Tonight it’s an eclectic left-field multimedia mix of music, film and spoken word including personal history, nostalgia, swizzling synths, WWII, lighthouses and alien invasions. Not your usual gig, welcome to the truly mad, affable and eccentric world of Thomas Dolby.
Thomas Dolby gained some pretty incredible success in the eighties. Liking punk he was more inspired by the do-it-yourself culture that the synthesizer brought, inspired by the mix of XTC, Souixsie and the Banshees and Bowie’s Berlin period. His first album ‘The Golden Age of Wireless’ brought the mad scientist Magnus Pyke to musical hit sensation with ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. Another hit ‘Hyperactive’ was originally written for somebody called Michael Jackson. Dolby got to perform at Live Aid to thousands at Wembley and millions around the world, on his own set and playing keyboards for some other bloke called David Bowie. In the same year he appeared at the Grammy Awards. In the late eighties he was the support act to some blokes from Essex; Depeche Mode at their massive Passenda Rose Bowl US gig (which was recorded and released as ‘101’). He was one of the cast members at Roger Water’s The Wall in Berlin, playing to 350,000. A producer and collaborator, he’s worked with Joni Mitchell and Prefab Sprout. And more, he’s worked on film scores, created the polyphonic Nokia ringtone and from 2001-2012 was the musical director for the TED Conferences.
After almost a twenty-year break, in 2011 an album with a creative multimedia twist. ‘Map of the Floating City’ was also a multiplayer online game. In Dolby’s own words, “The Floating City is set against a dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently.” The game was played between June and August 2011; players could earn free song download and the winning team was awarded with a private performance from Dolby himself.
So tonight, in the MAC theatre, disappointing half full, we get to experience Dolby’s new project ‘The Invisible Light’. Tonight’s event will be in three parts, an interactive film (by that a film accompanied by Dolby as narrator and playing synths), then a chat with Q&A and then three songs. Onto the tiny stage area to “Good Evening Birmingham, it’s good to be back…”
‘The Invisible Lighthouse’ is an art-house film about a lighthouse (well that’s the central plot) and he starts off the narration with “ I live on the edge of the world….” as the film starts and he plays synths. As an overview, the lighthouse in question is the Orfordness Lighthouse in Suffolk. Dolby could see it as he grew up; it was part of his childhood. As the sea over the years has crept across the Suffolk Downs, the sea will envelop the lighthouse and it was therefore set for decommission. Dolby wanted to document this, and with little help from the authorities in his personal quest, he documented the time till it closed, complete with personal anecdotes, potted history about potential invasion during WWII and bizarre alien stories from the surrounding area. Orfordness Lighthouse was finally decommissioned on 27 June 2013.
The sound in the theatre is good; we get the ‘Dolby’ surround effects from the film and the artist himself. The personal anecdotes include his truly original recording studio; he purchased a former lifeboat on eBay (yes that was eBay), placed it on his property in Suffolk (which has the potential to flood), converted it and called it ‘Nutmeg of Consolation.’ As he tells the story, he flips between hats, to a tin hat from the war – sounding an air raid siren to accompany the WWII element to his tale. Another personal anecdote; during the war, invasion was so real his granny poisoned half the food in her larder (you really had to know which section was safe to eat!). This is part Dolby “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Then to the local alien invasion legend, and to a nightmarish scenario. Snippets of his hits are included within his tales, as he talks and plays, and includes ‘Windpower’ as we view the wind farms on the coast. Now he’s got a sheet over him, like some sort of ghost, he’s actually taking us back to his time as a kid, when in bed he’d play with his toys and books. A slight reference to his extraordinary career, brief comments on Live Aid, MTV and The Wall – he still seems stunned that he got to be involved in such things.
The film finished with a grainy shot of the last flicker from Orfordness Lighthouse as it was closed.
Then the chat and Q&A – where we discover that he decided he wanted to document the decommissioning of the local landmark from his childhood. He didn’t know his journey; went with the flow. Not a filmmaker, but a true techno geek and artist, he invested in kit that would allow him to film and produce this personal journey. He loves the freedom of ‘Do It Yourself’, and the potential of now being able to be creative in the film industry with very little money, just as happened in the music industry. He showed the film to some friends, with his accompanying narration and music, and they loved the intimate experience so much, he thought as opposed to ‘just’ releasing it – he’d come and give this tour, performing in intimate venues like cinemas and tonight’s venue the MAC. A few dates in the UK and US.
Asked what the US would make of such a quirky UK movie he responded that they would love it’s Anglo-quirkiness. A true fan, when given the opportunity to ask a question, says she stole a kiss from him at 16 and now, aged 44, could she steal one again? So she does, re-appearing to kiss him once again and sit on his lap. “I wasn’t expecting the lap dancing” he quips. Another anecdote; he got to meet his hero, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who turned out to be a fan especially of ‘She Blinded Me With Science.’ After finding a broom-cupboard to rehearse in, they performed the song – much to Dolby’s delight.
Then to his three songs: ‘Evil Twin Brother’ (from Map of the Floating City), ‘One of Our Submarines’ and ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ For the later, he appears from behind his keyboards. He’s tracked down the small UK company who created the gizmo that gave ZZ Top their guitar spinning effect. He fixes his synth to ‘his navel’ and during the performance gives it a spin.
Well Thomas Dolby can only be described as an English eccentric. Tonight’s event was certainly a totally different experience. Dolby is, as he admits, “a hermit with an exhibitionist streak”. Affable and a talented artist as a whole, this wasn’t done for commerciality (although tickets were circa £20, merchandise was available and you could meet and greet for an additional £25). This was just him as an artist, giving us a personal snippet into his own true unique world. Just like Julian Cope; as mad as a fish and truly, uniquely different with that totally English quirk of eccentricity.