The 1977 reissue of Roland Gelatt’s 1950s book on the history of the phonograph is a fascinating voyage through the comparatively short history of recorded sound. Unfortunately, stopping as it does in 1977, the book does not cover the digital revolution (as exemplified by the compact disc), nor the online digital revolution (the emergence of “compressed” music transmitted online). And, of course, it does not address the (temporary?) resurgence of vinyl following its near-death in the late 1990s and early years of the 2000s.
That being said, for what it does cover, Gelatt’s book is (for the most part) remarkably thorough. Much attention is lavished on the early inventions – by Thomas Edison, by Emile Berliner, and others – which brought about the basic form of the recorded disc as we know it today. From Edison’s earliest experiments with tin cylinders, then wax, and finally shellac, from the experimentation with and improvement of both methods of recording and playback, the history of recorded sound has been a convoluted one, with many forces at play. Gelatt weaves the narrative skillfully, and ultimately presents a gripping tale, particularly of the first thirty to forty years of sound recording in history. The transition from cylinder to disc, from speeds of 78rpm to 33 to 45, and the development of both electrical recording and amplification (neither of which really flourished until the later 1920s, it was all manual until then) make for amazing reading.
A familiarity with classical music particularly will be of some help to a reader, especially when the author’s knowledge of the ins and outs of countless classic recordings is demonstrated (even today, many of these recordings, even 78s, are available to anyone with some time to hunt and access to eBay, as well as the proper turntable and styluses). In fact, a good knowledge of 20th century history in general won’t do you any harm: there’s a lot going on in the world, some of which is tangentially influential on the history of the phonograph.
Unfortunately, Gelatt’s revisions to bring the book up to date feel a bit rushed, for a couple of reasons. One of the key developments in recorded sound, that being the release of the first stereo records after 1958, is treated somewhat cursorily. And the twenty years that follow, although incredibly eventful in terms of music, do not get much notice. Bill Haley and Elvis crop up briefly. The Beatles are mentioned as another salvation of recorded music following a slump in the early 60s, but the growth of rock-and-roll is – perhaps not unexpectedly – treated somewhat cursorily. Jazz barely gets a mention after 1955, despite some of the most pivotal of jazz albums being released between 1955-1975. Folk, despite a huge swell in popularity, isn’t mentioned at all. There was certainly a lot going on in this time, but Gelatt sticks to the Beatles, classical, and show-tunes (he does devote more than a little space to discussing the popularity of the full-cast album of various Broadway shows). And although Gelatt gives not a little discussion to the rise of magnetic tape which would eventually lead to the 8-track cartridge and the standard cassette, he fails to go into the inherent flaws of the 8-track, which was already on its way out by the time 1977 rolled around. It probably isn’t fair to say that he entirely failed to anticipate the compact disc, so I won’t; it is interesting to note, however, that even as vinyl regains popularity, CDs are losing theirs to a generation who either want to download everything, stream music but not own a physical copy, or those who have gone back to the LP format with every evidence of relish.
All things considered, knowing the earlier history of the recorded disc, with its several near-death experiences (the Depression, for example, nearly wiped out both the gramophone and the disc in terms of sales), the return of vinyl to a place of some stature in 2014 would not be as surprising. Although it remains a niche for a certain kind of popular music release, a lot of people are clearly also taking pleasure in the good recordings of the past as well, not only in the popular music sphere, but in terms of jazz, folk, classical, and countless other genres. Will we again see a new vinyl LP of a classical composer selling a half million copies? It seems unlikely, but, if the history of the phonograph teaches anything, it is that we must expect the unexpected.
Originally reviewed 30 December 2014.
Find your copy of The Fabulous Phonograph on AbeBooks.com.