If you weren’t listening to radio in the 1970s you may not realize how awful synthesizers were and what a desperate need there was for guitars to reconquer rock music. Heading into the 1980s the main trend was good (in retrospect), thanks to pub-rock and punk. But in another turn that I scarcely expected, and only caught up with several years later, a couple of geniuses were figuring out great applications of synths. Prince, of course, was one. The other who got my attention was Thomas Dolby, particularly on his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless (1982) before the novelty number “She Blinded Me With Science” was tacked onto it and the tracks were changed, mostly for the worse.
In a rock context it’s unfair to complain that synthesizers sound fake, since mics and amps have made nearly all the sounds of rock electrical and artificial. In fact the mission of rock to be loud is inseparable from the task of harnessing electricity and finding musical expression in electricity as such, zzt zzt. The challenge is to get enough naturally affecting timbre, something like a voice and singing, into the electrical gale, as with the plucking and twanging of guitar strings or the thwacking of drumheads. And synthesizers of the 1970s had a rather inanimate voice if you could say they had a voice at all. All that note-bending tried to liven the sound up but just called attention to how dead it was.
The technology evolved. By the time I considered playing one of the infernal things, the Roland company had discovered waveform recipes for a decently “natural” emulation of a number of acoustic instruments including piano, and the Yamaha DX7 had some artificially pure but very sweet sounds; listening to the DX7 could be like drinking hummingbird water. Probably the most important advance was incorporating changes in each sound (that is, specifying the “envelope” of the sound) during the time it is sounding. To be alive you must age and die.
By 1982 Thomas Dolby was ambitiously playing and programming a variety of synths, including a very expensive Fairlight CMI that could sample and reproduce live sounds. As I listen to him again I realize that the secret of his success is not so much his sounds, many of which are ugly in themselves, but his gorgeous unusual arrangements—Golden Age of Wireless is one of the masterclasses in pop harmony, up there with Odessey & Oracle—and the elastic kicking way he sings against his programs.
Using one of his more beautiful non-natural sounds, Dolby concocted one of the ultimate synth hooks in “Leipzig,” first released as a single in 1981. The lyrics of “Leipzig” portray a very Northern European glum middle-class scene of espionage reminiscent of John Le Carré novels. In the narrative dimension it’s a downer. But the most important thing in the song is this phrase, which pierces me like the angel pierced St. Teresa (at 0:27 in this clip):
Blatantly artificial, but commandingly alive. Electricity has joined us, singing, in another way, vaguely violinish but not really. “Leipzig” is a concerto for sweet juice in G, bursting with flavor at the end of its great hook in a high major third.
 That album was finally brought back in digital form, remastered, with “Leipzig” and the awesome Guitar Version of “Radio Silence” restored, in 2009.
But here’s a delightful performance of “She Blinded Me With Science” without the distraction of an actor’s voice declaiming the title phrase: