[Review] Thomas Dolby: The Golden Age of Wireless (1982)

An early steampunk classic long before the idea had gained steam in the mainstream.

Kronomyth 1.0: All wave computers and no playing makes Thomas a dolby.

Thomas Dolby’s first record was light years ahead of most synthesizer pop artists. Even before Human League and Duran Duran became household names, Dolby was building a reputation as a golden boy–an electronic wunderkind for artists as diverse as Joan Armatrading, Foreigner and Lene Lovich. The Golden Age of Wireless was recorded at around the same time as that session work and featured members of Lovich’s band (including the singer herself), but received a somewhat muted release on the little-known Venice In Peril label. An international hit single, “She Blinded Me With Science,” changed Dolby’s fortunes, and the first album was remixed and resequenced to now feature the new hit single and the atmospheric “One of Our Submarines.” It was this version of the album that fell into my hands as a teenager, and I was immediately struck by its intelligence and romantic sense of adventure.

Listening to this record today, the technical sophistication behind it is still amazing. Vienna by Ultravox had made a similar impression on me some years earlier. Both spoke to a bygone age in the future tongues of machines; both reverent of the past and yet revolutionary. Dolby wasn’t a particularly good singer; in fact, the label may not have applied to him at all. But the computers, synthesizers, drum machines and supporting voices told a rich story of a retro-future long before steampunk had gained steam. Dolby was giving us a glimpse into our own future; a future which, ironically, would be absent of Dolby the musician.

A review of side one, point two

I thought I read somewhere that Dolby wrote the music for She Blinded Me With Science after he storyboarded the video. Maybe I’m not remembering that right, since the music hardly feels like an afterthought. Or maybe I’m thinking of “Cloudburst at Shingle Street,” since that song does sound like it was just thrown together. It occurs to me now that “She Blinded Me With Science” is really just a clever rewrite of “Yassassin” by David Bowie, but I’m sure no one noticed. I had “Yassassin” etched in my high school ring, so I would pay attention to these things. I pay attention to the wrong things. And that’s not to say that Golden Age of Wireless is a copycat album. Quite the contrary, really. Radio Silence is exactly the sort of thing that influenced Peter John-Vettese and Ian Anderson on Under Wraps. For years, I tried to figure out why Jethro Tull made an album like that. Now I know: they thought it was the future of music, just like I did. We were, unfortunately, both wrong. Speaking of influences, Airwaves had an audible influence on XTC’s Mummer. When bands like Tull and XTC pay you the flattery of imitation, you know you’ve done something right. Flying North, the opening cut on the original elpee version, is like a movie scored. Weightless feels like one of Andy Partridge’s frothier confections. Pretty much a perfect side of plastic from beginning to end.

A review of side two, point two

Europa and The Pirate Twins is a story set to music; it reminds me of some of the storytelling that Kate Bush did on her albums, yet also reminds me of Ultravox in its romanticism. Windpower would have felt right at home on Mummer or The Big Express. Commercial Breakup is an irrepressibly catchy number with a surprising sense of funk. One of Our Submarines is one of the best tracks on here, mixing cinematic scope with remarkable technical achievement and a beautiful melody to boot. Cloudburst at Shingle Street, like I said, sort of falls apart, but they can’t all be gems I suppose.

Based on this album, I would have bet that Dolby was a major musical talent destined for great things; a bet I would have lost. The Flat Earth lived down to its name, and I lost interest soon after. In retrospect, Dolby was probably too smart for his own good, choosing the lure of a start-up over the starmaker machinery. What remains here is one of those wonderfully perfect ‘80s enigmas, like Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche ’85 and Haircut One Hundred’s Pelican West. I would definitely add The Golden Age of Wireless to a list of 1,001 albums that everyone should hear before they die, although I would call it 1,001 albums that everyone should hear before they kill themselves because that has more of a sense of uh-uh-uh-urgency to it.

Original UK elpee version (VIP 1001)

A1. Flying North
A2. Commercial Breakup (Thomas Dolby/Tim Kerr)
A3. Weightless
A4. Europa and The Pirate Twins
A5. Windpower
B1. The Wreck of the Fairchild
B2. Airwaves
B3. Radio Silence
B4. Cloudburst at Shingle Street

Original US elpee version (ST-12203)
A1. Europa and The Pirate Twins (3:18)
A2. Flying North (3:50)
A3. Weightless (3:45)
A4. Leipzig (3:52)
A5. Windpower (4:20)
B1. Commercial Breakup (Thomas Dolby/Tim Kerr) (4:15)
B2. Urges (3:39)
B3. Airwaves (3:35)
B4. Radio Silence (4:32)
B5. Cloudburst at Shingle Street (5:45)

Second UK elpee version (VIP-1076071)
A1. She Blinded Me With Science (Thomas Dolby/Jo Kerr)
A2. Radio Silence
A3. Airwaves
A4. Flying North
A5. Weightless
B1. Europa and The Pirate Twins
B2. Windpower
B3. Commercial Breakup (Thomas Dolby/Tim Kerr)
B4. One of Our Submarines
B5. Cloudburst at Shingle St.

Second US elpee version (ST-12271)
A1. She Blinded Me With Science (Thomas Dolby/Jo Kerr) (5:09)
A2. Radio Silence (4:32)
A3. Airwaves (3:35)
A4. Flying North (3:50)
A5. Weightless (3:45)
B1. Europa And The Pirate Twins (3:18)
B2. Windpower (3:58)
B3. Commercial Breakup (Thomas Dolby/Tim Kerr) (4:15)
B4. One of Our Submarines (5:11)
B5. Cloudburst At Shingle Street (5:45)

All songs written by Thomas Dolby unless noted.

The Players

Second US version:
Thomas Dolby (drums program, vocals, wave computer, piano, synthesiser, backing vocals, monk, electronic percussion), Kevin Armstrong (guitar, backing vocals), Mark Heyward-Chaplin (bass on A3/A5/B1/B3/B5), Justin Hildreth (drums, percussion) with James Allen (backing vocals on A5/B5), Dave Birch (guitar on A4, monk on A5), Les Chappell (backing vocals on A5/B1, operatics on B5), Judy Evans (backing vocals on A5/B5), Lesley Fairbairn (backing vocals on A4/A5/B5), Simon House (violin on A1), Mutt Lange (backing vocals on A1), Simon Lloyd (leadline brass & flute on B2), Lene Lovich (backing vocals on A5, operatics on B5), John Marsh (shipping forecast on B2), Daniel Miller (synthesizer on A2), Andy Partridge (harmonica on B1), Matthew Seligman (Moog bass on A1/B4), Miriam Stockley (backing vocals on A1), Bruce Wooley (backing vocals on A3, monk on A5), Akiko Yano (backing vocals on A2). Produced by Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson (TMDR) except A1/B4 by Tim Friese-Green & TMDR; A2 mixed by TMDR and Daniel Miller.

The Pictures

Cover by Thomas Dolby and Andrew Douglas. Layout by Bill Smith.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in 1982 in the UK (Venice in Peril, VIP 1001) and Yugoslavia (EMI, LSEMI 11009), and in 1982 in the US (Capitol, ST-12203) and Canada (Harvest, ST-12203) with lyrics innersleeve; reached #13 on the US charts.

  1. Re-released in 1983 in the UK (Venice in Peril, VIP 1076071) with different tracks and track sequence (2nd UK version).
  2. Re-released on elpee and cassette in 1983 in the US (Capitol, ST/4XT-12271) and Canada (Harvest, ST-12271) with different tracks including “Blinded Me With Science,” with unique album cover (2nd US version).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in the UK and Germany (EMI, CDP 7 46009 2) (see 2nd US version).

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