Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone – 125 Years of Pop Music review

An exhaustive history leaves the question: does anyone need to know this much about pop?

Peter Doggett’s ambitious history of pop opens with the author having a terrible time in the “air-conditioned limbo” of a 2003 Merseyside shopping mall: 30 years on from a youthful epiphany brought on by an infamous Bob Dylan bootleg, he reacts with horror when the self-same holy music floats out among the unholy simulacra of Next, Starbucks and Vodafone. Doggett must be aware he is drawing what amounts to a self-caricature: the grumpy old duffer who is nostalgic for a lost world of coupons cut out of crinkly music papers, the Queen’s head on envelopes, bootlegs inside brown paper packages tied up with string. He yearns for solid things, authentic things, and a time when buying pop music was somehow a rebelliously anti-consumerist gesture.

Such a glum episode may strike some readers as an odd way to kick off a celebration of the joyful fizz of pop music. “Here we go again,” they may well sigh: “another pale, middle-aged, record-collector bloke bleating about the Good Old Days.” But Doggett’s negative epiphany introduces his basic thesis: how uproariously fast things change in pop, not just the music itself but the whole manner in which it is delivered and consumed. He takes us all the way back to the end of the 19th century, to so-called “coon songs” and ragtime fever, to waltzes and vaudeville; to a pre-jazz era when even those with a decent income were more likely to have a piano in their parlour than a “phonograph or gramophone”.

Chapter by chapter he inches us towards the mid or late 1950s birth of rock’n’roll. One of the reasons the date is disputed is that it was the product of so many disparate influences; pop music has always been a thing of hybrids and mutants, rip-offs and re-treads.

The 720 pages of Electric Shock add up to an incredibly detailed history. I admire anyone capable of writing a book requiring such dogged application. On the face of it, I’m Electric Shock’s ideal reader: another pale, middle-aged, record-collector bloke, whose home is collapsing under a vast amount of pop-culture detritus. So why did I find the book such a terrible slog? Doggett is one of those pop/rock writers (Johnny Rogan – who pops up in Doggett’s acknowledgments list – is another) who cannot be faulted for their research, dedication and productivity, but could never claim to be an especially elegant or exciting writer.

The material might have worked better had it been spread across a few, shorter, more enticing books. (I would definitely read a study of the misty world of pre-Bing Crosby crooners he briefly describes.) I had a lot more fun with two of Doggett’s previous works (Are You Ready for the Country and The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s).

Traversing three discrete epochs – pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity – Doggett has to cram reams of information into successive tight, highly condensed overviews. There is little space for detail. His descriptions often amount to bullet-point lists that don’t exactly make you want to rush off and play the music again. Would his description of the Beach Boys’s “I Get Around” as a “complex harmonic blend, supporting lyrics of stunning banality” send anyone racing off to their old copy or new download of Endless Summer? (Also, I think he is wrong about the lyrics.) In the space of a few pages, we tourist-coach past Nelson Mandela, Winifred Atwell, Dusty Springfield, the Daleks, Sonny and Cher, “The Ballad of The Green Berets”, Noël Coward, Ray Davies, Janis Ian, John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” quote, Kris Kristofferson, Vietnam, Nina Simone, marijuana, LSD and “the Mexican Bob Dylan”.

Two recent books I loved – Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, and Tracey Thorn’s Naked at the Albert Hall – both prove that you can take great swaths of pop history and out of the jangly chaos cultivate a revealingly personal argument; I went back and skimmed a page of Yeah Yeah Yeah and instantly wanted to reinvestigate five different artists. There are plenty of other examples of  books that are both readable and thought-provoking, focusing on one tiny area as their subject and, as a result, making you question all you think you know about music history: Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music, say, or Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, or Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather. If you don’t have a revolutionary new argument, then you simply must write like an angel.

I gained the impression from advance publicity that the Rosebud behind Doggett’s own retrospective quest was the technology of popular music itself: a reassessment of all the paradigm shifts involving methods of recording and forms of playback. This is hinted at in the early sections, but once the demanding historical march is under way, the whole matter seems to more or less fade from view, and we settle down to a rather conventional linear history. Of the present, Doggett claims: “This is a unique moment: for the first time, modern technology allows us to construct our own route through documented history.” But he doesn’t explore this idea in any depth, and never tells us what this distinctive new form of history is like, where it can be found or whether it’s a good or bad thing.

Electric Shock is not a bad book – it’s not sloppily written, I didn’t find any glaring errors – but it represents one more uninspiring addition to the current vogue for Archive Mania. It reads like an act of flawless research for a TV series: one to be enlivened at a later date by somebody else’s heavily opinionated point of view. Someone should take his research, tear it to pieces and stick it back together in an unexpected way, to evoke more of the revolutionary thrill of pop music than Doggett ever does.

• To order a copy for £20 (RRP £25), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Ian Penman

The GuardianTramp

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