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From ragtime to the X Factor: the epic story of popular music

If only Peter Doggett’s vast survey had been a little less scholarly, we might all have been talking about Electric Shock — rather than just trying to lift it

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone— 125 Years of Pop Music Peter Doggett

The Bodley Head, pp.692, £25

As pop music drifts away from many people’s lives, so its literature grows ever more serious and weighty, as though aware that this is an art form approaching the end of its time. Having had the pleasure of opening the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s planned three-volume history of the Beatles and then fallen into a deep sleep attempting to read it, I feel only a sense of impending doom when presented with yet another vast tome of unimpeachable scholarship into the ephemeral. Peter Doggett, a long-serving toiler at the pop coalface, has produced a whopper here, a near-700-page history of pop’s 125 years, with the accent on the popular. What music did people like? Why did they like it? What did it bring to their lives?

Doggett has previously written books about Bowie, the Beatles and 1960s counterculture, all with very long titles that suggest deep learning and limited readability. I’m not sure I have read him before, but he is actually rather good: an enthusiast and a thinker who seems to have heard everything, and has something new to say about a lot of it. He came to this project, he admits, with a bad case of rock critic snobbery:

My first task in writing this book was to throw away decades of prejudice, however well argued and intelligently phrased. That is how I found myself, for the first time in my life, hearing (to seize some names at random) Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, Mantovani, Queen, Kylie Minogue and Metallica with genuine appreciation, rather than closing my mind as soon as I saw their names.

But while we give thanks for such humility, we may also feel intimidated by the sheer scale of his project. Doggett knew where his book would end — now, here, today — but where should it start? The more he thought about it, the clearer it became that ‘the two most revolutionary moments in the life of 20th-century music actually pre-dated that century.’ They were the creation of recorded sound that you could buy, and the birth of ragtime, both of which took place in the 1890s. Thus begins a book of admirable ambition that you feel could, and indeed should, have been much shorter.


Themes are hard to find in all this, other than the record industry’s unending quest to make a fast buck. Doggett’s history twists and turns and veers here, there and everywhere. But the randomness of creative endeavour is well represented: the longevity of certain strong, focused, driven musicians, contrasted with the fragility of so many others, destroyed by circumstance or simply bad luck. And the book is rich in incidental detail. Jazz, as the Daily Express explained a few days after the Armistice was signed in 1918, was ‘The New Noise That Makes People Gay.’ In 1955, a psychiatrist declared that rock’n’roll was ‘a communicable disease’. Contrary to ancient rumour, no high court judge has ever asked, ‘Who are the Beatles?’ but in the 1920s one did ask, ‘What is a saxophone?’ And what do you think was the first punk hit in America? Something by the Ramones, maybe? The Clash? The Sex Pistols? No, it was ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’ by Plastic Bertrand.

In 1961, the Swedish Music Academy warned that it was illegal to release pop interpretations of melodies by Edvard Grieg. Any piece of music that used a Grieg tune would be marked in Swedish radio archives with a death’s head stamp, to make sure it was never broadcast.

This isn’t a book you would necessarily read from cover to cover. If you’re not interested in a particular era or a particular type of music, you won’t be much interested in what Doggett has to say about it. But he can be very acute. Here he is on Michael Jackson, after Thriller:

Having designed an album of cutting-edge black music that could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age or race, Jackson was unable to progress in any field apart from fame… He believed himself to be beyond all petty human boundaries of finance, morality and sanity, and came closer than any entertainer to illustrating the madness of unchecked wealth.

I think that’s pretty good. Winners of The X Factor seem to be ‘doomed to live out their often fleeting fame within the limited parameters of [Simon] Cowell’s imagination’. Noel Gallagher ‘could pen melodies so accessible that they sounded immediately familiar (and sometimes dangerously familiar)’. But unlike their heroes the Beatles,

who enacted constant musical revolution over seven frantic years, Oasis refused to move forward: their only development was to make their records longer and more layered, as if excess was the same as progress.

That’s even better. If Doggett had just kept to the last 50 years or so, this would be a book that everyone would be talking about reading, instead of just trying to lift.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033


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