“Yeah Yeah Yeah is nothing less than a tour de force, a panoramic monster of a book.” Reviewed by Des Cowley.
Yeah Yeah Yeah: the Story of Modern Pop By Bob Stanley (Faber & Faber)
Ok, let’s get it out there from the start: Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah is nothing less than a tour de force, a panoramic monster of a book that strives to tell the entire story of modern pop music, from its humble beginnings in 1952 – when vinyl, music charts, and the modern music press coalesced to lay the foundations of pop – through to its death throes in the early noughties, laid waste to by digital technology.
Of course, if Stanley’s book did nothing more than this, it would still be an impressive undertaking. But it is his utterly personal take on this history – his willingness to challenge received wisdom, or to champion a lesser known work – that puts it a cut above most music journalism. While for many he’ll be better known for his role in founding the group St Etienne in the early nineties, Stanley has for many years been moonlighting as a music journalist for NME, Mojo, Q, The Face, Pitchfork and others. On the strength of this book alone, he’s joined a select band of music critics – Barney Hoskyns, Greil Marcus, Charles Murray Shaar, Nick Kent – I’d be happy to read on any subject whatsoever.
Ironically, the most tedious part of Stanley’s book is his opening chapter, wherein he analyzes, song by song, the top 12 hits of the first British hit parade in 1952. But stick with him, he’s setting us up to understand how the likes of Al Martino, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn morphed into ‘Rock Around the Clock’ within a few brief years. By 1955 the tide had truly turned, and the genie that was pop music was out of the bottle once and for all.
Lest anyone think that pop music is a lesser form than rock, make no mistake – Bob Stanley is here to set us straight. The reality is that, for the best part of half a century, pop and rock – along with its many progeny, whether heavy metal, prog, hip hop, or disco – swam in the same stream. There was a time when Dylan, Hendrix, and Floyd fought it out in the charts with the likes of Smokey Robinson, the Monkees or The Archies. Pop music is a broad church, there’s something for everyone.
While most music histories are content to make sense of the high spots, and filter out the dross, it’s Stanley’s great achievement that he puts us back in the day, sourcing, wherever possible, quotes from the music press of the time. Sure, any music critic worth their salt will tell you Pink Floyd are far more important than the Partridge family, but the sad fact is it’s not necessarily the former we were listening to or buying at the time.
The story of modern pop is full of highs and lows. The mid-fifties innovations – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard – went dormant after a few brief years (Stanley believes only Buddy Holly might had saved the day, had he have lived); only to break out again with the Beatles’ overwhelming domination of the UK charts in 1963. Punk was over almost before it began, and within a few short years we were dancing to Adam and the Ants. The sudden death of disco saw it banished for a decade, before re-emerging, fully recast, as House and Techno. Other musical forms went the other way. Hip Hop was a localized underground scene of block parties before the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ stormed up the charts and brought an entirely new musical form into public consciousness. Stanley’s book demonstrates that modern music history is full of contradictions, spurts of innovation are followed by dead ends and troughs. If there’s a nadir, it’s perhaps 1975, when the Bay City Rollers fought it out in the charts with Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’. No wonder punk happened.
Toward the end of Stanley’s book – around the page 700 mark – you feel the material is getting away from him. Modern pop is no longer a homogenous culture, Having split into a myriad of sub-genres too diffuse to track. He wisely ends his book at the onset of a new millennium, with the birth of Napster and digital technology. Suddenly, all the ground rules that gave birth to modern pop are out the window. For record companies, struggling to understand the shift, it was game over. After a half century which saw radical innovations in music taking place every few years, it was as if the whole juggernaut had run out of puff.
If it’s true that pop music is the soundtrack to our lives, then with Yeah Yeah Yeah, Bob Stanley has managed the enviable feat of writing our collective biography.