- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Da Capo Press Inc (18 Dec. 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0306809842
- ISBN-13: 978-0306809842
- Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 14 x 2.2 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,867,999 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money Hardcover – 18 Dec 2003
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About the Author
Mark Coleman is a journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Details, New York Newsday, the Village Voice, and Mojo, among others. He was a contributor to The Rolling Stone Album Guide and lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)
I'll focus on the brief Theramin section just as an example. The author refers to the first Theramin as "portable" -- has he actually seen an original one, or just the 1990s hobbyist versions? Like early household radios, they were designed to be pieces of furniture, not least because a decent sound required a large speaker enclosure. He also describes the instrument as not needing to be played in tune. On the contrary, that is the number one requirement to playing it successfully. Again, I think he is confusing the actual Theramin instrument with the current cheapo devices "played" by hipsters as sound effects. Also, the author repeats the decades-old misstatement that a Theramin is used on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The recording sessions have been extremely well-researched and documented -- it's easy to fact-check and find out that it was not a Theramin, but a wire-based device invented (and played) by a Dr. Tanner.
The author summarizes the entire 1950s as the era of homogenous Top 40 radio. Actually, Top 40 didn't become ubiquitous till after the Payola scandal of 1959, when the industry needed to take control away from individual DJs. Before then, rock and roll was driven by independent DJs who programmed their own shows and fostered regional hits.
These are just examples. There are enough bad mistakes (regarding who produced the music in Warner Bros. cartoons, when the Moog was first heard on popular records, and more) that the whole book is suspect on a factual basis.
Furthermore, the writing itself is meandering and annoying. He insists on referring to Edison cylinders as "software." He spouts the tired and ridiculous cliche that nobody used the recording studio artistically until the Beatles. His Beatles-centric view extends to his low opinion of all pre-British Invasion rock and roll ("...before the Beatles invaded, in sleepy 1960..."), including his ignorance of Joe Meek's technical abilities as an engineer. He dismisses Meek as a crazy guy (yes) who stumbled his way (no) to lo-fi (no) momentary (no) success.
There are a couple of good alternatives to this book:
From Tin Foil to Stereo by Oliver Read and Walter Welch (Apr 1976) is out of print but worth tracking down.
Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers (Music in American Life) by John Broven (Jan 13, 2010) is in print and real gem. I can't recommend it enough.
From the cylander to discs to the LP, from 45 rpm records to 8 track tapes, cassettes, CD's and MP3's, Coleman covers just about all of the formats that have emerged over the past 125 years. For a young person eager to learn all about what came before this is an excellent read. Likewise, for older folks like myself the book gets us up to speed on what is going on out there today. I found "Playback" to be very well-written book. However, I must admit that when I got to the chapter on hip-hop and mixes and club DJ's etc. I felt like I did the first time I walked into a CompUSA store many years ago.....like I was on another planet!!! All in all, "Playback: From The Victrola to Mp3 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money" is well worth your time and attention. Highly recommended!
Famous DJ Murray "The K" Kaufman's name is misspelled as "Kaufmanns." Four simultaneous Top 10 hits from the "Saturday Night Fever" LP is said to be "equaling the Beatles' British Invasion coup" (in fact, the Beatles held the top five spots on Billboard's Hot 100 on April 4, 1964). And in his discussion of the RCA/CBS "Speed Wars," Coleman seems to have missed, ignored or chose not to explain the entire reason for the "big hole" in the middle of 45 rpm records: it was specifically designed to accommodate RCA's "quick-change" automatic turntable that was supposed, as they were marketed, to make the change from one side to the next virtually seamless and therefore, so they expected the consumer to believe, be a viable alternative to LPs. This seems a strange omission given that his claimed original intention was to detail the history of the turntable. He also manages to mangle the early history of magnetic tape recording in the U.S. (failing to mention John T. Mullen at all!). And these are only the most obvious boners!
Coleman's insights and speculations on the present and future of music transcription and consumption are interesting, to be sure, and, again, his writing is lively and appealing, but, given the questionability surrounding the facts as he presents them, I must therefore question his conclusions as well as the validity of this history as a whole.
But it is a fun read with a good beat and it's good to dance to, so I'll give it a sixty-three, (...)
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