Thomas Dolby's Autobiography
A friend of mine sent the following email to me a few weeks ago:
Thomas Dolby did the synth on Waiting??
He was referring to Foreigner’s 1981 hit, “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” and yes indeed, Thomas Dolby of “She Blinded Me With Science” fame played synth on the tune, including the intro that drummer Dennis Elliott categorized as “massage music.” In Dolby’s crafty autobiography, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology, he credits Foreigner with saving him from his stint performing for tips at Parisian Metro stations, though he admits that he was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t Mick Jones of The Clash who came calling. Instead, Dolby was whisked away to New York to record with Mutt Lange and the other Mick Jones, where he earned enough money to kick-start his solo career.
Before reading The Speed of Sound, I knew nothing about Dolby save for his big hit and for an erroneous belief that he or his family had had something to do with Dolby noise-reduction found on tape decks. It was actually the other way around. Born Thomas Robertson, Dolby acquired his nickname due to his propensity to play with gadgets that included a cassette recorder. In 1986, Dolby Labs actually filed for an injunction to prevent Thomas Dolby from using the name, and though the lawsuit was eventually dropped, Dolby took a financial hit that led to him to move permanently to California, where he spent the next two decades in the tech industry. A tinkerer at heart, Dolby formed his own company, first writing soundtracks for computer games and helping develop software that allowed nonlinear compositions to interacted with the user, then striving to discover ways to send music over the Internet in real time, ultimately achieving great success with ringtone software and content.
Particularly fascinating in The Speed of Sound is witnessing the technology boom through the eyes of someone living in the moment. Dolby is careful not to give us the benefit of hindsight: he places us squarely in the period when home computers and the internet were just beginning to flourish, websites were not entirely understood, and when tech companies were sprouting up by the hundreds, all hoping to stay ahead of the curve. No one was sure how it was going to play out, even bigwigs like Bill Gates. When Dolby attended a digital media conference in 1994, a guy named Marc Porat prophesied that one day PCs wouldn't be needed at all because “all your work will be in a sort of cloud.” Gates went ballistic. It would take a while, but Porat’s words proved prescient.
Though there were all sorts of discoveries for me reading this book (his playing with Bowie at Live Aid and with Roger Waters at the Berlin performance of The Wall), the most fulfilling one was learning of the English pop band Prefab Sprout, whose second album Dolby produced in 1985. I’d never even heard of the band before, never mind their music, but a quick listen on YouTube demanded that I buy the CD on eBay that same evening. It’s a gem.
Why isn’t such a great band better known? If Dolby were to summarize the reasons, he would probably say that the record industry “is rotten to its fucking core.” He takes us into the industry's underbelly, where money is laundered, artists are exploited, and support is taken away without notice. Dolby’s career as a recording artist was frustrating, though he managed to release four albums over a decade before finally calling it a day. Things looked bright for a moment when EMI released him from his contract and Virgin Records came calling, but six months later EMI purchased Virgin. Such was the music industry in the early 90s.
Unlike the Springsteen autobiography I just finished reading, Dolby devotes most of his writing to his career and eschews getting bogged down in his personal life, a wise move for an artist whose career isn’t as well understood as someone like Springsteen’s. Too many musicians and producers who embark on authoring a book don’t understand this, and for this reason most of their writings fall flat. Sure, for a megastar whose work you memorized long ago, you may want to know what makes him tick and learn details about his childhood and time away from music. For Dolby, it's enough to understand his journey from synth-pop hit-maker to a tech company founder (and now, a professor of music and film at Johns Hopkins).
It’s a great read. Highly recommended.