When Thomas Dolby hit MTV and the airwaves in 1982, the world discovered a new kind of electronic artist, someone quite different from the typical synthpop performer selling songs about romance and despair. On his first album, “The Golden Age Of Wireless,” Dolby presented a parallel sci-fi universe of retro technology, youthful idealism and Cold War politics with motifs that were nearly mythological in their grandeur, condensed into masterfully engineered three and four minute pop tunes. I was all of 18 in 1982; I admit to having been more than a little perplexed by the paradoxes present in his style and image. What to make of his compelling synthesis of past and future, of traditional singer/songwriter tropes intertwined with an honest fascination for humanity’s complex history and faith in our better natures, wrapped up in some of the most ear-pleasing techno pop ever created?
1984’s “The Flat Earth,” Dolby’s second album, confronted listeners with its soulful style, driving home the fact that Dolby’s romantic optimism and willingness to depart from formula put him in a class apart from the hordes of synth-wielding popsters on the radio. Dolby didn’t merely pose with electronic instruments as artwork – for him, technology coupled with our common humanity represented a way forward, the dawning of a new paradigm. With its exploration of jazz and the paradoxically synthetic/acoustic sounds of the Fairlight CMI electronic workstation, the album was a sophisticated departure from the techno pop of the day. 1988’s “Aliens Ate My Buick” delved further into funk-flavored electronica, causing confusion and frustration for record executives and promotion people who found it difficult to categorize and market Dolby’s music.
When I learned a few weeks ago that Dolby’s memoir, “The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology” (Flatiron Books, 277 pages, $27.99) was due for an October release, I eagerly got my hands on a copy. It’s a gripping read, as Dolby recounts his rather quick journey from working musician to pop superstar, and beyond. It’s not surprising to discover that Dolby is a gifted storyteller, given that from the beginning his albums have been filled with cinematic tunes with stories from imaginary historical narratives.
The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.” Thomas Dolby
It turns out that Dolby’s early style and content choices were based on solid convictions and instinct.
He writes: “If I’d stopped for a second to reflect on the fact that my obsessions with science fiction, ham radio and the Cold War might prove a little unsuitable for the delicate pop sensibilities of the mass record-buying public, I’d have chosen a different path. I could have written catchy songs about jealousy and teenage angst, I might have joined the ranks of the smiley poster-boy singers of the early 1980s, got my hair cut at Antenna and bought my clothes on South Molton Street. But when I turned on BBC Radio 1, or watched Top of the Pops, there was nothing, absolutely zero that appealed to me. The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.”
The anecdote-packed narrative tells the tale of Dolby’s brief time at the top of the charts, followed by his increasing disillusionment with the recording industry and his subsequent ventures into producing, film scoring, and the world of Silicon Valley startups. Dolby’s public image has always been carefully cultivated, so it is quite revealing, after 35 years to encounter the actual person behind the boy genius image. What is surprising is that he is more or less an ordinary fellow, albeit one gifted in the arts, and apparently business as well. It turns out that the same ear for musical innovation guided his forays into the tech world, where Dolby had a hand in transforming the way music is heard on the internet and cell phones.
Dolby writes: “In 1994, investment started to pour into small Internet start-ups from San Francisco to San Jose. If you were an eager young entrepreneur with a germ of an idea, you could take several meetings in a week with angel investors and VCs. Anyone who could sketch out a plan for world domination on the back of a paper napkin was a strong contender for an infusion of cash. A hundred and fifty years after the first hungry speculators poured into the Bay Area, the new Gold Rush had begun.”
Yet Dolby did much more than merely sketch plans on a napkin. In the early days of the Internet, Dolby’s company Headspace Inc., with their Beatnik Audio Engine, allowed web browsers to play back audio with ease, thanks to code that made it possible to compress large audio files. This technology was soon bundled into the Sun Java Platform, found on virtually every PC. Headspace (now Beatnik Inc.) followed up on this success by creating a version of the Beatnik Audio Engine that eventually ended up on billions of cell phones. Yet ever the perfectionist, Dolby was somewhat unsatisfied with the way things turned out.
“When I was on the charts with ‘Blinded Me with Science,’” he writes, “I was known as a sonic innovator, the man who put warmth and humanity into synthesized music. I was embarrassed that now I was the guy people would blame for the global ringtone plague. Had I unleashed a monster? I couldn’t wait for phone power and storage to increase so we could improve the way ringtones sounded. I badly needed Moore’s Law to kick in.”
And indeed, Moore’s Law did kick in – the powerful smartphone we have today was only a few years away. Meanwhile, despite his Silicon Valley successes, at the beginning of the 21st century, Dolby couldn’t ignore his hunger to create new music. Longing for his childhood homeland, Dolby left Northern California with his wife and three children, settling again in England. Always the innovator, he set up a state of the art recording studio in a restored 1930s lifeboat, and got down to the work of once again creating stunning electronic music. 2011’s “Map To The Floating City” is his most recent musical endeavor.
“The Speed Of Sound” is recommended for anyone who enjoys a good music industry story, and though the final third of the book recounts Dolby’s adventures in Silicon Valley, it’s loaded with entertaining and humorous details, as he brushes elbows with some of the leading figures in the computer revolution.