She Blinded Me with Science
July 30, 2018
Todd plays "She Blinded Me with Science" on the piano.
THOMAS DOLBY - SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. And, uh, you know how I said all [clip of The Cardigans - "Lovefool"] the requests I have taken so far seem to be from the '90s? Uh, yeah, I took a look at all the other requests and, um, that's not really gonna change. It's almost entirely from that decade, so just for the sake of variety, I decided to look at the one request I got from before the '90s. And boy, is it a doozy.
Clip of Thomas Dolby - "She Blinded Me with Science"
Todd (VO): I have been sitting on this one for a while. I said I got tired of new wave songs, so I've been avoiding them but, man, it's been too long.
Todd: Weird new wave songs are this show's bread and butter. It was made for guys like this.
Thomas Dolby: She blinded me with science
Magnus Pyke: She blinded me with science!
Todd (VO): This guy is named Thomas Dolby and he hit the big time in 1982 with his weirdo novelty smash "She Blinded Me with Science".
Todd: It's a strange song that's hard to imagine existing at any other time.
Thomas: Blinding me with science
Todd (VO): I honestly don't even know who this is for. Like, how do you listen to it? What am I supposed to do with this?
Todd: But it certainly has its fans. I have a friend who says it's his favourite song of all time. Look.
Brad Jones: Yes, I can confirm that my favourite song is, in fact, Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me with Science".
Todd: Thanks! And, uh, two quick follow-up questions, Brad. One, really? And two, why?
Brad: Come on, the song's like poetry in motion, man!
Brad (VO): And it combines several things that I love, mad scientists, one-hit wonders, and it is the most...
Brad: ...1982 of 1982 new wave.
Todd: I guess that makes sense.
Brad: Also I was on a lot of drugs in my 20s.
Todd: That also makes sense. [picture of meth lab] Drugs are science too.
Todd (VO): But, yeah, when MTV first hit, it seemed like stuff like this was all they played. Synthpop had already been tagged as music for nerds, and "She Blinded Me with Science"...
Todd: ...was the logical outcome. A herky-jerky pop song by a guy who looked like [picture of Jeffrey Combs as...] the goddamn Re-Animator. Though, of course, that's not the best song by a guy that looks like the Re-Animator. That, of course, would be [clip of...] "Move Your Dead Bones" by Dr. Reanimator. Again, that is "Move Your Dead Bones" by Dr. Reanimator. I will bring this song up at every opportunity.
Dr. Reanimator: Reanimate your feet
Todd: But we probably wouldn't have Dr. Reanimator without [clip of "She Blinded Me with Science"] Thomas Dolby, and for that, we owe him a serious debt of gratitude. So get out your test tubes and pocket protectors, we're gonna do a deep dive into science. Which one? Doesn't matter, it's just science. So put on your safety goggles so you don't get blinded! By all the science!
Thomas: She blinded me with science
Magnus: She blinded me with science!
Before the hit
Picture of Thomas DolbyTodd (VO): Okay, so this guy's real name is Thomas Robertson from London, England.
Todd: His original stage name was just "Dolby" [image of Dolby Surround logo] but then the Dolby Sound people made him stop. But it's a fitting stage name.
Clip of Thomas Dolby live performanceTodd (VO): As you can tell, this is a guy who was really into sound technology. And this is from [clip of Kraftwerk performing "Autobahn"] back in the day, when synthesizers were insanely expensive. I mean, it's like nothing today, I mean, I got this...
Todd: ...electric piano I got used for $200, [Todd picks up another keyboard] I got, like, another synthesizer on top of it. [Todd plays a few notes on the other synthesizer] See, it's no thing. But back in the day, you had to be a serious nerd.
Clip of Thomas Dolby demonstrating synthesizerTodd (VO): And of course, this guy was. He was the nerdiest of them all.
Todd: In fact, let's listen to some of the geektastic synthpop that this guy made.
Clip of Foreigner - "Waiting for a Girl Like You"Todd (VO): Oh right, I forgot. Uh, before he started his career he got his start doing [clip of Foreigner - "Urgent"] session work for Foreigner.
Lou Gramm: UrgentTodd (VO): Yeah. Yeah, this guy's a real jukebox hero.
Todd: But anyway, he used that as a launching pad for his music career.
Clip of "Europa and the Pirate Twins"Todd (VO): He released his first album The Golden Age of Wireless in 1982. Here's his first single, "Europa and the Pirate Twins".
Thomas: I was 14
She was 12Todd (VO): It's, um... it's about a girl named Europa, and when she and the narrator were kids together they used to pretend to be pirate twins, and they promised that they'd meet again someday.
Thomas: We'll be the pirate twins againTodd (VO): But, turns out she became a movie star so he can't get in contact with her.
Thomas: EuropaTodd (VO): Also there was a war and people now travel by hoverport.
Thomas: In from my hoverportTodd: There's a lot goin' on here.
Todd (VO): Dolby says he writes songs like a frustrated novelist. And you can tell he was extremely influenced by [album cover for "Heroes" by...] David Bowie's Berlin work.
Clip of "Windpower"Todd (VO): But what I notice here is that he already has his persona completely nailed down. He said he first tried to be like a [image of Duran Duran] New Romantic, you know, lots of [image of Adam & the Ants] frilly clothes and makeup and [picture of Thomas] ...yeah, no.
Clip of "Radio Silence"Todd (VO): Just look at this guy. So instead he decided to lean into the whole nerd thing.
Todd: His dad was a professor, his siblings were professors, so...
Todd (VO): ...if he has to dress up, why not just go full Revenge of the Nerds-style nerd? He took a look at himself and he said, "I should at all times look like I'm cosplaying as [image of...] Egon from The Real Ghostbusters. No, that doesn't even exist yet, I am that forward-thinking."
Todd: But the album didn't generate any hits or anything. I kind of imagine the record executives being like [clip of "Windpower"] "What's with all this crazy shit about satellites? Why don't you write something normal? Why don't you just write a silly love song?" And Dolby's like "A silly love song, huh?"
The big hit
Video for "She Blinded Me With Science" begins playingTodd (VO): So here we have it: an MTV song about love and mad science.
Thomas: It's poetry in motionTodd (VO): It's, uh... it's romantic, I guess.
Todd: Unless it's meant literally. Cause there are many ways to be blinded with science.
Clip from The Simpsons episode "Radioactive Man"
Rainier Wolfcastle: My eyes! The goggles do nothing!Todd: Now, I wanna be clear,...
"She Blinded Me With Science" continuesTodd (VO): ...Thomas Dolby is extremely legit. He's weird, but he's...
Todd: ...not a novelty and not a joke. [beat] But this song is absolutely a novelty and a joke.
Todd (VO): He calls it "the most frivolous song [he] ever wrote", which is proof that he's better with words than I am, cause I was gonna call it "goofy as balls". But, uh yeah, let's go with "frivolous".
Todd: But to me, this is like the inevitable end point of all synthesizer songs up to that point. [Clips of Kraftwerk - "The Robots",...] From the very beginning, people associated synthesizers [... Devo - "Jocko Homo",...] with cold, impersonal technology. [... Gary Numan - "Cars",...] All the original generation of synth bands were like [...and The Buggles - "Video Killed the Radio Star"] robots or mad science geeks. He's just doing the most obvious version of that.
Thomas: And hit me with technologyTodd (VO): But also, this just hit at exactly the right time. Science had a real stranglehold on the popular consciousness. Somewhere around the late 70s, [clip from CNN news segment about computers] early 80s, people just started getting their minds blown by all the new technology.
Todd: I mean, there's always new technology, but it hadn't affected anyone's normal life for a while. [Clip of 1950s American family] Your average house was exactly the same for 30 years. You got [clips showing...] a TV, a car, fridge, phone, some stereo equipment maybe, but then all of a sudden, there's this big leap forward in how you live your life. [Clip of...] There are computers! They used those to land on the moon, and now you've got one in your goddamn house! You can play games on it, you can type things and print them out on the world's loudest printer. [Clip of kids watching TV] You have VCRs, [clip of Pac-Man] video games, [advertisement for the Walkman plays] you can carry around your music with you, [clip of nuclear power plant laboratory] you've got a thing that emits radiation [ad for a 1983 Panasonic Microwave] and you use it to cook food that you eat?! [Video of microchip assembly plant] Oh my god! The future is now! We're living in it! My watch has a calculator on it!
"She Blinded Me With Science" continues
Thomas: Science!Todd (VO): And it even has an actual famous scientist in it. [Clips of interviews with...] This guy is Magnus Pyke; he was like the Bill Nye of England in the 70s.
Clip from "She Blinded Me With Science"
Magnus Pyke: She blinded me with science!
Magnus Pyke interview continuesTodd (VO): It's kind of amazing to me that this guy was real [image of cover for Our Future: Magnus Pike Predicts] because he seems like a straight up cartoon, like a mad scientist at a kids show.
Todd: At the very least, this is a pleasant reminder of when musical artists worked with TV scientists instead of [clip from B.O.B. - "Flatline"] releasing diss tracks at them about the shape of the Earth.
Thomas: I can smell the chemicals (Blinded me with science)Todd: And also, it's a love song... I guess.
Magnus: Good heavens Miss Sakamoto, you're beautiful!Todd (VO): And the "she" who blinded him with science is, of course, Japanese... naturally. At this point, [clip of Japanese assembly line] Japan had already cemented its reputation as a country of technology. He even joked once that [image of the following quote] he was way "ahead of the time [sic] in fetishizing Asian women".
Todd: And uh, no one had even heard of [image of Japanese woman with anime body pillow] anime yet, so uh... uh yeah, probably.
"She Blinded Me With Science" continuesTodd (VO): So uh, this all adds up to...
Todd: ... a song? [shrugs] It is what it is.
Thomas: I can hear machineryTodd (VO): I mean, no disrespect to my colleagues or anything, but uh, uh I don't really see the appeal. It's a very [stock image with the following text: Top 10 80's Fads] fad-ish song like [images of single artwork for] "Kung Fu Fighting" or "Pac-Man Fever".
Todd: It's a goof.
Todd (VO): Dolby has said as much, though of course he's not ashamed of it. He says he's proud of all the hooks he managed to fit in there, and...
Todd: ...yeah, it does have a lot of hooks, that's absolutely true.
Todd (VO): You've got Magnus Pyke shouting "Science!", it's got, like, a synth version of mad scientist film scores...
String synthesizer hook playsTodd: And it's certainly got a ton of energy!
Thomas: I don't believe it!Todd: Yeah, this is a music genre I like to call "dork-funk".
Clip of "Girlfriend is Better" by...Todd (VO): The kings of this were the Talking Heads.
David Byrne: I got a girlfriend that's better than that
"She Blinded Me With Science" continuesTodd (VO): In fact, this whole song sounds like a Talking Heads tribute.
Todd: Dolby's even doing the David Byrne yelps and shouts.
Clips of "She Blinded Me With Science", followed by Talking Heads - "And She Was"
"She Blinded Me With Science" continuesTodd (VO): So it's like a Talking Heads song, but without the artsiness? There's absolutely no pretensions here. There's no attempts at poetry, in motion or not,...
Todd: And it's just funny. It's funny, and it's weird,...
Todd (VO): he's playing a cartoon character who loves science so much the only way he can understand love is through science. I guess; it's just not a very funny joke to me.
Todd: I'm not even clear on how she blinded him with science.
Todd (VO): Is she his assistant? His teacher?
Thomas: And failed me in biology
Todd (VO): I don't know, I don't get it.
Todd: Maybe science can help me remove the stick from my ass. [shrugs]
The failed follow-up
Clip of interview with Thomas DolbyTodd (VO): "She Blinded Me With Science" wasn't originally part of his first album, but you know, the label reissued it and added that song, and they also added his follow-up single: "One of Our Submarines".
Thomas Dolby - "One of Our Submarines"
Thomas: One of our submarines is missing...Todd (VO): "One of Our Submarines" is one of his more literary songs. It's about a crashed submarine.
Thomas: The red light flickers, sonar weak, air valves hissing open...Todd (VO): I'm not clear if they're all going to die or what. They might be at the bottom of the ocean, but I think they're just washed up in the middle of nowhere.
Thomas: The winter boys are freezing in their Spam tinTodd (VO): It doesn't sound like they're going to be rescued.
Thomas: Drinking heavy water from a stoneTodd (VO): Okay, heavy water is [image of a diagram for a heavy water reactor] the water they use in nuclear reactors.
Todd: So they've literally resorted to drinking their fuel.
"One of Our Submarines" continuesTodd (VO): Dolby said it was inspired by his uncle, who did, in fact, die in a submarine during World War Two. It was inspired by him; it's not about him 'cause this isn't set during World War Two, we're talking about a nuclear sub. And also, there's some talk about the collapse of the British Empire.
Thomas: Bye bye empire, empire bye byeTodd (VO): I guess "Bye bye empire" could mean a lot of things, but that's what i think it means. The empire is sinking just like this sub, so this crew isn't even fighting for like decency or honor. They're dying for a rotting country and it's all, it all seems very sad and meaningless.
Todd: [beat] Can we roll this back for a second?
Clip from "She Blinded Me With Science"
Thomas: She blinded me with science
Magnus: She blinded me with science!Todd (VO): It's just... yeah, it's a bit of a leap. [Back to "One of Our Submarines"] I honestly like "One of Our Submarines" a lot more. I like how cold and dark and intense it is, but... yeah, it's not really surprising he couldn't get his new fans to make that transition.
Todd: However, after he put together his second album...
Image of single cover for "Hyperactive!"Todd (VO): He did have another minor hit.
Todd: And he leaned entirely into his big hit.
Thomas Dolby - "Hyperactive!"Todd (VO): That album is called [image of album cover for...] The Flat Earth. Don't worry, I don't think he actually [video continues] believes the Earth is flat.
Todd: Didn't used to have to worry about that, but eh...
Todd (VO): The big hit from that album is called "Hyperactive!". And it was.
Thomas: Oh, ripping me apart!
Hyperactive when I'm small, hyperactive now I'm grownTodd (VO): I'll be honest, just for fun when I was doing the research for this episode, I started by playing all his videos on mute.
Todd: And this was definitely the best.
Thomas: And they're messing with my heartTodd (VO): Yeah, this was a decent hit in the UK, where their Eighties was even weirder than our Eighties. And you can see, this is where the videos were also influencing the music. What sold on MTV were just the weirdest, craziest visuals that you couldn't find in any other show or movie or anything, so...
Todd: Of course, we had a song about [shakes his hands in mock exaggeration] beeeing wacky!
Louise Ulfstedt: Hyperactive when I'm small, hyperactive now I'm tallTodd (VO): Yeah, like, his first album was Bowie, his big hit was the Talking Heads, and this follow-up, I think, is like...
Todd: Oingo Boingo.
Oingo Boingo- "Dead Man's Party"
Danny Elfman: It's a dead man's party...Todd (VO): It's just, you know, odd for oddness' sake, it's [back to "Hyperactive!"], it's, you know, it's weird and it's fun. It's energetic. I-I kinda just wanna let it play. For the record, he also directed all his videos, so...
Todd: Yeah, you can tell he's having fun here.
Todd (VO): He's got a hand puppet of himself that's playing the trombone with his nose!
Todd: [shakes hands in mock surprise] Whaaat?!?
Todd (VO): And this fits a little better with his persona, right? He said that after his big hit, he immediately identified the formula that made him his success. He established a voice, an image, people knew who he was.
Todd: And he also said that he immediately decided he wasn't interested in continuing it.
Thomas Dolby - "I Scare Myself"
Thomas: I scare myself just thinking about youTodd (VO): So the rest of the album is not like that. Hope you like cocktail jazz! [Clip of Thomas Dolby - "Dissidents:] And more dark stuff about blacklisted political dissidents.
Note: the following text is spoken in Russian, with subtitles provided in English
Dissident: I remember the night they came for my father and mother.Todd (VO): Yeah...
Todd: And at this point, Thomas Dolby disappears from the Hot 100.
Did he do anything else?
Todd: Oh, god. Tons.
Clip of Thomas Dolby performing with... wait for it...Todd (VO): "Did he ever do anything else". Did he perform at the Grammys with Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder? Yeah, yeah he did. That happened. And what else?
Todd: First of all, he did a lot of work for film music. You may remember his theme song to this cinematic masterpiece...
Clip from Howard the Duck
Beverly Switzer (Lea Thompson): They called him Howard the Duck, ain't no way to conceal itTodd (VO): Ha ha, the film would have you believe that Howard himself wrote this. Hardly. Howard was an amazing duck, but he was no Thomas Dolby.
Todd: Also, I'd heard this was one of the worst movies ever made, and the hype is real.
Todd (VO): It's unwatchable.
Todd: Dolby also wrote... this!
Clip from FernGully: The Last Rainforest - "Batty Rap"
Batty (Robin Williams): Yo, the name is Batty, the logic is erraticTodd (VO): Yes, he did a good chunk of the music from FernGully. [clip of...] Like Tim Curry's all time classic villain song, "Toxic Love"?
Hexxus (Tim Curry): Toxic love!Todd (VO): Yeah. All Dolby. [clip of "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)"] He did not do Tone Loc's lizard rap, sadly.
Todd: He even did a little acting himself!
Clips from:Todd (VO): You may have heard of a little film c- well no, probably, you haven't ever heard of a little film called Rockula. A truly bugshit movie about a loser nerd vampire who starts a rock band to court his reincarnated lost love. I meant to watch this for the Toni Basil episode, because she plays Rockula's mom, and Bo Diddley is Rockula's lead guitarist. And Thomas Dolby is the villain. He owns, like, a cryogenic coffin store, and here he is wearing a pirate outfit attacking Rockula with a hambone for... reasons I cannot even begin to explain.
Todd: But more than that, Dolby was still doing sideman work all through his career.
Def Leppard - "Photograph"
Def Leppard: Oh!Todd (VO): Def Leppard's Pyromania, the keyboard work is all him. You know how I mentioned his Bowie influence?
Clip of MTV interview with David Bowie and Thomas DolbyTodd (VO): Well, guess what. At Live Aid, in 1985, probably [clip of David Bowie performing "Modern Love" at Live Aid] the biggest concert of all time, that's him doing keyboards for The Thin White Duke himself. Right... okay, well, he's in there somewhere. I am reasonably well-informed that he's there.
Todd: Oh, and look at this!
Clip of Parliament-Funkadelic performing on MTV with... wait for it...
George Clinton: Y'all ready to party? Are you ready?Todd (VO): This is George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Yeah, get funky. Tear the roof off the sucker.
George: Yeah, I see Thomas Dolby out there. Come up here and get some of this funk, boy.Todd (VO): And what's that? It's Thomas goddamn Dolby jamming with George Clinton.
Todd: That doesn't make any sense!
Thomas Dolby - "Airhead"Todd (VO): And this all happened while he continued his own career. He released some more albums in the late 80s and 90s. George Clinton even helped produce one of them, [shows album art for] Aliens Ate My Buick.
Thomas Dolby - "Hot Sauce"Todd (VO): Yeah, this record is funkay!
Thomas: Call her hot sauce, she's hot and spicy, but twice as nice-y, although...Todd (VO): A very, very specific definition of funk.
Thomas Dolby - "Close But No Cigar"Todd (VO): And he was even still kinda successful in the UK through the early '90s. Like I said, he just did what he wanted.
Thomas Dolby - "I Love You Goodbye"Todd (VO): He had a zydeco period. But that was before music took a back seat in his life and he went to start his own company where he worked on digital sound. [Clip of Thomas Dolby interview] He designed his own music file format, and he also dealt with some kind of massive leap forward in ringtone technology.
Clip of Nokia ringtoneTodd (VO): That was him! [Shows image of Thomas Dolby] Or his company, at least. He's the artist of our generation.
Todd: And that's on top of the billion other things he's been doing.
Clip of...Todd (VO): See, here he is giving a TED Talk. I have to imagine the TED Talk people didn't have a hard time booking him cause he was their musical director for a good eleven years!
Todd: He also released an album in 2011...
Trailer for A Tale of a Floating City video gameTodd (VO): ...that came with its own video game. It's not online anymore, but from what I can tell, the winning team got the greatest prize of all: an exclusive concert from Thomas Dolby.
Todd: I mean, yeah, you could compete for [stock image of kids playing video games and a fist full of dollar bills] money in these sports, but the real prize has already been taken.
Did he deserve better?
Todd: Um... ye.... almost?
Clip from "She Blinded Me With Science"
Thomas: Poetry in motion!Todd (VO): I don't know. He's obviously a for-real, talented guy, but it-it never quite came together for me, not the same way that his influences like Bowie or the Talking Heads do.
Todd: It wasn't for me. But that's kind of the appeal of him that he's not for everyone.
Todd (VO): He was just a very singular guy with a very weird muse that he wasn't afraid to follow no matter where it took him. And I just admire the guy for being who he is. He made a song about mad science, and he was a legit, kind-of mad scientist. That's awesome.
Todd: Thank you, Mr. Dolby, for blinding me with your novelty music and hilarious music videos.
"She Blinded Me With Science" video endsClosing Tag Song: Bill Parsons - "She Blinded Me With Science"
"She Blinded Me With Science" is owned by Capitol Records.
This video is owned by me.
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!