Why does the world need a 700-page history of popular music?
Because the full story had never been told before. Anyone who's interested in pop carries a personal history of the music in their head, based on what they've been exposed to down the years. Pop leaves an indelible mark on the emotions and the memory, because it has a remarkable ability to conjure up moments from our past, and take us straight back to childhood, or first romance, or whatever it might be.
On top of that, there's a sort of shared cultural history, which has been passed on via radio stations and TV documentaries and magazine articles and the rest - so that we all know, whether we were alive then or not, that rock'n'roll shocked adults in the 1950s, that the Beatles were huge in the 1960s, that punk erupted onto the streets in the late 1970s, and so on. These events seem so familiar to us now that they're as predictable and comforting as a fairy story. We take them for granted, and assume that we're being told the whole story.
But reality was never that straightforward. At each stage of pop's development, there were conflicting forces at work, and often there were several different kinds of music pulling different audiences in opposite directions.
I was very struck, for example, when I discovered that in the same week in 1956, Elvis Presley recorded 'Heartbreak Hotel' while Frank Sinatra was making his Songs For Swingin' Lovers album. Those recordings couldn't have been more different from each other, and there was virtually no crossover between their target audiences. But they existed in the same moment, and each of them was a perfect reflection of its times.
So I wanted to write a book that would be open to all of those different impulses and directions, and tell the story of the soundtrack of our lives.
You talk in the book about there being two rival interpretations of pop's history which have held sway until now.
That's right. Look back at the books written about pop in the 20th century, and you'll see that they viewed rock'n'roll as the birth of a golden era, or else as a final nail in its coffin. There's a school of thought - and I can understand it - which sees the pinnacle of American popular music as being the 1930s. That was when songwriters such as Gershwin and Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and dozens more, were combining sophisticated, witty, poignant lyrics with deathless melodies and intricate arrangements. This was the era of the so-called 'standard' song - a term that makes hundreds of emotionally potent and vastly enjoyable songs sound dull. They're called standards because so many people sang and played them, and they achieved that status because their appeal could survive thousands of performances by a surreal range of artists, without losing its novelty and charm.
So that's one version of pop: a golden era before World War Two. The second - and this was the one I grew up with, as a child of the 1960s and 1970s - assumes that everything was dull before rock'n'roll, which rescued post-war teenagers from blandness and conservatism. Depending on your age and taste, you can choose to locate the golden age of this theory in the mid-1950s, or in the experimental pop of the late 1960s, or in the punk era . . . or anywhere else along the road that you care to stop.
In writing this book, I set out from the premise that both these readings of pop history were true - and both were false, because there was remarkable music to be found at every stage of the story. The trick is to open your ears and let it in.
The subtitle of Electric Shock specifies that you're tackling 125 years of popular music, which takes us back to 1890. Why did you start the story there?
I'd already rejected rock'n'roll as the birthplace of pop, but where do you begin? With Sinatra? Bing Crosby? Louis Armstrong? You could make a case for each of them as being the seismic moment in pop's history.
The further back I went with my research, however, and the more music I listened to, the more I realised that the two most important moments in 20th century pop actually took place in the late 19th century - around 1890, in fact. The first was the invention of recorded sound as a commercial artefact; the second was the emergence of ragtime, which was African-American music, aimed at the young, and often intended to make people dance. In my opinion, 1890 marked the dividing line between ancient and modern in popular music history. You can trace almost everything that's happened since then back to that moment.
The reviews of Electric Shock have generally been very positive, but the critic in The Spectator said that it was a shame you didn't concentrate solely on the past 50 years.
That was exactly what I didn't want to do! The whole point of my book is that the story is much bigger and more interesting than that.
What does this book offer readers that they can't get elsewhere?
You're inviting me to blow my own trumpet! OK . . . perspective, passion, detailed research, evocative anecdotes, and hilarious quotes from parents and archbishops and politicians and all the other people who've always hated new innovations in pop during every era. More seriously: I hope that the book provides a panoramic history, not just of popular music, but also of the technology that has carried it into our homes, and most importantly the changing role that music has played in our lives.
I also wanted to tell even the most familiar parts of the story in a new way, so that the reader wouldn't be faced with pages of stuff they already knew. If you stand back far enough from the heart of the action at any moment in history, you can see things happening that everyone else has missed.
Was there one particular thing that inspired you to write the book?
It was more of a vague, nagging desire - something I've known for years that I would have to do one day. But if there was one moment, it would have been to be the incident I talk about in the introduction to the book. I was walking through the shopping centre in my old hometown about ten years ago, and I suddenly realised that the almost subliminal music they were playing over the PA in the mall was Bob Dylan and the Band's live version of 'Like a Rolling Stone' from 1966 - the so-called 'Albert Hall' recording that was actually taped in Manchester. And I remembered back thirty years, to when I'd sent off a postal order to a mysterious P.O. box number in the north of England, and received in return a bootleg album of that same concert.
Back then, that music meant the world to me - it was one of the things I clung to during a particularly troubled period of my adolescence. Thirty years later, here was the same music, operating as Muzak to make shoppers spend more money. That moment certainly set me thinking about how pop had changed.
Early in my research, I was chatting to my neighbours about what I was doing, and they were telling me about going to dances in the pre-rock'n'roll era - and in particular how exciting it was seeing the Ted Heath big band in action, in the early 1950s. As I listened to them, I realised that I might have been listening to myself talking about Bob Dylan, or my daughter remembering gigs by the Mystery Jets, or my grandmother reminiscing about the scandalous days when she used to dance the Charleston. That conversation was a perfect illustration of the fact that every generation treasures its personal soundtrack, and that mine was no more exciting or worthwhile than theirs was.
You talk in the introduction about trying to throw away all your prejudices as a critic. Do you really think it's possible to do that - and perhaps more importantly, do you think it's a valid thing to do? What's the point of a critic with no opinions?
Rather than throwing them away, perhaps it's more accurate to say that I was trying to be aware of them, and look beyond them. We're all prejudiced; we wouldn't be human without it. And anyone arrogant enough to spout about their own opinions for an audience has to believe that their own opinions and prejudices count for something. But this book would have been impossible if I'd let my prejudices run the show.
Instead of assuming, therefore, that certain kinds of music, or certain eras of music, were dull or bland or appalling or worse, I tried to open my heart and my ears to everything. I wanted to try to recreate what it was like for each generation to experience its music for the first time - to recapture that sense of the forbidden, if you were a fan, or that outrage, if you were an adult disgusted by the latest teenage enthusiasms. Rather than being a cynic, I wanted to be an enthusiast, even if what I was writing about didn't fit my own particular taste.
As far as being a critic with no opinions . . . well, a critic doesn't just have to express his or her prejudices. In fact, they are often a handicap to the job. Part of being a critic is explaining where something comes from, and how it works, and what it's trying to do - making connections, in other words, rather than burning bridges.
Do you think you were successful in keeping your prejudices at bay?
Other people can judge that better than I can. I hope so, but it became more difficult the closer I got to the present day. It won't surprise anyone who reads the book that I'm not a big fan of the modern TV talent show, for example, so it's hard to keep an air of snobbish distaste at bay when I'm talking about Simon Cowell and his creations! I was also pretty dismissive of Starship's 'We Built This City', I notice, for personal rather than valid reasons. That's my fault for caring too much about the legacy of Jefferson Airplane, Starship's parent band.
How did you set about researching such a vast subject?
One of the first things I did sounds impossible - and it would have been, before the invention of YouTube and Spotify. I tried to play at least a representative sample of every 'hit' record from the late 19th century into the 21st century, from Britain and America. It's testament to the incredible change heralded by the internet that I could find 99% of those recordings online, and for free. I actually became quite outraged if there was a dance band hit from 1919 that I couldn't find - 'How dare they not have this on YouTube?' One benefit of that is that anyone who reads Electric Shock can go on the same journey. If you want to hear something I write about in the book, you can almost certainly access it for free.
Listening to all that music was a terrifying mountain to climb, but the view was so tremendous, the whole way, that it was worth every second. I was able to soak myself in the sounds of every era, making it easy to spot when things were changing - those moments when music and/or technology suddenly take a step into the future.
I also read and speed-read everything I could lay my hands on. The National Sound Archive section of the British Library has the most incredible collection of music papers and periodicals, going back to the 19th century - all on open-access shelves, if you're a member. So I began there, and then I headed out in every possible direction I could find, until I felt as if I knew my way round everything from ragtime to ragga.
One thing really struck me as my research reached the last thirty years. It's much easier to find fresh material about music from before 1980 than it is about more modern developments. Everything since then has already been documented, because there's a flourishing culture of preserving pop trivia - which goodness knows I've contributed to, down the years. So the problem with the modern world is that we have too much information, rather than not enough. We're drowning in facts, opinions, choices - and so the difficult bit is not to discover what's been happening, but to make sense of it. I think my role as a historian or critic or whatever is different in the last few chapters, as a result of that. I could definitely feel myself pulling the camera back from the action in the 21st century, to get the widest possible perspective.
Would you do it all again?
In some ways, Electric Shock feels like my final word on the subject. But researching this book was such fun that I would never say never. I'll tell you something, though. It's a joy being able to play music again just for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than having to worry about what it means and where it all fits into the history of the last 125 years!