Follow TV Tropes


Music / Thomas Dolby

Go To
He's blinded with Science!

"The man who never dreams, goes slowly mad."

Thomas Dolby is an award-winning English musician.

He was born Thomas Morgan Robertson on 14 October 1958. His father, Martin Robertson, was an internationally distinguished professor of classical Greek art and archeology at the University of London and Oxford University, and in his youth Thomas lived or worked in France, Italy and Greece. He attended Abingdon School in 1975-76, completing his A Levels whilst there. He later married actress Kathleen Beller in 1988; the couple have three children together. He is best known for his 1982 hit "She Blinded Me with Science", and 1984 single "Hyperactive!", his Steampunk aesthetic, his eclectic musical style, and his ability with electronic instruments. And his goggles. He has also worked extensively in production and as a session musician. He took his stage name from a nickname his friends gave him in the 1970s, for his habit of fooling with keyboards and recording tapes.

Dolby is member #00001 of the current incarnation of the Flat Earth Society, a pseudoscientific group.note  His best known song came from the album The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), frequently re-released and revision with varying tracks available - it was released five times, in fact! He has produced a variety of albums since then, along with video games based on his steampunk settings.

Thomas Dolby has also worked as a producer and a soundtrack composer for both films and video games, most notably "The Gate To The Mind's Eye", the third installment 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 Play Station 2 videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as part of the New Wave radio station Wave 103.

In 1990 Dolby played (or perhaps overplayed) the role of the villain Stanley in the cult film Rockula, as well as contributing the songs "Stanley's Death Park" and "Budapest by Blimp". 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 unauthorized duplication. In 1999, Headspace, Inc. was renamed Beatnik, Inc., and now specializes 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 Retro Folio 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. Starting in 2013, he became the Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University.

Dolby has also been a frequent collaborator with George Clinton.

He has nothing to do with Dolby Laboratories other than them having inspired his stage name. They did try and legally pressure Dolby into changing his name, however. This was settled in court with the agreement that Dolby Labs had no right to restrict Thomas Dolby from using that name and Dolby himself agreed not to use his name for any electronic equipment.


  • 1982 - The Golden Age of Wireless
  • 1983 - Blinded by Science (EP)
  • 1984 - The Flat Earth
  • 1988 - Aliens Ate My Buick
  • 1992 - Astronauts & Heretics
  • 2001 - Forty (live)
  • 2006 - The Sole Inhabitant (live)
  • 2010 - Amerikana (EP)
  • 2011 - Oceanea (EP)
  • 2011 - A Map of the Floating City
  • 2012 - Live in Tokyo 2012 (live)

This musician provides examples of:

  • Album Title Drop:
    • "All I want is the keys to your Ferrari / because Aliens Ate My Buick"
    • Different album, but "I've been all around this flat old Earth" from "That's Why People Fall In Love" on "Astronauts & Heretics"
  • Answer Song: Dolby intentionally invoked this trope with the remix "Airhead's Revenge". The song features a female rapper criticizing Dolby for spending money on women but having no charm, and a male rapper defending Dolby for being hardworking.
  • Artistic License – Politics: The song "I Love You Goodbye" includes the line "The county sheriff had a harelip / Louisiana's pride and joy." The state of Louisiana is divided into parishes, not counties.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In "Airhead" - after the line, "Quod Erat Demonstrandum, baby", a voice can be heard saying, "Oh! You speak French!", ignoring the fact that the statement is Latin. This highlights that the titular Airhead is unable to discern any foreign language apart from French.
  • Car Song: Subverted (or perverted) by "The Keys To Her Ferrari".
  • Cover Version: "I Scare Myself" from The Flat Earth is a cover of a song by Arkansan singer-songwriter Dan Hicks.
  • Dirty Cop: The county sheriff who arrests the narrator for stealing a car in "I Love You Goodbye." He's willing to overlook the crime if the narrator pays him a bribe and ditches the car in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The Ditz: The subject of "Airhead". While Dolby is impressed with her looks, he still can't deny that she's not the brightest.
  • Dumb Blonde: Played with in one of the lines of "Airhead" - people only think the girl in the song's subject is a dumb blonde, "But they don't know she dyes her hair".
  • Fantastic Drug: The titular "cube" in "May The Cube Be With You".
  • Genre Roulette: Dolby has done songs in many different genres. A Map Of The Floating City is possibly the best example of it:
    • Nothing New Under The Sun (Rock/Pop)
    • Spice Train (Electronic / Indian Raga)
    • Evil Twin Brother (Club music with low key verses)
    • A Jealous Thing Called Love (Latin music)
    • Road To Reno (Upbeat folk rock with soul horns and guitar echo)
    • Toadlickers (Country rock)
    • 17 Hills (Country ballad)
    • Love Is A Loaded Pistol (Piano and string ballad)
    • Oceanea (Autotune and synth ballad)
    • Simone (Latin ballad)
    • To The Lifeboats (Ballad with rock mid section)
  • Girl Next Door Turned Superstar: "Europa And The Pirate Twins" is about childhood friends that were separated during a war. Europa grew to become a celebrity, while the singer can only keep a collection of articles and photos of her. When Europa came to London, the singer tried to speak to her, only for one of her bodyguards to grab him. "Her eyes were gone forever as they drove her away."
  • Mad Scientist: Certainly tries to play up this image in his promo vids.
  • Mind Screw: The "Hyperactive!" video has to be seen to be believed.
  • Mood Whiplash: Deliberately done on The Flat Earth, where the smooth and jazzy "I Scare Myself" is followed by the loud and raucous "Hyperactive!" This is made more jarring by the fact that "Hyperactive!" begins with two Scare Chords.
    • "She Blinded Me With Science" is mostly bouncy and lighthearted but has a very ominous sci-fi sound that plays at various times.
  • New Wave: Dolby's early work falls within this category due to the period and some of his more pop tunes.
  • Precision F-Strike: Thomas only swears once in his work, in "To The Lifeboats" when he says "There are no fucking lifeboats". Its a Justified Trope in that the narrator of the song is stranded at sea, on a ship that is slowly sinking, and is at his wits end.
  • Product Placement: Dolby likes parodying this trope, having noticed a lot of it when he moved to America:
    • He mentions the chocolate bars Milky Way, Mars Bars, Galaxy (the UK name for Dove) in "Pulp Culture". The use of these is clever as he is stargazing whilst watching a drive in movie.
    • He mentions Mars bars again in "Road To Reno", as well as the US department store Sears. He also gives a Shoutout to The Beatles and Tears for Fears.
    • He mentions Dr Pepper, Twiglets and Jaffa Cakes in "The Toad Lickers". The latter two are uniquely British products, which is an intentional Crazy Cultural Comparison in a song that is about American deep south stereotypes.
    • "I Love You Goodbye" includes a mention of a Datsun, stolen and later crashed by the narrator and his friend.
  • Pun-Based Title: The Greatest Hits Album Retrospectacle, combining "retrospective" with "spectacle" (both as in a showy display and as in glasses). The cover stylizes the "o" in the title as a thick-lensed monocle with two temples to emphasize the association with Dolby's trademark eyewear.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • Flying North is about Dolby's real fear of flying.
    • Weightless is about a trip around Europe Dolby had with a former girlfriend. The relationship failed whilst the two were in Paris, and for a while he was stranded there. Notably, the song takes place from both his perspective "There's an empty feeling in Dolby's heart" and the expy for his girlfriend (Lizzie).
    • Cloudburst At Shingle Street is about a real beach Dolby used to go to on the East Anglian coast, where the phenomenon of cloudbursts would occur.
    • One Of Our Submarines is about an uncle of Dolby's who went missing in his submarine during World War II.
    • Hyperactive! apparently is partly based on Dolby's life.
    • Simone is about a male to female transgender person. A short time after he recorded the song (but before he released it) his son Harper announced that he was transgender. The song carries special poignancy for him now.
  • Rearrange the Song: Dolby and Ryuichi Sakamoto's collaboration "Field Work" was released in two versions. The 'London' (or 'LON') mix is a bombastic, synth-driven mix that was the single A-Side; whereas the 'Tokyo' (or 'TYO') mix is a minimalist synthpop mix that Sakamoto mixed himself, and is a B-Side. Both use exactly the same vocal track. The 'London' mix has appeared on albums by both parties.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: Dolby did two in the 80s. He wrote the music for a rap track called "Magic's Wand" for Whodini, then repurposed it with his own lyrics as his own B-side "Puppet Theatre". He also reused the bass and drums of his Gothic soundtrack contribution "The Devil Is An Englishman" for "Budapest By Blimp".
  • Sampling: In the 80s, Dolby was rather fond of a sample of night birds, used to simulate night. He first used it in "The Jungle Line", then as linking material between "White City", "Mulu The Rain Forest" and "I Scare Myself" on The Flat Earth, and then a few years later at the end of "Pulp Culture".
    • Dolby composed a soundtrack for the Comic Strip movie Summer School which featured a recurring bongo motif. He later sampled this at the start of The Flat Earth.
  • Scare Chord: "Hyperactive" opens with two of these. See the above Mood Whiplash example.
  • Sequel Song: "Eastern Bloc" is a sequel to "Europa and the Pirate Twins".
    • "Airhead's Revenge" is an Answer Song sequel to "Airhead".
  • Shout-Out : The line "This ain't no rap attack" in "Hyperactive" is one to "Magic's Wand" by "Whodini", which Dolby produced the previous year. In "Magic's Wand", one of the rappers states that the song IS a rap attack.
    • "Road To Reno" mentions The Beatles and Tears for Fears . They are two bands that Dolby likes and whose music he's often been compared to.
    • The line "Good heavens Miss Sakamoto, you're beautiful" in "She Blinded Me With Science" is a reference to Ryuichi Sakamoto's wife Akiko Yano who was in the studio at the time (she had previously sung backing on "Radio Silence", and Dolby would collaborate with Ryuichi Sakamoto on "Field Work" a couple of years later).
    • The lines "The brother in the codpiece, I seen him on the TV, I think he likes his ladies all sweet and sugary" from "Hot Sauce" are a reference to the lead singer of Cameo, who was known for his red codpiece, and their song "Candy".
  • Smart People Wear Glasses : Dolby is well known for wearing glasses (and unlike a lot of musicians of his era, is Blind Without 'Em). He ran with this trope in his early period, using the 'nerdy' round NHS ones to enhance his "Mad Scientist" persona. Around the time of "Aliens Ate My Buick", Dolby started wearing contacts. In the modern day he still occasionally wears glasses but opted for more modern frames. This is a Justified Trope because Dolby is widely regarded as a genius not just musically, but having run his own electronics companies and having become a university professor.
  • Steampunk: Dolby's sense of style usually includes goggles, whimsy, antique brass items and truly classic album covers
  • Stylistic Suck: The lisping girls who provide backing vocals on "The Devil Is An Englishman" seem to have been chosen specifically to throw off the gothic mood, and are a deliberate satire of The Human League.
  • Surreal Music Video: Most of them, though "She Blinded Me With Science" is particularly known for it.
  • Synth-Pop: Most of Dolby's songs are composed on synthesizer, and many of his live performances involve... well... him. And a lot of synths.
  • The '80s: The rerelease of his album The Golden Age of Wireless provided one of the fundamental hits of 1982, "She Blinded Me With Science."
  • Shown Their Work: Dolby is known for making his work available on Youtube, dissecting his song concepts, explaining how he arranged tracks, and showing how he used various gadgets. From his 2011 album, ''A Map of the Floating City'', he here explains the idea he wanted to play with for the track 'The Toad Lickers', then gets into all the technical bits
  • The Treachery of Images: Dolby used a witty twist on René Magritte's Trope Namer painting as the cover for one of his singles, aptly named "Close But No Cigar".
  • Train Song: "Spice Train"
  • Wasted Song: Dolby says this about "Don't Turn Away" in The Flat Earth remaster booklet, as it had only appeared on the "Howard The Duck" soundtrack in 1986. He felt like the remaster gave it an opportunity to shine.