By The Landlord
“What is a soul? It's like electricity – we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room.” – Ray Charles
“Electricity is really just organised lightning.” – George Carlin
“As in nature, all is ebb and tide, all is wave motion, so it seems that in all branches of industry, alternating currents – electric wave motion – will have the sway.” – Nikola Tesla
I can still remember the shock of it, because she grabbed my arm and yelled. “No!!!” We were on a family holiday near Rhyl, Wales, in the 1970s, staying at a modest Bed & Breakfast, the sort of place where you could almost see and feel the crackle of static coming off the cheap nylon curtains and sheets. It happened in the front parlour, where breakfast was served, and as a keen young nipper, I spontaneously decided to rescue a piece of toast that had got stuck in the electric toaster, by sticking a metal knife down it. The landlady grabbed me just in time. Could I have died? Perhaps. Next time I remembered to use my loaf.
Dangerous as it might be on occasions, it’s hard to imagine living without electricity. It powers almost every facet of modern life. “If it weren't for electricity, we'd all be watching television by candlelight,” quipped the American comedian and presenter George Gobel. “We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb,” writes Bill Bryson. “And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected,” adds that mischievous old spark, Spike Milligan.
Without it, the world would certainly have been a scarier, far more dangerous place. Having said that, if we continue to produce electricity by fossil fuels rather than renewable energy, then the danger of the dark, or a toaster, will be hugely eclipsed by massive climate change. Mass extinction is far more frightening. So let’s rebel against that happening …
But let’s also turn to other creative matters, and songs about electricity. If the topic were songs using electricity then it would be never-ending, even if we discounted all songs that came after Bob Dylan plugging in his electric guitar at the famous concert in Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 when an ardent folk fan shouted “Judas!” So the topic is a lyrical one, using any reference to this natural, or artificially generated power source, in contexts literal or metaphorical, from plugged-in applications, to descriptions of atmosphere or personality.
So where did it all begin? Long before us of course, with the Big Bang, and lightning storms that combined with other forces to help create life, and the forces of bioelectromagnetics that make us all move, discovered by Luigi Galvani in 1791 when he demonstrated that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to muscles.
In terms of reference, the earliest known are texts dating from 2750 BC referred to electric fish as the "Thunderer of the Nile", and described them as protectors of all other fish. Much later Pliny the Elder and Scribonius Largus, attested to the numbing effect of electric shocks delivered by catfish and electric rays, and worked out that such shocks could travel along conducting objects.
So this week’s songs could also include reference to the great scientists who have helped us move towards to the fully illuminated and powered world we enjoy today. Perhaps from the early 18th century with Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray and C. F. du Fay, and then most famously Benjamin Franklin.
Electricity however was a still a great mystery to most people, including some scientists. “I've found out so much about electricity that I've reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing,” said Dutchman Pieter van Musschenbroek on describing his experiments with the Leyden jar. But all of these giants sparked off each other, and were giants on which others could stand.
And how also could we manage now without everything that came from Alessandro Volta's battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, or the understanding of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, from Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819–1820, and of course Michael Faraday's huge talents and achievements, his capacity for the capacitance, the farad? Or Goerg Ohm and his circuit theory and ability to build and use measurements of resistance.
In 1887, Heinrich Hertz discovered that electrodes illuminated with ultraviolet light create electric sparks more easily, and it is in this era that electricity became especially exciting.The holy trinity of Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz or Nikola Tesla were popularly conceived of as having wizard-like powers because of the spectacle they could create.
Edison has become a figurehead for applying electricity to all kinds of products, but for all his genius, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) I feel was the more exciting, enigmatic and more inspirational figure. He was born in what is now Croatia, but then part of the Austrian empire, and emigrated to America to become a foremost inventor, physicist and electrical engineer. He was a visionary, a futurist, a man of frightening intellect and dazzling showmanship, harnessing A/C (alternating current), also laying the foundation work for radar, robotics, wireless communication, radio, the fluorescent lightbulb, rotating electro-magnetic power, the X-ray, and the bladeless turbine. For a long time overlooked by history and overshadowed by rival Thomas Edison, he was finally given credence when SI unit of magnetic flux density, or magnetic field strength, the tesla, was named after him in 1960, equivalent to one weber (named after the earlier German physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber) per square metre.
“Invention is the most important product of man's creative brain. The ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of human nature to human needs.” he wrote, in his book My Inventions.
Here, quite amusingly and oddly, he is played by David Bowie in the fantasy film The Prestige, in 2006, with plenty of Tesla coil excitement on offer.
As Tesla himself put it: “We wind a simple ring of iron with coils; we establish the connections to the generator, and with wonder and delight we note the effects of strange forces which we bring into play, which allow us to transform, to transmit and direct energy at will.”
As instruments, the Tesla coil has been used by different musicians, including of course Bjork in her Biophilia project, and here, with greater force and and showmanship, if not sophistication by Joe DiPrima with ArcAttack, getting charged up with some Black Sabbath’s Iron Man:
Tesla was a bright spark in every way possible, and he helped usher in an era where electricity was no longer a mysterious, invisible force, but one that was tangible. Some feared it. “There are things done today in electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very man who discovered electricity, who would themselves not so long before been burned as wizards.” said Bram Stoker.
Looking back at the era, scientist James Gleick writes that: “In the 1920s, a generation before the coming of solid-state electronics, one could look at the circuits and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing. With the click of the knob came a significant hiss and hum, just at the edge of audibility.”
This is something that also sparked the imagination, particularly with James Whales’s 1931 film, Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, with lightning and science as life-giver to the monster, inspired by Mary Shelley’s much earlier novel. It’s alive!
But of course electricity in the 20th century wasn’t just a novelty but an enormous business opportunity that others, not Tesla were able to harness. As Earl Wilson put it: “Benjamin Franklin may have discovered electricity, but it was the man who invented the meter who made the money.” And it was Thomas A Edison who moved faster than most. “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles!” he announced.
The world was changing rapidly. “Reason and justice tell me there's more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism,” said Anton Chekhov, with fascinating foresight on society and the environment.
And later that century another visionary, David Bowie, made a clever comparison about the music industry and the internet: “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left.”
This is followed up by another visitor to the Bar, Chance The Rapper, who turns the remark the other way around. “If you can give away free music, you can give away free electricity, free water. Those tiny jabs at a larger infrastructure are what make revolutions.”
"Violent storms. and beautiful smiles. both have electricity. both are equally destructive in nature.” wrote the author Sanober Khan. Electricity can make or break our futures, but the dangers are also present as much as the benefits. From executions to torture, to positively medieval treatments. Lou Reed went through electroshock therapy as a young man to deal with his panic attacks and other phobias, but reportedly also to curb homosexual tendencies. But on a more scientific note, author of Toxic Electricity, Steven Magee, wrote in Electrical Forensics:
“One of the problems with climate change, global warming and global air pollution is that it may change the frequency and intensity of electrical storm activity. Too much lightning activity may cause excessive mating, aggression, fatigue, illness and disease to occur. Too little may turn off the animal and plant breeding cycles.”
We’ve seen the excitement and glamour electricity in films, but in terms of danger, one of the most moving, and also beautifully tragic examples comes in Clio Barnard’s 2013 film The Selfish Giant, about Arbor and Swifty, two impoverished Bradford teenagers who try to make money from gathering scrap metal including electrical cables in a setting that is starkly urban in which horses gently decorate a harsh environment.
So then, feeling charged up to plug in your songs about electricity in comments below? This week’s bright spark, returning to switch on and man the Song Bar console, is the most excellently electrifying EnglishOutlaw. Let us hope he, and all of you will feel switched by this topic, and the results will be be most illuminating. Deadline is 11pm UK time this coming Monday, for electrifying results on Wednesday. I can already feel the buzz …
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