Burke (as used on the covers of the 1988 single Hot Sauce and his ‘The Golden Age Of Video’ VHS)



Thomas Dolby playlist


Contributor: Rob Jones

Growing up as the son of an academic, Thomas Morgan Robertson would follow in those parental footsteps by achieving a professorship of music for new media at Peabody Institute Johns Hopkins University. This was after a period in the software industry, wherein he exercised his interests in music and media in several areas that changed the shape of how audio works within technology platforms, particularly interactive ones. Due to his deep interest in technology and culture, he was a face at TED conferences, and served as music director for those events from 2001-2012.

Oh yeah! Before all that he was a pop star putting out records as Thomas Dolby. His music came out of being a jazz nerd, Bob Dylan fan, and a major gearhead and bin diver when it came to locating equipment and building his own synthesisers and tinkering with other musical technology. Dolby was able to weave his interests into a sound of his own, often contrasting the themes of technology with the human condition. Among other things, this yielded him a huge hit in his internationally best-known song She Blinded Me With Science. But his ear for what makes for compelling music that also tells human stories revealed greater depths beyond that hit. Here are ten fine examples.


After time spent traveling, including a stint busking in Paris, Dolby’s friends encouraged him to put out a single. Coupled with Urges as a double-A side 7″ single, Leipzig concerns the longing people feel to be in another place, especially when in the day-to-day rut. It balances Bowie-in-Berlin ennui and Kate Bush feel with a hopeful spark, with insistent bass synth, call-and-response vocals, and a movie soundtrack scope that hinted at his film composer capacities that would emerge years later.


Inspired by family history and reflecting on time’s passage as empires fall, One Of Our Submarines starkly contrasts the lightness of Dolby’s best-known hit. Appearing on a re-issued version of his debut The Golden Age of Wireless in 1983, this tune is full of harrowing war-time images of lost submarines run aground on maneuvers, embodying the lost innocence of a whole generation. As such, this tune spoke directly to the Cold War generation, too.


A song about a teenage romance, fame, and obsessive longing, Europa & The Pirate Twins is a little movie about lost connections as one era fades into another, often carrying our memories with it. One of Dolby’s earliest cuts, it shows signs that his musical interests went beyond standard synthpop templates. Set to a hambone beat, this tune contrasts the grandness of synth strings with snippets of harmonica played by none other than XTC’s Andy Partridge.


Post-apocalyptic love song Airwaves parallels the recurring themes of longing and disconnection with the slow deterioration of civilization itself. Featuring one of Dolby’s most wistful melodies, its lyrics entwine human feeling with images of cold concrete surfaces and failing infrastructure. Dolby’s story is less about a ruined future than it is about emotional alienation in the present. Degraded technology represents an inadequate and declining means of making true connections to span ever-widening and isolating distances from one to another.


By 1984’s The Flat Earth, Thomas Dolby drifted further from synthpop and into a more soulfully ambient musical space, exemplified by title track The Flat Earth. This cut is infused with complementary textures; gospel-inspired backing vocals, ambient effects, Africanized guitar lines, and Dolby’s R&B–inflected croon. It’s one of the most richly textured songs ever written about feeling isolated and awkward while also acknowledging that the world at large still needs sensitive people to engage with the times.


The closest Dolby ever got to an overtly autobiographical song by this point, Screen Kiss tells the story of British ex-pats in the Hollywood Hills. Guitarist Kevin Armstrong provides a distinctive and insistent riff that sparkles in the night of Dolby’s heartbroken nocturne. Bassist Matthew Seligman shows a Pastorius-like touch on the fretless in this ruminative vignette about displaced people negotiating boundaries in the bar where all the English meet, managing expectations, disappointments, and understated tragedies as best they can.


Contrasting his quirky pop hit Hyperactive! from the same record, Mulu The Rain Forest is closer to Brian Eno-style ambience than to hit single immediacy. Yet the potent theme of disconnection is still very much in place, this time from the earth itself in the shape of Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park and the surrounding rainforests ravaged by human exploitation. Characterised by atmospheric textures and impassioned vocals, Dolby deftly threads tragedy and awe together on one of his lushest productions.


After a stint as a sought-after producer (Prefab Sprout, Joni Mitchell) Thomas Dolby hadn’t forgotten how to write a big, splashy pop song by 1988’s Aliens Ate My Buick. Airhead is aimed squarely at the charts and informed perhaps by Dolby’s then-recent collaborations with George Clinton. Dolby’s attention to musical details enhances this unabashed pop song above the standard while still being fun. Never mean-spirited, its lyrics aim sarcastic ire at shallow and banal Western culture rather than at womanhood.


By the early Nineties, the rules of accessible pop were aligned with warmer textures including real strings, accordion, banjo, and piano. I Love You Goodbye from Dolby’s 1992 album Astronauts & Heretics illustrates this, even if his reputation as an Eighties synthpop artist undermined his chances. A song of memory and mourning, this cut displays Dolby’s interest and understanding of sonic contrast, still retaining the emotional core that’s always been intrinsic to his songwriting.


After an extended period spent in audio software development, Thomas Dolby returned to writing and performing in 2006, putting out a series of EPs by 2010. 17 Hills appeared on Amerikana, and later on 2011’s full-length A Map Of The Floating City. It’s an epically-scaled countryesque novel of a song, displaying Dolby’s signature wistfulness and sense of musical scope. Mark Knopfler’s guitar and Natalie McMaster’s fiddle artfully raise the musical bar in this story of outlawry and redemption.


Well beyond his best-known song about being blinded by science, Thomas Dolby’s slim but potent catalogue of songs offers a range of styles beyond the quirky, early-Eighties synthpop for which he’s best known. Underneath all that is an artist who knows that the tools were just a means to an end. With themes of isolation, disconnection, memory, and loss within his music, the human struggle that’s mirrored back at us in the songs turns out to be pretty timeless.

From his early-Eighties heyday and then throughout his recording career, Dolby continued to write songs about the need to be connected – to the world and to each other. Debuting at a time when Superpowers clashed, his timing was perfect for listeners looking for the humanity in an era when we were afraid of where technology was taking us. With the Cold War now history, that fear perhaps endures in a new context. But with that, Dolby’s music resonates all the more.









Thomas Dolby official site

Thomas Dolby YouTube Channel

“The Speed of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology” – A Memoir by Thomas Dolby – Icon Books (2018)

Classic Pop interview (2021)

Thomas Dolby at Peabody Institute Music and New Media program

Thomas Dolby Plays “One of Our Submarines” (The Delete Bin, 2015)

Thomas Dolby biography (AllMusic)

Rob Jones is a music writer and blogger born in Toronto. After living in London, England for a time, he now lives in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia with his partner and their many houseplants. As a child, he followed the familiar path of falling in love with The Beatles and with AM radio hits in the 1970s and into the 1980s. He came into his own as a music fan during the new wave era, then embracing all manner of music into adulthood from 1930s country blues to Big Beat techno, while always feeling at home with indie-rock and singer-songwriter folk as his sonic homebase. He is the primary author and Editor-in-Chief of the music blog The Delete Bin. He has previously written about Martha and the Muffins, Ron Sexsmith, Joe Jackson and World Party on Toppermost.

TopperPost #1,117


  1. David Lewis
    May 30, 2024

    A terrific article on one of the more interesting figures in pop. Having had a huge hit in ‘science’ he pops up in all kinds of places.
    This article does him justice. Thanks!

  2. Rob
    May 30, 2024

    Thanks very much for comments and for reading, David.
    Yeah, even in the Eighties, Dolby was a Zelig figure in pop music. He was a sideman, songwriter, producer, and a solo artist all at once. His keyboard work on Foreigner’s Foreigner 4 album helped him to fund his first record. He wrote songs for Lene Lovich and electro crew Whodini. And he played on Thompson Twins’ pre-trio incarnation record *Set*. He played keyboards on one of Def Leppard’s albums, too. He was a busy guy!

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Jun 7, 2024

      He is headlining a 80s tour right now that I will be seeing in Ohio this summer.

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