Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Music makes the people come together: Yeah, yeah, yeah: The Story of Modern Pop - Bob Stanley.

In the mid eighties I remember hearing John Walters (Peel's legendary producer - also sadly deceased) reviewing the first ever Q magazine and speaking about the quiz within it.  He thought it was a bit sad as it seemed like to complete it you needed O levels in Pop.  An intricate study of any cultural phenomena runs this risk. Rather than appreciate the joy of a comedy routine, a painting, a poem or  even a World cup goal  you are trying to find the strings, the work behind the moment rather than see it and enjoy it for what it is.  Pop music has an immediacy and a reliance on emotional response that means a clumsy approach to analysing  it could either be tedious or ephemeral - the song could just dissipate under the weight of the microscope.

Bob Stanley (Member of St. Etienne and music journo)'s musical history of Pop is certainly intricate - weighing in at 750 pages. It certainly skirts with over the top analysis - a mentioning of a key change in  a Big Fun (not missed at all 80s Stock, Aitken and Waterman glove puppets) track- but pulls back on the whole to offer a sprawling, argumentative, informative work.  Bits of it reminded me of a long afternoon/evening in the pub with mates dissecting music track by track as pound after pound gets stuck in the juke box.

Male friends, maybe?  One criticism could be that this type of book is just an extension of preparing lists or (in the old days, apparently) rearranging your records, tapes, cds in alphabetic order - an aspect of male repressed emotion or something.  Or even worse it could be a mass compendium of Mojo and Record Collector articles or two years worth of Friday night BBC4 documentaries,  a male heavy audience! Caitlin Moran has a pretty damning with faint praise review comparing the book with a London A-Z.  - interestingly on the cover (smacks a bit of a publisher worried about how to market it).

Some of these criticisms may be valid but I say what the hell just accept that and dive in.   Yet another immediate problem is presented by trying to explore the entire history of pop music  - where do I begin (as many pop lyrics have asked) and where to end and er.. also what to leave in and leave out.  Broadly Stanley has gone for a chronological approach - starting with the first ever pop- chart (another list) - with some years because of their significance (good and bad) meriting a whole chapter on their own e.g 1960, 1970, 1985, 1991. Though this means that epoch spanning artists have a chapter (Dylan, Beatles, Bowie) which cuts across times - this can jar a little.  But it makes for some compelling essays the ones on Dylan and the Bee Gees are very good.

But then we get another issue which great minds have grappled with for eons (time and space).  How do you summarise the work of artists who could  - and have been - subject to massive tomes themselves?  It ain't easy (another oft used pop lyric) but Stanley adopts a variety of approaches.  One "interesting" method is to explore the Beatles through one album - the relatively obscure {well compared to the muso greatest lists of all time}: A Hard Days Night and argue that all the tensions, musical skills and potentially revolutionary sounds can be found in that work - which is stretching the point to say the least. But  I like his ambition in attempting it.

Alongside the chronological journey genres of pop are thrown in at the time they appeared or became most significant with chapters of their own.  Again, the problems of limits are here:  when does pop become something else? Country Music has a chapter (set in the 70s period) mainly because he chooses to stick the Eagles in that genre but there is none for (pre-pop) Blues or Jazz.  You can see why because the book would have become something else and it's already bloody 750 pages long (as the writer may respond to critics).

Reading the genre chapters I also became clearly aware that this is in many ways an internet book.  Not because I read it on a Kindle or it has hyperlinks or anything horrific like that.  I dutifully read the hard copy dragging the massive slab of a book around on my various journeys - looking at various locations like a manic street preacher with the bible - note the lower case. But because with an internet connection you have an immediate link to all the music mentioned.  The music writer must now be aware of this - he is a  curator who can highlight various tracks to the reader.  This changes the skill from describing music (or dancing to architecture) to knowing you can find the song yourself - so puts it in context.  The downside for this is that it can lead to play - list itis.  There are a few chapters where there are 7 or 8 songs just mentioned for the reader to discover for themselves.  It is quite fun to do this but made me wonder about the nature of music books now. The downside is you can lose an evening searching for say Pentangle Bsides...

Devoting a chapter to each genre is pretty unforgiving.  Let's say some have not stood the test of time - I'm looking at you skiffle and San Francisco psychedelia.    But at its best Stanley's writing can lighten up a whole style of music that entices you to find out more - early rock and roll and American 60s garage have now become my current obsession due to this.

Another thing which is pretty unforgiving is Stanley's decision making which is controversial but inevitable given the length of the work.  Some artists simply don't make the cut.  This must be down to the writer's own taste but I guess he does this because they are not original enough so just to name 4 there is no significant mention of Japan, Pixies, Blur and er the Eurythmics.  I'm actually serious about that last one - I think the early albums were significant in 80s pop.  But you may be surprised at some of the gaps

He is also very dismissive of bands - which at parts is very funny (his dismantling of the Boomtown Rats, the Britpop Chapter) even where I don't agree with him - his curt description of Carter USM but also could be seen as a nod to his editor who must have been tearing her hair out .    Stanley also takes strong stances on some issues which are arguable but at least he doesn't approach it with a " wow isn't all music wonderful"  Q magazine type style. His favourite Beatle is Paul McCartney, New Wave from 1978-81 is almost completely dismissed as chancers hopping on the back of the lull after the initial surge of punk,  he goes into more detail than in humanly necessary about the Bee Gees back catalogue, New Romantics are stuck in with a movement he calls New Pop. from 1980 -3 which includes Adam Ant, ABC, Dexys, he also completely dismisses Band Aid (with his own aid of a Moz quote) - though I think he could do better than quote Neo- Liberal economist Moyo in defence of this postion.  I like all this because again it equates with a pub/coffee shop/17th Century Salon argument.

So I think I have explored the sprawling magpie (is that possible?) like approach of the work.  But overall it comes together.  He throws up gems of tracks - for example showing how the turn of the decade Kylie singles were her best work and pretty phenomenal pop songs.   He dissects throw away tracks like the Archies' Sugar Sugar - he won me over with that one.  There is a slight tendency a la Paul Morley or Bill Drummond to say a pretty unremarkable track is the best record every made. Morley said Fantasy Island by Tight Fit was better than Led Zep III for example. Stanley does this with a lot of songs - say a couple of Bucks Fizz tracks - notably My Camera Never Lies  - which you can sort of go along with.  The power of this disposable pop is one of the reasons that 80s music is so resiliant in my eyes.  Alongside this he puts forward a case for Public Image by PIL as the most important record ever made.  But he goes too far when he says an early 90s abomination of a  single by Slade(!) with UKIP cultural spokesperson Mike Read is "stellar" - this is it!  I suppose that I feel so strongly about this shows the strength of debate you can have over what is supposedly such a short-term form.

The history is also skewed.  Bob's own preferences shine through.  There is a detailed dissection of almost every element of dance music from 1980 onwards track by track - every element of Detroit techno minutiae to the growth of happy hardcore in Rotterdam(!).  Very informative and in Moran's terms encyclopediac but compare the discussion of 80s indie music over two pages (Morrissey's solo career 25 years old is literally covered in a footnote).  Debatable over which was more influential on pop but not in thie work.  There is an element of student dissertation here - he quite simply seems to run out of space so has to cram a lot in.  The ending is a bit unsatisfactory - the essential conclusion being that nothing new, original or listenable has been made since the turn of the millenium.  I am not clear if that is what he really thinks or if it just a question of time (as Depeche Mode -brief mention in work- said).  It also has a geographic bias - key Scottish and Welsh bands aren't really explored but my god he does a lot in the work.

A book to read, cross reference when searching you tube, spill coffee on and argue about.  Big, all encompassing - probably too much - and flawed.  And much better than 2 years worth of BBC 4 Friday night documentaries.

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