8. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me with Science”
Ray Milton Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933. A sound engineer by training and by trade, Dolby spent the early nineteen-sixties working as a technical advisor for the United Nations, lugging recording equipment around India and surrounding areas. As he trundled through long bus rides, he turned over a problem in his head. What steps could be taken, he wondered, eliminate the hiss that invariably marred tap recordings? As he told it, the solution struck him on one of those journeys. Split the recordings into two separate channels of varying volumes, and the hiss would drop away. His idea worked, and, within a few years, the engineer launched an eponymous company, making the Dolby name synonymous with high-quality recordings.
Around the time Ray Dolby was traversing South Asia, Thomas Morgan Robertson came into the world, in London. A jet-setter in his boyhood, due to his Oxford professor father’s archeological excursions, Thomas found his calling in youth choirs, eventually teaching himself various instruments and joining his first band at the tender age of fifteen. In no time at all, he decided to drop out of school and pursue music full-time, eventually securing a spot in Bruce Woolley’s band Camera Club. Thomas Robertson decided to adopt a stage name. Since he was constantly tinkering new electronic tricks in making his music, he settled on a name that represented technological advancement in recording. He became Thomas Dolby.
According to Dolby — meaning Thomas rather than Ray from here on in — the success of “New Toy,” a song he wrote for Lene Lovich, convinced him that he was a strong enough crafter of music to go out on his own. His earliest attempts at securing a record deal didn’t go well, an Dolby eventually took a lucrative gig playing with Foreigner. He took the earnings and started his own label, Venice in Peril. Through that endeavor, Dolby finally got his deal with a major label, signing an agreement with EMI that included an advance to make his first album.
Part of the advance went toward an intricate digital synthesizer that Dolby referred to as a “wave computer.” Mostly, though, he called it Henry. With his electronic boon companion, Dolby worked in the material that made up his debut full-length, The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982.
Since Dolby felt like a technological pioneer with his various gizmos, he toyed around with an image of himself as a mad scientist, playing amidst test tubes in a sterling white lab coat. The field of music video was emerging at this point, leading Dolby to adapt this persona to the form, sketching up an idea for a faux silent film adventure that suited the part he was already playing. “I thought I could do a silent film with a soundtrack,” Dolby later said. “I was being identified as a bookish geek, so I decided to embrace it. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna be a geek, I’ll be a cool one. I need a hot Japanese lab assistant and a nice, vintage motorcycle.'”
After the music video concept was in place, Dolby set about writing an accompanying song. He started with a title he thought would work nicely: “She Blinded Me with Science.”
“I very often come up with the title first,” Dolby explained. “I have a notebook filled with potential song titles, and I work backwards from there. I visualize an empty stage with a spotlight, and a guy walks into the spotlight and starts to sing a song called ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ What does it sound like? What’s the groove? What are the words? What’s the chord sequence? I fill in the blanks from there, and it becomes like a crossword puzzle.”
In the case of “She Blinded Me with Science,” the pop music charts argue that Dolby’s puzzle-solving worked. The track is by far his biggest hit, making it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Dolby’s only song to register in the U.S. Top 40 — and enduring as the unofficial theme song of all things even mildly scientific in the world. Dolby has been game about the song’s long reach — performing it alongside the likes of Buzz Aldrin, for instance — despite his conviction that it’s one of the most frivolous works he’s ever created.
“When I play it now, I still get a big kick out of it,” said Dolby. “I mean, I’m perfectly proud of the song, and it’s got a great groove and loaded with hooks. And when I play, it’s iconic, I think, for many people. Especially people who were around the first time. It makes people very happy.”
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.
The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.