ELECTRIC SHOCK: From the Gramophone to the iPhone, 125 Years of Pop Music by Peter Doggett

On the front and back covers of this book are photographs of couples dancing, on their faces expressions of euphoric delight, rapture even, and any way you look at it, it’s the kind of thing that ought to be stamped out, made unlawful lest such displays taint the God-fearing society in which we live. Well, that’s what generation after generation of moralisers would have you believe. It didn’t happen, of course, and never will, the prudes and puritans forever as powerless to get their own way in these matters as King Canute’s futile attempts to turn back the tide.
         If there is a theme to Peter Doggett’s sprawling, ambitious and quite remarkable 700+ page book, it is simply that in this regard history repeats itself again and again. Each time new and more expressive forms of music are devised the moral guardians throw up their hands in horror and demand its prohibition, which doesn’t happen, even though the music industry often absorbs it, largely neutralising it in the process. From jazz to rap, with rock’n’roll occupying the lion’s share of the outrage in between, ‘hot’ music has been labelled the scourge of mankind, or so many suppose, not least plenty in the music industry who fear for their livelihoods. In 1955 Variety, the US entertainment trade paper, declared that rock’n’roll was “the most destructive force in the country… a lewd, lascivious and larcenous influence on youth”. A major issue, of course, was that rock’n’roll was and remains multi-racial and thus had the effect of bringing blacks and whites together. In the UK the Daily Mail, then and now a bastion of prurient moral values, was not slow to pick up on this point: “It is deplorable. It is tribal. It follows ragtime, blues, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle. We sometimes wonder whether this is the negro’s revenge.”
         Beyond this recurrent motif, Electric Shock is Doggett’s bold attempt to tell the whole story of popular music, ‘from the gramophone to the iPhone’ as the sub-title reminds us, and this means that concurrent with developments in music, presented more or less chronologically from the late 19th Century to the present day, is a history of the technology, from tubes to discs made from shellac and vinyl to tapes to CDs and, finally, digital tools. The relationship between the two – music and the means whereby it can be heard – is paramount, each feeding the other, and very early on Doggett makes the important point that until the invention of recorded sound, all music was simply a performance that was immediately lost once it was over. As noted by the white terrier that recognised his master’s voice coming from the trumpet of an ancient record player, once a sound could be captured whoever made that sound would live forever.
         But it’s the music history that fascinates more. Once the earliest recordings are out of the way, Doggett claims with some justification that rock’n’roll actually began with Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith’s 1928 recording of ‘Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie’ and, being unfamiliar with this tune, I checked for myself and discovered he was right. Dynamics and presentation aside, it’s not that different from Fats Domino or even Jerry Lee Lewis. Thereafter my progress in reading the book was impeded by countless visits to my lap top to check out this or that piece of music I was reading about, at least until we reached Elvis, especially Bessie Smiths ‘I’m Wild About That Thing’ which Doggett brazenly cites as an example of a blues recording that “made a shameless declaration of how it felt to fuck, and want to be fucked”. This was clearly worth a listen regardless of how it might impact on my morals.
         Although Doggett nails his colours to the mast in the acknowledgements, conceding his lifetime affair with Crosby, Stills & Nash (and, knowing him as I do, their ancestral forebears, plus Bob Dylan and Neil Young), he leaves them at the door once his book reaches the rock era, especially when considering popular music that divides opinion, usually between combative critics and mainstream fans. Due attention is thus afforded to the soundtrack albums of musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein that vied with Elvis in the 1950s and, more especially, to The Sound Of Music that occupied the upper reaches of the charts alongside The Beatles a decade later. Similarly, it may have been hard for a writer of his critical perception to devote equal space to the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Vince Hill and Ken Dodd (and even, in earlier chapters to the likes of Mantovani, Ray Coniff and James Last), as he does to groups like The Beatles, Stones and Who but he swallows his inclinations and manages it – no mean feat for someone who’s seen as many Dylan concerts as I have Who shows. Indeed, on a relative basis compared to their fame and achievements, very little space is devoted to either The Beatles or Dylan or, for that matter, David Bowie, all of whom Doggett has written about extensively in the past.
         The book is full of entertaining titbits like how the BBC’s first Director General John Reith, a man whose principles were carved in granite, refused to allow song titles to be mentioned on the radio lest it be interpreted as a form of advertising. And who knew that the expression Whiskey A Go Go, as in the name of numerous rock clubs, translates as Whiskey Galore, borrowed from the title of a novel by Compton Mackenzie that became a popular Ealing comedy?
         Also, anyone assuming that record companies reselling the same music again and again in different formats is a practice that came in with CDs in the 1980s is directed to a passage in which Doggett informs us that in the early 1950s “many early LPs were simply collections of previously released 78s, repackaged as a ‘gift’ to the artists’ fans… [and]… to explore the extended landscape of the 12-inch disc, they embarked on another round of creative marketing, by adding a handful of additional tracks to their existing ten-inch albums and presenting them as new product.”
         There can be no question that the amount of research Doggett undertook to produce this extensive history was gargantuan, especially as regards music from the pre-Elvis era. A read through the 14-page bibliography confirms as much, and heaven only knows how many hundreds of tracks he listened to along the way. As noted, I found myself checking out bits of music time and again, especially where Doggett finds antecedents of rock or simply eulogises. These included Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin The Beguine’ (1938) “which has often been proposed as one of the finest American records of the century” and which is indeed lovely, and Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Well Git It’ (1943) which after a meandering intro explodes into life, detonated by a drummer attacking his kit in the manner of Keith Moon, to be followed by raucous horns over pulsating rhythms. It was regarded as a novelty on release but it was rock’n’roll over 10 years before the arrival of Bill Haley and Elvis.
         There is great attention to detail throughout, information overload almost, including many fascinating footnotes and the use of different fonts on chapter headings that reflect typography from the various eras. Nor does Doggett limit his investigations to the US and UK, visiting South America to discover how Latin rhythms influenced popular music everywhere and Europe to explore how French romanticism and German shlager made their presence felt.
         Neither is the influence of drugs overlooked, with the case for (creatively inspiring) and against (but deadly) left open, and I was fascinated to learn that as long ago as 1943 Time magazine declared that marijuana was no more harmful than alcohol and was “less habit forming than tobacco, alcohol or opium”, an opinion with which I concur. Nevertheless the police disagreed, and two years later raided jazz clubs on New York’s 52nd street to the extent that one club manager decided it was less trouble to re-open as a strip joint than to continue presenting jazz.
         Each and every genre is visited, every type of jazz dissected, preceded by ragtime and followed by the crooners and easy listening merchants, until we reach rock, heavy and soft, through glam and the American AOR boom in the mid-seventies, which has never really gone away, to the almost concurrent stirrings of hip hop and rap taking place in New York’s Bronx; from Northern Soul, reggae and disco to electro pop, punk and new wave; from house to thrash, acid and grunge to Britpop via the emergence of MTV, charity shows that emulate Live Aid and, finally, X-Factor and boybands. In truth, having spent the past 40 years immersed in rock and pop, I was more fascinated by the early chapters than those that dealt with the music and music industry with which I am very familiar, but Doggett is never less than illuminating, a largely unprejudiced observer with a keen eye for detail and the means by which music is turned into money.
         Now and then, however, I found myself shaking my head when Doggett’s resolutely objective stance slipped a little. Having brilliantly and succinctly summed up Michael Jackson’s post-Thriller career by stating that “he was unable to progress in any field apart from fame”, a page later he tears into Bruce Springsteen by implying in a roundabout way that he’s written nothing new since Born In The USA, completely ignoring the heart-stopping live shows he has continued to stage for the last 30 years. And while we’re at it I was disappointed that in a lengthy passage devoted to synthesisers in Chapter 25, he failed to identify Pete Townshend’s pioneering work in this field on Who’s Next. Similarly, I would take issue with his statement that after switching from the independent I.R.S. label to Warner Bros R.E.M.’s sales “went into steep decline” when in reality the two biggest selling albums of their career were Out Of Time (1991) and Automatic For The People (1992), both released on Warners.
         Reaching the end, I couldn’t help but feel I’d read a very long obituary, a rather sad and resigned tribute to 125 years of music that struggles in the modern era, much like shops in moribund city centres. This, of course, stems principally from the arrival of digital downloading and internet file sharing which blew aside hitherto unquestioned assumptions about copyright protection, in the process dealing the music industry a lethal blow. By this time the tone of the writing had taken on a sense of regret – the penultimate chapter, largely about X-Factor and the like, is ambiguously titled The Murder Of Music? – that contrasted sharply with the more upbeat mood of much of what came before, at least until the 1990s. In Doggett’s view this can also be attributed to too much music being available today – as opposed to the gradual growth of available music during the second half of the 20th Century – and what Doggett identifies as a consequent “loss of perspective” for today’s consumers. The upside of this is that “rock no longer divides generations – it unites them” as to my immense pleasure I have had cause to discover with my own son and daughter, 48 and 45 years my junior respectively.
         Of more import to me, however, is the creative concern: that popular music in the 21st Century, competing as it does with so many other attractions, doesn’t mean anywhere near as much to teens and twenties as it did for me in my youth, and it never will again. That the effect of this is to stifle imagination is, for someone like me who’s grown up with rock as a soundtrack to life, heart-breaking. I think it is for Peter Doggett too, horrified as he was one day to hear the music of Bob Dylan, music that once bestowed upon him an electric shock, piped into malls as meaningless background accompaniment to shopping.
         I share his disillusionment and commend his book.  


Dave Heasman said...

Bill Haley not "Hayley". He did rock n roll in 1952. If you'd told Buddy Rich, Tommy Dorsey's drummer, that he was playing rock n roll he'd not be best pleased.

mick gold said...

Thanks for an interesting review. I haven't had time to read Doggett's 720 page magnum opus but am looking forward to it. I can't help wondering whether, from the elegiac tone of your review ("much like shops in moribund city centre") our view of pop music is inevitably part of a baby boomer narrative. (I guess Doggett, you, me are roughly the same generation.) Inevitably pop/rock for us was becoming aware of African-American culture (via blues, R&R), changing social mores of 60s, our first sex & drug adventures. Inevitably the music is soundtrack to societal convulsions of 2nd half of 20th century as well as our own journeys. For our children it can't have the same resonance. A writer I once knew, Dave Downing, wrote an essay about 1965, The Moment of Rock, which he compared to John Berger's essay about 1912, The Moment of Cubism. These were moments in culture where the future seemed to become visible and tangible. And so so the music had huge significance for us for many non-musical reasons. Thanks for an interesting blog.