Friday, 12 November 2010

The Golden Age of Wireless: the best synthpop album ever?

The burgeoning of synthpop acts in the late 1970s through early '80s didn't produce many great albums; the music from that period by artists like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and John Foxx is best experienced on greatest hits compilations. By this point, Kraftwerk had released their most influential work, and classic albums by Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, for instance, were a short while off. Other British acts were, however, mining a rich seam of electrosoul - from Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement (1981) through Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) to Cupid & Psyche '85 by Scritti Politti.

Against this background came a debut that was very different from everything around it. The first inkling I had was heralded by the opening lines of a single: 'Switch off the mind and let the heart decide/ Who you were meant to to be'. It was a musical challenge. Set against a soundscape of navigation bleeps, Windpower wasn't the first single by English musician Thomas Morgan Robertson but, from the moment those heavily programmed synth drum sounds kicked in, you were hooked.

The cover of the album from which it came, The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), features a mock-up of one of those old illustrated magazine covers, this time featuring Robertson - or Thomas Dolby as he rechristened himself, legal suits apropos the sound system notwithstanding - as a lab technician, skull cut away to show a glowing egg shape. As exemplified by the intro to Windpower, The Golden Age... is fascinated by those currents crackling over our heads (Airwaves); he's a keen sailor and the album conjures images of tramp trawlers on the North Sea, as well as pilots making solo air deliveries, and even those post-apocalyptic motorways created many years later by Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later. (I remember Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows coming out around this time and its drawings would also be a good fit.)

These scenes are striking in their isolation but the tracks are about movement, too, notably Flying North, with its insistent tchk, tchk, tchk drum sound (now spelt !!!): 'Metal bird dip wing of fire/ Whose airlanes comb dark Earth/ The poles are tethers we were born in... Down with the landing gear/ Up goes the useless prayer' - tremendous! While Numan was transcribing the dreams of JG Ballard into his own fantasies - nowhere better than on the post-punk Tubeway Army (1978) - Dolby was creating a future built on an antique heyday of technology and history, personal and otherwise. She Blinded with Me Science made No 5 in the US Billboard chart and was added as the album's upbeat opener; Dolby also cuts loose on another single with a female subject, Europa and the Pirate Twins.

The sea washes back for the final tracks: One of Our Submarines is built on sounds you'd associate with a sub (Dolby's uncle died serving on a submarine in World War II) while Cloudburst on Shingle Street builds slowly ('I've been a cork in the ocean, been bobbing in the North Sea') to a choir repeating the title. Using very synthy synthesizer sounds, Dolby creates a much warmer soundscape than his contemporaries, a good fit for the broken relationships and end of empire he ponders here. Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode are acknowledged masters but Dolby created a coherent masterpiece: the stand-out album of a golden age.


  1. A fine album indeed, though I wouldn't be so quick to write off Dare. Really enjoyed your post though, thank you.

  2. Thank you for your very kind comment - will have another listen to Dare now!