Book Reviews

Thomas Dolby – The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology

(Flatiron Books)

It was serendipity that set Thomas Dolby on the road to synth-pop stardom. Finding the circuit board of a Transcendent 2000 synthesizer in a dumpster was a stroke of luck. Only 17 at the time, he got it working again. The rest is history.

Caught up in the maelstrom of the 1970s UK punk and new wave scenes, Dolby would forego college – despite coming from a family of Cambridge professors – to gamble on a career in music, culminating in the massive techno-pop hit “She Blinded Me with Science” and the landmark MTV video that sent it flying up the charts.

That’s only part of Dolby’s new autobiography, a well-written, fast-paced tome recounting his artistic rise and fall with intelligence, humorous candor and insight into a record business rife with corruption. Even more fascinating is how the self-made Dolby reinvented himself as a Silicon Valley tech guru, responsible for the Nokia cellphone ringtone.

Free of scandal and myth-making, Dolby’s reflections expose him as a man of ambition – gifted, passionate and hard-working, but easily seduced by glamour and wracked by doubt. Going from sideman with new-wave icon Lene Lovich, among others, to building a solo career that made him a household name, Dolby’s journey of self-discovery, as trite as that sounds, takes some remarkable twists and turns. What went wrong with his second album and the financial calamity resulting from a self-funded tour accompanying it are explored in great detail, before he relates how he changed course to work behind the scenes, where he was most comfortable.

Dolby also talks of fishing with George Clinton and how he made a spectacle of himself in a near-disastrous performance with Parliament. He pores over preparations for David Bowie’s amazing Live Aid gig and reveals why sessions for Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog – which he produced – were so contentious, owning up to his own role in the LP’s failings. Other highlights include a weird night at Michael Jackson’s home, the memory of a quiet moment with Stevie Wonder and his experiences scoring George Lucas’ famous flop, Howard The Duck. What a ride.

-Peter Lindblad

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