“The only thing that exists to me is commercial pop music.”
– Barry Gibb
“Pop music I have always loved best.”
– John Lydon
Is Pop music as it exists now in the 21st century still a shiny, abrasive, loud, dangerous and fun as it used to be? Maybe. Is it important to the culture, to peoples everyday lives? Perhaps not. Bob Stanley, pop historian and longtime member of London retro dance pop scenesters Saint Etienne does occasionally reflect on the musical state of things in Yeah Yeah Yeah (2013) his breathless condensed history of pop music that spans five decades of musical evolution but he is mostly trying to engage you with his urgent prose and encyclopaedic knowledge of the form, to the readers considerable benefit.
While it is impossible to cover every band or song with musical taste and interests being what they are, subjective for the most part, the author does his damnedest with one hit wonders sitting alongside more established mainstream acts. Focusing on the development of genres, from rock and roll to hip hop, certain key artists such as the Bee Gees and the often blink and you’ll miss birth and death of movements from doo wop to acid house, Stanley brings the music alive with contextual mini histories and anecdotes along with his own detailed analysis.
Most importantly, I think is that whilst being a serious pop music scholar he is alive to the fun, ridiculousness, sadness and strangeness essential to the best pop music and tries to undercut an establishment view of the form at every turn. In his opinion, pop music is a constantly mutating, all encompassing organism. If you try to pin it down to established rules or formulas for too long, it will expire.
Mr Stanley also gets to displays his pop geek knowledge which put myself to shame, unearthing some surprising facts with one revelation in particular I am ashamed to say I was not aware of being a Scott Walker fan, that Frankie Valli recorded the original version of ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ in 1962, which became a massive hit in 1966 for the Walker Brothers. The song had been written by Valli’s famous songwriting team of Bob Crew and Bob Gaudio though the song was mysteriously absent in Clint Eastwood’s sleepy 2014 biopic of Valli & the Four Seasons ‘Jersey Boys’.
If there is a flaw, it is that certain artists are overlooked and dismissed. Radiohead are cursorily mentioned in a few words, Stanley lumping them in with he sees as the mopey tail end of British rock music in the late 90’s. Whatever you may think of their music, their influence has been felt throughout popular music in the past 15 years and have done more than most to push past the boundaries of moribund end of the century rock idioms. Though in fairness, catchy pop singles have not been their creative domain so maybe do not fit so easily into Stanley’s overview or are simply not to his taste.
Vivid, thrilling, concise and shot through with humour and passion, a must read for anyone who has ever fallen in love with or to a pop song. Yeah Yeah Yeah makes an interesting companion piece with the BBC’s more detached though no less compelling and fascinating documentary series Walk on By – The Story Of Popular Music from 2001, an epic account of a fascinating, modern art form.