If you’re going to commission a book so downright ambitious that it seeks to make sense of the entire chequered history of pop music in all of its myriad forms you might as well name it after the most immediately recognisable refrain in its enormous and multifaceted canon. You might also consider ensuring that its author is sufficiently obsessed with its subject matter to the point of mania, a writer who would never have got anywhere near a gig as utterly daunting as this if he wasn’t chiefly a fan himself. Much like his own band, the captivating and continuously evolving Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley celebrates and fetishises the art form entirely without snobbery and with an overriding sense of fascination and wonder. It’s why this book takes such evident pleasure in tugging the dreary shroud of rockism from the face of pop, to allow for a more democratic artistic evaluation; one refreshingly devoid of the hessian-woven curse of musical ‘worthiness’, the ingrained knee-jerk conceit that venerates guitars over synthesisers, the ‘organic’ above the supposedly fake. In Stanley’s world the charts are ‘vital social history’, an essential means ‘to show how the web was woven’, pop music itself achieving an impact beyond the narrow minds of politicians, parents, and ‘straight society’ at large. ‘With rock’n’roll,’ he writes, ‘three gulfs had temporarily vanished: the gulf between black and white, the gulf between children and grown-up, and the gulf between the US and the UK.’
The conceptual artist Jeremy Deller has sought to position pop music as ‘the late twentieth century’s greatest art form’, an opinion that you are of course welcome to challenge, but only on the understanding that you have never been more defiantly or miserably misguided. Much like those who claim to hate The Beatles, the denial of pop music’s true value in the artistic scheme of things is more often a pose than an opinion. Within the pages of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Stanley not only takes on this eternal never-ending story, but seeks to do so from a distinctly British perspective. It’s maybe why the done-to-death story of New York’s CBGB punk scene is only assigned a handful of fleeting pages, while a genre as comparatively niche as British folk rock has an entire chapter bestowed upon it. The UK, after all, being the nation that expertly perfected and repackaged the art form before shipping it back to an expectant Boston harbor-front in primary coloured tea-crates.
Even when reflecting on the musical output of the US itself, Stanley’s language remains knowingly entrenched in the culture of his birth, the sound of early Motown singles portrayed ‘as if they were built of wattle and daub’. In this author’s world, the work of the troubled, belligerent, yet pioneering British record producer Joe Meek is given equal billing alongside the equally troubled, belligerent and pioneering Phil Spector. Though the modest budgets within which Meek was compelled to operate were poles apart from the resources available to Spector, Stanley calls out both men as being, unlike almost all of their contemporaries, visionaries who ‘realised that great pop is, at its heart, about great-sounding records’, the haunting cinematic gallop of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny, Remember Me’ being a perfect period example. Meek and Spector, he concludes, like all of the most groundbreaking innovators ‘weren’t trying to deal with reality, they were trying to improve upon it’.
So comprehensive is Stanley’s telling of the whole preposterous, yet thrilling, tale that it’s almost four hundred pages in before we even reach the weenybopper/boy band phase of the mid-1970s, a less than auspicious period that coincided with a British pop chart built upon a foundation of sugar and cheese. A period bookended by punk and the devil-may-care thrill of the glam scene, a uniquely British creation that ran out of fuel when it got halfway across the Atlantic, but which nevertheless generated some of the most enduring pop moments of all. Slade, a particular favourite of the author, may not have been seeking to perfectly encapsulate the throbbing heartbeat of pop music, the twin thrill of getting loud and getting laid, but in the timeless couplet, ‘Come on feel the noize / Girls grab the boys’ they may have inadvertently achieved it. Stanley remains admirably opinionated throughout – what is pop, after all, if it isn’t tribal, obsessive, bloody-minded? – His reverence of the Sex Pistols’ unpretentious Dickensian swagger over the fickle and premeditated Clash comes as no surprise, but it is the author’s unexpected and sentimental rationale for why this is so that is truly refreshing and insightful.
There are wonderfully waspish moments, the tell-tale sign of a writer schooled in the ways of Smash Hits as much as he is Lester Bangs. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson is described as having ‘the face of a cruel mouse’, Bob Geldof’s The Boomtown Rats as ‘looking rather like Showaddywaddy on their way to a swingers’ party’, but it is the withering assessment of Oasis’s gaudy personal excesses that truly nails the pomposity of material rock star excess and the dreary pretense and comical stupidity of the entire Britpop charabang: ‘In 1995 Noel had moved into a house in Belsize Park and renamed it Supernova Heights. He had a Union Jack hot tub fitted; it was so large that by the time the tub was full, the water had gone tepid’. Conversely, Stanley’s consciously (or unconsciously) Brit-centric approach should in no way be viewed as a narrow Gallagher-esque renouncement of disco, hip-hop, acid house or dance culture however (all genres that the author clearly adores and has taken inspiration from). The chapter on the changing face of rap music in particular is a reflective and deliciously challenging proposition in itself. The crucial and emancipating role played within the scene by Public Enemy awarded its rightful degree of contextual reverence and due scrutiny in equal measures, Stanley recounting the ‘boiling-kettle sax squeal’ of ‘Rebel Without a Pause’, ‘as relentless and thrilling and scary as any record since “Anarchy in the UK”’.
As towering a personal achievement as this book is – and I can’t think of a single superior, or more personally engaging book about pop music in existence – the perpetually evolving nature of the art form may yet render its reflections and assertions as dated, or even redundant, within a relatively short space of time. When I think of my own mother, the formerly beehived resident dancer on HTV’s 60’s pop show Discs-a-Go-Go, the woman who bequeathed the golden keys of the magical kingdom to me at an early age, I see a woman whose own consumption of pop music was utterly unlike that currently being experienced by my equally enchanted 11 year-old daughter. Yet at the same time, their relative visceral response to pop music’s chaotic thrills is unequivocally the same. And I get the sense that this is just the way that Bob Stanley likes it.