When a music fan thinks of Thomas Dolby, the first thing that springs to mind is probably “She Blinded Me With Science,” his classic 1982 new wave hit. He has been labeled as a “one-hit wonder” by several music trade publications and programs. (He actually charted three Hot 100 hits in the United States and sixteen Pop hits in the United Kingdom.) However, as is usually the case in real life, there is much more to his story…and that story is told in Dolby’s just-released autobiography, The Speed of Sound.
As the sub-title Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology indicates, Dolby has been interested in forging new connections between these two passions for almost his whole life. The book is split into two parts, the first concentrating on the London-born singer-songwriter’s work in the music industry and the second on his journey to become an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
The first part is of the most interest to fans of his musical works. If you have read many music-related autobiographies, you’ll recognize his familiar, early arc. Striking out on his own after deciding to not follow the rest of his family into a career in academia, Dolby was living in a low-rent apartment while working at a grocery store and checking out the punk scene in late-seventies London. After getting fired from the store, he found a synthesizer in the garbage, which leads him to his eventual career. He took a job hauling equipment from shows and then became a mixer for live venues. From there he would join with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. Dolby moved to Paris in depression after back-room dealings he still doesn’t understand scuttled his first stab at solo stardom. But he would soon be on the right track again after he was hired to play synth for Foreigner on the band’s 1981 album 4. The money he earned from that gig would allow him to record his first LP, The Golden Age of Wireless, and get signed to EMI. His leap into big fame came with the release of “She Blinded Me With Science,” which was eventually added to pressings of Wireless.
The Speed of Sound enters one of its best phases when Dolby reflects on his efforts and collaborations in the music industry. He worked with such luminaries as David Bowie, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Roger Waters and Stevie Wonder, and became a producer for the group Prefab Sprout. The most colorful and entertaining stories come from his interactions with Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen. Of course, Dolby continued to produce his own music during this period and he writes candidly about his work on his three subsequent solo albums and as a contributor to the infamous Howard The Duck film. An undercurrent to all of this (and a theme revisited numerous times in the book) is Dolby’s dissatisfaction with record companies and their executives. He describes extricating himself from his EMI contract – only to sign with Virgin Records who was then bought by EMI. After his fourth solo album failed to ignite the charts, Dolby left the music biz.
This is where the second part of the book begins. Dolby’s interests in technology and music would lead him to form a company called Headspace, Inc. which would develop a file format for transmitting music over the Internet. He also writes of his interest in composing music for non-linear formats such as video games. Eventually the company would morph into Beatnik, Inc. which would have its greatest success with ringtone synthesizers for Nokia phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The transition to this part of this life proves a little jarring for a fan of Dolby’s pop-rock work. While still engaging, the cast of characters becomes more familiar to readers of Wired than Billboard. The book becomes begins to focus on corporate dealings as Dolby’s companies navigate the tech boom and bust around the millennium. After a decade as the head of a company, Dolby realizes it is just not for him and leaves Beatnik to focus more on ringtone management and the TED conference. He eventually returns to music and becomes a college professor.
Perhaps befitting Dolby’s recent role as a teacher, The Speed of Sound has a very matter-of-fact tone and is a relatively quick read. There are no salacious details and not much time is spent on his early life. Unlike many rock biographies, there are no wild tales of drugs and sex. He does talk some about his relationships and of course spends the most time on his wife, Dynasty’s Kathleen Beller (whom he married in 1988) and their children. Dolby does reveal specifics about the various synths and instruments he has used and the various technologies he helped develop in the tech sector. He also goes into detail frequently about how he feels about the current state of the music business (once again not having much use at all for record companies) and music on the Internet. The only thing slightly lacking is more of the “why” behind all of Dolby’s musings, either in his beliefs or musical lyrics. The straightforward tone of the book does not give the audience much insight into Dolby’s inner rationales. However, that is a small quibble and certainly not one uncommon to some autobiographical works. Also, the last 15 years or so are barely covered; a little more detail on Dolby’s current undertakings would have been welcome.
If you only know Thomas Dolby from “She Blinded Me With Science,” there is much more of his story to experience. The biggest hurdle for music fans might be the second part of the book which largely eschews talk of that world and focuses on Silicon Valley. However, that story still fascinates with a brief look into the early days of the tech industry and Internet boom. And of course real-life tales usually don’t conform to what we expect. But, while a bit disjointed, Professor Dolby’s story is one worth reading.