Did you know this whole electricity malarkey started with an old cat and an even older tree? No? Me neither, but apparently it's true. Or at least the word started with it. Those clever Ancient Greeks realised that if they rubbed a rod of amber with cat's fur they could use it to pick up very light objects, such as feathers. They'd accidentally discovered static electricity by imparting a charge onto the amber rod. It's not much of a party trick but it was a start. So from the Greek for “amber” (ēlectron), through a couple of Latin iterations, we come to the 17th-century word “electric”.
But even if no one really knew the science of electricity then they at least recognised its manifestations. Egyptians have recorded the shocks delivered by electric fish since at least 2750BC. Seen as protectors of other fish species, they were referred to as the “Thunderers of the Nile”.
Of course other Mediterranean cultures were not to be left out, and when the Greeks and Romans became aware of these unusual creatures they kick-started a millennia long tradition of trying to use electricity to cure various ailments. A tradition which, unsurprisingly, caught the imagination of more than one musician, including American band Screeching Weasel who tell us of how (She Got) Electroshocked. Therapeutic indeed.
Not that fish were the only source of primordial electricity, of course. Lightning – and it's partner in crime thunder – are near-ubiquitous phenomena across the world, although with major regional variations in frequency. Kifuka in the DRC, the Catatumbo river in Venezuela, Teresina in Brazil, “Lightning Alley” in Florida and Singapore are all areas which receive disproportionate occurrences of lightning. In places it can light up the sky multiple times a minute, and strikes can occur more than a hundred times a year in a single square kilometre.
But to really appreciate the universal impact of lightning one would need to look no further than the catalogue of gods who have been credited with the creation and control of lightning: Thor, Set, Zeus, Jupiter, Orko, Ukko, Perun, Raijin, Tenjin, Indra, Raja Indainda, the Thunderbird, Chaac, Yopaat, Aktzin, Oya, Mulungu, Haikili, Te Uira, Mamaragan, Whaitiri – to list just a small selection. Chinese mythology alone has a veritable army of deities dedicated to it; including Emperors, Kings, Generals and Marshals – one of each for each of the five regions (North, South, Centre, East and West).
Having influenced civilisations in such an extreme way it's little wonder that thunder and lightning have had their impact on music. Combining the religious connotations of thunder with a feeling you're at the centre of something you don't fully understand, let's sit and listen to Black Mass (Electric Storm in Hell).
Lightning gods aren't the only way in which electricity has influenced culture. The allusions to electricity in all its forms in language shows just how entangled with our lives electricity is. A rather beautiful example is the phrase Lazy Lightning which reader Chris7572 highlights as “a dangerous spark that sometimes flashes between (potential) lovers”, and the Grateful Dead describe as “like desire in disguise”.
Meanwhile MGMT beg the object of their affection to let them experience their Electric Feel. Possibly the only acceptable seduction technique in which comparing your partner to an eel is justified.
And taking the level of subtlety down to the minimum possible, we have the inimitable Buzzcocks with Pete Shelley declaring his Love Battery is “fizzing at the terminals”. You have to hand it to the man, he had style.
Despite the ancient fascination with electricity it took until the 17th century for humanity to make any real progress towards understanding it. English scientist William Gilbert is arguably responsible for kick-starting the academic study of the phenomena (and it was he who coined the word “electricity”, as he studied the Greek's amber rod discovery). But over the next few centuries our knowledge developed in leaps and bounds.
Faraday, Volta, Graham Bell, Clerk Maxwell, Ampère, Westinghouse, Swan, Ohm, Ørsted, Galvini, de Coulomb and Hertz were but some of the scientists who drove forward our understanding. But in the popular mind three figures in particular are given pride of place in the story of electricity.
The earliest amongst these is polymath Benjamin Franklin. A man who tied a key to a kite and flew it in a lightning storm and was declared a genius. I guess being remembered fondly is easier when you have substantial publishing interests in a number of the major newspapers. But as if helping write his own story were not enough, he's got The Decemberists and Ben Franklin's Song to cement his legacy.
Arguably the most famous name in the field however is Thomas Alva Edison. Despite ultimately being on the losing side of the War of the Currents in the 1880s – his DC system being unsuited to long distance communication and inefficient for powering anything but large cities due to this – Edison cemented his place in history. He was undoubtedly a great inventor but perhaps owed his success as much to his ruthless approach to competition as to his own brilliance.
As Laurie Anderson highlights in The Dance of Electricity, Edison turned his attention to destroying his major rival Nikola Tesla. Tesla's ultimately successful alternating current (AC) drew particular ire from Edison. The unscrupulous businessman used AC to electrocute a series of animals in live demonstrations to try and discredit his competitors – an approach which ultimately proved futile. Tesla's development of transformers for stepping-up and -down voltages made AC a much more efficient system for widespread distribution and guaranteed its eventual triumph.
But electricity did not merely allow further developments in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics. It opened new vistas for disturbing research in the fields of psychology. The Milgram Shock Experiment is perhaps the most troubling example.
Participants asked by a scientist in a lab coat to deliver shocks ranging from 15 volts [slight shock] to 450 volts [danger – severe shock] to a human subject, with simple verbal prompts if they proved reluctant. Almost two-thirds of participants administered the highest level shock, whilst all of them delivered at least 300-volt shocks. Of course the real experiment had nothing to do with the effects of electricity but rather how we resolve our ethical conundrums when asked by an authority figure to do something with which we are uncomfortable. The disturbing fact is We Do What We're Told.
But for all the impacts of electricity, perhaps the most profound has been our dependency upon it. Reader IsabelleForshaw points out how our modern lives can be turned upside down when we're cut off for more than a few hours. And while some will revel in the freedom, others will break down – as we see in Frank Sidebottom's Electricity.
So perhaps the lesson we should learn from this week is simple. Put down our Want Removers. Take a leaf from the Band of Holy Joy.Turn off our phones. Unplug our computers. “tear down the pylons/ shut down the main grid”.
After listening to the playlists that is.
Ample Ampere A-List Playlist:
Screeching Weasel – (She Got) Electroshocked [Tarquin Spodd]
White Noise – Black Mass (Electric Storm in Hell) [megadom]
The Grateful Dead – Lazy Lightning [Chris 7572]*
MGMT – Electric Feel [Uncleben]
Buzzcocks – Love Battery [severin]
The Decemberists – Ben Franklin's Song [phillipphillip99]
The Bee Gees – Edison [ShivSidecar]
Laurie Anderson – The Dance of Electricity [Beltway Bandit]
Peter Gabriel – We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) [9hairs9knots]
Frank Sidebottom – Electricity [IsabelleForshaw]
Protomartyr – Want Remover [vanwolf2]
Band of Holy Joy – A Clear Night, A Shooting Star, A Song for Boo [TatankaYotanka]
*Chris7572’s preferred version features a performance of Supplication. An alternate recording features in the playlist but here is the performance Chris recommends
Battery and Lightning Bolt B-List Playlist:
The Cure – Hot Hot Hot!!! [happyclapper]
They Might be Giants – Tesla [IsabelleForshaw]
The Waterproof Candle – Electrically Heated Child [SweetHomeAlabam]
Man or Astro-Man? - 9 Volt [Beltway Bandit]
The Ramones – Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment [Beltway Bandit]
Jenny Hval – Engines in the City [nosuchzone]
Joni Mitchell – Electricity [severin]
Barenaked Ladies – Light Up my Room [phillipphillip99]
Albert Hammond – Free Electric Band [TarquinSpodd]
Captain Beefheart – Electricity [Nicko]
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Electricity [swawilg]
The Cravats – Power Lines [Carpgate]**
**Unavailable on YouTube, but here on Bandcamp:
Guru's Wildcard Pick:
Mischief Brew – Lightning Knock the Power Out
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Current topic: songs about electricity. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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