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The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology

Thomas Dolby

In this excerpt from his memoir, Thomas Dolby recalls the breathtaking experience of playing with David Bowie at Live Aid, 2004.


The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology

Publisher: Flatiron
Author: Thomas Dolby
Publication date: 2016-10
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As the summer approached, word started to circulate about a huge charity concert to be staged at Wembley Stadium in support of relief for the famine in Ethiopia. All the top British rock acts were going to be there -- Paul McCartney, the Who, Queen, Wham!, U2. Bob Geldof approached David Bowie to star alongside them. Bowie was already in the UK, but working flatout on the filming of a George Lucas–produced movie called Labyrinth, and not really in live performing mode. His regular backing musicians were off doing other projects. He needed to get a four-song set together in a little less than two weeks, and had decided to go for young English musicians. He’d recently worked with Kevin Armstrong and Matthew Seligman on “Absolute Beginners” and “Dancing in the Street,” and now he approached them about putting together a band for his performance. They suggested I should play keyboards.

Bowie had been a huge part of my early life. I had pored over his lyrics and album covers, and paid to see him in concert probably five times. When I took his phone call at Olympic Studios I could barely talk. It was like that familiar dream when you’re watching a movie on the big screen and suddenly the leading man turns and starts to speak to you. He was disarmingly civil and gracious. “Oh, Thomas, would you play with me at this Live Aid thing?” he said. He sounded the perfect gentleman. You could have cast Edward Fox to play him in a biopic. Having seen The Man Who Fell to Earth and the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, I was somehow expecting the ethereal, strung-out Bowie from the Thin White Duke era, looking terrifyingly emaciated in the back of his thirty-foot limo, staring at the drowning fly in his carton of milk.

The band was quickly assembled. Neil Conti from Prefab Sprout was added on drums, along with Pedro Ortiz on percussion, sax player Clare Hirst, and backing singers Tessa Niles and Helena Springs -- all part of the generation that had grown up idolizing Bowie. We set up at a rehearsal studio in West Kensington, with a list of songs he wanted us to prepare. We had a total of three evenings’ rehearsal. He showed up after his long shooting day at Elstree had wrapped and only stuck around for a couple of hours. When he strode into the room, with slick suit and newly blond hair, he shone like a beacon of light. At first he seemed to view the concert as a promotional opportunity. He wanted to play his current single, “Loving the Alien.” Yet as the day approached and he zeroed in on what Live Aid was really all about, he realized this was no time to be plugging your current single: he decided to play his classic rock anthems, songs that would rouse the Wembley crowd and get them singing along. He kept changing his mind about the song selection. It was only on the final rehearsal day that he settled on the set list: “TVC15,” “Modern Love,” “Rebel Rebel,” and finally “Heroes.” We rehearsed each of the songs and played them a couple of times through, but never back to back without a break. Still, Bowie filled his young band with confidence, conducting the proceedings from the center of the room and positively radiating sunshine and love.

Morning broke on the day of the Live Aid concert. It was a beautiful day. I walked along the river near my home in Fulham, and everybody had their patio doors open. You could hear the TV commentary preamble coming out from every upstairs window. The whole city was gearing up for the event. Wembley is a distance outside central London, and because of the gridlocked traffic I was required to make my way to Battersea Heliport by the Thames, where I was to share a helicopter to the stadium with Bowie himself.

If the Cracked Actor was conspicuously absent during rehearsals, he reared his ugly head the moment we strapped ourselves into the helicopter. Bowie had always been terrified of flying, and until the early eighties he’d eschewed the airlines completely, preferring to take the weeklong Queen Mary transatlantic crossing every time he needed to get to or from America. His friend Brian Eno finally talked him into suppressing his phobia and getting on an airliner to Africa; but this fifteen-minute helicopter ride to Wembley was like confronting a new horror. He pulled his wide-brimmed fedora down over his eyes and sank low in his seat, fidgeting with his cigarette lighter and lighting one Camel after another, despite the pilot’s repeated plea that the smoke would mess with the avionics. He kept leaning forward and questioning over and over how long the flight would take, what altitude we’d be at, whether we had to fly through any clouds or close to electrical wires and tall buildings. As we approached Wembley we could see its famous twin gold towers gleaming in the distance, and I caught a glimpse of the massive crowd assembled inside the stadium. Above the stage was a giant video screen, and as we banked over the stadium, the chain-smoking Bowie was silhouetted against a massive close-up of Freddie Mercury, crooning to the heavens, reaching the climax of “We Are the Champions.”

We were set down in a park half a mile from the stadium, where a motorcade was waiting. Now the Thin White Duke persona evaporated, and Bowie was back to his cheerful, smiley self. Bundled into a police car with its sirens blaring, and flanked by motorbikes, we were whisked through the narrow back streets of Wembley until we screeched to a halt inside the stadium gates, where about a hundred photographers were awaiting his arrival. They swarmed around the vehicle, cameras pressed up against the windows, shouting “Mr. Bowie! Look this way, Mr. Bowie!” David turned to me and said, “Mmm, I love this bit!” and he flung open his door, stepping into the blaze of dozens of popping flashguns. Policemen ushered us through the crowd. Mere moments later we were standing at the side of the stage, where the roadies were making the final adjustments to our mic stands and line-testing the gear. Bob Geldof was onstage wrapping up a rant about money for Ethiopia and getting ready to introduce the next act. I followed Bowie onstage to a huge roar from the crowd and seated myself at the keyboards, blinking in the sunlight. It was my job to kick off the set with the solo honky-tonk piano opening to “TVC15.”

We raced on through “Modern Love” and straight into “Rebel Rebel.” Kevin was so excited as he kicked off with the iconic guitar riff that he started pogo dancing, springing two feet in the air like a jack-in-the-box. He claims he’s never pogo danced before or since. The girls looked and sounded gorgeous, and Pedro and Matthew were rocking out, working their sides of the large stage. I watched Bowie from behind my keyboards, framed against the seething hordes as he caressed the mic stand in his rather close-cut light blue suit, manipulating the crowd, seducing them. Even though we’d never played the songs back to back, the set had a great flow to it, and the intensity was building.

But I was secretly dreading our finale, “Heroes.” Although it’s a deceptively simple song with only one or two chord changes, those are sometimes the easiest to mess up, and my synth line was very prominent. The tempo was a clear change down in gears, and as we blasted through the intro the crowd began to raise their bare arms, waving banners and singing along with the words. I barely looked down at my fingers. I didn’t have to worry about forgetting the parts, because my teenage fanboy self took over and the keys seemed to play themselves. I joined in and sang the answer phrases to his lead vocal: “I remember ... by the Wall ... over our heads ... nothing could fall.” I was at one with the Wembley crowd, loving being a part of this timeless Bowie classic, as if I were still fourteen years old.

Thomas Dolby has spent his career at the intersection of music and technology. He was an early star on MTV, and then moved to Silicon Valley, where he has an extraordinary career as an entrepreneur. He has been named Johns Hopkins University’s first Homewood Professor of the Arts, where he will help create a new center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.

Excerpted fromThe Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology. Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Dolby. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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