For travellers and live music fans alike 2020/21 has been something of a write off so perhaps it is the current state of play that has prompted this trip down memory lane…. In October 1998 I was travelling down the West Coast of the USA and after spending a few days in San Francisco I headed south 30 miles to the beautifully named Half Moon Bay. Tent pitched, belly filled, I went for a wander. On hearing music drifting through the Californian night air, like a bear in search of food I followed it’s sonic path. Drawn to a detached, white clapperboard hall overlooking the Pacific ocean, for a moment I stood outside and listened – synth driven pop, with what seemed a reverential audience was my assessment; funny thing was the vocal sounded strangely familiar but I couldn’t quite place it.
Entering the hall, I saw a pile of shoes – there was no one taking money and no sign of a bar. There was maybe 60 people sitting on the floor watching a geeky looking bald guy playing a keyboard. There was incense burning and a very laid back Californian vibe, it looked to me like this was a freebie – very cool I thought to myself as I scanned the room. The next song I did recognise and it clicked. I whispered to the woman next to me ‘what’s this guys name’ ‘Thomas Dolby‘ she said. ‘It’s his fortieth birthday’ Ha, the same one that had bothered the UK charts back in the 80’s. I recalled a tune of his called ‘She Blinded Me With Science‘, notably, the song/video had featured the eccentric TV presenter Magnus Pyke who had chipped in every now and then with the word ‘Science’.
After a couple of songs, Dolby announced he would be taking a short break. At that, people got to their feet and were mingling which made me feel very self conscious. Dolby came down from the stage and immediately approached me. He asked me what my name was and what I was doing here. I didn’t want to say I was a stray from the camp-site so thinking on my feet I remembered that there was a Durham connection – he had worked with Prefab Sprout in the 80’s so I said, ‘I know Paddy McAloon – he told me this was happening’. Dolby looked me in the eye and said, very politely, ‘Do you mind leaving please, this is a private party’. I spun round, put my shoes on and went back into the night. I bought myself a cold beer from a nearby shop and walked back to the hall thinking I’ll sit outside and listen to his second set. Once he started though I snuck back in and sat down down at the back, close to the door. He played ‘I Scare Myself’ a song of his I really liked and another one I recognised – Hyperactive which had got to number 17 in 1984. When he finished, I made a sharp exit in order not to antagonise him further. A gate crasher removed once is OK but to have to do it twice would have been uncomfortable for both of us.
I hadn’t thought much about Thomas Dolby after that evening, other than to recount this yarn from time to time but as I said, being starved of travel and live music brought past wanderings to mind so I googled him. What I discovered surprised me. For a start, I found out that he had released a limited addition album of the performance I had witnessed at Half Moon Bay entitled ‘Forty’. Now going for £42 on Amazon but free to listen to via YouTube. I listened, closed my eyes and remembered when both Dolby and I were 40 year olds. I could almost smell the incense and feel the Californian breeze on my face.
Apparently, Thomas Dolby had not performed live for several years prior to that 40th birthday gig as following his 1992 album, Astronauts & Heretics he had turned his attention to running a tech start-up company in Silicon Valley. He had formed a company called Headspace which developed an audio-engine called Beatnik that Nokia subsequently embedded in its mobile phones to play its ringtone. That famous Nokia ringtone, I discovered, was extracted from a piece of 1902 guitar music by Francisco Tárrega called Gran Vals. Thomas Dolby had taken a small section of the music and worked it into an audio file which went on to become his greatest hit and Nokia’s defining soundbite. He left Silicon Valley at the turn of the new millennia, became musical director for TED Conferences from 2002-12 and is now Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
His music CV is no less impressive, it is lengthy and is worth investigation. For instance, I had not known that Thomas Dolby is a five-time Grammy nominee and ‘She Blinded Me With Science‘ had reached number 5 in the US charts, plus the song had featured in the seminal TV series Breaking Bad. He was part of Bowie‘s band at Live Aid, had played keyboards in Roger Waters 1990 Berlin performance of Floyd’s The Wall and had been in Stevie Wonder‘s 1985 Grammy Awards band. And that synthesiser part on the 1981 Foreigner power ballad ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’, yes, you guessed it – Thomas Dolby. The list goes on and on.
However, for me it is the aforementioned Durham link that is most intriguing. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian Thomas said ‘I was on Radio 1’s Roundtable programme reviewing records, and the other guests were raving about all these awful Christmas songs. Then Prefab Sprout’s Don’t Sing came on…I’d never heard anything like it. The next thing I knew their manager invited me up to their old rectory in Consett. Paddy’s bedroom was twice the size of a single mattress. He sat with a guitar and played me songs from sheets of paper. I recorded them all, took them home and whittled 40 down to 12′. In the autumn of 1984, Dolby and Prefab Sprout began working on the songs in a London studio, those tracks went on to become the classic Sprout album Steve McQueen, on which Dolby is credited with ‘instruments, mixing and production’.
Oh, I also found out he authored a book called The Speed of Sound which according to the publisher is a ‘revealing look behind the curtain of the music industry, as well as a unique history of technology over the past thirty years. From sipping Chablis with Bill Gates to visiting Michael Jackson at his mansion or viewing the Web for the first time on Netscape founder Jim Clark’s laptop, this is both the view from the ultimate insider and also that of a technology pioneer whose ground-breaking ideas have helped shape the way we live today’.
Clearly then, there is a lot more to Thomas Dolby than a clutch of 1980’s chart hits and I look forward to reading The Speed of Sound. I’m glad I gate-crashed his 40th because it’s one of those memories that has stayed with me far longer than say, that view of a lake in Someplace, Tennessee, plus it’s been nice to take the time to learn something of the man that threw me out of his birthday party.