Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett

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Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A marvellous broad sweep through the history of popular music from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, from wax cylinders to streaming services, from Edison and Berliner to Spotify and iTunes, from Enrico Caruso and Louis Armstrong to Take That and Eminem, packed with fascinating detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 720 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Bodley Head
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1847922182

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For many of us, it must be difficult to imagine a life without recorded music. Millions of us must have grown up with, even to, a very varied soundtrack consisting of one genre after another. In this book, Peter Doggett takes a marvellous broad sweep through the history of popular music from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, from wax cylinders to streaming services. A rather maudlin ditty 'After The Ball', by Charles K. Harris, is regarded as the first modern popular song (well, it was modern in 1891) – the first of millions.

One recurring theme throughout the pages and the history that they relate is the love that younger generations have always had for music, often in the face of severe disapproval from parents and also from the mass media. In Edwardian days, at the height of the music hall era, a judge was asked to rule on an early case of infringement. He did so with extreme reluctance, saying that he could not possibly imagine 'anything less distinguished' than the song in question, thinking it 'rather a melancholy state of things that legal copyright should exist in such rubbish'. A decade or two later, jazz was adored by the younger masses, as well as by those who played it – and reviled by everybody else.

Churchmen, Members of Parliament and others in authority alike called jazz the music of Satan, declaring it should be eradicated like some kind of lethal virus, and denounced the tango, Charleston and other modern dances as irredeemably immoral. Some of the more damning criticisms uttered were quite racist in tone, certainly by today's standards – they definitely did not start with Hitler, but began several years before he came to power - and Doggett rightly points out at the start of his book that to omit the racist taunts altogether would only present a misleading, even incomplete account of his subject. Even as late as 1964, our elders and betters were telling us firmly that what we were listening to was 'inarticulate, childish, incoherent and disgusting'. All but the tamest and most eager-to-please of us would say to ourselves, 'great – let's have more!' or words to that effect.

However, as the jazz-loving generation matured, pop music became acceptable, even though each successive genre was for a while the preserve of rebellious teenagers. In the early 1950s, parents and others threw up their hands in horror at the 'mongrel music' or 'devil dancing' played by Bill Haley & the Comets, and later Elvis Presley. 'Must we fling this filth at our pop kids?' asked a reviewer in despair after seeing Cliff Richard onstage in his early days. So the catalogue of disapproval continued. But by then, some of the major names had proved that music was not the ephemeral nine-day wonder that disbelievers had supposed, or hoped it might be. From Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, many an act left his or their mark not only on the age but on many succeeding ones.

As one would expect from a writer and journalist of Doggett's experience, the musical milestones thrown up by a century and a quarter are varied, yet woven immaculately into one almost seamless whole in this volume. Over the last forty years heavy metal, punk rock, reggae, electropop, rap, and boy bands have all come, gone and sometimes returned. We have had the age of the synthesizer, of MTV, of Live Aid, of The X Factor, of the Auto-Tune processor, and the internet; and the domination of the 1980s by Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen.

But is the record business dead? It has looked down the precipice before. In 1927, more than 100 million discs were sold in America. Five years later the figure had fallen to 10 million, if not less, and some feared that the music business 'would exist merely to service radio' – always assuming that enough radio stations also survived the economic slump and plummeting advertising revenues. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the industry was criticised for failing to invest in artists who had the potential for long-term careers. Then along came the Simon Cowell business model, whereby winners of 'The X Factor' would have their few months of glory and then disappear, to be replaced by the next sensation with built-in obsolescence. And the next, ad infinitum.

Since then, music has suffered even more. The days of transferring recorded sound to a physical artefact and selling thousands of copies to an eager public are gone. Thanks to the digital revolution, music is now a free commodity, available to you and I at the click of a mouse, on tablet, or mobile phone. It has either been stripped or liberated from its body, depending on your point of view.

Although his conclusions may be a little bleak, albeit inescapable, the author has written a tremendous book. Anybody who can say that recorded music has been part of their life will find this volume riveting. The thread from Edison and Berliner to Spotify and iTunes, from Enrico Caruso and Louis Armstrong to Take That and Eminem is a convoluted one, but a fascinating one.

For another view of the business, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy; How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt examines the digital music revolution; and You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles by Peter Doggett looks at the business issues which pursued the world's most famous group after they disbanded.

Buy Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop by Peter Doggett at Amazon.com.


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