You may know Thomas Dolby best as the bespectacled singer behind the quirky 1980s synth-pop hit “She Blinded Me With Science.”
But Dolby — whose professional surname started out as a nickname given by schoolmates impressed with his musical and computer programming skills — has run the gamut of the business. He’s scored films, served as a sound engineer, played synthesizer in studio sessions for everyone from Def Leppard to Foreigner and built his own computer equipment.
Now, he’s back with a brand-new studio album, “A Map of the Floating City.” So what music has influenced this musical Renaissance man?
1. Elton John, Honky Chateau
This was the first album I ever bought. I saved up my pocket money, and I was so proud of it. I made a special shelf to hold my future record collection and started out with just one album. I loved Elton’s piano playing and was amazed how roots-American he sounded, for being such a blatant Brit. I once waited at the stage door for him before a concert in North London, with a pen and a program in hand, and a big Rolls pulled up and out he got — but my pen didn’t work!
2. Joni Mitchell, For The Roses
My brothers and sisters were big fans of “Blue,” but this was the first Joni album I paid for myself. Her poetry and voice, and unusual chord sequences and intervals, made her a complete standout. These days, she sounds bitter and twisted, but I will always remember her as the sweet hippie painter from the cover of this album. And her later “Hejira,” in my opinion, is the greatest rock album of all time.
3. Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out
I dabbled in jazz and was attracted to the bohemian lifestyle, but could never stand the endless self-indulgent solos. Along came Dave, who was actually a composer (though I only recently discovered saxist Paul Desmond is credited with the smash hit “Take 5,” much to Dave’s disdain). There has always been a strong jazz flair in my songs, especially the harmonies. Now you know where it came from!
4. Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
This is the brilliant album that features Dan’s version of “I Scare Myself,” which I later covered. It was the soundtrack to a summer I spent at Oxford University — not actually attending (I left school at 16), just drinking in the pubs, going to Ban The Bomb rallies and climbing walls of girls’ colleges after curfew.
5. Kraftwerk, The Man Machine
Undoubtedly the patron saints of the U.K. electronic underground that I cut my teeth on, the famous German mannequins set a standard for electronic pop that has never been equaled. They were the first to truly let machines be machines, and celebrate their inanimacy.
6. David Bowie, Low
I had always loved Bowie as a pop icon, but when he teamed with Eno and went off to the Berlin Wall to make records with primitive synthesizers, I was completely gaga. And Side 2 was all electronic instumentals. By a rock artist, that was simply unheard of!
7. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
The vibe of this whole album has stuck with me all these years. Van often sounds a bit angry and uncomfortable to me, but on this LP, he seemed to discover a temporary oasis of spiritual peace within the music and inspired jamming of the group of musicians he assembled. “Without You,” in particular, had a huge influence on me — without that track there would have been no “Screen Kiss,” possibly my best song.
8. Soft Machine, Soft Machine Third
“Moon In June” was the ultimate 20-minute rock opus from an era replete with 20-minute jams. Robert Wyatt was a true prophet. The chord and tempo changes left us fledgling musicians scratching our heads. Plus, the triple album gatefold sleeve provided a much more base solid for the construction of “Camberwell Carrots.” Just try rolling one of those babies on a CD jewel box!
9. Iggy Pop, Lust For Life
This album showcases Iggy’s raw power combined with Bowie’s songwriting prowess. Add to that their excellence in conducting a rocking band and turning chaos into order and back again, and you’ve got a classic album of the era. Against a backdrop of the London punk scene of the late ’70s — which was fun as hell but had not a lot of musical merit to it — I loved this album above all others.
10. Talking Heads, Talking Heads ’77
What a relief, when, at the end of the ’70s, a new breed of music emerged that had the manic energy of the three-chord, spike-haired brigade, but also had a thoughtfulness and compositional flair that appealed to my delicate music sensibilities. The Heads seemed otherworldly, with David Byrne’s neurological contortions set against a rocking rhythm section. I dutifully headed to New York, to CBGBs and The Mudd Club, to soak it all in, and paid my way with keyboard sessions for the likes of Foreigner and Def Leppard. During that era, I was quietly cooking up my own contribution to the rapidly morphing world of ’80s music. What a strange melting pot we all dove into!