Book review: THOMAS DOLBY – The Speed of Sound

THOMAS DOLBY - The Speed of Sound

Icon Books [Published 08.06.17]

Thomas Morgan Robertson become Thomas Dolby after his friends named him after the famous Dolby noise reduction device found on many 70′s and 80′s sound systems. Most will know the name for his early 80′s hits ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’, however after reading his very entertaining memoir you find that without his lifelong passion for tinkering with technology (Booker T. Boffin as he nicknames himself) we wouldn’t have decent music capability in mobile phones and tablets.

Thomas Dolby relates about two distinct periods in his life, the first half of the book covers his first forays into music and how he built to a successful peak in the mid-1980′s, before he then became a Silicon Valley pioneer and this is covered in the second part of his memoir.

You don’t have to be familiar with his music to enjoy this book as he has some very interesting stories and insights to give on various times he met with Michael Jackson, working with David Bowie (he was in Bowie’s band for Live Aid) and his session work with Foreigner and others.

The Foreigner story is funny as he was left a message to contact a Mick Jones urgently and he naturally thought is was the Clash one, however it turned out to be Foreigner’s Mick Jones. He subsequently appeared on the band’s massive selling ’4′ album and had an insight into how a producer worked with Mutt Lange. He did work as a producer on a number of albums with Prefab Sprout and a less than successful attempt at working with Joni Mitchell (no spoilers, read the book to find out!).

He also reveals the inner workings of the music business and how the major labels back then spent so much money, yet little seemed to find its way back to the artists and the record labels held onto the music rights. To this day Dolby, like many other artists that were on the major labels, doesn’t have full rights to their music.

With this is mind it was little wonder he became disillusioned with the music business and instead with his boffin hat on started into the Silicon Valley start ups. He was behind the firms Headspace – who developed a new downloadable file format designed specifically for Internet usage called Rich Music Format - and Beatnik – which specialised in synth sounds for mobiles allowing real music to be played on phones, which the mobile firm Nokia first adopted.

He tapped into his musical talents to create polyphonic ringtones on mobile phones and in his book he does seem more at ease with the creating side of things as being involved in the two businesses, and all the people and financial problems they bring along with them, caused him stress and less time with his family.

The more recent years, post 2000, are only briefly covered and he seems to have found his ideal life back as Booker T. Boffin, along with his work as Homewood Professor of the Arts at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.

A very honest and well written memoir that shows how Thomas Dolby has always had that creative drive, be it in music or technology linked to music. Highly recommended, one of the best musical memoirs I have read in many years.

Review by Jason Ritchie

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