Ted Mills / June 18, 2019
It starts as it always does, with the sound of a cold, synthetic wind, whistling tones, and the nervous twitch of a Morse code signal. There’s a short intake of breath, a low om-like hum. A message needs to get through. And then our singer steps up to the mic: “Switch off the mind and let the heart decide… who you were meant to be.”
This is Thomas Dolby’s 1982 song “Windpower,” and in some alternative universe it’s the song he’s best known for, instead of his herky-jerky pop hit “She Blinded Me with Science.” Then again, my 12-year-old self would never have heard of Dolby if not for that MTV-dominant single, and I wouldn’t have purchased one of my first ever vinyl records, the Blinded by Science EP on which “Windpower” is the opening track of Side Two. I listened to it so much over those years that for a while I wasn’t even hearing it—the song had become a natural state of things, a section of DNA. And then time would pass and styles would change, and each time I returned to the song it got a little bit weirder, stuck out just a little bit more than usual, and started to feel like a direction that pop music never followed again—not even at the hands of Dolby himself. The last time I revisited it, with a much better sound system and a nice French 12” single I bought off Discogs, I realized how much Dolby’s obsessions had become my obsessions, but with a little bit of chicken-and-egg confusion. As self-involved as it sounds, “Windpower” feels like it was born out of my summer vacations in East Anglia.
Both of my parents were English, but I was first generation American. England was “the old country” where my aunts and uncles and grandparents lived. My dad had been divorced for five years and we would go on holiday (or you could say retreat) to my Nan’s house in Essex, a pre-war, two-story brick house large enough to once have raised a large family inside. But now they had all married and moved and it was large enough to have rooms with a funereal weirdness to them: the “front room” that once hosted piano parties now hosted just a piano. Oh, and it had a radio, one of those large, Bakelite machines the size of a tumble dryer, with four (!) frequency dials and evocative city names as markers: Luxembourg, Stockholm, Berlin. None of the dials really tuned in to those station locations, but I liked turning them and hoping.
Nan also had a smaller portable radio that I quickly took as my own, which had the same dials. I would stay up late under the covers and, with one mono earpiece (found in a drawer) plugged into my left ear, use up the batteries trying to connect over the wireless with those cities. That didn’t happen so much as finding other, stranger signals over the airwaves: Morse code, the woozy sine waves from turning the dial, the pirate radio ship Radio Caroline, and one late night at the end of the short wave a series of beeps and spoken numbers that only decades later I would learn were spy agency transmissions or “number stations.” This was my own golden age of wireless, way more interesting than my Southern California radio that played classic rock, stoner rock, AM pop, sports radio, and religion—two frequencies and not much going on at the ends of either dial.
In Dolby’s memoir he talks about the frame of mind behind his first album’s lyrics:
… I seemed to be moving into a sort of post-apocalyptic reverie, a parallel universe. I would look out over the snow-covered railway tracks and imagine how London might have turned out if one of the many threatened invasions of our island had been successful. I imagined living under a repressive regime, where free speech was prohibited and everything rationed. Would there be a resistance movement? A secret society of freethinking artists and writers, lurking in the ruins of abandoned factories? Of course there would, and I would be the one to write their anthems.
It’s funny to read that, because I’ve never considered The Golden Age of Wireless, Dolby’s debut LP, to be post-apocalyptic. The lyrics evoke images of the grotty places I had seen in England while traveling from sunny California. The “copper cables all rust in the acid rains” from “Airwaves” didn’t make me think of a dystopian wasteland—it reminded me of pulling into Liverpool Street Station. The city and location names conjured up enigmatic reveries: Leipzig, The Strand, the Hoverport, the Westchester Thruway (which I thought for years was near London). Dolby’s traveling in a lot of the songs—on busses, in cars, in subways, on planes, all of which I had done under parental supervision. But one day I’d be doing that all grown up and alone (in a cool, artistic way).
Blinded by Science and The Golden Age of Wireless became a memento of that vacation, a way to process the things I had learned. I bought the album in California, but it felt like it had come straight from England. “Windpower,” then, was for me the anthem of the album. While most of the lyrics are stories, this song is a call to arms, a call to self-realization, a dream to kickstart “a continent, a continent, a continent…”—sung in a declaratory way with phased vocals. When he sings “the future is roses, rohhhhhhhses,” I wasn’t sure it was a good thing. And the whispered and repeated “windpower” at the beginning sounds sinister. If it’s a revolution, it’s an icy one.
The majority of the sounds on “Windpower” come from the PPG Wave Computer, an analog synthesizer “the size of a deepfreeze” that Dolby nicknamed “Henry.” For this song, its unreliable nature produced a bass sound with a swing-rhythm delay. The happy accident became the backbone of the song (and “…fitted so well into the feel of the song that I’ve performed the song live, on occasions, with only that bass sound and my voice,” he told emusician). For what could have been an exercise in minimalism, Dolby throws in all sorts of filigree: a flute here, a brass section there (both played by Simon Lloyd), synth drum tracks that he makes swing like the bass or shudder on the bridge. A lot more texture and variety happens in this song than most electronic music of the ‘80s would allow. Some of the track’s magic comes from a transitional period in pop music, right after synthesizers started becoming available and affordable to working musicians but before every band and producer bought them for studios and never got past the factory settings.
Back in my nan’s house, one last thing I remember popping up on the radio: the Shipping Forecast. To be honest, I never paid too much attention to it at the time, but as “Windpower” nears its conclusion, in strolls the voice of the BBC’s John Marsh, reading the daily list of ocean conditions around the British Isles. Unless you have a maritime job, this is more of a mysterious incantation than news: “There are warnings of gales in Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, and Biscay…” Here was another evocative set of what I thought were coastal towns (much later I would learn that they were sections of ocean, with a naming system begun around the turn of the century.)
Dolby fades the radio broadcast in and out, much like George Martin would do with the BBC’s King Lear broadcast on “I Am the Walrus.” After a drum crescendo that halts and fades, “Windpower” returns to its beginning, the winds rising again, the Morse code chattering, the high pitched and echoing notes meandering in the mix, and the Shipping Forecast still calmly progressing. The song recedes, or rather we recede from it, and 12-year-old me would turn my headphones way, way up trying to catch as much as I could before the stylus headed toward the run-out groove: “…at first. Showers in east, good. Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea: Northerly, four to six, locally seven, decreasing three or four, locally five. Showers at first, good.”
“Windpower” is one of those songs that has stayed with me in ways I didn’t expect. Like a first shot of a very illegal drug, you spend a lot of the intervening years trying to recapture those feelings from the time those synapses got connected. I see it in my own film and music work, in my obsessions with radio towers, transmitters, weird electronics, or my attempts to recontextualize seemingly mundane events—like the Shipping Forecast—into experiences deep and strange. I can connect the other songs that give off the same vibe: Negativland’s “Time Zones,” Brian Eno’s “R.A.F.” or “Kurt’s Rejoinder” or “No One Receiving,” and a lot of Beck’s underrated The Information (which features its own recording of the Shipping Forecast).
Both Eno, Dolby, and myself have East Anglia in their veins. I’m in no way putting myself in their artistic lineage, but I am placing them, the countryside and its melancholic sunsets (when the clouds part, which isn’t often), and those radio signals together, an enigmatic combination of transmitters and receivers, one measured exposure of a childhood holiday, endlessly renewing itself with each needle drop.
Ted Mills is a Santa Barbara-based arts writer, film director and curator, au courant and bon vivant. You can find him on Twitter at @tedmills.