Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley
Were Sweet better than Led Zeppelin? ... Here is an excellent and 'poptimistic' history that sticks two fingers up at 'rockism'.
The Guardian, Wednesday 6 November 2013 09.00 GMT
Who would be brave – or foolish enough – to write a history of pop music? Aren't grand narratives a thing of the past? This is the age of niches, forensic focus, obsessive miniaturism. Full-length documentaries get made about Cockney Rejects, a Garry Bushell-managed Oi! band whose best-known single was a parody of a Sham 69 7-inch. At least three books exist on Felt, a Birmingham independent band from the 1980s whose albums bore titles such as Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. It's not unusual to see expensive editions of hulking great volumes on Swedish prog rock or American private-press oddities selling out in next to no time.
The internet has been wonderful for microgenre mythomania. Established pop lineages are challenged as fanboys and DIY scholars share their passions for Japanese soft-porn soundtracks and jingly-jangly flexi discs from the Home Counties. It becomes ever harder to imagine a synthesist who could make sense of all these wonders, and do so with style and wit rather than synoptic grind, so as to bring together pop's mutually indifferent tribes for a productive pow-wow.
One of the few people capable of undertaking this huge task is Bob Stanley. He's the co-founder of the three-piece band Saint Etienne who, since 1990, have fashioned a vast body of collage pop that joyfully absorbs elements of dub, 60s girl groups, English folk, German techno and Swedish groove, and allies them to stylish melodies and savvy lyrics. Perhaps because of his background as editor of Caff fanzine and later as a journalist for Melody Maker, he's always been attuned to the relationship between words and music: Saint Etienne have commissioned LP sleevenotes by the likes of Douglas Coupland, Jeremy Deller and Jon Savage.
Yeah Yeah Yeah, as its title suggests, is a love song to pop. It sticks up two fingers to "rockism", that school of rock historiography which prizes authenticity, musicians who play their own songs, real instruments over software, artistes above one-hit wonders, sweaty men rather than pretty women. Stanley writes well about both Dylan and Donovan, but it's clear that he prefers the latter. Elsewhere he talks up under heralded soul singers Barbara Mason and Barbara Lewis rather than paeaning Hall of Fame-types such as Aretha Franklin, argues that Sweet were superior to Led Zeppelin, and champions the effervescence of Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" over the earnest, showy melismatics of her later hits such as "I Will Always Love You".
This isn't Stanley being contrary. He makes a convincing case for the vital role played by Jimi Hendrix's manager Chas Chandler in helping the guitarist demonstrate his genius by getting him to hold his showier pyrotechnics and channel his monumental sound into three-minute singles such as "Hey Joe". He lauds Lou Reed and John Cale's avant-pop alchemy on the Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name", a song "so sharp and freakish and heart-piercing that it makes me burst out laughing every time I hear it". He also compares Patti Smith unfavourably to Blondie's Debbie Harry: the former uses 19th-century French poets as a signifier of seriousness; the latter, less self-consciously messianic, namechecks hip-hop modernist Grandmaster Flash in the lyrics to "Rapture".
Stanley, to quote the title of film scholar Thomas Schatz's history of classic Hollywood, is a believer in the genius of the system. It's not drugs, suffering or tortured outsiderdom that's responsible for the best pop music, but "hard, honest toil". He adores Brill Building songwriting teams such as Goffin and King, Motown's production-line approach to pop, Abba's Bjorn and Benny, the KLF, and junglist pioneers such as PJ and Smash who, like many (often overlooked) black producers of dance music, married functionalism to sonic innovation.
Yeah Yeah Yeah really comes into its own when discussing the forgotten tropics of 1940s and 1950s music. Of Vera Lynn, whose "Forget Me Not" was one of the biggest hits of 1952: "It sounded distant, echoing, a ghost of Christmas future." Nat King Cole, Stanley observes, "was rarely a seducer. Usually, he was to be found in the near distance, there to accompany the wooing of other couples." Even more delicate is his description of early doo-wop: "The voices reverberated around alleys and subways, hallways and staircases, even school gyms, anywhere its perpetrators could find an echo to lift the sound from the ground, closer to the stars."
Stanley is also good on the much-patronised genre of skiffle. Not only does he point to Lonnie Donegan's "Cumberland Gap" and the implausibility of "a song about illegally transporting pig iron being British pop's fountainhead", but he emphasises the thrash and clatter of skiffle, the DIY cheapness of the household instruments it used, the proto-hip-hop way it sampled and recontextualised American blues to create new exhilarations.
Stanley's suggestion that skiffle anticipated early Fall records is inspired. So is his identification of tape delay and dub-like effects in Jimmy Young's 1956 single "Chain Gang", and his comparison of the black horror at the heart of Roy Orbison and Joy Division. Best of all is his account of Bing Crosby's "The Isle of Innisfree", a froth of Celtic pastoralia whose lyrics he likens to Guns N' Roses' account of "Paradise City" ("Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty").
Yeah Yeah Yeah is full of sharp one-liners (Elvis Costello "wore a surgically enhanced arched eyebrow and wrote pun-packed songs while singing as if he was standing in a fridge"), contains extraordinary facts (Chic's original name was Allah and the Knife Wielding Punks) and offers evidence of an extraordinary amount of listening (glam bands Spiv, Jook, Chunky and Spunky Spider; "Wickford's So Boring" by Grinder; Wanda Jackson's "Fujiyama Mama" with its immortal lines: "I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too./The same I did to them, baby, I can do to you.")
This excellent book enacts its own version of pop justice as it spotlights not only bands that have suffered condescension – such as the Bee Gees – but also forgotten DJs like the Light Programme's Jack Johnson and Detroit's The Electrifying Mojo. It recalls the session guitarist Bert Weedon, whose manual on the instrument changed the lives of Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, and the Liverpool ship waiters – known as Cunard Yanks – who returned home from their transatlantic voyages with records that would have a detonating impact on the imaginations of Merseyside teenagers.
The 21st century, however, is almost skirted over. Stanley argues that the Britpop-era complicity between the music press and Top of the Pops dealt a death blow to what had been a productive tension between margin and centre. He is a lover of vinyl, and believes that digitisation has changed things for the worse – that the internet flattens the musical landscape as much as it enhances it: it's a click democracy with people filesharing and sampling with near-decadent ease.
But there is one problem. Over the last decade Stanley's poptimism – its lack of snobbery, its rejection of the principle of "guilty pleasures", its exuberant and cross-generational linkages – has become the norm. Without friction, without patrolled borders between different types of music, what emerges is an everything-goes world that's more enervating than exciting. Poptimism may need rockism more than it thinks.