Essays on Technology and Culture

Thomas Dolby’s “Invisible Lighthouse”

Saturday night, I got the chance to see one of my favorite musicians try something new, in an intimate setting. Thomas Dolby, better known as that guy who did “She Blinded Me With Science,” debuted his work-in-progress documentary film The Invisible Lighthouse. The film is about the area where he grew up, on the coast of Suffolk in East Anglia, which is slowly sinking into the ocean. The titular lighthouse is the Orford Ness Lighthouse, which is being shut down, taking with it a bit of Dolby’s childhood memories.

Thomas describes it thusly:

There’s a mysterious island across the water..e. On the tip of the island is a beautiful lighthouse. Since I was a small child I have fallen asleep at night to the soothing periodic flash of the light on my bedroom wall. But now it’s about to be closed down. Like many lighthouses around the world, it’s becoming obsolete as ships adopt satellite navigation. With global warming and beach erosion threatening its very foundations, it’s soon going to be a pile of rubble left to fall into the North Sea.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Thomas Dolby perform four times, now. The first and second times were him performing solo, a boffin surrounded by synthesizers, MIDI equipment, and some shiny Apple hardware. The third time, touring for his first album in nearly twenty years, featured a full band. Saturday’s show was something else. Thomas performed a live narration and soundtrack to the work-in-progress film, combining pieces of music spanning his career with new music. The final product will feature a full band performing the soundtrack to the completed film, and after what I saw, I can’t wait.

Storytelling has long been part of Thomas’s shows, at least since his return to performing. Film is a natural extension of that medium. The Invisible Lighthouse, even in its unfinished state, is haunting, and informative—not just from a historical/geographic perspective of a part of the world I never knew, but also explains references in his music I never got. It felt as though a part of the curtain were being pulled back, and I got to see not how the machine of Dolby’s music works, but the machine of his mind that created it. It was one of the most intimate half-hours I’ve spent with a musician, even separated by three rows of dining tables at Joe’s Pub.

When Thomas comes back around with the final product, I’ll be there. If you’re not familiar with his work, start with The Golden Age of Wireless, which is his first album. There’s a lot to discover in his work—far more than I thought there was. That is what separates true art from anything else.