Is pop music what it was? Image: Getty
Yeah Yeah Yeah: the Story of Modern Pop
Faber & Faber, 800pp, £20
There are many candidates for the title of the last man to have known everything: Leibniz, John Stuart Mill, Archimedes, take your pick. It’s entirely possible that the last person to have listened to everything – everything in pop, at least – is Bob Stanley. As a fanzine editor, a journalist of acuity with Melody Maker and Mojomagazine, a DJ specialising in girlgroup pop and soul, a crate-digging record collector and a member of the couture-pop trio Saint Etienne, Stanley has been researching the history of pop consciously and unconsciously for most of his 48 years.
He’s had a hand in plenty of great records – the 2012 album Words and Music by Saint Etienne is every bit as good a pop-dance fantasia as the band’s 1991 debut, Foxbase Alpha – but it is safe to say that with Yeah Yeah Yeah, Stanley has done far more for pop even than pop has done for him.
This book is a liberating antidote to decades of the kind of sanctimonious rock histories that examine in forensic detail the lives of often minimally popular musicians yet consider chart music – the stuff people actually like – beneath their notice.
Yeah Yeah Yeah celebrates the past century’s most vital art form but it is a kind of headstone, too. Pop depended on consensus; it was the good time that we were all having together. In the post-chart, post-Top of the Pops, post-scarcity, post-piracy world, music is balkanised into nano-genres and there is no common obsession left to gather around. This is the book’s elegiac undertow: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Even if the story is coming to an end, it is still quite a tale. Stanley balances the comprehensive and the particular, placing the music’s 60-year history in its social contexts and giving the lie to the snobbish and anhedonic notion that pop is merely the consumer society’s diversionary window-dressing. David Kynaston’s books Austerity Britain and Family Britain appear to be inspirations; Yeah Yeah Yeah is a shadow history of the postwar years as well as a tale of inspiration, chancers, serendipity and flat-out weirdness.
Stanley renders entire musical genres and pop-culture upheavals from beat to punk to rave to Britpop in pacy, 20-to-30-page chapters but still finds time to relate priceless vignettes, such as the Sex Pistols’ oddly touching Christmas matinee for the children of striking firemen, and to dispense endless show-stopping facts. Did you know, for instance, that it was Joe Pesci who introduced the Four Seasons to the producer who made their career? Or that Little Eva, best known for “The Loco-Motion”, provided the songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King with the true-life material for their infamous domestic violence smash “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”? She was their babysitter. Hookladen and concise, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s chapters whizz by with the breathless energy of three minute singles. For readability and appreciation of scale, sweep and drama, Stanley is the Antony Beevor of pop.
Essential to the whole thing is his ability to join the dots and locate the deep undercurrents in both stardom and popular taste. He detects the seeds of jungle and techno in the early 1960s skiffle boom and can connect the tranquil mind music of a pre-rock easy listening hit such as Ray Martin’s “Blue Tango” to Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” and 808 State’s “Pacific State”.
Stanley is also an economical stylist and a terrific phrase-maker. The falsetto-singing glam stars Sparks are “helium rock’n’roll”; Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra plays “soft-porn Mantovani”; those tartaned orgone accumulators the Bay City Rollers are “deflowerers of Scotland” – and that’s just the 1970s. Of folk rock’s rise and demise in the early part of the same decade, he writes: “The secret, cobwebbed path trod by Sandy Denny, Vashti Bunyan and Roy Harper was lost in a haze of beery burps.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a better single-sentence summary of any pop movement than that.
Throughout the book, Stanley sticks to pop’s iron rule that you’re only as good as your last record and retains a healthy scepticism towards the rock canon. Pop’s equivalent of the fall of man, he thinks, is the disastrous schism of “heavy” and “soft” that came about at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. “Monterey cut modern pop in half,” he writes, “and both halves would eventually be diminished by being unable to interact with the other.”
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s lonely flaw is that Stanley sometimes lets his love for this vast corpus of music overwhelm his writing. It is probably best to read the book a chapter at a time with Spotify to hand. It’s also vaguely underwhelming that this heroic tale comes to an abrupt halt with a chapter on modern R’n’B.
Perhaps the technological game-changers that shape modern pop are too impersonal and depressing to contemplate. They are, however, subjects for other books. This one will change the way you think about a protean form of music that you have known all your life and I stand in awe of it.
Andrew Harrison is a music critic and magazine editor