Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 Years of Pop Music by Peter Doggett (Vintage, $24.99)

“The global heritage of popular music is the product of 125 years of artistic and scientific innovation. It represents a constant quest for modernity, which must be endlessly renewed. This is the story of that quest; of the musicians, the generations that they delighted and divided, and the technology which captured their music in the moment of its creation, and preserved it for our collective enjoyment and amazement. This is their story; and ours.”

-Peter Doggett (from Electric Shock, page 9)

Few things affect us more than music; it instantly causes us break out into a dance, a laugh, a smile or tears; it reminds us of old friends or lost loves; it gets us through a tough time or makes a great day even better; it can be a lighthearted singalong for an extended car ride or a lament for those we mourn. Music is our friend; a loyal companion who is always there for us at the push of a button; I simply can’t image a day, let alone my life, without it. The history of recorded music is the subject of Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 Years of Pop Music by British music journalist, critic, author and magazine editor Peter Doggett.

With the scholarly expertise of a Bill Bryson and the dry, acerbic British wit of a Christopher Hitchens, Doggett astutely and sardonically throws facts, analysis, and sharp observations and conclusions at us with the steady and constant forward pace of a shark patrolling the coastal sea for errant seals; Electric Shock gets rolling from the first chapter it does not stop or even slow down throughout its 600+ pages. Never did I feel it drag (in fact I thought it moved at times a little too quickly) as it detailed the changes in technology, society, and audience tastes over a century and a quarter of recorded tunes. But it is not just a technical or artistic history; as well it is a chronicle of the business side and how a combination of all these factors changed culture, society, and for better or worse, the world.

Every couple of pages Doggett inserts dated quotes from industry insiders that are either completely wrong, prophetically accurate, or in a few instances contradictory, as if to make the statement that no matter how smart or successful a person can be, nobody’s really aware of or fully comprehends where we are or where we’re going.

“The tastemakers of old, the critics and disc jockeys, have been rendered totally obsolete. But they cling on, catering to the diminishing proportion of music listeners who care about the validity of their choices.” (Page 604)

I often lament the homogenization of popular music; how blandness and inoffensiveness now rule our airwaves. I can recall a time when radio D.J.’s would slip a rising artist a few minutes of airplay in the hope that they will discover an audience; before a time when satellite radio churned out old hits one after the other without consideration for the quality of the piece; before the incorporation of art. (When I was young I would enjoy, when away on holiday, tuning in different radio stations to hear what the announcers were like and what played in Peoria. When in Cape Cod or Florida I’d love the enthusiastic, if insincere way, they’d announce a summertime song with their fast paced and a loud, falsely deep, almost electronic voices that they could not possibly maintain for a full on-air shift without some chemical help. On one occasion while driving to Stratford, Ontario a found a station that was all German, and I listened for over 20 minutes despite not understanding a word of what they said, just relishing in the fact that it existed at all.) Reading Electric Shock was a nostalgia ride that reminded me of what we are losing in our corporate, assembly line, let’s-not-knock-any-noses-out-of-joint planet.

I studied music as a teenager and spent the better part of my 20’s working in a record store (where we also sold movies, the knowledge of which was the main factor in my being hired). 2 out of every 5 books I read these days (most recently The Birth of Loud, about the development of the electric guitar and Motley Crue’s over-the-top and aptly titled bio, The Dirt) have something to do with music. And although I never deluded myself into believing I knew it all, I have in the past felt like I knew a thing or two. This book put me to shame for thinking that. (I always said the Brits were the keenest, smartest music fans. Electric Shock proves me correct.)

Overall I recommend Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 Years of Pop Music (along with Million Dollar Mistakes by Moses Avalon, which I believe is still in print) for serious music fans only, and anyone who works or plans to work in the industry, whether creative or retail. The aforementioned volumes would also make great textbooks for an introductory course in the music biz.

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