Book review: Electric Shock looks at 125 years of recorded music

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 12:34pm


As pop music's grip on young lives has weakened, along with its creative pulse and commercial clout, pop history has boomed. Television and radio schedules brim with documentaries, publishers' lists with biographies, memoirs and ever more microscopic analyses of pop's finest hours.

It's a brave writer who steps back to offer a wider narrative, let alone one that covers 125 years "from gramophone to iPhone", as the subtitle of Electric Shock has it, but Peter Doggett carries off the task with elan. His 700-page panorama is distinguished both by its scope and willingness to set aside critical point-scoring to confront the music the public actually bought and to ask what they got from it.

Many familiar pinnacles of pop's artistry are present - Louis Armstrong's creation of a "new personal form of jazz" in 1920s Chicago; Frank Sinatra's imperious role in the golden age of song; the cultural insurrections wrought by Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Sex Pistols. Yet also present are more critically derided developments: Mantovani's saccharine strings, or poodle-coiffed "glam metal" acts such as Van Halen.

Yet Doggett's approach is not populist. He's comfortable detailing the birth of bebop in post-second world war New York, a revolution akin to cubism in painting, though at the time the creations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were little heard and not much liked. By the time they were, Gillespie was helping introduce North America to Cuban music. Similar incursions into the central body of Anglo-American pop are likewise accommodated in Doggett's tale: Trinidadian calypso, Nigerian Afrobeat, Jamaican reggae and German robotics (Moroder and Kraftwerk).

The principal engine of pop's evolution, however, has always been the interplay between black and white America. Ragtime, jazz, swing, R&B, hip hop - all have met with official dismay and no small amount of racism ("jungle music" is a perennial insult) while being embraced by the young "as a symbol of joyous independence". Dancing was especially suspect; young women abandoning corsetry to do the Charleston, jitterbugging big-band fans and jiving rock'n'rollers all created moral panics.

Today, pop has shed its connection with a physical source (shellac 78 RPMs, plastic 45s, shiny CDs) to become an MP3 floating on an invisible cloud. The arrival of the compressed digital file in 1995 "shredded the century-old safeguard of copyright in musical recordings", and while iTunes and Spotify pay royalties (of a sort), there is no compulsion to buy - everything is available free.

Moreover, pop has become a curiously timeless zone, with the most obscure rockabilly B-side or dub track available on YouTube, and the hallowed rock canon reduced to mall muzak, "signifying nothing, evoking no surprise … as culturally empty as a McDonald's logo". It's small wonder that Doggett has a chapter titled "The Murder of Music". What Electric Shock imparts, however, is not gloom but delight and curiosity in the music it chronicles with such pithy vivacity.

Electric Shock by Peter Doggett (Bodley Head)

The Guardian