Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Speed of Sound

Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir

Thomas Dolby

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


CHAPTER 1


THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT


 


Mr. Ron Grigson said the door of his fruit and vegetable shop had to stay open all day so customers would walk in off the street. This was February, so it was as bloody freezing inside as it was out. Customers were a rarity anyway—Kensington Church Street with its art galleries and high-end leather handbag boutiques is a stupid place to have a fruit-and-veg shop. When I got there at ten every morning to work the lunchtime shift, Grigson would trot over the road to the pub and drink till it closed at three. Brian Jones and I used to stay warm with a periodic game of turnip football. (General guidelines for turnip football: It has to be a small one. You boot it around the floor using the legs of the fruit stands as goals. The average turnip lasts about ten minutes, then it’s too bruised and beaten up, so into the gutter it goes and you swap it for a fresh one.) I was beating Brian 11–8, but we had to stop because a posh lady came in for a pound of Fuji apples.


Grigson got back a little after three, completely sloshed. He went right to the till and checked the cash. Seemed he’d bumped into the apple lady and she complained that the boys in his shop were messing around. Grigson was constantly grumbling that his shop didn’t make a profit, and always looking for someone to blame. He usually took it out on Brian, because he thought Brian was a bit dense. Brian was nineteen, a year older than me, and had spiky black hair, like Sid Vicious in the Pistols. He’d left school at fifteen. He worked long hours with Grigson, riding the van to market early in the morning to load in the day’s stock. He knew I read the NME and had a music O-level, and he was curious to pick my brains. Brian wanted to learn the bass guitar, because he said Sid was “rubbish,” and he reckoned he could do a better job. I told him I could show him the basics, but he was going to have to think up a better stage name, as “Brian Jones” was taken. He failed to see the significance of this. Anyway, Grigson was back now and he went off on a drunken rant about young people today, and Brian and I grinned and made faces at each other behind his back. When I asked Grigson for my wages he muttered something under his breath about honest staff; he zeroed out the till again and grudgingly handed me my £3.50. That was my daily wage. Some days I would also take home a bag of discount veggies, but not today, as I knew the bastard would charge me top whack.


The only good thing about my job at the shop was that I could go in late and leave early, avoiding the rush-hour traffic. I caught the number 28 bus to Wandsworth, got off near the Young’s brewery, and walked home to Putney from there. There was a wicked wind coming off the Thames, but I chose to walk along the river anyway. There were a few interesting little one-story shops down there, and I liked to peer in the windows. One was EMS Synthesisers. Why they had their workshop in my little backwater of London I have no idea. In their window there were a couple of their machines displayed at odd angles on a piece of cloth. They made amazing synths, like the one Pink Floyd used all over Dark Side of the Moon. EMS made a synth that was built into a suitcase, with a matrix of little pins on it like a game of cribbage. It cost £2,500. I can’t imagine they sold many to passersby. If you peered into the back of the shop you could see people fiddling around at workbenches. It was like something out of Dickens, but in a weird twisted time warp. On the walk up the hill I mused on the coincidences. Funny how the little street their shop was on was called Florian Road. One of my favorite synth players was Florian from Kraftwerk. He and his band barely ever left Germany. But they wrote a track called “Franz Schubert.” And I lived on Schubert Road.


I knew Brian Eno had an EMS, too, and he’d used it on Low by David Bowie, one of the best albums ever. The first side had actual pop hit singles on it like “Sound and Vision,” but many of the songs were made entirely with electronic instruments, not your typical guitars and drums. The whole of side two had hardly got any vocals on it at all! Bowie had balls to take a risk like that. Big wobbly elephant balls of steel.


Later on I met up with Brian from work to go and see a band at the Railway Arms in Putney. He’d read in the Record Mirror that they were punk rockers from Newcastle, and he was mad for anything punk. They were called the Police. They were pretty good, but nobody really understood what punk was. As far as I could tell, any band that didn’t have long hair or flared trousers was a punk rock band.


Afterwards we took some cans back to Brian’s basement and I showed him how to tune his crappy electric bass. He’d bought it out of the back of Exchange and Mart for a tenner. It was a Japanese copy, and the roundwound strings were rusty and wouldn’t stay in tune. I don’t think Brian really noticed. I taught him the notes for “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols, and he was well pleased with that. He took his shirt off and gazed at himself in the mirror, £10 bass guitar slung down below his hips.


The next day I got fired from the shop.


Grigson came back early from the pub and caught me climbing into the cellar of the antique shop next door. Down in the basement where he kept his old orange crates there was this wooden shutter. I was waiting for the kettle to boil to make tea and I got curious and lifted the shutter off its hinges. There was a high-up window opening, and in the half-light beyond I could see this musty cellar, full of curious shapes. I called to Brian to come and see. We talked in a hush. “Are you going in then, or am I?” said Brian, grinning. “Yeah, all right,” I said. It wasn’t like me. I suppose it was the thrill of it, the dare. I’d never stolen anything in my life, and wasn’t about to. Brian gave me a leg-up to the narrow entrance, and I dropped down onto the stone floor, kicking up a cloud of dust sliced through by rays of sunlight from the grate. There were stacks of oil paintings in gilt frames, old clocks, chests of drawers half covered in canvas, and brass knickknacks. Brian was watching from the window opening, but suddenly he said, “Shh!” He had this terrified look on his face and his head spun around. Grigson was clomping about in the shop above, shouting angrily down at us. Brian went haring upstairs, and I could hear them arguing. But I couldn’t get back through the window easily, there was no foothold. I heard Grigson’s heavy boots coming down the wooden steps. He caught me on my stomach, half in, half out of the opening, covered in cobwebs and rat droppings. I looked at him guiltily, expecting a drunken onslaught. Instead he just turned slowly around and walked back up the stairs. Once I’d brushed myself off, I took a deep breath and followed him up to the shop. He had his back to me, sorting avocados in a rack.


“Did you take anything?” he said quietly.


“No.”


“Then get out.”


“Don’t suppose there’s much point in asking for my … um…” Silence. I caught Brian’s eye as I left the shop. He gave a faint helpless shrug.


*   *   *


“Been down the riots, then?” asked one of the two lanky skinheads wedged next to me in the front seat. I hopped aboard when they slid open the door of their Ford Transit as it slowed for the traffic light at North End Road.


“Riots?”


“Yeah, we been down Lewisham all day, chucking bricks at the coppers, kicking heads in. We’re off ’ome for our tea now, back down Lewisham again later.” It was nice of them to give me a lift, but now I eyed them suspiciously and wondered if they were National Front. And whether they thought I was, too. I jumped out near Hammersmith tube station just as it was starting to turn from a drizzle to a proper downpour. Hustling down the steps into the underpass, I felt the heavy raindrops mixed with pigeon shit from the rooftops, dripping down the collar of my ex-army greatcoat. Maybe that’s why they picked me up. It must have been quite hard to tell us apart from behind in those days. It was Saturday afternoon and London was crawling with punks, skinheads, mods, football thugs, and electro boys like me. Cropped hair, torn trousers, tattoos, standing around on street corners chugging Tennent’s Lager or picking at kebabs in greasy paper.


I just had enough for the bus fare to Putney Bridge. That was the last of my cash. Back at my bedsit, I decided the only thing to do was to telephone the Aged Parents from the phone box on the landing. I wanted to know if they could lend me some money, as I’d lost my job. Didn’t tell them why I’d lost it, of course. Not much sympathy there: “Look, we told you if you’re definitely not going to go to university you’ve just got to support yourself! Look for another job, for heaven’s sake.”


I left high school at the age of sixteen. I was two years ahead of the rest of my class at Abingdon, but I had zero interest in studying and no desire to go to university. My only ambition was to make it in music, and London was beckoning. They never said so, but I knew my parents had half wanted me to follow in their footsteps and become an academic. My dad was an expert in classical archaeology, and a Cambridge professor, like his dad and his grandfather before him. My mother taught algebra for years. No one in our family had ever met anybody connected with show business. Not surprisingly, they were dubious when I talked about my plans to make a living as a musician. I loved my family, but they had never even heard me play or sing, so why would they believe me?


My parents told me they’d cover me if I got desperate, but to try and make do. Then they hung up. I was a bit gutted, as I’d been planning to go and see Elvis Costello at the Nashville Rooms in West Ken. People were not quite sure if he was a punk rocker either, but he was starting to get lots of play on John Peel’s late-night radio show. So I decided to go down to the Nashville in the late afternoon. If I helped the roadies hump gear maybe I could get on the guest list. I hung around the stage door pushing flight cases up the ramp, and in the end a bloke called Simon agreed to get me in. “Just tell that ugly bouncer at the front Jake Riviera said it was okay.”


Elvis Costello was brilliant. The band was sharp as hell, with Elvis on his Telecaster, a guy on a tinny Vox Continental organ, and a reggae-ish rhythm section. After a couple of tracks people knew from the radio he said he was going to play some brand-new songs, and launched into this amazing thing called “Watching the Detectives,” then another one just as good. My mates Mike Fairbairn and Wyn, a couple of West London lads I’d known since our early teens, were in the crowd and they bought me a pint. We watched in awe from the bar. They grinned when Elvis sang the phrase “get your kicks at sixty-six.” Mike explained that it was a reference to No. 66 King’s Road, where there was a posh squat—an empty house that a bunch of rich kids had occupied, so they could live for free and throw wild drug parties every night. The beat was great and Elvis had this way of stressing every syllable. “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie / I don’t want to go to Chelsea.”


I rather did want to go to Chelsea and meet someone called Natasha in a squat, actually. I didn’t mention this to Mike, whose sister Lesley Fairbairn had been my sort of on-off girlfriend ever since we were at school. I’d been inside a few fancy squats before. It was all over the papers: the London wealthy were abandoning their property in the capital, or even leaving Britain altogether, to escape the high taxes imposed by Jim Callaghan’s socialist government. There were some beautiful houses in the nice areas of London that had been left unoccupied, and many had been broken into and made into collective homes by marginalized young people. The pubs and venues in Fulham, Chelsea, and Islington were teeming with semi-broke, unemployed youths looking for a great night out.


In the mid-seventies England was poised on the verge of a cultural revolution. You could see it in the politics of the time, with the accumulated blunders of successive Labour governments playing right into the hands of Margaret Thatcher and her union-busting Tories. You could feel it on the streets, in the radical fashions, the polarized attitudes, and the chaotic musical melting pots of Brixton, Camden Town, and Notting Hill Gate. For years my circle of friends had been listening to bands like Supertramp and Genesis and Yes. But progressive rock had nowhere to progress to except up its own backside. Summer open-air festivals in the UK featured the likes of the Allman Brothers and Little Feat. Chartered accountants were buying subscriptions to Rolling Stone magazine. Whether you were seventeen or thirty-five, your hair was long and shaggy, and your trousers were flared. This left little room for angry youths to annoy their parents and make their presence felt.


I distinctly remember the afternoon when a group of us were skiving off from school. We were in a café in Strutton Ground, smoking and sipping tea, when in walked Sean MacGowan. (Years later he was to change the spelling of his name to Shane and become the frontman of the Pogues.) Sean used to sit next to me in the back row of English lit class. At sixteen he was already the gnarliest, skinniest, most unappetizing human being I’d ever laid eyes on; yet when called upon to analyze a verse of Chaucer or a paragraph of Jane Austen he was surprisingly astute. The rest of us always looked up to him when it came to matters of coolness and taste, because Sean knew everything there was to know about modern music. On this particular afternoon, we had been debating the merits of the newly released Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here. Shane sat down at the table and lit a Woodbine. We asked him what he thought of it.


“It’s all crap,” he mumbled through the stumps of his nicotine-stained teeth. “Floyd, the Beatles, the Stones—all rubbish. Their music is just old and stale, and so are they. They ought to be put to death.”


A collective gasp went around the table. We were so shocked we had to loosen our wonky school ties. How could Sean say such things about our most revered musical heroes? When my blood pressure had finally lowered, I asked him: “Well, what should we be listening to, Sean?”


He proceeded to spew out the names of bands I’d never heard of, presumably American. “MC5 … Iggy Pop … the Ramones … the New York Dolls … Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. It’s the future, man. Sod all that corporate rock pap!”


The first time New Musical Express reviewed a Sex Pistols gig, at the Marquee in early 1976, their reporter was similarly scandalized. “The lead singer, one Johnny Rotten,” wrote the NME scribe, “snarled and swore at the audience, spat on the stage, then walked off in a huff after only twenty-five minutes. His band could barely tune their instruments. Who exactly do these Sex Pistols think they are?” Within a few months, of course, the NME were the shining champions of punk rock and everything it stood for. I spent much of my eighteenth year scanning its pages, while grumbling about the out-of-touch Labour government and the stifling summer heat. I hung out on the King’s Road and in Camden Market, waiting to discover that, exciting as it was to dress like a punk, punk rock was really not for me.


After yet another night of scrounged pints at the Red Cow, I walked all the way home to Putney and got up to the house on Schubert Road just before midnight. I squeezed past the prams and bicycles lining the corridor that smelled of curry. Up six flights of stairs to my attic bedsit. The usual crap from the neighbors, coming through the walls. On one side, Charlie Potts the big-band jazz fan, playing Benny Goodman at high volume while he clapped and bumped around his room, scatting along to the brass section. On the other side, Melanie. She was seriously anorexic and rarely came out of her room. She groaned and sobbed whenever Charlie’s music was too loud. “Shuuuuuut … UP!” she kept wailing, over and over again. My room was wedged between them, separated by thin plaster walls.


I put 50p in the meter to turn on the gas fire and opened up the wardrobe, which housed a single-burner electric ring, to make myself some baked beans on toast. The place was fucking miserable, but at £12 a week you got what you paid for. The only way to block out the din from the neighbors was to switch on my music, put on my Koss headphones, close my eyes, and sink into the grotty armchair. I was broke, but at least I still had my music rig, a hefty ghetto blaster with a built-in cassette. I’d recorded last night’s John Peel show off the BBC. Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “Who Says?”; “Janie Jones” by the Clash; and a live version of “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. I rolled a joint and stayed up till about 2 a.m. jamming along on my Wurlitzer electric piano with its puny built-in speakers, wishing I had something with a bit more poke.


I’ve still got that cassette, and the date scrawled on it is October 11, 1977—a few days before my nineteenth birthday, which is a day I remember well. It got off to a bad start, but ended up being the best birthday ever.


In the morning I had to report down at the Labour Exchange. It was my third appointment, and they told me there were still no jobs listed in recording studios or road crews. Not that I expected otherwise. They pressured me to go for an interview at the pesticides division of Shell Oil. With my two A-levels, they assured me, I’d be a great fit for a job selling dog flea collars to Dubai. I kept telling the clerk it was a bad fit, I didn’t even like dogs. He said okay, but don’t expect the dole checks to keep rolling in forever.


On the way home I took a shortcut along the river and swung by the back of the EMS shop. There was a garbage dumpster outside in the street. No one was around, so I heaved myself up and had a gander inside. A bunch of flattened cardboard boxes, an old fridge, and … hold on: a black metal box with lots of knobs. The guts were hanging out of it, but I could see the words TRANSCENDENT 2000 printed on the front. Somebody from the workshop must have thrown it in the dumpster. I thought, I’m having that! So I scooped the whole lot out and took it home. I found an AC cable, and, to my amazement, the box turned right on. I didn’t really know what it did, so I called Trevor, a bloke who worked at a shop called Macari’s Music in the West End. Trevor always let me fool around in the keyboard room at the back, and he knew all there was to know about music gear.


“It’s a synth module, you wally,” he said. “A kit synth, DIY job. They print the plans in Popular Mechanics. You’ll need a keyboard to play it though, and some eight-volt-per-octave connectors. Unless you just want to make noises.”


Just making noises was fine by me. I got out my soldering iron, opened up the Wurlitzer piano lid, and hooked the Transcendent to the Wurly’s speakers with a bastardized guitar lead. At first there was no sound, so I got its back off and had a fiddle around with the circuit board. Sometime in the early hours of the morning I figured it out. Because there was no keyboard, you had to fake out the gate by shorting out the “-12V” and “+12V” pins on the keyboard five-pin connector. I melted a blob of solder in there, and to my delight, out of the speakers came the drone of a sine wave. I instantly went for the knobs on the front panel: yesss! Pitch, filter, wave form, white noise, and sample + hold, all working. I had an actual living synthesizer under my sweaty fingertips, and it was mine, all mine, mwooah-ha-ha-haaa! Finders keepers. I was up half the night, making all manner of bleeps and blips, until around 6 a.m., when Melanie woke up and started groaning “Shuuuuuut … UP!


I barely left my room for several days. It was a call from Micky Potts, an Irish singer that Brian knew, that finally persuaded me to take a break from doodling with my new synth module. He tipped me off about this amazing band that were playing in a basement club in Ladbroke Grove: Throbbing Gristle, with a support called Clock DVA. The place was packed out with spotty-looking blokes in anoraks. Tending the bar was an ancient Rastafarian with thickly matted dreadlocks, his gold teeth glinting in the light from the beer pumps. There were a few punks milling around at the front, and the air was thick with body odor and cigarette smoke. The canned music cut off as Throbbing Gristle took to the stage. Their manic frontman had a little dictaphone tape recorder loaded with weird chaotic noises and he held it up to his mic, cupping his hands like a harmonica player. Projected behind them on the whitewashed brick walls were 8mm film images of bombed-out European cityscapes and vivisection experiments. I felt like I’d found my people!


I recognized the guy that was mixing their sound. It was Simon, who had got me into the Nashville Rooms to see Elvis Costello. I stood by him for most of the night watching what he was doing with the knobs and faders. Between bands I told him about how I’d found a Transcendent 2000 and got it working. Afterwards I helped him coil a few cables and asked if he ever needed an assistant on a gig. He said to write down my phone number on a beer mat.


But the evening ended up very sadly. Outside the club I bumped into Micky, Brian’s singer friend from Dublin, who had missed the gig. He told me Brian had been crossing Marylebone Road when he was hit by a lorry. He was dead by the time they got him to the hospital.


I sulked in my room for days. Brian was a lovely, kindhearted bloke, and I realized how much I would miss our turnip football tournaments and late-night electric bass sessions. I knew Brian was an only child, and somewhere his parents were grieving far, far more deeply. I’d never given much thought to whether my own parents worried about me, living in a bedsit all alone in London.


A week later I pulled myself together and went out to see Television and Talking Heads at the Roundhouse. They were over from New York. At first I thought they were one band, not two, because talking heads are on TV…? Never mind. They were both utterly, utterly brilliant. Talking Heads came on first, and the singer looked like some sort of nervous exotic bird, twitching his head approximately in time to the music, playing an edgy rhythm guitar, and singing in a jagged, paranoid squeak. They had a blond girl bass player who never took her eyes off the drummer for an instant, and the two of them were tighter than a duck’s arse. Then Television came on, and in the chorus of the first song it sounded like they were chanting “Television, don’t go to my head.” Clever to have a song with the same name as your band, like the Monkees. They had dueling guitar soloists, one of them very fluent and melodic, the other kind of raw and simplistic like Neil Young but completely spellbinding. This is nothing like punk rock, I thought, thank God, but it does have some of the same intensity and passion.


I got home feeling totally inspired. I spent the whole night playing my keyboards, trying to piece my own songs together. I had some great bits, but they were just bits. Intros, verses, instrumental themes. Fragments, really. It was fun, but frustrating as hell.


In memory of Brian I bought a packet of orange hair dye and a tube of gel from Boots and gave myself a spiky punk do.


Over the next few months I began helping Simon do a few sound-mixing gigs, driving all over London in his beaten-up Ford Transit loaded with PA gear. He only paid £5 a night, but it was a good laugh, and he usually let me work the faders for a bit while he went to the bar to try to pick up girls. Which sometimes worked, if he could convince them to stick around while we packed up the gear. Usually they just wanted to know where the band members were going after the gig. There was this fleapit of a hotel in Chalk Farm called the Cipriani that all the out-of-town bands ended up staying at. So long as you kept bribing the night porter he would serve you vodka and gin miniatures in the lounge, and endless packets of potato chips.


One night I was at a gig at the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road for a band from Swindon called XTC. They were absolutely effing brilliant. They came on with this manic punk energy and played at a thousand miles an hour, but with actual chord sequences and interweaving riffs and melodies, and insane lyrics about “Cross Wires,” “The Atom Age,” and song titles like “I Set Myself on Fire.” The lead singer hopped around the stage on one foot like a demented Chuck Berry, while his bass-playing sidekick with the Beatle hairdo spun out these amazingly funky minimalist bass parts. At one point they went into a slow menacing song called “I’m Bugged.” On cue, half the crowd put on their sunglasses and writhed around in a termite-like mass. “I’m bugged / you all look like insects / in your brand new sun specs…”


They had an organist too, and God, did I want him dead. It’s not that he was bad—actually he was great in a deranged, atonal sort of way—but I had a waking fantasy that he would go into cardiac arrest right there onstage, and XTC would have to ask for a volunteer out of the audience to take over on the keyboards. Me! Me! Me!


Simon got himself what he called “a bit of posh totty” up in Hampstead Village. This girl, Becky, wanted him to go to her daddy’s house in the country while her parents were away in Sardinia for the weekend, and he was thinking about letting me do a gig at Dingwalls for a band called the Members on Saturday night, on my own. I was not insured to drive the Transit, but I said I was willing to risk it. I definitely felt ready to set up the PA and mix a gig myself—it was only a punk band and I reckoned it’d be a piece of cake.


Rash words! The gig was almost a complete disaster. The headline band came onstage and announced they’d just been signed to Stiff Records, and it was their two-year birthday party. The crowd was a mixture of the band’s close friends, North London teddy boys, and football yobs in town for the Ipswich Town vs. Arsenal cup final—an explosive combo. Halfway through the set the singer Nicky Tesco’s girlfriend brought on a huge rectangular chocolate birthday cake she’d baked herself, lemon with raspberry jam filling and a chocolate icing, with the band’s name in huge pink icing letters. Nicky Tesco propped it up on the bass cab so the crowd could see it, and the band launched into their hit song “The Sound of the Suburbs.” This of course was the cue for one of the oiks down the front to bum-rush the stage and grab a handful of birthday cake, which he proceeded to hurl out into the crowd, triggering a general stampede onto the stage. In a few moments the scene was like a custard pie fight from a Three Stooges movie. As I watched powerless from my mixing desk on the mezzanine I could see cake splattering all over my—or rather Simon’s—PA stacks. Once all the cake was all gone the band launched into their last song, finished with a crash, left the stage, and were wafted off into the night by a mob of jubilant Ipswich Town supporters, leaving me alone to clean up the mess. To my disgust, the grilles of the onstage wedge monitor speakers were matted with desiccated coconut and chocolate icing. I cleaned them up as best I could, but the pub manager, who had no one else to take it out on, kicked me and my PA out before midnight. On the drive home I had to keep a keen eye out for police cars. Not being insured, I didn’t dare to risk leaving the PA in the van overnight, so I had to hump all the cabinets into the front hall corridor and stack them up to the ceiling, waking the baby in the ground-floor flat. Cue a torrent of abuse in Punjabi. I finally collapsed into bed and got up early to spend most of Sunday sponging the squashed birthday cake out of the speaker grilles.


Simon never had to find out about it, and when he got back from his steamy weekend in the country he seemed pleased that I had pulled the gig off on my own. He said he was willing to let me do more of them using his PA and van, and we would split the money—he charged £100 a night, so that was fifty a pop for me. But he advised me to declare it to the dole office and go legit. Which would mean no more weekly social security checks to cash; and I’d have to get proper insurance to drive the van. Still, if I could do three or four gigs a week I might be able to save some decent money and buy new synth gear.


On a balmy Saturday afternoon in July 1978 I bought my first proper synthesizer. It was a one-year-old Micromoog, £650 in a sale at Selmer’s. I had to get it on hire purchase, but my mum agreed to cosign for me. It was quite small and light, so I was able to get it home on the District Line, wrapped in brown paper and string. The pitch bend ribbon was a bit worn; other than that it was in perfect condition. It was the first time I’d owned a keyboard with pitch bend, so I was able to start to imitate Chick Corea, who could solo like a lead guitarist. It sat on top of my other keyboard, a Solina String Synthesizer—which, two years later, the Musicians Union voted to ban because it was taking jobs away from “real” string players. I also learned to double parts on two keyboards at the same time like the guy from Weather Report.


As my chops improved, I eyed the back pages of the Melody Maker for bands looking for synth players. I replied to a couple of ads. It was a hassle to get around with my gear, because I couldn’t always count on Simon letting me use the van, but I did go to one audition for a band called the Warm Jets, who said they were punks, though to me they sounded more art-school glam rock, like Roxy Music. It was in the back of a pub at the other end of London, and despite the very expensive two-way taxi ride I didn’t get the job. They said I “knew too many chords.” The fact was, the punk rock floodgates were open, and keyboard players were too posh. Most bands would have been more into me if I’d said I was willing to trash my Wurlitzer onstage.


They had a point. Years earlier I’d seen Roxy perform on the BBC’s late-night stoner music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Their singer was a lithe and sexy crooner in a sharp suit, but their heavily made-up synth player just stood at the back in his seven-inch-heeled, knee-length lizard skin platform boots, arms folded, looking thoroughly bored. Every now and then he would lazily reach out a gloved hand to tweak a knob on his Moog, which was apparently playing itself. His name was Brian Eno. I thought to myself at the time, If all you have to do is pose around and twiddle a few knobs, and meet girls and make bags of money, that’s the career for me!


 


Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Dolby