Thomas Dolby The Golden Age of Wireless

Buried in These Hands For Years: Thomas Dolby’s ‘The Golden Age of Wireless’ Turns 40

Thomas Dolby’s 40-year-old debut The Golden Age of Wireless is a definitive synthpop album that raises many questions but only answers a few of them.

The Golden Age of Wireless
Thomas Dolby
Harvest / Capitol
13 May 1982

As I launch into a celebration of Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless on the 40th anniversary of its release, let me be clear: I come here to praise Dolby’s most famous song, “She Blinded Me With Science”, not to bury it. It’s a fun song, and, just as it was for many people, “She Blinded Me With Science” was my introduction to Thomas Dolby’s music.

I’ll reconsider “She Blinded Me With Science” in a little while. Let’s focus on Thomas Dolby’s path to The Golden Age of Wireless, which – spoiler alert – did not initially include “She Blinded Me With Science”.

Dolby quite capably tells his own story in a 2016 memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology. I highly recommend the book, in which Dolby recounts his experiences as both a songwriter/musician and a pop star in the 1980s and his subsequent second career in the world of high tech and venture capitalism. Dolby’s book is well-worth reading, but here’s a thumbnail sketch of the circuitous path The Golden Age of Wireless took on its way to becoming an acknowledged synthpop classic.

Dolby was an up-and-coming “new wave” keyboardist and fledging songwriter who had played with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club and Lene Lovich’s band. He had even written “New Toy” for Lovich. Dolby had recorded a pair of evocative songs, “Leipzig” and “Urges”, that would be released as his debut single, but the record deal suddenly soured. A despondent Dolby journeyed to Paris and spent some time busking with a friend.

Meanwhile, the demo recordings of “Leipzig”/”Urges” came to the attention of music producer Robert “Mutt” Lange and Foreigner mastermind Mick Jones. Lange and Jones were impressed with the textured sounds Dolby had created and were in desperate need of a keyboardist who could give Foreigner’s sound a modern kick on their upcoming 4 LP. When they finally connected, Dolby agreed to fly to New York City’s Electric Lady Studio and apply some synths to Foreigner’s tunes.

While Dolby’s work can be found throughout Foreigner’s 4, it is most prominent in the eerie introduction to the ballad, “Waiting for a Girl Like You”, a huge hit single. While Foreigner isn’t one of my serious go-to bands, I can attest to the powerful and dreamy effectiveness of “Waiting for a Girl Like You”, though not the way you might imagine. I distinctly remember being in a car with two high school friends. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” started playing on the radio. Our conversation stopped as we got temporarily lost in reveries concerning girls. Then the song ended, the spell was broken, and we went back to talking about Dungeons and Dragons.

I credit/blame that episode of teenage dorkiness on Thomas Dolby and his Roland JP4 synthesizer. Dolby worked for a month on the Foreigner record, picking up a cool $6,500. That’s how he began to finance The Golden Age of Wireless.

In The Speed of Sound, Dolby describes how securing a personal recording/rehearsal space in an industrial section of London influenced his recording. “Once inside, you found yourself in a splendid top-floor loft, with brick walls and arched windows looking down on railway sidings covered in snow, like a scene from post-World War II Eastern Europe,” Dolby writes.

Noting the subject matter of his emerging songs, Dolby muses, “If I’d stopped for a second to reflect on the fact that my obsessions with science fiction, ham radio, and the Cold War might prove a little unsuitable for the delicate pop sensibilities of the mass record-buying public, I’d have chosen a different path.”

Fortunately, Thomas Dolby embarked on the road not taken. In February 1981, Dolby started releasing a series of singles that began to generate some attention but no massive hits. This recording activity culminated in the release of The Golden Age of Wireless on 13 May 1982.

The story gets tricky here because the tracklist on the initial US release was different from the UK version. The UK record includes a techno-ska instrumental, “The Wreck of the Fairchild”, that does not appear on the US version. “Leipzig” and “Urges” are absent from the UK but prominent in the US. The UK version of “Radio Silence” is straight-up early ’80s technopop, while the same song is represented by a guitar-driven version in the US. Neither version contain “She Blinded Me With Science” because it didn’t exist yet.

The ultimate result? The original UK edition of The Golden Age of Wireless is an entirely serviceable and entertaining debut album by Thomas Dolby. It’s not perfect, but Dolby’s creativity and potential shine through. The US version? Maybe it was a happy record company accident, but the original American, The Golden Age of Wireless, is a flat-out masterpiece. It’s not a proper concept album, but the song selection and sequence lead to a brooding and fascinating record that hits hard in a listener’s psyche and often stays there awhile.

At some point after Golden Age was released, Dolby had an idea for a video that would take place at the “Home for Deranged Scientists”. He created a detailed storyboard that led to interest from his record company. All he needed was the actual song. So, Dolby wrote “She Blinded Me With Science” over a few days to match his video concept. The song was recorded, and the video was filmed. “She Blinded Me With Science” became a monster hit, seriously threatening to eclipse the album on which it was not included.

So The Golden Age of Wireless was re-released. “Leipzig” and “Urges” disappeared, making way for “She Blinded Me With Science” and another new song, “One of Our Submarines”. The guitar-based “Radio Silence” was replaced by the synthy UK version. Soon Dolby had a hit album on his hands, but as we’ll see, it’s a compromised version of the original US Golden Age.

“She Blinded Me With Science” was the first Thomas Dolby tune I ever heard when it started popping up on the radio. As a 17-year-old kid who loved Blondie, the B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, and even Missing Persons, I was the target demographic for a song that combined wild electronic keyboards with surreal lyrics and occasional exclamations of “Science!” by “noted scientist” Magnus Pyke. This song screamed “new wave!” almost louder than Pyke screamed “Science!”

I loved “She Blinded Me With Science” immediately and picked it up on a five-song extended play record called Blinded By Science that appeared in early 1983. The EP contained the longer (and best) mix of the track along with “One of Our Submarines” and remixed versions of three of the Golden Age tracks, one of which had appeared on the original UK edition but in a shorter version on the original US edition. See? It’s all quite confusing.

For months, Blinded By Science was my go-to Dolby record, though, just in time for college, I grabbed the cassette reissue of The Golden Age of Wireless in the summer of 1983. That served its purpose until I eventually found a vinyl copy of the original US Golden Age minus “She Blinded Me With Science”. Once I heard that I rarely returned to the reissue cassette. I quickly found that the Golden Age without “…Science” was satisfying in ways that Golden Age with “She Blinded Me With Science” could never hope to be.

Ultimately, “She Blinded Me With Science” is one of those songs that, for better and for worse, automatically pops in people’s heads when they think “’80s music” (see also: “Walking on Sunshine”, “I Melt With You”, and “Come on Eileen”, among others).

Golden Age (US) sets the stage with its opening track, “Europa and the Pirate Twins”. A story about a long-lost friendship, “Europa…” paradoxically sounds futuristic and grounded in the present (circa 1981), with Dolby’s electronic textures and chattering percussion contrasting with his warm vocals and XTC’s Andy Partridge’s harmonica playing. The lyrics hint that the relationship was disrupted unnaturally by war but ultimately express hope for a reunion.

From there, The Golden Age of Wireless threads themes of war, dystopia, disconnection, and travel. “Flying North” contemplates a night flight, with fear of flying thrown in for good measure. “Weightless” and the extraordinary “Leipzig” focus on restlessness and rootlessness with Dolby namechecking himself in “Weightless”: “Eye on the fuel gauge / Westchester Thruway / The triple octane / Won’t contain the empty feeling in Dolby’s heart.”

In “Leipzig”, Dolby’s middle-aged characters move from city to city, hoping the physical change will lead to something new but sometimes discovering that “every place is just the same, isn’t it?”

Occasionally, Dolby strays from the dystopian path. He contemplates “Windpower”, in part as a metaphor for intuition (“Switch off your mind and let your heart decide”). He also extends sympathy to young people wrestling with unexpected “Urges” (“When you’re ashamed of things about your body / You keep drinking like you knew you would.”).

Despite the electronics, there is only one point on the US Golden Age where you can date stamp the album, and even then, it’s imprecise. That would be the sample of Bob Barker announcing the “next item up for bids on The Price Is Right on “Commercial Breakup”. And even then, Barker was the host of that show from 1972 to 2007, simply placing Golden Age somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Musically, Dolby reinforces his lyrics with melodies that might not be instant earworms but sink deep with repeated listens. Despite their idiosyncrasies, “Leipzig” and “Airwaves” are among the most gorgeous pop songs you’re likely to find this side of “God Only Knows”.

Dolby closes Golden Age with “Cloudburst on Shingle Street”, a song that could be about the apocalypse that’s been hinted at all along but is really about personal transcendence. The narrator observes the imminent cloudburst and announces, “I wanna get my face wet / Been buried in these hands for years.” The song eventually dissolves into wordless nearly-operatic backing vocals as Dolby speak-sings the last lines on the album: “When I was small I was in love, in love with everything / Now there’s only you.” Has he reunited with a friend from “Europa and the Pirate Twins”? Or is “you” someone else entirely? We’re left to wonder.

And that’s the exquisite mystery at the heart of The Golden Age of Wireless, at least the original US version. It presents beautifully conceived and performed music and intriguing lyrics that raise many questions but only answer a few of them. That version of The Golden Age of Wireless leaves us to wonder and wander in ways that the other editions only suggest. You don’t need “She Blinded Me With Science” for that.