Weekly Read: The Speed of Sound

Reviewing memoirs is a tricky thing. Essentially, it breaks down into answering three questions – Is the story of this person’s life interesting and worth reading about? Is the story told in such a way that elevates things beyond a simple “this is what happened” narrative? Does it say something profound about the world?

Thomas Dolby has the first part covered. If you only know him as the “She Blinded Me With Science Guy,” then his memoir The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology will be a revelation. Only half the book is taken up with his music career. The other half deals with his second life as a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, a career that is probably reaching into the smart phone you’re using to read this.

Dolby’s music career is, in itself, pretty interesting as a cautionary tale of just how fickle the business is. Dolby found his first synth in the trash after being fired from his job at a produce shop. Via tinkering and experimentation he mastered the still relatively new tool and wound working with a lot of other people, either in their band or as a hired gun in the studio (the synths on Foreigner 4? All Dolby). Finally he was able to record his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, which wasn’t doing much of anything until “She Blinded Me With Science” (not on the album itself, originally) broke big in the United States, thanks largely to MTV.

Wireless is now regarded as a classic and Dolby would spend the rest of the 1980s trying to replicate its success. That he didn’t owes less to the quality of music he was making than it does to commercial factors that were well beyond his control. The Flat Earth (which is brilliant), for example, tanked commercially largely due to the fact that his record label fired its main promo person (resulting in non-cooperation from his former contacts in the media) and picked a losing fight with MTV. Unable to back up the commercial success of Wireless, Dolby’s other albums sank like stones.

Which isn’t to say he got some interesting stories out of it. If nothing else, he wound up working with and rubbing elbows with lots of stars. There are anecdotes about David Bowie’s fear of flying (Dolby played with him at Live Aid), Michael Jackson’s nerdy interest in cutting edge music gear (Dolby’s “Hyperactive” was written for Jackson), and Eddie Van Halen’s (who played on Dolby’s album Astronauts and Heretics) lack of amusement about This Is Spinal Tap – because Van Halen thought it was about them! It’s all interesting, and fun, but it’s not very deep or dramatic. As I said, the downward slide of Dolby’s music career was due largely to factors outside of his control and since he was always a solo artist there aren’t any nasty inter-band dynamics to spice things up.

After four albums and lots of other session work, Dolby left the music business, but he didn’t leave the business of music. Always the tech head, Dolby was interested early on in making music a big part of the Internet experience (he refers to it as “sonicizing” the Web). He started a company that eventually became Beatnik. You probably don’t know it, but you likely use its tech every time your mobile phone rings (Dolby even had a role in selecting the ubiquitous “Nokia waltz”). The business world didn’t really suit Dolby, either (some of the ups and downs, caused by outside forces, echo what happened in his music career), so he eventually cashed out, returned with his family to the UK, and started making music again.

One of the disappointments with the book is the short shrift given to this last part of his career (that he’s turned yet another new page, teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is barely mentioned). In particular, I wanted to know something about the tour, the tech, and the conception of the tour that gave us The Sole Inhabitant, which is my favorite version of Dolby’s music. That’s par for the course, as the thing I wanted more of throughout was the nitty gritty of the music (I have the similar gripe about most music books or documentaries). We get a few tales of where songs came from (the genesis of “Wreck of the Fairchild” is particularly good), but little of the actual work of building up songs. Given Dolby’s nature as a tinkerer, rather than muse-inspired mouthpiece, I’d be interested in his process.

So, Dolby’s story is interesting, but that’s about all The Speed of Sound has going for it. The writing’s fine and pleasant, but nothing special. Dolby occasionally tells an anecdote that’s completely of its time, without meaningfully reflecting on it in any way (the Michael Jackson story ends with the appearance of neighborhood kids in their PJs, for example – this passes without comment). Likewise there’s nothing terribly profound in Dolby’s story. It’s a nice story about a guy who made a good life largely doing what he loves to do, which is mess around with music and tech stuff.  Good for him, certainly, but it doesn’t make for the meatiest of reads.

The bottom line is this – if you’re a fan of Dolby, or even just wonder what he’s been up to since he hit the “Where Are They Now?” file, The Speed of Sound is highly recommended. Otherwise, your time might be better spent elsewhere.



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