The Golden Age of the Radio Dial – Hunting for “The Speed of Sound”

r-1797924-1244008711_jpegThere’s a bit in one of the interviews with Thomas Dolby – not mine, but another recent one – where he discusses the romance of the radio dial on the parental radiogram. I well remember that myself. You would look at this piece of glass onto which were reverse printed placenames and mysterious words: Luxembourg. Berlin. Hilversum. And you would wonder how it was that radiowaves could find their way to your radiogram from a particular faraway place, summoned by a thin red tuning indicator. Radiograms were magical devices anyway. They even smelled magical, of static charged electrical dust, cellulose record sleeves, and sweet heavy vinyl.

There’s another story he tells too, which is about how rarified music used to be. You’d scour the music press for months for hints of a new album by whoever it was you were a fan of. Something would eventually be announced, you’d move to scanning the radio spectrum in the hope of finding a few fragments being played, and you’d draw all sorts of conclusions from the single which inevitably preceded the album. I remember hearing “Another Brick in the Wall” on Radio Stoke or some such and concluding, rather to my glee because I wasn’t in the Floyd camp, that they’d gone disco. But “Dark Disco”, as I described it to the slightly downcast Floyd fans at school who were cursing themselves for not having heard it, and who were a bit worried “The Wall” might be crap. Eventually the magical day of release would come and you’d head down to the record shop in the lunch hour with your crumpled fiver in hand, hoping they hadn’t already sold out. Because if they had, you were out of options.

And I’ve been thinking of both these stories this evening as I’ve been trying to find bits of “the Speed of Sound”, Dolby’s memoir which has been released in the US today. I’ve pointed my metaphorical tuning needle towards the Americas (call me Marconi!), and attempted to hear voices against the static, largely unsuccessfully.

For starters, the book I’d pre-ordered didn’t arrive despite my pre-order. And was showing as “out of stock” on Amazon UK, rather than being “despatched” from Amazon US. Cursing, I switched my order to a US reseller to find the likely arrival time as being over a week hence. Then seeing someone in continental Europe had bought a copy on Kindle, I tried to do that. No chance. “Not available to your country” from France, US, Germany, Luxembourg, Hilversum…

I turned my attention to the audiobook, and signed up to Audible UK on the free 30 day trial… Not available… Audible US. Available until I put my credit card details in for another 30 day trial. Upon which it vanished. I tunnel-beared to various countries and pretended to be a native. No dice.

All the same, I was able though to hear an excerpt or two from the book as I went along. And there was a “look inside this book” at Amazon US. And I found a few extracts in interviews online.

But otherwise I was out of options. Ironically, given the author had been at the forefront of the digital revolution, it was just like music used to be before you could whiz MP3s around the world in seconds. Had I not been cursing in annoyance and frustration I’d probably have enjoyed that thought much more.

Now in the old days, friends would often come to your aid by taping a record you hadn’t been yet able to find, and fortunately that route still works. A friend in the US who had bought the audiobook sent me a dub of the section relating to Prefab Sprout, which I listened to attentively.

And so here I am, with a little collection of fragments, looking carefully over each one and trying to construct from the shards the beautiful vase they shattered from. I can’t really write a review, but I can give an impression. I’ve seen enough of the beautiful colours under the glaze to do that.

It’s like disco. Dark disco. Thoroughly recommended.



2 thoughts

  1. The book is available in the iTunes BookStore (in the US at least). You could set yourself up with a US iTunes account and purchase/download the book that way.

    1. It’s quite unlikely that would work – the UK digital rights are presumably being asserted because of a potential UK deal. It’s OK though, I can wait for the whole thing.

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