Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music by Greg Milner
Andrew Mueller appreciates a note-perfect history of recorded music
Humankind’s relationship with technology has consistently been defined by one awesomely simple, terrifying dynamic. Some genius develops something amazing which, if applied with a modicum of sense, restraint and decorum, could improve the lives of billions. Upon which the planet’s uncountable legions of venal idiots seize upon said invention and deploy it with utter fatheaded ruthlessness to make the world even more dangerous, annoying and sad than it already was. Alexander Graham Bell did not set out to create call centres. Guglielmo Marconi cannot have imagined that he was facilitating a profitable career for Chris Moyles.
The Wright Brothers, had they foreseen the tedium and hassle of mass air travel, might well have carried on repairing bicycles in Dayton, perhaps muttering that whoever invented the two-wheeled velocipede wouldn’t have bothered if he’d anticipated the swarms of belligerent solipsists he was loosing upon the streets of our cities. And John Logie Baird, had he the merest inkling of what he’d spawned, would have burned the blueprints, then hurled himself upon the pyre for fear of talking of his discovery in his sleep.
All of which is to say that Greg Milner’s history of recorded sound prompts two conflicting emotions. One is gratitude that Milner has done such a terrific job, riddling the book with absorbing characters and interviews and fossicking diligently for those illuminating nuggets often lost in the slurry of such ambitious projects (a brilliant section on Def Leppard’s “Hysteria”, the apotheosis of hilariously over-engineered ’80s radio rock, includes the revelation that, rather than recording anything so tediously utilitarian as guitar chords, the Lep played individual notes, so that producer Mutt Lange could assemble the record all the more meticulously).
The other is despair at what has become of Thomas Edison’s idea for a machine capable of reproducing sound. On 6 December 1877, Edison hunched over the contraption he’d assembled in his New Jersey laboratory and yelled “Mary Had A Little Lamb” into a mouthpiece. When he played back the track that had been etched on to wax paper (later tin foil was used), he became the first person ever to broadcast a song. It’s occasionally tempting to believe that it has been downhill ever since.
Intentionally or not, the lingering effect of Perfecting Sound Forever is to inspire anguished nostalgia for a time, really not so long ago, when music was not the oppressively omnipresent entity it is today. Around the turn of the last century, music was still an event – something people had to seek out, or make themselves. A hundred years later, the history of recording that Milner chronicles has commodified and corrupted it to the point that most of the music we hear in a modern lifetime is music we don’t want to hear – in shops, restaurants, sports venues and other places where it is entirely unnecessary. Given the undoubted potency of music as a mood-altering agent – and Milner is laudably lucid on the technicalities of how music works – it’s astonishing how little resistance is mounted to this incessant invasion of our psyches.
The ultimate and somewhat crushing irony of the tale, as Milner tells it, is that the struggle to perfect sound has been largely in vain. Apart from the few deranged audiophiles of the sort Milner finds, who think it reasonable to spend tens of thousands on a turntable, most of us are content to listen to music on devices which reveal mere fractions of the songs we think of as our favourites. Indeed, as any excursion on public transport demonstrates, young people cheerfully, if annoyingly, listen to music on the crackly, monophonic speakers in their mobile phones, which offer a sound quality objectively worse than any of Edison’s long-obsolete antiques. No wonder that many of the professional sound engineers Milner meets have begun wondering if their job is still worth doing well.
Every human society that has ever existed has practised music of some sort: we clearly need it for something. Of the many things that this fascinating book will make you ponder, most intriguing is the question of whether – given that we treat it so disrespectfully – we really like music all that much.
Perfecting Sound Forever is published by Granta