Changing the way you think about pop music

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: the Story of Modern Pop
Bob Stanley
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 
Is pop music what it was? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism