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

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear