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Book review: Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, By Bob Stanley
This epic chronicle of bands and genres shows that great pop feeds a craving for community
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Friday 11 October 2013
There is a scene in Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing in which playwright Henry agonises over which eight records he should take onto Desert Island Discs. "You can have a bit of Pink Floyd shoved in between your symphonies and your Dame Janet Baker," he complains. "That shows a refreshing breadth of taste or at least a refreshing candour. But I like Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders doing Um Um Um Um Um Um."
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The Mindbenders don't appear in Bob Stanley's massive Yeah Yeah Yeah, but the sentiment – that the supposedly disposable pop music of the single is as worthy of our attention as the muso-isms of the rock album – is entirely shared. One suggested reason is that pop music acts "as a series of vials, often charmingly shaped and coloured, for the distillations of memory. The first few bars of it remove the stopper; we find ourselves re-living… some exact moments of our past." Which is all the more cherishable as a quote when you find that it comes from the unlikely source of JB Priestley.
Stanley's book starts in 1952, the year of the first vinyl singles, the first New Musical Express and the first UK record chart. It follows what the author calls "the modern pop era" until its slow demise, killed by industry greed and the technological earthquake of the digital music file.
The book works in short themed chapters, sometimes following a genre through its chart lifespan ("usually five years"), sometimes a single act (Elvis, The Beatles, ABBA) so that the chronology moves forward in gently overlapping waves. The accepted pop narrative is followed, with peaks in '66, '77/'78 (split between punk and disco) and '87, and troughs in '75, '80 and 2011, but Stanley is always keen to make connections across the years, so that Jimi Hendrix "had a laugh in his voice as infectious as Alma Cogan's" and the guitar hook at the end of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" looks back to The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me". Readers will want to have an internet connection to hand, if they don't already own a very comprehensive music collection.
No one who knows the history of Stanley's indie-dance band, Saint Etienne, will be surprised at his choice of heroes. When he and schoolfriend Pete Wiggs started the group it was with the intention of drafting in female singers for one use only (before they very sensibly decided to stick with Sarah Cracknell). So it is the faceless writers of the Brill Building, and studio mavericks like Joe Meek and Phil Spector, that earn his veneration.
Although he bows before The Beatles ("the perfect pop group") he laments the death blow the band dealt their American inspirations, suggesting that they, too, were ready to take pop "higher, deeper, somewhere more intense." Also unsurprising is the anti-rock bias. The Doors are "ruminants", Eric Clapton "fun-hating", while the hard rock that stepped in when The Beatles could go no further abandoned the "conflicts and complexity of modern pop" for "belligerent self-pity and bullying cliché".
Today's "pick'n'mix digital era", meanwhile, has given us endless recombinations of styles but no exciting new genres for teenagers to call their own. What Stanley fears, I think, is a loss of community – a word that crops up intriguingly a couple of times: once when Paul McCartney dropped in on a random village pub, in 1968, to play a newly-written "Hey Jude" to delighted locals, and nine years later, when The Sex Pistols played a Christmas Day charity gig for the kids of striking Huddersfield miners. There is an ache there as much a part of pop as its natural exuberance, and Stanley's book – funny, wise, almost encyclopaedic – is testament to both aspects of the form.
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