Thomas Dolby releasing memoir (read an excerpt about making the “She Blinded Me with Science” video)
Thomas Dolby may be best known for his 1982 new wave MTV hit "She Blinded Me with Science" but he has had a long and varied career in addition to his many albums, including as a producer (almost all of Prefab Sprout's albums), he created technology to help create cellphone polyphonic ringtones, and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University. This week, he'll add author to his CV with the release of memoir The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology which is out Tuesday, October 11 via Flatiron Books. Dolby's seen and done a lot, and brings a lot of wit to to the table. Preorder yours from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound.
We've got an exclusive excerpt from the book, one that recounts the making of the "She Blinded Me with Science" video, which also marked Dolby's directorial debut:
I’d hired Dr. Magnus Pyke, a well- known TV personality and scientist, to play the part of the mad psychiatrist. We didn’t see eye to eye. Despite the fact that I’d sent him a copy of the story board, along with a check that wiped out a large chunk of our budget, Dr. Pyke was not comfortable with the idea of wearing a white lab coat on-screen, and he was refusing to come out of his trailer.
Read the entire book excerpt below.
Dolby will also be doing a few events around the book, including an appearance at the LitQuake Literary Festival in San Francisco, CA on Friday (10/14), and he'll be at Baltimore, MD's The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, MD on December 1.
THE SPEED OF SOUND: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology
By Thomas Dolby
POETRY IN MOTION
EMI had recently contracted to make two videos with a director called Steve Barron. They showed me some rough cuts and I was impressed with his work. I duly set up a time to meet him later that week at his production company, Limelight Films. When I arrived at their offices on Soho Square the receptionist looked embarrassed. She quickly disappeared into the back to find Steve’s producer, his older sister Siobhan. As she walked up to me to shake hands, I couldn’t help imagining casting her as the lab assistant in my video. She was a former Vogue model, immaculately dressed, with a disarming elegance. Her broad smile curled a little at the edges. Seated beside me on the sofa in a tiny screening room piled high with Betamax tapes, Siobhan explained to me that Steve was actually at that moment on a plane to Los Angeles, where Michael Jackson had summoned him to discuss the video for the first single from his new album, Thriller. Siobhan was sorry if I’d made a wasted trip, but said she would love to hear my concept for the new single.
I pulled out my story board and talked her through it. She laughed a lot and complimented me on the camera angles I’d drawn. When I asked how soon Steve might have an opening to direct the piece, she said, “Thomas, you should be the one to direct this, your ideas are so brilliant and you can make it quirky and original. Why not do it yourself?”
I was taken aback by this, and said I had no idea how it all worked on a fi lm set. “Not a problem,” said Siobhan. “We shoot videos all the time. We’ve got two on the go this week alone. Come down to the set and I’ll explain how it all works. We’ve got an amazing crew. I’ll introduce you to the right people. We will bring your ideas to life!”
I was concerned that EMI would not go for the idea of me directing my own video. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” Siobhan said. “I can take care of it. They’re so cheap, when I tell them how much money they will save by not needing a director, they’ll be all over it.” (In actual fact it wouldn’t have made much difference to EMI, as they recouped the video costs from my royalty statement, even though they retained full owner ship of the video.)
I arranged to meet Siobhan for a night shoot at the huge and derelict Butler’s Wharf, on the south bank of the Thames. It was close to midnight as I drove through the deserted alleyways, and I could see an area where the crumbling ware houses were all lit up by powerful film lights. There was a dolly track rigged across the cobblestones. Camera grips, wardrobe and makeup people were milling around, their breath visible in the cold night air. At the center of all the activity I could see Phil Oakey from the Human League flanked by two female backing singers, miming to playback on a small speaker.
Siobhan was wrapped in a fur coat, and she turned and waved at me. At the end of the take she came over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Ooh, Thomas, let’s get some Bovril and sit in your Jag.” It seemed she had a deep fear of rats. She slid next to me on the leather bench seat and began pointing out equipment and members of the crew, explaining their roles.
Needless to say, I was smitten with this elegant woman and the enticing world of film and glamour that she represented. We became lovers, and for a few months I followed her around like a puppy dog as she breezed through London cocktail parties and gallery openings. The room would light up as she walked into the middle of a crowd; often she would get bored after five or ten minutes and announce she was leaving to go somewhere else, trailing half the partygoers with her.
EMI gave us the budget for a long single day’s shoot on the “Science” video, and my call was at 5:15 a.m. The location was the Holme, a fabulous Georgian building and gardens in the middle of Regent’s Park, and we were lucky with the weather. The lighting cameraman had a pretty good handle on how to compose the shots I’d described, so my job was to direct the actors, grab an occasional peek through the lens, yell “Action!” and jump into the frame. I’d hired Dr. Magnus Pyke, a well- known TV personality and scientist, to play the part of the mad psychiatrist. We didn’t see eye to eye. Despite the fact that I’d sent him a copy of the story board, along with a check that wiped out a large chunk of our budget, Dr. Pyke was not comfortable with the idea of wearing a white lab coat on- screen, and he was refusing to come out of his trailer. An assistant director brought me the bad news, so I went to see him myself. “My public don’t regard me that way,” he complained, clearly on the verge of a tantrum. Siobhan told me I should let it drop and move on, hurrying me along so we could stay on schedule and get all the shots done without incurring overtime.
My father, Martin Robertson, was in the clip, playing a deranged inventor, gamely fi ring up his rocket- powered roller skates on the lawn. He was the only bona fi de professor on the set, the rest having been hired from Central Casting. He introduced himself to Dr. Pyke, who by coincidence had formerly taught chemistry to two of my older brothers at prep school. Dr. Pyke’s only response was to repeatedly ask Martin to check with me whether his car was going to be there for him at noon. He also expressed his dissatisfaction with the premise of the clip. “As a known scientist,” he said, “it would be a bit surprising if the girl blinded me with science.” In his defense, he was darned good at fl apping his arms around and looking demented on cue.
I bumped into Dr. Pyke many years later, in Edinburgh at a conference. He’d just returned from a lecture tour of the USA. I asked him how it had gone. “Badly, Dolby,” he spat back. “Every time I walked down the sidewalk someone would sneak up behind me and yell ‘SCIENCE!’ at the top of their lungs! It seems that bloody MTV video of yours is more widely recognized than my body of scientific work.”
By lunchtime I was frantic with agitation and somewhat exhausted. I sat at a trestle table with my band, trying to eat half a sandwich. One of the musicians said, “Here Tom, take one of these,” and handed me glass of water and a pink pill. I took it and downed it in one and then said, “What was that?” “Oh, just a Dexedrine 20,” he said. “I get them on prescription. It’ll keep you awake.” “What the f— ? ” Within five minutes I felt a second wind coming on; but with it came a terrible case of itchy mouth. In the later shots from the clip you can see my tongue flailing around like a rabid dog’s.
When we wrapped at the end of the day, Siobhan handed me a large box of Scotch whisky miniatures. “Give one of these to each of your brilliant crew,” she said quietly. “They’ll remember you for it.” Siobhan was like that. She knew every crew member personally and took great care of them, but was humble enough to let the artist take the credit for her gifts.
Limelight hooked me up with an excellent editor called John Mister, and we spent five days cutting my fi lm in an editing suite in Soho. I learned to my delight that John had worked on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and had been roped into playing a bit part as the knight who got his throat ripped out by the homicidal rabbit, nearly drowning in the middle of Hampstead Heath when his helmet filled up with fake blood. It was fascinating to watch the physicality of John’s editing process—the way he would pick a strip of celluloid from a long rack, wind it through on his Steenbeck editing machine, mark the perfect in and out points with a china pencil, apply a touch of glue, then use both hands to stamp the shot into the master reel. All of this can be completed these days with a few strokes on a QWERTY and undone in an instant. Back then, you had to be pretty confident that a cut was going to work. John could eyeball two pieces of fi lm either side of a potential cut, knowing intuitively if it was going to flow. “See the way her hand comes up into frame right there? It’s not going to work. And I’ve got nothing else to cut away to. You need to get more coverage, Thomas!”
In the editing suite next door was Steve Barron, who had just returned from Los Angeles, where he’d shot the video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Michael was planning a secret visit to London to sit in on the edit of his clip. Siobhan told me to keep it to myself, because he didn’t want to attract any paparazzi attention. He worked with Steve in the adjacent suite over the course of several days. One after noon we met at the watercooler. Michael was wearing simple white jeans and a black leather jacket. I introduced myself and asked him if he was pleased with the progress on his video. I complimented him on the arrangement of “Billie Jean,” and I wasn’t lying when I said it was one of the best singles I’d ever heard in my life. He told me he really liked “She Blinded Me with Science,” too. He said it was already getting some plays on “urban” radio and in dance clubs in the U.S., along with its B- side, “One of Our Submarines”; but he’d assumed I was a black guy. He showed me Steve Barron’s work in progress on his video. Mostly it was successive takes of Michael strutting down an illuminated dance floor with his collar up. But he said that for the next singles from his album Thriller, he really wanted to try some narrative videos that had a real story line. Which was why he was interested in “She Blinded Me with Science.” Michael gave me his number on a scrap of paper and said if I was ever in L.A. I should look him up. I wrote it in my Filofax, not really expecting I would ever get a chance to use it.
Excerpted from THE SPEED OF SOUND: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology. Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Dolby. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.