Acoustic Sounds
By: John Marks

August 21st, 2023


Book Reviews

John Marks’ Bookshelf for Lovers of Recordings #6


Here are notes on a selection from my favorite books on the history of recording technology, the history of the record business, and the interactions between recording technology, the record business, and the art of music. One example of what I mean by all that is, in the late 1920s, piezoelectric “crystal” microphones supplanted carbon microphones for radio broadcasting. 

Crystal microphones had a better signal-to-noise ratio than carbon microphones. Therefore, the live singers on radio could sing more quietly and intimately. They no longer had to shout to be heard. However, the quartz, mica, or other crystal elements were also more fragile than had been the carbon microphones. So, “shouters” like Al Jolson were out; and “crooners” like Rudy Vallee were in. (Trivia bit: Rudy Vallee graduated from Yale, with a degree in Philosophy.)

This list will be presented as a series of weekly installments. Rather than attempt to rank such diverse books from “Best” to “Somewhat Less Best,” this list is organized both chronologically and categorically. JM

The Bookshelf:

 1. The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877-1977

2. The Label: The Story of Columbia Records

3. Do Not Sell at Any Price

4. The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

5. Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation

6. Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977

7. Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios

8. Goodnight, L.A.: The Rise and Fall of Classic Rock -- The Untold Story from inside the Legendary Recording Studios

9. Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album

10. Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ‘56

11. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album

12. The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of NASA s Interstellar Mixtape

Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977

by James Miller

New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1999. Hardcover, 416 pp. ISBN 0684808730.


Flowers in the Dustbin (the title comes from a Sex Pistols song) comprises about 45 short chapters, each dedicated to a particular event that was a step in the process by which, over the course of 30 years, rock music evolved from an outsider’s enthusiasm to a cultural norm.

Many of the chapters are prefaced by an exact calendar date—such as July 9, 1972, when David Bowie made his Royal Festival Hall debut in London. This gives the writing a real sense of journalistic specificity; you feel that you’re getting a first-hand report. At the same time, Miller’s use of secondary sources is amply documented; this is a history, not a memoir.

The time frame of the book’s subtitle, “The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977,” was chosen because December 28, 1947 was the date of the recording session for Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a jump-blues dance number that many believe was the first record that could be called “rock and roll”; and because August 16, 1977 was the date of Elvis Presley’s death.

Miller’s book chronicles rock’s rise from a marginated and at times despised music, to a position of such cultural ascendance that, upon Presley’s death, two of the commercial television networks replaced scheduled programming with special reports. Implicit in Miller’s choice of 1977 as his chronology’s end point (although his epilogue does cover such post-1977 developments as Michael Jackson’s solo career and U2) is an assertion that, after 1977, rock music was no longer on the rise; it was in part on a plateau, and in part in decline.

 Miller suggests that rock’s very success may have destroyed the wellsprings of its original vitality. Within two generations, the “rock artist” had gone from toreador to sacred cow. By the time you’ve finished Flowers in the Dustbin, you’ll see the big picture of the first 30 years of rock music from a unique, albeit slightly world-weary, perspective. Recommended.


  • 2023-08-22 10:07:38 AM

    Al in New York wrote:

    This reads (and is formatted like) a grade school book report.

    • 2023-08-22 12:20:19 PM

      John Marks wrote:

      I find it strange that you think the sentence that ends "rock music evolved from an outsider’s enthusiasm to a cultural norm" is grade-school-level writing. Have you considered Psychotherapy? jm

      • 2023-08-22 08:01:07 PM

        Al in New York wrote:

        Your writing is fine. That's not the issue. The issue is that everything else is amateurish. You eschew all the other hallmarks of professional journalism. It's as if you decided that because you went to a couple of fancy schools (but did you pass the bar?), you could do things your way. Which is fine. But don't expect people not to notice that your stuff stands out. Like a sore thumb. Now I'm gonna go see that shrink.

        • 2023-08-23 07:36:52 AM

          John Marks wrote:

          Best of luck with that. Or, you could just read "Disorder and Early Sorrow." I not only passed the State and Federal bars on the first attempt, I was a Trials and Appeals lawyer for more than 20 years. My low point was helping Alan Dershowitz (who is a lying sack of plant food) win a new trial for Claus von Bülow. Who claimed to be related to the famous conductor, and who named his daughter with Sunny "Cosima." Yecch.

          • 2023-08-23 11:10:46 AM

            Al in New York wrote:

            My condolences re your interactions with the epstein esquire in the tighty whities. It is indeed shocking how ppl who were once respected have been revealed to be shites, and that they took their dives over one of the most immoral behaviors a man can engage in. I was particularly shocked that Marvin Minsky participated. He only escaped broader ridicule and potential sanctions because he is now part of the great AI in the sky.

  • 2023-08-22 01:16:22 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    Thank you for this series, John. I've read two of the books so far, others to follow soon.

    • 2023-08-23 08:37:31 AM

      John Marks wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words. jm