Rock Computer Whiz Dolby Is Blinded by Science—but Not Success

updated 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Charles Robertson, 71, is a professor emeritus of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University. His 24-year-old son, Thomas Morgan Robertson—professional name, Thomas Dolby—is a pop star. Which helps explains why, in the video that accompanies Tom's single She Blinded Me With Science, the elder Robertson, a former assistant keeper of the British Museum's Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, can be seen speeding across the screen on smoking roller skates. "I don't understand what Tom is doing, but it's all quite fun," says the professor. "From the age of 14, he always said he would be a pop star. We all thought, 'That will pass.' Now our old square academic friends are very impressed. We dine out often on Tom."

So does Tom. His first LP, The Golden Age of Wireless, is heading to the Top 10 on the charts, and She Blinded Me With Science recently peaked at No. 5. He also may go down in the annals of rock as the man who brought the one-man band out of the kazoo-and-tambourine era. Dolby writes, plays and produces his own music for his own record label, and, in his live show, rules Wizard-of-Oz-like over a bank of wave, echo, voice, chorus and drum synthesizers. "I'm as threatened and intimidated by the new technology as everyone else," says Dolby. "But I'd rather be a passenger than a victim." The success of his videos—some of which he directs himself—on MTV has brought Dolby, without his ever touring the U.S., the kind of identification and popularity in this country that used to be possible only through live appearances. "The videocassettes were crucial," he says.

Equally crucial is that, unlike much of high-tech rock, Dolby's music somehow retains its humanity and a sense of humor. The seductive element in She Blinded Me With Science turns out to be old-fashioned love. In another single, Europa and the Pirate Twins, Dolby added a nice fillip by splicing in a radio broadcast of London Meteorological Office announcer John Marsh reciting the shipping forecast. In another down-to-earth touch, Dolby named his record label Venice In Peril, and he donates one cent from every VIP record purchased to a Venice preservation fund. "Of all the places I visited as a child," says Dolby, who sometimes traveled with his father, "Venice was the one city that really stuck in my memory. It's been an inspiration to my music."

His interest in music blossomed in an Oxfordshire school choir when Dolby was 8. "I was the only one who could sing alto and hear a harmony part, so I think the teacher paid a bit more attention to me," says Dolby. He learned piano by playing Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson tapes at half speed, which made the music an octave lower but slow enough to mimic. He quit school at 16 to play "bad jazz and Elton John" in clubs and began familiarizing himself with musical engineering. His first experience with synthesizers was the turning point. "The minute I started experimenting with synths, I started writing, because I was drawing on my imagination rather than imitating a huge tradition," says Dolby. His first single Urges/Leipzig, was released in the U.K. to critical acclaim in 1981. Last year he felt ready to produce his first album.

Dolby is hardly leading a life of pop-star decadence. His ground-floor apartment in London's Chelsea district contains walls of electronic gear and not much else. Although he happily casts himself as the mad rock scientist, he's concerned about keeping his enthusiasm in check. "The only thing I don't want to happen," Dolby once said, "is to disappear up my own backside doing computer programs."

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