Thomas Dolby by Lenny Kaye
from Rock Video September 84 Issue #5
Thomas Dolby is one of the first pop stars of the 80's to declare himself primarily a video artist, and yet his synthbeat sound has crossed him over more musical boundaries than many "purer" rock & rollers. As a consequence, he becomes involved in his videos from the first moment of their conception, taking full advantage of all the wondrous tools and toys their up-to-the-minute technology has to offer.
Speaking from Austin, Texas, on his most recent American tour, Dolby told ROCK VIDEO that he doesn't see each video as a separate entity, but rather regards them as part of his ongoing cultural zeitgeist, a peek at the world-at-large through the eyes of one Thomas Dolby, who may or may not be just a character in his videos. Perhaps this is why Thomas has grouped together four of his works-"She Blinded Me With Science," "Hyperactive," "Europa and the Pirate Twins," and "Radio Silence," - on a Sony 45.
The proliferation of moods and sharp angular movements in Dolby's videos echo Thomas' own performing career, which has carried him through such polar opposites as Foreigner and Lene Lovich (he wrote "New Toy" for the latter) on his way to more recent productions like Adele Bertei's "Build Me A Bridge," one of last year's most captivating disco singles.
The Golden Age Of Wireless and The Flat Earth albums tend to reinforce the dominant theme of his videos: old science vs. new. In that regard, Dolby's championing of the video revolution may well tell us on what side of the fence he's chosen to make his stand.
"Dissidents" is a political allegory which finds Thomas trailed by some secretive characters and a television camera on his way to a resistance meeting. As this underground group discusses its strategy, a hidden tape recorder follows their every thought. Dolby leads the meeting, a writer whose words "are like tiny insects in the palm of history." The meeting breaks up, and individual members disperse to circulate leaflets featuring Dolby's views, only to be captured by the force of repression. As Thomas makes good his escape to fight on another day, his cohorts are placed in front of a firing squad. They refuse blindfolds. Shots ring out, and broadsides that read "Thomas Dolby: Dissident" are scattered on the ground ,absorbing the rain.
"I Scare Myself" finds Dolby in a cabaret setting, a fit locale for the jazz bohemia of this Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks original. A modern dance between a waiter and a waitress, a sultry trombone solo, and plenty of rotating camera work focusing on a beret-wearing Thomas behind a Yamaha grand piano make this one of his simplest and yet most appealing works.
"Europa And the Pirate Twins" comes in two versions, possibly because it was Dolby's first video, and he didn't yet have the commercial clout to be as daring as he'd have liked. The first "take," which is the version on the Sony 45, is a non-literal and dream-like rendering of images that switch quickly from black and white to color. Figures are mysteriously covered in gossamer fabrics; video terminals flash "Europa," maps go up in flames. The second version of the song is much more accessible, simply comprised of Dolby's like stage set and a straight-forward reading complete with standard band and flashing strobe lights. And yet, if you look at the video screens that provide the back drop, you'll notice they are playing the surrealistic "Europa." An in-joke or yet another perspective, it shows that Dolby can have his art and eat it too.
"Hyperactive" begins with Thomas undergoing hypnosis by a doctor who asks him to remember his childhood. This psychoanalytic theme is never far from Dolby's work, but he seems not to take it too seriously, wearing a cube on his head to symbolize different facets of his personality. Trick photography and spatial disorientation highlight the speedy pace of this video: when Thomas sings "Ripping, ripping, ripping, ripping apart" his body literally flies into several pieces. Finally the psychiatrist's couch collapses in a flash of smoke and mental overload. Disembodied shapes revolved around him, a veritable parade of the superego. Man Ray, bless his soul, would be proud.
"Radio Silence" tunes in its signal from an old international wireless. A girl sits behind the wheel of a car, adjusting her curly hair. Thomas appears in the back seat to comment knowingly on her cryptic situation. In a flash of solarization, she enters a ghostly room, where Dolby, manipulating Marconi's waves, seems to transform her into another dimension, a metamorphosis that turns her into a statue. Video as sculpture an interesting concept, and one that will certainly bear further investigation.
"She Blinded Me With Science" is Thomas Dolby's masterpiece to date, and it highlights the basic themes of his work. Pulling up his threewheeled motorcycle at a home for "deranged scientists," a trenchcoated Dolby submits to examination. At "the consultation," a pretty Eurasian assistant lifts her skirt to him, inviting him to dance. He accepts, stroking her back which is tattooed to resemble a violin. Amidst the eccentricities of empirical knowledge, his reflexes are tested. Placed on an operating table, he's given shock treatment, and in a final climax of decision, climbs back on his cycle and pushes the doctor into the pool.
For a man so in tune with the benefits of science, it is curious that Dolby feels such a strange ambivalence to its methodic, rational approach. Or perhaps he's celebrating the madness that comes to those who plumb the inner laws of the universe, attempting to discover the physical secrets by which we all must live. The tension of a consciously old-fashioned visual image contrasting with a lavish embrace of synthetic sound is what, shall we say makes Thomas Dolby tick. And keep on ticking.