Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hyperactive! by Thomas Dolby: New Wave At Its Funkiest

In the 1980s, British musician, songwriter and producer Thomas Dolby had a knack for creating great tracks by fusing new wave and funk. And "Hyperactive!" was a prime example of this ability. The song is a spastic jolt of electro-funk that only Dolby could have cooked up. It is driven by a jittery, mechanical-sounding bass line that is quite funky in its own unique way. Trombonist Peter Thoms brings some additional funk to the proceedings, as does singer Adele Bertei who trades off on lead vocals with Dolby. Even the cowbell sounds funky on this cut. The track also has a nice synth flute solo. "Hyperactive!" has a singular quality that makes it still sound fresh and original today.

The song, which is from Dolby's The Flat Earth album (1984), saw some chart action. It climbed to # 17 on the UK Singles Chart and #16 on the Canadian RPM magazine charts. The song didn't fare as well in the U.S., peaking at just #62 on the Billboard Hot 100. Dolby originally wrote "Hyperactive!" for Michael Jackson. The two met when Dolby was editing the video for his song "She Blinded Me With Science" back in 1982, and MJ was making his "Billie Jean" video next door. Dolby said in an interview that the two hit it off and became good friends. The two musicians would discuss grooves, new recording techniques, hip hop and other music-related topics. Dolby even visited the pop superstar's home in Encino, California on a few occasions. According to Dolby, MJ needed some material for what would become the Jacksons' Victory album (1984) and asked the synth-pop pioneer to write some songs for him. Dolby later sent MJ some demos, including "Hyperactive!" MJ didn't think the track would be a good fit for the Victory album, so Dolby decided to record it himself.

At the dawn of the MTV era in the early 1980s, Dolby distinguished himself from the pack by creating the persona of a nerdy mad scientist who ironically knew how to funk. It was a clever move on the musician's part, as he understood that image would soon become just as important as the music with the fast-growing popularity of music videos. His eccentric new wave funkster fit right in with the new MTV era, and he played it up to the hilt. However, unlike a lot of other image-driven artists during that period, Dolby was genuinely talented. He was adept on the piano, synthesizer and guitar and was a skilled songwriter.

Dolby first made a name for himself by writing tracks for other artists. He wrote "New Toy" (1981) for new wave artist Lene Lovich. Dolby played keyboards on the track and provided background vocals. He also co-wrote and produced "Magic's Wand" (1982) for pioneering hip-hop group Whodini. He played synthesizers on the track as well as provided the drum samples. Additionally, Dolby worked for a time as a sound tech and studio musician, providing synthesizer parts on tracks for platinum-selling rock bands Def Leppard and Foreigner. And he played on the Thompson Twins' album Set (1982) and singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading's album Walk Under Ladders (1981).

Dolby scored his biggest hit as a solo artist in 1982 with "She Blinded Me With Science." The quirky new wave/funk track made Dolby one of the biggest names on the burgeoning synth-pop scene. The video for the song received heavy rotation on MTV and is now remembered as one of the iconic videos of the music channel's golden age when it actually played videos. The track climbed to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. and spent two weeks at #1 on the Canadian RPM magazine charts but only managed to reach #49 on the UK Singles Chart.

Following the huge success of "She Blinded Me With Science," Dolby continued to collaborate with other artists. He co-produced Joni Mitchell's album Dog Eat Dog (1985). And he even worked with Uncle Jam himself, George Clinton. Dolby co-produced and played on Clinton's album Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends (1985). He collaborated with Clinton again on the funky single "May The Cube Be With You" from Dolby's album Aliens Ate My Buick (1988). He also co-wrote the song "Howard The Duck" with the P-Funk ringleader. The song is from the Dolby-produced soundtrack of the ill-fated 1986 film Howard The Duck.

 In addition to being a successful recording artist, Dolby is quite the tech-head. Throughout his musical career, he was on a quest to integrate music and technology. In the early '90s, Dolby took a long break from his music career to establish Beatnik, Inc., a Silicon Valley tech company that built the ringtone synthesizer that's embedded in more than three billion mobile phones worldwide. In addition, Dolby and Beatnik, Inc. have made other innovations in computer music and software that have significantly impacted the sound of popular music today.

On October 25, 2011, Dolby released his fifth studio album titled A Map of the Floating City. It's his first full-length studio album since the release of Astronauts & Heretics in 1992. Dolby maintains a solid fan base and has been touring pretty extensively of late. His "The Time Capsule" tour began last month, and he has a number of dates lined up this month as well as in May. Here's a link for more tour info.

Incidentally, doesn't the  trombone player (Peter Thoms) in the "Hyperactive!" video bear a striking resemblance to Gene Hackman?

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Related blog entry: Thomas Dolby Brings The Funk On Live Performance of "She Blinded Me With Science"

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