Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.

Alex Sadkin: Sonic Architect Of The ’80s

Grace_Jones_-_NightclubbingOne of the nice things about putting together this website is finding out about some important – though often completely unsung – characters who pop up in the credits of many a classic album. Alex Sadkin is just such a figure.

You could probably write a history of 1980s music purely from the perspective of producers. Perhaps it was the decade of the pop producer. There was certainly a lot of turd-polishing going on, but on the flip side it was a chance for someone to establish their own sound, hopefully in collaboration with a great artist or band.

In the early ’80s, everyone was pretty much using the same fairly limited (but very expressive in the right hands) equipment, so it was a question of being as original as possible.

Though he died at the age of just 38 in July 1987, not many producer/mixer/engineers of the early ’80s had a more distinctive sound than Alex Sadkin. He worked with James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, XTC, Thompson Twins, Foreigner, Simply Red and Duran Duran during his short life. His productions are full of colour and detail, usually featuring multiple percussion parts, kicking bass and drums and a very characteristic, super-crisp snare sound.

Alex’s first gig in the music biz was as a sax player in Las Olas Brass, a popular Florida R’n’B outfit, alongside future bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Jaco and Alex had gone to high school together, and Alex later became the house engineer at Criteria Studios in Miami where Jaco recorded the demos for his legendary 1976 debut album.

Sadkin then engineered James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing‘ single and also worked on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration album, which brought him to the attention of legendary Island Records owner Chris Blackwell. Sadkin quickly secured a new gig as in-house engineer at Island’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau on the Bahamas.

This was where it really all began for Sadkin – an amazing melting pot of talent passed through the Compass Point doors including Talking Heads, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club, B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Will Powers AKA Lynn Goldsmith. But his first bona fide producer credits were alongside Blackwell on Grace Jones’ stunning trio of early ’80s albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life).

Sadkin was now a name producer with a trademark sound and considerable rep, and as such started to attract significant attention, sometimes of the negative variety – legendary NME scribe Paul Morley even took agin him for some reason in a review for Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ single. It probably meant Sadkin was doing something right…

Later in the decade, though his work arguably became more anonymous (but then so did a lot of post-1986 pop), Alex’s career went from strength to strength, producing some big albums such as Robbie Nevil’s debut, Simply Red’s big-selling Men And Women and Arcadia’s (admittedly fairly dire) So Red The Rose.

Sadly, Alex Sadkin died in a motorbike accident in Nassau on 25th July 1987 just before he was due to begin working with Ziggy Marley. He had also just recorded some demos with Jonathan Perkins, later to front criminally-underrated early ’90s act Miss World. Robbie Nevil’s song ‘Too Soon‘ and Grace Jones’ ‘Well Well Well’ are dedicated to Sadkin’s memory, as is Joe Cocker’s album Unchain My Heart. Gone too soon, indeed.