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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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