Book review

Bruce Lindsay – “Shellac and Swing! A Social History of the Gramophone in Britain”

Bruce Lindsay – Shellac and Swing! A Social History of the Gramophone in Britain

(Fonthill, £25, 191pp. Review by Chris Parker)

In Shellac and Swing!’s Introduction, music journalist Bruce Lindsay lays out his intention to provide ‘a celebration of the ways in which gramophones and 78s changed life in Britain forever’ by telling ‘the story of how these relatively humble objects became part of British society, influencing and being influenced by it, for over half a century’. Given the relative shortness of his book, this may seem a mite over-ambitious, but Lindsay is a skilful, pithy writer with a plethora of esoteric facts about his subject at his fingertips, so the result is a highly informative yet consistently entertaining survey of a phenomenon all too easily neglected in this digital age.

He begins with the technology – the ‘phonautogram’, invented by the now-forgotten Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in Paris in 1857, and then the phonograph (Thomas Alva Edison) and the gramophone (Emile Berliner) – but never allows his narrative to become bogged down in technical matters, spicing it up at every stage with amusing anecdotes and improbable details, all delivered with deadpan wit. The time period occupied by his subject, of course, is a tumultuous one, containing two world wars separated by the Jazz Age and culminating in the upheavals of the Cold War, so provides rich pickings for the social historian, whether he’s commenting on the presence of gramophones in the trenches of the Great War, in the houses of the aristocracy in the 1920s and 1930s, or (in the form of the iconic Dansette) in teenagers’ bedrooms in the 1950s/1960s. Musically, too, this is a wonderfully fertile period, embracing the classical recordings of Caruso, Nellie Melba and Edward Elgar, through musical-hall entertainers such as Leslie Sarony and the jazz of everyone from the ODJB and Jack Hylton to Benny Goodman, but in describing all this, too, Lindsay never loses sight of his core subject: the audience, its make-up, tastes and demands.

It is the book’s final couple of pages, however, that clinch its argument. Lindsay chooses Robert Johnson (arguably the single most important figure in the popular music of the twentieth century) as the prime example of the success of the gramophone in ‘speak[ing] to future generations and remind[ing] us of past times’. As he points out, ‘Without the gramophone record, an obscure young blues singer, dead at twenty-seven years of age, would have faded into oblivion’, and the entire course of popular music, from blues and rock’n’roll to rock and rap, would have been utterly different. Food for thought, indeed.

Only one criticism: such a fascinating book, packed as it is with painstakingly researched detail, cries out for an index, but despite containing other impressive production features – a useful bibliography, copious notes and an excellent illustrated section – it lacks this essential tool. A shame, but perhaps this can be remedied in future editions…

LINK: Shellac and Swing at Fonthill

Categories: Book review

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