I wanted to do a review of “The Speed of Sound” ages ago. But nothing quite worked out as I was expecting.
I suppose part of me was hoping that Thomas Dolby would close the interview I did with him with a jovial: “Well, I’ve had a lovely hour, can I send you a review copy? Signed of course…”. But no, nothing at all. In fact the only interaction I had with him post interview was a terse: “yes, I would like to see the finished pieces”, and a “I think you need to run them through a spellchecker.” Certainly I didn’t get any information on audiobook release dates or graphics of the cover, despite asking a couple of times.
So with a mental “OK, thanks for that, Thomas” (with an additional word or two you can guess at, the first one being “you”), I remembered that as far as he was concerned I was just a random promotional avenue he’d probably calculated wouldn’t lead to much but wanted to check on in case I produced something embarrassing that might persist online, I gave up on that direction. I did run the pieces through a spelchecker though, and then purchased and waited patiently either for my copies to arrive from Amazon, or for a trial signup to one of the audiobook services it was to appear on.
And of course as previously documented, international rights wrangling meant that Amazon didn’t get the material in place to satisfy the pre-orders. I changed my ordering route, but as of a couple of days ago there was no sign of a physical copy. The audiobook route didn’t work either, it was tightly closed down for orders from the UK. Anyone elsewhere in Europe was fine.
So by this point I wasn’t well disposed towards the enterprise at all. I managed to get an audio rip of the chapter where the Sprouts come in, and managed a sniffy “Ha! Paddy wasn’t brought up in a rectory, he was brought up in a bungalow in Witton Gilbert!”, then decided I wasn’t all that bothered about the book any more.
So it was that a couple of days ago I found myself on a 12 hour long haul flight with a bootleg copy of the audiobook and nothing much to do except to fight off the advances of the passenger to my right, the 15 month old David, who eventually went off to sleep in between howling so loud about the unfairness of not getting the inflight meal he wanted that he woke the stewardesses, asleep in the secret compartment at the back of the A380.
And within two or three minutes, I was hooked. It’s an absolutely wonderful work.
I can’t quite imagine reading it as a book now, even though I will (assuming I ever get my hands on a copy). Dolby is great in the audiobook. You can feel him struggling with the speed a little: naturally I suspect he talks fluently and quickly, and there’s a sort of uneasily metronomic pace and awkward edits here and there that suggest he had a few problems learning how to read for audio. But that rapidly settles down, and the story takes over, pulling you in into a succession of vividly but economically delineated images. He’s a lucid, engaging, writer.
The first half is a sequence of events that one way or another are already well known to people who have had any exposure at all to Dolby’s interviews. In a way it’s like seeing the film of the book, you know what’s coming, but a little is added in between, the odd surprise here and there. And he adds little personal details that bring it all to life. It’s very compelling and interesting: not a lot of Sprout content to be truthful, but because the period everything happened was pretty much contemporary with my own coming of age, the gearwheels mesh, so to speak. I remember well the sort of bedsit life he describes, finding a coin for the meter, cooking on a little stove, for example. So even though the experiences diverge very quickly from those of his readers who didn’t end up appearing on Top of the Pops, they’re rooted from the same stock.
But for me, it’s in the second half where the book really starts to fascinate, and that was a complete surprise because I was expecting to skip through it without paying much attention. It starts with a masterful dissection of how music has changed for those born after the mid 1980s, where fans are followers of bands and can access their work instantly via the Internet rather than having to search for records. And he then launches into the story of how having become disillusioned with the music industry, he worked to persuade the tech leaders of the mid 1990s to add music to the Internet, via his company Headspace (later Beatnik) Inc. With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing the winners weren’t Netscape – one of the principal players in the story – or even Beatnik, despite their later success with Nokia, there’s a faint sniff of futility about the machinations and deals, but it evokes very clearly the period when everything was up for grabs and the Internet was a wide open prairie rather than the enclosed, commercial, railroad linking the three or four sites most of us now cycle around endlessly. Very nostalgic. I found myself itching to do a Hotbot or Lycos search. Just for old times sake.
Throughout the story, Dolby plays his role of everyman abroad expertly, and his narration is very much in the moment so you see the world completely through his eyes. And because you don’t know what happens next in his part of the universe, but you do know how the Internet world turned out, it’s a bit of a page turner, or whatever the audiobook equivalent of that is.
The cover is crap. Have to say that. For someone with the visual flair of his videos and album sleeves, it disappoints. And maybe the title should have been something like “Sound at the Speed of Light”, and the subtitle, which seems to try a little too hard to explain. omitted. But should anyone ever want a quote from Sproutology for the back cover of the paperback here you are: “A truly enthralling story of a pioneer on the electronic frontier, brilliantly told and IMPECCABLY spell-checked”.
And highly recommended.