‘Radio Silence’ by Thomas Dolby, 1982

Exhibit / March 21, 2017

Object Name: “Radio Silence” by Thomas Dolby (music video)
Maker and Year: Thomas Dolby, performer and director, 1982
Object Type: Music video
Video Source: YouTube/softlad telly visual
Description: (Michael Grasso)

Thomas Dolby (born Thomas Morgan Robertson, he took the stage name Dolby from a nickname he received as a studio recording obsessive) burst onto the music scene in 1981 at the forefront of the new wave of post-punk bands using electronic instrumentation in the U.K. Unlike synth bands such as Human League, whose members were influenced by both the science fiction and science fact of the postwar period, Dolby’s on-stage and video aesthetic was consciously older, hearkening back to the visual cues of an interwar period between World War I and World War II. Dolby’s first single, “Europa and the Pirate Twins” (1981), evoked a wartime narrative, while the video combined 1940s radio technology and mass media (in the form of 1940s motion picture glamour) with cutting-edge 1981 synths and personal computers.

Dolby’s first LP, The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), was even more explicit in its evocation of nostalgia for interwar culture and technology, especially the titular invention and popularization of broadcast radio. “Radio Silence,” the first single off the album proper (international mega-hit “She Blinded Me With Science” was not on the initial pressings of The Golden Age of Wireless), is sung to a “Caroline,” a name which, for any British fan of pop music, would clearly evoke the massively famous and successful pirate radio station Radio Caroline. The station’s first broadcasts went out between 1964 and 1968, providing a venue for rock music well before BBC Radio 1 (1967) took to the airwaves, copying much of Radio Caroline’s style and even hiring away some of their DJs.

The “Radio Silence” video was directed by Dolby, like most of his early efforts. It contains more of the artist’s hobby horses: old-style radio technology and the glamour and fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. This fashion and style aesthetic is given a goth twist in the person of the already mentioned Caroline, her clothing and eye makeup in the 1940s automobile scenes resembling nothing less than a cross between two of the main women characters in 1982’s Blade Runner, Sean Young’s Rachael and Daryl Hannah’s Pris. Much as Blade Runner could be considered one of the founding visual stylistic documents of cyberpunk, so too could Dolby’s aesthetic circa The Golden Age of Wireless be considered the forerunner of what’s been recently dubbed “dieselpunk.” In the end, Dolby’s character in the video seeks to immortalize Caroline’s beauty in his hall of dead technology by turning her into a Classical statue in a sort of reverse-Pygmalion; or, perhaps in honor of another dieselpunk-tinged pop culture classic, Dr. Frank N. Furter’s Medusa Transducer from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

6 thoughts on “‘Radio Silence’ by Thomas Dolby, 1982

  1. I was 12 in 1982, and its startling to me how strongly that aesthetic was imprinted on me at the time. As soon as Dolby appeared, I instantly thought, “God, he looks so cool. I wish I had that haircut and suit.”

    • You are definitely not the only one. I’ve seen so many cosplayers and geeks who still use Dolby as a style template. I also could’ve easily taken this short exhibit in the direction of exploring how much Dolby influenced “geek chic” in general, of which dieselpunk and cyberpunk and goth are all intertwining threads (the binding material being synthesized music, from synthpop to industrial to, well, goth).

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