There's much more to Thomas Dolby than just THAT song

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Thomas Dolby's autobiography has the intellectual curiosity and manic energy we've come to expect from him.

For many of us, Thomas Dolby is one of those exuberant one hit wonders like The Buggles, who burst onto the New Wave synth pop scene and then disappeared into School Disco compilations or round ups of the 80s’ best songs.

You might remember his quirky 1982 hit, ‘She Blinded Me with Science’, which was a chart hit both in the US and Australia, appeared in Breaking Bad and was even covered by the Muppets.

 

But if you listen closely to other Eighties hits, you’ll hear Dolby’s then ground-breaking electronic contributions on Foreigner’s ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’, Def Leppard’s huge 1983 album Pyromania, and Dave Stewart’s number one cover of Lesley Gore’s 1960s classic ‘It’s My Party’.

And if – like nearly everyone else on Earth in the 90s and 00s – you had an ubiquitous Nokia mobile phone, you’d have heard him every time you turned your phone on. His biggest and most lucrative “hit” was the polyphonic version of the distinctive Nokia signature tune.

 

It’s amazing how quickly music has changed in the nearly 40 years Dolby’s been making it. It's a topic he covers extensively in his autobiography, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology.

“My son once slid down our attic steps with an armful of old vinyl jazz albums, shouting, ‘Daddy, look what I found – giant CDs!’

“If you were born later than 1985, you’ll scarcely remember the days before music went digital. Perhaps as a child you heard your mum and dad fondly reminiscing about turntables and tuners and transistors… today, even CDs seem like ancient technology.

“[Today’s] generation of music fans has seen technology evolve so rapidly that they no longer think of it in terms of a particular format or device…the music is decoupled from the delivery format… it no longer matters where the bits or atoms reside.”

And Dolby – born Thomas Robertson to an Oxford don, taking his stage name from the audio compression pioneer – has (if not quite setting the charts alight since ‘…Science’) traversed music’s complicated, often conflicted journey from live performance to digital synthesis more than anyone else in either the music or software industries.

The Speed of Sound, meticulously drawn from “dozens of old yellow pads, notebooks, floppy disks, Filofaxes, PalmPilots, and Danger Hiptops” is a fascinating, entertaining and enlightening insight into the heyday of both 80s corporate rock and 90s dot-com boom excesses.

It's full of hilarious anecdotes in Silicon Valley boardrooms, visits to Michael Jackson’s Neverland mansion, sipping Chablis with Bill Gates, meeting David Bowie or first seeing the Web on the founder of Netscape’s laptop.

Straddling both rock memoir and start-up how-to, it’s threaded with thoughtful reflections on the changes to and absurdities of both industries.

Dolby, revealing a greater talent for storytelling than pop or business prowess, engagingly recounts tales from different periods of his life. There’s his rowdy days as a wannabe punk rocker in the heady 70s London scene, as well as the heights of his success as a session and solo musician.

Then there are his forays into commercialising his technological approach to music. These ranged from writing film and video game soundtracks, to establishing new digital compression formats through two different start-ups, and synthesising polyphonic tones to the world’s biggest audience – mobile phone users.

Since then, he’s become a professor of music and arts at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, leading an exclusive new program at the renowned Peabody Institute in Music for New Media, as well as acting as musical director for TEDx.

This is a rangy, intelligent, sometimes touching, often funny and always well-written book, full of hilarious anecdotes and insightful musings, thrumming with the same intellectual curiosity and slightly manic energy that characterised his best-known, second-biggest hit.

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