I can’t tell you how many tries I’ve had at this song. Just trying to describe it, the feeling of it, without losing the essence and explaining it. The whole thing resists explanation, partly because I was young when I heard it and the impact was part mysterious, part kinetic, it made my body jolt in a way that was as close to dancing as I would ever get. I didn’t understand what went into it, and didn’t really imagine myself almost forty years later typing, deleting, typing, deleting, trying to write something that captured what I felt about it.
Anyway, what I love about it is the way the music starts all broken up, drums without a groove, bass that seems one beat away from its proper place, an angsty vocal that feels tight in the throat. Those “orchestral hits” that basically sound like eighty classical musicians disappearing into a black hole backwards. The whole thing is like a ball of energy ready to “blow”, as Dolby says in the lyrics.
It’s like those clockwork toys, I know, it’s a long time ago. You wind them up and then there’s that point just before you let them go, the rubber wheels pulling at the floor. I remember that feeling, in my body, the energy and the anger that, in an instant, could be converted to a kind of ecstatic trance. Beethoven, Fela Kuti, Miles, all the best rhythm sections had it and have it. When it happens, it can feel like it’s the answer to everything.
I also didn’t know what hyperactive meant really, certainly not the proper medical definition. To me it was just the feeling that this guy, a young Thomas Dolby, had this energy in him that made him feel out of place and caused him to terrorise his teachers and fellow pupils. When all those bobby socked teenagers felt that Sinatra was singing just for them, well, that’s what I felt like with “Hyperactive”.
The verse is all stop and start, confusion and frustration, but the bridge releases all that energy into an incredible groove that picks you up and hurls you forward, I can almost feel the wind of the air left behind rushing past my head. It’s kind of air punchingly great the way it suddenly takes off, and “they’re messing with my heart” is a nice twist on the “messing with my mind” that you’d expect: it’s not just his head, it’s deeper, and he understands that in a way “they” (teachers, shrinks, parents) don’t.
Once this transition happens, it’s like the tension is gone and he’s on a big rant which, in a way I hadn’t noticed all those years ago, gets a bit violent and sinister as it goes. But it’s too late, we are on his side. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager and kicked a bedroom door (that’s everybody, right? Er…..Right?) is on his side.
Yes, it’s all a bit cartoony. No, I don’t have anything against therapists. Or parents. Or teachers. But this song just seemed to drop on me at a time when I thought that being a jazz musician might just include playing on grooves like this, might include inventing them even. It’s pure rhythm (almost no chords, a surprisingly common trait of a surprisingly large amount of surprisingly good music). It seemed to find the perfect subject for the twitchy, metallic sound of the new music of the time, and it gave people like the young Thomas Dolby, kicking and screaming their way into an uncertain adolescence, a voice.