It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best music book of 2013 was Bob Stanley’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah” – A History of Modern Pop Music. (I haven’t yet read the main contender to that title, Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles epic, but then part two isn’t due for another six years, so there’s plenty of time).
Bob Stanley knows a thing or two about pop, having been one of the (only slightly) less attractive members of the band St Etienne. Having successfully negotiated his way through the various traps and pitfalls of the music industry for a spell, it appears Superman Bob wanted a real challenge, and so decided to merely chronicle the entire history of pop music in a book. Child’s play compared to getting royalties out of a record company perhaps, but nevertheless still a challenge for most mortals.
There have been previous attempts at writing histories of pop music of course, but this is a task that is getting more difficult (and longer) every year. When Nick Cohn wrote perhaps the first such book, the still excellent, “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom”, he stretched to little more than a hundred pages and strangely omitted to feature any music released in the eighties and nineties, which is a bit of a poor show on his part. The excuse of “I wrote the book in 1968 and only revised it in 1972 so the eighties and nineties hadn’t yet happened” is a pretty thin one, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Bob Stanley’s book meanwhile is an entertaining read, it is authoritative without ever being dull and achieves the impossible task of covering nearly fifty years of the charts. Taking the approach to writing a history of pop music in the same way as you would eat an elephant (“slice by slice”), Stanley has produced eight hundred pages and sixty five chapters, each a finely sliced piece of elephant carpaccio to be savoured, if that isn’t too unpleasant a thought.
Beginning in 1952 when the first NME chart was published and continuing until 2000, it would be easy to just read the book, wallow in the bits you remember yourself and move on. But I think there’s a better way to enjoy this book.
If you think about it, it isn’t every day you can get a pop star to listen to every week of the charts in history for you and wheedle out all the rubbish. Imagine if Paul McCartney or PJ Harvey or David Bowie or even someone good like one of The Proclaimers was there to talk through fifty years of music, guiding you through their own hidden gems and long forgotten nuggets, whilst warning against the Milli Vanillis and Stock Aitken and Watermans of the world.
Let’s face it, there has always been some awful dreck in the pop charts. Taping chart music off the radio back in the day was as much about what you left out as what you left in. If you didn’t like Wham or East 17, you could simply leave them off your tape. Having someone to help you with that over fifty years of music would be a good thing, right?
In researching this book Bob Stanley spent quite a few years deliberately listening, filtering and summarising all this. He pored through weekly music magazines to see what was happening at the time, rather than rely on someone else’s history of events. For him to then tell you what in his opinion stands out amongst, say, the one hit wonders of the Psychedelic bands in the late sixties is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, and I’m not exactly uninterested in musical history, so this is really an unprecedented opportunity to give ourselves an education in pop’s history. It should be required reading in all schools.
Essentially, there has never been a better opportunity to become a frightful know-it-all and be the kind of person at parties that people spill drinks over themselves to avoid. On the other hand, if you are already that person, you have little to lose…
It would be pretty pointless however, if you read the thing and then did nothing with that knowledge. If only there was some sort of all-encompassing musical utility that could allow you to seek out these tunes and listen to them easily, and without searching around for years in grubby record fairs?
Enter the Spotify Playlist. I realised after about a dozen chapters that this is a book to be heard as much as read. After reading about countless tracks I had never heard before, I began to make a playlist for the book just to hear what Bob was talking about when he described, say, Irma Thomas’ “It’s Starting To Get To Me Now”. Sixty tracks in and only on the seventh chapter, I realised that almost every chapter needed a playlist. I also realised that the book might take nearly as long to read as it did to write. Nearly. But the crucial difference is that under the guiding hand of Bob Stanley, at least I won’t have to listen to all the rubbish he forced himself to listen to when writing the book.
If you need any more encouragement to pick up a copy of Bob’s book, take a listen to the playlist I made for the chapter on Psychedelia, which contains loads of one-hit-wonder tunes I didn’t know, and some that we will all recognise.[spotify id=”spotify:user:ukridge:playlist:5RMNfBSgtqrPnoOFiC4dpd” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]
Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story of Modern Pop Music is available in all good bookshops, and some bad ones too.