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Sometime back in 1980, keyboardist Thomas Morgan Robertson nicknamed "Dolby" because of his extensive audio expertise was enjoying a good gig as a session synth player. After a night with Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club, a proto-New Wave outfit, Dolby stole away a few hours in his hotel room.
Alone he composed a precious keyboard melody against a Dr. Rhythm drum machine and recorded it on a TEAC Portastudio the equipment of the day. The song fit in perfectly on the 1981 cassette-only compilation From Brussels with Love, bouncing against an Eno interview, Joy Division members in mourning, and obscure tracks from John Foxx and Section 25. It was a concise, literate, and delicate composition, and showed Dolby as a first-rate songwriter completely comfortable with the technology of tomorrow.
"The advent of synth-driven music coincided with the peak of the very male, manicured rock sound," reminds Dolby. "It was rather threatening, the same way punk rock had been threatening to disco. There were people saying, öYou can't make soul music with electronics.'"
To the contrary, with tunes like "Airwaves," Dolby demonstrated a tasteful way that primitive synthesizers ("My first axe was a Micromoog," he says) could work with an ensemble of "real" instruments.
By the time a full-blown version of "Airwaves" made it to Dolby's debut album, 1982's The Golden Age of Wireless, he was practically a household name owing to the annoying and ubiquitous "She Blinded Me with Science" and its accompanying video, which, for better or worse, remains his albatross.
Dolby followed up Wireless with an even better, jazzier record that showed off his chops and sensitive side; 1984's The Flat Earth produced a ripple thanks to "Hyperactive," another loud, overproduced single. Then he began an extended period of being an outsider.
"At the time of The Flat Earth, my ambition was to make enough of an impact with the melodic stuff that I could wipe the slate clean and supersede people's perception of me from the MTV days," Dolby says from his place in the San Francisco Bay Area. "But that's a tall order, really."
That difficulty was made evident by the diminishing returns of 1988's Aliens Ate My Buick and 1993's Astronauts and Heretics. But retreating to the sidelines as a session man was as familiar to Dolby as dorky aviator glasses. He'd gotten his start backing up the likes of Lene Lovich, the Thompson Twins, and Joan Armatrading.
It was lucrative work at times: He made bank playing on Def Leppard's Pyromaniaand adding memorable keyboard riffs to songs like Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You."
After a few aborted soundtracks (Howard the Duck, anyone? No?), Dolby fled the music scene entirely, winding up in the back room tinkering with machinery and microchips.
More than 60 percent of all cell phones on the planet use some form of Beatnik, his pioneering software that allows for polyphonic ringtones. Since he abandoned England (where he still owns a home) for California nearly twenty years ago, it has been no secret Dolby is a whiz at both high technology and high finance.
His re-emergence last year with some live shows and a live album (The Sole Inhabitant) isn't based on new material. It's clearly meant to appease old fans. "After all these years," he says, "the ones that have stuck around are a very pure core audience, very well informed and respectful."
His fans and his catalogue would probably be better served if he had just played his first two records in their entirety. Inhabitant includes the goofy techno-funk of "Airhead" instead of the gentle "Airwaves." But in addition to the hits, he does offer nice retouching of his seminal synth ballads from The Golden Age of Wireless.
Opening with "Leipzig Is Calling," a rare track available only on the import version of that first album, Inhabitantconsists of Dolby backing himself with samples, loops, and his own gadgetry.
On eBay he bought some vintage electronic devices, like a Fifties-era signal generator used by the U.S. Air Force. "I picked them up because I liked the knobs and levers and meters on them," he explains. He gutted the old machines and fashioned them with MIDI innards. Onstage Dolby exploits his mad-scientist image for all it's worth, even wearing a pair of antique earphones.
Not surprisingly he's totally at home in the updated, downloadable world of modern music distribution. The benefits of the new technologies and business models haven't even come to full fruition yet, he believes. "There's some kid who's still in high school who's going to going to blow our minds and create something brand-new, the likes of which we haven't seen before."
In the meantime, the Internet keeps Dolby's name in circulation. "In the old regime, somebody at my point is past their shelf life," he notes. "At a certain point, you're just out of print. You can't really expect to attract a younger audience."
That has changed now Dolby says he sees kids in the crowds "who couldn't have possibly been there the first time around" but the Web's abundant riches aren't without drawbacks.